Youth Days in Guatemala
Christmas vacation suddenly became a thing of survival.
Sitting on the edge of the volcano. Looking down into the craters very alive and fiery throat.
Volcanic steam rushing at me and hurting my eyes and lungs. I sensed it was a question of perhaps minutes or even seconds before the crater would throw out a plume of searingly hot steam and gas. Volcan Fuego, (Fire), was known for this. At the moment of the climb, we were not aware of this arguably critical fact.
My breathing became strained as my lungs took in the poison laced air. The horrendous smell was that of rotting eggs and Sulphur. For whatever reason, I could not get up. I was fatigued from the ten hour climb up. We mistakenly took an unused route. There was no path, just rocks and old twisted lava as black as coal.
We parked the old station wagon near a small town, still sound asleep. It seemed to be the closest spot near the volcano’s base to start our ascent. Of course, we never used terms such as ‘ascent’ or ‘traversing, belaying’ or other proper mountain climbing vernacular. In fact, I don’t think any of us had a clue as to the volcano’s elevation. We just said we were going to climb the volcano.
This was Christmas 1966 and rock climbing and all its REI paraphernalia weren’t even someone's pipe dreams.
My mother sent us off into the chill of the still black dawn. She always assured us she’d say prayers for us whenever we’d set out on our often hair brained adventures.
My scariest moments at the crater were what we all called ‘a critical moment’. As it turned out, all of us had several scary ‘critical moments’ like mine. We shared these after our climb.
Before we set out for the climb, we never consulted experienced climbers about climbing Fuego. Back then one would have been hard pressed to find an expedition guide. Today there are several on every town block in Antigua. Antigua is a town located not far from a string of volcanos. The now touristy, colonial town was founded by the conquering Spaniards in the fifteen hundreds.
What the hell, we were young, and we questioned out loud, amongst ourselves what possible problems or worse might await us.
As I said, today guides are found everywhere. They will send you with several guides, food and snacks. They will even rent you the backpacks, the supplies to take and even sell you a brand new North Face sweat shirt. They will make sure the climber doesn’t make any stupid mistakes.
Even so, three years ago on another big, semi dormant volcano not far from Antigua, the beautiful cone shaped Acatenango, thirteen thousand feet, a handful of week end climbers died in a sudden and utterly unexpected rain and snow storm. The hypothermia killed them.
The following day rescuers found several of them near the summit, dead, hunkered down in individual fox holes they’d dug in desperation.
On Fuego, on the craters edge, my despair grew such that I felt as if I would not be able to stand and walk away down the side of the crater where we could now see an established path. In my hazy frame of mind, which was worsening, I wanted to lie down. Now on my stomach and my head over the crater’s edge, staring down at the cauldron from hell.
Sure, it wasn’t until several days after our climb that we learned that in fact Volcan Fuego had the nasty habit of blowing its top unpredictably any number of times a day. All of us had gone to U.S. schools away from Guatemala for the last couple of years and our knowledge of this volcano’s fiery character was unknown to us.
The decision to climb Fuego was done on a whim. In those days of supreme invincible youth, it was a decision easily made. All of us were in our late teens or early twenties. Our group consisted of four climbers. None of us hesitated when, just the night before, my older brother Peder called out to us in my parents’ living room in Guatemala City. ‘Hey guys, let’s climb Fuego!’
Peder is my big big brother. We called him ‘Peder, the leader’. He was the only Boy Scout I knew of who’d earned every rank and merit badge available. When he was fully uniformed up, medals, merit badge sash around his chest replete with epaulets and shoulder cords, he out dressed every South American dictator of the day. I would’ve followed him anywhere without hesitation. No surprise is, I’d still follow him today.
That was that, and we left the very next day, around three am. We thought by getting such an early jump we might summit by noon, giving us all the time in the world to get home just as it turned dark. We miscalculated on many points. We did take sandwiches and canteens of water, which proved critical.
In 1966 I was in high school in Michigan. My sister’s boyfriend Lionel, was in med school in Guatemala. Timmy, one of my best friends, lived in Guatemala too. Peder was at Michigan State University. During school breaks visiting my folks home in Guatemala was when we’d hatch various plans.
We packed small back packs, regular jackets, our water and sandwiches. I had one of those Army surplus jackets that so many of the youth wore then. Our shoes were our everyday Converse All Star tennis shoes, blue jeans and t-shirts. We piled into my parents’ big blue Chevy station wagon.
Shortly into the climb over jagged and razor sharp old lava flow we discovered our canvas and rubber shoes were no match!
To help explain our head strong mind set from those days. Another activity we took part in was to drive to the Pacific coast several hours south from Guatemala City and body surf the deadly Chula Mar waves. Chula Mar, the beach in the area, was famous for taking victims on a regular basis.
No one swam in the volcanic sanded surf because of its notorious undertow. Those who ventured out into the rollers that at first reached knee deep were soon shocked by the horrific grab of the water flow returning out to the deep.
It may have been my brother Peder who, one day on a visit to the shimmering, black sanded beach, made a key discovery. He entered the surf and allowed it to take him! And take him, it did. The idea was to enter the roiling water from the steeply inclined black beach, which only aggravated the undertow and allowing the flow to take you, no panic. He discovered that once the flow had dragged him out past the huge waves, it released him!
Once released from the undertows grip, you treaded water until a suitable body surfing wave reached you. These huge waves reached heights of seven feet, or higher. Kicking and paddling with all your might, the growing breaker picked you up and if you timed everything right, you were given an exhilarating ride all the way back to the beach.
If you didn’t quite find your rhythm or get picked up on the right point of the giant rolling wall, the wave slammed down onto your back and its sheer power sent you deep under, pushing you violently onto the surf floor. Holding your breath just so with perfect timing became a critical skill.
