An Explosive View
Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala
We woke at 3:45AM to begin the ascent to the summit of Acatenango Volcano. A horrible sleep on rickety cots, with thin sleeping bags. The temperature was a cool 1 to 2 degrees, it was pitch black (no visible moon or stars), and dead quiet between the rumbles, puffs, and grunts of Volcano Fuego. The continuous eruption of Fuego is audible from the base camp on Acatenango, and the sounds range from soft puffs to loud thunder like explosions. During the daylight, you can see the volcano smoke and eject volcanic bombs, but the real show begins when the sun goes down. The lava, a bright orange red, is blown into the air, like fireworks, falling around the outside of the crater, and flowing down the side. The last major eruption of Fuego was in June, about 5 months ago; it killed over 100 people and wounded several hundred who were living in a village at the base of the volcano.
Our ascent of the mountain was steep, in scree, and shrouded in nearly total darkness. Our hiking group was one guide, two Aussies, and Rose and I. Although the hike was steep, and at 13,000 feet altitude, Rose and I didn’t struggle too much with it. However, the Aussie’s, although in good shape, were having difficulties due to the altitude. Eventually Rose and I broke off from our group and made the final push to the summit, on our own. We were in a race with the sun, which was beginning to crest the horizon. For much of the ascent, lava spewing Fuego was visible, which made for spectacular scenery. Across the valley, Volcano Acaya was also visible, with it’s constant lava flow. In the valley volcanic valley was the twinkle of the lights from Guatemala City, Antigua, and many towns. Truly incredible scenery! Cresting the crater rim was satisfying, as that meant we could find a nice spot to post up and watch the the sun illuminate the valley and wrap its light around the silhouettes of the surrounding volcanoes. A memorable moment; the sun rising to the east, Volcano Fuego spitting lava to the South, and sheet lightning to the West. A beautiful display of the phenomenons of our natural world. We packed a blanket from basecamp and wrapped ourselves in it on the summit, to break the wind. It was cold though. We were wearing long underwear, long pants, several shirts, jackets, mitts, and toques, and still the wind was biting at us.
In the center of the crater, is a small hut which was erected to provide shelter to people who are in danger of hypothermia. A few years ago 6 people died of hypothermia on the summit, in a spell of unusually cold temperatures. As a Canadian, and being familiar with inclement weather and cold temperatures, this seems difficult to comprehend, given that the temperatures are nowhere near as cold as we are familiar with, but hiking with people who have never seen negative temperatures, is a reminder that these are unfamiliar conditions to a significant number of people. Along the North rim of Acatenango crater are thermal vents which emit very warm air, which makes the death of these people that much more tragic, but my understanding is that dense fog had settled in the crater, which made the hike unnavigable.
Our hike down was illuminated with beautiful golden sunlight, that emphasized the beauty of the wildflowers along the trail. The views above the clouds were stunning. The fluffy ceilings of the clouds make you want to take a step from the edge of the trail and fall into them. As we descended we broke into the clouds, and entered a high altitude forest with deciduous trees, succulents, and grasses. As you continue to the base, you enter a jungle, and then down into farmlands which are growing corn and snow peas.