The 13,000 ft headache
09.02.2013 - 10.02.2013 34 °F
I’ve always been fascinated with high places. Going to the top of the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, and skydiving. In all my times coming to Guatemala I’ve only climbed two small volcanos, one is called Volcán Ipala in south-eastern region of Guatemala. It was about a 1 ½ hour climb to get to the summit which contained a lovely lake called appropriate “Lago Ipala”. The other was San Pedro on horseback at Lake Attitlan. I think I like the challenge and the view when you get up there.
I decided on climbing with OX (Outdoor eXcursions). The tour was reasonably priced at $86 for an overnight trip and they provided tents, warm coats, backpacks, and sleeping bags if you didn't have them. They explained the trip in detail so I knew it would be a difficult climb, however, Volcán Acatenango was more challenging than I knew. You start at the side of a road and walk up past farmland. By the time you end your climb you’ve traversed four eco-systems: farmlands, high pine forest, cloud level and volcanic level. The first eco-system really took us past farms of corn that had been recently cut, and lots of snow peas, lilies being grown for the upcoming holy week, rows and rows of strawberries, and other vegetables I couldn’t begin to identify since they were just coming up.
It quickly became a steep climb and I struggled to keep up with the pace of the group. There were 8 of us with two guides and a videographer who was making a film to the tour company. At our first break the guide for our group, Mike, said “Let’s put you in front to set the pace. This isn’t a race.” So I began again at the front of the group. I was actually the oldest and smallest person in the group. The next oldest was a man from Canada who I later learned was a year younger than me and Mike’s father. The group was an eclectic mix of Canadian, German, Australian, British, French Canadian, and Americans from the University of Texas from the study abroad program who I had met at a lecture the previous week.
As we cleared the farmland and entered the high-pine system the air was already thinner. I started to develop a headache but I kept pushing through not wanting to slow down the already slow pace but after 20 minutes I thought it best to take some of my migraine medicine. I had heard them talk about altitude sickness, but I really didn’t think it would affect me. Nevertheless, it’s been years since I’ve done anything in high altitude and it showed. The headache kept getting worse. We cleared the high-pine and I realized I was going to have a bad migraine. Mike offered to take my pack so I wouldn’t be weighed down. I took a second round of medicine hoping it would at least keep it from getting worse. At this point we were over half way to the camp site. It helped some. The headache didn’t get worse. We climbed and climbed. Pass the cloud level, which didn’t have any clouds today and up to the volcanic level.
What they call sand is lava that has been broken up by the winds into small stones. Your feet sink into it and it doesn’t feel like you are making much progress ascending. It’s an eerie landscape that reminds me of science fiction movies like the Martian Chronicles when they are terraforming the planet. There are patches of green that don’t look like they quite belong there.
We finally reach our camp site and begin to set up camp at the base of the larger peak of Acatenango. The view of the valley from here is spectacular. I am determined to climb the higher peak to get a view of the Fuego volcano. The winds are terrible have to climb almost on all fours. I can see the top of the summit and then sunlight hits me with such intensity that a color aura develops around my eyes. I am literally blinded, I close my eyes, and my migraine is back in full force. I can go no farther. Tears are streaming out from the pain. Mike comes back to encourage me to continue the climb, but I cannot. The pain is too intense. So my climb to the top of the summit is foiled. I am lead down back down to the campsite where my eyes begin to adjust but my head is splitting.
Mike tried to encourage me to see the sunset from a smaller rise to the right of our camp site but I had just enough energy to crawl into the tent. I changed to night clothes and crawled into the sleeping bag but the wind was blowing so hard and the backdoor to our tent wouldn’t zipper up. The wind whipped into the tent full force. My sleeping bag was rated for 40 degrees and it must have been in the 20’s. Fortunately, my tent mate had accidentally carried up a second sleeping bag and I opened it and used is like a blanket for the two of us. The group came down from the summit after the sun went down and I could hear them discussing how windy it had been up there. They asked me if I wanted dinner, but I knew if I ate it wouldn’t stay down and my headache was still intense. Around midnight all the water I had been drinking coming up the mountain was ready to come out. I had to choice but to leave the confines of the warm bag and venture out to the windy cold weather and I was so happy I did. I looked up at the night sky and it was glorious. Stars, millions of them, dotted the heavens. My astronomy skills are very poor, but I could recognize Ursa Major only because I’d been to the McDonald Observatory last year and I remembered the astronomer explaining the “Big Dipper” is the upper side of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation. The rest was just beauty.
In the morning our guides woke us around 5:30 am to see if we wanted to see sunrise. I found them huddled around the fire keeping warm and heating water for coffee and tea drinkers. I walked over to the east and got a couple of shots of the sunrise. I didn't remember ever seeing clouds pouring off mountains like these. Again it made the cold, headaches, and stiffness all worth it.
Coming off the volcano proved interesting. There was a porter that had ridden a horse from his farm up to pick up the videographer's pack and bring it down. I walked back about half way, but I was still not feeling well. Eddie the second guide suggested I might ride the horse down. The suggestion was a great one. I mounted the horse and made my way down able to keep up with the rest of the group. It didn't have a regular mount and when I first sat on the cargo mount I kept sliding off. Finally the young porter said, "Let's have you sit on the hindquarter. You don't weigh much and I think it will be easier." Much to my amazement, the horse was fine with it and the ride was much better.
In Antigua it is amazing to realize that the doubled peaked volcano is the one I just spent the night on and that the saddle between the two peaks was where we camped. It is quite humbling. I think I will climb again even though I had such a terrible migraine. I just will start taking the medicine a lot earlier. The views from up there are too precious to miss.