Sunday, February 21, 2016

Volcano San Cristobal

I am writing this after climbing Cerro Negro twice, San Cristobal, Cerro Negro and finishing with the El Hoyo 2 day trek all over a period of 4 days. No words can describe how happy I will be when I head to bed at 7:30. Anyways, on with the show.

I have felt the wrath and euphoria of climbing Volcano San Cristobal and came away dirty, sun burnt, exhausted and happy.

Volcán San Cristóbal is the highest volcano in Nicaragua at 1,745 m. or 5,725 feet. It last erupted in 2008 and today sites on an eruption warning of 3 out of 5.  We do not climb the majesty of San Cristobal very often but with Telica acting up and off limits, along with Momotombo, San Cristobal has become the focus for experienced hikers to challenge themselves. This volcano is NOT for beginners to try just because it would be cool. It is a difficult and possibly dangerous climb (sorry mom).

5 guides and 3 climbers. That is customer service.

San Cristobal calling like a Greek Mythological Siren
Our day stared at 4:30 for breakfast at the QT shop. I was late. I did find walking (very fast) the streets on Leon at 4:30 in the morning a bit of an unnerving experience. That is the grey zone of drunks heading home and workers heading out. It kept me on my toes for the 15 minute walk until I saw the garbage truck. The loud noisy smelly garbage truck heading my way. My safety blanket to Quetzal Trekkers.

Our crew on this hike were QT guides Chichara, Mitchel (who is the director of QT), Lotta, Kieran, myself and 3 paying clients. Two from the US and one from Belgium. A small and motivated crew to be sure. We headed out after breakfast for the 90 minute ride through Chinendega to the trail head. The area is managed by a local family and it maintained nicely. They had walking sticks available for us which was absolutely necessary. We had a big drink of water, a banana and some cookies for fuel and off we went. San Cristobal loomed directly in front of us, and it was a bit overwhelming to be sure. It towered over Telica, Cerro Negro, El Hoyo and Cosequina and I was not 100 percent sure what I was getting into. Regardless, we were off.

Hitting the trail, first its the scrub

Being a guide I have learned that the first 15 - 20 minutes of any hike are the most difficult. That is about the amount of time you need to find your pace, rhythm and what I call "finding your meditative breathing". We all struggle to get to that point where you go from struggling and panting to trekking. When you find your sweet spot the hike becomes less a struggle and more extraordinary. This hike was no different however adding to the mix was the fact it started with a steep incline and got steeper as we climbed.

The first 20 minutes, the time to find your pace, was along a marked trail through scrub and what can only be described as ""destroyed by fire and volcano explosions tree stumps". It was beautiful in its eerie silence. Sometimes the issue with climbing is the peak always looks closer than it really is. This was certainly no different. We crunched through the scrub and reached the bottom of the scree climb. This was to be the challenge of the day. 

Chichara was leading and he is a rock star on the volcano. Lotta is also a strong climber and was right behind him, followed by the two Americans. Mitch, Kieran, myself and the Belgian we close behind. I casually stated in between pants that "Chichara is as fast as fu**" and it broke the idea that we were going to keep up with him. Again, when you are on the volcano find your own pace and rythems. 

The challenge that was the incline and the scree. Two steps forward one step back
Photos never to justice to what you are trying to display, but that's fine. The last volcano that I climbed that was this steep was Villarrica, one of the most active volcanoes in Chile. It was covered in snow which allowed us to use crampons. This was certainly not the case. Here is valuable lesson when climbing scree. Do NOT go straight up, it will destroy you. Chichara showed us that it is when you angle your climb with a series of switch backs the climb becomes more realistic for success. Smart man that Chichara.

Off we went. The early morning sun and cool air did not stop the sweat from soaking me. The pace I was looking for took some time but it showed itself as it always does. Now it was time to enjoy the views without stressing about the steepness of the incline. Scree does give you the opportunity to dig in so sliding down like a rag doll was never a consideration. Dig in, lean forward, breath and enjoy yourself.

