When I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro three years ago, I felt like I could accomplish anything. To this day, it is still the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.
My friend Lionel, who I met in Monterrico during Christmas, had planned on climbing one of the many volcanoes in Guatemala called Volcan Acatenango. It’s one of the tallest volcanoes in the Ring of Fire standing tall at 13,045ft (3,976m) near its very active neighbor Volcan Fuego. Lionel invited me for the expedition in which I gladly accepted. I’ve never hiked anything like this before! Ben would also be coming along for the climb.
Acatenango can be hiked in one day. It takes the average person up to six hours to reach the summit. A few volunteers have gone to Acatenango over the weekend for a day trip and have come back saying “it was the most physically demanding thing they have every done in their life”. A lot of them have said that, but every one of them made it to the top. I was going to attempt it differently though. My group planned on hiking up with a bag full of supplies and equipment and camping out, and then hike some more to the very top. I was warned it was going to be very cold, very windy, and that we’d have to wake up early on the second day in order to reach the summit by sunrise. I wasn’t worried about any of those factors really; the only thing I feared was altitude sickness.
I already knew from past experiences that I am sensitive to high altitudes. It affects everyone differently and just like how I am extremely sensitive to motion, the altitude affects me in the same way, except much worse. Maybe there is a correlation between the two? Kilimanjaro almost killed me because it was so high. And every time I hike a mountain, I start to feel nauseous. Thankfully though, Acatenango is a lot smaller than my old frenemy Kili. I knew my limits and higher altitudes take me sometime to adjust to. Besides, I just recently spent the past several weeks living on a high mountain in Nepal, so that should help a bit!
The day before the hike, Ben and I went to the local mercado to shop for food and supplies. Everything we ate on the volcano would be on our own dime and we’d have to carry it all up! We stocked up on snickers, crackers, chips, fruit bars, bananas, and a few liters of water. Our main course were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we premade the night before. Interestingly enough, Ben has never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his life. It’s not common at all in Australia like it is in the USA. Hopefully he’ll like ’em! We found two torches (flashlights) for 20Q each that we would use during the night hikes. I packed a few long sleeve shirts, a few pairs of socks for extra cushioning, and some long pants that were light and easy to manuever in. Lionel told me prior that he had a couple of sleeping bags, a tent, and a jacket for me later. My gut told me that I packed perfectly for this trip! Not too much and just enough to be comfortable. I didn’t want to bring too much up because I would have to carry it all.
Ben and I were picked up in the morning in the central park of Antigua around 9:20am along with another person who would be joining the hike with us. His name is Robin (Germany) and he is friends with Lionel. There were a few other locals in the van that would join our group making us a solid team of about eleven or twelve. We drove about an hour or so to the base of Acatenango, where it was a bit chilly. Still I wore shorts and a light jacket because I knew it would get hot soon enough.
And so we began! One of the hardest parts of a good hike is the very beginning. Going up the first slope I was already winded! It just takes your body s few minutes to adjust to what you’re about to do. I felt fine a little after once we had a steady pace going. The first 40 minutes we hiked through farmlands and crops before we entered a very muddy forest.
I didn’t have a proper pair of boots with me. I’ve been sticking with my tried and true NikeREAX sneakers I’ve been using since I left home in July. I’ve used these bad boys when I hiked 22 miles in Germany, hiked up to the largest ice caves in the world, and everywhere else beyond and between. I just used extra socks for cushioning and padding which worked wonders.
After the first hour, we took a twenty-minute break to wait for the others in our group to catch up. Afterwards, we continued on up through the muddy forest. At this point, I already started to feel a headache, which is the first symptom for oncoming altitude sickness. Crap…it’s too early in the hike to get a headache! I decided to re-adopt my “Pole Pole” method I used on Kilimanjaro. Pole means “slow” in Swahili. I went super slow on Kilimanjaro which prevented me from having a headache until the fifth day of hiking. And so, I began a slower pace here on Acatenango as well, which meant Lionel, Ben, and Robin would be way ahead of me. I was in the middle. While the rest of the group were still behind me, even after I was going mighty steady. It also allowed me to realize my surroundings and take some nice photos of everyone and the scenery.
On our next break, I pulled out some of the food I had brought. I gave Ben his first Pb&J ever while I munched on that and some jalapeño flavored Cheetos, which were extremely good. I chugged on some water and we were on our way.
I had the hiccups as soon as I began the hike and they stuck with me the whole way. Hiccups are an indicator that your body is trying to adjust to the altitude. I didn’t mind the hiccups. I’m just glad my body was trying to readjust itself back to how it was three years ago on Kili.
