Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-miler

As much as I didn’t want to admit it beforehand, I knew Steve Pero was right. Pero, a veteran of several Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 races who has run this race in 27 hours, told me something that to most runners would be shocking on the face of it. He said to walk … WALK! … the first 2.4 miles of last weekend’s MMT in Front Royal, Va., which would be my first 100-miler and my first race of more than 50K.
Steve knows how I like to go out strong at the start and in a 50K, that strategy works well, such as at last August’s MMD 50K in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when I took off from the start, powered up the ski slopes of Wildcat Ski Area and was long gone by the time anyone else reached the summit. I won that race by almost four hours, covering the rugged 32-mile course through the White Mountains in 11 hours flat. (Later that night I was “penalized” a minute around the campfire for claiming my time was actually 10:59, so it went into the “record books” as 11:01).
But Steve knew if I employed the same strategy at MMT, I would go out too fast, blow up and crash and burn. So as much as it grated at every fiber in my body, I watched the entire field of 173 runners run the first 2.4 miles to the trailhead at Buzzards and I was in a group of five walkers in last place entering the woods.
Did this decision pay off for me? You be the judge.
Let’s back up a bit. Back in January when the original field was picked, I was 40th on the wait list. Steve said, “Better luck next year.” I said, “Hell no, I’m getting in this year and I’ll be ready!” Well, by the end of April I had moved up to No. 1 on the wait list and on May 1 came the email from RD Stan Duobinis that I was in. I had spent most of the winter in southern California training in good weather, having run well at the Sedona Marathon and the San Juan Trails 50K while out there.
When I returned to New Hampshire in April, I broke Steve Pero’s nine-year-old course record at the Don’t Run Boston 50K, slicing 22 minutes off his time by running 5:16 on a grueling course in the Blue Hills of Boston. So I knew I was running pretty well.
But this was also going to be my first 100-miler and no matter how well I thought I was running, I knew I should defer to Steve on how to approach it. I’m glad I did.
Now those who know me well would think I would have been in near-panic mode watching the entire field run by me to the point that I was in last place. But in reality, it didn’t bother me in the least … I knew I’d have a full day to catch as many people as possible. I started out immediately, working my way up through the field, which was not easy, since everyone was strung out along the first ridge and I had to pass everyone by going up into the bushes.
By the time we had reached the aid stations at Shawl , Veach and Milford gaps I had moved up to around 30th and was moving well despite a calf problem that was definitely slowing me down … but again, that was a good thing. At one point, I think it was at Veach, I saw Tom Corris, who was not entered but holds the recognized seniors course record, and I asked, “Is that leash still attached?” as I pointed to my back. He yelled back, “Yes, and keep it there!”

But as soon as we hit a four-mile dirt road that led into the Habron Gap aid station, suddenly I couldn’t move at all. Out of the shade of the woods, the hot early day sun and the humidity hit me like a road block and stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly found I couldn’t run at all and had to walk again … this time I was completely frustrated as I watched about 30-35 people that I had just worked so hard to pass go back by me as I walked the entire four miles to the aid station.
I was ready to drop, I was so discouraged. And this was only 20 miles into the race! Tom Corris was also at this aid station and I told him how my calf problem had caused me to compensate with my stride and now I had problems in my hips and buttocks. I asked him if I should drop out. Fortunately, his response was that I had a major climb coming up immediately out of Habron Gap back up to the ridegline and I should see how I felt when I got up there.
Again, I got solid advice. I started up and I was immediately cranking the uphills. I must’ve passed at least 20-25 people on the long climb and then at the ridgeline we turned left and continued along the top of the ridge for several miles before turning to the right and heading toward the next aid station at Camp Roosevelt, which was about 32 miles into the race and where we ended our training run back in January.
Long before we got to Camp Roosevelt I had caught up to John Cassilly and Marlin Yoder who had dropped me before we had even gotten onto the dirt road that I walked. When they saw me, their eyes bulged out … “We’d given you up for dead!” they said. So I knew I was moving much better, but still didn’t feel like I was near my potential.
John and I got out of the aid station before Marlon did and we walked a while expecting him to catch us, but he never did. During this walking stretch, a guy from the VHTRC named Pedro passed us and it turned out he is the only person who passed me after Habron Gap aid station … and I would pass him back on Short Mountain in the middle of the night just before he dropped out.
Soon, I ran ahead of John and he didn’t go with me, so when we turned to go up over another ridge and down into Gap aid station, I was running alone. I hurried through Gap and made the long climb up Jawbone to Kerns Ridge, seeing a deer in the trail on the way, feeling much better. But the heat was still hampering me … I wasn’t used to the humidity more than the 80-plus temps.
That would all change on Kerns. I could hear thunder off to my right and saw a very dark sky, so I knew we were going to get dumped on. And boy did we. It was the first of three major thunderstorms we got during the race that by the finish had the temperatures in the 50s, not the 80s. I soon became a very happy camper and felt myself buoyed not only with energy but with confidence as I was able to pick up my pace even though I had run the whole section by myself. I did chase another runner into the Visitor’s Center aid station, where during our second training run in Jaunary we had nice hot quesadillas waiting for us … I ate 16 of them that day. But on this day, no quesadillas, which was a bummer.
Next was a solid climb up onto Bird Knob, which is a lollipop route in that it goes up the stick, then there’s a loop, and then you run back the stick. I passed a couple more runners going up the stick, but then got to the loop and caught up with Robin Meagher from Atlanta. I had run with her and some others on the first day of training in January and they all dropped me on that same dirt road. When I caught her in the race on Bird Knob, she promptly dropped me again as I needed to walk/run for a while.
But I caught her before we had completed the loop and also passed another group of three that included Donna Utakis, who at the time was the second woman. She was on the side of the trail with some problems and Robin wanted to push the pace to put some distance on her. But I stayed with her and when we came off of Bird Knob down into the next aid station at Picnic Area, I had broken away from Robin and was seemingly running very well. I made quick time from there to 211 where you cross the highway and where I saw Kerry Owens drinking beer after she had dropped out of the race earlier … well, it WAS her birthday after all, so I guess she was entitled.
I power-hiked from 211 for the next couple miles until we reentered the woods and then the trail had several nice runnable sections on it as we climbed to a four-way intersection and made a left on a mud-filled trail that led back to the road that the Gap aid station is on (sorry, being new to MMT, I don’t know the names to all these roads and places).
During this time we got our second major thunderstorm just as I reached the highest point. Lightning and thunder were all around me, but the only thing to do was to keep moving. I ran all the way off that summit and most of the dirt road leading back to the Gap aid station, where it was still pouring and everyone was under cover.
I made a big mistake at this aid station. I decided to change shoes, even though my Inov8’s had felt so good to my feet that I had made mental note of this several times. It would have been one thing if I had clean socks waiting for me at Gap, too, but I only had the dirty pair I had taken off the first time through there. I tried to knock any grit and debris out of them and then put on my Salomon’s, which don’t have the tread the Inov8s do, but have much more cushion … not till talking to Bill Losey after the race did I realize that switching from a pair of shoes with no heels to one with big thick heels is about the worst thing you can do for your Achilles.
Anyway, my idea of putting “dry” shoes on didn’t even last until I was out of the aid station as I had to run through a huge puddle of water, so any advantage I felt I would gain by the change in shoes was lost instantly. And in hindsight, I’m sure the switch was the reason for the big blister I got on my left heel and definitely caused the jamming of my right big toenail that would plague me in the final miles of the race and would cause me to have to go to the hospital two days later. The doctor took one look at it and said it was severely infected and she had to surgically remove the nail and now I am out of action for at least a few weeks or running, not to mention that I can’t walk and am in a lot of pain from this.
All from switching out a pair of shoes!

