As per a request from a follower, I’d like to spend some time today writing about my recent experience climbing my first mountain, Volcán Acatenango. As you may have guessed from its name, Acatenango is a stratovolcano in Guatemala which overlooks its more active sister Volcán Fuego. Stratovolcanoes are formed from layer upon layer of volcanic deposits, such as ash and lava, and in the case of Acatenango and Fuego, creating cinder cones. At 3,976 meters (13.045 ft), Acatenango is a monster of a hike. It was absolutely the most difficult, and even the loneliest, experience of my entire life.
My first reaction to the Acatenango hike was incredulity. The first person I met in Antigua left to climb Acatenango and returned the same afternoon, having vomited uncontrollably from altitude sickness at the mouth of the trail! It was common knowledge that several girls had died near the summit in January from hypothermia. As more of my friends took on the challenge and succeeded I began to collect the expressions of exhaustion and misery on their faces upon their return—mostly as reasons never to climb the blasted thing. Then to my luck, I met a person who not only climbed Acatenango, he climbed it multiple times for fun. He even helped rescue a lost hiker who had wandered off mid-trek. This person, who wields a certain emotional influence as my boyfriend, spoke excitedly about how we should climb it together. I agreed but on the condition that I climb it on my own first, for I knew that I didn’t want him to see me in the wretched state that was inevitable my first time up.
Embracing my fate, I tried to brace myself for the physically and spiritually decimating experience that lay ahead of me. But, as I would discover, this was impossible. I asked each person I could about how difficult the climb was, what the hardest parts were, what advice they had for me. One person, overhearing that I have asthma, jumped into the conversation and said I shouldn’t even try climbing it, but luckily ‘pretty blonde girls don’t get left on top of Acatenango.’ Thanks, creepy guy.
I knew my breathing issues would be a tremendous obstacle at high altitudes, and my limited cardio fitness as a result of those breathing problems would be debilitating hiking these steep inclines. But for some reason, I decided something along the lines of ‘screw it, I’ll inch up the summit if I have to,’ and signed up for a guided overnight trip. The day before my hike was set to start, I decided to do the afternoon Volcán Pacaya hike as a warm up. The guide told us to expect a 1.5 hour hike to the top, and we set off. At first, I stayed with the majority of the group, but 35 minutes in I fell behind significantly. I could hardly breathe, needing to stop every 10 feet or so to get my pulse down from 130 bpm. I thought I would never make it, as I thought we had almost an hour left. But 10 minutes later, I was scrambling up the summit. It took us 45 minutes to make a 1.5 journey. This is where I learned something that would potentially save my life on Acatenango the next day, volcano guides will go as fast as they possibly can and will not stop to accommodate the slower, or even average, hikers. Had I gone as fast as was comfortable for me, I would have made it up in the normal time.
When I told my friends who had hiked both Pacaya and Acatenango that I found Pacaya difficult, they looked at me in what can only be described as abject horror. ‘Pacaya is nothing compared to Acatenango, Sarah. Absolutely nothing.’ This was followed by a look of ‘well I guess I’ll see you at your funeral.’ As you can imagine, this did nothing to calm my pre-trek nerves. Neither did the boyfriend saying that even he suffers from altitude sickness when he goes up. I lay in bed the morning of the hike, thinking critically about every life decision that led me to this point. Yet somehow I got up, put on my pack which held 4 litres of water, a winter coat, hat, gloves, sweater, an inhaler, and an entire loaf of banana bread, and headed to the pick up point.
I looked around at my hiking comrades, and had a sinking feeling for I knew that I would be the slowest one of the entire group. The guides gave each of us a cheap sleeping bag, pad, and a piece of tent to carry with us. When we were all geared up, we set off up the trail, at first passing farmland and pasturing horses. But by 30 minutes in, I began to fall behind. I remember choosing points 10 ft ahead, or sometimes less, and thinking ‘just get to that point, at the weird looking plant you can rest.’ I did this for the rest of the trek. To contextualise how bad this was, the hike was to last 6 hours. I fell so far behind that for the majority of the hike I was only walking with the guide that brought up the rear of the group. To be clear, I was the entirety of the rear.