The scene turned from a muddy forest to a cloudy one. It was chilly whenever we stopped for a rest but we became warm as soon as we started moving again. The clouds covered any skyline we could have seen. The mist sponged the forest like a wet blanket. The footing on the ground was still a bit damp but the soil turned into pebbles of old volcanic ash. There were lots of groups of hikers around and about, most of them overdressed for the occasion and had too much in their backpacks.
It’s been two and a half hours and we still had ways to go. We had two main guides with us: Biiron and Moses. Biiron is the one who organized this whole trip and Moses was his sidekick. Moses didn’t speak much but he was always going at a steady pace and always waited for everyone else to catch up before we continued. He’s a really short guy, literally about a third of my height. He never had any snacks whenever we stopped for a break so I made sure to share my food with him. Our group as a whole was great with sharing with one another, even with random hikers who looked like they could use a dose of energy. Even at the pace I was going, my headache grew. Thankfully, we reached a point where the path became more flat and less sloped.
We were informed that instead of camping at the crater of the mountain, we would be camping much lower. There were just too many people there. We would find another place less crowded. At around 5pm, we all finally made it to our campsite. We were situated right in front of Fuego with a perfect closeup view of its constant eruptions. My head was pounding but an aspirin fixed that once I settled down. We setup our tent which was a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be.
It was a two person tent for four big guys. We didn’t think about it and began to help collect wood to build a fire. It wasn’t as chilly as I expected but maybe it was because we sat by the fire most of the night.
As we sat there with my Nikon in hand, I patiently waited for Fuego to erupt so I could capture all its fiery glory on camera. The eruptions happened about every twenty minutes or so, but there was no warning of when it would happen. It was hard to capture a shot in the dark but I did manage to get something.
The backdrops were perfect for some pretty amazing photos that night!
Biiron informed us that we will be waking up at 4:30am to begin a hike up to the summit, in order to see the sunrise. Close to 9pm, the four of us squeezed into the small tent and tried to go to sleep. It was uncomfortable but at least it was warm. I could barely move or readjust. Every so often we heard a loud boom. We sprang up and looked out the screen to see Fuego erupting. To see a volcano explode and spit lava everywhere is truly a sight to behold! The next morning, we woke up and I bundled up in layers. It wasn’t as cold as everyone has been telling me it will be, but it was still chilly enough for me to wear the big jacket Lionel lent me. I barely ate a banana and a fruit bar. I didn’t have an appetite whatsoever. I stuck a bottle of water and my pocket and off we went. I wasn’t in any mood to hike at all though. I could have stayed asleep a few more hours. My heart was pounding and a headache approached not even fifteen minutes in. I had to slow my pace. Pole Pole. Ben, Lionel, and Robin led the pack. I was somewhere in the middle and the others were behind as we trudged up the path of loose gravel.
My feet sunk into it with each step, it was like climbing a never-ending sand dune made of black ash. Two steps forward and slide one step back. This was the hard part of the volcano. I grew nauseous, like I wanted to vomit. Altitude sickness was looming! But at least the sun began to show, and that distracted me for a moment.
The group that was behind me were nowhere in sight. The group that was in front of me were long gone. I was on my own now, which I was okay with. I found my own pace which was slow but steady. I reached for my water bottle out of my jacket pocket and found that it was gone. It must have fallen out as I was sliding all over the place. I could manage without though. The summit wasn’t too much farther!
Eventually I saw groups of hikers in front of me near the top. I’m almost there! I passed up climbers who were on the struggle bus and continued on the demented slope to the peak. I saw the other guys and gave them a salute signaling I was fine. Actually, I felt like I was going to vomit any minute. Step by step, I made it to the summit and it was a sight to see. The best viewpoint in all of Guatemala!
My urge to vomit began to cease. I just had a pounding headache. Still I took off my jacket and enjoyed the summit scape. It wasn’t nearly as cold or windy as I thought it was going to be. I was quite warm up there! We stayed up there for a little more than an hour. We had views of the Pacific Ocean, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City, and the best views of Fuego itself.
Man, I’m no good with high altitudes. My muscles were in great shape; no aches or pains, but it was just difficult for my system to adjust in such a short amount of time. I was glad I didn’t have to go up any further though. It’s all downhill from here and going down the steep ash was a ride in itself. We practically slid the whole way down back to camp!
We packed up our gear and supplies and continued down the volcano. Once we approached the muddy jungle, it was a slip slide ride all the way down while dodging trees and large rocks scattered across. We slid so much that my toes began to dig into the front of my shoe. As we ran down the volcano with our large backpacks in tow, I felt like we were in boot camp training. My desire to get to the base of the volcano was strong and the lower I descended in altitude, the more strength ensued within. But by the time we reached the bottom, after about two hours, my toes were scrunched and my legs and feet were covered in ash. All worth it!
When we got back home, I had so much ash and rocks in my shoes and clothes that I left a trail all the way through Olga’s house to my room. Sorry Olga!
One of the best hikes I’ve ever done!