Thursday, December 17, 2015

I Can't Feel My Feet

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
 --Anne Lamont

The View Atop El-Hoyo
Stealing from Bobcat Goldthwait's hilareous line in Blow, I can't feel my feet. I know they are there, I can see them but I just can't feel them. At the end of a 2 day, 3 volcano trek there is no other way to explain it, until the next day of course. That was when I woke up. I could feel my feet, my back, my legs, my shoulders my neck and especially my calves. Boy could I feel them! "Be a volcano guide" they said. "It will be fun" they said. I would smack "they" right in the mouth if I could life my arms that high.

Overhead Shot of El Hoyo
Every guide I spoke to who did this trek the first time shares the same physical experience.  I was fading a bit, well lets be honest allot, down the stretch but thankfully it was while we were sitting in La Paz waiting for the chicken bus to take us back to Leon. Others have talked about the dry heaves, puking, head spins and dehydration. I can not think of anything more frightening than being a hiker feeling a bit exhausted and watching your guide throwing up. To be fair, the guides packs are 4 - 7 kilos heavier and it makes a huge difference. when climbing on a 40 degree angle where the path can be mostly sand and scree. Step, sink, step, slip, step sink, breathe and repeat.

After taking the group of 8 up and down Cerro Negro for their volcano boarding part of the trip we ate lunch and geared up. The crew included 4 Germans, 2 Aussies and 2 Dutch girls. We briefed them that the first hour of the El Hoyo trek was going to be hard. We got quite a few "whatever" looks. As a group we had to bring 10 sleeping bags, 5 tents, 10 floor mats, food for 5 meals plus snacks and fruit, cooking pot, a "spice kit", a "shit kit", a "first aid kit" plus 8 litres of water each and personal belongings. It works out to about 15 kilo packs which are heavy enough. Now you have to carry them up a 35 degree sandy pitch over 1000 meters. Ten minutes into the hike the cocky looks of "whatever" became horrified looks of "holy crap".

With my Nicaraguan co-guide Erland
Make no doubt about it. If you plan on trekking El Hoyo in Nicaragua, the first hour WILL BE brutal. How do you deal with hikers who are ready to collapse? Reinforce that it is not a race, stop often for water and most important stop and look around. The views get better with each step forward.

Our crew was strong but we lost one about half way. One of the Dutch girls just could not carry her pack any longer. She was shattered. We took her aside into the shade and had her drink as much water as she could. We took all what she had from her pack and divided it between myself, Erland and Erin, an Aussie who was strong on the trail. After a 15 minute rest she felt good again. Hydrated, a small snack and an empty pack she dug down deep and carried on. As we walked we all took turns talking about Epic Fails we have each had on various hikes. These stories and constant water breaks kept everyone one of our sweaty, out of breath and now dirty selves closer to the first ridge.

Reaching the first ridge
 What an epic battle. Now the hardest part of being a guide is faking it. When everyone else is out of breathe, your not. When everyone is exhausted, your not. When everyone collapses at the first ridge you calmly drop your pack and check on each of them. Then you politely excuse yourself to go pee, find a tree and lean on it without passing out. It then becomes the longest fake pee that never happened. Then come back smiling like all is good in the world.

Seriously, I recovered pretty quickly but could feel my heart pounding away. Knowing that was the case for everyone we took the next hour at a steady pace again stopping often for water and pictures. Hiking/trekking these types of trails is a bonding agent like no other. There are knowing looks, big smiles, high fives, back pats and quiet "how you doing" from everyone. I find it a very interesting experience to be a part of from both the leadership and the client side.

Camping on the crater
From the first ridge came a more modest 2.5 hour climb through thin forests that were just starting to bloom. The odd butterfly would come by and the trees were buzzing with bees. I like the sound of bees and pointed it out. We sat quietly and listened and it became a bit mesmerizing. There was talk about the decline of bees and if bees died off so would humans. Then one of the little bastards lands on your leg and you smash it with no regard what so ever. Then calmly go on about being a bee keeper in your old age. 10 people laughing hysterically at the oddity of the moment.

We gathered firewood along the way and reached the secondary ridge where we would camp. A nice flat area on the volcano just below the sink hole. If you look at the first picture I posted you will see the sink hole and where it sits next to the crater. We were literally camping on the crater of an active volcano.

Today's tents are fast and easy to set up and camp was ready in about 20 minutes. You could feel the decompression happening with everyone. This was a challenging first day but the day was not over. Not just yet.

A well deserved chance to take in the view
But now it was time to rest and take it all in. The hike, the view and the gorgeous and recently erupted Momotombo. To quote Aussie Eric "Shes a Beauty"
If you go back and look at the top picture from this post, the 180 degree shot that is the view we were engrossed in. If you look to the right
you will see the mountain and to its left you will see the lake. That is tomorrows hike.
Tonight we have a sunset hike to manage. With tired legs rested we regrouped for our final accent to the summit.

