“So Kristen, what kind of things do you like to do when you travel?”
“I like to climb s***.”
“Really? What kind of s***?”
“Oh you know the usual. Mountains. Glaciers. Cliffs. Rocks. The occasional set of stairs.”
“Ah, the adventurous type then.”
“So it would seem.”
“Cool. Cool. I totally get it. I’m the same way. Last year, I made it the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska and in a few weeks I’m doing a multi-week biking expedition around Iceland. I’ll then round off the year with a trek through Patagonia and I cannot wait! So…what’s the tallest mountain you’ve ever climbed?”
Followed by more silence.
I think I begin to hear crickets.
Nope. I definitely hear crickets.
Wait – is that even the sound a cricket makes?
Annnnnnd now we’re approaching a silence so deep I can no longer recall exactly when it was that it crossed over into awkward territory.
Come on, Kristen. You have to say something.
Seriously, say anything.
You can only stare and smile for so long.
So he’s done way more intense stuff than you. Who cares?
Just evade the question. Or answer his question with another question.
Or Lie. He doesn’t have to know that you’ve only really hiked trails that top out at 2,000ft.
Ok, you’re starting to have facial spasms – speak woman.
At this point it doesn’t even matter what you say.
“I’m climbing a 13,000ft volcano in Guatemala later this month.”
F***. Anything but that.
This is exactly why I shouldn’t be allowed to talk to cute boys.
Stubborn and competitive by nature, I knew the moment I let loose those 10 dreaded words that I was as good as making a blood promise to actually climb a 13,000ft volcano in Guatemala. Especially given the fact that I said them to an attractive guy and I’m what the kids back in the day called ‘boy crazy’. There was no getting out of this now.
I had been flirting with the idea of climbing the Acatenango volcano prior to this flirtatious encounter. However, subsequent weeks of reading up on the overnight hike pretty much convinced me to hang up my hat on the idea. Not because I wasn’t up for an adventure – but rather I was determined to take the responsible route and respect my body’s limitations since every sign indicated there was no way I was in good enough shape to summit this peak.
You know, the subtle kinds of signs like first-hand accounts that describe the trek using the phrases 10th layer of hell, so this is how I die, and I was fine after the first 2 hours since by then I could no longer feel my legs.
But now it seems I had verbally signed my death warrant so I comforted myself with the knowledge that I still had 4 weeks to prepare. Only on my way home, I noticed Duane Reade was having a sale on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream so I bought 2 pints for dinner and uttered the famous last words “I’ll start tomorrow.”
In a show of outright predictability, tomorrow quickly turned into the night before the hike and the only prep I had done involved taking the stairs to my apartment – which is all the way up on the 2nd floor.
Day 1: Pre-Hike Preparation- A.K.A. I Have No Clue What I’m Doing
Like I mentioned above, I wasn’t completely blind coming into this hike. I knew it was going to be challenging and I had googled the effects of altitude sickness enough times that my sidebar had become overridden with drug advertisements.
The physical toll it was going to take on me consumed my every thought, leaving zero room for anything else. So I was surprised by my own surprise when I walked into my shared hostel room in Antigua to find 2 others who would also be doing the climb. I had almost forgotten that I wasn’t going at this alone.
Little did I know at the time, these 2 strangers would become my lifeline on that volcano and our short, 72 hour friendship would shape my whole experience into one of the greatest travel memories I’ll ever have.
I had signed up to do the overnight climb up Acatenango through OX Expeditions. They’re a bit more expensive than other companies but due to the difficulty level of this hike, it’s not really something I wanted to skimp money on. Turns out I made the right choice as the guides were extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and helpful – with one always leading the pack and the other trailing the tail end (I heard many accounts from other tour groups that this was not the case). OX provides the best camping equipment, extra clothing, hiking sticks, meals, and transportation. There’s also an option to cheaply rent proper backpacks and sleeping bags.
The company owns their own hostel which I stayed at for convenience’s sake as they have a meeting the night before the hike and then an early start (around 6am) the morning of the climb. They also provide lockers to store anything you’re not taking with you until you check back in the day you return from Acatenango.
Upon arrival, I dumped my pack on the cracked floor of my 4-bed hostel room and in the way of solo travelers the world over, immediately sparked a conversation with the Brit lying on one of the top bunks. We’ll call him Ollie since it doesn’t get any more British that.
