5 enero 2012 jueves
Yes! My turn had finally come to summit Tajumulco, the tallest mountain in Central America, rising majestically to 4220 meters (just shy of 14,000 ft). I had envied other volunteers who had already trekked skyward up its slopes, but it seemed fitting to postpone this challenge until the arrival of my two children to Guatemala.
Alex, age 23, and Michelle, 21, landed in Guatemala City on December 15th for a three-week adventure planned by their mother-tour guide. Both had sounded enthusiastic, well at least interested, in the idea of climbing Tajumulco…yet I knew that Michelle, coming from sea level would need a few days to acclimate to the 6-7,000 ft altitude in the Western Highlands before we ramped up to double that. Alex has the advantage of living in Boulder, Colorado amidst the Rockies…so his red blood cell count was fine. Our training regime was perhaps a little unorthodox but decidedly fun, including a night of salsa dancing in Xela until 1 am. Next we headed to my town where we enjoyed hikes to the villages as we chomped down chocobananos (chocolate-covered frozen bananas) for 1 quetzal each ($.15).
We entrusted Quetzaltrekkers, a hiking organization with a heart (their profits support a primary school in Guatemala) to lead our way. First stop: warm clothing and supplies from their lending closet….jackets were pulled on and off until the perfect fit. Thankfully there were gloves, fleeces, and hats, too. Soon our backpacks were bulging with winter wear, tents, water, food and more….A brief pre-trip meeting covered some ground rules, including minimizing our environmental impact with a “shit kit”. (Luckily at the top of the mountain we found an open-air 3-seater latrine, with a marvelous mountain view from that throne so the kit went unused.) Finally packed, we carbo-loaded with pasta, marinara sauce, veggies, and Protemas (a soy product). Then bedtime zzzs.
Wed., December 21st – Trek day! Left Xela at 6am to arrive to Tajumulco, hanging on tightly as the camioneta (chicken bus) sped along windy mountain roads. Guatemalan bus drivers will often brace one hand on the window as the other hand spins the wheel HARD, definitely rivaling drivers of the Indy 500. We trekkers revved our own internal engines on warm pancakes and fruit salad in San Marcos…lunch would be earned on the mountain. The moment arrived at 11am to strap on loaded backpacks. The initial trail was merely a dirt road of little interest which began at 3,000 meters, but soon we had views over the valleys and experienced both altitude and load. I’ll admit that I wimped out and gave the tent fly and an extra water to Alex since he was nearly skipping up the mountain, and I was trekking slowly…my load was still substantial but now there was hope of reaching the top. Several snacks and lunch of guacamole, hummus, and bean salad had been very welcome. Four hours later we arrived to our base camp at 4,000 meters, pitching our tents under some scruffy pine trees. Snuggling near the campfire, we chatted with our two guides, Santi from Guatemala, and Josh from Canada. Allistar, a young man from England, was the 4th trekker of the group. With nightfall the temperature plummeted to the 30s F, so we quickly dashed from the warmth of the fire into our sleeping bags…pulling on yet more layers of clothes and trying to sleep.
Thurs., December 22nd – Summit day!Alarms beeped with insistence at 4am. With nervous excitement and shivering in the dark and cold, we stuffed pads and sleeping bags into our backpacks for the final trek. Headlamps lit up the rocky ascent of the final 200 meters…often we climbed on all fours. Here is where the altitude truly hit hard as the oxygen tapered off FAST! Moving felt like a chore, so we took it slow with breaks to hydrate so as to calm headaches and pounding hearts…an hour later we successfully reached the flat top of Tajumulco!! In the darkness we could hear others, but our priority was on snuggling back into our sleeping bag cocoons until some sign of dawn.
Peeping out now and then, a glow began over the horizon which revealed the outline of distant volcanoes: Santa Maria (Xela), San Pedro and others (Lake Atitlan), and even the volcanoes Agua and Fuego, halfway across the country near Antigua. In rapture, I watched distant Fuego puff clouds of smoke lit up by the sun. A glorious dawn it was!!
Pulling myself from my sleeping bag, I filmed the progression of the sun. Despite freezing hands I captured the splendor of the mountain, its crater, and the intrepid trekkers who bore witness. The Pacific Ocean hid below a layer of clouds but our view was framed by the sentinel of volcanoes in the east and Mexico to our west. An orange glow spread over all of us as the sun rose higher, with our mountain casting a long shadow upon the smaller, neighboring volcano Tacana.
Our eyes had been filled with treats, but our stomachs demanded the same…so it came time to descend. Layers of clothes came off as we descended into the bright sun and the air warmed up quickly. At base camp we chomped down hearty mosh (just love that Spanish word for oatmeal!) We broke camp, and headed down the mountain…a mere two hours later we arrived to the start. Our trek included a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant with a huge glass pane window overlooking the valley, festive Christmas decorations and yes, the opportunity to just sit for awhile. But no adventure is complete without a postscript…on our way to San Marcos our bus halted due to a trash truck hanging onto an embankment. The 4 male trekkers joined the Guatemalan men in attempting to pull the truck out by rope, budging it to a more secure footing and we then resumed our journey….ahh, got to love the beauty and adventure of Guatemala!
Gracias to our guides from Quetzaltrekkers for an amazing end to 2011 on the tallest peak of Central America!