After months of anticipation, I finally got to climb the volcano Pacaya on April 6, 2003. Having arrived in Guatemala only 36 hours before, I was concerned that I would have problems with the altitude, despite the training regimen I’d followed to get ready. It turned out as I suspected, that my legs were plenty strong but the altitude was a challenge! I was about to climb to an elevation of over 1 ½ miles while being accustomed to living at only 550 feet. The air is quite noticeably thinner.
My eight Guatemalan friends thought I was crazy to bring nearly one gallon of water in my backpack, but I explained that between the heat and the altitude, I would need all the water I could get. It turned out that I drank every bit of it in the 5 hours we were there. Our driver was Jose Pineda, tour guide, translator and adoption expediter. At age 28 and pretty athletic, he was outfitted like it was a casual afternoon stroll in the park. He only bought one pint of water to drink on the climb, which was a cakewalk for him, making me a bit jealous. Although I had heard stories of tour operators taking their clients in rusted out, old vans, Jose has a brand new key mini-bus, which we all fit into quite comfortably. Jose indulged me and my limitless questions about Guatemalan history, economics and culture during the entire one hour drive to the volcano.
As we approached Pacaya in the van, I was getting a little worried seeing how high up the smoking peak was and saw that we were actually descending from Guatemala City! The 550 meter climb that I thought I was in for turned out to be an elevation gain of over 1600 meters (one mile)! So much for accurate information on the Internet…
San Francisco de Sales: Roosters, Cows and Kids
The trailhead that we started from is in the tiny hamlet of San Francisco de Sales, which features dirt roads, adobe and cinderblock / sheet metal houses, and plenty of roosters, cows & horses roaming the streets. I was amazed at how much dirt there was (no pavement, asphalt or other trappings of “civilization” and yet somehow the people I saw managed to keep their white shirts clean! However dirt poor they are, they are not very dirty.
The hamlet, as well as the small town of San Vicente Pacaya below it, receives power from the thermo-electric plant that draws energy from the volcano, using steam to turn turbines and generate electricity. An awesome utilization of natural resources! They also have an abundance of water from a huge Caldera: a lake formed in what used to be the crater of a much lower volcano long ago.
San Francisco’s “Welcome Center” for climbers is quite modest, but nice enough with flushing toilets, vendors selling cokes, water and snacks, and plenty of kids around who are available to be your guide (they know the mountain like the back of their hand, and can run up to the summit in an hour, while it takes most climbers triple that!). Jose found Pancho, his guide and buddy from past trips.
Up Through the Forest
We started the ascent at 7:30 AM in order to beat the heat, which was a great thing. Even so, I was sweating quite a bit. The sky was clear (luckily the clouds rolled in only after we were descending!) so the views were magnificent. I wasn’t too concerned about climbing the most active volcano in Central America, since Jose was a professional guide (and we also had Pancho along, who lived there) who knew not only the trails but also when the seismic activity warranted caution. We were also accompanied by three mangy dogs, who I thought must have been Pancho’s. However I was told that they ‘belong to the volcano’ and live off the handouts of climbers.
The four foot wide trail is actually paved for the first 100 meters of the ascent, because it is so steep that erosion was a big problem when it rained. It was also so steep (about a 45% grade) that I thought I would die – my lungs were killing me, with pains in both sides despite my slow pace. I must have looked pretty pitiful, huffing and puffing, because Pancho asked me sympathetically if I wanted him to rent a horse for me! (Horses can take you most of the way up, but where’s the challenge in that?)
I felt a little better when I found out that the climb would get a bit easier, and tried to focus on the livestock and small farms on each side of the trail instead of the stabbing pains in my sides. When I realized that the sternum strap on my backpack was preventing my chest from expanding fully to take in more air, I immediately made an adjustment and got some relief. However, I was still so worn out that I didn’t notice that someone had joined our party – a tenth man, who had .38 caliber pistol in his belt. Luckily, he was one of the rangers (with no uniform) who safeguard the climbers. With their radios and pistols, they keep the place safe to prevent the robberies that would kill tourism at this new national park.
Security is not the only thing that has been provided to ensure continued tourism. Along the way there are signs posted detailing the local flora and fauna, for those who are able to waste precious energy looking at them! For the most part, when I was moving all I saw was the ground three feet in front of me! I did get much better looks at the scenery (and pictures) on the way down, when breathing normally was possible.
After about two hours we came to the end of the lush vegetation of the forest, which was overtaken by the black volcanic soil. The last patch of vegetation was quite the oasis – with stone picnic tables, outhouses, and the last of the shade. It was a nice rest stop with the first totally unobstructed view of the 180 meter high cone that held the summit and the smoking crater.
