Aug 29, 2014 in New Zealand 2014
Aug 29, 2014 in New Zealand 2014
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.
It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.
But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.
At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.
We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.
We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.
Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.
That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.
Jun 29, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb.
Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea.
What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.
Jan 10, 2006 in South America 2005
I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink a few times already, but despite its reputed stimulant qualities I hadn’t found myself running up mountains after drinking it. But remarkably, this time I did. I don’t know what Roy put in the brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.
Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we’d come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn’t seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they’d given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.
By now I was feeling a lot less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.
Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was clearly quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising. I took a lot of photos, and felt that whatever it is I look for while travelling, there was a lot of it up here.
At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.
I was possibly more tired by now than I’d ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I’d eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn’t decide whether to eat first and then sleep, or vice versa. In the end I slept for a bit, then went out for food and ate two main courses. That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I’d been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.
Jan 09, 2006 in South America 2005
I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.
At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.
Nov 20, 2005 in South America 2005
From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.
But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of one of South America’s most famous mountains, Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some fabulous views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.
I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.
Nov 12, 2005 in South America 2005
My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés, one of the park’s most scenic sections. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possibly flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.
In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up soup, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.
After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a tremendous roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.
Jul 19, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. ‘My stomach has opened!’ he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I’d be able to find my way to the peak OK.
After about half an hour’s more walking, he said he’d stop here and wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn’t see the path ahead I shouldn’t try and go on. We agreed that he’d either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we’d been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.
For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I’d need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I’d reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who’d made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.
The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I’d find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.
Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I’d yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn’t given up that I ran the rest of the way.
Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.
Jul 18, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
The following morning I got up at 6.30am, intending to travel to Blantyre, some 500 miles away to the south. There were two ways to go about this – inland via Mzuzu along a fast road, or along the coast, slower but more scenic. I decided to go the coast way, and found a bus heading that way. There were just two problems. First was that this was a country bus, and therefore stopped about every two minutes to pick people up and drop them off, making the journey painfully slow. Second was that the coast road had been washed away some time before about two hours south of Nkhata Bay, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere by the remnants of a bridge. There was a makeshift footbridge over the river, and on the other side there were pick-ups waiting to ferry people to Dwanga, the nearest town on the other side, from where we could get onward buses.
From Dwangwa I got a bus to Salima, and from there I got straight on a bus for Balaka. This leg was right up there in the most absurdly overcrowded journeys I’ve ever made, and once I’d squeezed myself, my backpack and my day pack into my seat, I could only move my forearms. I spent the journey trying to eat fruit without dropping it and trying to manoevre my walkman into place so I could listen to some music. I managed it, and even had time to listen to a couple of tunes before we arrived in Balaka. Once more my luck held, and I waited in the layby at Balaka for no more than a couple of minutes before I found a minibus going to Blantyre. The driver said he’d drop me off right at the door of where I was going to stay, and at 8.30pm after eleven hours on the road, five journeys and a total cost of about 7 pounds, I arrived in Blantyre.
Sadly I’d chosen to stay in a place next to the bus station, and at about 5am the next morning, the insanely loud tannoy began blaring out the day’s arrivals and departures. My intention in this part of the country was to go hiking on Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest mountain, topping out at 3002m, so I set off into town to gather some information. Blantyre was really a very pleasant city, with all the facilities a traveller needs. I managed to catch up on my e-mail, did some food shopping in the well-stocked supermarkets, bought a guidebook to Mount Mulanje, bought and sent some postcards, spent a while drinking real, real coffee in a nice little cafe, and generally enjoyed the ambience. I spent the evening relaxing and reading about the mountain, in preparation for the three day hike I planned.
So early the next morning I headed for Mount Mulanje. A quick bus journey to Limbe got me in the right places for buses to Mulanje town, and before too long I was on my way. I slept for a while along the way, and when I woke I had my first view of the mountain, rising dramatically, blue in the distance, from the endless flat tea-growing fields. I slept for a while more, then woke again to find us right next to the mountain. It’s more of a plateau than a mountain, and it rises almost sheer from the flat surroundings to about 2000m. Much of the top is gently rolling hills, but there are about 20 peaks, the highest of which, Sapitwa, was my target. From Mulanje town I got a truck to Likhubula, the starting point for the climb. At the forestry station I found a guide, called Stern, and at 11am we set off for Chambe hut, on the plateau.
