It's breakfast in Antigua. My wife and I are eating in the hotel, the "gringo breakfast" consisting of eggs, a once-frozen, now nuked hash brown patty, and some "ham" that resembles baloney. At least the coffee is delicious. The older British couple we've shared breakfast with the last two days are finishing up. We ask about their activities the day prior; they mention climbing the active volcano Pacaya.
"That's great, we're going to do that today!" my wife says.
"It's grueling," they reply. The woman looks at me and says, "You have to be fit. Are you fit?" Her eyes indicate she has an answer picked out for me already, but expects me to lie. Pride dictates my answer.
"Yeah, we hike all the time at home." This is a horrendous lie, matched only by my repeated rep(lie) that I speak "pocito espanol" even though I've been wishing everyone good afternoon for two days by saying "Buenos Aires!"
Not only do I not hike at home, I own no hiking boots. The closest I've got are some wonderful Rockports, phenomenally good walking shoes with almost no upper ankle support.
We talk with the Brits for a short while, discussing the hike. Apparently horses are available for a reasonable price. She wishes she'd taken one because she was very worn out when they arrived at the lava fields and she would have appreciated it more had she not been so exhausted. This is a relief; I can avoid humiliation and failure simply by paying a little more money. This is a transaction I can handle.
As we prepare for the trip, we purchase flashlights and bottles of water. We load sweatshirts into our backpack as it's cold after night falls.
A ninety minute bus ride takes us from Antigua to the base of the volcano. We stop once to load an extra tire on board the bus, another for the locals to fleece us: selling walking sticks, marshmallows, and roasting sticks. Many people cook on the lava at the top, because who doesn't want a toasted marshmallow that reeks of rotten eggs? We politely refuse everyone, as I'm over cooking marshmallows on anything.
When we arrive at the base of the volcano we're one mile above sea level already; the air feels thin in my lungs. The guide, Lionel, tells us the gory details: we're hiking about 3.5 km from the base to the volcano peak. We're going to walk from 1800m above sea level to 2600m above sea level. This distance is not included in the 3.5 km. I was in cross country (thinner, younger, and more physically conditioned) in high school, so 3.5 km sounds like a walk in the park. "That's only a couple of miles. I'm ready!"
We disembark from the bus, climbing over the ominous spare, over the front seat, and out the front passenger door. The main passenger door has failed on the trip up. We're surrounded by urchins immediately, all with walking sticks. I buy two, giving the kid double what he asks. (it's still just a little over a buck) I buy it from one of the runty kids because my giant bleeding heart dictates I do so. The larger boys glare at him with a fury; he'll probably be beaten for his good fortune.
It's late afternoon, and the guide yells for us to get started. "The first 200 meters or so is cement, and is very hard. You can get horses if you want." There's a half dozen young men with horses, sizing up our group. They point at me and say something. A couple of them laugh. I'm on the fast track to horsemanship.
As we approach the base of the path, walking by the horsemen on either side, they call out to us.
"You need horse?"
"Only 100 Quezatols!"
Masters of the soft-sell, these.
"If we make it halfway up, they cut the price to 50" murmurs one of the women in our group. "I read that in the guidebook."
I can certainly make it halfway up. We set out stick in hand, fresh, and optimistic.
The last time I exercised at this altitude was a few years ago in Denver. My thirty minute elliptical session ended 15 minutes with my lung collapsing. I'm in worse shape now. The first words out of my mouth, naturally, are an obscenity. "Holy shit, this is steep!"
The response comes from right behind me, in stereo.
"You ride horse?"
Shadowing me on either side are the two young men who had pointed me out earlier, grinning. Eye contact is established. "Only 100, you ride?"
We're a grand total of 15 meters of a 3.5 kilometer trip. I am not failing this soon. I shake my head, saving my breath for blasphemes and obscenities directed at the volcano.
Another 15 meters, and it's still steeper than anything I've climbed in a decade. "You're fucking kidding me," I mutter.
"You ride horse!"
I shake my head again. These relentless bastards are not going to see me fail for at least another 20 meters.