A bit steep ya think?
Hiking Sticks. I use to laugh at people using them. I am a convert and will preach their gospel. You could not make this climb without them. I learned to appreciate the on the down hill climb of El Hoyo. They take 30% of the stress of your knees and give you balance you need when you wobble. Buy them, use them, love them and treat them well. Any quality stick will do in a pinch and they are easy to find, but if you can buy retractable and portable sticks along the way, buy them and make them a part of your travel gear if you are going to be active. 

We were kicking up quite a bit of dust so we paced ourselves about 20 metres apart so as to not inhale ash dust for 4 hours. We had to deal with loose scree, a steep pitch, large boulders and oddly enough broken trees and stumps. I have run down Cerro Negro enough times to realize that even though we would do the same here it was going to be more of an obstacle course and preventative impalement so I had that to look forward to on the way down.

Snack Break. Rest stops on the way up but obstacles and harbingers of death on the way down
 It was about half way up when the reality of the challenge hit me. I had a "what the fu**" moment when I looked at what I thought was the top of the climb only to realize it was an illusion. The peak was much higher once we crossed the ridge that I thought was the peak. No worries, march on soldier. We had food, snacks water and a great pace. The peak was within our reach. As I have said in the past, "I wish it was raining so nobody could see my tears."

It was great that we had a strong group. This volcano was challenging enough for experience hikers and having to deal with someone who was struggling with any of the various issues that could arise could not only be a pain in the ass but possibly dangerous. You need to be able to take care of yourself and be available to help anyone on the climb at any time. You can not be a personal porter for someone who thought the hike would be cool and is then overcome by exhaustion and fear but find the energy for taking selfies or asking to have their picture taken to "prove they have done it.". Again, this group was strong and focused but we had each others backs.

Lotta at the peak cheering us on
Chichara, Lotta and the two Americans hit the summit first and they were cheering us on. The sight of the summit was luminous. Seriously, there was a glow around the summit calling me....or maybe I was dying and seeing the light, I was not 100 percent sure. Either way I pushed on. This was no Everest but it was my latest tough challenge. I was not winded and my legs felt strong. I had my pace and was making progress regardless of the constant slipping back in the scree. 

Mitch, Ken, Lotta, Chichara and Kieran making QT proud.
After we hit the summit and started with the pictures we shot the one above. We were laughing that the only person not wearing a Quetzel Trekkers shirt was of course the Director, the Grand Puba, el Jefe. It left a great opening for verbal abuse but I was tired and it was a long drop to be tossed into the crater.

We had just climbed the south face of San Cristobal at a steady pace and although hazy the views were soothing in their grandeur. The highest volcano and second highest point in Nicaragua. The highest in Mogoton, The forbidden Mountain. Mogoton sits on and creates the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. Its top is cloud forest with mosses, ferns and orchids growing out of the crotches of trees. It is long since dormant and is covered with landmines from the Sandinista wars. Not an impressive mountain and sits in the Nicaraguan highlands. It has nothing on San Cristobal.

Crater of San Cristobal
Mitch and I hung around the top while the others wandered down a side trail. I was pretty content to sit and take it all in. An hour at the top and we were ready for the fun run down. As with Cerro Negro you can run down this bad boy BUT unlike Cerro Negro it has obstacles, old trees, branches and burned out root systems all over the place. A great place for snacks on the way up, a video game in the making on the way down. We had made a trail and were good to go, but impalement was an option if you got sloppy.

Up in 3.5 hours, down in 1. My type of volcano. Lunch, the long quiet ride home and back to QT to prep for the 2 day El Hoyo trek the next day. My time with QT is winding down and I am taking advantage of as much climbing as I can, sore legs and all. This hike was the cherry on a what has been a very delicious cake.

Obstacles on the run down

Hanging at the summit and crater

Steep hikes bring big smiles

No comments: