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January 25, 2023: My Fifty-first Trip Around the Sun:

“Cinco mas minutos” said Memphis, one of the guides as he approached me. 

He had dropped back and walked alongside me, an indicator that I probably looked like shit. It reminded me of when I did my first triathlon and the lifeguard in the kayak kept trailing me because I looked like I was going to drown.

I was five hours into climbing Acatenango, a volcano in Guatemala, and my heart was beating out of my chest. It was my 51st birthday and the trip to Guatemala was the first one in my life that I had ever taken alone. I had spontaneously planned the trip a couple weeks prior in spite of the warning on the State Department’s website to avoid travel there. I was shitting bricks, but excited and stoked with adrenaline. 

As I walked the last few miles I couldn’t catch my breath because of how thin the air was at that altitude, and my legs felt like they had hundred pound weights attached to them. 

On the flight to Guatemala I read an article about an eruption in 2018 that killed 1,000 people. I read another story that others died on a climb from hypothermia. Interestingly it's 75-80 degrees in Guatemala but at night it can drop quickly to below zero on the top of Acatengango. 

I had no idea this climb would be so challenging until I read on the plane home that it is ranked #7 on the list of 20 hardest hikes in the world. 

I had not done any training for the trip, and had lost five pounds from being sick right before I left. I only felt better the day before departing. 

As I finished the last few minutes of the climb to the summit, the extreme fatigue and crushed volcanic stone under my feet made it feel like a moon walk. My quads were cramping up so badly that I could barely walk. The only other time I felt my legs so heavy was in Harlem when I hit mile 19 in the New York City marathon. 

Five minutes later we reached the top of Acatenango volcano. The view was spectacular. There she was in the horizon blowing up and spewing smoke and lava every 15-20 minutes: Fuego, the most active volcano in Guatemala. 

I stood there astonished, with thoughts running through my head about the birth of earth and the ice age. Seeing something so primitive and powerful up close was life-changing. 

It was a little uncanny how our tents were set up on the steep incline of Acatenango. The crushed volcanic stone everywhere made it impossible to walk around the camp without sliding. There were a few trees to grab if you started to go, but not enough to reassure you wouldn’t slide off into the void.

I threw my bag inside the tent and climbed down to the lean-to where the guides had made hot chocolate from Guatemalan Cacao, and our group socialized around the campfire. There were about 15 people in our group from Germany, UK, Denmark, China, and France. I was the only American and we all spoke in Spanish to the guides and to each other. I don’t think I spoke more than 5 minutes of English for the entire trip. 

We watched an amazing sunset, and as nightfall approached the guides made a bolognese pasta over the open fire. We had dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching the volcano erupt. The stars in the night sky up there were brighter than I have ever seen. 

Eventually I scaled the steep incline making my way back up to my tent. When I took off my boots I noticed blisters had bled into my socks, but I ignored them and crawled into the sleeping bag and tried to get warm. The overnight was rough. It dropped to 29 degrees, my legs cramped all night, and I had the worst headache and dyspnea from the thin air at that altitude. Every time I would get close to falling asleep I would wake up gasping for air. I checked my Garmin watch and my oxygen level had dropped to 92! I don’t think I slept for more than 10 minutes that night. 

My back was killing me, every time I took a breath I felt a stabbing pain in my left rhomboid, a result of carrying the heavy packs for 5 hours. At the beginning of the climb they asked everyone if they wanted a “porter” (a local worker who carries up your backpack). What kind of pussy would do that, I wondered? Most of the people in our group opted for a porter, but a few others and I carried our own backpacks and a water pack on our front. By halfway up the bag felt like an anchor.

I watched a beautiful sunrise the next morning and then ate breakfast with the group around the campfire. I went back to my tent and stretched for 20 minutes before we started the hike down. It helped a lot. 

The trip down was fast. It was dangerous but some of us ran at certain points because it was easier on the legs than trying to slow yourself down. I was thrilled when it was over. My ears popped as the bus descended back to Antigua, the village where my hostel was located. 

I didn’t want to waste the remainder of the day resting. I walked around the village, and visited the ruins of an old church that was being restored as a museum. The architecture of the building, the artwork on display inside, and the grounds were exquisite. 

I had lengthy conversations with everyone I met. One of my favorite parts of the trip was meeting the owner of a local coffee shop. Their appreciation for coffee in Guatemala is similar to how we treat wine in America. He described every bean and variety in detail and let me sample a few different blends. I spent an hour talking with him about Guatemalan history and politics while his grandchildren played on the floor and his son waited on customers. It was interesting hearing his perspectives on the UFC fruit company, their lifestyle through President Arevalo and each of the past Presidents as compared to what I had read in books. 

I called a local guy I met to drive me to the airport at 3am for my flight home. I paid him what I would have paid a driver and he was appreciative. 

There is nothing like the authenticity of mixing into the culture of a 3rd world country. No commercial hotels, no translators, no luxuries. It reminds you of the goodness in people, how little we really need to be happy, and how conditioned we have become to think we need all the man made bullshit.


1 comment:

  1. What an incredible humbling experience!! The video of the volcano eruption reminds us of just how small we are! Beautiful pictures and amazing story Ben!


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