Going back up Jawbone I was still cranking, however, and quickly caught up with Greg Loomis and his pacer Brian. Greg was looking good, but as soon as we crested the summit and headed down, I took off and surprisingly he didn’t go with me. Turns out he was cooked and dropped at the next aid station, much to everyone’s surprise later on.
Coming into Moreland aid station I passed Joe Clapper (though I didn’t know who he was until later that night at the party at Kerry’s and we figured it out) and he and his girlfriend Michelle, who was pacing him, said I shot past them moving very fast and was out of the aid station just as they arrived. I did feel good. It was now dark and still raining and I had not felt hindered in any way … I felt I was actually picking up speed instead of losing it, which was the feeling that Steve Pero wanted me to experience when he suggested his race strategy with me.
The next section of trail was a ridge run over Short Mountain which was not short in any stretch of the imagination … it was only 8.2 miles to Edinburg Gap aid station, but it seemed more like twelve! I soon caught Pedro, who had passed me just after Camp Roosevelt, and he stuck with me for quite a while … and actually got ahead of me a couple times as I had to start making regular “trips” to the woods with intestinal problems during this section.
I also had my only real mishap of the race on Short Mountain. I prided myself in that I didn’t fall down once during the race, but I forgot about what happened on Short. Apparently, a tree fell down during one of the storms and was lying across the trail at about six feet off the ground. I was moving a full tilt power-hiking with my head down and flashlight pointing at the ground when, BOOM, something nailed me in the forehead and laid me out like a Mike Tyson right hook! I flew backward and fell to the ground among the rocks and let out a yell. Pedro goes, “What did you hit!” and I shined my flashlight up at the tree and exclaimed, “THAT!”
I couldn’t even get up on my own … Pedro had to lift me back on my feet. Thank you Pedro. The next morning at Kerry’s I couldn’t even lift my head up off the pillow without the aid of my hands, so I know I had whiplash, but I also spent all day Monday really loopy and lacking in mental clarity and the doctor diagnosed a mild concussion. Good thing I had my hat on … I think the bill of the cap took some of the blow for me … at least that’s what Quatro Hubbard said later, as he had the exact same thing happen to him later in the night when he hit the same tree!
From the next aid station at Woodstock to the following one at Powell’s Fort was only a little less than six miles and it was largely runnable. At this point, I knew I had moved up to 12th place and was still moving very well … surprisingly so. I felt great, to be honest. My legs felt fresh and powerful and I was still able to run whenever opportunity presented itself. Looking at the split times between these two aid stations, I covered the distance only one minute slower than did Glen Redpath, who was the second-place finisher, and was faster than several of the people who were ahead of me.
When I came into Powell’s Fort I ran into Mike Bur, who was running the aid station, and had come down the trail a bit to see who the runner was coming in. He was elated to see that it was me and said that there was another runner in the aid station who seemed reluctant to leave and that I would easily pick up another place and move into 11th spot. But I had been watching the splits between me and Amy Sproston, the lead woman, and I hadn’t really been gaining any measurable time on her at the last three aid stations, so I didn’t know if I could catch her for a top-10 finish or not. Coming out of Powell’s Fort, I must’ve misunderstood Mike Bur’s directions because I headed right on a dirt road when I should’ve turned left. This cost me about five minutes as I spoke with some crew members for other runners and they finally told me which way the race went. But this road was a lot longer than the mile Mike Bur said it was till it went into the woods again … more like two miles or more.
By now the trail was nothing but mud and rocks everywhere with no good footing so from here on out I simply ran right through the middle of every puddle I saw. We got to a sharp right turn, which is where the trail started to climb again and believe it or not, this was a welcome sight. My toe was really beginning to hurt and the pain came entirely on the downhills where it would jam into the toe of my shoe. Going uphill it didn’t hurt at all, and I was still climbing like crazy … I was able to fast-hike every climb and felt entirely fresh still.
But as soon as I got to the top and started over the other side I found the trail was not “runnable the whole way” was Mike Bur had promised. It was rooty and rocky and completely muddy with a stream running down it in most places. I could not run this with my toe the way it was and since Mike had told me this was the “never-ending trail” into Elizabeth Furnace aid station, I hunkered down for a long hike out of there. I was unable to run hardly any of this long and tedious section even though at the bottom sections of it were entirely runnable.
Unfortunately, I had to hike this section, though it was still definitely a fast-moving power hike. But the trail did wind on for miles and every time I thought I saw the lights of an aid station down below, I would turn a corner and they would disappear. Finally I came out on the road and could see the aid station across the parking lot and the river, but since it was so dark and there were so many cars in the parking lot, I could not see the bridge crossing.
So I hustled across the lawn and down the riverbank and yelled to the people at the aid station where do I cross? They yelled, “At the bridge,” and I responded, “Yeah, but where is it?” Finally I saw it to my right and made my way to it and across, and tip-toed along the trail next to the riverbank as the fast-rising water had covered the trail into the aid station.
I didn’t even stop at the aid station. I just called out my number and kept right on going. In hindsight, I should have asked how long ago Amy Sproston had left the aid station, because I would have found out it was only 38 minutes ago, meaning I had cut my deficit to her almost in half in just over 10 miles. There is a long climb out of Elizabeth Furnace and I was cranking it pretty hard until the final stages of it when I finally was beginning to waver a bit … probably because I could see no lights ahead of me and knew there was no one closing on me from behind … I had been the hunter for many, many hours now and I knew I wasn’t being the hunted. Though later I found out that Amy Sproston’s pacer saw my flashlight coming up the mountain and it spurred them on … if I had seen their flashlights it might have spurred me on.