It was quite a hike. For two hours it was relentlessly steep, and very hot. The views on the way kept me going, though, and we made a good pace. With just a couple of short breaks, we made it to the edge of the plateau in just under two hours. From there it was a gentle walk to Chambe hut, about an hour away. The hut was in a beautiful place, facing the dramatic Chambe peak, surrounded by woodland, and with a stream running in front of it. There was a fire inside, very welcome because it was much cooler up here than it had been at ground level. When I arrived I was the only person there, but as the day wore on more hikers arrived, and we socialised as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a magnificently clear night, and we were all looking forward to the hikes we had planned for the next day. After a fantastic instant pasta meal (these things are always more tasty in the wilderness) I turned in, ready to climb the next day
Jul 09, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
So early the next morning we were outside by the motor, working out how the jack worked and pulling spare tyres around. It had rained in the night, although this was the dry season, and the car was parked on grass, so there was a slight problem with the jack sinking into the ground. But between us and a local man and his son who came out to help, we got the tyre back on. We jumped in the car, Tom said ‘OK, let’s go!’, turned the ignition key and nothing happened. With a smile frozen on his face he tried again, and still nothing happened. Not even a splutter. We rolled the motor down to Tukuyu’s main street and found a mechanic, who said an engine part or two needed replacing. He said it would take twenty minutes, and about an hour and a half later the work was all done and we were off.
It was a pretty short drive down to the Malawian border at Songwe. I was pleased to see that the scenery across the border looked much the same as the scenery on the Tanzanian side. The border crossing was uneventful and we drove on the other side to Chitimba, on the northern shores of Lake Malawi, and stopped at a campsite. There was a bar here, and a pool table, but in contrast to the perfect flat green baize we had found in Zambezi, this was the worst pool table in the southern hemisphere if not the world, so lumpy that slow shots would meander hopelessly and almost never hit the target, while fast shots would simply fly off the table. We challenged some other travellers to a game and after several hours when we finally finished, we vowed never to go near that table again.
The following day was my 23rd birthday. A year previously, after a terrible mishap, I’d found myself in hospital with a fractured skull, so this time I was overjoyed to emerge from my tent and find myself by the beautiful Lake Malawi, safe and well. Tom and I decided that morning to climb up the Rift Valley escarpment to the town of Khondowe up on the top, famous for the Livingstonia Mission. I’d climbed up the escarpment four days earlier by Lake Tanganyika, but this time it was a longer, tougher climb. We could have walked up a switchback road which had fairly gentle gradients, but we decided to take the short cuts, which basically meant scrambling up a 45 degree slope for three hours. We hired a local guide and set off. There were some stunning views on the way, and the climb ended at Manchewe Falls, 45m high. From the lip of the falls, the view down to the lake was marvellous.
There was a small shop just up the road from Manchewe which sold warm coke and biscuits and got a lot of business from people hiking up. We bought some food and drink and walked another hour to get to Livingstonia.
Livingstonia was a strange place. It was much cooler up here, and overcast. There were not many people about, and it felt like a different country compared to the valley far below. We looked around and had a chat to someone who turned out to be someone important at the mission, before trying to get some food at the Stone House, one of the original buildings of the mission. We asked what they had, and they told us they had chicken, rice and beans. We said we’d have a plate of that each, and off they went. We sat and drank some cold Fanta, looking forward to a meal after the climb. After about 10 minutes, someone came out and said that unfortunately they actually didn’t have any chicken. We said never mind, we’d just have rice and beans. We waited for about another ten minutes, and someone came out again and said that actually there were no beans either. Needing sustenance, we requested the rice, but after another few minutes word came through that in fact there wasn’t any rice either.
Now the situation was urgent. The campsite served food, but only until 4pm, and it was already 3.15pm. So we set off down the hill at a blistering pace, running and leaping down precarious slopes in a way that wasn’t good for the knees. Our bare-footed guide was much the fastest mover of the three of us, and I occasionally looked forlornly at the hiking boots I’d spent lavishly on. Our best efforts were not enough and we arrived at Chitimba, tired and ravenous, at 4.15pm, facing a long wait until we could get dinner at 7pm. Luck was on our side, though, because the barman took pity on us and rustled us up a big fat cheeseburger each, for which I am still profoundly grateful.
Oct 21, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.
We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.
Oct 20, 2000 in Central America 2000
Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.
Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.
The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.
As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.
We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.
After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.
When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.
Oct 14, 2000 in Central America 2000
And so long before dawn on October 14th 2000, we set out for Volcán San Pedro. We climbed in the enjoyable company of our group of 11, which consisted of me and Moh, Ashley from Australia, Mike and Aasta from Alaska, Will and Chad from Oregon, Greg from the UK, Steve from Canada, Julie from France and Julie from Germany. An almost full moon lit our way until the sun began to make its presence felt, and we reached the end of the road just as the sun rose from behind the hills across the lake. After pausing to appreciate the view, we headed into the forest and began the climb in earnest. The going was reasonable at first, but it was not long before the relentless uphill began to get tiring. Our guide, Clemente, was enthusiastic, though, and kept us all going. After about an hour, though, Julie from France dropped out, and Mike from Alaska chivalrously accompanied her back down to the village.
