Welcome to the new year! Toward the end of 2023, I hiked a volcano. It was immensely challenging and not something I would recommend for inexperienced hikers (me). Here is the play by play...
November 10, 2023 - Morning #
The journey up Acatenago begins on an unshaded dirt road. It cuts through jade and tawny farmland and even though it’s steep, it’s fine, because eventually it will level out and I will catch my breath. When it levels out, that will be the reward.
It never levels out.
We stop. Someone in my hiking group mentions it’s only been twenty minutes. Someone else mentions volcanoes are steeper than mountains. I think: That makes sense. I also think: I should have done my research before I started to hike a volcano.
We continue upward in twenty minute increments. When 4x4s carrying the bulk of our supplies can go no farther, I belt on a pack full of jackets, thermals, food, water, gloves, scarves. There are porters we can pay to carry our bags to the summit for us, but I take a few steps, gauging if I can do it on my own. I decide it’s worth it to prove it to myself that I can. It only takes fifteen minutes for me to regret this.
Farmland transitions to wet forest. Clouds descend to eye level and my breath puffs in front of me as my sweat-slicked skin steams under my thin trail shirt. If I thought the way was hard before, each step weighed down by everything I need to shield my fragile body against the forces of nature feels impossible. Sometimes, I can only manage five steps before I have to stop again to catch my breath.
The hours go by. The air thins. Our group is so spread out now that I do not see or hear anyone else. I savor this misty, chilly solitude and am terrified of it.
Eventually, with little fanfare, I reach basecamp.
Someone high fives me; I think there is lukewarm applause. I drop my pack to the floor and plop at a table in the mess hall. Mechanically, I spoon lukewarm pasta salad from the tupperware into my mouth. This is an action of pure logic. I lost calories and must now replenish them, and if it tastes good I cannot appreciate it, if there is hunger in my body I cannot attune to it. This type of physical exhaustion is, for me, unprecedented. I put down my fork. I can barely finish half.
In the distance, Volcano Fuego welcomes us with a plume of black smoke.
I am warm in my sleeping bag recovering with a book. I do not want to leave. I never want to leave, but I hear cheering and I force myself out and into one jacket, and then another, shivering as I lace on my boots. The sun has set and the darkness is so thick my phone flashlight bounces uselessly against it. In the mess hall, someone hands me a steaming bowl of rice and lentils and a hot towel.
More cheering. I turn. Fuego breathes fire and lava strikes the star-strewn sky. Embers from its eruption tumble down its sides, drawing angry red lines to outline its conical silhouette.
Outside, I alternate between sitting and standing to keep myself warm, waiting for another eruption because that’s what will make this all worth it. That will be the reward. When it finally comes, fog has settled in so thickly that all I see is an orange haze. I give up and go to bed.
I am in bed, but I do not sleep. I cross my arms over my chest as I lay on my back and stare at nothing. Periodically, I check the time on my phone. The numbers go up.
At 2:30, a massive truck startles me as it rolls by. It takes a second for me to realize that it is not a truck, but an Earth-rattling eruption from Fuego.
At 3:30 my alarm goes off. At 3:45, I crawl out of my bag and put on one jacket, then another, then another, as well as another pair of pants, and a scarf, a wind guard, a hat, and a head lamp. I lace my boots and slip out the tent to brush my teeth. I swish water around my mouth and spit it into the dark, watching it glow briefly in my headlamp before it disappears.
Others begin to poke their heads out, asking if anyone else heard the eruption at 2:30. That’s how I knew none of us slept.
At 4 AM, we begin our ascent. A few steps in, I know I cannot make it to the top. My legs can no longer lift me. My lungs cannot fuel my body with this pitiful, thin air. I cannot. I cannot. I cannot. Yet somehow, I do it anyway.
Before dawn #
The ground is wet and silty; it shifts sand-like while suctioning boots like mud. To the right, the black ash ground disappears into the void of night. Above that void, a lake of fog stirs. Above that fog, there is a silhouette of another volcano framed by a handful of stars and the thin, cracked smile of a crescent moon perfectly centered above it.
Stray mountain dogs walk beside us. They shove their heads into our hands when we bend over to catch our breaths.
I count each step. When I reach one hundred, I begin again. When I can, I keep the fog lake in my periphery, so thick our headlamps bounce light off of it. Each time I look over, it appears to be slightly larger.
Abruptly, it rushes forward and within seconds, we are swallowed. The temperature plummets and we are shoved by a wet, vicious wind. I jam my raw hands into gloves and lean heavily on my hiking poles as I drag myself upward. This is probably not the way to do this. I do not care. Whatever it takes to stay upright, whatever it takes to move forward because the cold, the wet, the fatigue, the darkness, the terrain, the altitude – all of it is more than what I am built for and there is nothing to do in the face of it but continue to count steps forward, to continue to resist the urge to drop to the ground and submit.
Finally on my left, there is a shift.
It is subtle and quick, but also slow, like someone has turned up the dimmer, like an orchestra has raised their bows and begun tuning to stir up anticipation. The indigo of the night recedes in favor of orange, and yellow, and blush. Dawn teases the horizon. Now with each step I take upward, the world grows brighter. The fog takes a step back.
I crest the summit.
It is morning.
Fuego belches thunderclouds of black smoke, now front and center in our vision from our perch on Acatenago’s summit. The sun to the left continues to rise, revealing a soft, blue-green world of gently sloping peaks and valleys. Everyone’s face is wet, a mix of precipitation and maybe sweat and likely snot and also probably tears.
I am in awe of the great force of nature in front of me. But maybe more so, I have a newfound appreciation for resilience. Already I grow curious about where else I can go, what else I can see that I previously thought beyond my limits.
The road has finally leveled out. This is the reward.
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