XELA, Guatemala – At 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, eight sleepy people from five different countries showed up at Casa Argentina, bracing themselves for the adventure ahead: a two-day trek up Volcan Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America. I was among them.
The three volunteer guides from Quetzaltrekkers were going over the final details. Yesterday we had already met for a briefing and gone over the checklist for the trip. Below-zero sleeping bags? Check. Headlamps? Check. Down jackets and fleeces? Check. Rain gear, gloves, hats, thermal underwear?
Wait, I said, this was Central America, not the Andes!
Yes, but it was rainy season and our destination was 4,000 meters above sea level, where wintry conditions prevailed, especially at night and in the pre-dawn hours when we would hike to the summit of the old volcano.
I had heard about this group, Quetzaltrekkers, from a Guatemalan journalist who volunteers for the local Escuela de la Calle, the school for street children that it supports. For 15 years, the guides who come from all over the world donate three months of their lives to not only guide the treks but also run the organization, so that all the proceeds go to support the school and an affiliated shelter for the kids.
Later I would go visit the school and the shelter and learn more about the program. For now, I wanted to experience one of the treks for myself.
I had chosen this one because of the stunning vistas it offered in all directions: to the south, it overlooked the lava-spewing Santiaguito Volcano, and to the north, sleepy Tacaná Volcano and the south of Mexico. On a clear day, you could see to the Pacific Coast. The rainy season had just begun, and the mornings recently had tended to be brilliant and sunny, with the rains arriving later in the afternoon, so I decided to take a chance.
That’s how I found myself clinging to the edge of the seat in a crammed chicken bus, bracing myself on the switchbacks to avoid being flung to the floor or into the lap of the young Guatemalan man next to me.
The foggy drizzle of the wee hours had given way to bright blue skies. By 10 a.m. we had breakfasted heartily in a restaurant along the way and endured two hour-long seat-gripping rides before the fuming bus screeched to a halt in a tiny pueblo in the middle of nowhere.
“Tajumulco!” shouted the driver, and the compacted mass of people somehow parted to let us pass. Our packs were quickly passed down to us from the roof, and we saddled up and setting forth.
It had been 15 years since I strapped on a pack and made my way up a mountainside into the backcountry, and my body had forgotten the excruciating pain-laced exhilaration that one earns at the top of a mountain. I had just passed my mid-century point a month earlier, and I was eager to prove my mettle. But I was teamed up with a group of 20-somethings from Israel, the Netherlands and South Korea; the only hiker approaching my age was the indefatigable Sara, a 39-year-old beach volleyball-playing dentist from England who had trekked extensively in the Andes and Central America. Regrettably, I had lost my workout routine on the road and was already feeling the burn, just a few minutes into the climb.
Had I made a mistake? My shoulders, then my legs protested mightily, and I struggled to catch my breath in the altitude.
“My legs are really feeling this!” One of the Israeli girls exclaimed next to me. Both Israeli girls were named Mor, the name of a common flower in the region. “It’s a very popular name in Israel,” one of the Mors explained to me. “That’s why we are two.”
I was heartened to know that I was not alone in my pain, and as we settled into a rhythm, it abated and I began to enjoy the view. A cottony mass of clouds settled into the blue valley on our right, right below a patchwork of verdant green fields rising up the hill. Above it all loomed the stony, foreboding peak of Tajumulco, our ultimate goal.
Dave, our laconic guide from Wales, took up the lead, flanked by Sara and Suki, an amiable young photographer from Seoul, and Guy, the third Israeli. Yvonne and Martin, the blue-eyed Hollanders, followed up with Dara, the guide who was designated as the “floater.” I accepted with due humility my place in the rear with the Mors and Alexa, the guide at the rear. I consoled myself with the conviction that my place in the line was due to my lack of conditioning, not my age – and time bore me out, thankfully, as the young Mors straggled behind.
I looked up and saw a line of trekkers working their way up against the rich black of the volcanic soil, a Maya woman in colorful traditional dress striding past with ease, an enormous bundle on her head and another on her back. Corn milpas and potato fields dotted the landscape, along with the occasional cow.
Soon we took a left off the road and began picking our way through the mossy green landscape, laced with a network of pitch-black trails. Some gentle footpaths had evolved into deep ravines, making the patchwork a treacherous obstacle course. We were spreading out, with one of the Mors lagging far behind, and the other Mor and I puzzling our way through this maze alone. My shoulders ached from the exertion and I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but I pressed on.
Finally we reached the others, sprawled happily across a flower-strewn pasture, and rejoiced at the chance to unburden ourselves. Suki and I tested our macro lenses on the strange pointy red-and-yellow flowers bursting from the grass. We gorged ourselves on trail mix and headed on.
Soon, however, I regretted the trail mix, as the altitude began to affect my stomach. Now my attention shifted from my aching muscles to my inner body, which began protesting in annoying ways, and I wondered again if I had made a mistake. Was I really up for this?
I looked up and caught my breath: the landscape spread out around us magnificently. Purple mountains silhouetted in the distance, valleys filled with dense clouds, smoky wisps of vapor wafting across the trail. We were literally walking among the clouds.
