so, this morning i woke up bright and early, 5:30 to be exact, and went to meet up with my aussi friends for a morning ascent. we were to meet the mini bus at 6 for the 1 hour drive to pacaya volcano. there was about 10 of us in the mini bus and there was very little conversation as we were all pretty wiped and trying to steel ourselves for the expected 3 hour ascent.
now this was not just any volcano it is 1 of 3 active volcanos out of guatemala's 80+ volcanos. (truthfully this was not something i learned until i came closer to the peak and i overheard a guatemala guide/security inform a group of girls who had arrived at the same time as us.) 6 o'clock sounds early, yes, but when climbing and or taking part in an activity that will attract many early is better so that the beauty of the experience is not diminished by the throngs of tourists who arrive on scene like ants to a picnic, neither is pleasant.
so up early we were just as we were clueless as to the difficulty of the climb. once off the bus we were offered walking sticks, something i was quick to mock but was encouraged by another canadian who had done the climb previously stating that the last 30 minutes are a scramble up loose scree, reluctantly i agreed and for 5 quezt (less than a buck) i was the proud owner of a walking stick. passed the gauntlet of children hawking walking sticks into a mess of men offering horse rides up the volcano...no thanks, not for me.
it started easily and innocently enough. at 1800 meters elevation we had 800 more meters of elevation to conquer before the summit was reached. the group walking together up a steady incline but nothing offensive. slowly but surely the group began to stretch and stretch and stretch until myself and the two canadians i met on the bus could see no one from our group, sweet a rest was in order ;-)
up and up and up we went. meeting another group, this one all girls and their guide we continued up with them. (there was some concern for our safety and security, still not sure from the volcano or 'bandits')
up and up and up we continued. all of us having shed out outer layers we were now passing up through cloud cover, huffing and puffing, sweating and panting. trying to look tougher and in better shape than i felt. not sure how good a job i was doing as i could think of little else than my faster and faster pounding heart.
finally the scree. and here i thought, great we are nearly there. nope. the next 30 minutes could be liked to climbing a mountain of sand or snow, for every step forward was half a slide back. "leaning forward" or "leaning back" shouted the guide depending on the what part of the path we were on. one of the girls from the other group decided to race down a section of scree and proceed to nearly knock my mate of the side of the cliff and nearly took my eye out with her walking stick, this is all before she lands so hard in the volcanic rock, i couldn't help but laugh.
the group was all but caught up by this point. the horse whisperers, as i called those who opted not to climb, were now with us on foot for the final push. onward and upward we pushed. now the scree was turning into larger volcanic rocks and sooner than later it started to get from pretty brisk to uber hot. the summit was near and so was the open flowing lava. thats right you read it right....burning hot magma.
our guide tested out a path then walked to a ledge while we found an open fissure, 20 feet straight up, that was spewing glowing red rocks... "cool" we all said. impressed (from a distance). by now our guide was waving us over. ok, no problem i thought.
as i approached the temperature increased again, this time dramatically. "see, look over there" we are directed to a open fissure right up from us spewing hot hot magma. (please note: i realize that magma and lava are not the same thing but for the sake of this blog i shall use both words interchangeably, 1- for dramatic license and 2- as i know not the difference)
as we gazed out at the new found fissure a noise from above...as i joke i yell "FORE" until i realize that a boulder is now rolling down the cliff directly towards one of the girls from the other group! "shit. RUN" a mad scramble had her up and out of harms way and not a moment to soon as that red hot boulder now lay where she stood.
by now we are realizing that this is not as safe as we might have originally thought. as it turns out the rocks we are standing on are about 5 feet about flowing lava. how do i know this? the heat was unbelievable. the soles on my friends shoes started to melt. and upon further investigation (looking down through the rocks) we saw the flow. sticking your walking stick down a few inches resulted in it catching fire.
at this point my better judgement is starting to kick in. deciding i no longer want to be standing over burning hot magma i am ready to back away but soon realizing taking your own road is what gets people into trouble, not knowing a safe passage from a dangerous one. i stayed my ground a took a few pictures. (note: these photos were NOT taken with a zoom, in fact they were taken with the widest of wide angle lens, 10 mm, for those of you who don't know what i am saying...we were very close!)
from this perspective the small fissure up to the left is not to easy to see but look closely, it's there.
after a few more minutes the consencus said, time to retreat to safer ground where we enjoyed a small bite (we had purchased subs the night before, i foolishly bought tuna, foolish why? no fridges in hostels) before we began the descent back down. by this point the sun had begun to burn off some of the cloud cover offering up some stunning vistas, just what i was looking for.
our descent was without incident. filled with fun conversation and the retelling of our harrowing tale.
it is coming on 7 pm now as i finish this post. a cervessa gallo at my side but no one else as i am now officially alone (not lonely). the aussies took off on there tour a few hours after our return. saddened from loosing good friends but buoyed by the sense of freedom and adventure that awaits me around the next corner.