I wasn't really awake when my alarm rang out at 11 pm. I was in that almost dreamlike state, with my mind trying to convince me that the noise I was hearing was part of a dream. 'Stay in bed' is what it was saying. 'The past few weeks of travel have taken it out of you and you need to sleep'. The persistence of my alarm cut through and when my mind caught up and I jumped out of bed to get ready. I'm never a person to shy away from a challenge, so when it was said that Acatenango at sunrise was the most challenging but also most rewarding experience, i jumped at the opportunity. What is 'challenging'? Hiking overnight for 5 hours in the dead of night, denying our bodies of much needed sleep, up a steep gradient of skreed and loosen, at an altitude of nearly 4000 m where oxygen is at a minimum, at temperatures close to 0 degrees. Beaut...sign me up! No pain, no gain.
The bus picked the six of us that were brave enough to take on the challenge, so late in the evening that it was nearly morning. The guide greeted us with the sleepy smile. It seems he was also struggling with waking up so early. The chill of the night had already set in, the last of the earlier rain drained away from the street and left a slippery sheen on the ground. Being careful not to slip, we loaded our backpacks on to the back seat and retreated into the warmth of the bus. The bus was unusually quiet for the short ride to the park entrance. Each person concentrating, both on the jittery nerves and the much needed words of self encouragement. Me..well i just stared out the window at the glimmering lights of the homes of the locals, wondering who would be away at this ungodly hour. What we were about to encounter was not a new experience for me. Despite the enormity of the physical challenge, I felt surprisingly calm. Don't get me wrong. I'm not some super hero that can leap mountains in a single bound. I knew this endeavour was going to hurt...a lot. That it was going to challenge me physically and mentally. But I also knew that the view from the top would be worth it. That feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction of triumph would override the pain. Surely we weren't doing this for nothing. Right? The bus stopped, and we disembarked into the pitch black. Rummaging around in our bags for our head lamps, you could sense the nervous energy. We buckled our backpacks, did the last minute check before taking our first steps. The groups anticipation and excitement of the adventure was quickly replaced with concentration and focus with each step. We were on a mission. Every person committed to reaching the top before sunrise. Step by step we climbed. The sound of heavy breathing, ever present as we sucked in as much oxygen as possible. The thud of boots crunching the wet leaves like a metronome. With every gruelling step the scenery changed. From farmland to volcanic terrain, we persevered through four different eco systems, or as my friend called them, the four different cloud levels. Unable to appreciate their beauty of the scenery at this time, due to the visibility being restricted to the condensation from my breath. We were sure to be dazzled when daylight arrives. Presently, we were conserving our focus to moving one foot in front of the other.
The night wained and the dawn drew nearer. Each step felt like a lead weight, and each boulder a mountain in itself. Our hearts were racing, the cold chill of the night evaporating the warmth from our skin. But we continued. We were a force to be wreckoned with, nothing was going to stop us. Then we hit the skreed. A practical joke by mother nature on hikers. A surface like quick sand where the more you try, the faster you fail. Slowly, slowly we grew nearer the summit. Just a few more steps, now.
As the gradient dropped and we mounted the ridge, we took a deep breath of victory. The sharpness of the cold dawn air, a sweet relief. And there it was, the spectacular sight. A mystical skyline of volcanic ranges and horizons that blended in to clouds. It took my breath away.
The elation of the group was shortly superceded by a sudden earth shattering 'crack'. 'Fuego', the adjacent volcano, erupted send a billowing ball of smoke, ash and lava, soaring high into the air. This rare occurance left even our seasoned guides speechless. No sooner had we absorbed what we were witnessing before, 'crack', again a ball of smoke penetrated the sleepy morning sky. Mother Nature clearing her throat, she roared and the shudder of the ground shook the weary travellers to life. The crisp morning air now seasoned with the scent of smokey ash, the hazy morning sky tinted a mottled grey in an attempt to stay night for just a few minutes more, like a teenager refusing to wake with an alarm.
I look around. In awe of the power and beauty I was witnessing. I could have stayed at home in the warmth of my bed, i could have retreated when the rains set in. I could have given in to the pain. But I didn't. And I feel like Mother Nature has rewarded me. Perseverance itself is a life changing experience.
Thank you Briony Williamson for the images.