This continues until the cement gives way to dirt and horse-shit and the path's grade lowers to something more humane. I can't catch my breath at this point. I gulp water down, spilling over my beard. I flashback to the Brit. "Are you fit?" Well, at least I know the answer to that.
One of the horsemen says, "75?" and I'm sold. Who can say no to 25% off? My wife and I both hop onto horses, and leave our groups in the dust. (embarassing side note: our friend with asthma doesn't get a horse until the next checkpoint. That's right, someone with a physical handicap held out longer than I did)
I should probably feel shame when we trot by our group, but I don't. Not until my horse starts straining. I know she's used to hauling people, but I'm a Big Gringo. 260+ lbs, I hate feeling the horse struggling under me. I offer to walk a bit. The guide shakes his head. "Is strong horse!" and tugs at her reins again.
That's when my horse begins farting. The clop-clop of the horse hooves is matched with the plop-plop of horse poo, sullying the trail and complicating things for the group on foot. This makes me happy, because farts and poo are ten times funnier when it's a horse. They're monsters!
We come to a stop about 30 minutes after we've begun; I am as grateful as the horse when the trip ends and I can remove my offending carriage from her back. I scratch her nose a bit. She gives me a look that says "you could have used the exercise, asshole." Which is weird, I'd think the horse would think in Spanish.
We're near the top of the trail. I silently congratulate myself for beating the system. You only have to be fit if you have no access to pack animals!
Our group shows up twenty minutes later.
Our guide leads us through the barbed wire fence and up the meadow to some lava rocks. "This was from an eruption in 2006."
Our group makes appreciative noises. I'm not too impressed; we're near the top, right?
We hike through the meadow about a half kilometer, passing signs warning us of the dangers ahead. Poisonous gases, lava, falling rocks from the sky. We arrive at the base of the lava mountain we're climbing. It's lava rock that was thrown from the peak and raced down the mountain, cooling into razor sharp, brittle formations at the base of the meadow. Chalk arrows point our way.
In the distance, peaks rise into the clouds, obscuring their tops. I'm short of breath again; the meadow's slope was gentle but it was still there, and after hauling my body up another 200 meters I'm tired and have lost most patience I had for this trip.
It's hard going climbing the lava. We use our walking sticks to prod ahead, ensuring that rock that looks stable actually is. Often a sharp prod of the stick reveals treachery from the very ground. The rocks are sharp; falling would certainly open gashes across legs and arms if not outright breaking an arm or ankle.
The wind is much higher here, but brings no more oxygen to my lungs than the still air. It forces me to give up one of my hands for balance, watching to ensure my hat isn't blown off. I'm very tired now, and demand rest more than once. My legs hurt now, my breath comes in short gasps, and clouds are coming in. Great, fog.
The first cloud that swirls across the path reveals its nature; not water vapor, but sulfur dioxide. The rotten egg smell hangs in the air. My overworked lungs gulp it down, find no respite and double me over in a coughing fit. I can taste the gas. It's chemical, almost metallic.
We push on. My exhaustion gets the best of me, and I'm too slow to secure my hat when the wind gusts. It rips the hat from my head, and the hat rips my glasses from my face. Both fly into a crevasse.
"FUCK!" I shout, anger hiding terror. I haven't been able to function in my house without glasses for more than a decade; climbing down a treacherous volcanic slope blind is a death sentence. My wife scrambles back to me, and reaches down into the crevasse. My glasses and hat are intact. She hands them to me with concern on her face. "Are you ok?"
This is far from my proudest moment. Pain, exhaustion and terror mull together. I stare at her with fury. "You did this to me!"
I'm ready to start a fight on this volcano, as if it would magically transport me either to the top or bottom. I'm not sure which I want to see more.
She looks at me, nonplused. "Do you want to turn around?"
I frown. Pride stings again. "No. Let's go." I lean forward and begin trudging up the rocks again, prodding ahead to ensure safety. My legs scream at every step, but I'm not giving up because my wife thinks I should.
Most of the trip up now is spent in a collapsed world; I glimpse up to pick out a sane-seeming path through the lava, but mostly concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I'm tired, and my body no longer wants to maintain balance with my pack. Every few minutes another gust of wind blows sulfur dioxide across the path, obscuring the trail ahead and causing me to double over in a coughing fit, spittle hanging from my beard.
