Monday, July 19, 2010

Sat, July 17: A 12 Hour Walk in the Park

So I climbed a volcano today… It was sort of on accident and sort of on purpose, however I definitely climbed it. It’s name is Acatenango (Ah-Kah-Ten-Ain-Go) and you can see the giant peak from anywhere here in Antigua. Four of the girls here said they were going on a hike and it sounded like fun, so I decided to join them… This was my first mistake. We went with 10 people and a guide from OX Tours, and we left at 4:30 am this morning. On the way, we stopped to pick up two tourist police officers to protect us from banditos. This should have been my first clue to turn around and sleep a little more.

I don’t know about you guys, but when I hear the words “6 hour hike to the summit for tourists” I tend to think “gingerly stroll through a wilderness park with views from the top of the hill.” This was my second mistake. It was more like a 6 hour vertical climb to the top of a giant mountain. At our pre-game rendezvous, our tour guide told us when we reached halfway to the summit, she’s start handing out aspirin to combat altitude sickness. This was my clue to run home. Nonetheless, I continued by joining the rest of the group in the van for our journey up the mountain.

Our hike started at 2500 feet (I think). We had a few sections to go through: farm country (aka walking for 1.5 hours at a 60 degree incline through an irrigation ditch that was the consistency of coffee grounds), then the cloud forest for 2  hours, then a pine forest for 1.5 hours, volcanic soil for 1.5 hours to the first summit, then another 30 min to the second higher summit at 14,000 feet, followed by 3 hours running downhill through a river bed carved by rain into the volcano. What was I thinking???

I was good for the first 15 minutes, then I was the first to ask to stop. Our guide instead insisted that I walk next to her at the front of the group while she encouraged me… for another few hours. I trudged along, begging to stop every 5 minutes or so, and I let someone who offered to carry my pack have it for most of the hike. About an hour in, a local farmer’s dog, Coyote, joined us for the rest of our journey and made our hike to the summit seem easy. Then I wore my poncho for the first time in Guatemala when it started to pour 3 hours into our hike up. We made it to the first summit drenched, delirious from altitude sickness, and cold from the wind at the top. We were in the original crater of the volcano among the clouds and could not see a thing so our guide advised us that the second peak was not much higher and looked the same, only colder and with even less visibility. So we voted unanimously to descend in the pouring rain.

It “only” took us 3 hours to get down the mountain, half on our bums in the mud, and through a new trail carved by a river, which was filling with rain as we walked through it. We encountered a group of 6 men with shotguns and hound-dogs, and I immediately asked if they were “banditos.” They laughed and said they were hunting rabbits… a group of Guatemalan Elmer Fudds- kind of silly. We continued our descent, covered in mud, shoes full of water, and our toes banging against the front of our shoes since the incline was steep. We made it down, into our van for an hour-long journey back to Antigua. The ride back was incredibly quiet, which I presume was the result of shock from what we’d all just been through.

I thought my toe nails were strong, but my two big toe nails are now cracked in half and full of volcanic mud… I discovered this when I arrived home and took off my unrecognizable shoes. I’m sore, tired, can’t walk and pretty sure I got a work out in that is good for the next 3 to 6 months. I’m headed to the clinic at our NGO partner, Common Hope on Monday to ensure I don’t get gangrene from whatever is embedded under my toenails. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that “6 hours up” really did mean “6 hours up.” I learned my lesson, but I’m glad I pushed myself and made it to the top.