Acatenango (Guatemala) was the toughest hike I have ever done. I like to refer to it as the highest price for the highest prize. Sleeping across flowing lava, listening to the eruptions and watching the sunrise from 4000 meters was definitely worth the price.
The hike started off by getting covered in volcanic ash in a form of rain. Then I got altitude sickness within the first 30 minutes and I consistently ended up 2 minutes behind everyone. The guides had to come back to carry my bag once they reached a checkpoint, but as we had to carry the camping gear on top of our own stuff, the bag was heavy. It was so embarrassing to be the only one who needed supervision, but it got better later on.
After 2,5 hours climbing the steep-ashy mountainside, we had lunch, but I was starving until dinner because even with snacks I burned way more calories than I consumed. Over the next 2,5 hours, I managed to keep up with the group, but it took everything I had to make it to basecamp. This hike to me just proved how powerful the mind can be over the body because my body gave up after 15 minutes, but I badly wanted to reach the top.
Reaching El Fuego – the active volcano
As we approached the camp, I started hearing the eruptions. The way I can best describe it is like strong gusts of wind and thunder amplified. Being this close to one of mother nature’s most destructive forces was a bit confusing. I was amused and scared at the same time.
Then it started to rain so we all gathered at the bonfire, but because the area was semi-covered, the smoke was choking and my eyes were burning. I ended up sitting close to the tent where the wind was more or less blocked and waiting for dinner while watching the volcano. It was insanely cold, so when I started shivering, I went back to the fire, once my eyes couldn’t take it I sat at the tent in the rain again.
Because the stomach already shrunk too much after starvation, I felt full after just a few bites of my meal, but I had to force myself to eat it all. It was like stuffing a duck, I really didn’t enjoy it, but I knew that food was limited and I had to eat if I wanted to have energy the next day.
At night the volcano turned up the volume and I started feeling tiny movements of the ground, so I haven’t slept a single minute. The lava blasted into the air higher and more of it was flowing down the mountainside.
Sunrise on 4000 meters
Physically drained, we had to get going at 4 am to climb another 1,5 hours to see the sunrise. This was probably the most difficult part, climbing consistently upwards over rocks and volcanic ash in the dark, battling strong and cold winds. It was like half a step forward and one step backward.
On the peak, the temperature dropped dramatically as nothing was blocking the wind anymore. It is hard to describe what does it feel like to see the warm sun coming up while watching burning hot lava erupting and yet shivering from top to bottom. At this point, my body was just a shell to deliver what my mind wanted, because physically I never felt more uncomfortable. But as I said, the prize was high, it was all worth it.
When my fingers went numb, we started descending. This hike was a breathtaking experience, but it was way below my threshold of discomfort. On the way back we basically ran the whole thing. „Skiing down” the steep ashy mountainside was actually safer than walking slowly and carefully. Once the campsite was all packed up we all jogged down to the bottom in only 2,5 hours.
Recovering after this hike is another challenge that I’m going through as I write, but it will always be an unforgettable experience.