The volcanoes, oh the volcanoes. If there’s anything that can remotely compete with my love of motorcycling, it would have to be my love of hiking volcanoes, dormant or (to my mother’s terror) no so dormant. In 2006, I had the opportunity to visit Pacaya, a burbly little fellow just outside of Guatemala City that had just slightly decimated a local village at its foot just two weeks before I arrived. Three young gentlemen in their mid-twenties, your author included, hired a local guide and summited the beast, treading lightly with swift feet. If we stood in one place too long, the soles of our Nikes would begin to melt on the thin layer of crust we traversed. I stopped for a moment to focus on the cracks between large pieces of crust only to be entranced by the seductive glow of lava moving beneath my feet. I took a moment to find a stick and poke at it.
Seven years later I found myself again in Guatemala, living among the same chain of volcanoes. Volcano Santa Maria loomed over my hometown, taunting travelers, quietly whispering threats to the locals. It had developed quite a menacing reputation. While other volcanoes in the region have a reclined posture, allowing trekkers to gradually ascend, Saint Mary stands tall and proud, her slopes steep and sharp. At 3,772 m (12,375 ft), she’s not the tallest, but is considered by most in the region the meanest. Mean or kind, business is business. I smashed Santa Maria and then did a dawn raid for the sunrise on top of Volcano Tajumulco (the highest point in Central America @3,772 m (12,375 ft) the following weekend for good measure.
After leaving Guatemala in the summer of 2013, my lust for climbing volcanoes had been fortified. I went on to climb Cosigüina in Nicaragua and Santa Ana in El Salvador in 2014. In 2015 I hit the jackpot. By May, my time (and money) in Guatemala had nearly run out and I was dead set on going out with a bang. I revisited the summit of Santa Maria, followed by another dawn raid on Tajumulco the following weekend. Priming the pump if you will…
On my final weekend in Guatemala I was feeling obnoxiously overzealous and allowed myself to be talked into the “double whammy.” Double whammy you ask? Yes, twice the fun, twice the danger, twice the pain…so double the pleasure? You bet. Some weeks back I attempted to match pace with a light-footed 90 pound blonde Australian springing across stones and over roots, as we descended Santa Maria. “It was amaaaaaaazing,” she said over her shoulder, “the hike was brutal, it kicked my ass, but you should totally do it.” Sold.
The Double Whammy consists of a full day’s hike up Acatenango, an hours rest at camp at 3,500m, descending 2 hours into a valley only to hike within 400 meters of the summit of Volcano Fuego. Even by Guatemalan standards it’s not safe to come within spitting distance of the Fuego’s summit because it does this, a lot:
We dropped our gear at camp on Acatenango, had a quick break and then split off from the main group, us hard headed individuals in our quest for Fuego. Fun fun.
Some hours later at a safe distance near the summit of Fuego:
“How close can I get?” I asked our guide as coyly as possible. He saw right through me.
“This is it, ” he replied.
“Aw, c’mon. Just a little more?”
“Ok, 50 meters more. But that’s it!”
I trotted off on my own while the rest of the group watched in horror. No risk, no reward, right? Something like that. I think I got about 100 meters closer before the guide had a semi-meltdown and went chasing after me. I guess that’s close enough.
And so the double-whammy continued to excite and punish. We lingered close to Fuego for about an hour and then descended only to have to climb back up Acatenango to the campsite at 11,500 feet (just shy of the summit for a sunrise hike of course). Back up Acatenagno we went, in the pitch dark. For some reason, it always feels quicker going back doesn’t it? A few hours later we were at camp, just in time for a cold pasta dinner and the night’s fireworks. I don’t think I slept for more than a few hours. Why, you ask? I sat in my tent and watched this all night long. Front row seats.
It may seem as if I’m boasting a bit. Does it sound a big exaggerated? Obnoxiously epic? Well, there is no exaggeration, it was indeed obnoxiously epic. This is probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in my lifetime, and I encourage each and every one of you to strongly consider doing it too. Oh, boast on then you say? Ok. Will do. Dawn raid for the summit in three, two one:
And thus ends the 2015 volcano summiting chapter of my life. Twas a good year. Twas a good year indeed.