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Archive for December, 2009

A Night on Cold Mountain

The Beast Herself

In my drunken state I could not find the lights in the kitchen; or rather I could not make them work. It is possible I was uselessly flicking the switch to the broken ceiling fan. However it is also possible that the power had be cut throughout the town of Quetzaltenango, which would not be an infrequent event during my two and half week stay in the capital of the Guatemalan Highlands. The reason I was scrabbling around the kitchen of the Hostal Don Diego at 2am was that I had neglected to buy bottled water, and, living in constant fear of contracting Montezuma’s Revenge I was thus forced to boil up a pot of water on a gas ring in the pitch black. Naturally my boozed-up thirst was not satisfied immediately upon the water reaching the required parasite killing temperature, as I then had to dream up elaborate ways to cool the water to drinking temperature using a hose and a trough. In the back of my mind at all times was the fact that in 5 hours I would be setting off on a journey to scale the tallest peak in Central America: Volcan Tajumulco.

I had arrived in Quetzaltenango, universally referred to as Xela (She-la) a mere six hours earlier with no plans to climbing a volcano the very next day. However, almost as if to provide a counterbalance to the general apathy I experienced in Antigua, I met a man whose energy could have got even the most clumsy and timid of travelers up that volcano. I was in the bar of the Black Cat Hostel where my friends Ester and Andy that I met in, and travelled with from, Antigua were staying. We all got talking to Adrian, a 6’3 American of Mexican parents who was working for two years with the Peace Corps and was stationed in one of Xela’s satellite villages. As we drank litre bottles of Gallo beer he mentioned that he was to climb Tajumulco the next morning with various other Peace Corp volunteers, and wondered if we would like to join him. It was to be a two day trip. Day one we would hike to base camp. Day two at 4am we would hike to the summit to see the sunrise. This sounded like an incredible opportunity; we would not need a guide as two of the others had hiked it twice and knew the route. Plus I would be going with a group of friends rather than a group of strangers, not to mention the fact that I would be watching the sunrise from the top of the world on my 25th birthday.

Of course the flaw in the plan was revealed to me at 6.45am the next morning when I was tearing around my room packing into my backpack not what I needed, but what I had. I had managed to borrow a sleeping bag from Andy so I was fairly sure I would be warm at night, but by way of warm clothes I had very little. Before I left for my trip to Central America I amassed a nice collection of short shorts, and shirts of cotton and linen in the ill-informed and deluded belief that anywhere south of Texas has to be near scorching 365 days a year. Arrival in Mexico quickly dispelled that myth. Quetzaltenango which stands 2300m above sea level was genuinely cold, and we were going 2000m further up into the heavens. However, neither my potential coldness, nor the hangover that throbbed dully behind my eyes could stop me from being excited about our trip.

I met Adrian at the Black Cat at 7am. We were soon joined by a friend of his, a Brazilian named Beto whom I had met the night before. After polishing off most of a bottle of white tequila in the name of our impending voyage, Adrian, Andy, Ester and I had gone to the Kings and Queens bar, which apart from being the best bar in Xela, was also the place I met some of the people who were to become important to me during my stay in the Highlands.

After a gigantic breakfast burrito the three of us picked up a microbus to the Terminal Minerva, so called due to the fact that it is positioned in the shadow of a large Hellenic style temple, constructed in the early 20th Century on the orders on President Estrada who was frantically and rather bizarrely trying to promote a Cult of Minerva in Guatemala.

There we met two other Peace Corps volunteers, Amanda and Zac, and also Zoe the dog that belonged to Amanda and we began our journey, first to San Marcos where we would meet with three others and stock up on supplies, and from there to the starting point. We travelled by chicken bus which is uncomfortable, hilarious, cheap and unmistakably Guatemalan. They are American school buses of the Bart Simpson variety sent south when they are too old, too dirty, or too knackered for use by the school district of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Once they have been pawned off to Guatemala, the Latin spirit is applied in the form of metallic paint and flashing lights.

The drivers of these buses seem to take for granted that the signs plastered above the windshield that read “God is Watching Over this Bus” or “I’m with the Virgin’ etc. are efficacious, as they have no compunction in tearing around hairpin corners generally flanked by mountain on one side and certain death on the other, safe in the belief that should the unimaginable happen, Our Lady will safely set them down 1500m below on the valley floor. For the uninitiated such as me it can be a hair raising experience. Naturally the buses were built for children, which suits the Guatemalans perfectly as they are generally chaparros i.e. wondrously short. For those of us with slightly larger stature the experience is much like being in a sardine tin, this is of course assuming you get a seat.

Despite all of these factors, the camionetas were, for me, the only way to travel. There was often music, sometimes animals, and frequently danger induced adrenaline. Additionally ad-hoc preachers would often take to the stage and distribute (for contributions) their musings on the bible, mostly fire and brimstone type stuff. At every stop children jumped aboard to sell drinks, tacos, fruits, nuts, chewing gum and all manner of other snacks. At times I was treated to more extended sales pitches. One memorable moment came on the way to Xela when a man who boarded with a patter designed to shift a box-load of spirograph rulers he had somehow come by, did such a good job that the whole bus bought one.

There must be thousands of these buses weaving there way through Guatemala, as you can go anywhere, and I never waited more than ten minutes for one to leave. There are no schedules at the terminals, just scores of men who as well as shouting out destinations are desperate to show you to the right bus.  Try going by bus from Bridport in Dorset to Chewton Mendip in Somerset (a roughly equivalent journey I would guess), and be prepared to spend up to three days en route passing through any number of smashed up bus stops that stink of piss and are inhabited solely by youngsters whose idea of a day out is to drink a bottle of cheap cider and intimidate old ladies. Give me a chicken bus any day!

