Side-adventure day! Going to climb some vulcanos, spend my night on 4000m, watch El Fuego erupt during the night time and watch a supposedly spectacular sunrise up there [fingers crossed!]. There you go!
Most people do the hike with a guided tour that provides tents in the base camp, food, camp fire and other nice amenities. The huge downside, you are always tied to a group. Not my kind of trip and so I set out at 9:30AM towards the public bus station with a loaded backpack [which Thomas kindly lends me] and all my camping gear inside. On top I carry two days worth of food and water as I want to be able to camp a second night in case the weather is too bad. I simply had this too often by now.
It feels a bit strange. I just arrived last night, still sore from my little hike a bike mission the other day, and now I am on my way to hike a vulcano just on my own. Usually I´d like to plan such a mission a bit better but with Nicki and Barry just having hiked it yesterday and Thomas who did it many times in the past, there is basically no more efficient way of planning and preparing than I had last night/this morning. I think, I know what I need to know.
After a lunch with Thomas on the market he also accompanies me in the first bus to Parramos. We take the chicken bus, which is an adventure on its own. These are refurbished US-American school buses painted super colorful and are one of the most common modes of transportation here [Google a picture]. The buses are usually heavy loaded on the roof with all sorts of cargo, sometimes chicken probably. The double seats on each side of the bus are so close together, that when the bus gets more and more crowded people basically sit in the middle of the bus with a butt cheek on each side of the left and right seat rows - it looks like chicken on the perch.
In Parramos, Thomas also waits with me and drops me in the right bus to La Soledad - the starting point of the hike. Super nice of him and definitely takes some stress off my shoulders. Public transportation can be a bit daunting, when you are not used to it anymore. All in all, almost two hours later I am finally at the trail head. It is 1:30PM. Nobody is here. The tours start before noon to get all people up by the evening as it is a fairly strenuous hike. I plan roughly 4 hours for the 7kms and 1500m climb in high elevation to the top of Acatenango, an inactive vulcano and the best view-point you can get.
Indeed, the hike is strenuous to me. I´d say 90% is on very loose sand/ashes and steep. One step forward, half a step sliding back on the loose ground. Especially with the altitude and the unusual situation to carry my own body weight and a heavy backpack, I feel not very strong. So I take it easy, walk slowly, breaks every 45 minutes. Step by step I climb up through 3 different forests zones. The first one being almost vanished and used for agriculture, the second a beautiful, wet and lush cloud forest; and the third an alpine pine forest. After that, all plants disappear on the rugged top of Acatenango.
Early on I actually switch to a guided-tour as one guy is so persistent to accompany me. A little black dog with crooked teeth, I name him Juan, is guiding me the way up. He checks out every corner before I reach it and once it is safe he waits for me to catch up. He sometimes disappears on some little off-trail adventures but usually he is back within 5 minutes. I decide to not pay [feed] him just yet, as I don´t want to let his instincts drag him into a situation that he is unable to oversee. Halfway up, though, I get soft during a food break and give Juan a piece of apple and water. He doesn´t like apple and so he gets a tortilla instead. He is happy with that.
Just before I am about to leave, a group of [loud] Guatemalan hikers comes down to the rest area and Juan gets so scared that he disappears in the bushes to hide. As I am more into silence right now, too, I decide to leave on the trail again. Very, very unfortunately Juan sees no option to pass the group and follow me on the trail. For about 30 minutes I shout out for him, but he is gone. I am a bit sad, I was sure he would have guided me all the way to the top. But well... maybe it is better for him.
At sunrise I reach the lower northern crater of Acatenango. I am already high, high above the clouds and so I decide to take a short rest and watch the sunset before making the last ascent up to the summit. I have all to myself. It´s a magical atmosphere to be up here alone.
After 20 more minutes of climbing I finally reach the summit in the remaining daylight. Again, a magical atmosphere. I finally see El Fuego [an active vulcano] spitting ashes in the air. In the distance a few thunderstorms, the first stars, cold temperatures below zero up on 3957 meters, an incredible wind making wind chill skyrocket. I put on all my clothes and enjoy the scenery for another 20 minutes before trying to figure out where to sleep. My map showed me a shelter in the middle of the higher, southern crater of Acatenango. Tent-camping is impossible with the heavy wind so the shelter would be a great option for bivouacking. I find the shelter collapsed...
