Climbing Volcanoes Before Breakfast

**NOTE: The following events were in 2017. Catching up on old posts before I leave for another adventure in a couple of weeks! Stayed tuned for new adventures soon!!**

Day 808 – 17 May, 2017

Sweaty and wheezing, we ran the last 200 meters, following our guide. He had jumped up from his perch when we stopped to have a snack. We heard a thunderous boom and he yelled, “It’s coming! It’s coming!” And then he sprinted uphill, a very steep un-sprint-upable uphill. When we caught up to him just around the corner of a bend in the trail, I followed his gaze. Straight ahead, so close it felt we could nearly touch it, yet the silence was completely disconcerting, was a massive erupting volcano. A cloud of gray smoke, shaped like a tornado, hung in the air over the conical peak. You could still see embers of lava smoldering down its sides which eventually fizzled out. I couldn’t help but think, is this safe? When the cloud had dissipated enough that it just looked like a thick layer of smog, we continued picking our way up the trail leaning into the climb and trusting strong glute muscles would carry us the rest of the way.

It was only another 15 minutes before there was a grassy plateau and it was decided we would set up camp. And then it happened again. It sounded like a cannon sending bits of rock raining down like firework ash. You could hear the debris bouncing down maybe a mile or so away and then there was silence again. Just a cloud of ash lingered until the breeze shifted it to the east. In the time it took to set up our tents, it erupted twice more, every 10-15 minutes or so. This was Volcán de Fuego, Volcano of Fire.

I had set out earlier that morning to climb Volcán Acatenango, a dormant cousin to the blustering Fuego. I had to spend an entire day in Antigua shopping for winter gear at second hand stores. I found a coat, gloves, a hat, and head torch somewhere in the endless aisles of a local market. Acatenango’s summit was meant to be wintry and I wanted to be prepared.

We left very early morning in a minivan loaded with sleepy trekkers to the village of la Soledad. At the village, a farm house crowded with goats and dogs (and puppies!) was our base where we were requisitioned tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads, and lunch. The whole village seemed to participate in this operation. A woman was selling used gear in case you needed warmer clothes and another woman was selling hot coffee and pastries. Most of the other trekkers had arrived in groups of 2 or more so I was seemingly paired with a young kid of only 19 named Daniel from the UK to share a tent. He was tall and lanky, but walked with a lope as if he was a puppy that still needed to grow into his paws. Luckily, he was a workhorse and was happy to carry our tent.

The trail meandered through farmland before eventually switchbacking through varying degrees of vegetation, rainforest to alpine bush. We had a hazy view of another more distant volcano peeking above a blanket of clouds. The chronic asthma I had been diagnosed with just before running my eighth marathon was really giving me issues today. My inhaler was still somewhere in Malaysia. By the time we reached the campsite, I would like to say that the beauty of Fuego’s eruptions was taking my breath away, but it was probably just the asthma.

When our guide offered an optional hike closer to Fuego’s fury, I had to sit out. Three others stayed behind as well as we watched the rest of our group descend into the valley and march up the other side like an army of ants. It was a couple of hours before we could see their tiny shapes almost at the lower ring of glowing embers. Another eruption and they disappeared behind a cloud of ash. Again, I thought, is this safe? Dusk had settled when it started to rain, slowly at first and then the skies opened for a downpour. It was early, but I took shelter in my tent, grateful that I wasn’t still out there walking like the rest. Daniel arrived back, soaked to the core, when the sky was already inky black. He tried to be quiet but there’s only so much you can do in a confined space while removing muddy boots and sitting on a crinkly sleeping bag. Fuego continued to thunder throughout the night.

Alarms were set for 3am. It was touch and go on whether we would be allowed to climb to the summit, dependent on the weather, but the rain appeared to have finished. Permission granted to ascend, I fastened my head torch and had flashbacks of a midnight climb to Mt Kilimanjaro in 2012 where a bobbing line of lights would be the only view until sunrise. I admit I did not have an easy time of it. With each breath, I could feel my lungs constricting as if someone was standing on my chest. Occasionally, a passing thought would be punctuated by why the F am I doing this?? My fingers throbbed from the cold and my damp cotton gloves were of no help. My stomach rumbled wondering when we were going to get coffee and eggs. This was literally my second to last morning of a round the world trip and I was questioning my sanity at spending it like this.

I fell further and further behind our group and became intermingled with stragglers from other groups. I congratulate our guide on being able to keep track of everyone in the dark because he found me and rubbed my hands between his to warm them up. Then he dropped back to coax others that were even slower than me. I reached the crater just as the sun illuminated the horizon. Volcanic peaks rose above puffy white cumulus clouds below us. Fuego would cough its gray ash and it was the only view to be seen for miles. The wind was icy and intense, but the climb was done. It had been worth it. All doubt melted away. Of course I would be climbing a volcano at the end of my trip. I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

I arrived back in Antigua later that day. Others at the hostel prattled on about their forward travels to Honduras and Nicaragua and Costa Rica and beyond. I couldn’t shake the pit in my stomach that it was actually over. So I did what anyone would do when they are feeling blue – I buried my face in tacos, like a lot of tacos. Antigua really has delicious tacos.

Antigua is a lovely little town, its old city Spanish colonial architecture, ruined churches, and cobblestone streets are a haven for expats and tourists. It’s lost much of its authenticity through modernization, but still retains a romantic charm that invites one to wander the streets aimlessly for days. So the time had come. Tomorrow I would be boarding a flight to Florida and try to figure out what’s next, but today the sun was finally shining and I had no agenda. I had chocolate for breakfast at the Choco Museum and then tacos again for lunch. I browsed some of the clothing boutiques to see if there was anything that I could expect to wear when I got back to Chicago (there was not unless long frilly pastel dresses were suddenly a thing.) I imagined myself living here in Antigua, maybe getting a job at the taco bar? WILL WORK FOR FOOD. Or maybe the expat type, working online, sipping coffee and plugging away on a laptop for a few hours a day and the rest of the day eating tacos (or whatever – I would think of something). I would wear a long frilly pale yellow dress and drink rum cocktails with my mixed bunch of expat and Guatemalan friends where we would regale each other with stories in perfect Spanish about those funny tourists who didn’t know the ‘correct’ way to eat tacos. I would write a book and maybe one day go back to my cheetahs in Namibia. I would take on some big multi-month (multi-year?) expedition, like walking across a continent or around the world. I would overcome my fear of public speaking so that I could jet around to different places and speak about the merits of solo female travel. This would be my life, forever forsaking what some like to call the ‘real world.’ It was a daydream, of course. I would go home (for now), see family and friends, tend to a few responsibilities, and reevaluate next steps. But for whatever I would decide to do in the future, this one truth is clear – I was more a part of the ‘real world’ than I had ever been in my life.

A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

**In June 2018, Volcán de Fuego had its deadliest eruption in almost a century. At least 200 people were killed and several thousand more missing. Authorities believe that the missing persons have been buried by volcanic ash and debris. In addition, approximately 21,000 acres of farmland was destroyed as well as countless farm animals. It does not appear that the village we started from was affected, but a second phase of violent eruptions began in November 2018. As many as 4000 people were evacuated as a precaution.**

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