Top of the World

There are times when you are half way up the side of a Guatemalan volcano at 4 in the morning when you think to yourself, ¨What the heck am I doing half way up the side of a Guatemalan Volcano at 4am!?¨

taking it all it
taking it all in

On a whim I signed up for a 2-day trek of Volcano Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America. Tajumulco stands at 4220 meters.  That’s 12,666 feet for us Americans. The agency is Quatzaltrekkers and located right in my hostel Casa Argentina. They are a non-profit organization and all the funds go to a couple local projects including a school for orphaned children. All the guides are volunteer and eat from the tips they receive. Most of the guides are American or European travelers who end up staying for 3-months at a time. It was a chance to have an incredible experience and support the local community.

At the last minute I almost canceled because of my previous days’ full-day hike to Laguna Chichibal and I was tired and because of the all-day rain felt I was coming down with a cold.

I am so glad I didn´t. After an early morning chicken-bus ride to a village close to the base of the volcano we ate a typical Guatemalan breakfast of beans, eggs, tortillas, and fried plantains. After another long windy ride to the trail head we started marching up…and up…and up. It was to be a full day´s hike up to base camp. The path snaked through some gorgeous and diverse landscapes. Hillsides were sprinkled with lupine and Indian paintbrush and yellow yarrow and others I couldn´t identify. Occasionally we would pass local Mam Mayas who were either tending to sheep or cows or carrying down firewood on a mule. I was shocked to see cows grazing in high altitudes. There were some tough sections, especially as there weren´t many of the typical sidewinders but rather a lot of steep inclines.

There were a couple members of the group–a 18 year old German girl and a London bloke–who were not looking good. It was not only their first mountain backpacking trek but also their first hike ever! They didn´t know what they getting themselves into. They alternated between looking too pink or too white or too sweaty or too sour.

About half way up it was discovered that we didn´t have any campstoves. One of the guides had stayed behind in San Marcos with another who had gotten salmonella just before we left and they had the stoves! This wasn´t a life or death situation because we had some food, etc., but that´s not what you want to hear after looking forward to a hot meal at the end of a long day´s trek. Luckily we found at the base camp there was another group that had a enough gas to share with us.

Dark comes early up there and we were in bed by 8 pm or so, sleeping 6 to a tent. We exchanged humorous and horrifying travel tales as we relished being horizontal, allowing rest to our legs and backs. Stories of Indian taxi drivers not taking you to where you want to go and of broken boats on Nicaraguan rivers. Stories of Guatemalan families having to hide in the mountain caves to escape being killed or recruited by the army during the war and of ¨security forces¨ killing children for passing through private property on their way to school. Stories of a Chinese woman trying to make out with one of the girls and of another Chinese woman trying to make friends with another while she was on the toilet. Stories of the beautiful coast in France and the Redwoods in California and the nice people in Belize and the diving in the Bay Islands off Honduras. Such are the tales that make up the world. Finally we drifted to sleep with tired muscles and sore knees and dreamt fitfully of all the beauty and ugliness of the world until wake-up call.

¨Okay, chicos, it´s 3:45, rise and shine! Let´s do this!¨ we hear from beyond our tent.

We began our final ascent to the summit. Our Belgium guide Taze warned us matter-of-factly, ¨You will swear.¨

Walking Along the Ridge
Walking Along the Ridge

And swear we did. At first we were like a chain of zombies walking in the black night along the rocky rim of steep drop-off, trying to shake sleep out of our bodies. We scrambled up and over boulders as we fought our tired muscles. But the awesome aura of the early morning was a healing balm. It was profoundly silent and sublime. We were lucky to have a clear sky with the full moon peaking over the ridge and revealing the silhouettes of the mountain edges. In back of us the very first hints of a bluish-orange dawn motivated us to keep drudging along, upward and upward. We didn´t want to have come all this way and miss the sunrise from the summit! The final 50 meters were a steep volcanic ash-covered incline and we scrambled over it like primitive animals, huffing and puffing and swearing.

Finally we arrive! It´s 5:30am and freezing, but it feels like the dawn of time breaking over the horizon…It seems like we can see forever in 360 degrees. No words. It is still black but minute by minute dawn creeps upon the edges of the night, swallowing the cold and dark. I´ve never seen anything like it. To the north there are the small bronze lights of towns, twinkling in the crisp air made hazy because of the moisture. The white ones are Guatemala, the bronze ones are Mexico at the border towns. Slowly to the south and west a line becomes more and more defined…the Pacific coast. It looks like it is just a few miles away but in fact it is about 80-100 miles or so. To the east the sun competes with sheets of white luminous clouds that blanket the valleys in between mountains all the way to the horizon. We are far above the clouds. They look like a nebulous ghostly river flowing out of the mountains towards the sea. There stands Santa Maria, the volcano that towers over Xela, the town we left it seems so long ago. But it is but a small peak among many from here. What seemed so grand was dwarfed from this perspective. To the right of black-green Santa Maria was a giant vertical cloud that was actually the plume of a nearby volcano, ejecting another pillar of gas every half hour or so.

Maria Through the Clouds
Maria Through the Clouds

As the sun crept above the horizon a giant shadow begins to form in the west…forming a well-defined triangle behind Tajumulco, the second soul of the young volcano lying ephemerally across land. The light of the sun gives it a magical effect, giving the illusion of 3-dimensions. Meanwhile the the full Moon stood hovering above the shadow, a testament to the morning perfection. The whole vista was impossibly gorgeous.

Shadow of Taju
Shadow of Taju

We had been lucky. Even the guides said they had never seen it so clear. We were worried the night before because it was raining. We feared working so hard only to be buried in a cloudy haze, unable to see anything. Everyone was estatic. It was Taze´s last hike as he was going back to Belgium. He wanted to get his nude Taju photo. I don´t know if he did it, and I am not sure I want to.

We took our time absorbing the experience, witnessing glories everywhere we looked. Finally and reluctantly we had to make our descent, which was also amazing but you don´t go down with the sense of excitement you have when you go up.

Long story short, we made it to the base village in several hours of heavy foot-stomping and several slips and slides. We caught a chicken bus to San Marcos and another jam-packed bus to Xela, with people standing in the aisles, people sleeping on one another, and asses falling asleep. When we got to Xela the streets were flooded from the rain and evidently there were no rides back to Casa, so we walked like satisfied but spent sleepwalkers in the rain crossing flooded streets flowing like dirty rivers, trying not to think about the godknowswhat that probably has been forced out of the sewers…

Ah, finally back at home tired and wet, collapsing on a hard bed and enjoying lukewarm intermittent showers, heaven on earth….

The German girl and British guy admitted it was all worth it. You are cold and hungry and slightly delirious from effort and lack of breath…it is dark and you stumble over boulders like some awkward animal…then you get to the peak and you understand it all. Everybody who has been backpacking or mountain climbing knows why you put yourself through the agony, but sometimes you momentarily forget it. You must convince your body to travel onward for the prize.

Oftentimes, the Beautiful and the Sublime are gratuitous, revealing themselves in our mundane daily runarounds. But other times they make you work for it, keeping their most desireable fruits for those who would make the effort.

¨Do you really want this?” they ask.  Then, ¨Okay, what are you willing to do for it?¨ they tempts slyly.

group at the summit
group at the summit
me at summit
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~ by Ryan Van Lenning on June 3, 2009.

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