It wasn’t long after that a tall, blonde Canadian waltzed in followed shortly by a smiling Mexican (a smile which never diminished over the next 48 hours – such was his infectious joviality). We all went on autopilot as we asked and answered the same questions travelers are always exchanging – Where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where are you going next? Where have you been? Are you single?
It turned out we were all here for the hike minus Ollie – who we did our best to convince to join us. He declined on account of only bringing his H&M sneakers but weirdly enough he makes a surprise appearance at the end of this story.
The Canadian (who we’ll refer to as Brad for one of two reasons – 1. I know he’d hate it and make some comment on how it’s the most American frat boy name I could have given him and 2. it goes perfectly with the pink-and-gray striped douche tank he liked to wear), the Mexican (who we’ll dub Elton because if you saw his Instagram account you’d understand), and I soon headed up to the rooftop terrace for our prep meeting.
I have to give major props to our OX guides because they held nothing back when describing exactly what we could expect on the next day’s climb. Yet weirdly, my trepidation melted to be replaced with excitement and adrenaline as I looked around our group of about 20 and realized we were all in this together. A cliched melting pot of cultures comprised of El Salvadorians, Australians, Brits, Chileans, Canadians, Mexicans, Germans, and me – the lone American – all coming together to take on the same adventure of climbing the Acatenango Volcano, which sat looming in the backdrop patiently awaiting our arrival.
Day 2: The Initial Ascent of the Slowly Dying
The shriek of Elton’s alarm signaled the end of a restless night thanks to an anxious personality I try to mask with forced easygoingness. My nerves were fraying as I worried over whether the Italian carbo-load dinner we went to the previous night was enough to sustain me. Did I buy enough snacks? Am I bringing too many clothes? Do I have enough clothes? Is my bag too heavy? How am I going to fit this all in a pack that seemed so big yesterday but now will barely close and I haven’t even received my sleeping bag or tent pieces yet?
A full-fledged freak-out was brewing until Elton swooped in to help me repack before adjusting my straps to ensure my pack rested correctly on my hips (an apparently important task that I pretended I knew all about). He was grinning per usual and my enthusiasm resumed as Brad joined us with an exclamation of “Let’s do this.”
With the ever present knots still twining in my stomach, we jerked over the rugged and choppy streets on the hour’s long ride outside the city to the farmland that would serve as our embarkation point.
Guatemalan women and children accosted us upon exiting the van, eagerly hawking their wares which ranged from walking sticks to Gatorade to bananas to bottles of rum. Politely ignoring them I drifted off to the edge of the road for a moment alone in an attempt to process what lay ahead, shivering in anticipation and in part because of the briskness that hung in the air.
They say the first hour and a half of climbing the Acatenango volcano is the hardest part of day one. Its steep incline is comprised of dirt, small stones, and volcanic ash that has you slipping backward every time you progress forward, leaving you wondering if you’re actually gaining ground or rather just spinning your wheels and accomplishing nothing.
It made for slow going and my legs started to burn only 20 minutes into the climb. A fact that was partly my fault since I had gone mountain biking on the outskirts of Antigua for 4 hours the previous morning. Why? Because I’m a f****** idiot. Though I do lay some of the blame on the company who labeled it a ‘novice’ bike ride. Novice my ass.
But I held onto my pride and disguised my pain for Brad and Elton who had come to a stop at our first break point. We joked around, described the scenery as cool, beautiful, and awesome (ok so this was probably just me because I’m American and these are the only adjectives we know) about a thousand times while sharing our snacks of nuts, chocolates, and fruit in the manner of people who had known each other their whole lives.
This initiated the emergence of a pattern we’d follow over the ensuing 48 hours. One of comfortable camaraderie as we told anecdotes of our everyday lives in between breaths that were becoming shorter and shorter in the thinning air. Some legs of the hike, I’d find myself behind Elton as he shot embarrassing videos of our struggles. At other times, Brad would be waiting at the top of a rest stop with one hand up for a high-five and the other with an open bag of M&M’s which he’d automatically pour into my greedy hand.