It was hot. I stopped every minute or two to lower my heart rate and I wipe streams of sweat from my forehead. Tito, the rear guide, spoke in slow and simple Spanish to me, small talk to maybe take my mind off what was clearly a gruelling process for me. Right before our first proper rest, an hour into the hike, Tito looked at me and said in a worried tone that the mountain was much higher than what we had just climbed. In what was definitely a ‘lost in translation’ moment, he literally pushed me up the last few steps by the bum. An entirely useless, unwanted, but hilarious action that had my hiking companions asking who they had to pay for the ‘special’ hiking experience.
From there we ascended into the rain forest section of the mountain. Acatenango is so tall that it can harbour several types of distinct environments in its hot lower sections, and cool higher sections. The path here was overhung by vines and verdant trees, roots were the main footholds in the compact dirt and mud. By this point, Tito realised that he could catch up with my glacial pace in minutes and decided to hang out and text his girlfriend for a while before following on. So I spent most of the hike walking alone on increasingly misty paths as we ascended into the pine forests.
I was so high up, that what had appeared to be mist was actually cloud, hanging densely around me. The mud became hard and the ground was scattered with pine needles. The trees thinned, and around 3,400 metres there was no question you had entered an entirely different environment. I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. I thought about the girls who had died and genuinely prayed that we wouldn’t get caught in a storm. When I caught up with the rest of the group, they were having burritos for lunch. It’s an unfair truth that the hikers who are suffering the most get fewer and shorter rests, as the majority of the group rests while waiting for us to catch them up. The air was properly cold now, but we knew that putting on layers would be a big mistake, as we would only sweat through it when we started moving.
The path here was winding and grassy. It swerved back and forth, yet somehow remained impossibly steep. The clouds clung to us. To my complete surprise I couldn’t feel the thinning air. Perhaps because I had ascended so slowly, I had time to adjust, but at least one person started to fall behind, his pulse rising to match mine. I estimate that my pulse-rate remained at or above 120 bmp for the entire 6 hour hike. We hiked through the cloud pine forest for 2 hours, always with the threat of rain around us. But what we thought was thunder would soon reveal itself to be something more incredible than we could imagine. Halfway through the pine forest, I realised that I would actually make it to basecamp, and for the first time during this entire challenge I was genuinely proud of myself.
The guides gathered us together and told us that basecamp was only 30 minutes away. I don’t recall ever being so happy. We stepped through the last of the pines and onto an ashy, gravelly path that snaked around the rocky summit that extended 300 metres above us. We climbed up and down rocky protrusions, gnarled trees and their roots, and through ash that had wasted onto the trail. The enormous rumblings were growing louder and before we knew it, we came to a small clearing and saw the source of the noise. Volcán Fuego stood before us, enormous at 3,763 metres, and fiercely active. Within minutes of our arrival to basecamp, she was throwing up magma in massive eruptions and lava was streaming down her sides. No camera could ever capture the terrifying and cathartic magnitude of such a sight, but we certainly tried.
To be honest, I fell into the trap of relaxing after the first haul of the hike. I let my body get used to the rest and low pulse rate. In my mind, I knew the last leg of the hike was only 1.5 hours and wouldn’t be for many hours and after we slept. But even after a nice spaghetti dinner and warming up by the fire, the wind rattled the tent badly and the 3 Celsius air slipped into our sleeping bags so thoroughly that I don’t think I slept at all. When the guides started yelling ‘chicos chicos buenos dias’ at 4am, a collective groan emanated from each tent. When I sat up, I was nauseated, I was shivering uncontrollably, and the very real desire to bail on the summit climb edged its way into my mind. Putting on all of my kit, getting my torch, and picking up my walking sticks were some of the hardest challenges of the trek. After all, every hiker will tell you Acatenango is 20% physical 80% mental. My bones felt too heavy to carry, but I kept telling myself ‘you can’t make it to basecamp just to give up now.’ I fell behind the group immediately, but looking back maybe this was a blessing. I missed my boyfriend (who was at fault for all of this really), I missed my friends who I knew would be cheering me on, I missed my parents who I knew would be so stupidly proud. As patient as Tito was, I could tell he wasn’t in this challenge with me. But clambering over the steep rocks on a path only Tito could see, slipping backwards as the loose, ashy soil gave way under my feet in the darkness, accompanied only by my heavy panting, the booming encouragement of Fuego behind me, and the quivering light of my torch, was all immensely revealing about myself. I have never in my life wanted to quit so badly so many times in the course of an hour, it was like part of my brain was screaming at the other to make the pain stop. And I looked at myself each time, and said ‘not on your goddamn life.’
