Survived a Volcano

Published: January 23rd 2018
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A 6-something alarm is never great; especially when you got to bed three hours after your 9pm self-imposed bed time, especially especially when you woke up three minutes before said alarm and especially especially especially when you know getting out of bed means hiking a freaking volcano. I did have a reassuring dream though that getting to the summit from basecamp wasn’t too hard, though I brought the wrong lens with me so had to get the train(!) down and go back up again.

We’d packed the night before so didn’t have too much to do other than reassure each other that we wouldn’t die, were capable and, yeah pretty much that we wouldn’t die. Our hostel insisted on us taking a few bananas each and what the call banana bread (what I call bloody disgusting/inedible) but it was a nice gesture, albeit slightly worrying one… do we actually not have enough food???

The 1km walk to the hostel we booked through was the longest 1km of our lives, made worse by the banana bread bakery not being open yet. Walking through the door was a rush of emotion; getting first dibs on the gloves then sussing everyone else
out that was waiting there for potential fitness level. Breakfast was awesome; cocoa porridge with banana and eggs and toast (the toast could’ve had butter but considering our hostel served the traditional egg breakfast without bread can’t complain).

A final warning about the cold led me to grab another jacket (mostly because of its photogenic colour - not that I would need it, after all thermals, normal top merino, fleece and my big macpac jumper were going to be enough). The 45 minute drive was a mix of hoping it would go forever as we were going uphill (already knew I was doomed) and praying that we would stop there knowing I was going to get so carsick on the way home as I didn’t put my phenerghan in (spoiler: got sick) but about 10 minutes out I had a cracker headache, unsure of whether it was nerves or altitude I told Simone, who knew exactly where the headache was cos he had it too (altitude).

Pulling up at the side of the road where a few people were selling walking sticks and a convenient, free toilet was sort of a let down. Wheres the volcano? Wheres the
path? Wheres anything at all? The path? Between two fields. Those fields went halfway up the volcano (the lands free cos its so dangerous and apparently good for growing stuff). The path didn’t look too bad, I mean it was an uphill stone path but it was quick to show me who’s boss as it got steeper and steeper and steeper. I’d read people saying 10 minutes in they were regretting their decision and oh my god was that true. Dying of altitude and not being fit enough plus knowing that you have at least five hours to go is the most awful thing in the world. Another 10 minutes later I learnt that the most awful thing in the world is actually throwing up 20 minutes into a 5+ hour hike because of altitude. I remember mum telling me forever about the time she was throwing up blood in the Phillipines and she had been told that that meant you were going to die, yet the doctor was outside playing with her brothers. Well, I’m pretty sure I win this one, throwing up blood and lung fluid, in a random field of a volcano with no one around -
literally no one. By the time I was done I came back to the path (only 10m away) and I was all alone. My group had gone, even the guy who was meant to be at the back was no where in sight - in front or behind. I had no idea what to do. I was rushing to catch up but I couldn’t walk more than 4-5 steps without needing to stop for a breath. I was completely, 100% defeated. With no choice, I just kept going, it was survival mode now, but surely Simone would eventually realise I was missing? I finally (probably only 5 minutes later but felt like a lifetime) caught sight of our group. I called out at the top of my barely-functioning lungs “hey guys, can you please stop” but the first few times they didn’t even hear. Eventually two turned around, but then just kept going. I thought I was with the best tour company? They don’t even care about me! I’m dying for gods sake!! Another 15 minutes walk and I saw a rest point, the group must be there waiting for me. But the closer I got the more I realised
I recognised absolutely no one. It then turned out that the people I was pleading with to stop weren’t my group, they just happened to be at the base at the same time as us. One guide recognised me and asked if I was okay, how do I even respond? I think I’m going to die? But I want to keep going? I saw Simone sitting behind a fence which was like the best thing on earth - I wasn’t all alone! The guide gave me an altitude tablet and instructions to drink lots of water and no beer (because I have three cans with me, obviously....?). A few minutes later and the annoying German girl from breakfast came up the path with nelson, the designated last guide - IM NOT THE LAST ONE!!!! The rest of the group, keen to get to Fuego had already powered on.

