Two friends and a view

October 14, 2008

So this is the mountain I got up at 4.30am yesterday to climb. At 3772m, the Santa Maria is rumoured to be the hardest mountain to climb in Central America. Perhaps not such a good idea for an unfit person with an aversion to practically all forms of exercise to attempt. This was also opinion of the host father of my friend Sarah, Edwin. After seeing my performance on Saturday morning, he was worried enough about me to ask me not to climb the volcano for the sake of my health. I got up at the moderate time of 5.30am that day to run (yes, Mum, I said run) up the hill behind Xela which is about half the size of the Santa Maria. By the time we got to the base of the hill, I was too tired to run anymore. In fact, I was so puffed out, I felt sick and dizzy. The climb to the top of this hill was a struggle and, owing to the clouds, I wasn´t rewarded by much of a view.

The view from the top of the hill in Xela

Obviously the idea that I couldn´t so something only made me more determined to climb the Santa Maria just to prove how wrong he was. So, the next morning, armed with two ankle supports, 1.5 litres of water, chocolate, avocado, coke and bananas, I was at the bottom of the volcano, ready for the 8 hour hike up and down the mountain. Although it is unlikely to erupt, the Santa Maria erupted fairly recently in volcano time about 100 years ago causing devastation in the Western highlands. Two vents continually spurt clouds of volcanic gas and lava just below its peak. About 20 minutes into the hike, with the pink dawn spreading to my left, I was seriously out of breath and in doubt of my ability to climb up this steep peak. After about 40 minutes we split into two groups with me and my friend Lulu left behind the slow group with two Australians and a French woman while the rest of our school friends went ahead. We were given the choice to walk a much easier peak nearby, as the last hour in particular was meant to be a hard climb. I imagined a cliff, not too good for a girl with vertigo. But everyone decided to walk the Santa Maria, which was after all the reason we were there. Once we started, there was no option of turning back. I was extremely discouraged when our guide went ahead of us instead of walking at our slow pace. I had visions of being left behind alone on a strange mountain with my very limited sense of direction. About an hour into the climb, we were less than a third of the way up.

This is the view from about a third of the way up, while I was struggling. At least it´s sunny!

Of course, we didn´t start from sea level, so I actually climbed about 1300m, which is still more than three times the height of the Empire State Building, on a track of mud and loose volcanic rocks. However, after a very disconcerting beginning, my energy reserves kicked in and suddenly I was leading the group. I was still breathing heavily, but my chest and legs felt fine. I led for about an hour. I think I have the slow and steady skill, rather than the speed. Endurance is more my thing, and I enjoy it a lot more. My friends and I had wanted to climb Tajumulco, another Guatemalan volcano, which at 4220m is the highest point in Central America. However, there is a land dispute at the moment over which community gets the gringos´ tourism money and it´s closed. I plan to hike it when I return here to study more in a few years. So Santa Maria was second choice, but still damned impressive. Unfortunately, after this point I didn´t take any good photos of the view. Mostly because I was concentrating on the walk.

About 45 minutes from the top I began to feel really sick and dizzy. I don´t know whether it was unfitness, the altitude, or both. My hands swelled up to twice their normal size, like my feet do when I´m in an aeroplane and I could only walk at a snail´s pace otherwise I thought I would faint or throw up. This crippling feeling meant that I was fourth to last to complete the climb, when I think I could have been about 15 minutes faster. Anyway, whatever the reason, by the time my group reached the top, the mountain was shrouded in cloud and we couldn´t see a thing. On a clear day you can see to the Mexican border, as well as the daily lava and steam spurts from the adjacent volcano Santiaguito. As you can see from my photo of the starting point, taken at the end, the volcano has a a beautiful hat of cloud on the top. However, the first few minutes I was there, I was so proud at myself for completing the climb that it´s only now that I´m upset about the view. On the way up, the sun burnt the clouds away (as well as my neck) and gave us a view of other mountains beneath us and rolling valleys which made me feel like a character from the Lord of the Rings. It was truly amazing. On the last part, the view was stunning, but I couldn´t appreciate it as looking down such a steep slope with vertigo and dizziness was not a good idea. Anyway, I still climbed the hardest mountain in Central America in a measly three and a half hours! Next time, I´m camping halfway up and walking in the dark to see the dawn. View guaranteed. I´m sure I will climb another mountain on this trip. I hope to travel to Honduras, Peru, Bolivia and Chile after Guatemala and there´s some damn high country in those countries.

Hardcore at the peak of Santa Maria, with friends from my Spanish school: On the way up (and down) we were accompanied by two friendly dogs from the Maya village at the base. You can see one of them collapsed at the bottom of this photo. For some reason, we all look like gangstas.

For some reason, it took as long to descend as it did to climb the mountain, although we only took two, instead of about 5 breaks, and I ran at points. However, by the time we reached the bottom, having walked along paths I have no recollection of climbing (perhaps some survival instinct for endurance) my ankle, which I had twisted the day before running down Xela´s hill, was too painful to put weight on. I hobbled down the last few hundred metres by leading with my left foot until I felt that I couldn´t physically walk any further. Today, I still have an inability to walk up and down stairs without some serious effort. For my Guatemalan family, the most amusing sight of the British girl they have yet is of me hauling myself up the house stairs fully supported by my grip on the banisters. Sadly last night I also said goodbye to my hiking companions from Denmark, Anita and Lulu (the blonde chick and the girl in the grey hoodie). I may see them again in Chile, if we´re lucky enough to cross paths (with some organisation of course)- Today I am unable to move very much and have consoled myself for the loss of two friends and a view with a 70p purple wool skirt so I can look a little pretty occasionally. Goodbye North Face.

P.S: For those of you who wanted a picture of our guide, Eduardo. He´s singing.


One Response to “Two friends and a view”

  1. Rachael said


    You look like you’re having th most wonderful adventure and it sounds like it’s not just me who is enjoying your blog, it’s great! For someone who made it sound like they were half dead you look great in your photo going up the mountain! All the love and luck in the owrld from me and my little family, can’t wait for the next instalment! xxxx

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