What did we do for our fourth anniversary? Oh, you know, the usual–climbed an active volcano, stuck our head in the crater, barely avoided a deadly avalanche..
Climbing Pacaya Volcano–July 2009
If you happen to be in Guatemala during your fourth anniversary (and you think like Nate) then you might as well celebrate your years together by hiking a volcano. While it might not sound as romantic as a candlelit dinner or fancy beach vacation, I’m (almost) always up for Nate’s once-in-a-lifetime adventures. Why not climb a volcano!? What better way to build trust and create a stronger bond than by risking your lives together!
So, we asked our friends Tim, Eleanor, and Ben if they’d like to join us. As it turns out, their hosts in Guatemala, John and Amy Banta, have climbed Pacaya several times. Even their kids—ages 6, 9, and 11—had climbed it before. John offered to be our guide, and all ten of us set out early Monday morning for the all-day hike.
The first hour or so up the volcano was a fairly run-of-the-mill mountain hike. The grass was green. The views were pretty. We chatted as we climbed. Okay, so the others chatted. I was huffing and puffing before we made it to the first rest station. And, yes, I did take Nate up on his offer to push me up the hill from behind on more than a few occasions. At one point I heard Nate jokingly say to Ben, “Hey, remember that one time when I pushed Rachael up a mountain?” Sad but true.
Obviously, this was not the best start to our seven hour adventure, but as Hope (John and Amy’s 11-year-old daughter) told me, the fun part was still to come. The “fun part,” as Hope calls it, was a two-hour climb (note the fact that I no longer use the word hike) up a sharp incline to the volcano’s crater.
Thankfully, Amy told us ahead of time to wear long sleeves, jeans, and leather gloves. The grassy hill turned into a never-ending slope made of sharp, black boulders. When the landscape changed, the scrappy dog who had been our faithful companion throughout the first part of our hike gave up and headed back down the hill. But the humans trudged up the rocky slope, thankful to have the protection of gloves since we often needed to use our hands to pull ourselves up the rocks.
After about an hour of rock climbing, I looked down and noticed that the soles of my tennis shoes were splitting. The sharp rocks had eaten away the hard black rubber and the softer white rubber, and you could now see the foam of my inner shoe peeking through. I wasn’t too worried though, because we were only climbing up the volcano. I figured I wouldn’t really need my shoe soles after we reached the top, because we were going to slide down the other side. How cool is that?
I realize that, up until this point, I’ve left out one tiny but important detail. Pacaya is not just any old volcano; it’s active. While it was relatively cool at the bottom, as we got closer to the top, there were pockets of sulfuric heat that made it feel like you were doing your cardio workout inside an oven. I’ve heard that if you climb the other side of Pacaya with a tour group, you can actually see rivers of flowing magma.
Show Me the Lava
At the summit, we ventured up to a crater that was about 10 feet in diameter. The sulfur had turned the surrounding rocks yellowish green instead of the usual charred black. I kept thinking we were hearing thunder, but it was actually the deep grumble of the volcano. We’d hear a rumble and hot steam would come out the top of the hole. Believe it or not, we were told to take a deep breath, lean out into the crater and look straight down into the steam. Sure enough, inside the cavern we could see red, molten lava. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Ben and the Boulder
After we ate lunch next to the crater, we made our way toward the smoother area of the mountain where we were going to slide down. Again, I’ve heard reports that the other side of Pacaya is much tamer. There, you walk down the hill through ash that feels a lot like snow. We, however, were going down a steep slope that was covered with loose stones, red dirt, and large boulders. We listened closely to John as he told us about how dangerous this part of the trip would be. We taped our gloves to prevent the loose stones from getting in and watched as John demonstrated how to do a “controlled slide” from one secure boulder to the next.
John illustrated the seriousness of the situation by pushing some of the smaller rocks down the hill. As they rolled, they gained momentum and brought other rocks down with them. It could be deadly to be lower on the hill when people up above loosen stones and rocks and they come rolling towards your head.
You’re still with me right? Quick review, so listen closely: The idea was to slide back and forth across the hill. Watch out for rocks from above. Hold on tight to the big rocks that are secure. Make your way slowly down the volcano.
Unfortunately, we learned the hard way that the boulders we were using as anchors weren’t nearly as secure as they looked. Ben was following John and his youngest son when the boulder the size of a bean bag chair that Ben was hanging on to came loose and started to push him down the mountain.
The boulder started to pick up speed and Ben used his arm and face to push it away from John and his son. Fortunately, John was able to reach out and grab Ben. John’s quick actions probably saved Ben’s life. If John hadn’t caught Ben, the boulder would have sent Ben rolling down the rest of the mountain. The momentum would have been too much for Ben to stop himself. He could have been crushed by the boulder. He could have been torn to pieces by the rocks. Bones would have been broken. The possibilities are endless and terrifying. As it was, the results were scary enough. Ben turned ghostly pale, and wouldn’t show those of us looking on from the top the right side of his face. His ear was badly cut, but thankfully still attached.
With Ben badly bleeding and John and Amy’s youngest son frozen in fear after witnessing Ben’s injury, the group decided to turn around, climb back up to the summit, and go down the way we had come up.
As Eleanor was heading back up the mountain, she loosened some of the smaller stones that were holding up another boulder. The boulder (about the size of a La-Z Boy recliner) shifted and trapped her foot underneath its weight. Nate saw what happened to Eleanor and decided to slide down to help. He propped up the boulder with one hand and dug out Eleanor’s foot with the other. As soon as her foot was free, Nate yelled for everyone to get out of the way. He then quickly moved off to the side and let the boulder the size a recliner crash down the mountain.
Yet another catastrophe averted.
The third and final scare came as we were almost back to the summit. We were climbing up an area made entirely of enormous and seemingly secure rocks. I was just ahead of the Ramseiers and noticed that a nearby rock wasn’t as secure as it looked. Naturally, we decided to look for another path. I climbed ahead, and Eleanor followed. She was on her hands and knees on a boulder the size of a picnic table when the rock started to tip back and forth like a teeter totter.. “Eleanor!” I screamed. “It’s moving!” And I reached out and grabbed the sleeve of her shirt. I pictured the rock breaking free, crushing her, and sending her rolling to a certain death. Thankfully, she was able to pull herself off the rock before it could dislodge any further.
I knew that the two oldest Banta children were watching me from above, so I had to control my emotions. Instead of screaming and crying, I started laughing hysterically. Thankfully, Eleanor told me later that she often has the same response in extremely tense situations, so she wasn’t mad at my insensitivity. A few seconds later, when no one was watching, I turned my face away and let myself cry.
A God who can move (or not move) mountains
After Ben’s accident, John had us stop to pray. We were scared, but we all believed in a God big enough to move or not move mountains. Where do people who don’t believe in God find their peace? Where do they get their hope and confidence of protection? I thought someone was going to die that day, and the only thing I could do to prevent it was pray. Thankfully, the one thing I had in my power to do was nothing less than calling on the creator of the universe and asking Him to intervene on our behalf.
And, against all odds, we managed to make it down the mountain with only a few cuts, bumps, bruises, scraps, and one completely destroyed pair of Nike tennis shoes.