Double Whammy - Summiting Volcanos Acatenango & Fuego
Is there a spookier way to spend halloween then camped out on the side of one of Central America’s tallest volcanos while overlooking the eruptions of one of the world’s most active volcanos? Not that I’ve experienced!
On my recent trip to Guatemala I booked an overnight guided hike with Ox Expeditions to summit two of the countries most infamous volcanos. They call it the “Double Whammy”, as participants have the choice to reach the peak of active Fuego just before sunset, towering Acatenango in time for sunrise, or, as our group did, both!
A bit of background:
Volcán de Fuego, Spanish for Volcano of Fire, has been consistently active at a low level for centuries. Its mouth reaches 3,763m above sea level and is most active between dusk and dawn, letting out relatively small amounts of gas and ash every 15-20 minutes. There have been a handful of larger eruptions over the past two hundred years, some prompting local evacuations and devastating nearby farmland, but none have had the catastrophic results of June 3, 2018 and the days following. The eruptions that occurred this spring let out pyroclastic flows that buried hundreds of homes south of the volcano. While the government has reported 192 deaths from this disaster, locals and support organizations acknowledge that up to 3,000 more people were never found.
I believe it is important to recognize that though witnessing Fuego was an unforgettable experience for myself as a tourist, it is also a massive force of nature that can destroy peoples lives in an instant. On November 20th of this year the volcano once again entered a violent state that lead to the precautionary evacuation of local communities before returning to normal activity. This was yet another humbling reminder of what little control we have in nature.
Acatenango, though connected to Fuego both visibly and through an underground network, is not active in the same way. The summit consists of a solid crater with a number of vents around it which let out heat and steam. There have been only two documented eruptions of the volcano which took place in the 20th century and while both shot out large volcanic rock around the crater and fine ash that travelled up to 25km, there were no devastating lava flows like with Fuego.
This being said, summiting Acatenango requires a different degree of caution. Hiking up to 3,980km above sea level is not an easy task and many bodies respond to the elevation differently. Dizziness and stomach sickness are common experiences and the lack of shelter on the ridge leaves you exposed to the quickly changing elements. Temperatures can easily drop to below freezing at the summit and storms can swiftly develop. In January 2017 a group of 6 tourists died from exposure on the volcano due to poor weather conditions and lack of expertise from their guide. There is no escaping the power of nature and there is no such thing as being too prepared.
Ox starts all of their trips with a debriefing to make sure all of its participants are on the same page about what to expect on the tour. They go over the itinerary of the day, different challenges that may arise, and discuss what gear will be needed. I misread an email and showed up an hour late for our 5pm briefing, but got caught up when we met at the hostel the next morning. We gathered at 7am to begin packing our bags for the overnight hike. Our group consisted of a woman from Vermont, a couple from New Orleans, two solo guys from Germany and Switzerland, and myself along with our lead guide from Whales and assistant local guide.
Because I wanted to summit both volcanos and was unsure as to how my body would handle to the elevation, I followed the advice of our guide and chose to hire a porter to carry the majority of my gear to our base camp at 3,700m. Another participant was doing the same so we packed a shared bag which contained our sleeping bags and mats, dinner, warmer layers, and our portions of the group gear and tent. All of this was provided by Ox so I didn’t have to worry about bringing it from home. She then carried my 20L pack with her own lunch and personal items while I had on my 65L pack slimmed down with just a second layer of clothes, rain gear, lunch and snacks, lots of water, and my camera. After a delicious egg sandwich breakfast provided at the hostel we loaded up in a shuttle van a travelled an hour to the base of Acatenango.
The first couple hours of hiking were the most difficult of our first leg. The trail starts off through private farmland with a steady incline and no switch backs. It’s a wide path but beginning the day close to 3,000m, already higher than I’ve ever been before, I found it tough to keep up, let alone converse with my fellow hikers. It was nice that I was never made to feel like I was holding up the group, however, as Gareth our main guide would stop often for everyone to gather and catch their breath and drink some water. Our local guide Milton trailed behind with our porter and his horse to make sure nobody got so far behind that they lost their way on the trails. We learned this happened more than you would expect, as a different group with a less diligent guide had lost a member on their way down earlier and our guides had been asked to keep an eye out.
We would stop every half hour for a slightly longer break, taking our packs off and resting our feet. Our second rest of the day was at the official trail head once we were off private property. There was a nice shelter with some benches here along with a couple outhouses and a sign-in desk. The park had also recently installed some signs which had information about the area, though I didn’t take the time to read them. It was a warm day with clear skies and little wind so it was nice to have a rest in the shade.
Stop number 3 took place at a little coffee shop once we entered the cloud forest. The aptly named cloud water coffee is made from fresh picked and roasted coffee beans grown right there on the side of the volcano and brewed in water captured from the clouds. There are no water sources on the volcano so they use the net pictured below to turn the moisture in the clouds into liquid water. How cool is that?! We rested here with some pups while enjoying a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and starting on our lunches. The stray dogs joined us off and on throughout our journey, enjoying the companionship and not complaining about the scraps of food we would offer them.
Lunch consisted of these amazing panini-like sandwiches that make me hungry just thinking about them. They were delicious but at this point in the day my stomach wasn’t doing so well. I wasn’t sure if it was the cup of hot chocolate I had just drank, the lingering motion sickness from the morning drive, or the increasing elevation, but something about eating an entire pocket of ham and cheese goodness didn’t seem super appealing. I ate in small bits during the second half of our lunch break and hoped I’d be okay the rest of the way.
Once reaching our basecamp in mid afternoon we set up our tents and discussed the option of summiting Fuego. Though I had already paid to do it, I had been back and forth all day on whether or not I could. My body wasn’t feeling great and I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish. Looking across the saddle was intimidating when I was already so exhausted, but I also knew how disappointed I would be if I didn’t try. The rest of the group was on board to go for it and I didn’t want to be slowing them down on the trail. Gareth then mentioned the option of sharing 1 day pack between two people to carry snacks, water, and clothing and without even being sure of it I said, “I could do it if I don’t have a pack.” Gareth quickly agreed and offered to carry my 65L with whatever I needed - which instantly doubled the tip I was planning on giving him the next day. I stowed my camera away and the 7 of us set off down into the valley, leaving Milton to build a fire and get dinner going for us.
The path into the valley was narrow and steep with lots of switchbacks. We lost our footing often as we made our way downhill but it didn’t take long to lose 300 of the 800 metres we had climbed earlier in the day. We noticed lots of markers left over from the evacuation in June and it reminded me how close we were getting to something so powerful. By this point we had heard Fuego erupt a couple of times and I was anxious to see it close up. We rested a moment before heading up the other side, scrambling along the black soil as we made our way above the tree line.
It was a tough but fun climb up to the ridge. The slope was steep with no defined path so there was quite a bit of route finding along the way. The volcanic soil and rock would come loose beneath our feet and roll into the valley, yet the scramble felt much different from those I’ve experienced in the Canadian Rockies.
This photo is looking back at Acatenango as we approached Fuego’s ridge. You can see the faint white tarps and tents from various base camps above the cloud on the right.
Once we got to the tree line we stopped to talk about some safety signals and meeting points in case something were to go wrong. The wind is often harsh on the ridge and weather can turn quickly as we were already experiencing. Though the air remained calm, clouds had rolled in to cover our previously clear skies and started to let out a light mist. We put on our rain gear and hung out on the ridge for close to a half hour, waiting for the volcano to erupt a first time and then seeing if the clouds would part for a better view.
As the clouds became thicker we decided that our view was not going to improve and we should make our way back to basecamp. As we were zipping our bags we noticed lightening flashing nearby and commented about how being the tallest point of a volcano was probably not the best place to be in a thunderstorm.
Less than a minute later as we began walking we all felt a small jolt of energy through our bodies. I saw a quick bright flash on the top of my forehead and one of the other participants called out “lava just hit my head”. They had misspoke, of course, attributing the shock and flash of light to the first thing that made sense in the moment, but when we talked about it a short while later we put together the pieces. Gareth had seen lightening close by just as we all felt something go through us, so we assume that the bolt struck nearby and travelled across the ground to where we were. The shock was less than you would feel when an old toaster plug arcs but was still big enough that we all noticed it.
The hike back to basecamp was as expected - long and tiring. Going down Fuego into the saddle was tricky as darkness started to set in and footing was hard to find. We moved slow and steady slogging our way back up Acatenango, using our headlamps to guide our feet. We were hungry and ready to give our legs a long break. Just as we were approaching camp we saw Fuego’s first big show of the night. I was able to get ahold of my camera but being tripod-less it didn’t do me much good.
Once at camp we sat around the fire, resting our feet and enjoying a hot pasta dinner and mulled wine. It was here where I was able to set my camera up on my little tripod and get a few shots of Fuego erupting above the clouds.
Of course with my luck I didn’t have my camera ready for some of the best displays but that only means you’ll have to go experience it for yourself. It was seriously one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. Despite going to bed early that night to prepare for our 4am wake up call, none of us slept well. With Fuego blasting in our ears every 20 minutes combined with sharing a tent with three strangers, it was difficult to get comfy and stay asleep. Our alarms couldn’t come soon enough and we were all happy, though maybe a bit nervous, to get up and get moving. I snuck in a final photo of Fuego and we set out for the summit.
I woke up with a headache and the thinning oxygen didn’t help as we made our way higher in the slowly growing light. Milton stayed with us for the first half hour which was full of some of the steepest inclines we had seen yet. Once he and Gareth were confident none of us needed to turn around, Milton returned to camp to get things ready for breakfast as the 7 of us inched our way towards the crater. We stopped often, catching our breath and encouraging one another as the sun raced us to the summit.
This scramble was comparable to running up sand dunes, except who are we kidding, we couldn’t run. We reached the ridge of the crater just minutes before the sun made its entrance over the peak of Volcan de Agua and we spent about a half hour enjoying the views and taking photos. We could see Volcan de Pacaya erupting in the distance just past Agua and enjoyed a couple shows by Fuego as well.
Out of a typical group of 8 that participates in Ox’s overnight Acatenango trips, about two will summit Fuego and 2 will choose not to summit Acatenango. This was Gareth’s first time leading a group where all of the participants submitted both Fuego and Acatenango and I’m pretty proud of us for that.
The first bit of the descent to base camp was a lot of fun, as the earth was soft enough to run/ski down without fear of falling. As the ground became harder though, with a loose layer on top, it again got tricky to keep your footing. Though it took an hour and a half to reach the summit that morning, we were back at our tents in about 30 minutes. We saw one last display from Fuego as we packed up our gear and enjoyed a delicious banana bread breakfast before beginning our final leg of the journey.
The 2 hours it took to make it back to the road were more difficult than I expected. My now loaded pack didn’t bother me too much but my knees and legs took a beating as I worked to stay on my feet coming down the steep damp trails. The cold beer we were treated to as we waited for the shuttle couldn’t have been more welcome. Looking back I’m so grateful for this experience to challenge myself, experience nature in a whole new way, and get to know some wonderful people. Ox Expeditions was outstanding from start to finish and I would highly recommend them for your next Guatemalan adventure!