The terrain eventually transitioned into switchback trails that were easier to navigate but still presented a vertical challenge in their own right. We tackled this all the while poking fun at one another, snapping photos, and helping out when one of us couldn’t reach the water bottle on the outside of our packs.
I had my low points over the next few hours when I contemplated if my own determination and sheer will was enough to actually get me to the summit despite my deteriorating physical state. There was one particular leg were I trailed at the very end and had to stop every 10 steps or so. I was tempted to fork up the 200GTQ for one of the local porters that kept their horses near the trailheads in case a desperate hiker needed to be relieved of their pack.
But knowing Elton and Brad were expecting me up ahead at our lunch spot with my backpack in tow (and knowing full well they’d call me something obnoxious like precious if I showed up without it) was the push I needed to continue trudging my way up.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say the last hour and a half flew by. Only it didn’t. It creeped and crawled as I creeped and crawled through the thick afternoon clouds on the final ascent to base camp.
With the assistance of my hiking stick, I made one final lunge onto even ground and through the smog managed to make out the campfire the quickest of the group (which included Brad because he’s, well, Brad) had already set aflame.
My legs, lungs, and altitude-induced headache begged to collapse in fatigue and relief but there was still the matter of assembling our tent. In the way of summer camp kids afraid of being left out Elton, Brad, and I quickly pounced on another couple to claim our 5-person tent “full”.
I attempted to pull my weight in the tent preparation process but having never pitched one in my life, I just felt clumsy and in the way so I let the boys be boys while I sat astride a rock taking pictures. I have no qualms about claiming ‘city girl’ status.
As if one form of volcanic torture wasn’t enough, OX threw in the challenge of the Double Whammy. For an extra charge, we could drag our mangled and swollen legs next door to the active Volcan Fuego in time for sunset. I barely had time to don my warmer clothing and reach for the boxed wine before Brad clapped me on the back while confidently stating, “We’re going.”
I was now – and I guess to some extent had been all day – a we. This fact (coupled with serious bouts of FOMO) had me ignoring the searing pain drumming up my right leg as I nodded in agreement. We were a team and I’d follow Elton and Brad to the ends of the earth. Or rather to the distant peak near the summit of the constantly erupting Fuego.
That is until our guide blatantly offered his opinion on why I should definitely NOT do it. At first, I stubbornly ignored the voice of some youngster who couldn’t have been a day over 22 as he soundly explained the hike to Fuego would be the hardest thing I’d do all day. I continued on not listening as he informed me it could take up to an additional 4 hours round-trip and his words still fell on deaf ears when he reasoned that some people who push themselves to hike Fuego often don’t make it to Acatenango’s summit the following morning. Nothing was penetrating my thick skull until he stressed the honest truth – that I’d just slow everyone else up.
Deep down I knew he was right. Having been assigned to the rear of the pack, he had witnessed my struggles firsthand. I was functioning on pure adrenaline with the imminent crash well within my reach. Exhaustion and pain riveted over every inch of my body. I had hit my physical limit and it was time I came to grips with my own limitations so I reluctantly said my goodbyes and watched as a small handful of our group slipped back into the brush.
I settled myself (somewhat poutily) onto a log next to the roaring fire to await their return and reveled in the still quiet as I watched the sun set from amidst the clouds.
I could see their silhouettes in the forefront of the setting sun as they stood on Fuego’s lower peak, a game of light-tag taking place in the ensuing darkness as our torchlights collided with one another from across the volcanic skyline. A few hours later the group returned faintly bedraggled but remarkably still intact.
Rounding out my duties as team cheerleader, I compelled myself to remain awake as Brad and Elton scarfed down their pasta bowls before retiring to bed. Or rather to a cramped tent where sleep would remain forever out of reach.
Day 3: 4am Awakenings, an Icy Summit, and Coming Back Down to Earth
To put it mildly, sleeping at base camp was a b****.
My right leg was officially dead and each position I curled into sent bolts of pain through what few nerve endings I had left. I tossed this way. Turned that way. Pretty much disturbing everyone around me in search of a position that didn’t make me want to amputate a body part. After a solid hour I finally started drifting off into the abyss.
Until BOOOOOMMM/CRAAAAACKKKKK (yes, you heard me correctly – Boomcrack)
In a faultless unison that would only ever happen within the confines of a scripted movie, the 5 of us shot up into a sitting position, watching through our open tent flaps as fiery orange lava spewed from the mouth of Volcan Fuego to cascade back down to earth.
