Monday, March 9, 2015

Volcan Santa Maria: Hidden from the Full Moon

If you read this blog at all, you know I tend to put a positive spin on just about everything in my life.  Getting lost is an adventure.  A punctured gas filter is a chance to get to know a part of Guatemala I would normally never have stopped in.  A stormy day makes it that much easier to enjoy the company of those around you. 

It’s strange, then, that I have been having such a hard time finding the positive side to my hike up Volcan Santa Maria last weekend. 

It was a pretty epic plan that Amy and I had.  After school on Thursday, we hopped on a bus bound for Xela, arriving there at around 8pm.  After a meal, we were to meet at the Quetzaltrekkers office by 10:00pm.  The plan was to start hiking the volcano at around midnight, under the luminous glow of the full moon.  We would summit shortly before sunrise and make a temporary camp at the top of the volcano to await an awe-inspiring view as the sun poked out, turning the sky into a watercolor painting and illuminating the smaller, but much more active, Volcan Santiaguito below us.  And then under a bright blue sky, we’d head down the mountain and return to the office by about noon on Friday, ready to take a nice long nap.

 
 
Up until about 1:00am, all was going exactly according to that wonderful plan.  The sky was clear, the moon was bright, and the hike was pleasant.  I didn’t even need to turn on my headlamp during that first hour (and the flashing of lights from people behind me actually really annoyed me; I wanted to enjoy the moonlight. 



Shortly after we turned onto the steep section of the path, though, the clouds obscured the moon’s glow.  One by one, we flicked on our headlamps.  The higher we got, the closer to the clouds we came.  Soon we were hiking through one, the fog so thick we couldn’t see much past the trees around us.  Then, it began to rain. 

March is the height of the dry season, and Amy and I had thrown rain jackets into our packs as an afterthought, not once thinking we’d need to use them.  For that same reason, I had taken no precautions to make sure the items in my pack (including clean clothes for the next 2 days) would stay dry in the case of rain.  This thought tickled at my brain as we climbed higher and the wind picked up speed.

It’s an interesting experience to start a volcano hike at midnight, after a full day of teaching and traveling, when your normal bedtime is around 9:00pm.  At first, we didn’t feel tired.  I suppose the adrenaline and physical activity powered us forward.  Around about 3:00am, though, during a pause to allow the rest of the group to catch up, both Amy and I felt our eyes close for longer than we had planned on.  Shaking ourselves a bit, we kept moving.  At about that time as well, I felt my hamstrings and calves burn with every step I took.  We began to appreciate the frequent breaks our guide insisted upon. 

Near the summit, though, that exhaustion disappeared.  The last 45 minutes of the climb seemed easy, while not enjoyable.

The wind had whipped up to a frenzy and the rain continued.  Our guide estimated the wind speed at 80kph.  The temperature had dropped as we had gained altitude.  And the moon was still completely obscured by a thick layer of cloud. 

At the summit, we crossed over to the other side of the mountain and nestled ourselves behind rocks that blocked most of the wind.  We set up our sleeping bags and snuggled down into them.  Most of us managed to get an hour or two of uncomfortable sleep.



At 6:00am, people started moving, and the guides began boiling water for hot drinks and breakfast.  “Sunrise” consisted of a slight yellowing of the massive white cloud blanketing the sky. 

My view at sunrise

It was clear we would see nothing from the summit, so after eating breakfast, we packed up and headed down the mountain, eager to be out of the cold and wind. 

Switchbacks on the summit.  Still in the clouds.

As we descended, we left the cloud above us and moved into sunshine once more.  It was quite a beautiful day, and had it not been 3 hours of steep downhill hiking (never all that fun), I would have really enjoyed that part of the hike. 

Looking back at Santa Maria from the bottom.  The peak was
still covered in cloud.  


We returned to the Quetzaltrekkers office around noon and returned our borrowed gear.  Then, it was off to find lunch, check into our hotel, enjoy a nice hot shower, and take a 4 ½ hour nap.  We got up for dinner—at Sabor de la India, of course; they have the best Indian food in Guatemala—in the hopes of keeping our sleep schedule mainly on track.  It worked; we both slept through the night and spent our last few hours in Xela on Saturday morning having a great breakfast at a darling hotel that served an amazing amount of food for the equivalent of about US $4.00. 

Breakfast!  They brought us glasses of water without us
having to request it--the sign of a great place.

The trip to Xela was pleasant and enjoyable, and maybe that’s my bright spot to this trip.  It’s just hard to think of the hike as much more than a waste of time.  The point was to hike under the light of the full moon, watch the sunrise, see the countryside sprawled out below us, view Santiaguito spewing lava…and I didn’t get to do any of those things, really.    


There’s always another time.  I’ve got a whole year left to conquer Santa Maria again—hopefully under clear skies the second time around.      

View of Santa Maria as we left the city.
Not a cloud in the sky.
Cue bitterness.

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