The ten minute break wasn’t enough time to get my heart rate back to normal or cure me of altitude sickness but i was no longer on my deathbed, so that’s something. But the path really isn’t forgiving and was immediately steep with no end in sight. Guides had built makeshift
steps which for me personally was worse - I cannot do stairs! And every step was like a landslide sending rocks back, bringing your foot too. And the person in fronts steps sent rocks onto your feet. Not great. But I powered on (with stops every 10-15 seconds). It wasn’t long until we’d lost Simone, he wanted to beat the next group and due to miscommunication we were waiting for them to pass. We never found him again until the summit. Another miscommunication meant that although I thought we were onto part B (of E) we were still on A. That was enough to defeat all the remaining motivation in me. But the German was struggling more than me, and she wasn’t even having issues with altitude so I took some peace from that. Part B, also “hard” was a very distinct climate in itself, out of the farmland we had entered the bloody jungle (this is meant to be a volcano, right?) the ground was slippery and hard to get a grip, the path was much more windy and no longer carved out of stone and the humidity was in full force, despite still being cold. It was as
steep as anything and still knowing we had three sections to go was a killer but we just kept on going. Looking at the time was another kick in the face, we’d taken almost 2.5 hours at this point and weren’t even near halfway done with the second part. It was approaching lunch time, which is meant to be after part C and we were being told we’d have it at the end of B (everyone had it at the end of B, but we didn’t know that at the time, so thought it was just cos we were SO slow).

Of course, by the time we got to lunch everyone else had already left but I think we secretly knew that would be the case. My motivation of their being a toilet at lunch came crushing down upon arrival but the thought of food made up for it. Still feeling sick and headaches and with the sorest lungs/throat of my life I didn’t even manage to get through half of my lunch, partly worried that I would just throw it all up again. A longer - but not long enough - break gave me the most ridiculous amount
of motivation and I bounced out of lunch and well ahead of Amelie (German) and the guide - who eventually caught up with me and told me to stop and wait - I’d completely forgotten about them! The entire next two sections was all the same, I’d pace myself but still go so fast that I’d have to stop and wait for sometimes ten minutes at at time. This got annoying because after every long stop my muscles would need warming up again but even when I tried to slow down I’d still be waiting for too long. I don’t know why but going the same speed as Amelie, so slow, just killed me, I just no longer could do it. And I think also seeing her struggle and stop would internally make me thing “omg same, I’m dying too” even when I wasn’t. Sounds stupid, but it worked for me and any thing that would get me to the top I was prepared to do - ANYTHING.

Part D kinda crushed me, we were walking along the road, where the cars go, you know, those tours that drive you most of the way that I decided against because
it was $30 more, yeah well this was just a big fat reminder of what could’ve been. The road was tough, really tough, steep as hell and never ending. Before every bend I would think to myself “after this, it’ll be flat”, it never was and deep down I probably knew that but I had hope and it was probably the only thing getting me through. I wasn’t even disappointed when I rounded the corner and saw it was all uphill, I just stopped, took a breath (or 50), turned around to see how far behind Amelie was or if I could even see her, sighed and kept on going. We ended this section together as we took our first look at Fuego, the volcano we were here for. We’d been able to see Pacaya the entire time, but it wasn’t the super active one so seeing it was such a good motivator. There were a few 4WD’s parked here too, all with massive rocks and logs in front of all their tyres to prevent them from rolling down the volcano. I got my camera out at this point, keen to capture the last leg of the journey, supposedly the
easiest and flat. The world ‘flat’ as it turned out is just what the guides say when there is 1m of flat ground between 30 steep hills, so my hopes were low but whatever -ALMOST THERE.

