Vitae Travels: Ascending Acatenango

Was it worth it? The fight with the wind, or the dance with shock and potential death, the pained ankles and tightened muscles, the short breaths and the unconscious slip into nothingness, from which you might never awake? Was it all worth it? - all for the sake of the fleeting sense of an achievement or an overnight friendship, or the sight of a billion stars, and a story to be told?    

"30 minutes left", I heard my guide say. I remember double-checking my Vitae watch every time we passed the 30 minutes mark, convinced that he was lying. I will never forget altitude sickness; the dizzying migraine and the intense sensitivity to the light from the headlamps, the feeling of nausea, and the seemingly normal sense of confusion. Still, I managed to trod on, too afraid of frostbite to stop and too ashamed to call it quits. "Not now" I thought, "not 30 minutes from the top."        


The mountain was wild, and unforgiving. It demanded respect and all the elements joined together to prove it. I clambered up, locking my shoe in the sand and pushing against the wind. I remembered something my dad, a paratrooper, had taught me - "If you fight the wind, you will lose. You will be tossed and thrown in every direction. Instead, let it drive you. Arch your back and let it move you." His voice in my head soothed me as I clung to every rock I could find and kept low, allowing the raging winds to stream over my head instead of forcing me down the mountain. As time ticked by, the mountain grew wilder, more ruthless, unrelenting, but somewhere deep within, so did I. I kept moving.

To the right, there she towered, the infamous Volcano Fuego, the 'fiery' sister that constantly erupted. I had just missed an eruption but her breaths left the evidence of one, a trail of thick white smoke. This was the reason, she was beautiful. The three of them were - standing majestic, reverent and poised, grand spectacles of our Earth, immortal beings who transcend generations. A glorious and poetic ode to their creator.

The first hour of the climb was through walled, sandy canyons and cornfields. The ground was dusty and dry and crumbled beneath your feet, forcing you to be intentional about your steps. It led us to a dense cloud forest. We continued up the steep incline of mossy overgrown pathways, walking amongst the clouds and soaked by the sweat of the trees. Hanging vines and flowers decorated the scene. Above us, spread the canopies of a thousand trees, obstructing our vision of the night sky. Every so often, I forced glances at my watch as I feared that, without the timepiece, I would be enchanted by the consuming woodland and lose all sense of time.

“Vamos. Vamos!" Dennis screamed into the wind, every few seconds. I kept wishing he'd stop. My head was banging now - like someone had knocked it repeatedly with something hard and blunt. The headlamps were blinding my eyes and I craved sleep. Then, the dizziness set in and so, I scrambled faster than ever towards the top, hoping to make it before the feeling took over. All the while, the tingling in my fingers and toes just wouldn't go away. The cold seemed eternal. My vision was going, becoming so blurry that a timecheck was useless, with every precise detail of my Vitae watch merging into a bewildering fusion. Even the sound of the wind became a distant cry in the last few moments before my legs gave way and my body drooped, and my face came in contact with the sand. Nothing. There was nothing. No dreaming. No thoughts - and somehow it just felt like it was OK to lie there, and let time and life pass by. I was fading into the nothingness when on the edge of consciousness, I heard her - "Cle! Cle!" Manuela called. She came rushing over to pick me up. "We're almost there."

I turned around and remembered where we were. Below me, were the lights of several cities. The shadow between them was the towering volcano 'Agua'. I could see the stars now too. More than I had ever seen in my entire life. They went on forever - across the curvature of the never-ending sky. The dust of the milky way, what we could see of it, was spread out like a painting, and the constellations dotted the black blanket. Normally, at home in England, I can count the stars that are visible but here, there were millions of them. Too many. And they all carried ancient stories, some true, some myths, told through the ages by those who marvelled at the sky and read the timeless tales that shone throughout them.