Tajumulco: Conquering Tajumulco - highest volcano in Central America
27 Jan 2007
- Meet at QuetzalTrekkers...leave with rucksack weighing a ton
- 445am start....nothing more to add
- WOW…now that’s what I call a sunset!!
- Talking to a mountaineering legend around the campfire
- DOUBLE WOW…WHAT a Sunrise!!
I was looking forward to a quiet weekend to finally get this blog in a half decent state with some pictures for everyone to read but Tajumulco the highest volcano in Central America at 4220m had other ideas, 'climb me if you dare' was the challenge...so stupidly I said why not. I went with a really professional volunteer outfit called QuetzalTrekkers, these guys I'd recommend to anyone. Run on a volunteer basis where everything is consensus driven, they are a non-profit organisation which supports financially a school for street children, two of which came on the trek as a reward for good behaviour and performance at school. We all met up the at 6pm the day before for the pre-trip briefing, the group consisted of about 18 tourists ranging from every country from Israel to the US. We were going to be camping and the climate was expected to be very cold we kitted ourselves up with everything from rucksacks to gloves, hats and coats. We also all had to share the tents, and food between the group. With 6 litres of water, tent poles and food....my pack weighed a ton!
It was a nice leisurely 445am start the next morning as we took two chicken buses, first to San Marcos where we had breakfast then to a place near the base of Tajumulco where we started out climb - it was at 3000m. The trek started off in earnest with a steep gradient which quickly took its toll on one of the group, girl from the US, who had a bad case of altitude sickness - difficulty breathing, couldn't speak, spots in front of her eyes. One of the guides took her back to the road as she decided to call it a day and head back. It was a shame after all the effort to get here but it was the right decision as the climb just got harder and with full packs it really was tough.
I was having trouble breathing properly but that was just due to the lack of oxygen at this altitude, drinking lots of water served two purposes 1) offset the symptoms of altitude sickness and 2) made the packs a lot lighter! Another way to offset the signs of altitude sickness was to talk while walking...apologies to Tamara for talking her ears off...but a man's gotta survive!
We took regular breaks and made it to the base camp at 4000m by about 4pm. We set up camp...hooray, no more lugging the packs around then donned our heavy winter gear to climb a peak whose name escapes me to watch the sunset, this was only a 30minute climb but even without packs was still an effort and at this point I had a really bad headache due to altitude sickness and the Ibuprofen wasn't helping.
Sunset at the peak was well worth the pain in the legs and head - the pictures don't do it justice so I'm afraid you're going to have to climb it yourselves to get the real deal. The temperature dropped like a stone as soon as the sun wet down and we headed back to camp shivering to be greeted by hot tea and coffee...as I said these guys are good.
Pasta was supper and was great. What usually happens on these trips is you never get enough food but with every meal with Quetzaltrekkers there was always seconds and thirds...even I never had to go back for thirds ;-)
Everyone spent the rest of the night crowded around the campfire to keep warm and toast marshmallows. That's when these 3 American guys turned up that were camping just below and ended up sharing our fire and finishing of the left over spaghetti...there was loads. I was chatting to all of them but one guy in particular who was missing his right hand, was chatting about what I was doing where I was going etc and he was telling me about good places to go in Belize and Honduras. It wasn't until the next morning that someone mentioned that we had been in the presence of a mountaineering legend, Aron Ralston. Read his amazing survival story here http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/04/04/cnn25.tan.ralston/index.html but here's a summary from Time magazine.
"Local authorities found Ralston in Utah's Canyonlands National Park on Thursday, after less than a day's search. Ralston had been reported missing when he didn't show up for work at a mountaineering store in Aspen, Colo. He told his rescuers he had been hiking and rock climbing alone through the canyon, 40 miles from the nearest paved road and on a trail rarely used by others. But five days earlier, a boulder had crashed down on his right arm, pinning him in a 3-ft.-wide space. Ralston fought hard, but the rock wouldn't budge. By Day 3, he told the rescuers, his water had run out. As Day 5 dawned, Ralston was badly dehydrated and knew he must free himself by any means. So he reached for his pocket knife and began cutting off his arm. He severed it just below the elbow."
Needless to say we were all astounded to have just been casually chatting with him over a camp fire, suppose it was probably a good thing that no one asked him to recount the story because it gave me chills when I heard it third hand and just reading the CNN story compounded the feeling. We were all pretty proud to have met him though and I’m glad he's still living his life as before - once a mountain man always a mountain man.
The night was cold but not a cold as I was expecting. I think the 2 base layers, fleece, big heavy woollen jumper, 2 pairs of sockets and jacket might have made it all bearable, oh and the big thick sleeping bag with liner too helped.
Some people were freezing all night and actually Tamara N commented that it was the worst night of her life as she didn't get any sleep and was cold. Up at 430am and we trekked and scrambled over rocks by torchlight reach the summit Tajumulco to wait for the 'piece de resistance' of the trip, the sunrise. Luckily the litres of water I'd been drinking meant I no longer had altitude sickness but it was really cold we were all shivering. The scene was awe inspiring as one could make out in the background five other volcanoes and even see the smoke plume from one active one that must have just erupted. The change in the colours of the sky was mesmerizing.
A little bit of levity was added by Eyal (Israel) who made everyone laugh as he had a strange request. He'd been travelling for the past 2 months carrying what was basically a very non-PC lads magazine just for this moment. The magazine publishes pictures of people who can take a photo with the magazine cover in various strange locations. So he asked all the people on the summit (and there were a lot including Guatemalans there too) to pose for a big group shot, he's going to send us a link if it ever gets published.
The trek down was just as good as the sunset and sunrise, we took a different path over a ridge with incredible views of the valleys, lands and volcanoes over each side, also everyone was so much happier to be going downhill and with packs that were so much lighter as we'd expended the food and most of the water...I still had the damn tent poles though, will pick more wisely next time. This is probably the toughest thing I've done so far probably compounded by the altitude but the sense of achievement was enormous. I wonder how the Inca trail will be, its more days but you don't have heavy packs...bring it on! Right now I can't wait to get back to the house in Xela for that GAAASSSS POOOWEEERRREEEEDDD SHOOOOWWWEEEERRRR...yeah baby!