Fire on Acatenango: Facing Shortcomings on a Guatemalan Volcano

Guatemala’s Fuego Volcano is one of Central America’s most active volcanoes. Translated into “Volcano of Fire” it has erupted more than 60 times since the 1500s and today, Fuego frequently ignites the night sky as red lava spews from its summit crater.

On my last night in Guatemala I was treated to a personal Fuego firework show from the neighboring 13,000 foot peak, Volcano Acatenango, where some friends and I decided to spend the night.

Camping on Acatenango was an overwhelming experience in so many senses. The brutal climb tested both my mental and physical stamina in ways that I have never experienced. However, camping above the clouds under a full moon, the thrill of watching Fuego erupt, and waking up to the most epic sunrise of all time is an experience that will be ingrained in my memory forever (don’t miss the pics at the end of this post). But even more electrifying, it has lit up a fire inside me to push myself to new heights and to overcome some of my shortcomings that I faced that day.

Setting off to Acatenango

I’ll start with the stats. Climbing Acatenango is non-technical but very steep. In just over 4 miles, you gain over 6,000 feet of elevation. This is far steeper than any climb I encountered on the John Muir Trail, including the push to the top of Mt. Whitney.

I was told by my two friends who I would be hiking with that the trek to the top of Acatenango was not going to be easy. Living in Guatemala, they are both Acatenango veterans, so I took this warning pretty seriously. Oh and both of them are also currently training for Everest. So there’s that. I was a little bit intimidated by the steep climb, the altitude, and my group who I was pretty sure was in much better shape than me. But still, I felt confident that I would make it, even if I was moving slower than the rest.

The previous night we spent at Lake Atitlan, so we had a slow relaxing morning enjoying the scenery around the lake. This also meant that we got off to a late start. By the time we reached the trailhead in the town of La Soledad, it was already almost 3pm. We had arranged for a local horseman to meet us to pack up some of our heavier gear including our tents and extra water, so all we had to carry was our clothes, camera, snacks, and water for the day. Somehow my pack still weighed what felt like 20 pounds.

And then we were off. The first mile of trail traveled through a series of sunny, agricultural fields built into the hillside. At first I felt pretty good. My breathing was under control, and I was keeping up, for the most part.

After about 45 minutes, the sandy trail steepened. For every step forward, I felt like I was sliding half a step down. Not cool. I felt myself getting winded, exhausted, and slowing down, and we hadn’t even reached the first rest point.

A Reality Check

I quickly began to think that I had grossly overestimated my capabilities and started to get self-conscious that I was holding the group up. I started to make excuses in my mind, like the fact that I had spent the last three weeks at sea level. Or that being on the road really got me out of my training routine. Both of those were true. But I also knew that I had kind of let myself go over the holidays and still hadn’t stirred up the motivation to get back into my exercise and healthy eating routine. Whoops.

Soon I caught up to my group who was taking a quick break in the shade. I was relieved to have reached the first check point. After a quick rest, we had to keep going. We were racing against the sun. We already knew it was going to be dark when we reached the top, so there was really no time to waste.

About 20 minutes later, I was still lagging behind in the company of my friend Andrea Cardona who was being very encouraging. A quick site note: Andrea is a total badass. A serious mountaineer. She is the first woman in all of Latin America to have completed the Adventure Grand Slam (the 7 summits and both poles), and she is the first woman in all of Central America to summit Everest. Yet she is incredibly modest and patient. A complete inspiration.

Anyways, when it was apparent that my pace was eons slower than everyone else’s, she asked me if I wanted to put my bag on the horse. I felt like a total weakling. But yes. Of course I wanted to put my bag on the horse, but unfortunately, as it turns out, the horse was already too far ahead.

A few minutes later, Andrea stopped ahead of me and told me to give her my bag. What? No way, I thought. She said she was going to put her bag inside of my bag and carry them both. She said it would be good for her training. I felt pretty awful having her do this. But I knew that if I continued at the pace I was going, it would be midnight before I made it to the summit. So I sheepishly handed her my backpack and kept trudging along, now feeling much lighter and quicker on my toes.

The Fiery Summit

The trail continued to climb through thick cloud forest and then through a thinning alpine ecosystem. Eventually the sky darkened, the air cooled, and we were completely above the treeline about to make our final summit push under a glowing full moon. As I climbed up the loose scree, my lungs felt tighter, but I was in complete awe as I looked down on the clouds below me. That feeling is what pushed me to the top…and the view of the fiery volcano that was waiting for me on the summit.

When the trail flattened out at the top, I experienced a feeling of pure ecstasy. I nearly ran to our campsite. And even though I felt a bit embarrassed about pawning my bag off on Andrea, she never made me feel bad about it. In fact, she congratulated me when we got to top and made me feel like I had really accomplished something great.

Once I arrived at camp, I changed into my warm clothes and then boom! The first explosion. Everyone ran to the ledge, looking down on the feisty Fuego which continued to erupt like clockwork throughout the evening.

I barely slept that night. The loud explosions, the energy, the excitement, the anticipation of the sunrise. It overwhelmed every single one of my senses. I even got up around 3am.  Bearing the shivering cold and sat for over an hour and watched Fuego as it hissed and bellowed over the sleeping towns thousands of feet below.

When 6am rolled around, I needed no alarm. I couldn’t wait to catch that sun rising. And I’ll tell you. It did not disappoint. It was without a doubt, the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever experienced.

The Aftermath

As I continue my quest in the outdoors, my experience on Acatenango brought my shortcomings to the forefront. It made me realize that I want to push myself harder in my day to day life to improve both my physical and mental stamina. I don’t want to be comparing myself to others wishing I was stronger, faster, or more able. While everyone has their own limits and capabilities, I know I can do better than my current state. After all, hiking is my jam, and for me, there is no excuse for having someone else carry my 20 pound bag.

What this means more training, more focus, and more determination. Because when the opportunity arises to do something epic, I want to meet the challenge head on. I don’t want to be scared, intimidated, or huffing and puffing my way up trail. I want to tackle mountains, rather than having the mountains tackle me.

I may be 31, but this is just the start of my journey. Wanna join me? I’m in the process of developing a program to step up my game and would love for you to participate. Add your voice to the comments below, and I will get in touch with more details.

Also, stay tuned for a follow-up post where I will share my hiking tips for Acatenango.

The Pictures

Scroll through the gallery below to check out the my pictures of the hike and summit of Acatenango.

And a shoutout to my friends Karl Nesseler and Caspar Schaede for the pics they took of me.