I must admit I was feeling nervous as I emptied my backpack in preparation for the Acetenango hike. Friends who had been in the past few weeks had described how difficult it was, and I knew that I was in for a struggle.
Stashing 5L of water, some nuts, choccy biscuits, bananas, snickers bars, and the essential cold weather gear in my backpack and I was set to go. On arrival at the base of the hike, Jade and I met our guide Luis, hired our walking sticks and filled in the registration forms. S#!t was getting real.
I think it was only five or ten minutes in and I was already feeling it, step after step the loose gravel gave way underfoot and I was not helped by the ~20kg pack on my back. Both a good and a bad thing, it was just us two girls Jade and I with the one guide but this meant between us we had to carry our tent, sleeping bags and mats. There were no strapping young men to assist!
Our first rest stop arrived after only 25 minutes in a nice grassy area overlooking the valley. At least the view was nice! After a short rest we pushed on, climbing with corn fields to our left, up a steep set of stairs carved in the mountainside.
One hour in and we had reached the registration hut. We’d been told the first part was the most difficult, and my friends were not wrong. However from this point on, the ground became harder which was one consolation. The climb was steep, and there were rest stops each half hour. We had started to feel some effects of the altitude above 3,000m – sharp headaches in the temple, and a tingly sensation in our fingers and toes.
We stopped for lunch over half way, at a hut where Luis says you can normally see an amazing view of volcanoes and the valley. We were treated to low lying cloud, which we very much hoped would clear by the time we reached the campground!
Luis did not speak much English, so he and I chatted and I tried my best to translate for Jade. He guides the climb around two times a week, and no more as it is so hard on the body. The rest of the time, he helps farm crops such as corn and beans, staples for his family – he has five sisters and five brothers! I’m told that the volcanic soil and ash is very good for the crops because of the minerals if it is in smaller doses, but Luis says that a large amount at one time can be toxic and wipe out the crop.
The last hour I’ll admit I struggled, by now I had the tent strapped to my pack as Jade had carried it for two hours already. One section as closer to be decribed as “rockclimbing” rather than trekking, and at the top of this steep rocky section Luis relieved me of the tent for the final half hour climb.
Reaching the base camp (3800m) after 4 hours and 40 minutes, we were both exhausted and relieved. Though I felt kind of guilty, we offered to help set up camp but the able guides thankfully did most of the work. I really didnt feel like putting up a tent at that point in time!
As the sun went down the clouds began to clear and little by little we could see the active volcano nearby.
It did not disappoint, as many times during the evening and night a plume of red hot lava danced in the sky, met with loud cries of excitement from the groups caming on the mountainside.
At 4:30 in the morning we were woken by Luis for the hike to the summit to see the sunrise. At no stage were we warned about the pain which we would be about to endure on the early morning adventure up to the viewpoint. Jade, having no light and struggling with the cold, decided to turn back to base camp, however I felt i’d come so far it would be a shame not to see it.
My tired legs struggled in the volcanic pea gravel, scrambling up steep sections of rock. Luis and I had fallen behind the rest of the group who had camped next to us overnight. I kept asking him “cuánto más? How far?” Only to be met with, i’m sorry it is still a little far. I couldnt see the summit and I was really beginning to feel exhausted and my muscles were sore. Still we pushed on, Luis grabbing my hand and assisting me uo the steep sections.
Some 45 minutes later I was at breaking point – “no más” I said to Luis, only to be met with a gentle “puedes subir chica” – you can climb it! Not far now, I promise. The sun had started to rise already and I looked around to be rewarded by am amazing view of the valley below. Ok, we will continue.
Reaching the top it was almost a surreal feeling – we were above the cloud line and the view was stunning.
Without going into too much detail, be it for the altitude, the food the night before, or some other reason, about 15 minutes into the walk I had searing pain in my stomach and I knew my body was telling me it needed me to find a place to go, right now. So I took off my backpack and rested it securely up against a rock, while I climbed a little back up the hill to find some bushes to hide behind. They may have been blackberries (!) – yeah I told you I really needed to go. There was a big group coming down behind us and I needed to hurry.
I heard loud shouting and looked up from my cruched position to see my beloved backpack tumbling down the hill toward the cliff below. Not much I could do but watch. Luckily for me, at the very last moment it got caught in some bushes which stopped it from vanishing into the never never. On retrieving it with a smile, one of the guides told me I was lucky, if it had dropped over the edge there was no way I was getting it back! Said guide then proceeded to ask me out that night, a lovely offer but I unfortunately had to refuse.
To this moment I am still unsure if one of the group behind touched my bag to send it flying, or if the wind was really that strong… It could have been an interesting travel insurance claim thats for sure!
The descent took two hours down mostly steep, stony, gravelly and slippery terrain and both Jade and I fell, more than once. We were extremely excited to reach the safety of the bottom, and my shower that day felt absolutely amazing.
It was an experience not to be missed, well worth every mental fight, the physical exhaustion, every sore muscle, and all the stones in our shoes!