But when I got to the gap and started down the final downhill to the finish line, I was starting to slow down because of the treacherous wet and muddy terrain and the fact that my toe was now throbbing. I hiked much of this final section and ran a little of it until I got to the bottom and knew where I was and then pretty much ran the final mile or so to the finish line. I was still running a very strong pace as I came out of the woods into the field and headed the final few hundred yards to the finish at 6:08 a.m. on Sunday morning.
I had really thought I could break 24 hours on this course and am confident that I can in the future, but I was initially disappointed that I didn’t at least break 25 hours … but then Steve Pero was at the finish line telling me I had just run an incredible time for a first-ever 100-miler and that he was completely impressed. So suddenly I felt considerably better.
My legs then realized that the race was over and they decided it was time to shut down. Can’t really blame them. It was a painful experience to limp over to my campsight to get my clothes so I could go shower, and then I went back to my tent, which was completely soggy from the day and night of rain (which had now stopped) and I called my girlfriend who had been waiting to hear that I had finished … safely. Then I tried in vain to get some sleep … my sleeping bag was wet, I was in severe pain, my stomach was bothering me and there was a loud, obnoxious bird in a tree right outside my tent!
After about an hour of this I gave up and decided to go inside and try to eat breakfast, which was now hot and ready. Then I spent the next several hours either sitting still in the cold, chilly air or hobbling around trying to work the kinks out of my leg. It was a long day, but an enjoyable one, watching everyone else finish what is undoubtedly one of the toughest races in the country. It was an honor to receive my belt buckle at the awards ceremony as an MMT finisher even though I don’t have a belt to wear it on!
Then we drove over to the Portobello (Kerry Owens’ house) where about 30 of us were assembled for a party, but most of us were too beat up to carry on too much. I did stay awake long enough to climb in the hot tub and have a third beer, but then it was off to bed. Woke up about 9:30 the next morning and painfully hit the road for the long ride back to New Hampshire. Stopped every couple of hours to “stretch” my legs, which meant to hobble like a 100-year-old man up and down the sidewalk at a rest area getting plenty of weird stares.
Then the next day I had a doctor’s appointment and that’s when I learned I would be losing that toenail immediately and that my body was going to need much longer than I had thought to recover. I guess this means I am going to miss the Nipmuck Marathon on June 7 as I don’t think in my wildest imagination that I will be ready for that race, especially since I hope to be in Vermont this weekend hiking Camel’s Hump and some other mountains with Darlene. We decided there was no point in driving to Baxter for the weekend when the trails may not even be open, so I guess I won’t get Mount Fort and will be stuck on 99 on the New England Hundred Highest list for a little while longer.
But MMT was an incredible experience and I look forward to my next 100-miler (maybe Grindstone in Virginia in October) and getting back to MMT as soon as possible to snatch that seniors record away from Tom Corris. I hear he won’t be taking this lying down!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Climbing Mexico's Big Volcanoes

It’s called La Mordida, or “The Bite,” and I should’ve seen it coming. But when the transit cop stuck his hand into our rental car five minutes after leaving the Mexico City airport, in my naivete I simply reached out and shook it, thinking he was welcoming me to his fine country.

Mucho gusto, amigo!

But when moments later a swarm of white-uniformed officers surrounded our tiny blue Chevy something-or-other, it suddenly dawned on me. Our new friend wasn’t the welcome wagon. He was the paddy wagon. Or would have been, he made clear, if I didn’t pay the $180 “fine” (read: bribe) for supposedly running a red light at the Calzada Zaragoza intersection. This was precisely the spot our guidebook, “Mexico’s Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide,” had warned us about.

My friend, Vannak Pol, a 29-year-old former Cambodian refugee who now lives in Massachusetts, and I had been backpacking around Central America for the previous two months, totally under the radar. But that all changed when we decided to skip the bus and fly from Guatemala to Mexico City to begin climbing the big volcanoes of the Sierra Madre Oriental.

It’s amazing how quickly you can be transformed from a traveler to a tourist. For us, it only took putting four tires under our feet.

As I held my wallet in my hand, trying to convince the agitated officer in my perfect Spanglish that I only had $5 on me, he reached in and grabbed the billfold, and an honest to goodness tug-of-war ensued. When I was able to wrest my wallet away from him, he begrudgingly agreed to the fiver, since he was losing “business” with every passing minute. As he snatched the bill from my hand, Van yelled, “Go,” and moments later we were on the road to Puebla and toward the three high volcanoes we would climb over the next five days.

Fortunately, that was the only disturbing incident during our entire time in Central America. The next few days would be the high point of the trip – quite literally. Our main objective was Pico de Orizaba, a massive, conical dormant volcano two hours east of Mexico City that at 18,405 feet is the third-highest mountain in North America. It’s also relatively easy to climb, making it perfect training ground for any climber looking to do the bigger peaks of Alaska, the Andes or beyond.

There are five volcanoes rising from the central plain surrounding Mexico City, which itself is at 7,000 feet, and all five are taller than anything found in the Continental U.S. Our first destination was La Malinche, at 14,640 feet the shortest of the five, but the perfect acclimatization climb for Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, or Izta (EES-tah), which rises 17,126 feet.

La Malinche got its name from that of a Mayan woman captured by Cortes in 1519 during his conquest of Mexico, who became his wife and interpreter, unwittingly betraying her race as the Spanish conquistadors advanced on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, outside present-day Mexico City, two years later.

La Malinche lies in a national park and there is a government-owned resort at the end of the road at 10,115 feet that includes cabins, a large restaurant and campsites for $3.70 a night, perfect for our backpacker’s budget. We pitched our tents and went to bed, only to be awoken soon thereafter by a mob a screaming kids running all over the place, shining lights in our tents and generally going crazy until it stopped so suddenly that I had to ask Van in the morning if it had all been a dream.

There was no sign of anyone as we hit the trailhead in the morning, but we soon overtook the first of three climbers from California who were on the same itinerary we were – using La Malinche as a warm-up for Orizaba two days hence. It was perfect timing for Van and I, since one of the three, Doug Nidever, was a guide from the Mammoth Lakes area and had climbed Orizaba a handful of times in the past, including once the previous month.

Nidever, who has been climbing for 40 years and guiding for the past 30, has climbed in Mexico several times and always uses La Malinche as the “perfect” acclimatization hike for Orizaba.

“La Malinche is a very convenient and logical peak, what with its cabins there and its proximity to Mexico City and Orizaba,” said Nidever, who has been a guide at the Yosemite Mountaineering School for the past 25 years. “Orizaba is not a big deal in the technical sense, but proper acclamation is very important.”

But it needn’t be difficult. It took Van and I only three and a half hours of straightforward hiking to gain more than 4,500 feet of elevation and the summit of La Malinche – probably easier than any 14er we had done during two previous trips to Colorado.

That evening we joined Doug and his two clients – Larry Baugher, 64, and Ken Corathers, who would turn 58 on Orizaba – for dinner at a small comedor just outside the resort’s front gate. Though they were using a different outfitter on Orizaba, we would both be transported to the Piedra Grande hut located at 14,000 feet on Orizaba’s north face the next day and agreed to climb the glacier-capped volcano together.

After dinner, Van scored the deal of a lifetime when he spied the 8-year-old son of the comedor’s owner swinging an ice axe that had been either left behind by another climber, or, more likely, pilfered by the lad. Either way, when Van asked him half-jokingly how much he’d sell it for, and the kid responded, “30 pesos,” Van reacted faster than an habanero ingested by an unsuspecting gringo. A slightly banged-up Black Diamond for $3.

The next day we drove to Tlachichuca, base camp for most foreigners climbing Orizaba. Since Van and I had been tooling around Central America for more than two months already, we had mailed our high-altitude gear ahead of time, and our boxes were waiting for us at the headquarters of Servimont, our outfitter. The century-old building, located a block from the town square, was a former soap-making factory that the Reyes family had turned into a compound, from which they’ve been serving the climbing community for nearly three generations.

As such, it has also become a veritable museum to mountaineering, with hundreds of old climbing photos and antiquated gear from the early days of the sport. There is also a logbook dating back to the 1930s signed by many climbing legends, including American icon Ed Viesturs, still one of only six people to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. In a couple days, we would get to add our names to the growing registry.

The next day, we were transported by pickup the roughly 13 miles up a dusty, deeply rutted road to the Piedra Grande hut to find Doug and Larry inside the stone structure, which was barren except for a couple of long tables for gear and cooking, and the six wooden sleeping platforms stacked three high from floor to ceiling. It looked like the place could sleep upwards of 60, but on this night there would be just the five of us, save for a lone Frenchman who snuck in quietly well after dark.

Ken was on an acclimatization hike to about 15,500 feet when we arrived, and Van and I soon did the same. Van made it to Ken’s turnaround point at a small campsite marked by flapping Tibetan prayer flags. I climbed higher, making my way up a tricky gully over the headwall to the base of the Jamapa Glacier at about 16,200 feet. This row of parallel gullies represents the crux of the climb as the marked trail effectively ends at the prayer flags.

Above that, the mountain rises magnificently another 2,200 feet in the classic conical shape of a volcano and is covered by a permanent glacier that, as a result of global warming, is retreating almost as drastically as the ones on Kilimanjaro.

Doug set the alarm on his watch for 3 a.m., but slept right through it, and we didn’t awaken until 4. That might have been a major concern on a typical 18,000-foot mountain, but not on Orizaba. As it turned out, we reached the prayer flags and the first unsteady climbing just as the sun made its appearance over the Caribbean somewhere off to our left. I scampered ahead and watched from atop a boulder at the edge of the glacier as the Frenchman, who enjoyed a two-hour head start, traversed across the glacier from left to right, underneath a band of exposed rock, and slowly climbed out of sight over the curved edge of the crater rim two thousand feet above.

Van, who had been plagued by acute mountain sickness two years before on Quandary Peak in Colorado, cautiously hung back with the Californians, so I trudged on alone up the breath-stealing 45-degree slope, stopping to chat briefly with the descending Frenchman and reaching the gravelly summit after about two hours. The wind-sculpted snow proved so hard and sure that crampons were unnecessary.

After waiting for what seemed an interminably long time for the others, I started down, thinking they may have turned back for some unknown reason. But I met them at about 17,700 feet still climbing, though Ken was spent and decided to stop there. Doug continued on with Larry and Van in tow, while I sat in the cold snow with Ken for about two hours awaiting their successful return.

Van, who the year before had become what is believed to be the first Cambodian ever to summit Mount Hood, found his anxieties about Orizaba unfounded. “As it turned out, Orizaba was the easiest mountain we climbed throughout the trip,” he said later. “It was an awesome feeling climbing the third-highest mountain in North America with such ease.”

For Larry, who has climbed all the 14,000-footers in California and high-pointed every state except Alaska, summiting Orizaba was another check off his “bucket list.”

“Orizaba has been on my list since 1970,” he explained, “and to summit it on my first try was very special to me.”

While the three Californians were headed back to the States in the morning, Van and I were not done. After catching our ride back to Servimont headquarters for a restful night, we set out the next morning for Izta with hand-written directions from Gerardo Reyes himself.

But even though we could see the twin towers of Izta and Popo rising majestically to the west, we quickly became so lost that if you had charted our course through the cities of Puebla and Cholula by GPS, it would have looked like a 4-year-old’s Etch-a-Sketch drawing.

Eventually, though, we found the dirt road leading up to the Paso de Cortes, the 12,000-foot saddle separating 17,126-foot Iztaccihuatl and 17,887-foot Popocatepetl, which has been closed to climbers since 1994 due to near constant volcanic activity. There is a visitor’s center at the national park located at Paso de Cortes, so-named because it was the route taken by the conquistador when he defeated the Aztecs in 1521. We paid a small fee there to stay at a hostel located at a microwave antennae installation about a mile from Izta’s main La Joya trailhead.

From there we had incredible views of both Izta and Popo, which are tied together for eternity in Aztec legend. Izta is known as the “white woman,” and if you view the mountain from the west, it does take the appearance of a woman lying down. In fact, the various summits on the elongated ridgeline are known by various body parts, such as “the knees,” “the head” and “the breasts,” which is the true summit.

Popo was a legendary warrior who was in love with Izta, but when he was returning to claim her after a victory in battle, rivals sent notice of Popo’s death instead, and Izta died of grief. Popo, which means “smoking mountain,” then built the two facing mountains, placing her lifeless body atop one and standing sentinel over it on the other. Indeed, Popo has been one of the most volatile volcanoes in North America even since Cortes’s day and it has been off-limits since its most recent spate of eruptions in 1994.

Amazingly, five of Cortes’s soldiers scaled the erupting Popo during the siege on Tenochtitlan and two of them were lowered into the hulking, bubbling crater to retrieve sulfur for gunpowder, a brave and heroic act that would be unbelievable had it not been recorded in transcripts sent back to the King of Spain.

Later, in 1847 during the war with Mexico, several American soldiers with idle time on their hands after sacking Mexico City also climbed Popo, including a future Civil War general and U.S. President by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. It undoubtedly marks the highest point every attained by a U.S. president. We won’t talk about the lowest point.

Like Orizaba to the east, both Izta and Popo are capped by permanent glaciers, but both too are receding, especially the one on Izta, which if climbed by the standard route, comes into play only on “the stomach,” and is a flat expanse devoid of any crevasses.

After his successful summit bid on Orizaba two days before, a satisfied Van decided to sleep in on this day and I headed to the Izta trailhead on my own. But like the experience with the Californians, it didn’t take long for me to catch up to and fall in with another gringo on the trail.

Zac Bookman, a 27-year-old University of Maryland graduate on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Mexico’s recently passed Freedom of Information Act, was climbing Izta with a handful of locals he had met at a climbing gym in Mexico City. In fact, they were completing their self-proclaimed “La Triada,” having summited La Malinche and Orizaba over the previous two days, as opposed to my four.

Zac, who was training for what would be a successful summit of Denali later in 2008, had invited his father, Charles, who was coming in from Seattle where he works for the Department of Transportation, to join them. Charles, who had climbed Mexico’s big volcanoes fresh out of college in 1970, jumped at the chance to do it again on the cusp of his 60th birthday, arriving from sea level just in time to jump into a 4x4 and head to La Malinche.

The elder Bookman wasn’t able to summit all three mountains, but that was due more to the rigid schedule of La Triada than his stamina. He reached the summit of La Malinche on the first day to be greeted by a wizened old man offering tequila and hot Serrano peppers, telling the group, “You’re not done until you drink and take a bite.”

The second day he surpassed 17,000 feet on Orizaba before Zac collected him on the way down. And on Izta, Charles made it another 4,000 feet up to “the knees” before rejoining us at the La Joya trailhead, where a couple of local women were selling tacos and we were gluttonously washing them down with cold beers as quickly as they could prepare them.

In all, Zac and five of his Mexican amigos completed La Triada, including Humberto, a fiend on the rock-climbing wall who had never tackled an entire mountain before, but left the rest of us gasping for air.

Then, to top it all off, Popo joined the show, throwing up big plumes of ash high into the atmosphere three times as we sat at La Joya enjoying the remainder of the day, capped by an unforgettable sunset. Juan Carlos, another in the group, said he knew someone at the park service who would “look the other way” if we wanted to climb Popo, but none of us were on a death wish.

The La Triada climbers then hatched plans to up the ante by climbing Mexico’s final big peak – 15,354-foot Nevado de Toluca just west of the capital – the next day, and we were invited to join them. Zac said we could crash on the floor of his apartment that night. But that meant doing something Van and I had pledged to do under no circumstances: drive in Mexico City after dark.

Assured it was not dangerous, we packed up and fell in line behind Benito, the driver of the pickup, who I am convinced drove as if he was trying to lose me at every opportunity. Somehow, I kept our tiny Chevy whatever-it-was glued to his bumper for 60 miles as he raced through stop signs, failed to slow for speed bumps and once even crossed several lanes of oncoming traffic without warning. All, I imagined, while laughing maniacally at the white-knuckled gringo in his rear-view mirror.

Then, suddenly, on the outskirts of the city, he pulled to the side of the road after hearing a strange rapping noise in the engine. Comically, we tried to shoehorn Zac and Charles and all their gear into our Matchbox rental, but then, thankfully, Benito announced there was no problem after all: he had called the pickup’s owner on his cell phone to learn that the truck was supposed to make that noise.

Back at Zac’s, more friends stopped by, and we all walked to a tacoreria for late-night chilangos and more beer. Nevado de Toluca was soon forgotten. The next day, we said goodbye and drove back to the airport, glad we didn’t have to pass Calzada Zaragoza once again. Though we did learn from Zac how to avoid any future run-ins with the transit police. Just bring a video camera and point it in the officer’s face. He’ll make like Speedy Gonzalez.

And you just might save five bucks.

Confessions of a Monadnock Maniac

JAFFREY – The startled expressions are always the first sign.

“Didn’t we just see you coming down the mountain a little while ago?” No, that must’ve been my twin brother, I sometimes will tell them, before admitting that, yes, I had passed them previously only to reach the parking lot and re-summit Mount Monadnock by a different trail, quickly enough to pass the same couple still on their way up the White Dot Trail little more than an hour later.

Such is life for a mountain addict, a Monadnock regular who sometimes climbs the 3,165-foot sentinel in southwestern New Hampshire three or four times in a day. Can you say obsessive compulsive?

It all started about five years ago, just before my 40th birthday. I knew I needed to get into better shape if my 40s were going to be better than my 30s, which I pretty much spent as a workaholic sitting at a desk. That was 35 pounds, one wife and several pairs of boots ago. I’m now just about back to my college running weight and fit enough to be competitive on the New England Grand Tree Series, a trail running circuit for us certifiable mountain goats.

I also started climbing Monadnock to meet one of those crazy climbers, the still-legendary Larry Davis of Jaffrey, who everyone around New England knows as “that guy who climbs Monadnock every day.” Davis’ streak of consecutive days climbing the world’s most-climbed mountain had just ended at 2,850 following a bout with pneumonia, and I wanted to learn first-hand what possessed someone to climb a mountain every day for nearly eight years.

That day I had to wait all of five minutes before Davis showed up on the summit, sporting the same red shorts and bandana that makes up his trademark hiking outfit. We quickly became friends and I soon learned why Davis and so many others – dating all the way back to the Native Americans and later Thoreau and Emerson – consider the mountain sacred. Monadnock, which comes from an old Indian word that means “mountain that stands alone,” has a pull that can’t readily be described. You need to climb it and experience it for yourself.

“If I have to tell you why I climb it, you wouldn’t understand,” was how Fran Rautiola, another Monadnock regular who has supplanted Davis as the “king of the hill,” put it when asked why he climbs Monadnock so often. Rautiola, of New Ipswich, holds the “record” for climbing the mountain the most times in 24 hours – 14 – and also summited Monadnock a whopping 560 times in 2003 – 10 times for each of his 56 years. Now 58, Rautiola still is knocking off summits, usually climbing Monadnock five or six times on a Saturday morning.
There is a sort of fellowship among the Monadnock regulars, a brethren linked only by a common desire to scale a granite monolith as often as possible. Many are from the Fitchburg, Mass., area, about an hour’s drive down routes 140 and 2. Such as Clint, a gray-haired 69-year-old from Fitchburg who usually climbs two or three days a week, even in winter. And Tom, 47, from Hubbardston, Mass., an RN at HealthAlliance in nearby Leominster who is on the trail up to four days a week. And Scott, also of Fitchburg, who more often than not can be found off-trail, bush-whacking his way to the summit, often at twilight or in pitch dark. In the winter, Scott keeps snow out of his boots by duct-taping his pants to his ankles. Whatever works.

The perimeter expands on the weekend when another group of regulars shows up, including Van, a 22-year-old Cambodian refugee from Lowell, Mass., whose mother thinks he needs psychiatric evaluation because he prefers to be on the mountain rather than out at the clubs partying with his “normal” brothers and sisters.

We’re all on a first-name basis and we never see each other anywhere except on the mountain. Often all we’ll exchange is a quick hello and the knowing smile that we’ve all found the fountain of youth, not wanting to infringe upon the other’s privacy, which, for many of us, is what we’re here for: solitude.

Friendships do develop, however, such as the one between Davis and I. We even went off to the Canary Islands together to climb a 12,000-foot volcano. Taking Larry out of Jaffrey was like, well, you saw Crocodile Dundee.

One day, Larry and I were climbing Monadnock on a dreary, cloudy late-December day when suddenly we popped out on the summit and saw nothing in every direction except the tops of the clouds hovering just feet below us, looking so inviting that we thought we could step out onto them and walk to the horizon. We were the only two people in Cheshire County who saw the sun that day.

Full moon hikes are the best, though, especially in the winter, when on a crisp, clear night you not only don’t need a flashlight, but you wish you had sunglasses and sun block! Like last February when I climbed with my friend Lisa from Boston on a night that was stunningly sublime, so clear and bright that we could see the planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport. We met only one other hiker that night, a Nashua man we had seen on a previous full moon hike more than a year before. It was so bright that we recognized him at nearly 50 feet.

While winter hiking is the best for the sheer beauty and absolute solitude (and no bugs!), sometimes it can be treacherous. One February day three winters ago, Davis and I summited and I wisely put my crampons on for the treacherous descent. Larry decided not to, and minutes later he hit a patch of ice, launched face forward and rocketed past me in a flash down a 45-degree pitch. Before I could blink, he shot off the edge of a rock and into the woods, landing hard. He didn’t move for a long time and I didn’t know if he was alive, but then I heard a groan and he dragged himself out of the bushes. Somehow, he got his crampons on and hiked out, but next day went to the hospital with several broken ribs. He hasn’t been the same since and now he hikes the mountain only infrequently.

At Monadnock, when you mention the “old man of the mountain,” your first thought isn’t the former rock profile in Franconia Notch that endures as the Granite State’s symbol. The “old man” at Monadnock is a skinny little French-Canadian from Manchester named Bob Brodeur. Everyone knows Bob, who is often seen sitting on “The Seat,” a natural bench in the rock alongside the White Dot just below the summit. Bob turned 80 in April, yet still summited Monadnock more than 100 times last year, something he has done for who knows how many years. Brodeur first climbed Monadnock in 1937 and has plenty of fascinating stories to tell and plenty of rapt ears to listen.

Two years ago, on Memorial Day, I was talking to Bob at The Seat when suddenly we looked across the Pumpelly Ridge and saw two moose standing out in silhouette against the horizon. Three winters ago, a lone, lost Canadian Jay spent several months making a nuisance of himself on Monadnock. The gray jay, as it’s known, is seldom seen south of the White Mountains, but this one must’ve gotten lost and took up residence near The Seat. He was particularly fond of begging food off Brodeur. Or more like stealing it.

“The darn thing would fly down and land on my lap before I even got my lunch out of my pack,” I remember Bob saying at the time. “Then he’d jump right in my potato chip bag and start stealing them!”

The bird was so friendly that once, while hiking with a newcomer to Monadnock, I saw the bird sitting atop a tree about a hundred feet ahead of us. Holding out my hand, the bird immediately flew down and landed in my palm. My stock rose immensely with that guy.

But not as much as it did two Octobers ago when I was sitting on The Seat having lunch. Two women from Brattleboro, Vt., happened upon me while enjoying a brilliant autumn afternoon and sat down for a visit. I was telling Jane and Joy of a phenomenon that occurs about two weeks before the spring equinox and again two weeks after the fall equinox when the sun is in perfect position to reflect off the gold-plated dome of the Statehouse in Boston directly back at Monadnock.

I had seen it back in March, looking like a golden spike on the horizon. I told them that it might be the right day to see it again and they looked a little skeptical until minutes later when Jane exclaimed, “Look,” and pointed to the east, where, sure enough, a golden spike was glistening its confirmation.

A couple weeks before that, I had been running on Monadnock and came down the seldom-used Smith Summit trail at a good clip when I heard a sharp “crack” off to my right. I stopped dead in my tracks just in time to see the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen step into a clearing no more than 40 feet below me. Fortunately, the wind was blowing up the ridge and it couldn’t catch my scent. The bruin, which must’ve gone 450 pounds, then sat down and started chomping on wild blueberries. I could hear him chewing, and every minute or so he turned his head to scan the ridgeline to search for movement. He was so close I could hear him inhale as he sniffed the air. Satisfied he was alone, he went back to eating before finally getting up and sauntering off several minutes later. My heart just raced in my chest!

A few days later I was back on Monadnock and told one of the rangers I hoped for another “bear” encounter. But what I got that day instead was a “bare” encounter. I summited via a little rock chute and when I poked my head over the edge, I saw a naked man hiking across the mountaintop! All he had on were boots and, ahem, a fanny pack. And I thought I had seen everything. Or wished I hadn’t!

In the past six years, I have more than 700 summits of Monadnock, still a far cry from the likes of Davis and Rautiola, but a proud total nonetheless. Last year, I stood on its summit 210 times.

Next time you go to Monadnock, don’t be surprised if you see this tall, skinny guy rush by you a time or two. And, no, that wasn’t my twin brother.

In 2006, Harrington broke Ratiola’s record of 14 summits in one 24-hour period by climbing Monadnock 16 times in a day. He is currently closing in on his 1,000th “career” summit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Hampshire 4,000-footers 2004


GORHAM, N.H. – That Moriah is such a tease. After hiking in the rain much of the day and with feet that look more prune than pedestrian, the last thing I want to see as we crest the eastern shoulder of Mount Moriah is the summit still seemingly another mile or so away along a ridgeline that is darting in and out of some late-day clouds.

Weaving through short, scrubby pines as we continue to climb, I keep turning back to my friend, Lisa, a violin instructor from West Roxbury, to tell her that I think I see the summit. Of course, once again I am deceived, my zeal to complete New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers – and to get out of my soggy boots – getting the better of my judgment. We break free of the trees and I once again have to report another false summit.

By now Lisa is questioning why we decided to tackle the entire Wildcat-Carter-Moriah ridge in one day – a grueling 19-mile slog over the final six peaks I need to complete the N.H. 48 since beginning my quest back in January. Especially considering we started the day before sunrise at the Glen Ellis Falls parking lot in Pinkham Notch and it had begun raining before we even ascended the exhaustingly steep Wildcat Ridge Trail. By the time we get to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Carter Notch Hut five miles in, we’re both soaked from head to toe, though it’s the toes that will prove problematic before the day is out.

On a day such as this, carrying extra socks can outweigh even carrying enough water, though irrationally I wait until we get to 4,610-foot Middle Carter – about the halfway point – to change mine, rather than do the smart thing and put on the dry ones when we get to the hut, by which time it has stopped raining.

When we finally reach the summit of Moriah, my feet are so sore that I completely forget my pre-planned Rocky celebration. Instead, I sit listlessly on the summit as Lisa, who was along for 22 of the peaks, snaps a couple of perfunctory pictures. Neither of us can manage a smile – mainly because we know we still have nearly five miles of punishing downhill to get to the second car, which we left parked at the trailhead in Gorham. And off to our left, the Presidentials are shrouded in clouds and we can see more rain heading our way.

We don’t make it in time. When we get to the car and begin peeling off water-logged socks, neither of us cares that our day is ending the same way it began – in the rain.

More than 8,000 people – and several dogs – are official members of the AMC’s New Hampshire Four-Thousand-Footer Club. They call themselves peak-baggers, and they have a commemorate patch from the AMC to prove it. Others just call them crazy. Obsessed is more like it.

For me, deciding to climb all 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers – and the remaining 19 in Maine and Vermont – during 2004 wasn’t something I set out to do. It began innocuously with a day hike in the Whites in January – climbing Liberty and Flume with a group of friends. A few weeks and several weekend trips later, I suddenly found myself jobless and with some unforeseen time on my hands. My friends expressed sympathy that my employer had issued me my walking papers, but I was quick to reply, “No, they gave me my hiking papers.”

Seriously, though, job or no job, hiking has become a passion, especially in winter, when you can be overcome by the breadth, the beauty and the serenity of the outdoors – especially above tree line. Many hikers won’t set foot in the mountains in winter – especially the Whites – for fear of being overcome by something else – the elements. But it need not be that way.

Most people mistakenly believe the key to successful winter hiking is staying warm. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The secret is staying cold. Well, not too cold, obviously. And you need to carry the right gear with you to “layer up” as soon as you stop. I hiked last winter with one guy who dressed for an Arctic expedition right from the parking lot. By the time we gained the ridgeline, sweat was streaming down his neck in cascades and the moment we stopped, he began to shiver uncontrollably. In contrast, I found it perfectly pleasant standing on the summit in below-zero weather with nothing more than a long-sleeve Bergelene shirt. My shell stayed in my backpack for several minutes before I had to cave to the elements.

Sweat is the enemy in winter hiking. It can kill you. But stay dry, and even the windiest days can be enjoyed above tree line.

Such as the day last January on 4,802-foot Moosilauke when 75 mph winds buffeted us with little pellets of ice that felt as if we were being sand-blasted as we raced across the ridge back to tree line. Or the day in late April when Lisa and I climbed Mount Washington and topped out in the midst of a typically notorious day on the Northeast’s highest peak – ice, snow, gale-force winds and visibility of maybe 50 feet.

Seems like a typical hike with Lisa, too – seldom did we pick a day that afforded any views. Back in February, we climbed Madison, Adams and Jefferson in one day and hit Edmands Col below the summit of Jefferson late in the afternoon as ominous-looking clouds rolled in. In a complete whiteout, we cautiously – and perhaps carelessly – found our way to the summit and then discovered that we couldn’t follow our tracks back down. No, they hadn’t filled in with blowing snow. The whiteout was so total that we couldn’t see our feet! But somehow we were able to retrace our steps and beat a hasty retreat down the Randolph Path – reaching the parking lot right at dark. It was one of many times we pushed the limits, yet still managed to climb into the car by sunset.