Naturally, this is my wife's fault. "I hate you," I mutter at her. She ignores it, and we trudge on.
The guide yells from above, "Look up!"
The smoke has parted, and in the distance looms the peak, twin ribbons of glowing lava creeping down the surface. It is a menacing beauty; the source of all the pain and fear in my life right now congealing into this moment.
The wind picks up again, more clouds obscure the peak, and wreath our group in their poison. I double over coughing again, and reach for somewhere to sit.
My wife, patient as Job, asks again, "Do you want to turn around honey?"
We're about 200 meters from the summit at this point. The air is hot, and the only wind brings no respite. Light-headed and tired, I nod. "Let's turn around." Another cloud washes over us, and I bend over and vomit repeatedly.
The sulfur dioxide is poisoning me. Whenever a cloud hits us I double over to first vomit, and then dry heave. Long ropes of saliva snatched up by the wind, flaying from my beard like a mucosoidal jellyfish.
The steps down are worse than going up; when moving up the volcano you're certain of the footing you're on. A shifting rock above forces you to move your foot a bit, but doesn't pose a threat.
Down - you're jumping onto rocks that may or may not hold you, and if they give way you're taking a bad spill. The sticks help; prodding rocks and watching them tumble down the path of your descent is better than becoming one of the things rolling downhill.
We watch a young woman do just that about 20 meters ahead, falling onto the rocks after a bad mis-step. We leave her; we've seen Survivor.
We finally arrive at the base of the lava, and trudge onto the meadow, exhausted. Only two more kilometers to go.
My lungs are raw and burnt. My nose is running into my moustache, unheeded. Vomit and spittle are dried in my beard, but I'm not going to open my femoral artery on the rocks above, so it's a win. We walk back to the meadow to wait for our group to arrive.
A pregnant horse walks up to us, wheedling for carrots or sugar. We have none, but scratch her nose for a while.
Groups pass us that aren't ours, and our shadows lengthen with the setting sun.
"Mind your step, but be fleet. . . there's no need to panic, but we're losing the light . . . "
We decide to head down without the group, as the light is fading. We head down with a Canadian from another group. His near-constant chatter keeps me distracted from my pain and humiliation. Walking through the barbed wire fence, two horses and guides await. "Taxi!"
No. I'm going to at least reverse conquer this slope, and make it to the bottom on my own power. All of us move past the horses, and trudge down the trail. Mostly sand and some pebbles, it's treacherous. Roots reach up from the sand to trip us up or turn our ankles, and the clearest paths are covered mostly in horse shit. After about a half kilometer, we're met with the first fork in the trail; we split off from the Canadian, both taking different paths and shouting out to each other. We meet up again about 20 meters down. It isn't long into the trip before we're shrouded in darkness. We stop and pull out flashlights, and continue our descent.
About halfway down I stop caring about the horseshit and just try to get down fast without hurting myself. Near the bottom I take a step onto some sand, a rock shifts beneath my left ankle, and my whole body crushes down on it, twisting it badly. I fall and roll a couple of feet. My wife and the Canadian urge me to rest. I sit for a few seconds, but recall what I did in baseball as a kid: "Walk it off". Besides, if it's broken or sprained the swelling's going to stop me from getting down in a couple minutes anyway, may as well try and finish what we started.
(side note: I've sprained an ankle in the last 2 of 3 trips my wife and I have taken; I'm just going to pack crutches from now on as a time-saver)
A few minutes later we hit the cement. Every step by now is an agony; my lungs are still burning from the gas and now my ankle protests at every step. The kids run up to meet us. They want their sticks back before we're even done!
I say "No."
He points to the flashlight. "Flashlight"
I say "No."
He points to the stick. "Stick!"
I say "No."
He points to the flashlight again. "Flashlight!?"
I say "No" again, and wish ill upon a child.
He hounds me the whole way down. I'm too tired to keep saying no so I just ignore him. Finally at the base, the Canadian shouts for joy and says "let's get some beer!"
Finally, a physical act I'm qualified for: drinking heavily.