As thick clouds come in at nightfall making a way downhill to the base camps not feasible anymore I crawl under the collapsed roof of what once have been the shelter. The roof seems still solid, provides a bit of wind shelter and it´s A-frame shape makes sitting underneath it possible. What a life saver right now! The surface underneath is barely large enough to put my sleeping pad down and so I set it up and quickly escape into my warm sleeping bag. Preparing some food? I am freezing my butt off, so hell no! I have some gummy bears instead. Yummy! Haven´t had a "always carry enough candy-situation" for a while.
The wind is picking up more and more, the clouds get thicker and thicker and even move through my little shelter. I struggle to fall asleep. Not the most pleasant situation ever, but I am very, very lucky with the roof over my head. As I take a last evening pee outside, complete white out! To give you a [naughty, "too much information"] idea: I can´t even see where the liquid leaving my body ends on the ground. It basically disappears in the cloud. Haven´t had that before! I crawl back into my shelter and try to catch some sleep, again.
Occasional look outside... white out... the wind is howling with an incredible noise... I startle form the loud eruption of El Fuego... creepy atmosphere. I am reminded on Juan. It would be nice if he would be here with me but probably it is much better for him to be below. Not sure how he would have handled the sub zero temperatures up here. It must be around 9 when I finally fall asleep.
Around midnight my first alarm rings. Slept pretty well. Look outside... white out... wind slowed down a bit... freezing cold... no business to be out there... I decide to continue sleeping as I wouldn´t see anything from El Fuego anyway.
When my alarm rings at 3:30AM, I again had some fairly good hours of sleep. Look outside... clear star sky... wind picked up again... freezing cold... time to get going!
Having just bivouacked the packing is done in about 15 minutes and so I make my way into the clear night out of the dark southern crater of Acatenango. I reach the the rim quickly. A feeling like you are tied to the outside of a jet. The blasting wind creats a white noise sound like you know it from an airplane, freezing temperatures, high above the clouds... the full magic of this little side adventure fully enfolds.
I am not 100% sure why I can write a book about all the random things of today but am incapable of describing the magic of the next hours. I keep it with my proven format and will let you know as soon as some actual pictures are uploaded here or check out Instagram in the meantime.
First picture around 4AM from top to bottom:
Clear star sky with the milky way shining brighter than I ever saw it before - El Fuego spitting ashes and lava every 10 minutes just in front - lava running down on the sides of El Fuego - a layer of thin clouds just below - some lights from the villages on the bottom shimmer through - airplane like sound from the wind and occasionally the loud eruption of El Fuego...
Second picture around 5AM from top to bottom:
The clear sky slowly brightens up for sunrise - first yellow sprinkles of the sun on the horizon - the inactive Vulcan de Agua peaking out of the now thicker layer of clouds - clouds below moving up the Acatenango with in incredible speed - airplane like sound from the wind and occasionally the loud erruption of El Fuego
All the groups just showed up on the summit for sunrise and left 20 minutes later, I have the whole summit to myself again. 100% right decision to make it on my own.
Third picture around 6:30AM, I wander the rim in clockwise direction:
The sun shines bright into my face [still freezing, though] - Vulcan de Agua peaking out through the clouds - El Fuego spitting ashes high up in the air and the cloud is illuminated by the sun - quick look down to the shelter in the crater I slept in - look up, the three vulcanos around Lake Atitlan peaking out of the clouds in the distance - magic!
Hands down, this hike and the accompanying scenery up here are certainly one of the more breathtaking things I have ever done. Sleeping up on the summit was a great adventure, even though I was later declared crazy for doing it. It wasn´t all that bad when you have the right gear, I´d say.
The way down is also surprisingly strenuous to me, sliding down on the loose sand. I am back down around 11AM. With basically all my food left and 3 liters of water... Maybe it was a bit overkill but better safe than sorry, right? The lower I get the more groups climbing up come my way. Some people already sit at the side of the trail, breathing heavily, after just the first 500m. The guides wait next to them. I wonder how long it will take them to go up. I would say everybody can do it but in a group situation I think it is even more stressful for the slower people as they can not really take their time and the faster ones constantly have to wait...
With a French/Italian couple that did the hike on their own, too, and that I meet down below, I hitchhike back to Parramos and take the bus to Antigua from there. Pretty knackered, I finish the day with nice talks and food with Thomas, Nicki and Barry as well as Malaika and Ulf from Germany, who also stay with Thomas from today on.