I was keen to get going, I wanted as long as possible at base camp before we left for summit at four, but another group arrived (the same ones that abandoned me this morning) and Amelie didn’t like them so didn’t want to leave until 5 minutes after them…. And we couldn’t go before them because they would catch up. My patience was really running thin at this point. Eventually we set off and to my surprise we actually went downhill at some points (but downhill always means uphill so it wasn’t great) but for those few minutes it was a great treat; probably better than chocolate (though I cheated out and got local chocolate bars: they’re shit, so perhaps not too hard to beat). I think knowing I was so close to the end made time drag - A LOT, so despite the last two sections flying by (despite how it sounded, in comparison to the first two they were super quick).

Seeing the tents was possibly the best feeling on the entire planet! We had almost 1.5 hours until summit so enough time to relax (and acclimatise… 5 hours too late). The description did say the last ten minutes were “VERY STEEP” but that still didn’t exactly prepare me for what was about to come. We were literal mountain goats, climbing essentially a 90degree angle with sand that just did not want to stick under our feet. I suddenly remembered just how bad my altitude sickness was at the start - I was really feeling it again. Is it possible that I can climb 98% of the way to basecamp and just be incapable of the last 10 minutes? Can someone carry me? Why am I so stubborn and declined the guides offer to bring my backpack? Why are the first three levels of clearing/tents not ours? Am I going to die? Probably.

I’d clung to hope at each of the last levels that it was ours and it never was so seeing Simone taking photos was a godsend, I FUCKING MADE IT…. An hour after everyone else, but I reckon I had at least an hour in stops
waiting for Amelie. I crashed by the fire, watching the volcano, eating the last of my lunch, grateful that I didn’t eat it all before and have never been more content in my life, apart from the niggly knowledge that the summit awaited.

Almost 80% of the group were headed to Fuego, it was the first time the option had been given and everyone was crazy enough to take it, despite the warnings. You had to be super fit and couldn’t get fatigued, the path was along the ridge of the volcano, one fall and you’re gone. You also had to be capable of running for your life, should there be a big explosion (I’m 99% sure lava is impossible to outrun but what would I know. So that left 6 of us to do the summit. An American couple, the girl of which had terrible food poisoning and been throwing up the entire accent to base camp and slept as soon as they arrived, a guy from Melbourne who I recognise but no idea from where, Simone, Amelie and me. And Nelson, my favourite meowing guide. You see, when he introduced himself to me whilst handing me my
medicine at the first stop, I said “nelson is my cats name (well, was)”, so every time I looked like I was hating life, struggling or just wishing to no longer exist he would meow to make me feel better. Embarrassingly, it kinda worked, just for the sake of how ridiculous it seemed.

Anyway, I had heard over and over people hadn’t made it to the summit. I was terrified. I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t made it to base camp but knew far more who hadn’t made it to summit than those who had. Multiple factors came into play: altitude sickness, too bloody cold, not having a headlamp, it being too difficult, not being fit enough or a combination. Even before I started, I knew I had to make it to basecamp but not making it to summit didn’t really bother me. It was an added bonus if I did. And knowing how much I struggled coming up and that summit is worse than everything combined I was apprehensive, but couldn’t not give it a go. Thats just unAustralian.

1 minute in and I was regretting my decision. It was 1.5 hours to the summit (20-25 minutes
down!!!!) It was just as steep as the last ten minutes to camp, the only difference? We couldn’t stop. Sunset was coming and we couldn’t miss it. Powering on, but slightly dying I fell behind the group, but was still halfway between the group and Amelie who was seriously hating life. She wanted to turn back but didn’t know the route and bad planning on the companies part meant that we only had one guide to summit so no one to take anyone back. I had to stop at one point and put my gloves on, my hands were stinging from the cold so much that I needed help putting them on and even that was a struggle. Life sucked. Every step was half a step down. The wind was belting us like nothing else… but my Icebreaker headband was saving me from a terrible headache (thanks mum) so at least one part of me didn’t feel like death. The views were amazing but I was too cold to take photos and couldn’t take my gloves off to get my phone to work. Snot was flying from my nose at exponential rates due to being absolutely bloody freezing and life
just wasn’t great. At one point we were climbing over rocks, with wind lashing us and nothing to hold onto and nothing to dig our feet into it just seemed like a death wish.