The rest of us carried on up. After another half-hour, self-confessed old fat guy Steve from Canada dropped out, and the eleven were now eight. Now it was down to the hard core, and we continued doggedly. The path got ever steeper and slipperier as we climbed, and the air was getting noticeably thinner. After about three hours, Julie from Germany tried to give up, but Clemente said we had ‘only’ an hour’s climb to go, and persuaded her to carry on. At 9.25am, after four hours of climbing, we emerged from the forest to find ourselves at the 3020m summit.
The view from here was almost unbelievable. The sun was shining brightly, and far below us we could see boats beginning to ply the waters between the villages around the lake. Many months before, I had discovered the music of the Afro Celt Sound System, and as I planned this trip and read about Lago de Atitlán, I had a sort of vision of myself on top of a mountain looking down on the lake, listening to a song called ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’. I had carried my walkman and the Afro Celts tape all the way from London to here without listening to it, preserving it for this moment. I listened to the awesomely atmospheric music and felt like I was tripping.
Too soon it was time to rejoin the real world and leave the summit. We picked ourselves up and began the long descent back to the village. The 45° descent down the slippery path was, as I wrote in my journal, ‘a total knee-fuck’, and we all fell over at one time or another. I got a long and bloody cut to the arm when I tried to save myself from a fall by unwisely grabbing hold of a thorny tree. After a hard three hours, we were back in the village.
We were exhausted. We spent the rest of that day, and the next as well, relaxing in the hammocks at the hotel, occasionally buying a loaf of banana bread from the Mayan children who came to sell it at the hotel, and generally waiting until we could walk normally again.
Oct 12, 2000 in Central America 2000
Another grey day followed, but we didn’t have the time to wait for sunshine so we decided to climb Volcán Pacaya. This was another spot notorious for armed robbery, yet another legacy of Guatemala’s violent recent history. From Guatemala’s independence in 1821, the government has generally been a dictatorship. The dictators have generally been military, and have ruled in the interests of the wealthy classes. Briefly, from 1944 to 1954, Guatemala had a democracy, and elected liberal leaders, but things were soon back to the usual order.
The first democratically elected leader, Juan José Arevalo, began a modest program of social reform. This was continued and accelerated by his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who also started a massive land reform program. Huge areas of land owned by the United Fruit Company but left fallow were to be nationalised and redistributed, and the UFC would be compensated at the value they had declared for tax purposes. This was a fraction of the true value, and the UFC was not happy. However, they had friends in high places in the American government, and in 1954, a US-backed coup forced Arbenz into exile, and the land reform out of the reckoning. The young Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was in Guatemala at the time, and later said that this was the moment he became a revolutionary.
The coup returned Guatemala to a military dictatorship, and over the next few years, laws were passed which made voting rights dependent on literacy, disenfranchising three-quarters of the population. The secret police became powerful, and opposing the government became dangerous. In the early 1960′s, guerilla groups began to form, and by the middle of the decade the country was embroiled in civil war. This continued for the next thirty years, reaching a peak of brutality in the 1980s, when the government, believing that the indigenous people were all in league with the guerrillas, simply wiped out any village where they believed the guerrillas to be. In the 1990s, dialogue between the government and the rebels finally began, and in 1996, peace accords were signed, ending 36 years of war, during which 200,000 people had been killed.
The problem when we arrived four years after the peace accords was that there were still an awful lot of guns in Guatemala, and endemic poverty. The pace of the change since the signing of the accords had been too slow, and as the number of foreign visitors rose, the incidence of crime rose too. But when we were there, a lot of tourist excursions were accompanied by armed guards. Volcán Pacaya had been well known in the past for its armed robberies, but the tour groups were now accompanied by two armed guards, and no problems had been reported for a while.
We took the tour at 1pm, and after a dramatic two-hour drive to the base of the volcano, we set out along the trail for the top. It was not very hard going, and the weather was better than it had been. We had spectacular views of the volcanoes around Antigua and the surrounding countryside. After a couple of hours walking, we reached a shoulder about 200m below the summit. The weather was now closing in, and we were soon in thick cloud. After this point, the climb also became much more difficult. Pacaya’s frequent eruptions mean that the upper slopes are a barren cone of loose rock, and climbing the last stretch was very much a case of two steps up, one step down. The wind was fearsome as well, making it an extremely arduous final push to the top.
We got there, though, only to find that we couldn’t see more than three feet in front of us. Had we been able to see down into the crater, we would have seen lava flowing on the crater floor. All we got, though, was a scorching wind blowing out of the crater. I reached over the edge to pick up one of the sulphur-covered rocks, and I had to be quick to avoid burning my hand. All around the summit, there were steaming hot vents, and the whole area was warm to the touch. We stayed up there for about half an hour before returning to ground level.
The descent was a lot more fun than the climb, and we virtually ran down, creating landslides as we did so. This was the first summit we reached on the trip, and though the weather had let us down, we were still pleased to have made it. We decided we would try and climb Volcán Acatenango the next day.
Sep 27, 2000 in Central America 2000
Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción.
We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.
We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.