It was my last week in the charming colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala.
Four weeks were spent studying Spanish and I was looking forward to field testing my new skills in cities that weren’t so overrun with gringo’s. However, while I was still in Antigua, there were a few items I wanted to tick off the list, and climbing one of the three nearby volcanoes was top of that list. Acatenango seemed to be the poster boy of most of the agencies so I was leaning toward that as option one.
The dozens of tourist agencies scattered throughout the town all pushed the same promotions so it was a case of finding an office that looked reputable, namely one that wasn’t annexed to the family living room.
Our group, made up of class mates from Antigüeña Spanish Academy, managed to secure a reasonable deal and the owner of the agency called our guide and set up the meet for next morning. Some of the team were apprehensive about the task ahead. The near vertical climb from the foot of the volcano (1500 metres – 5000 feet) to its peak (3976 metres – 13000 feet) would start early morning. A combo of donkey and local porters would transport our food, tents and sleeping gear to the summit which eased everyone’s mind.
There was one tour option available where tourists could climb the volcano and descend all in the same day, but our little band of adventurers were all unanimous in wanting to spend the night atop the volcano. Sleeping under a canopy of stars, toasting marshmallows on the camp fire and having a wee glass of vino to celebrate our efforts. That was the plan anyway.
Things went tits up when we were taxied to base camp that morning. We were told that there would be no donkey’s. In fact, donkeys and mules were never an option because of the steep incline. Our overeager tourist agent had screwed us. The porters could only help carry some of the excess gear because apparently their hands were full carrying the groups pots, pans, utensils, drinks and food for three meals that day. Selfish bastards.
Reluctantly, we loaded everything we could into our packs, tying everything down. It was around the twenty minute mark during the hike when I began to regret the impulse surprise gift I packed and hoped to share with the group that night. The two bottles of wine were at the bottom of the backpack reminding me of their presence by jabbing into my back like my Granny’s bony fingers.
I’d like to say that the scenery was incredible that day. I’d also love to say that the route that we took afforded us some incredible views of the city spread out far and wide below us. But I can’t. It was bloody torture. The initial climb was incredibly tough as our breathing adapted to the altitude. The worst thing about climbing at altitude is that it can affect different people in different ways, and it is very difficult to prepare for something like it. Although I considered myself fairly fit, I was lagging behind the group in the opening stages and couldn’t get my breathing right. It was impossible to catch a breath and it reminded me of being a kid again and having asthma. Fortunately, my breathing eventually settled and I fell into some sort of groove.
The weather didn’t help matters. We climbed through cloud forests with the dew clinging to our overalls. Most of the group had hiking experience and had tucked rainproof overalls into their jackets for the eventuality of hitting rain spots. Naturally, the logical thing to have done was some research in advance and stocked up on warm thermals making the ascent more bearable. When I first opened my eyes that morning in the small bedroom of my host family, I saw the sunshine stream through the blinds. A virgin hiker, I reasoned that the blue skies above would last the whole day. The weather higher up the mountain would be warmer, I reasoned. After all, we would be getting closer to the sun. Wrong.
I put on a brave face and stormed up the mountain, ignoring the questions of the group about whether I was cold. In truth, I was frozen to the bone. My only layers of protection being a thin hoodie and a hairy chest.
There were several stops en route which everyone was thankful for. During these breaks the porters unpacked their heavy boxes and began preparing dinner which turned out to be delicious. Everyone was so grateful for the warm food and refreshment. We shared the resting point with other groups, some of whom were descending. It put a real spring in our step to see that the other groups eyed us with jealousy as the porters began cooking real food, while they snacked on packets of crisps and chocolate.
Some 8 hours after we first strode off from base camp with confidence, we reached the top at last. Darkness was falling fast, and the guide and porters quickly got to work building a fire and helping to set up our tents. It took around an hour and lots of anxious waiting before the porter finally got the fire lit in the horrendous conditions. Dry bark was hard to find as the trees in that area had already been stripped of their limbs by previous tours. They had to increase the span of their search for firewood.
Mugs of hot chocolate milk were served up to heat our bodies. We were already clamouring around the campfire which was growing in heat. I had shed some of my wet clothes – the hoodie and socks were on the fringes of the fire hanging over a log bench. We celebrated the moment with a glass of wine as the heat warmed our skin in the cold night air, and I felt proud and happy at the achievement. It was a magical moment only spoilt by the smell of my socks which had fallen from the bench, now toasting quietly in a bed of ash.
It was probably only 8pm at that point but everyone was of the same opinion to have their dinner and go straight to bed. It was to be an early rise – 4.30am to be precise – to pack our things and prepare for a stunning sunrise view which everyone would have been more excited about were it not for the ache in our bones.
I didn’t sleep a wink. It was a coldness I’ve never felt before or since for that matter. I didn’t have any spare clothes. I’m also the kind of person who would rather just grin and bare it in silence instead of seeking charity. So, I climbed into my sleeping bag in my birthday suit and prayed to God for the sun to wake up a little earlier – four hours earlier preferably.
I managed to survive that night, and threw on my wet clothes again next morning. Day was breaking and we were surrounded in the sticky misty dew we thought we had climbed out of the day before. Visibility was terrible, and the guide was disappointed for us. He suggested we wait and hope for divine intervention and the clouds to part.
Thankfully, after we had packed our bags and were ready to leave, we caught a break and broke out the cameras as the sun suddenly beat through. It seemed to restore some of our confidence too. We were aching, sleep deprived and desperate for a hot shower but as we stared across at Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) and saw the faint trickle of lava down one side and the puffs of smoke from the vent, it was a moment of beauty.
Of course, the view lasted about twenty seconds before the mist obscured the image again and wrapped us in its cloak.
It was short, but sweet. The experience was tough, but memorable. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing because it brought me and my new found friends closer together in the face of adversity. Actually come to think of it, an extra pair of socks would have helped.