EP05: Acatenango

Aug 18 2016
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The final attempt

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 Volcán Acatenango (3,976m) from the east. It’s dual summit cones towering above the nearby pueblo of Parramos

Volcán Acatenango (3,976m)

Acatenango is the tallest volcano you can see from the cultural and tourist center of Antigua below. Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes: Agua to the ?? and Acatenango and Fuego to the ??. Volcan Fuego is one of seven (??) volcanoes in Guatemala that is currently active. It erupts several times a day. It shares a saddle with Acatenango, and therefore Acatenango’s summit is the closest you can get to an active volcano in Guatemala.

Riding out of Chimaltenango towards the volcano — the beginning of a very long day.
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One last chance...

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After the strain and sickness we suffered from our time spent in the North, we took a few days at home in Panajachel to recover. But we couldn’t wait long- I had a flight out to the US in a week. It was time for me to return to North America for my racing season.

To be completely honest, neither Brendan nor I were very excited about this last expedition. We were tired and weak. Both of us were malnourished, the strain of sickness had gotten to both our heads and we were afraid that anything we ate could set it off again. So we struggled with trying to fuel enough to improve our strength, and eating as little as possible to prevent getting sick again. If one of us got sick again, it was all over.

We had arranged to stay with our friend Jordan in Chimaltenango, the city closest to Acatenango. From there, it would be a couple hours bike ride plus hopefully a hitch in a pickup to the base of the volcano, where we would start our climb.

We ditched as much weight as we could: anything not essential would stay behind. Still, because of the necessary food and water, we were both carrying around 70 pounds. We packed strategically: as much weight on the bikes as possible for the pedal up, easily transferrable to our empty backpacks to begin the hike. I wasn’t going to mess around with pushing- I was going to strap my bike directly to my pack as soon as it got steep. A summit push despite any odds was very much on both our minds. This was our last chance.


Preparing, fighting a battle with doubt. Could we do it?

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Our Last Chance

I awoke with a start before the alarm. I was a bundle of nerves. I hadn’t been this anxious since my early days of bike racing. I knew today was going to hurt. Could I do it? Could WE do it? Brendan had been sick for weeks now, and although he was one of the toughest people I knew, everybody has their limits.

And as for me, the nagging question in my head: am I physically strong enough? This load, 70 pounds, was WELL over half my bodyweight. We had both lost significant weight from sickness. Could I physically carry the load? The entire expedition I had been adamant about carrying my full load, including my share of the group gear. I had not invited Brendan on this trip so he could carry all of the weight.

As a small woman, to be taken seriously as an athlete I must insist on being an equal partner and this was not the time to stop. I had to push away the doubt and replace it with a mantra: I will not fail. Never, never, never give up. With this in mind, I followed Brendan out of Jordan’s house, got on my loaded bike, and started pedaling through Chimaltenango rush hour traffic towards the looming volcano.

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At the base of the trail, I immediately strapped my bike to my backpack. I have learned that while Brendan is able to make good time pushing his bike uphill, it is better for me to carry. All the weight above me just pushes me backwards. I find myself having to turn sideways often to work my way through the underbrush, but I am actually making progress.

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View from the flanks of Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala’s highest volcano in a chain along the Sierra Madre de Chiapas


A guide's mountain

Acatenango is a guide’s mountain. Outfits from Antigua contract with local guides from the village at the base of the mountain who are members of a guide’s coalition to ensure they all get work. Tourists are shuttled up from Antigua by the busload, for day trips and camping.

Soon a Mayan guía catches up with me as he brings a straggling tourist up to his group. Tomás is 40 years old, and has been guiding the mountain three times a week for the past 20 years. He sees people going up with bikes occasionally, but never bikes and camping gear to the summit. He smiles at my awkward pack, but his smile is one of knowing, not doubting. He is no stranger to heavy loads.

Volcán Fuego is a close neighbor of Acatenango, and is the most active volcano in Guatemala. It was the first natural wonder of the country that I had witnessed from far down in the valley when I arrived in Guatemala exactly a year earlier for the race. Its explosive energy drew me in, and it had become a dream of mine to experience it up close.

But I knew what was ahead: a steep couloir full of volcanic rubble where it would again be one step forward, three feet back. And the final barrier to the crater was a technical rock scramble with complicated routefinding. No problem, in the daylight without 70 pounds on our backs.

Fueled by willpower

Four hours pass quickly, then six. Brendan and I try to take in as much food as possible in attempt to regain strength from our sickness, but we are depleted and not moving as quickly as we’d like.

Still, I am surprised at how strong I am feeling, despite the 70 pounds I am awkwardly carrying. I am fueled by willpower to complete an objective and the dream I have of sleeping on top of a 13,000 foot volcano next to an active volcano.

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Committed to the struggle


It took us six hours to even reach treeline with our heavy loads.

The moment of truth

As we reach the saddle, it is cold, dark, and windy. We catch a glimpse of the summit cone of Acatenango in the moonlight as clouds fly past. It looks far away.

Brendan says he wants to make camp at the saddle, and summit in the morning with just the bikes. He gives a number of valid reasons: It will be cold and windy up at 13,000 feet, routefinding through the rocks in the dark will be difficult, we could get lost, he is exhausted. It all makes sense.

But I am determined and not easily talked out of my dream when we are so close. There are no words strong enough to explain how much it means to me. Finally, Brendan agrees to push for the summit.

Step, step, slide. I have been carrying well over half my bodyweight for ten hours. I slip to my knees in the steep couloir and fight to stay upright, blocking out thoughts of failure. “Just keep moving. If the Mayans can do it, I can too. Con tiempo, todo se puede.” My mind plays tricks on me as I struggle in the dark, trying desperately to once again channel the tenacity of the Papabikers. I know they are following our adventure and I want to make them proud.

The dream realized

When we finally crest the summit cone with nothing but the sky stretching endlessly overhead, I am overcome with emotion. After all the hardships and doubts, we finally made it. We are up at 13,000 feet with our fat bikes, and we are going to camp face to face with Volcán Fuego. The wind is ripping, but I don’t feel the cold. The stars are brilliant and the purplish glow of the Milky Way casts its hue on the rocks. I have never felt so insignificant.

Suddenly, like an unexpected and esteemed party guest throwing open a door, Fuego announces its presence. A huge black cloud silently billows up from the hole that runs straight down to the earth’s core, and a huge geyser of magma spouts high up into the air. It lights the night up a brilliant red, then rains down on the flanks of the mountain and fades to blackness.

It is impossible to fathom what is happening in front of me. It is too powerful to comprehend, and it is a force of nature I will never truly understand. All I know is that the past twelve hours of suffering were worth it for that moment. We stand in awe as the earth trembles under our feet. No cameras are rolling, but the scene is forever etched in my memory.

When Fuego has finished its spectacular welcome, it falls silent. The wind, which had been ripping across the crater of Acatenango, goes quiet as well. We are left staring into the cold, clear, quiet vacuum of night. The stars look close enough to touch. There are no other beings around: we are alone with the volcano. It is the calmest night I have ever spent in the mountains, and I sleep more soundly than I have in months.

- el Fin -

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