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Santiaguito Volcano – Part 2

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Mar 24 2019
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Santiaguito Volcano

Maybe we should of left this one out?

Published: March 24, 2019 by PICSPORADIC

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Volcán Santiaguito

You never know until you go..

Santiaguito volcano rumbleed through the night and we woke early to a grand explosion at sunrise. The volcano’s  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.

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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 down to the ash field below. Weight was critical as we knew the push back up would be the hardest part.

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Brendan James

Traveler and photographer, Brendan has cycled throughout Latin America currently lives in Guatemala. bio

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Elizabeth Sampey D.P.T

Endurance athlete and former pro USA Cycling national champion. Visit website

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1000m Straight Down

Taking bikes where they had never been before

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.

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.

Brendan James stuggling to get the fatbikes down the steep trail to Volcán Santiaguito. The look on his face says it all.

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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. DOWN-hill.

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.

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

Fatbiking on the flanks of Volcán Santa Maria

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.

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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.

I knew within the few feet that we were screwed. I hefted my bike overhead to clear the technical exit from the river and immediately fell backward, stuck in the brambles. I was trapped underneath, helpless.

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.

We both knew without saying that our success here, and in fact our ability to continue as partners without killing each other, would depend 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. Hours passed. It got dark.

Finally, we decided to take just my bike bike (the lighter of the two) and make a run for the top. It took us an hour advancing in 5 minute pushes to get back to camp. It was 10pm and we were both starving and exhausted. We pitched the tent and cooked dinner – forgeting for a moment about Brendan’s bike which was still below.

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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.

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.

What the hell just happened?

In the morning, we crawled out of the tent and assessed our 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.

“Our attempt on Volcán Santigauito remains one the of the most traumatizing exeriences I have ever had on a bike.”

Final thoughts

The takeaway we got from our defeat on Volcán Santiagutio was a understanding that the two of us could get through anthing together – despite the adversites.  We left Santiguito wondering what had just happened – a mere 1km of trail took us nearly 10 hours to manuever with bikes. We learned that there are some places that bikes have never been – With reason!

Traumatized or not – we had other Volcanoes to climb. We rode back to Quetzaltenango and rested up another night in the city before heading onto our next big objective: Volcán Tajumulco and it’s neighbor Tacaná – far in the north of the country.

-Liz Sampey

It is incredible we humans can do when we have to. On just two bags of peanuts and one tiny bar, Brendan and I biked all day. The trail down Santa Maria was technical and fun, and despite the efforts from the day before we were able to ride it well and enjoy it.

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Published: March 24, 2019 by PICSPORADIC

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Santiaguito - Fatbiking on an Active Volcano

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