We made our way up into a rare alpine pine forest, where a man was gearing up to head down the hill, strapping the load of leña or firewood on his back and supporting it with a strap across his forehead in the way his Maya ancestors had done for centuries. Suddenly, with my back aching from all the weight, this strategy made a good deal of sense to me. I asked if I could take his photo, and he obliged and sent me on my way with a buen viaje.
We stopped for a repast of vegetarian gourmet, complements of the Quetzaltrekkers volunteers, and the wisps became an enveloping mist. Sara’s feet were covered in blisters, but her outlook hadn’t dimmed.
“It doesn’t hurt when I stop,” she said brightly.
Soon the booming we had heard in the distance became a steady drizzle, and we scrambled for our rain gear. Fortunately it soon subsided and we shouldered our packs and soldiered on.
I had left the Mors behind and was now trekking alone, moving along silently in the misty landscape, and suddenly I saw a familiar shape emerging from the fog: blue lupines, just like the ones I’d seen in the Rockies, but these loomed shoulder-high. They were everywhere, and little white alpine daisies and bright yellow flowers dotted the grass. The scarlet of what we’d call back home an Indian paintbrush splashed across my view.
Then I was amazed to see a bright red Lewis Carroll-style toadstool dotted in white, and I laughed at myself as I looked for a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Amanita muscaria, my old friend. I was transported to my first breathtaking trek in the Rockies, two decades ago. Had it really been so long? It felt like only yesterday – and, honestly, my bones were protesting no more today than they had back then.
My stomach, however, was another matter, and shortly I discovered I was not alone. Martijn was apparently suffering more than I was and looking rather peaked when I caught up him and a worried Yvonne resting on a fallen log, waiting for Dara to bring the first aid packet.
“I think it’s the altitude sickness – he’s really feeling awful,” reported Yvonne.
I rested with them a bit, then headed on up the next slope. I couldn’t think of climbing a whole mountain anymore, but I could go ten steps, then I’d take a break to catch my breath. Ten more steps, then a break.
This strategy took me to a sheer jumble of stones, where a nimble pair of youths from the nearby village scrambled past. I watched their ascent, trying to follow suit, grabbing handholds and footholds where they had. Now they sat on a ledge above me, quietly observing my struggle.
“Where are you headed?” I asked them, conversationally. “To the volcano.” “Oh – just going for a walk?” “No, collecting firewood.” “Oh, of course!” I said, laughing at myself. “You are much harder workers than we tourists… you must think we are all crazy.” They laughed. “Just a little,” said the boy.
Now I was at the sheer rock face they sat upon.
“Aquí?” I asked the boy, “Here?” pointing to a place where the path diverged. He nodded his assent. I studied the rocks, trying to figure out the best way to negotiate them without the weight of my pack pulling me backward down the slope. Seeing my dilemma, the boy stood. “I’m coming down to help you,” he said. Just then I figured it out, but my water bottle slipped out in the process and went rolling down the hill. He clambered down and quickly retrieved it, and handed it back to me at the top of the hill with a quiet smile.
Yvonne and Martjin caught up to me at some point, and we began to travel together. Yvonne stopped to wait as I lagged, dividing her words of encouragement between me and a pale Martjin.
I arrived at the campsite, a flat outcropping at the base of the final ascent, with a “totally knackered” Sara, just ahead of the rain. We had climbed 1,000 meters in a little over seven hours, and the next morning we would wake before dawn to climb 200 meters more to the peak. The radiant flow from the restless Santiaguito in the sunrise would be our reward.
Unable to move, we watched the Quetzaltrekkers, Suki and Guy set up camp. When the littlest Mor finally arrived, she confessed she was dreaming of curling up in her sleeping bag and never moving again.
“The truth is, I haven’t exercised more than three times in my life,” she admitted.
“What on Earth made you decide to climb the highest peak in Central America?” I wanted to know, fumbling for the zipper of my sleeping bag.
But she was already asleep.
Four a.m. came around far too early; Alexa was outside our tent. “It’s time,” she announced cheerily through the drizzle. We staggered to our feet in the blackness, donned shoes, gloves, down jackets and headlamps. Twenty yards down the trail, I realized I’d left my camera behind, and got lost going back for it. Dara came back to retrieve me.
It took an hour and a half of steady clambering, punctuated by a couple of ridges, then a slope of soft grey ash emerging in the foggy dawn. Guy took my water bottle to free my hands, and I was grateful.
My head was pounding, and my legs and stomach were screaming. I called on every spirit I had ever known, and some that I didn’t – my pioneer great-grandmother, my tough-as-nails grandfather, the ancestors of these lands. I drew strength from the crystalline drops of rain that studded the tips of the grasses, reflecting my headlamp in shattered bits of light, and I drew it from the deepest part of me.
We emerged at the top to find ourselves enveloped in mist. No dramatic sunrise; no lava. For a moment the mists parted to give us a glimpse of the neighboring volcano, Tacaná, and the rim of the crater – and a tinge of pink in the direction of the sun – then they closed.
We celebrated our arrival with the best cheer possible, took our photos and headed back. Somehow, I still felt elated. I had just climbed the highest peak in Central America. I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anyone’s.
“It’s ok,” said Guy as we made our way down through the lupines, the pines and the brightening mist. “We didn’t do it for the view. We did it for the mountain.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.