Flashback Friday: Started from the Bottom

Successful blogs have segments, right? Thought so. In my quest to be proactive in blogging before I head out on my travels I have decided to look back on some adventures that weren’t given a chance to be shared with the cyber world quite yet.

Today, memory lane winds around to two of the most physically and mentally challenging days of my life: the hike up Volcán Acatenango back in March. Sitting at a colossal 13,044 ft above sea level, Acatenango has snagged the title of the third highest peak in Guatemala. What makes this specific hike unparalleled, though, isn’t the height, but the landscape: the trek through a multitude of terrains, the view of Antigua from the first summit, and the ability to see one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala, Volcán de Fuego, after you’ve conquered the second summit.

I would be lying if I sat here and told you I expected to come home from Antigua with a volcano hike under my belt. It sounded neat (and also horrifying), but my lack of interest stemmed mostly from the fact that I had never climbed anything other than to the top of the Empire State Building on a StairMaster. Valid hesitation, right? But…if I’ve learned anything at all through my wanderlust, it is that hesitation gets thrown out the window when you’re traveling (especially when you meet some pretty adventurous backpackers along the way). Long story short, my friend and I meandered into O.X. Expeditions after our Spanish classes one afternoon to get some information about a possible hike and walked out with a hot date with nature at 13,000 ft three days later.

Preparation for the hike included purchasing a warm hat and gloves from the market – that seemed to be an adventure in itself, attending a pre-hike meeting, and rounding up any tips from the locals and expats I came across. I was hoping the pre-hike meeting would boost my confidence a bit after becoming a little more knowledgeable about what I had signed up for: meh, wrong. The first thing that came out of our guide’s mouth was, “This is not going to be easy. I’m letting you know now that this expedition will be 20% physical and 80% mental.” GLORIOUS. I had been running quite a bit and my endurance was probably at it’s peak since graduating high school, but I was starting to think I had bit off more than I could chew; even more so when the look of pity became commonplace when speaking to locals and expats about my weekend plans.

We arrived back at O.X. around 4:30 a.m. a few days later with 4 liters of water and soy nut snacks in tow. Our tour company rented out backpacks (8 USD) and sleeping bags (5 USD) for those of us non-experienced adventurers – once we distributed the camping supplies amongst our group of 17 trekkers and packed the van, we were off and there was no turning back. By the end of the hour ride to the foot of Acatenango, I had learned that my team included a group of backpackers from Canada and Norway, an Ironman conqueror, and also some well versed hikers from many different walks of life. Great. My fears of being the weakest link intensified as the paved road turned into rubble and then just pebbles and sand.

Our trek team hopped off the bus in good spirits and with eager feet leading us forward – we took one step onto the trail and were immediately thrust back to the conversation a couple days earlier with our guide: “80% mental.” The most literal form of ‘3 steps forward, 2 steps back’ had come to fruition in front of us. Our tour guide, David, informed us that the first and last hours of the hike would be the toughest seeing as they were composed of steep sandy trails. He wasn’t kidding. 20 minutes in and drenched in sweat, even the most experienced hikers of the group were ready to pop a squat on a nearby bench. I remember sitting down on that bench, looking up at the clear blue sky, and 100% truly and honestly thinking to myself, “This is the worst idea I’ve ever had.”

After regrouping and reenergizing, the team rallied and took off to make it to our next resting spot: lunch. Two hours led us through the rest of the farmland terrain, across the cloud forests, and finally to a lunch date with a whole heck of a lot of pine trees. The cloud forest was filled with vines thick as anacondas and the occasional moss-encrusted tree. Everywhere I turned was a luscious green color staring back at me and everything felt damp…maybe because we were WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS. The hike through the alpine forest almost seemed animated at times – the dark lanky trees looked as if they were plucked right out of the set of a haunted house and by the looks of the monkey grass surrounding me, I could have sworn I was walking through a Dr. Seuss movie.

Our break for lunch served more as a time for me to toot my own horn for a hot minute, rather than to replenish my screaming-for-nutrients-body. As I was inconspicuously stripping my sandwich of the mounds of cheese within it, I realized not only was I not the weakest link, but I had actually kept up with the best of ’em (that is, after the crawl through the sand ended). Once I forced myself to stop solely criticizing my capabilities and comparing my experience to that of those around me, I was able to retrieve my positive attitude and revel in the adventure before me. (Maybe that’s how I should look at most of life’s curveballs, eh?)

