Thursday, December 29, 2022

Running in Guatemala: one lap around the top of the Acatenango crater, at 4,000 meters!

After the previous two risky runs on my own (Guatemala City and San Pedro), that one was safe, crime-wise, as we joined an organized hike with a 30+ group led by OX Expeditions and four of their guides, not counting the porters. And most of the 2-day hike was actually quite slow moving, not much running at all. Yet, I couldn't wait to get to the top of Acatenango where OX was advertising a fun run around the crater, at 4,000 meters! (Well, not quite 4,000 but 3,976 meters or 13,045 feet.)

As our lead guide, Tyler, prepared us with his mountain expedition motto at the briefing on Tuesday evening, "Rush then Wait!" Rush to get ready before the next deadline, then wait for the whole group... Ah, I'm so not use to this, that did test my patience and urge to move forward!

As an example, we met at 6:45 am on Wednesday morning to finalize our backpacks but only left an hour later. And, even, just for a short drive around the block to a restaurant to get breakfast. Another hour there, then an hour drive to the trailhead in 4 vans, then another wait before we could get moving up, finally!

Half the group knew each other as they were travelling together through Central America for a month, young adults from Australia, North America and Europe, ranging from 19 to the late 30s. Agnès and I were the oldest of the troop but not the least in shape.

The first climb through the farm land (corn fields) was straight up, one of the steepest sections of the whole trek, the group exploded quite fast. Thankfully we had 4 guides so they could split into different paces. Still, even the lead group was making long stops. 

The goal was to reach Base Camp at 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) before 2:30 pm so we could leave by 3"30 for El Fuego. We stopped 6 times from the trailhead (around 8,000 feet or 2,400 meters) to base camp, including a lunch break in the misty cloud which we climbed through in this first part.

Shortly before reaching base camp, the sky opened up to an amazing sight of El Fuego spitting out a huge cloud/trail of dark grey smoke, wow!

Tyler gave us an hour to get our day pack ready for the first whammy which consisted in going down 300 meters (to 3,300 meters), then up 300 meters to the edge of El Fuego. And back in the dark, hence the need for individual flashlights. A view of our camp from El Fuego.

Thanks to Tyler's perfect timing, we were the first group on the edge, staying in the freezing wind for less than 15 minutes to take shots of the amazing views and sunset over the cloud layer.

And two cool group pictures from Tyler's camera:

Retracing our path on the treacherous downhill trail, now in the dark, we crossed several groups which looked ill equipped (no headlamp, sneakers, no poles, no backpack) and that increased the confidence we had picked the best expedition company, which we therefore highly recommend!

Despite trail shoes and my Leki poles, I still managed to slip and fall on my backpack. Unfortunately, my oblique got pinched by the side of my sun glasses in that pack, I'm still in pain a week later, with a 12-hour race coming up in less than 2 days, yikes! With Agnès' similar bad fall in Santa Cruz on the second day, that's where the age shows...  With her back still in pain, Agnès took a porter (a young one, Balthazar, who carried two large packs plus his own day pack, on his own).

We got back to the camp around 7:30 pm, that is about half the whole group, those we had embarked on the Fuego add-on, and returned to a cooked hot pasta tomato dish for much awaited carbs!

OC Expeditions has recently gotten 6 huts built for their own camp, each sleeping 6. To accommodate the guides and a few porters, 2 tents were setup. While some of us got to bed shortly after 8, one of our hut mates got in at 11, then we could hear a few people talking and laughing around the big fire, staring at the stars past 2 am. Between bio breaks, and Tyler's wake-up call at 3:45, Agnès believes she hasn't slept at all. And I think I was able to only get 2 to 3 hours. Rough night but so much excitement to get to the summit and... run!

We left camp by 4:30 am. Our camp was the lowest so we had a few dozens meters more than other groups to get to the top, for a total of 450 meters of elevation gain. Again, half the original group only. About 15 minutes in, El Fuego erupted with scories and a sizable flow of red lava. It was so cold though that neither Agnès nor I could get our phones out to capture the amazing experience, so many dreams coming true at once! We are still waiting to hear back from others in the group to see if anyone was able to catch this eruption with their cameras.

The closer we were getting to the top, the sandier and slipperier it was. Yet, it's always easier to climb than going down. We reach the top just before sunrise, still a perfect timing from Tyler. This time, several other groups were already there. Temperature was sub freezing, not counting the chill factor of the strong wind. But at least the sky was clear, we were so lucky with the weather overall!

We took a few pictures and movies, mostly Agnès who was brave enough to take her gloves off, while I couldn't wait until we got to run to warm up! To my surprise, 6 of us were up for it. The goal was to run on the crest of the crater, a perimeter given at 700 meters. But, more importantly as you can see on Agnès' pictures, not flat at all! While I led in the first downhill, I got passed in the subsequent steep uphill by a young gal from our group, doing triathlon. Gasp, I couldn't breath enough so I settled for a power walk. I got passed by two other guys, I'm glad this wasn't a formal race! ;-) Since I'm more into long runs these days, if not ultras, I wish we got a second chance but everybody was getting cold so Tyler gathered the group to start the descent back to base camp.

As we could figure out on the way up, the start was quite slippery indeed. Then we got into a section of deep sand in which we could run like in powder snow, that was cool.

We got back to camp as a few from the back of the group were starting their own descent to the trail head, at their own pace and one of the guides. We got some breakfast (delicious fresh banana break and carrot cake) and it was time to pack out and leave camp. The way down seemed to me much longer, I certainly prefer running or hiking up, especially with a large backpack.

We got back to the headquarters in Antigua around 1 pm and our room, 2 blocks away, shortly after, for a nice shower. Then we continued visiting Antigua, doing some shopping (souvenirs at the perfect Nim Po't store close to the iconic Santa Catalina Arch) and a very nice dinner in an authentic local restaurant, Fonda de la Calle Real, with traditional meat stews.

Here is a flyover of the whole trek, plus and minus a few missed sections when I forgot to restart my Garmin (click on this link, or the picture below):

We left for the airport the next morning at 9, plenty of time to catch our 1:30 pm flight connecting through Houston. I was hoping that our Southern route would resist but our connection got delayed 6 hours from 5 to 11 pm, credit to the big Christmas weather snafu impacting most airlines. That got us into SFO at 2 am, at least we could enjoy the night in our beds, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers over the holidays.

What a trip overall, short and masterfully organized by Agnès in a hurry (we took our tickets 2 weeks in advance) but so many memories made including this lifetime experience of watching a volcano erupting and climbing 3 of them, seeing so many bright colors on houses and traditional garments, eating new foods, drinking exquisite coffee and hot chocolate, and meeting new people, either native or from around the world. And the knowledge that there is much more to see in Guatemala. And so many other countries to visit too (I only checked 69 of Traveler Century Club's list of 330 major destinations, including countries and major territories, just barely above 20%...)!

To a great 2023, all!

Bonus: a few post cards from Antigua Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the capital of the Captaincy General of Guatemala from 1543 through 1773 (Wikipedia):