Reaching the summit was one of the best feelings in the world. I was cold, miserable, cold (again) but the view of the different colours swirling around in the sky, above the clouds and of all the volcanoes in Guatemala and knowing that I completed something so massive and so impressive was just overwhelming. The entire hike I knew, I was hating life for five hours but it was something I would NEVER forget and that was all the motivation I needed (though I did have photos of the view saved in my phone just in case). At the end of the day, not many people can say they summited a volcano and not many people ever get to see a view like this. Amelie was rewarding herself with a cry, crawled up into a ball on the ground and everyone was quickly getting into their warmest clothes but I just stood there frozen and proud…. And then got into my two jackets.

had the entire summit to ourselves, apart from a group that lasted a whole five minutes when we first got up there. The crater was pretty shallow, and featured a safety hut, fully insulated incase of hypothermia. We all suddenly understand how so many people died last year (the one year anniversary of their deaths was a week ago). We hiked around the ridges, trying to not let the windtake us and trying to take photos but mostly failing to find functioning body parts required to do such a task. Simone lost his gloves so couldn’t use his fingers at all which was killing him, not being able to use his camera. Hearing Nelson say we were going down was equally the best and the worst news. Who would want to leave a view like this? The sky was colourful in 360 degrees and Fuego was super active, but it was also colder than hell is hot.

Heading down I fell behind straight away, taking time to put my headlamp on and not have the top strap disturb my bun (didn’t bring my hairbrush so couldn’t redo it). The sand was so deep that we were running down with
sand (well rocks) coming up to our knees in every step. I am naturally so careful, Im just not good at being reckless, Im calculated and running down the side of a volcano doesn’t fit into that… but I was trying. At one point, rushing to catch up I fell on my ass, really, really hard, trying to get up before anyone looked behind and noticed I fell face forward. Luckily my face was unharmed but one week later and the cuts on my leg is still oozy. I made it the rest of the way down with no falls but had gained an extra few centimetres thanks to all the rocks in my shoes that had perfectly formed a heel (and were stuck so hard in there I struggled to get them out!)

Back at camp we were handed the best hot chocolate I’ve had in my entire life. Not sure whether because it was on a volcano, because I was so cold or because it was just bloody good (it was made with 100% cocoa locally grown so probably the latter). Life was never better. Half an hour later the Fuego guys arrived, as defeated as we
were 30 mins ago which was humbling to see. Dinner was spaghetti, not the best spaghetti I’ve ever eaten but no one why followed by some very nice boxed wine that I unfortunately had to restrict myself to one glass; don’t want an altitude headache on top of a red wine one. Fuego was super active the entire night; I’d heard about people who had to wait till 3am just to see it go once, but we must have seen it 25-30 times, smoke, lava and all. TO be so close was just insane. Though at one point we were nervously watching a group of hikers as they were only 50m away from the flowing lava (no lives were lost but our guides were terribly unimpressed). Getting a good photo was almost impossible thanks to the strong winds 😞

Bed at 9pm, handling the cold was far too hard. Unfortunately, bed time also meant wearing all of our clothes in our sleeping bags and still shivering. The guides came along at one point and chucked massive blankets on us but it was still freezing. I had possibly the worst nights sleep of my life, I couldn’t breathe when I
was lying on my sides, but I can’t sleep lying on my back. The cold was getting to me, I couldn’t stop coughing, one of the other guys was literally gasping for air and everything sucked.

Hiking stats:

steps: 25,077

Floors: 469

Kilometres: 18.63

Lowest heart rate: 96 (entire day after getting off bus!!)

Highest heart rate: 159

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 36


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