El Fuego


We arrived in the lovely colonial city of Antigua and immediately arranged a guided climb up the 3975 m high Acatenango volcano. It is touted as one of the toughest climbs in the area and from the top, gives a great view Fuego, a highly active volcano that regularly spews volcanic ash. We weren’t expecting the trek to be easy but we didn’t realize just how deep we would need to dig on the two-day excursion.

Our group consisted of only Gord, myself and our guide, Vinciente, a wiry 57-year-old who has been guiding for 36 years and spoke no English. I didn’t know what his thoughts were when he saw our age and ability, and to be honest, I didn’t know what his thoughts were when we finished. Relief that we didn’t die on his watch I expect. But he was unfailingly kind, patient, and attentive.


Right off the mark the trail started steep and continued with unrelenting steep for the next five hours until we reached our camp an hour from the top of Acatenango. The itinerary was to hike up the last hour to the cone at 4 AM the next morning. We also had the option to pay extra and continue on right then for a closer look at Fuego. It meant climbing straight down the other side of Acatenango and straight up Fuego. Vincente told us it would be five more hard hours. Gord was physically finished and didn’t think he had it in him but, like me, he also wanted to see what we came to see. So he gathered his resolve and abounding grit, picked up his poles and we rallied forth. It was 3 PM at that point.

On the the narrow, steep, winding trail of loose volcanic scree climbing up Fuego all I could think was, how in the hell are we going to get back down this trail in the dark. We had headlights, but still.

These volcano excursions are a big business here. It’s a pretty unique experience and there were lots of people on the mountain (I’m sure there were some our age but we didn’t see any). We had periodically heard booming and seen belches of smoke and ash, but when we finally clawed our way over the lip of the lower ridge line, we could see Fuego in all its power and beauty.

Everybody was at a completely safe distance but we hung further back down the ridge line, more from fatigue than anything else. By the time it was dark I felt almost hypothermic. And then it happened. A thunderous boom and molten red lava exploded from the crater. A collective gasp went up as everybody stood in breath-taking awe of the extraordinary sight.

On the ridge line
You can see the people standing closer than us on the ridge line
I missed getting a picture on the ridge line because my hands weren’t working right when I needed them to. But here was another incredible eruption that we saw on our way back to camp

In the pitch black on the way down I wanted to take a picture of the headlights snaking down the mountain, but I needed my total concentration and focus on the task at hand. Namely, staying injury free and not falling. I found myself using the breathing techniques that I used during labor and repeating to myself over and over, “relax your shoulders, relax your body, you can do this, you can do hard things”. With nothing left physically and working to control the fear, it became a purely mental challenge. When we finally reached the bottom of Fuego and started up Acatenango towards our camp, I was exhausted and Gord was beyond exhausted. But at 9 PM, feeling a little the worse for wear, but injury free, we stumbled back into the rudimentary shelter we called home for the night. Gord and his new knees did great. As tired as we were, we were happy (and a little bit proud) we had done it. But we passed on getting up at 4 AM – we had seen what we wanted to see.

On the hike back to camp
Looking across to Fuego from our camp

The next day at a rest stop half an hour from the very bottom I overheard an out of breath girl on her way up earnestly saying to her guide, “Is it downhill now or do we have just a little bit more up and then down”. Oh sweet summer child, I thought. Good luck!


10 responses »

  1. I finally figured out how to send you a response through your blog! Your last post was particularly inspiring. As I continued to read the story and see the pictures it had me cheering you’s on and holding my breath that I wasn’t going to read about an injury or worse! Wow, you guys are impressive. Dang warriors! Wooohoooo Huggie

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  2. Wow!!! What an experience to be so close to that volcano… and also terrifying. I don’t think I could of made it up the terrain. Looked really gruelling. GREAT JOB!!! Way to go!!! Pat yourselves on the back for sure 🙂 Get some rest and eat some good food 😉

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