I was often thrown onto the beach after a ride such that my stomach and chest were friction burned by the scraping sand. The nasty, cherry red scrapes burned worse with the salt water. But our youth made us what seemed to be all powerful. Foolish? Of course.
Pretty soon, we were taking regular experimental trips to Chula Mar during breaks from schools in the US. We learned how to harmonize with the surf from hell. Being young and athletic was key. We all played football or other things. My soon to be brother-in-law Lionel played for a major national soccer league in Guatemala, was also the national bowling champ. I was co- captain of my football team. I repeat, being fit was key.
Quite simply, the push and pull of the erratic surf would wear out anyone with less strength or ability to handle the undertow. No boasting here, simply fact. Many years later, as a much older man, I experienced that awful deadly fatigue experienced by ocean swimmers caught up in the grip of the rip tides. You are sure you can swim no more. You are quite prepared to go under. You find yourself impossibly accepting your fate as the last strains of vital energy leaves your body.
I found that by allowing myself to gently sink below the angry, frothy surface, I was momentarily given what I feel today were life saving energy breaks. Under the surface, the push and pull almost disappears! Under I’d go, holding my breath and my body recouped ever so subtly, enough to give me critical strength to keep treading water. These little journeys under water also indicated to me without a doubt that I was close to ‘giving it up’.
A two-edged sword, of which I had to be very careful.
Then I somehow survived. This was in the eighties. Friends sent out a team of two inner tubers, or a kayak. In the old days, other strong swimmers swam out to get you.
One year while I was back in high school in Michigan, a distant friend of the group whose dad was in the US military and mom taught in the English speaking high school, went to Chula Mar. He drowned.
He more than likely didn’t know how to handle the surf. One of my closest friends, Timmy, was there on that outing. He swam out against everybody’s wishes and grabbed the drowning young man. The panicked swimmer was pulling my friend under with him and finally had to let him go.
Timmy struggled with the horrific memory for the rest of his what was to be shortened life. His bravery displayed itself almost daily.
Our climb up Fuego was pretty straight forward up the Eastern side. Our self-made path took us through rocky terrain. Boulders, the size of mid sized trucks, threatened to break loose, as some did, sending crushing rock slides down around us. Not fifty feet away these monsters crashed downward loosed further up by the endless yet undetectable volcanic shaking.
All I could do was watch, awe struck.
We attempted to stick as close together as possible at first. We soon discovered by staying in a too tightly grouped party created more dangers from slides. Half way up we agreed that each of us should stay approximate to one another, though far enough apart, where individual exploration helped us discover better routes as we ascended.
A strange phenomenon we soon discovered once we go up to cloud level was how sleepy we’d get. Soon we were all taking very short cat naps, huddled nest like amidst the stones. My recollection still amazing. My dreams were of a crystal clarity. I’m sure experts can explain this.
Finally, we all found that we were climbing our individual trails to the summit. My other ‘critical moment’ came as I ventured out over a field of yellow-white Sulphur. Smelled of scrambled eggs.
I was deep into the half foot deep chemical sludge, in a constantly shifting steam/fog, visibility almost nil. I realized I’d swung out onto a too steep incline. Sudden breaks in the steam gave me glimpses of the summit still some two hundred feet up from my position. My attempt to crawl on all fours back to more level ground was futile.
I started to slide backwards down into an unknown region. One time my sliding picked up speed and were it not for a pencil I carried in the pocket of my army jacket, along with a piece of blank paper, I think this could’ve ended differently. The pencil and paper were to be used to write my girlfriend Laura a love note and leave it under a rock. So romantic.
So young! Where’d it all go?
As I slid down, the fog cleared for a second, giving me one good look behind me. Not thirty feet away, the incline disappeared, gone, wasn’t there. Far beyond this sudden edge, it was plain to see I was on a drop off that went into an abyss that easily dropped hundreds of feet. Had I fallen, the huge and jagged boulders waited for me.
At just that moment, I remembered the pencil which I managed to fish out of my chest pocket and in one move plunged it deep into the soft Sulphur surface. My downward motion was slowed, but I kept sliding towards the edge, which now wasn’t visible because of the steam. The pencil broke!
With the remaining four inch stub, I jabbed the mountainside once again. This time it held. I breathed carefully, deeply, coughed up stuff, but I held fast to the side.
Ever so carefully and using the remains of my pencil, I managed to regain good footing and eventually reached the summit. Up there we all discovered a strange, naturally formed gateway of cooled lava, we dubbed it the gate way to hell. Crossing under the arch, we reached the edge of Fuegos crater.
After regaining my will to keep going, I followed where the others had started down a new route, down the north side and we gathered at a promontory called a ‘plancha’ or flat ground which is visible from Antigua, before starting down again.
In those days, a huge car like ours stood out like a sore thumb. Someone had moved our car. Here it was not quite four AM once again, and the car had gone missing. The roosters crowing announced our passing. We began a street by cobble-stoned street search and finally happened upon the blue Chevy in front of someone’s front door.
Two of us on each side of the front door, we were ready to pounce on whoever opened. Much to our surprise, an older man wearing a police cap opened up. The police had discovered our oddly parked station wagon! He soon was satisfied with our account of things and off we went to Guatemala City.
We passed through our homes large front gates and there was my Mother along with Timmy’s mom and dad. Timmy's dad was a retired air force coronel and had packed his Scout full of first aid stuff and water, blankets and flash lights. He was just about to set out for the volcano when we arrived.
My Mother calmly announced for us all to go to the kitchen for an early bowl of Corn Flakes.