Monday, February 1, 2016

Surviving Santiaguito: Lucky Volcano #13

It was on the way to hike Santiaguito, the most active volcano in Guatemala, that I asked Rachel, “Will this be the 13th Guatemalan volcano that you’ve hiked, too?”  It was.  Lucky #13 for both of us.  Knock on wood that our 13th wouldn’t be our last!

Rachel, Russell, and I were mostly excited, but all a little nervous to be hiking Santiaguito, “Guatemala’s youngest and most dangerous volcano.” [1]  The volcano erupts nearly every hour, and we planned to sleep right next to the crater, crossing our fingers that the wind wouldn’t blow the wrong way and shower us with flying rocks and lava. 

Our friend Ben, a guide from Quetzaltrekkers, had hiked it before and was excited to take us up.  He assured us that the hike was “More of an adventure than just a trek,” and estimated it would take us 8 hours of hiking each way.  That’s a long trip, when you consider that our group can generally make it to the top of any volcano here in Guate in 4-6 hours.  But we were totally up for it. 

By 6:20am, we were at the base of Volcan Santa Maria, and the sun was just beginning to rise.  We hiked up to the mirador overlooking Santiaguito and stood watching our first eruption at 8am. 

Then the real hike began.  From the mirador, we began a descent through dense jungle.  On Ben’s supply run, he’d used a machete to cut back some of the most offending plants, but vegetation was still thick, and I was glad Ben had advised us to wear long sleeves to protect our arms from the foliage.  We witnessed another eruption when we were maybe halfway down the jungle, and soon ash was raining from the sky.  It was only 9am, and we were already covered in a thin layer of gray dust.  The plants around us were covered too, and I got the feeling that everything within a few miles’ radius of the volcano is perpetually covered in ash. 

After two hours of our steep descent, we broke out onto an extinct lava flow which we followed down to the base of the valley.  The rock was slick, and at various points, we sat down and used it as a slide rather than risk a foot flying out from under us.
Butt sliding was definitely the way to go! 
After about 4 ½ total hours of hiking, we emerged from the lava river to the area Ben calls the Field of Death, a wide valley strewn with large boulders and not much else.  There, we each hid 2 liters of water so that we wouldn’t have to carry it up Santiaguito and would have some in reserve to climb up the lava river the next day.  We also stopped to have a snack (Ben shook his head each time we stopped and Rachel or I offered a new snack from our packs.  He joked that even if he forgot all our food, the four of us could probably have survived just on the snacks that Rach and I had packed).  

At 11:11am, with a silent wish for a safe night at the crater, we started the rocky ascent up towards Santiaguito.  The path was steep, and we used the boulders as steps, picking our way in and around them.  We stopped halfway up to rest, and while not at my limits, I definitely felt tired.  But with one final push, we reached the first beach—a flat, sandy area with green cliffs looming on each side. We rested, then continued straight up and then through another rock field to get to the 2nd beach. 

The 1st Beach

The second beach—another open, sandy area—was dotted with impact craters left by rocks thrown from the volcano.  Any rock thrown with enough force to make a hole the size of my head in the sand would surely kill a person.  My nervousness grew. 

We continued on, scrambling over more rocks to make it to the third and final beach before the campsite.  Ben paused at the third beach, looking up at the final rock face we would have to top.  “I wish the fog would clear so you could see this part,” he told us.  But after a few moments, it was clear the cloud engulfing us wasn’t moving, so we started our ascent.  I was secretly glad we wouldn’t be able to see the looming rock face.  Climbing it was hard enough, without seeing how far I had yet to go.

The final climb
We edged our way up that final incline, clinging to the side of the wall, putting our weight on hardened ash outcrops that felt like they might give way at any moment.  There were very few actual rocks to step on, for a while.  And then we reached the final rocky slope.  Ben actually had Rachel and I pass our packs up so we could climb the last stretch without the bulky weight on our backs. 