Ascending the Summit
We left the green of the forest and stepped out onto the barren lunar landscape of black ash and rocks. We continued the climb up a saddle between the active cone far to our right and an old, dormant cone on the left. Immediately to our right was a steep dropoff of about 150 feet, where lava has flowed during the recent eruptions. The thing that stands out the most is the absence of any color, except for the sky and the smoke above. Everything is just black volcanic rock, ash and soil.
At the end of the saddle, we traversed a ridge onto the active cone and then began the 450 ascent up the “path” where Pancho took us. The volcanic ash is very loose, so you slip and slide quite a bit, making it a pretty demanding climb. These final 550 feet took us nearly an hour. For me, it meant climbing only 4 to 6 steps at a time and then stopping to lean over my hiking staff and breathe. It was definitely the hardest workout I’ve ever had, including my time in Basic Training at Ft. Benning. However, there was no way I was going to call it quits. The months of thinking about this climb, as well as the beautiful view to my right and the fact that there were actually some clouds BELOW us now, had my adrenaline pumping.
My friend Humberto insisted on positioning himself immediately behind me to catch me in case I fell (though I don’t know how he could have stopped me, since I outweigh him by about 90 pounds!). The others, with their lungs accustomed to living up at one mile elevation in Guatemala City were way ahead of us.
Finally, we reached the plateau and saw the smoke billowing from the crater about 100 meters away (this 100 meters is distance, NOT elevation for a change!). To my right was a dropoff of 700 feet – the tumble down the slope full of sharp volcanic rocks would be an excruciating way to die! To my left a part of the old crater that had not yet collapsed into the lava cone was still another 75 feet higher. When I told Jose that I HAD to climb that, since it was the true summit, I don’t think he believed me, since I looked rather wasted. However, after we traversed over to the rim of the crater, took pictures and got a snoot full of sulphuric gas, I determined to ascend to the highest part. \
At the crater, we could see the runway of the Guatemala City airport 20 miles away, and cumulus clouds not too far above us and some other wispy clouds below us. It was impossible to see lava, as visibility through the smoke down into the crater was 10 feet at best. I took pictures, collected rocks and then set out for the true summit.
Jose insisted on accompanying me, since it was pretty rough climbing. When I got to where there was nothing left to climb, I looked for the rock that was perhaps an inch higher than any other spot, planted my left foot on it and had Jose take my picture while I held my breath, as I was partially enveloped in the cloud of smoke from the crater. If I moved ten feet to the south or east I would be in for an unstoppable fall of several hundred feet. Ten feet to the west would mean a tumble into the crater and a lava bath. I decided that an immediate retreat about ten yards to north, where the steady wind protected me from the smoke, would be the best next step. I took more pictures and savored the moment.
Another twenty feet of descent and I stopped to pull off my boots and change my socks to prevent blisters. I sat down near a small hole that had hot air coming out of it - one of thousands of vents that relieve pressure from the volcano.
We regathered at the end of the plateau and followed Pancho down the cone. I was surprised when he continued straight instead of going to the left at one point, then watched as he began to ski down the slope like he was in Aspen! I had read about ‘ash skiing’ but didn’t know we were going to do it. The ash / volcanic sand (aka “scree”) at this point consisted of very small particles, with very few of the larger, sharp edged boulders that could cut you if you fell on them. Pancho descended in 5 minutes what took us nearly an hour to climb.
When my turn came, I knew enough from skiing at Breckenridge to keep my knees bent or risk breaking a leg. I also kept my rear-end very low in case I lost my balance so I wouldn’t start tumbling down head over heels. I used my hiking staff like a tight rope walker uses a pole. Every minute or so I would manage to stop and rest my aching legs, then resume the skiing. The scree was so deep my feet were buried, but my gaiters kept the scree out of my boots. As I hit the bottom of the cone and looked up from the saddle, I heard my friends joking about climbing up again. I also saw Pancho throwing rocks at the carcass of a dead possum and get squirted in the mouth with possum guts! We laughed (even Pancho did) and headed down toward the forest.
It seemed that nobody really wanted to leave, as we kept finding ourselves stopped and talking and looking back up at the smoking crater. The descent to the trailhead took about an hour, but was really tough on my knees (descending is always harder on your joints, due to the jarring that happens with each step).
As we passed the ‘rest area’ Jose stopped to talk to someone, who I later found out was the famous Dr. McKenney, after whom the crater was named. He is perhaps the most famous volcanologist in Central and South America, and Jose went to school with his son! Dr. McKenney and his wife normally don’t visit the volcano unless there is some seismic activity suggesting an imminent eruption, but he decided that it was a nice day for a climb.
The ride home was silent, except for my long-winded discussion about Guatemalan economics with Jose. Humberto and his kids snoozed and Ruben, his sons and his buddy were pretty quiet. It was a great day.