Thursday, February 13, 2014

Volcan Acatenango Hike

This past weekend’s hike up Acatenango, the third tallest volcano in Central America, was vastly different from the excursion two weeks ago to Volcan Atitlan.  For a start, the group was larger, with 13 people in our group.  Also, we went with a tour company—Old Town Outfitters—and therefore had 4 other people in our group, 3 bilingual guides, and 6 local men to carry extra gear (bringing our group’s total number to 26 people).  And, it was an overnight trip, which meant we didn’t hike the entire distance on Saturday, nor did we have to start before dawn.  It also meant we were wearing backpacks and carrying more weight than at Atitlan. 

Still, and I may be crazy, but I think Acatenango was a little easier than climbing Atitlan.  Maybe it’s just that the first hike did its job as a training run and strengthened my uphill climbing muscles.  Maybe it was my mindset.  Or maybe it was the fact that we were in a large group and the guide paced us, stopping periodically to wait for the rest of the group to catch up. 

By the time we drove to Antigua to pay at the outfitters’ shop, then took a group van to the trailhead and divvied up sleeping bags and pads, we were finally starting on the trail at around 10:30am.  The hike is divided into four sections.  It starts with a steep uphill climb through farmland, then enters a cloud forest where it switchbacks up to the lunch spot.  From there, the path levels out and enters a sparse pine forest.  We walked around the mountain to get to our campsite for the night.  The next morning, we tackled the final stage, a steep uphill climb through volcanic rock and sand to reach the summit at the volcano’s crater. 

We made good time on the hike up—at least according to our guides.  We reached the lunch spot at about 12:30pm, approximately 1-2 hours ahead of schedule.  There, we relaxed (and donned extra layers as the clouds and elevations were combining to create a chill) while the guides prepared a lunch of tacos: tortillas, black beans, guacamole, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and chips.  We topped off the meal with Chiky cookies and butter toffee candies. 

Group huddle after lunch to keep warm.

Then we continued onward for just under 2 hours, reaching the campsite at 3:30pm.  Amy, Carrie, and I unpacked our tent and added more layers as the temperature kept dropping (we were at about 11,500ft at this point) and snuggled into our sleeping bags for a quick nap before dinner.  The clouds outside were still thick, and we couldn’t see anything beyond our own campsite. 

After about half an hour of dozing, I went outside and joined a group of people around a fire that did a great job of keeping us warm.  After a while, some of the clouds blew away, and we were rewarded with great views of Volcan Fuego, one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala, only 4km away.  As darkness fell, we hoped the clouds would stay away and Fuego would give us a pyrotechnics show with bright red lava, but no such luck for us.

fuego y Volcan Fuego.  :) 

"sunset" over Fuego

At 7:30, dinner (pasta with vegetables) was ready, and after that, everyone decided it was time for bed.  Now, in my particular tent, the zippers on the door were not functional.  Not just like they stuck when closing.  Like, they didn’t zip closed at all, so we had to strategically decide where to position the 2 zippers to sort of hold the tent door closed.  Amy and Carrie and I were pretty worried we’d be facing a frigid night.  We rigged up a wind-blocking system of sorts by placing my pack in front of the door and hanging Carrie’s raincoat from the ceiling.  And remarkably, between my layers (3 shirts, a sweatshirt, leggings and pants, and 2 pairs of socks) and my rented sleeping bag, I stayed plenty warm throughout the night. 

defunct zipper 

After going to bed at 7:30pm, though, I almost welcomed our 4am wake-up time.  There’s only so much time a person can sleep in a tent. 

Sadly, as we woke with the plan of summiting for the sunrise, we found we were still clouded in.  Still, since we’d packed up our tents and going back to bed wasn’t an option anymore, we decided to go for it.  We took off in the darkness at around 5am.

I’m actually really glad we underwent this part of the trail in complete blackness.  It kept me from stopping to look around and realize how steep the trail was, how little there was to hold onto if I were to fall backwards.  Instead I concentrated on the ground in front of me—trying to place my feet where the person before me had stepped, because the sliding rock/sand was more stable there and less likely to slip under me. 

When we reached the top, we were still in the middle of a white cloud.  Off in the distance, we caught a faint yellow glow of a sunrise, but we could see no details.  At the highest point, the wind whipped icy air at us making it difficult even to stand.  We were soaked with condensation, cold, and we couldn’t see more than the black rock and each other.  We were offered the option of walking around the crater—perhaps a 10 minute walk—but unanimously decided to go back down to camp instead.

Amy and Fabian at the top 

At the highest point of the climb.  Zero view.
Photo credit to Lucas Rank

I’m glad we made the trek to the highest point—an impressive 13,045ft (3976m).  I do wish we’d been able to enjoy a nice view.  But the fulfillment of having done it is enough.

The way back down to the campsite was much less scary than I had anticipated—and much, much easier than going down the part that’s above the treeline at Atitlan.  Because the sand/rock was so loose, we could run down it, our feet sliding a bit with each step, but keeping totally in control.  What had taken us over an hour felt like it took about 15 minutes to come down. 

Down the slope...into the cloud.
Photo credit to Lucas Rank 

From there, we had breakfast, dried out a bit around the fire, then headed back down the mountain.  We took a slightly different route down—a bit steeper, but easy enough on the downhill—and made it back to the trailhead by 10:00am (just over 2 hours down! Wow!).  From there, we made a beeline first for Antigua to recover our cars, and then home for a hot shower.  I feel like I may be finding black sand in my ears and nose for days yet, despite the scrubbing I’ve done.

But it was worth it.  What a trek!  

The whole group at the bottom
Photo credit to Lucas Rank

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