Sunday, April 17, 2016

Volcán Tajumulco

One of the simple great things that happen while wandering on the road are random surprise. My latest happened while checking into the Los Nativos hostel in Xela. Walking to my room I ran head long into Nikki Zeiter who I had last seen almost 3 weeks ago in San Ignacio Belize. We had toured a few Mayan ruins sites with Anthony Williams.  Most of us follow the same "Gringo Trail" and it is bound to happen. It is always a great emotional uplift to meet a road friend and a friendly face.

Nikki is an avid hiker so over a quick lunch we decided that the next day we would meet at 4:30 am to begin the journey to the highest point in Central America. Volcán Tajumulco rises a grueling 4,220 metres (13,845 ft) and the journey to get there is about 3.5 hours but we were both excited by the challenge.

Yes that is a goat strapped to the top left of the chicken bus
chickens smickens

Waking up at 4:15 comes early no matter where you are in the world or what you have planned. I was ready in 10 minutes and laid back down on my beat with the faint hope that Nikki would sleep in. Not a chance. I heard the bolt on her door open down the hall. Ok, this is going to happen and off we went. We daringly walked the 20 minutes to the Minerva Terminal at 4:30 am creeping along eerily quiet streets. We had to take a our first chicken bus 90 minutes to San Marcos. We messed up a bit trying to find the right bus location in Xela but as usual locals, and there we lots of them prepping for market day, were helpful when asked. At San Marcos we switched to another bus to Tacana. We were told to let the driver know that we were hiking Tajumulco and he would drop us off at the trail head. A couple of westerners with packs and hiking gear looking out of place early in the morning with a bus load of peasant farmers and school kids, it was obvious were we were going.

Using a great blog post about the hike as our guide we were on our way. 

And so it begins

The summit peeking at us
I struggle with altitude when I get above 3000 metres and like Acatanango before it Tajumulco would need a serious effort. Shortness of breathe and dizzy spells are relieved by slow walking and climbing, rest stops and plenty of water. Slow and steady would be the rule for the day. There would be no running up this beauty.

Spread up before us was our Yellow Brick Road. A cobble stone road/trail would get us started along with our hearts pounding and blood flowing

There were a few houses along the road that resulted in friendly waves and "buenos dias" from locals starting their day. We could see Santa Anna rising through the clouds in the distance. We also had discussed climbing Santa Anna but reports of robberies on that volcano were confirmed when I asked Quetzel Trekkers in Xela about it and they said they take armed police with them. That choice was easy.

I have hiked with armed guards on Volcan Verde in El Salvador. It was an odd feeling knowing that in the forests around us there were bandits lurking. They knew better because these guards were heavily armed and would shoot to kill.

The cobbles ended (thankfully) at a very dusty and bolder strewn road that was easy to traverse and killed any hope of staying clean. I was finding my breathing rhythm but I could feel the altitude. Nikki was 10 feet ahead bouncing along merrily without issue and taking photos like a crazy girl. She had spent time living in Boulder Colorado and I think hiking is a law there. You have to hike or you get sent back to the State that you came from. She was strong and cheerful on the trail and I was happy to have her with me.
As we left the dusty road for what can be considered the actual trail both the elevation (obviously) and incline increased. I felt my breathing..check that I heard my breathing even more. I sounded like I had just finished a pack of smokes. My legs and back are strong but I have learned how to climb at elevations that work for me and my body. Hiking is not a competition and there are no gold medals for being first. The goal is to summit. Always remember that when you find yourself tired, out of breathe or frustrated on any hike. If anyone you climb with does not understand that, climb with someone else.

 Thankfully part of the trail flattened out in spots but the rocky and steep summit always loomed menacingly ahead. I have hiked 11 other volcanoes in 5 countries but the Tajumulco summit was messing with me. Maybe because it stood out like a huge menacing rocky crag standing alone against the sky. It distorted my initial perspective and messed with my ability to evaluate time stretches of the hike. What I thought was an hour hike to a certain rest spot such as a specific ridge line took 20 minutes. I did get back on track and I can put this experience in my hiking toolkit.

Aside from the spellbinding views the aroma of the pine and spruce forests along the trail added the sense of tranquility you experience while challenging yourself.  When I was a guide with Quetzel Trekkers in Nicaragua one of the first things I would mention to any hiker was "every once in a while, tired or not, just stop and look around. Enjoy the views because that is why you are here". I heeded my own advice and I had a hiking partner that who was literally on the same page about everything while on the trail. These pauses did give us the chance to talk, and talk we did like we had known each other all our lives.
 Once we cleared the forest we stood at the base of the final ascent. The monster that was staring at us right from the beginning. It was all boulders and scree and there would be some scrambling. A few years of rock climbing experience came in handy. The issue here is personal safety vs. the excitement of the summit. If you can not stay calm, focused and keep safety first in mind, stay home. These areas can be steep and rocks are never forgiving and sometimes sharp as a razor. If you hurt yourself you also put your partner or team in danger as well. I am not being dramatic here, just a pragmatist (practical and focused on reaching a goal).
Celebrating by standing on the highest rock on the summit
As we climbed and scrambled we reached a false summit as sometimes happens. We stood and looked up at the 10 minutes of easy trail that would take us to victory. With Nikki leading the way we were dumbfounded by the beauty of being above the clouds. Pictures never do justice to the reality of a situation. The fault line views on top of El Hoyo was as beautiful as it gets. Watching Fuego explode while atop Acatanango was Mother Nature at it's most powerful. Standing above the clouds with Santa Ana peering through in the distance brought a sense of tranquility to me. I can only imagine what the view from from the 8,848 m atop Everest must be. NO I am not thinking about it. Not now, not ever. I am a hiker, not a mountaineer and there is definitely a difference.