We stopped in San Marcos where we met the remaining hikers, bought supplies and where Beto and I had breakfast in a dirt shack run by a terrifying lady in a yellow dress, whilst being eyeballed by a baby resting in a cardboard box on the muddy floor. At around 1pm we arrived at the start point. We could not see the top as it was enshrouded by clouds. This was how it was to stay. As I stood there looking up into the dreary ceiling that awaited me, the words that were echoing around my head, were those that occupied the thoughts of Sir William Wilmot some months previously before setting out on a different but equally epic adventure: “woefully underprepared”.

It was roughly a four and a half hour hike to the base camp. The terrain was steep but stable, and we stopped every half hour to refuel on nuts and water. About 3 hours in it started to rain. It didn’t pour, but steady drizzle turning to rain is how Mr. Fish might put it. By the fourth hour we were in the rain cloud which was akin to walking through a wall of water. Everything was getting wet, the drizzle worked its way into my clothes in every which way possible.

By the time we arrived a base camp, a corrugated iron strewn rubbish dump, I was thoroughly wet as was everyone else. One poor girl had brought no waterproof clothing (I had a fake England Football training jacket bought in Antigua), relying as she did on the fact that the rainy season was supposed to be well and truly over; “maybe God didn’t get the memo” quipped one companion. As we were taking in our surroundings someone asked the fatal question: “do the tents have rain flys?”

At this point I would like to enquire of any tenting manufacturer who may happen to read this, exactly what the point of a tent without a rain fly is? Surely when one is camping, no matter where, it is always best to at least acknowledge the possibility of the pitter patter of tiny beads of water falling on you during the night. To me, the notion of a tent without a rain fly, is like a stab proof vest without the Kevlar, but maybe its just because I am British and used to dreary weather. So we now found ourselves at 4000m above sea level with three tents that were not waterproof. Did I mention that it was raining? The sight of our tent with corrugated iron around the sides and a plastic poncho stretched over the roof did not make me want to jump into bed and snuggle down for the night.

It was bitterly cold, and whilst our camp was being set up, I went with the party trying to find firewood, which was a task not too daunting given the amount of wood on the floor. There was of course the small inconvenience that it was all soaking wet. We had a small, dry bundle on kindling treated with pine sap to make it flammable, and we had one chance to make it work. We were not immediately successful so we burned Adrian’s diary which turned out to be made from flame retardant paper. I was about to reach for the Charles Dickens I had sanguinely brought with me, but luckily for the Mayor of Mudtown our resident fire expert, Dashielle, managed to get things going. This is not to say her job was over, oh no, she tended the fire non-top for three hours as it came perilously close to being extinguished, and slightly less close to actually keeping anyone warm. She did a marvelous work however, and for a while towards about 8pm as we ate tostadas and refried beans, I think I even regained some feeling in one of my toes. The food tasted amazing at that altitude, and needless to say our perilous position made for much entertaining conversation.

Beginning to Freeze

At 8.15pm the rain started to get heavier and we retreated to our respective hovels. I had all my clothes on, two jumpers, all my socks, everything possible. It was all wet. My sleeping bag was wet. The inside of the tent was wet. The inside of my boots was wet. And I am not using this word lightly, I mean they were really soaking. We lay on the hard ground (thank god I was in the middle!). Sleep was virtually impossible. Even if I did drift off for a moment, soon enough an ice cold drip of water would fall on my eyelids and reawaken me to my numbness.

At 4am we got up. I looked outside the tent, and could see the stars! It seemed the weather had passed and we might see some sunshine. However, 15 minutes later after I had worked up the courage to put my marble blocks of feet into my soaking wet boots, the clouds were back and our friend the drizzle had set in.

Due to illness only five (plus Zoe) of eight tried for the summit. It was pitch black and visibility was zero due to the cloud. I can safely say it was the most dangerous thing I have ever done. The terrain was insanely steep and consisted of sand like gravel peppered with huge loose piles of rock which could and did fall without the slightest notice. Had one of us fallen it would have meant a long road down to permanent injury or worse. Yet, we made it up, and at the top of a gulley after an hour or so of scrambling with a torch in my mouth, it began to level out and I rushed to the top. I could see without a torch now although it was still cloudy. I stood on the highest point and congratulated myself. Joy was short-lived however, when one of my companions who had hiked up previously said that she did not believe this was the summit. I was not willing to allow for such a possibility as everything pointed to this being the top i.e. down in all directions. Yet I was put in my place as a gust of wind swept aside some clouds and revealed the true summit, some 100m higher and on the other side of a small valley. In other words, this meant going down and then up again something that I believe all mountain climbers detest.

Eventually we made it to the last of Tajumulco’s 4233 metres. Just as the first rays of the sun began to rise over the distant Eastern mountains, the wind swept away the clouds that had drenched us and kept the view obscured from us. To the north we could see into Mexico. To the West we could see the Pacific Ocean. We could look right down the spine of the Guatemalan Highlands.

I was fully 4209 metres higher up than I had been 25 years previously as my mother was squeezing me out in Euston Hospital, London. The journey had been ghastly, cold and treacherous, but I suspect this only added to the feeling of elation as I gazed upon the slender shadow the volcano threw toward the ocean. This was day two of my adventure in Xela, and thanks to the amazing people I met on this trip, Tajumulco was due to be only one of many highlights.

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