Acatenango: While technically active, it hasn’t erupted since the 1920’s and with an altitude of just over 13,000 feet it is easily visible from the city of Antigua, Guatemala.
The mission: Climb to the summit in time to watch Fuego, Acatenango’s neighbouring volcano, spectacularly erupt and spew molten lava while watching the sunrise.
It was January 2015 and I had been successful in applying for a job pouring backpacker’s drinks at a hostel in Antigua. My money was at an all time low so my plan was simple: Work at a hostel in a cheap country until I could come up with a better idea.
From the hostel’s terrace two giant volcanoes dominated the distant horizon: Acatenango (not so active) and Fuego (very f$%#ing active). It was a beautiful yet challenging sight.
“Jarrod, if you’re wanting to climb this thing, you’re going to have to do it before your job as a barman turns you into an alcoholic.” I can remember thinking to myself as I sipped one of my first ever Guatemalan Cuba Libres.
In the months prior to arriving in Guatemala I hadn’t been the most active person on the planet. Most of my days involved nothing but sitting on my ass, listening to music and watching as many episodes of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ as humanly possible. You could say I wasn’t in the best shape of my life and knowing that I was going to be working at a party hostel for at least the next few months, I didn’t like my chances of making it to the summit of a volcano. If I was going to avoid a stroke or heart failure while attempting the climb I had to book myself in for the hike before the endless weeks of Cuba Libre beerpong begun.
“Hey guys, I’m an ex mountain guide. I’ll be hiking up to the summit in two days. If anyone wants to tag along with me I won’t be charging you anything, you’ll just have to pay for renting the tents and sleeping bags etc.”
A twenty-something-year-old very fit and healthy looking man had walked onto the hostel’s terrace. He seemed very mature for his age and had a ‘no messing around’ energy about him.
“Anyone who wants to come should let me know by the end of the day.” He added in his deeper than average voice.
This was it. Judging by how ruined the other hostel’s employees seemed, this was as fit as I was going to be for a long time. I made a mental agreement with myself to be at the summit of Acatenango by sunrise in two days time. I didn’t exactly specify how I was going to make it up, but whether it was by renting a donkey or having three small Guatemalan men carry me, I was going to get to that summit.
One day passed and it was the eve of my maiden volcano expedition so naturally I celebrated with a few quiet games of beerpong.
“Jarrod aren’t you climbing Acatenango tomorrow?”
“Yes” I replied.
“Well shouldn’t you be in peak physical shape for that? I’ve heard it’s pretty tough. Have you gone food shopping yet?” My friend was showing half tipsy signs of concern.
“No, but I’m sure I can find whatever I need at the shop below the hostel.” The small amount of alcohol swimming through my veins had begun to sabotage the beginning of any rational thought making process. This was a grueling 6 to 7 hour up hill climb and wasn’t something anyone of my level of fitness should be taking lightly.
Four to five hours passed and I was still at the beer pong table. I must have been 10 games in before I realised that I was pretty drunk.
My thought pattern was as follows:
* You have to be up at 4.30am that is 6 hours from now.
* You still haven’t packed your bags or gone food shopping. FOOD SHOPPING! I’ll go down to the shop and grab some stuff now.
*Snickers are too expensive. I will just buy cheap 6 packets of cheap biscuits, two packets of chips and 600ml of water. Perfect.
* Shopping was a success! Awesome, now I can go back to playing beerpong.
…and that was the extent of my meal preparation for one of the most physically challenging days of my life.
“BAR’S CLOSING IN 5 MINUTES! LAST CALL FOR ALCOHOL!”
It was 1 o’clock. I had played roughly 20 games of beerpong and consumed an unreasonable amount of beer, rum, vodka and tequila and my next decision was made with the familiar haze of alcohol clouding my judgment. I had to be out the front of the hostel in 3,5 hours ready to climb an incredibly steep volcano, so I had to ask: “Will just one extra hour of partying REALLY effect how I feel when I wake up at 4am?”
“Probably not.” I assured myself. So with the decision making capacity of a two year old I marched on out to the next bar for what can only be describes as ‘more unnecessary drinks’.
“You’re never gonna make it up that volcano, man. You have to be up in 2 hours.”
It was now 2.30am. “Why am I here? Why aren’t I in bed?” I had finally come to my senses. One rational thought was all I needed in order to get myself back to the hostel with my head on a pillow. I quickly said my goodbyes and stumbled home and somehow remembered to turn my alarm on.