Prior to the trip, I’d read a blog that described the climb, calling the last challenge to the hike a “30 foot vertical rock climb” with no ropes or equipment.  Ben had assured us that there was no actual rock climbing involved, but we all agreed the last scramble was probably what the writer had referred to.  It was not vertical, and there were plenty of hand and foot holds to make it a relatively easy climb, but it was certainly menacing.  Ben joked that the blogger would have been better off claiming the last obstacle as a “300 foot nearly vertical slope,” because that’s the truth, and doesn’t it sound more intense than a mere 30 feet? 

We made it up to the campsite and cleared the small rocks covering the sand to lay down our tent.  Just as we did so, it started to rain.  Rain?!  The end of January in Guatemala is the peak of the dry season; there is no way any of us were expecting rain.  In fact, Ben had planned to sleep outside to watch for eruptions.  There was no denying the water falling from the sky, though, so Rachel, Russell and I jumped into the tent to wait it out.  Ben passed in lunch, then went to hang out in the rock nook he’d found previously—a spot carved out almost like a chair with an overhang that kept him dry.  After perhaps half an hour, the rain stopped, and we emerged once again to look on the crater directly across from our campsite. 

Our campsite--looking back from the crater

This is what I love about Ben: he’s the definition of a “glass half full” kind of guy.  While we all could have complained that the rain spoiled our afternoon, Ben emphatically stated, “Man, we were so lucky the rain hit when it did.  Imagine climbing up that last stretch in the rain!  This worked out really well.” 

The rain began again, and it ended up raining for almost a solid six hours, finally petering out around 9pm.  Ben emerged from the tent to cook us dinner at 10pm (because we all agreed hiking on empty stomachs the next day would not be a good idea), and then we returned to bed.  But we essentially spent the time from 4pm until 5:30am inside the tent, sleeping.  

We heard a few soft rumblings in the night, but we could never tell whether they were rock slides (which happen frequently), more thunder, or the volcano venting smoke. 

It’s funny.  Prior to the hike, Ben told us he could guarantee that during the night, sleeping at the campsite, each of us would feel real fear at being so close to the volcano.  I felt my fear standing on the mirador at the beginning of our hike watching the eruption from a distance.  And as we hiked, I reminded myself over and over that fear takes an enormous amount of energy, but really does a person no good, so at the campsite, I planned to push my fear aside and not let it in.  But when we arrived at camp, I didn’t have to.  I didn’t feel afraid at all once we were at the campsite, staring the crater in the face.  Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a major eruption while we were there.  Or maybe the anticipation was worse than the actual event; whatever the case, I was relaxed and had a great night’s sleep. 

Just before dawn, Ben woke us to see the glowing lava on the side of the volcano that wouldn’t be visible in the daylight.  As the sun rose in a clear sky, Santiaguito graced us with a small eruption that continued for perhaps 15 minutes, smoke puffing straight up into the sky. 
My view of the eruption from inside our tent
We ate breakfast and packed camp, and smoke and steam continued to vent from the crater.

Morning coffee and a volcano view

 The hike down the mountain offered a new perspective, as the sun was out and the day was clear.  Everything was beautiful, and I snapped tons of pictures.  (And this time, we could see every inch of that final climb as we picked our way slowly down it). 

Looking down from the campsite.  The patch of dark sand on
the left is Beach #3

The arrows point the route we took.
Can you spot Russell?

The walk back was just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the trek to the crater.  There were equal parts downhill and steep uphill, and we worked every muscle in our already-tired legs.  When we were about 2/3 of the way through the dense jungle right before we arrived again at the mirador (much harder uphill than it had been going down!) when we stopped to catch our breath and heard a massive eruption from Santiaguito.  Though we were well over a mile away, it rained ash on us for the next thirty minutes or so.  I was very glad of our timing, and that we hadn’t been at the campsite for that eruption.  I have a feeling I would have felt the fear Ben spoke about. 

By the time we made it back to the QT office, it was nearly 5pm.  Our packs and clothes were covered in ash, our legs were tired, and we were completely content at our accomplishment.  The three of us returned to our hotel for a shower, then met Ben at the best Indian restaurant in Guatemala for a delicious meal to end our adventure right. 

Sabor de la India--you do things right.
The whole weekend reminded me what life is really all about.  It’s about surrounding yourself with positive, energetic, enthusiastic people, and it’s about celebrating the beauty that is all around us.  It was much needed and well appreciated. 


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