Up to the Sink hole

Our first stop, the sink hole. Sitting about 500 metres directly above our little campsite this jaunt was no walk in the proverbial park. It was steep, I mean holy crap steep but we forged on as one determined bunch. The sinkhole has scientists baffled. There is no trace of water and no reason for it to be there but nobody has an answer as to why it formed. It's wide that's for sure but not as deep as you would imagine, maybe 50 metres or so but it was impressive enough.

With every small victory it was always impressed upon to take a look around and take it in. This is why you tortured yourself to get here. (even when your guide takes pictures with his shadow in the shot). Sometimes you may not realize how high you have climbed or how far you have come. From this vantage point we could see the vista but also our camp which looked pretty small. I may be repeating myself but years ago when I was hiking the Inca Trail in Peru our guide at the time stressed that "It was not a race. Stop, look around. See where you are, see where you have been, see where you are going while on this trail". Sage advice to be sure. He also mentioned something to the affect that " to many people try and run the trail as fast as possible so they can tell their friends they did it". 
Next stop, the summit at Sunset

As with any good trek it some parts were soul crushing shirt soaking difficult. It is when you reach the summit you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done. That is if your shoulders are not so sore that it is impossible to lift your arms. This was no Everest so there was no rush to get down before nightfall and certain death. What I did observe was that for about 20 minutes it got real quiet with everyone keeping to themselves. Some were wandering around, some sat down others just stood quietly as we watched the sun sink through a hazy sky. As I was silently reflecting on what we had just accomplish I suspect the other were as well so I let them be.

As the sun set we turned on various headlamps and torches and heading back to camp. Dinner was being prepared by Erland and the wolverines were hungry. We devoured a pasta and vegetable dinner with hot tea around a now roaring campfire. With the sun firmly set the sky started to light up with the most incredible amount of clear sky stars imaginable. We devoured our dinner in laughter about the day and talked about being ready for bed. After all it was 6:30!!

A steam vent reminding us of who is really in charge

Topping off the 5 million start dinner were roasted marshmallows. I do not care how old or grumpy or tire or whatever you are. If you put a marshmallow on a stick and roast it over a campfire you loose all inhibitions and every marshmallow you ever roasted becomes a childlike story with with smiles and joy. Reaching the summit and the views caused moments of self reflection but the marshmallows..oh man the marshmallows. Sunrise was at 6:00 and first light around 5:15 so it was light out around 8:30 for everyone. I had the duty as alarm clock wake up guy. I fell asleep in about 30 seconds.

Momotombo at Sunrise

I was up and had the fire going then woke the crew up. No sleepy heads at all. They unzipped their tent and with groggy enthusiasm wandered to the edge of the campsite and just watched the sun come up. It would not disappoint. Even Momotombo added a spew of smoke to the morning colours showing off a bit with a little "look at me, look what I can do". I have seen more sunsets than sun rises in my life but this morning could challenge any sunset I have ever stared wide eyed at.

There was to be no rest as we had a long day ahead. After a solid breakfast of oatmeal, raisins and nuts we broke camp and started our decent down the backside of El Hoyo with memories firmly locked into place. Now it was time for a swim.

Yes that is indeed how far we trekked. Down a steep rocky backside and into the lush forests of the valley. Once down the trail was a bit trick in places but not difficult. It we delightfully cool atop El Hoyo and with each step we were reminded that that was a distant memory. On went the bug spray, the sun block, the hats and bandannas and down went gulps of water. Here we go. Uneventful in of itself we reached Laguna Asososca, the crater lake of low lying Volcan Asososca in about 4 hours. The water was warm and washed away 2 days of dirt, sweat, bug spray, lotions and blood. Mother Nature in co-operation with Volcan Asososca has one more sneaky trick up their sleeves. As we lolled in the warm waters with no cares in the world a few odd shrieks came form the dutch girls. "The little fish are biting my toes". Once the shock wore off and being the optimists that travelers are they just relaxed and with big grins "well we have to pay for this back home". (I just checked an yup, people pay to have fish nibble old skin off their feet. News to me). Now of course we all had to try it. The water was clear and you could see these little guys slowly swimming up to your feet. It was such an odd experience. The first nibble and of course you jump (and scream like a 14 year old girl) and scare them all away. The determined little buggers come back and you just settle in for a few minutes as they peck at your toes. Then they get bored and are gone. The things we do!

Back on shore we had Quetzel veggie burritos, geared up and headed to the main road. From there we caught a chicken bus to La Paz and transferred to another bus to Leon.  There were thank you's and hugs all around. This is going to be a pretty decent way to spend my time here in Nicaragua!

Score to Date
Germany 4
Holland 2
Australia 2

Nicaragua Volcanoes climbed: Cerro Negro, El Hoyo, Asososca, Cosigüina

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