Between eruptions occurring every 20 minutes, the weird I-can’t-tell-if-that’s-a-sex-noise-or-not sound coming from the tent next door, and the perpetual movements at all times of at least one person in our own tent – sleep was impossible.
Well except for Brad who swaddled himself into a warm cocoon next to me and slept as soundly as a baby. A baby I very much wanted to punch.
4am brought a cold and windy temperament along with our wake-up call.
It would be an uphill shot in the dark to the final summit of Acatenango. A climb that theoretically could be achieved within two hours, bringing us to its peak in concurrence with the morning sun. I felt mentally – if not physically – ready. After the preceding day’s travail, a further two hours barely registered as a blip on the radar.
My back screeched in protest as I strapped on my pack causing my weary brain to say f*** it as I threw everything out excluding a few snacks and one bottle of water – all the while effectively convincing myself those extra layers of clothing weren’t necessary (full disclaimer – they were).
Leaving a sleepy give-me-10-more-minutes Brad and Elton, I set off into the dark with the lead guide for the benefit of a head start. It seemed essential if I wanted to make it to the top before the sun rose.
Remember in grade school when punishments consisted of writing I will not pull Kimmy’s hair on the playground over and over again on the classroom chalkboard in a monotonous rhythm? Well the final trek was like that. Only imagine etching those words deep into your legs over the course of two hours rather than scrawling them onto the chalkboard.
My legs burned in the opposing cold as they made the same repetitive motion through the arduous, ash-stricken slope. One step forward, ¾’s slide back. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
And then over again. And again. And again.
Progress was difficult to measure in the obscure darkness. So I focused on one step at a time, transfixed by the small patch of light illuminating off my headlamp onto the sooty terrain.
At times my walking stick was the only thing pulling me up as I wedged it hard into the ground and dragged my lagging body behind it. The air was becoming thinner, my breathes were getting shorter, and a headache competed with growing nausea.
At some point I glanced around to find myself alone in the pitch black as the lead guide advanced too far ahead with the last guide trailing too far behind. The only sign of human life was the occasional twinkling of torchlight further up the volcano.
All sense of time vanished as the incline grew steeper and steeper until hints of light emerged to soften the horizon – the summit becoming discernible as those first rays of sun brushed the icy ground.
I kept climbing until the trail suddenly straightened as I stared in quieted disbelief.
I had made it.
And I was f****** freezing.
Brad – who I vaguely recalled leaping past me like a spirited gazelle somewhere along the trail (because Brads are basically the definition of perfect) – enveloped me in a triumphant hug as Elton made his final ascent behind me. Our trio stood huddled together (largely so I wouldn’t die of hypothermia) staring at the clouds below us as the sun fully rose.
The moment was beautiful. Majestic.
Until our guide broke the spell by offering a free T-shirt to anyone who could complete the mile-long run around the summit’s crater. My response was to burst into hysterical laughter. Or maybe to cry buckets of tears. It was hard to discern between the two.
Although it was definitely the latter upon the realization that we now had to descend all the way back down.
The descent was spent coating our lungs with the dust kicked up from our hiking boots as we mostly slid (and at times fell) our way back to solid ground. Elton, Brad, and I killed time deliberating on any and every topic under the February sun – issues with hostel stalkers, old relationships, our lives back home, our not-so-distant futures, and how it is we three came to scale a 13,000ft volcano in Guatemala having all grown-up with parents who didn’t really travel.
I found myself opening up to strangers friends I had known less than 72 hours in a way that I never had with anyone prior. An inexplicable bond had formed atop that volcano. One based not on our pasts or futures. But rather solely on our present. We weren’t a part of each other’s yesterdays and chances are we won’t play a part in each other’s tomorrows. But for that brief pocket of time, we were adventurers sharing an experience that’ll never be replicated.
And when happenstance had us passing our old hostel mate, Ollie (remember him from 3,062 words ago?) as he was making his initial ascent through the farmland we were now reaching – I found myself envious of his journey ahead. Because I knew he was at the beginning of an experience, that despite the physical ailments it incurred, I wish I could relive all over again.
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