Taking on Tajumulco

 It’s just gone 6am on an icy January morning, and at the summit of Tajumulco there is a crowd of people admiring the sunrise and jostling for prime positions to snap this glorious spectacle.

Behind this enthusiastic crowd is me, perched on a rock; shivering, exhausted, breathless and desperately trying to convince myself that the sunrise I am witnessing is in fact worth the effort it took to climb this dormant Guatemalan volcano.

It was my idea to climb Tajumulco, the tallest peak in Central America. I was actually quite insistent that A and I take on this challenge, and choosing our tour operator was the first thing we did when we hit Xela (the nearest town). I had no qualms at all about signing up for the two-day trek, I was entirely confident in my fitness levels.

Three of us – A, myself and another traveller Sebastian – along with our guide started out on the Saturday morning. Two chicken bus rides and we were at the start of the track. The track actually started at around 3000m and the plan was to hike the track to 4000m in four stages, set up camp for the night and then hike the remaining 250m in the morning in time to see the sunrise. Easy.

Except there were a number of things I had totally failed to take into account. The first being that I for some reason I hadn’t counted on having to carry a pack up the peak. The second being that it apparently gets colder the higher up a mountain you get. The third – and probably the biggest – oversight was that I had never hiked at altitude before and therefore had no idea as to whether it would affect me or not.

Turns out, it does. It really, really does. So while our guide and the two boys were taking great strides along the path, I soon found myself struggling to keep the pace and dropping further and further behind. By the time we completed the second stage I was red-faced, breathless and able to communicate only by nodding or shaking my head. When A made the endearing comment that he preferred me this way – that is, not able to speak – the only retort I could make was a narrowing of my eyes.

Onwards and upwards we hiked, and when we took our break for lunch I realised we were looking down on the clouds. That was actually quite something. At the end of the third stage our guide announced that “now it would be difficult” and I swear I nearly sat down and gave up then. The track became steeper and the only way I was able to inch my way up it was to promise myself little breaks. At first it was a break every 100 steps, but that was quickly revised down to every 50 steps.

Eventually, we made it to base camp where I pretty much collapsed in a heap. The altitude was taking a toll; I was dizzy, was feeling a bit muddled in the head, I had a pounding headache and I was still struggling to catch my breath. I watched from the sidelines as the boys set up our camp and gathered firewood for the night, for once thankful that girls aren’t expected to concern themselves with such tasks. My one concession was to collect some pine cones, which we were told burn well.

The chill of the night set in quickly. We hovered as close as we dared to our fire, only a few steps away and you could feel the bite of the cold. The fire, unfortunately, could not be moved inside our tent. So when we lay down to sleep, we quickly realised just how cold the ground was. The chill seeped up through our sleeping mats and sleeping bags and tormented me the whole night. I was practically lying on top of A, trying to escape it. I think at one point I may have begun whimpering, because Sebastian – in his sleeping bag – scooted over to the over side of me trying to keep me warm by sandwiched me between him and A. At the time I was so grateful I didn’t even consider whether or not it was appropriate to be snuggling up to a complete stranger.

Except even that wasn’t enough to keep me warm and Sebastian – bless this man – went outside into the cold to get some rocks that the fire had heated. They were still warm and I happily accepted several, and finally drifted off cuddling a large rock on my chest.

The alarm went off at 5am, and it was only seconds before I realised that I was a) still cold and b) still had a pounding headache. Not a good start to the day. Tthe plan was to get up to the summit before sunrise. One hour to climb 250m – not a problem for A and Sebastian. Very much a problem for me. About 20 minutes into the final stage our guide sent the boys ahead, they would make the normal route in time.

Then he sat down with me, with a serious look on his face. I wasn’t going to make it in time by taking the normal route, but there was another way. It was much much shorter, he said, but much steeper. Could I climb rocks? Well now, happens that I know something about climbing up rocks. And so we began. He led the way, and we began to steadily scramble over and up the rocks, taking a break every two minutes so I could catch my breath.

Soon the sky began to change colour, the darkness softening into shades of blue and purple. Dawn was upon us, and I resigned myself to missing the sunrise. But then I heard voices, not too far away, so I moved a little more quickly. And then there was a familiar voice: “Hooray you made it,” A cheered. I was steered to a rock and plonked there, someone told me to drink water and someone else handed me a Snickers. I think it may have been Sebastian (the man was a saint, I swear).

I didn’t move from my rock for some time. I watched the sunrise, but to be honest I was concentrating on not collapsing rather than the beauty of the scene before me. A was bouncing all over the summit, marvelling at the sunrise and taking photos from this angle and that angle, trying to get a shot with the sunlight just so. I was on my rock – head still pounding – wondering whose f***ing stupid idea it was to climb this f***ing stupid mountain anyway.

Eventually I did move about a little, and yes eventually I did muster enough energy to take in my surroundings. They were fairly spectacular but if I’m honest, after 20 minutes up there all I really wanted to do was get down to where I could, you know, breathe.

The route down was much easier. We descended to our camp, packed away our tent and began the return trek. Once we came down from altitude I became a different person, I could actually hike at a normal pace. Back at the hostel we collapsed into our bed, and that night we were so exhausted we slept for 13 hours. We did the same the night after that.

So was it worth it? Well I do now have bragging rights to the tallest peak in Central America, and I am a bit proud of that, and yes the sunrise was indeed beautiful. Will I be climbing any mountains in the forseeable future? Hell no.

4 thoughts on “Taking on Tajumulco

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