I stood outside for 40 minutes, at 10:00 pm, after sleeping for only an hour earlier in the evening, hoping that they hadn’t forgotten me. I was about to embark on what might be considered one of my most anticipated Guatemalan adventures, and if the minibus somehow forgot to pick me up and left town without me, I would have been devastated.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I finally saw its headlights bouncing down my street and they pulled up alongside the gate. But I should probably go back to the real beginning of the story.

A few weeks before coming to Guatemala, I was thumbing through a guide book, and checking out internet sites, looking for things to do on the weekends when I wasn’t in clinic or in class.  One website for an expedition company called “Quetzaltrekkers”, detailed a two-day trip to climb the volcano, Tajumulco, which has the distinguished honor of being the highest volcano or mountain in Central America, and with a peak of 13,845 feet above sea level, the 24th tallest in the world.  I had never climbed a mountain before, although I had flirted with the idea of climbing Mt. Mitchell (the tallest mountain East of the Mississippi in the United states) in North Carolina last fall, but my plans had fallen through.

And so, I knew that I needed to make time for an excursion to Tajumulco during my short four weeks in Guatemala. A week and a half ago, I climbed Santa Maria, a Volcano outside of Xela which is a little over a 1,500 feet shorter, but has a much steeper slope, and boy did I struggle with that climb. I vowed that I would try not to make some of the same mistakes in preparation again.  Although my family still isn’t packing me a lunch to take to school, I made sure to “top off the tank” with extra calories on the Friday and Saturday before the climb.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and showered, and my host mom made me a breakfast of eggs, beans, and tortilla, which I ate in entirety.  I retreated to my room to do some reading and writing, and about an hour and a half later at about 9:45, there was a knock on my door and I peaked out to see that the elderly lady in the house had made me breakfast.  I tried to explain to her that I had already had breakfast that morning, just a little over an hour prior, but I wasn’t seeing that flicker of understanding on her face, and decided that it would probably be easier to just eat “deysayuno dos”. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing the meal, the host mother came home and saw me eating it, and I’m not sure she was entirely happy. I would probably feel worse if I was getting anywhere near close to the three meals per day for which I am paying and which are required by my school’s home-stay arrangements.

After my second breakfast, I took a dose of acetazolamide, which is a medicine that is supposed to help stave off acute mountain sickness and altitude sickness.  The symptoms include headache and dizziness, and I was hoping that the medicine would keep me symptom-free during my day of climbing, since the only cure for the symptoms is to get down off the mountain.  I didn’t want to have to do that before reaching the top!  Unfortunately, now that I’ve taken acetazolamide a few times, I’ve found out that I don’t really like the way it makes me feel. It actually gives me a bit of a headache, and makes me feel like the skin on my face is being stretched more tightly (which sounds weird, I know), and I think I will try and refrain from taking it in the future.

I did some more reading and writing, and in mid-afternoon I headed to the “paiz” or mall to get some supplies at the grocery store. I picked up bananas, “Granada” chocolate bars, which are inexpensive at about 10Q for four, compared to the 8.75Q I paid for a genuine Snickers bar, and two pieces of white cake with frosting, which I had been craving for at least a week! I also got a 1.5L bottle of water to fill my backpack’s water bladder, so I could stay well hydrated during the hike.

I finally tried to go to sleep at about 8:30pm on Saturday evening, but set my alarm for 9:50pm so I would have time to get dressed and be ready for the van.  After waiting outside for about 20 minutes, I was starting to get scared that they had forgotten about me, but it turns out they got a late start at the school because another student had fallen asleep and didn’t show up for. Unfortunately, no one knew his phone number or where he lived, so he was left behind.

We finally left Xela by about 10:50pm, and started the twisty drive northwest to Tajumulco. I wanted to try and sleep, but I was too excited, so instead I chatted with my fellow student hikers and gawked at the deserted, sleeping towns we passed through on the way. When we finally arrived at the start of the hike, our guide, Mynor, handed us little containers of breakfast to put in our packs for after the summit, and made sure that we had our water bottles filled.  We started hiking at about 1:30am at an elevation of 9,990 feet.  We had to hike about a mile and a half at a gradual uphill slope before reaching “Tajumulco proper”, and one of the students was sick with an upset stomach, so we didn’t cover the distance as quickly as we otherwise would.  We had to take frequent breaks to regroup, and during those breaks, we marveled at how full of stars the sky was. We picked out some constellations like the Big Dipper and Orion, and I was absolutely ecstatic to see the Southern Cross, low on the horizon! It was the first time I have seen it since I was traveling in Australia six years ago! We also saw some absolutely brilliant shooting stars, or lluvia estrellas (raining stars) en español, according to Mynor.  A few were quick streaks of light, but two or three seemed to just hang in the air.  I saw at least six shooting stars during the course of the night, so my wish jar is plenty full now– I just hope some of them come true!

After an hour of walking, Mynor said that we were only about one-tenth of the way to the top, and we started to worry that at that pace we wouldn’t reach the summit in time for sunrise, which would take place at approximately 6:27am.  Two hours in, we had reached the mountain, but the trail was difficult to follow, even with our headlamps, and we lost it a few times.  Our guide had to stay with the student who was struggling, but we had almost reached a point where we should have been able to reach the summit without him, so he gave me some instructions, which I am paraphrasing in English.  “Go straight up the trail in front of you, without going right or left.  You’ll come to a ridge where you can see the lights of San Marcos on the other side of the mountain, and then follow that ridge until you see a shack that has been blown down by the wind. Near there you should see the field where Quetzaltrekkers camps for the night, and at that point they should be starting to make the final push for the summit, so you can follow them. Call me on your cell phone ever 15 minutes to check in.”  It sounded easy enough, but I could tell that we were a little weary about leaving our guide on this dark and cold mountain. I marked his position using my iPhone’s GPS, and also pulled out my magnetic compass to try and get a directional bearing that we should try and follow up the mountain to the ridge.  Because none of us had ever traveled the trail before, or even knew the main features of the mountain, we were certainly “navigating in the dark”.

