The young Dutch woman in our group plops down on a set of rocks next to the ninth station of the cross, titled Jesus falls for the third time. She huffs, puffs and curses everything, including herself. “Fuck, I should stop smoking! I can’t do it any more. How much further is it?” I’m too focused on my own breathing to experience any Schadenfreude. O wait, did I say breathing? Desperate gasps for air describes it more accurately.
I look up. I swear to god – Tajumulco, the beast of the Guatemalan highlands, didn’t look so horrifying yesterday, when we were down at the trailhead. We’d take care of that little fellow, we reckoned back then, that tiny blob in the landscape. No problem. But now the trail up, over loose gravel and huge outcrops of rock, seems never-ending. The first faint strip of light appears on the horizon. If we want to make it to the summit for the sunrise, there’s nothing to do but to ignore the cold and the altitude sickness and to keep climbing. The question is – why?
Hike Volcanoes, Help Children
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s rewind. A lot of coincidences lead us to the summit of Tajumulco. We always wanted to climb volcanoes in Central America – or why else would our name be Volcano Love? We made it to the top of Volcano San Pedro, true, but that was no more than an appetiser. We wanted more.
But when travelling long-term, plans change in the blink of an eye. In Antigua, I could barely manage the trip from the bed to the bathroom. Let alone that I would be able to get up one of the volcanoes. Then we secured a volunteering position near Lake Atitlán. We could already see ourselves climbing some more whopping mountains, but in the end… it didn’t work out. With time on our hands, we explored the Cuchumatanes near Nebaj and took a language course in Xela.
It kept bugging us that we hadn’t summited more volcanoes in this mystical land of volcanoes.
Enter QuetzalTrekkers, an organisation based just a couple of blocks from our host family’s house in Xela. Volunteers for this NGO guide tourists up mountains, including the tallest boy of them all: Tajumulco (4220 metres). The money goes to the education of children from underprivileged Maya villages. By using QuetzalTrekkers’ services, you’re not only going on awesome adventures, you’re also helping some of the Guatemalans who need the aid the most. That settled it for us.
Mountain = church
A couple of days later, a chicken bus drops off two guides, six tourists and a mountain of equipment at the trailhead of Tajumulco. We strap 15 kilograms to our backs. Each of us will be carrying four litres of water, food for two days, four or five layers of clothes, gloves, hats and scarves, a sleeping bag resistant to freezing temperatures, tent parts and a bunch of other equipment, such as the ‘shit kit’ (including a shovel to dig defecation holes).
From the get-go, the views are magnificent and the mood is jubilant. During the Guatemalan civil war, the flanks of Tajumulco offered refuge to guerillas. Now, it’s a lot quieter. We only meet a mushroom picker and a couple of valiant Mayan ladies in traditional clothes. For them, this climb is like a visit to the church. On the summit, they lay down flower offers.
The higher our group crawls, the more the initial euphoria turns into quiet desperation. Our breaks get longer. The way we dive into the boxes of trail mix, futilely looking for extra energy, becomes more frantic. Our run up the hill has slowed down to a workmanlike schlep. A French guy remembers that he has a stomach problem and tails the group. The altitude affects all of us – breathing gets harder, headaches pop up out of nowhere. By the time we reach the campground, at 4000 metres, everyone is ready for a nap.
The coldest night of our lives
As soon as the evening draws its curtains over Tajumulco, it cools down rapidly. We add a layer every ten minutes. I remember one volcano climb in Indonesia, when Anete and I camped all alone on top of Merbabu, in a simple tent we’d rented from an outdoor shop and with sleeping bags more suitable to the beach than to an altitude of more than 3000 metres. It was the coldest night of our lives, but we woke up to a beautiful morning and gorgeous 360° views.
We’re better equipped now, but what if an expected cold front decides to surprise attack us? In January 2017, six hikers died on Acatenango, another Guatemalan volcano, when ice cold water seeped into their tent and they couldn’t keep themselves warm enough through the night. Could that happen to us?
The answer is: no. I apologise for not keeping the tension on for a bit longer, but it’s simple: if even Anete, who’s capable of feeling chilly on a midday in Death Valley, takes her woollen socks off in the middle of the night, it means that we were in absolutely no risk of dying of cold. (I do realise that ‘paradoxical undressing’ is a common side effect of the latter stages of hypothermia, but I’m pretty sure that she would just skip that stage.)
Into thin air
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning. Even the earliest bird hasn’t yet risen from his comfortable nest, but we’re all ready for the final push towards the top. The night rest – however short and disturbed by coughs, snores and sharp gasps for air – has reinvigorated us. As we can leave most of the contents of our backpacks in the camp, optimism is sky-rocketing.
Last minute, I decide to take my walking sticks up, mainly to support my knees on the way down. It takes a while to attach them to my pack, which means that guide Dan, Anete and I see our companions disappear into thin air, quite literally. We scramble on, following a path through scrubby trees until we stumble upon the first station of the cross.
We wait while Dan tries in vain to contact the guide of the leading group. After ten minutes, we see a couple of lamps crawling up towards us. Damn, we’ll not have the summit to ourselves. We exchange Holas and only then realise that it’s the rest of our gang. Somehow, we’ve miraculously cut them off.
Fuck TV, fuck Instagram
“Did you manage to capture that corona nicely in your picture?” asks Dan, two hours later. Like all of us, he’s wrapped in a sleeping bag like an Egyptian mummy.
“No, not really”, I mumble, in awe of the view. The rising sun paints a golden crown all across the horizon and illuminates the sleepy valley in front of us. In the far distant, half a dozen dark and menacing volcanoes line up in a neat row. The third one from the left, Fuego (or Fire), emits a cartoonesque puff of smoke. In the north, we can peek far into Mexico.
“That’s good”, says Dan, “Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a reason to climb up here.”
All of a sudden, it makes perfect sense.
Why do we climb mountains, why do we expose ourselves to Arctic cold, hypothermia and altitude sickness, why do we haul up a skyscraper of a backpack to dizzying heights and work our muscles into a cramp, why, why, why if not to challenge ourselves, to try and experience something otherworldly, something we can’t see on TV or Instagram? The grin on my face gets wider, despite the biting freeze. Yes, we’ve done it. We’re more than four kilometres above sea level. We’re on the top of Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America.