Journal Latin America

Lessons Learned From A Live Volcano

As a child I obsessively read about volcanoes. I was mesmerized by the story of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that devastated the town of Pompeii in Italy, back in 79 AD. Around age ten, I saw the movie Volcano, which tells the very fictional story of a volcano erupting in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s hotter than hell” the film’s tagline read. Later, I became fascinated by Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were wereFrench volcanologists who died in a pyroclastic flow on Mount Unzen, in Japan, on June 3, 1991. Often first to arrive at the scene of an active volcano, this couple was famous for the daring footage they’d obtained of volcanic eruptions.

My interest in volcanoes has carried well into adulthood. Most recently, I fell in love with Werner Herzog’s documentary film Into the Inferno (2016).Herzog finds that volcanoes are mysterious, violent, and beautiful. He states that, “there is no single [volcano] that is not connected to a belief system.”

I have hiked a dormant volcano in Costa Rica and peered into the active crater of one in Nicaragua. But I yearned for more. I wanted to see the lava, to feel the rumble of the earth, to hear the boom and watch the ash billow up into the sky. So it must have been fate when I struck up conversation with two backpackers late one night in a Nicaraguan bar. I asked them what their most memorable experience in Central America had been, and they responded by showing me photos and videos of, you guessed it, an up-close view of a violently erupting volcano. Not long afterwards, I had my partner convinced, and we booked flights to Guatemala. We were going to hike Volcan Acatenango, which at the summit gives you an up close and personal view of Volcan Fuego, Guatemala’s most active volcano.

In preparation for the trip I began to research the Acatenango hike, and soon I was worried. Bloggers claimed the hike was “excruciating.” Hikers wrote that despite their experience, it was incredibly difficult. Some reported bad visibility, or miserable weather.

I thought about my sentient lifestyle: eight hours daily in an office and I didn’t even own hiking boots (you can hike in running shoes, right?). I wondered, what if we went through the grueling hike and Volcan Fuego wasn’t visible? I have a bad runner’s knee. I carry two inhalers. My anxiety about how hard this hike would be grew, but there was no way I’d back out. I had to try to see this volcano.

My incessant Googling yielded few details about what to expect, and so in preparation all I could do was the obvious. I began going to the gym and invested in good hiking boots. I made sure to pack warm clothes for the summit, and some rehydration salts in case they were needed. I scanned forums for recommendations about guides and tour companies. Next thing I knew, we were en route to Antigua, Guatemala.

In the spirit of our backpacking approach to travel, my partner and I booked ourselves into a hostel in Antigua and decided we would book our guide for the hike in person rather than in advance. Operating off our past experiences, we were sure we would get the best price this way, and we were right. After shopping tour companies and hostels around town, we settled on hiring the guide through our hostel. The hostel allowed us to borrow some extra warm clothes, and we left our main baggage in one of their lockers.

On climb day, we were picked up by a shuttle. Our group was approximately 9 people and we were driven to the base of Acatenango. There we bought walking sticks, extra snacks, ponchos (for the rain) and beer (to celebrate the summit)! Our guide explained that we would stop often to rest, and we should go slowly. A short walk up the road, and we began on the path. Some of our fellow climbers warned us that backpackers had told them the first leg of the climb was the hardest.

They were absolutely right. The dirt path was steep and within minutes I felt myself going faint, eventually collapsing to the side of the path, certain that I was going to vomit. I lay on the ground, staring at the path ahead with dread. But I remembered what one of the backpackers had mentioned – in the first leg of the hike your body is acclimatizing to the altitude, and this makes it the hardest. Behind me I could see our guide half carrying one of our group’s climbers, urging him forwards. I peered ahead at my partner, who had also collapsed. As I lay on the ground trying to recuperate from what was only a 20 minute hike at that stage, I contemplated quitting. I could see in my partners face that he was thinking the same thing. But the thought of giving up pained me. I was so close to that volcano.

After some rest, our bodies did acclimatize, and the feeling of faintness and nausea subsided. We went slowly and often stopped. As we climbed the landscape changed quickly, from lush farmland to humid jungle, eventually evolving into a barren landscape scattered with few trees. Our group was silent while climbing.

It felt meditative to stare at the boots in front of me. I fixed my eyes on them and focused on keeping pace. The steep terrain was never-ending, and I constantly dreamed of when it would flatten. After five hours, our guide announced that we were almost there. Those last kilometers were painful, and our spirits were low. Using our phones, my partner and I listened to our favorite songs, singing as we walked. Focusing on music, humming along to the same song over and over, gave us strength.

We reached base camp in the early evening. At an elevation of 12303 feet, this left the summit (740 feet higher) to be hiked the following morning. Our base camp had several tents set up, and our guide distributed sleeping bags. As our fire got going, night fell, and the magic began. The clouds had slowly parted, and not too far off in the distance we saw a magnificent scene. The perfectly cone-shaped summit of Volcan Fuego.

As we ate our dinner, we felt the earth begin to rumble and looked towards Fuego. Suddenly, lava exploded into the sky like orange fireworks, followed by a huge “bang” as the lava flowed down the sides of the mountain. My partner andI gasped, mesmerized.

Instantly we knew: the hike was absolutely worth it. We stayed awake late into the night watching the volcano work its magic. I eventually tucked myself into my sleeping bag, but sleep was impossible with the ongoing interruptions of the mountain. I woke several times to poke my head out of our tent and stare at the eruptions.

Our guide had explained that at 3:45am we should get up for the final portion of the hike: the summit. We would hike through volcanic sand in complete darkness to reach the highest point of Volcan Acatenango, and from there we would have a clear view of Volcan Fuego. The summit hike is somewhat dangerous, and so it is only done if the weather permits. Our guide explained that he would assess the weather in the morning.

We awoke with good news – we could summit. I packed some water, grabbed my walking stick and put on my headlamp. The hike was straight upwards and excruciating. The volcanic sand and dirt made every step more challenging, and it was difficult to maintain balance. We stopped often to rest as people felt lightheaded from the altitude. The sky began to lighten as we climbed, and slowly the incredible view revealed itself. In the distance we could seeAntigua, Guatemala City, and a string of other volcanoes. After 1.5 hours, we reached the top of Volcan Acatenango. A closed crater, the terrain was rocky, sandy and barren.

I sat in the volcanic sand at that summit in silence with a view stretching for miles. Volcanic terrain in the distance, the sun rising, a speckle of lights that was the city of Antigua, and right in front of me Volcan Fuego, magnificently erupting.

I felt an immense sense of accomplishment and wonder. Amazement that my body and my mind, despite the pain, got me to that summit. Amazed that I was finally seeing in real life the feat of nature that had fascinated me since childhood.

That volcano reminded me of the magnitude of this earth, the power of nature, and in a way, my own insignificance. In that moment, Volcan Fuego was a portal to all of the unknown on this earth. The countries, cultures, landscapes and people I will never know. But at the same time, it was a lesson in my own potential. It was a dream that I’d dreamed and made reality. Perhaps Warner Herzog is right. All volcanoes are connected to belief systems. What is yours? Climb Acatenango to find out.

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