And so, the four of us students set off. The directional bearing we had gotten for the compass was a little too easterly, and we soon found ourselves completely off the trail, and scrambling straight up the side of the slope.  We were pulling ourselves up three-foot drop-offs, slipping and sliding on loose dirt and rock, and realizing that the easy hike had turned into anything but.  At some point during our scramble, we had yelled down to Mynor that we were no longer on anything resembling a trail, so he scurried after us, reaching the ridge a few minutes later.  He was surprised to see that our little shortcut had saved us about 15 minutes. He left to go back down to the sick student and a few minutes later we received a call from her, telling us that she had heard Mynor yelling for her, but that the yelling had stopped, and she didn’t have Mynor’s phone number to tell him.  By this time, the cold wind whipping across the ridge was starting to freeze the sweat on our clothes, and since we weren’t moving, we were getting cold.  We took shelter a few meters off the ridge on the leeward side while we played a little game of telephone until Mynor had found the student and we were given permission to continue the hike.

From here until the final climb to the summit, the trail had rocks and logs that were spray-painted with blue paint every twenty to fifty meters, but even so, we ended up getting about 20 meters to the right of the trail at one point.  We were demonstrating how easy it would be to get completely lost on the dark mountain at night. At about 5:00am, we started to see the headlamps of other climbers higher up on the mountain, and we knew we were generally heading in the right direction, and by 5:30am, we had reached the campsite. Dawn was to start at 6:07am, and we tried to kick our ascent into high-gear in order to make the summit by then!  The last twenty minutes of climbing cut through a decently steep field of small boulders and rocks, and we found ourselves using both arms and legs to successfully navigate the path and pull ourselves up to the next step.

The Last Bit (During daylight)

We were starting to pass some of the other climbers with Quetzaltrekkers, as they were weighed down with packs and sleeping bags, and with about 300 meters to go, I said “Hola” and “¿Como estás?” to one of the girls I was passing. She greeted me back, and on a whim, I asked “De donde eres”, and she replied “Los Estados Unidos– Iowa”.  I immediately broke into English and told her incredulously that I was also from Iowa!  What a small world, and what are the chances that one of the two people I randomly talked to out of possibly ten to fifteen that I passed on the final climb, would come from Iowa? And to top it off, she was actually from Cedar Rapids, a town which is only twenty-five minutes from Iowa City, where I currently reside.  We chatted a bit more and I found out that she was currently living in Guatemala City, teaching fourth grade. I didn’t get her name, but I hope she had a safe trip back down the mountain and to Guatemala City.

One of the Quetzaltrekkers guides gave me a high-five as we reached the summit, and I quickly set to work getting my camera equipment set up to capture some photos and video.  The wind was blowing at least 20 mph, and it was freezing on the summit.  I forgot to bring my little keychain thermometer, but it definitely felt colder than the summit of Santa Maria.

I set my small point-and-shoot on a mini-tripod on the highest rock I could find, and started it taking a photo every ten seconds, with the plan of combining all of the images into a time-lapse high-definition video. (See the video at the bottom of this post!) Once that was running, I started capturing some beautiful images of dawn and sunrise with my Nikon D200 DSLR.

Renewed Spirit

I wanted to get at least 300 time-lapse images, so I ended up staying on the summit longer than anyone else (my first time-lapse image was captured at 6;09 and the last at 7:09).  While I was just enjoying the view, and waiting for the time-lapse to finish, I started talking to another guy who turned out to be a guide for Quetzaltrekkers, and he told me that he had done this 182 times, and it still gives him a renewed sense of spirit and a high!  What a job that would be, to encourage and help people conquer their demons and “reach new heights”.

 360 degrees of Tajumulco

When I was finally able to pack up my camera equipment, I could barely feel my fingers and toes, except for the dull pain signals they were sending to my brain.  I thought back to the hypothermia and frostbite lectures we just received last month during my ER rotation and hoped that I wasn’t doing permanent damage. (Don’t worry, Mom- everything is good!)  I made my way back down through the rock-field and found the rest of my group lounging on some boulders, enjoying the warming rays of the sun while taking in the delicious blue sky and green foliage after just having finished eating breakfast.  I didn’t want to keep them waiting for me to eat, so we started the descent. The distance from the peak to where we parked our van is just over three miles “as the crow flies” with a vertical difference of nearly 4000 feet, according to the GPS, but with all of the twists and turns on the trail, we would be hiking much more.  Thankfully it was pretty easy-going except for a few sections that had very loose terrain which caused everyone to fall on their butts at least one or two times.  The mountain offered gorgeous vistas in every direction as we hiked down, and I was in heaven.

 After the Summit

When we reached the section of trail below the ridge that we had scaled the night before, we all had a good laugh for probably five minutes about how far off the trail our shortcut had taken us, and how much harder (albeit faster) we had made the endeavor.  It took us about three hours total to make our descent, although when we were about halfway down, we stopped again to enjoy the sun and the view for a good thirty minutes. I took that opportunity to eat my breakfast surprise, which was a mouth-watering mix of yogurt, granola, bananas, apples, and raisins, and it was an absolutely perfect meal for the morning!  The rest of the hike was uneventful, and we stopped about a half mile from the van at a place where we could take a group photo with Tajumulco in the background.  All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I was very happy that I didn’t struggle and become as tired as I had during the Santa Maria climb.

Most of us fell asleep during the two hour ride home, waking up for the occasional leg cramp, or the ever-present Guatemalan speed-bumps, although I think we all had earned it!

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