IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUC­CEED

Shiv­er­ing, hud­dling in the tent as the ny­lon fab­ric buf­fets ag­gres­sively in the wind, nib­bling on a slice of cold, plas­tic-tast­ing faux cheese, we waited for the icy rain to sub­side. Not ex­actly how I en­vis­aged spend­ing my birth­day. At an el­e­va­tion just s

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS AND IMAGES: Emma Rogers LO­CA­TION: Gu­atemala

Emma Rogers

TOURS LEAVE THE bright colo­nial streets of An­tigua daily to climb the vol­cano. It isn't an easy feat. Peo­ple speak of the climb as if it were at once the best and worst thing they have ever done. Usu­ally, they de­scribe it as some­thing they would never do again. The sell­ing point? Aca­te­nango's highly ac­tive im­me­di­ate neigh­bour – Fuego; a vol­cano belch­ing steam, fire and ash, framed in the door­way of a tent. That de­fin­i­tive photo ev­ery back­packer wants on their In­sta­gram feed. At least, that is how the story should go.

Af­ter sev­eral cloudy weeks, the weather re­ports were im­prov­ing. We didn't do any­thing sen­si­ble like book­ing a tour. Our com­plete lack of plan­ning found us parked at the foot of the vol­cano late one chilly evening. Luck­ily Juan, a friendly lo­cal, waved us over and in­vited us to camp out­side his fam­ily home. He also ar­ranged for a guide to see us on our way the next day.

The morn­ing dawned, bleak and grey.

The only ray of sun­light was our cheer­ful guide Sixto, and his en­er­getic dog Nico. Sixto was pos­i­tive the skies would clear for a view of Fuego. It was a cold, mis­er­able trudge up the steep, muddy paths of Aca­te­nango. At the camp­ground, we waved good­bye to Sixto and Nico and be­gan a hope­less vigil.

We sat with our eyes glued to the white abyss that stretched in front of us. We peered, full of hope, in the di­rec­tion that Sixto had pointed. He had said, “Fuego is that way. When the cloud clears, you will see it from your tent.” The clouds didn't clear.

“Happy Birth­day,” Ben joked as we cel­e­brated with cold ham and cheese sand­wiches. The quiet pat­ter of rain on the tent was now drowned out by the howl­ing of the wind and the crack­ing of branches. As the storm raged out­side, we lamented our choice to forgo pack­ing a ther­mos of hot soup. In­stead, our tent was full of heavy cam­era gear that we weren't go­ing to need.

We awoke early, to the sound of tour groups de­scend­ing hastily. The weather had be­come dan­ger­ous. In­stead of sum­mit­ing Aca­te­nango, we made our way back down, filled with bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment. Half a world away from home, we had waited weeks and… noth­ing. We picked our way through fallen branches, swirling mist and sleety rain. De­feated.

Many would de­clare this a ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence. They would head for the Coast to find a bar that serves ice-cold beers, put their feet up in a ham­mock and… oh… wait, that's ex­actly what we did. How­ever, a lit­tle over a week later we came back and climbed Aca­te­nango… again.

Out­side Juan's home, we filled our day­packs with our warm­est gear and snacks – a day trip only. No camp­ing in the cold. The dry ground made the go­ing quick and it wasn't long be­fore we were in the up­per reaches of the de­cay­ing pine for­est. The cloud crept in… again.

En­veloped in mist, we didn't ex­pect to see much. At least we had en­joyed the climb this time if noth­ing else. Leav­ing the tree line, we made for the sad­dle be­tween Aca­te­nango's two peaks. Our goal was Pico Mayor – the taller of the two, with an un­ob­structed view of Fuego. As we as­cended through the layer of mist, far be­low amidst an ocean

of cloud ‘vol­canic is­lands' be­gan to ap­pear. To­wards Lago Ati­tlán we could see the sum­mits of Vol­canes San Pe­dro, Tolimán and Ati­tlán. The last stretch to the top was bru­tally steep. Just out of sight, Fuego was grum­bling. What bet­ter mo­ti­va­tion to do the climb in record time!

Not helped by our break at sea level, we were gasp­ing for air. We took de­ter­mined strides to­wards the top.

The end was in sight. My legs shook like jelly. Was it with the ef­fort, or the an­tic­i­pa­tion? Prob­a­bly both. The last hun­dred me­tres were painfully slow. Ev­ery step for­ward trig­gered a vi­o­lent slide back. Curs­ing my choice of footwear, I took the fi­nal wob­bly strides to­wards the sum­mit.

Vol­cán de Agua, which tow­ers above An­tigua, was now vis­i­ble far be­low, pok­ing out from the swirling sea of cloud. An earth-shak­ing boom, then a plume of smoke ap­peared from be­hind the sum­mit of Aca­te­nango. A few more steps and the peak of Fuego was vis­i­ble, belch­ing steam and smoke into the at­mos­phere. Suc­cess! Find­ing a shel­tered nook with a view of the erup­tions, we set­tled in for the af­ter­noon. We imag­ined the tour groups be­low, pitch­ing their tents in the cloud, hopeful for a glimpse of Fuego. We won­dered if the view would clear for them. The af­ter­noon wore on, the cloud ebbed and flowed. It cleared enough that the groups be­low would have a per­fect view from their tents. We pre­ferred our van­tage point. Just the two of us. On the sum­mit of a tow­er­ing vol­cano amid a swirling ocean of cloud, watch­ing an im­pres­sive dis­play of the raw power of Mother Na­ture un­fold right in front of us. “Happy un-birth­day”.

It felt like this show was just for us. Ev­ery few min­utes Fuego would belch more steam, some­times ash. Enor­mous rocks were vis­i­ble, bounc­ing down the slopes of the neigh­bour­ing vol­cano. We could feel, as much as hear the thun­der­ous, echo­ing booms that ac­com­pa­nied each dis­play.

As evening ar­rived, the mov­ing car­pet of cloud be­gan to glow all the colours of a ma­jes­tic sun­set. Stars twin­kled be­hind the erupt­ing Fuego. Against the night sky, the glow­ing fires burst­ing from deep within the earth be­came vis­i­ble. Streaks of fire filled the air. The vol­cano launched rocks and plumes of hot gas sky­ward. Fuego out­shone the fad­ing rem­nants of sun­set.

As the last light faded from the sky, shiv­er­ing in the chill night air, we aban­doned our lonely perch on top of the world. Head­ing back be­neath the thick banks of cloud, we soon lost sight of Fuego's bursts of fury. But our short time on an is­land on top of the world will be etched in our mem­ory for­ever. Would we do it again? Without a doubt.

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