When you ask someone if it was fun and they respond with, “It was cold”, the answer is undoubtedly no.
“Type 2 fun?” We ask.
“Type 2 fun,” they respond. “But it was really cold.”
Their faces don’t seem weathered. They don’t seem shaken. But they do seem unusually glad. My guess is it’s not because they think we’re cute.
“City boys,” we muse. “Amateurs,” I think. False confidence, I realize now.
The three athletic and much taller twenty-somethings load into the truck we’re leaving behind.
“Adios.” They shut the door.
From the bottom and a little to the left, the three of us are looking up; nothing but blue sky. The climb never seems so high when there’s sunlight on my cheek and my pack is still on the ground. 40 degree incline? No sweat. Altitude? Been there, done that. Julia took on Patagonia. The Khumbu danced with me. Only four hours to the top? Acatenengo, you’re mine.
Forward march, we trudge up through black volcanic silt. Every step, we lose three inches, like men in cold water scaling a vertical beach. I stop shaking stones from my shoes.
Our trusty guide tells us he hasn’t slept. That he’s hung over. That he drank a lot of whiskey. That he’d rest well through the night.
We move past sunflower fields, or is it corn? I’ll never know; Alonso is out of sight. I’ll forgive him at lunch when he produces Pollo Campero – God sent fried chicken sandwiches with extra mayo – but I’ll remember again when his sleeping bag makes noises all night.
One hour in. Kristina with her low blood sugar. She needs a Snickers Bar. It can get real bad, real fast; near comatose, fainting spells, nausea and a loose volcano trail – an imperfect combination. No chance for help. Thank God for Snickers Bars, and Mars Bars too. One sugar rush and we’re on our way again.
The silt turns to mountain side and we catch a strong pace. There’s grass so long it has split ends, so long you could braid it, give it pig tails. “Do hobbits live here?” No one answers. Do I hear a slow clap from somewhere up ahead?
Clouds hang around a giant opaque triangle of coal pricking the blue sky in the distance. A seedy guest at an abundant banquet, that’s Agua Volcano and the Guatemalan country side. Char in a spring meadow, she sucks in all the colour around her.
We’re at a rest stop with two giant craters. We peek in. No lava. Here lies a fresh graveyard of crushed plastic. Water bottles, snickers bars, Pollo Campero. Human waste. We tuck our wrappers in our pockets. What’s a little extra weight?
Not far from the top, the terrain has changed again. This is a place where clouds lie, but not where they rest. The rain starts slow and then pours, while our very intentional steps fight to anchor in the very loose volcanic silt. 1000 little land slides fall behind every step. The wind picks up. I tighten my hood.
Finally, the crater. We’re told, “it’s just over there.” But I can’t see a damned thing. When it starts pouring and the air gets really thin and our knees are shaking like a polaroid picture, we can pitch a tent in lightning speed. (Yes, that’s foreshadowing.)
A four person tent for four people, who would have thought? Cozy is as cozy does until the tent starts leaking.
At 8:00, we stop telling stories. Our laughter ebbs away and Alonso starts snoring. The noises from his sleeping bag begin. A water bottle as neck support and my pack as a pillow, I start drifting away too. The rain picks up the pace. To relieve the weight off my bones, I shift onto my back, smiling at the ceiling in the dark.
When the first crack shakes us, it’s followed by a sheet of light. The rain is coming down in wallops and the air’s electric. If I was at home in bed, I’d enjoy this. Even despite the cold, I do.
But then I think about it.
We are on the crater’s edge of a volcano; the highest point. We are in a metal framed tent; rubber soled shoes in the fly. We are on an open plane; the highest object.
We forgot a welcome sign.
The lightning strikes again. My friends are asleep or have not realized we’re lying in an egg shell with a brass antenna on stilts.
“I need to tell you something,” I explain.
“Well, we are where we are,” Kristina says. Julia agrees. The path will have long flooded out. Going down is more dangerous than staying still. Alonso is asleep.
Lightning skips across the ceiling of the tent. We watch in silence, but for the rain.
Am I still awake? Or did I drift? What would the newspapers say? Remains of three unidentified women found. What were they thinking? Camping on a volcano in rainy season. Why didn’t they come down?
I think about how they’d find us. Tomorrow’s hikers reach the crater to find a decrepit tent with a single plume of smoke coming from an exposed pole. Inside the melted tarp, four charred bodies, spooning with their hoods still on. A water bottle for a pillow. Shoes at the door.
I turn to my side, then my back, then my side. Stretch out my legs, then curl them back in, toes soaked. Julia turns too. I hear Kristina shuffle. The wind; it will blow us off the lip, if the lightning doesn’t get us first. 10 000 Hail Marys and I’m not religious. There are worse times to start to pray.
Endless nights do end.
When light breaks, the rain stops but not the wind. Moving slow, we step through the fly and into a painting. The morning sun yawns across the landscape. Guatemala fades to pastel. All my prayers manifest into 10 000 shades of blue. Volcanos skirt the horizon. Sleepy fields for days. It’s warm down there, somewhere.
When in nature, nature still calls and there’s no way to go with the wind.“Pass the baby wipes.” Wet ankles for the win. “No questions, please.”
My hat flies off the ridge. I crawl back up the ridge. Is it the view or the wind bringing tears to my eyes? Cameras snap in automatic mode. I smile in a selfie. Our giggles fall into the valley below. Then we stop. Together, we take it in.
“The lightning,” I say to Alonso while we dismantle the tent. “I was a bit scared.”
“Me too,” he says, arms to the sky, chest puffed out with a contented stretch as the wind whacks him on both sides. “Me too.”
Four hours up, two down. Acatenengo had her way with us. Bowing down, I go. The path is infiltrated by debris. Trees that stood tall yesterday are split. Alonso is out of sight. Oh, the things we do for a view.
At the bottom, I lay out my socks. I shake out my shoes and watch a dog snooze under a pick-up truck. It’s our turn to stretch out in the sun.
Our ride rounds the bend and stops in front of us. Barefoot and exhausted, we get in. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, Alonso hops up front. Just before we fall asleep, the driver asks if we had fun. I respond, “It was cold.”