Mount Acatenango

Posted on January 2, 2018

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My legs were burning. I felt my chest tighten. I sucked the air in hard and steadied myself on my walking poles as they dug into the soft volcanic sand.

The hike to the summit was steep and tough. My heart was racing with every step I took. I lunged forward and the grains of dark sand carried me back three paces. Digging the toes of my trekking shoes in I started moving faster. It took every ounce of energy to keep going to the summit.

As I reached the top, a break in the clouds revealed our slightly smaller, smoking hot neighbour Mount Fuego, staring ominously back at us.

Jose looked at me smiling. He’s my guide. He sits all day on his butt as an Uber driver and then does the extreme by stretching his legs at altitude. He is undeniably an outdoors fellow at heart even with his little beer belly. His English is as bad as my Spanish, which is non existent. But we got on well and sign language and google translate, when we had reception, helped.

At the summit he grinned at me squinting, “We did it amiga!” he said. Then he unexpectedly embraced me with a huge bear hug.

His genuinely kind and compassionate gesture made my eyes fill with water and a huge wave of emotion washed over me. Before I realised it, I was sobbing, tears rolling down my cheeks, desperately trying to compose myself. This was the first big challenge I’ve completed since my cancer diagnosis and I was very emotional. It was so important to me to make it to the top. I needed to prove to myself that so much of my physical journey ahead will be mental, despite the pending aches and pains.

I followed Jose like a dutiful lamb chasing a sheepdog around the crater and we found a spot in the sun and watched Mt Fuego erupt and splutter for a full hour. This active volcano is within spitting distance of us. The rumbling and explosive sounds were absolutely magnificent. The smoke starts slowly and then the ash plume begins to mushroom and engulf the sky like a fluffy grey blanket. I was hypnotised. I have never seen anything like it and I doubt I will ever experience another summit experience like it ever again. What an amazing hour!!

My excitement had clearly tired me out. And soon I had collapsed on my back, head back, mouth open soaking up the hot sun for a full 35mins. When I awoke my nose was burnt and has since been peeling for the last three days!

The hike to Mount Acatenango can be done in a day, which is the option I went for. Or you can hike by night which is pointless if you ask me because you miss out on the stunning cloud forest, pine forest and then the incredible panoramic views as you start to reach the top. You can also camp, but to be honest it is very cold at night and again I don’t see the point because the climate does not give you clear skies to stargaze. Much of the scenery on the volcano reminds me of the Himalayas. The change in weather is fast and you go from dry to wet to burning hot all in the space of five hours.

There are six rest stops. At number five there is a band of cheerie local men who are serving hot chocolate, coffee and freshly made tortillas. Jose knows them all and I was accepted into the fold like one of the boys. I sat slurping coffee, warming my icy hands by the fire as I watched the chef at work. The banter was all in Spanish but punctuated with hearty laughter. Despite not being able to follow the conversation I felt privileged to be able to listen and watch quietly.

Mount Acatenango is not an easy hike as it sits just below 4000m. But having done a few volcanoes now, around that height, I think I can fairly say the reward at the top is definitely the best I’ve experienced.

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