“ALARM SET FOR 1 HOUR AND 30 MINUTES FROM NOW.”
I awoke to my alarm feeling drunker than I had ever been that night. In record time I gathered my horrendously unorganised backpack, slipped on my weathered boat shoes and headed for the hostel’s front door.
“You made it!?”
Most of the people in my hiking group had seen me in midst of my drunken debauchery and were genuinely surprised I had made it out of bed in time. What became exceedingly obvious within my first 30 seconds of conversation is that I was still absolutely shit-faced and had to consciously stop myself from looking around for comfortable looking sidewalks to sleep on.
The bus ride to the foot of the volcano is where it all went downhill. I had managed to eat all of my bags of chips and was almost out of water. The hangover was coming and I had begun to understand the extent of how stupid I had been to attempt a volcano climb whilst semi-drunk with under 2 hours of sleep.
This is an example of how I felt as though I would have looked:
“Should I just ask them to drop me back at the hostel?” I was beginning to think that this was a terrible idea. The enormity of the challenge ahead was something a completely sober, well slept fit person would treat with some type of respect. I had heard that some people had given up just one hour from the summit due to physical exhaustion, how was I supposed to be mentally ready for something like this when I was already the walking, talking, breathing pin-up-boy for self inflicted physically exhaustion?
“No, no I can’t turn back now. I made a promise to myself to be at the top of that volcano by sunrise. I’m not going to let a little drinking get in the way of a sweet view” is a very vague recollection of what I said to myself as the bus pulled up to the foot of the volcano. This is it. It’s now or never. Through the nagging sensation of wanting to throw up every five seconds I mentally prepared myself for the challenge ahead. I put one foot in front of the other and headed for the summit.
“You lookin’ a little tired there, bro. You have a big one last night?”
Joe was a self described reformed gangster from Miami, Florida. His parents were both Cuban so listening to him speak Spanish with a east coast gangster accent was somewhat of a novelty. We were both as equally unfit as each other. Every step felt as if it was bringing us closer to an almost certain death.
“We have to motivate each other, bro. It’s the only way we’re gonna make it to the top.”
Ex-gangster Joe was right. Physically we were screwed, but as long as we kept each other in line mentally we could actually do the unthinkable and make it to the summit. I was hungry with a throat as dry as a desert plain and my legs were beginning to feel like jelly, but the hike wasn’t getting any easier. The path was starting to become covered in volcanic ash making the path almost sandy. If you’ve ever tried running on the beach you’ll understand why this has it’s disadvantages. With every 2 steps up, we would slide back down one. The sandy texture of the path was eating away at our energy levels, but this wouldn’t stop us from completing our mission.
5 hours into the climb and we were 80% of the way up. We had reached the area where the normal hiking groups would camp out for the night with the plan to hike to summit before sunrise. We had one and half hours to go, but this area of the volcano was so steep that we had no choice but to hike 5 metres at a time, taking 2 minutes breaks to breathe in some of the thinning Guatemalan air.
In a situation like this it’s not such a bad idea to rethink whether or not you’re actually going to die before you make it anywhere near the summit. Any rational thinking person wouldn’t feel at all guilty if they decided to turn around out of fear for their life, but I had the advantage of a brain poisoned seemingly beyond repair. The thought of death didn’t seem to bother me at this stage of the mission. I couldn’t stand the thought of telling everyone that they were in fact right, that I couldn’t make it to the top, I WAS too drunk to do anything other than lie in bed and …cry or something. I had a vivid vision of proving everyone wrong and I was hell bent on making that vision a reality.
“You’ve made it to the summit!” A Swiss man screamed with unabashed enthusiasm.
I struggled to hold back tears as I felt the unfamiliar sensation of a downward slope into the volcanoes crater. It was by far one of the most amazing views that I had ever seen and with the summit nestled a few metres above the clouds it was a sight I could only describe as heavenly. My body, powered by nothing other than alcohol, chips and a small amount of water, had managed to allow me to witness one of the most amazing sunrises on the planet. I stumbled around the crater yeeeaaah-ing and woooo-ing my final pieces of energy away. I wasn’t overly proud of how I treated my body in the lead up to this particular expedition, however I can say I am more than happy in the way I overcame the self inflicted mental and physical challenges that come with a night of binge drinking and under two hours of sleep.
So was going through all that physical pain, risking my health and general well being for the chance at volcanic glory worth it? I’ll let you be the judge…
A little party never killed nobody, right?