Volcanarchy: Santiaguito Pt. 2
The torment of the descent
Descent into hell
We woke early in the morning to Santiaguito exploding at sunrise. Its giant ash cloud filled the air, and we were filled with excitement. Maybe people were wrong — maybe the route had been cleared in the past year? We had to know. We’ve come this far. It’s time to give this thing a go.
We decided to stash our packs near the mirador and descend with only the day’s worth of food and water, to give ourselves the best chance to make it. We knew the push back up would be the hardest part.
Trying to squeeze all the water we can get off of the dew-laden tent
1000m straight down
At first the descent was fun, and moderately rideable. We were on steep, overgrown trails, but gravity was on our side, and we screeched down the side of the mountain, scrubbing speed by drifting corners and pinballing off large roots with our fat tires.
Then, the trail got deep, and we started “trenching,” walking our legs on top of the handlebar-high trenches while sitting on the saddle, as there was not enough room to actually ride anymore.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any steeper, it did. The trail turned to full-on technical downclimbing, and our silly laughter quickly turned to quiet focus on getting the bikes down the vertical sections.
One of us would downclimb while the other stayed up to hand the bikes down one at a time, then the other would downclimb. It was slippery, and we anchored into rocks and roots to keep from shooting straight down the chutes.
A logistical challenge
I have a bad feeling about this...
It was about then that my self-preservation instinct began to kick in as I realized the deep hole we were crawling into — literally and figuratively. We were moving less than 100 vertical meters per hour. DOWNhill. This is no bueno.
To make matters worse, conditions were deteriorating. We were socked in with fog and ash from Santiaguito’s constant eruptions, and we couldn’t see anything. There was ash EVERYWHERE – gathering on all the foliage, our bikes, and us.
With the speed we were going, I knew we were going to run out of food and water long before we reached the canyon that held the base of Santiaguito. And if it was taking us this long to go downhill, no doubt uphill would be 100x worse.
Pushing down feelings of guilt at being the weaker partner, I suggested that we think about turning around. Brendan knew his own strength, and was firmly committed to the goal. He didn’t care if we ran out of resources, he was determined to not turn back. “Oh man,” I thought. We hadn’t talked about how to handle this scenario.
Finally, after much debate and me standing my ground as the weaker link, we compromised and decided to push for the halfway point, a petrified lava river running down the flanks of Santa Maria. We would ride on the river, then turn back.
The lava river
The petrified lava river was otherworldly. It was like slickrock, only black, coated with a fine layer of ash, and slippery as graphite powder.
Riding on this alien terrain took precision, balance, and focus. A split second of being off balance on our tires would take us crashing to the ground. Gingerly hovering on our bikes, we rode lines, playing on the ridges, slides, and holes present in the rock. It was thrilling and fun. I was glad we had made it this far.
Brendan using his agility to balance on the slippery terrain.
The climb we will never forget
We were jolted from our shred session by the feeling of raindrops on our skin, reminding us of the ordeal we had ahead of us. It was time to head back up. We could only hope to make it before dark, but we were very happy we had brought the lights.
Right away we removed our pedals, loosened our headsets and twisted our handlebars vertically, taping them to our top tubes with electrical tape to make the profiles as skinny as possible and help our bikes pass more easily through the trenches.
I knew within the first ten feet that we were screwed, as I hefted my bike overhead to clear the technical exit from the river and immediately got it stuck in the brambles. I was underneath, helpless. Finally I squirmed out the other side, scrambled up the embankment, and after about five minutes was able to pull the bike out. Great. One down, a million to go.
We both knew without saying that our success here, and in fact our ability to continue as partners without killing each other, would depend fully on our attitudes. I vowed to myself to not say or think anything that wasn’t helpful or positive, and I think Brendan did the same. We silently and slowly moved upwards, occasionally encouraging the other.
The next six hours were a blur of agony. I felt like we had somehow become extras in a B-rated horror film. The sawgrasses that had been soft on our way down had turned sharp with the rain, and razored our skin from head to toe. The toxic ash, now liquid, seeped into our cuts, burning and stinging. It was a nightmare, and I have no idea how we both stayed positive and focused. We were moving inches at a time.
Eventually, it got steep enough that neither of us could push or carry our own bikes. We realized we would have to shuttle. Brendan pulled from the front and I pushed from the back, moving one bike at a time for 10-15 minutes, then going back for the other. It was agonizing, but it was working.
Finally, we decided to take my bike and make a run for the top. It was almost dark. It took us an hour to get my bike, the lighter one, back up to camp. We were exhausted and starving. We decided to make camp and load up with dinner.
“Extreme” – go figure
After dinner, Brendan wanted to go back for his bike which was filled with his camera gear. I was unwilling to let him go alone. We came up with a plan: I would hike down with an empty backpack, and Brendan with nothing. We would strip his bike of all the bags and extra weight and put it on my back in the pack. Then I would hike it up, and Brendan would carry his bike solo.
Finally... the ordeal ends.
It worked. It was dark and slippery, but we were bolstered by the delicious food we had eaten, and we made good time. The effort took us an hour and a half both ways, and just before midnight we finally slipped into our sleeping bags, exhausted and defeated.
The last thought I had before plunging into a deep sleep was: That was easily the dumbest thing I have ever done.
In the morning, we crawled out of the tent and assessed the situation. We had exactly two bottles of water, two small bags of peanuts, and one tiny energy bar between the two of us.
We still had about an hour of hike a bike and lots of downhill and flat pedaling left to go to make it back to Xela. We would really have to conserve.
In the dry season, huge amounts of dew forms on everything at night to quench the foliage in the time of year where there is very little rain. This included our tent, and we decided to collect the dew from our tent to use as drinking water. We actually got nearly half a bottle of water off of our tent. It would come in handy in the blazing sun on the ride out.
It is incredible what humans can do when they have to. On just two bags of peanuts and one tiny bar, Brendan and I biked all day long. The trail down Santa Maria was technical and fun, and despite the efforts from the day before and our tiny food supply, we were able to ride it well and enjoy it.
It was a small consolation for the disappointment of the previous day, but at least it was something. I wished we could come up here and ride this fresh. It was really, really good riding. (Hint: if you find yourself in Xela, go ride Santa Maria! It’s a treat.)
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached civilization on the outskirts of Xela. We stopped at the first tienda we saw and Brendan made short work of an entire row of small bags of chips, while I promptly inhaled three ice cream sandwiches. It was the best ice cream I had ever eaten in my life.