Another three hours through a scene in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ and we had reached our first summit. The exaggerated landscape of gigantic trees and oodles of vegetation had transformed into a ragged landscape reminiscent of what you might see on Mars…but ashy and dark everywhere you turned. Probably because we were standing ON THE SUMMIT OF A VOLCANO. It still blows my mind, as you can tell. Sometimes our family cat, Cleo, will flop/crumple/collapse onto the wood floor in our kitchen as if she has lost complete control of her legs – I imagine we looked a little something like that the second we laid out our sleeping mats to rest. A handful of us did some exploring before dinner and mostly just kept trying to wrap our heads around where we were: 12,565 ft into the clouds. Dinner was a sad, but appreciated attempt at lo mein with vegetables accompanied by the best boxed wine I’ve ever ingested, only because I was drinking it on a volcano while listening to the Lumineers. Bed time followed quickly after dinner, although with a 4 a.m wake up call for the sunrise, I wasn’t complaining. My layers did me no justice in this time of need – my toes were frigid and the ground felt like a mattress made of cement. Not to mention I swear there was a hyena cuddling with me through the tent stealing my body heat. Not joking. Finally, my failed attempts reaching REM sleep were over and David was waking us up to reach our final destination: Pico Mayor, the second summit of Acatenango at a striking 13,044 ft.

If I said I thought the first hour was the worst part of this hike, I lied. The trek to to Pico Mayor was undoubtedly my biggest challenge of the 48 hours. We regressed back to ‘3 steps forward, 2 steps back’ and transformed our steps into the duck walk technique once again, added about 5,000 ft of elevation, and lost our natural daylight. Not kosher. I forgot to mention the drastic temperature drop. This setting was not conducive to a gleeful frolic up Acatengango. An hour of huffing and puffing later, any frustration or exhaustion that was left in the deepest pit of my stomach was washed away. As I took the last step from the sandy ash onto the plateau of Pico Mayor, I was in awe. It was complete and utter bliss – I had made it.

We all sat at the edge of the summit for a while and soaked up as much as we could, trying to find a way to keep that moment embedded within us forever. We began to clear the crater and head back down to camp when a thunderous roar came from behind us. Fuego had begun to erupt and our team was in a dead sprint back to the edge of the summit to catch a glimpse. We got a few good puffs out of ol’ Fuego and even got a chance to see some fiery red lava spitting out of it’s mouth as well. After playing the waiting game for a few more minutes we decided to make the commute back to camp to get some grub. The commute was essentially skiing by foot through ash – this is more challenging than you think. From camp we packed up our tents and made way back to the trailhead. We were led through a different route and after about two hours and 15 of my most graceful tumbles, we were passing through the farmland and back down to the foot of the volcano. I poured two lbs out sand out of my socks, readjusted my top knot, and climbed into the van to head home. I was hooked – since that moment I’ve been counting down the days until my next hike.

If you’re considering taking the plunge into your first hiking trip while abroad, here are a few tips that I would have loved to know before I did the same thing

DO:

  • Invest in some nice hiking boots. I climbed in tennis shoes and survived, but would have appreciated a nice pair of Keens and taller socks.
  • Wear breathable clothes. I made the mistake of bringing two cotton shirts and by lunch time my hiking shirt had already soaked through with sweat (and probably didn’t smell so pleasant either).
  • BRING AT LEAST FOUR LITERS WATER.
  • Stop and readjust your backpack if you’re uncomfortable. The pain is NOT worth the gain if you can’t carry your items without cringing.
  • Pack layers and bring a rain jacket. I deal well with cold weather, but the chill of Acatenango was a beast of it’s own once the sun went down.

DON’T:

  • Harp on yourself for not being a world renowned hiker – you are your own worst critic and will lose the joy of the adventure if you can’t stay positive!
  • Keep your camera in front of your face the whole hike, you’ll miss out on the little things that you can’t capture in a measly photograph.
  • Smoke a pack of cigarettes on the way up…you won’t make it to the second summit for the sunrise. Yes, I’m only saying this because I witnessed it happen.
  • Underestimate the climb. While I eased into the hike and felt much more comfortable after about an hour in, it was still one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever overcome – even the experienced hikers attested to the difficulty of the climb.
  • Be concerned if you’re blowing black sand out of your nose for the next week…girls, you might be washing it out of your hair for a while, too.

Happy adventuring!

xo,

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