The hardest hike in my life so far.

I broke free from the confines of my yoder genes and did something I didn’t plan to do while I’m in Guatemala. I hiked the third highest peak in Central America. Acatenango. It’s an eleven mile hike with a 5,000 foot elevation. I’ve never been that high before, outside of an airplane and I’ve never before gone on a hike as hard as that one. I waited a day to write this in order to have a more clear view of how it really was (also because I spent a good part of the last day sleeping) and my legs are still aching with every step I take. I’m quite sure that I now know how it feels to be old. I feel a great deal of sympathy for my grandpa.

We started up the trail around lunchtime and fifteen minutes in I knew that it was going to be a long day. The trail was volcanic ash and it was similar to slogging up a sand dune. There’s nothing like a gently curving uphill slope. The trail goes straight up.

And then, before we even made it to the forested part of the mountain, the rain began.

Keep in mind that we were carrying 20 pound backpacks with our food, water and clothes for the next two days.

Thankfully we had taken the advice of everyone who had gone before us and bought rain ponchos. I felt similar to a walking tent but at least my backpack stayed dry.

We slogged on, one foot in front of the other, stopping every 30 minutes or so for a break. We stopped for lunch. Everyone ate their plates of cold chicken and rice. This struck me as funny for some reason. I mean who packs chicken and rice when they go on a hike? And here we were, a group of twenty strangers from all around the world, sitting in the rain eating chicken and rice.

Not long after lunch, the hail started. Real balls of ice pounding down on us. The water rushed down the trails. My shoes were soggy and squished with every step. I had a breif moment where I thought “I’m going to get hypothermia and die on this mountain” And then the common sense side of me took over and said, “no you aren’t, you’re not even cold inside”. So I picked up my head and kept on.

And then, much after and sooner than I expected the guide said that we only have 15 minutes until we reach the flat part of the trail that leads to camp.

The rain stopped and the mountain mist turned everything into a fairyland that reminded me of Narnia for some reason. Something to do with fighting hard battles in another world.

Flat is relative, of course, and we wound around the mountain for another hour and took a tiny winding trail up a little higher and there was our camp, a row of tents, facing Volcán de Fuego and a larger tarp covered shack with a hot fire underneath.

We rushed for the fire with no time to worry about watching a volcano. And here again I found myself intrigued with the fact that I was here. The French Canadian beside me stripped of his shoes and socks and roasted them over the fire, his girlfriend told us about how she was here for a month and then he came to surprise her. The young girl fron germany shivered uncontrollably until she finally changed into a dry shirt, the Polish man turned his pockets inside out to dry. The guides didn’t seem fazed in the least. They set to work making hot chocolate for everyone.

Slowly the clouds cleared and the active volcano was directly in front of us. We watched in amazement as it spewed out clouds of smoke and bursts of fire. The two mountains are connected so our mountain would shake whenever Fuego erupted.

The light faded, we heated our bowls of spaghetti over the fire and ate, in between racing out to see the the eruptions.

Wanting to practice our spanish and also being a bit nosy we chatted with our tour guide. A young man who told us interesting details. His father lives in Ohio. He climbs acatanango twice a week carrying an 80 lb pack (I can’t imagine) he gets paid 100 quetzals a day to do this. (About $14. That’s just wrong, the 15 people had each paid 225 quetzals, who’s getting all the money?) He showed us pictures of the best eruptions he’s seen and I was amazed.

And then it was time to go to bed. We were cold, still a bit damp, and very tired. We had mats and sleeping bags but the ground was hard packed ash. It took me a long time to get warm and even longer to find a relatively comfortable position. I slept in short intervals.

The wake-up call came at 3:30. We scrambled into our borrowed coats and hats, and grabbed our hiking sticks and flashlights. We still had an hour and a half to the top and we wanted to see the sunrise.

That last stretch is indescribable. You’re climbing through ash. I regretted my coat at first because I was promptly soaked in sweat. but as we got higher it also got colder and I was having a hard time catching my breath. It was bare now, except for patches of moss and here and there a daisy-like flower peaking between the rocks. I stopped to look down at the panorama. And then I looked up and I kept going.

The guide was at the top waiting. “welcome from the United States” he said and shook my hand. I smiled back, too out of breath to say a word.

It was cold. The wind was strong and I was thankful for every layer of clothes I was wearing.

But it was beautiful. From the top you can see three more volcanoes, mountain ranges, Lake Atitlan, and far in the distance, the ocean.

I was on top of the world.

Unfortunately you can’t stay long. It’s frigid up there and you’re exhausted and it’s windy.

And so amazing.

It’s not describable, and pictures aren’t the same.

And then we started down. We skied. I think that’s the best way to describe it, sort of half run, half slide.

I stopped for a moment there, with my shoes half full of dirt. More dirty than I’ve been in years, with my too big coat and very ugly hat and I thought “I can’t believe how happy I am to be here”.

We stopped for breakfast at camp. We had hot coffee and yogurt and a banana. And we picked up our much lighter backpacks and started down. It was impossible to walk normally. We ran, slid, and picked our way down. It only took us half as long as the way up and it was perfectly clear.

Towards the bottom my toes began to complain. They didn’t appreciate being slammed against the front of my shoes over and over. I considered taking them off and going barefoot but decided against it. Now 24 hours later, I don’t want to see any shoes anywhere close to me feet. Actually I threw my shoes in the trash can the moment I walked into the house. They weren’t worth saving.

The van ride home was silent. All 15 of us dead with tiredness.

I’ve never been so thankful for a hot shower and clean clothes.

So. Was it worth it?

Yes.

Should you try it? Yes.

Would I do it again?

I’m thinking no. Once in a lifetime is often enough for some things.

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