Selfie Celebration..and yes Nikki is wearing a Subway hat
After about an hour that included lunch and wandering around quietly enjoying the summit views it was time to descend. If you hike then you HATE the descent. It hurts your knees, crushes your toes and it is when you are most susceptible to injury. The adrenaline rush of the ascent is now pushed aside to the reality legs tightening up. You can slide and fall on loose rocks/scree, twist an ankle on a rock, fall in a rut or any other type of mishap. We both had a few slips to our back side but holy crap by the time we reached the dusty road (after realizing we were off trail and had to re adjust our track) my knees were aching but my toes were crushed.

We were on a deadline for the last bus to San Marcos but were well ahead of schedule so we did not need to push it. Finally the Uneven downhill cobbles of our Yellow Brick Road added a bit more pain but lead us to the trail head and the main road.

Hiking down through the clouds
The road was busy and a bus arrived in about 5 minutes and an uneventful 90 minutes got us to San Marcos. We had just talked about how everything had gone smoothly with the day when we were told that the last bus to Xela had just left. It was 4:30. The guys at the San Marcos terminal were helpful and kept saying to go to 97. WTF is 97? A random guy told us that we could get a bus in front of the pharmacy across the street. So off we went. Nikki stepped up and had a conversation with a guy inside who said yes and micro bus would come by. OK, lets go with that.

30 seconds later a collective pulls up and after some confusion we were told he would take us to 97 where there is a bus to Xela. So we jumped in the GuateUber and off we went a bit confused but knowing that we were being helped. A block from a busy corner a sweet lady taps Nikki on the should and lets her know that is where we need to go. The GuateUber kid running the show told us to wait until we turn the corner. We did and lo and behold sitting alone in what looked like some guys personal garage was a single colourful chicken bus with Xela on the sign. It turned out to the be the same bus we took to San Marcos. With grateful smiles and thanks all around we dashed across the street and jumped aboard. Our timing was good because this bus was going to get busy.

The decent begins
** No traveler would ever know to get to this location for an after hours bus to Xela without lots of help. With that being said if you are reading this and find yourself in the same situation as for a ride to 97th street. When you turn right jump out and look across the street and your magic carpet ride to Xela will be there. Its funny because when we pulled out and other bus was backing in. Guatemala ingenuity at its best. "The station is closed, screw it we will run a private bus terminal out of my house!".

With 30 minutes of Guatemalan confusion out of the way we settled in for the 90 minute ride to Xela. However, things got more interesting as we waited to leave. More people kept climbing aboard. It was time to loose any perspective of personal space. A larger lady sat beside me and we were now three on a seat create for 2 or 3 school age kids. Remember these are old American school buses. As we lumbered out for what was now going to be a hot and cramped ride home there were people 3 and believe it or not 4 abreast, to many standing in the aisle and some sitting on the floor. We did a general count and there were 85 people on a school bus designed for 42 kids. 

Now the greatest spectacle of all of this was the money guy. He calls out to people to get them on the bus then collects the fares. Well there was no way he was going to get through the throng on the bus, although I have seen money guys climb over seats and people in the past. Nope what this guy did, while the bus was in full flight, was climb up a side latter, run across the top and appear at the back door. Opened it, jumped inside and worked his was through the crowd he could not reach from the front. When he was done he disappeared out the back, ran across the top, down the ladder and stood at the open front door like nothing happened. Freaking badass! It was the best entertainment possible.

We pulled into Xela and thanks to Nikki's smart phone GPS skills we jumped off the bus at a corner near the bus station saving us about a 20 minutes of walking. As we talked and laughed about the experience rising out in the distance like a beacon of happiness was the golden arches of McDonalds.  We finish the day with McFlurries, me Oreo, her Smartie agreeing they were so much better than a cold beer ever could be after the day that we had.

Nikki climbing to meet me for the final ascent to the summit
Thank You Nikki for sharing this experience with me, I could never have done it without you. Well I could have done it but it would have sucked. Well it would not have sucked but...oh you know what I mean. Travel Safe.

1 comment:

NikkiZ said...

Such a lovely write up of a truly awesome day! I am so glad we ran into each other up north and both have such a love for the great outdoors!! Enjoy Mexico and I am sure our paths will cross soon enough <3