I’m truly afraid of very few things. Those of you who know me well know that I sought out my biological family without hesitation, I moved to a foreign country, I’ve travelled alone, I’ve taken on rigorous degrees, I’ve gotten tattoos, I’ve eaten things I couldn’t identify, I’ve given lectures to hundreds of people, I would jump out of a plane tomorrow. But Acatenango terrified me. It terrified me in part because I genuinely thought I couldn’t tackle it. It terrified me because it would require my body to come through for me, when in so many ways it has not. I summited as the sun rose. With a broken body and no fear.
I looked at Tito, wanting to share that moment. He said ‘bueno’ and walked away.
The wind felt like it would sweep me off the zenith. It burned my face as I looked over Fuego, Volcán de Agua, Antigua, and the blanket of clouds below tinted yellow by the dawn. The caldera of the volcano was a smooth dip in the ash, as if someone had taken a giant spoon and pressed down firmly. I trudged up each peak around it, trying to make the reality of our height sink in. I tried to take a photo and discovered to my dismay and disgust that I had shorted out my phone by sweating through my coat pockets and drenching it.
When it was time to descend, we were all grateful. I couldn’t feel my fingers. It was like skiing in dirt with my walking sticks. Back at basecamp, we broke down our tents, repacked our bags, and had a hearty breakfast of cup ramen and instant coffee. I had little energy left, but I knew I could never gain any from staying up in the cold where I couldn’t sleep.
In all my interviews with people who had climbed Acatenango, everyone said the first 30 minutes up and the last 30 minutes to the summit are the hardest. Not one person mentioned that going down was just as brutal as going up. While some of the fitter young men of the group literally ran down the mountain, I slipped and slid. Falling not one, not two, not three, not four, but five times, landing like an upside down turtle–at one point getting rammed into by one of those young men running down the path as I tried to lift myself and my pack onto my feet. At this fateful point, the guide decided that going down didn’t require any breaks. I fell behind quickly. My toes were getting crushed badly by my shoes. While my breathing was no longer an issue, my muscles, which had offered no complaint going up, started to tremble. I had nothing left to give, I had foolishly put everything I had into the summit push. I was hysterical halfway down. The utter exhaustion, the pain, the thought of the journey ahead of me, the compulsion to finish the trek without help, all manifested as tears. I may have climbed Acatenango, but she was repaying me in kind. I had blisters on my hands and feet, the sun was scorching my skin, my toenails felt like they were being ripped off. One girl stayed behind with me, and Tito trailed after us, offering to carry my pack for the last 20 minutes. Which I refused.
In those last few minutes, I wasn’t a person anymore. The mountain had taken everything from me. My spirit, my dignity, my cellphone. Even as I write this, 24 hours after finishing the trek, I’m having trouble feeling anything. Except a concavity in my chest and searing pain when I try to sit down anywhere. At least my toenails have returned to normal.
Was it worth it? It’s a good question. Was it worth it for the view? No. Was it worth it for the boy? Nah. Was it worth it because I learned a valuable lesson about myself? Hell yes. I gave everything I had to this journey, I gave more of my strength and my spirit to Acatenango than I’ve ever given anything. I said to myself that I would try my best, and my best brought me to the top of a mountain. And if that’s not worth it, I don’t know what is.