During the summer, after taking care of the five 4,000-footers in Vermont, I made a couple of trips back to the Whites for some solo hiking, bagging the final 20 peaks in New Hampshire during two long weekends. By now, I too had become obsessed. I mapped out my routes, starting with the aptly named Mount Isolation on July 24. More peak-baggers finish their quest with 4,003-foot Isolation than any other, thanks to its remote location in the desolate Dry River Wilderness between Pinkham and Crawford notches. People such as Rick and Nancy Healey of Fitchburg, who were on the summit when I arrived, celebrating their final 4,000-footer with a bottle of champagne and friend Scott Foster, who had already bagged the 48 himself.

Two days later, I put in another 19 miles, climbing Garfield, Galehead, South Twin, North Twin, West Bond and Zealand before ending up for the night at the AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut.

Not everyone is on the fast track to bag the 4,000-footers. Arriving late for dinner that night was 72-year-old Ed Jones of Hopkinton, N.H., who had just completed his 48 when he came over 4,260-foot Zealand on his way to the hut. He had started his list more than 20 years before, as a Boy Scout leader. With him to finish the journey were his daughter and two sons – one of whom flew in from California – and one of his grandsons.

I have less of an entourage the following weekend when I finish my New Hampshire 48: It’s just Lisa and I after she drove up from Boston late the night before knowing we were going to spend the day hiking in the rain. I wanted to make the final hike an epic one and it proved to be just that before we finally stood atop Moriah’s elusive 4,049-foot summit – exhausted, emotionless and with wrinkled feet.

As usual, there are no views other than the tops of Madison and Adams, which are cutting a rift in the storm clouds that are approaching from the southwest. Without talking, we wearily trudge on to Gorham and the car, stopping only to pick a few wild blueberries. But we rejoice as we remove our boots and release our prunish feet from their reluctant imprisonment. We may not have beaten the rain, but once again we have beaten darkness.

Hiking Guatemala's Active Volcanoes


ANTIGUA, Guatemala – A loud “thunk, thunk” fills the air as two more chunks of molten lava are thrown hundreds of feet into the sky. They quickly change from a searing orange glow at their apex to a blackened, obsidian blob as they cool slightly before landing with a thud at the base of the summit cone. They shatter upon impact, skittering along the hardening crust sounding like tinkling shards of broken glass.

This is followed immediately by a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” from a group of mesmerized tourists standing barely a dozen yards from where brand-new earth is being pumped out of a pair of smokestacks on the summit of Pacaya, the most active and most easily climbed of the 37 volcanoes that form the backbone of Guatemala.

This is a typical day atop the 8,367-foot volcano located on the outskirts of the capital of Guatemala City, as the cones are constantly lobbing up rocks with a sound like that of tennis balls being ejected from an automatic ball launcher. Or better yet, like fireworks being set off at the best Fourth of July display you’ve ever imagined.

We’re standing virtually within spitting distance from where these potentially deadly grenades are landing, and yet there is nothing other than your own fear – and “suggestions” from the two “guias,” or guides – to keep us from inching closer, tempting the volcano to unleash an especially large belch that might turn one of us into tomorrow’s headline. No ropes, no fences, no warning signs and no lawyers handing out business cards. Talk about your shock and awe. You can’t do this at Yellowstone!

The day is a perfect climax to a trip that has taken me up all three of Guatemala’s currently active volcanoes as well as to the highest point in Central America. Barely two weeks before, I was beginning to doubt I’d get to climb any of them. My first scheduled climb – an overnighter on Fuego near the former Spanish colonial capital of Antigua – was canceled at the last minute, I find out via email, because of currently dangerous activity in the hulking, steaming crater atop the 12,346-foot volcano.

So I quickly change itineraries – something you learn to do on the fly in a Third World country – and call Patrick Vercoutere of Adrenalina Tours in Quetzaltenango to find out if I can instead climb Santa Maria to get a look at its currently active shoulder cone of Santiaguito, which erupts with a huge plume of ash every 35 or 40 minutes.

“Sure,” he says, quickly switching from Spanish to English, both of which he speaks with a Belgian accent. “We’re climbing tonight at midnight under a full moon. We’ll be on the summit for sunrise.”

The only problem is that it’s Good Friday and I’m in Antigua, a good six hours by chicken bus from Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shay-la), as the country’s second-largest city is known. And it being Semana Santa, or Easter Week, I get only halfway there when the buses – those brightly painted, antiquated school buses that are the only means of transportation for most of Guatemala’s population of 13 million – stop running for the day. I’m left to negotiate with the collectivos, – owners of pickup trucks and mini-vans who cattle stranded passengers up and down the Pan-American Highway that runs north-south along the spine of this rugged, mountainous country.

I get lucky in that I snag myself a seat in a comfortable mini-van and avoid having to hang off the tailgate of a pickup truck for three hours like some of the other stranded travelers, most of whom are gringo backpackers like myself.

Along with me are Andrew, 20, and Galen, 18, brothers from Northboro, Mass., who live in Xela, where they are learning Spanish and playing in their own little jazz band. They invite me back to their apartment for the weekend, which is a miraculous stroke of luck considering I’ve only been to Xela once in my life and I have no idea where I’m going. When you’re traveling alone, you never turn down hospitality, even if it comes from a couple of kids half your age and even if it means you’re sleeping outside in a hammock in March at 8,000 feet in a part of the country that even the Guatemalans affectionately refer to as Alaska! And I couldn’t beat the “rent” – three liters of Gallo, which is the national beer of Guatemala despite its rather unpleasant taste.


At 12,375 feet, Santa Maria is described in one tour book as a “moderate” hike, but I guarantee the authors never made the climb. It’s a relentless four-hour death march to the summit, but the instant I top out under the shimmering light of a full moon, I am treated to an eruption from Santiaguito’s crater several hundred feet down Santa Maria’s western flank. A huge rumble is followed by a big belch as Santiaguito lets out a puff of gas and ash that billows into the pre-dawn sky and roils like a mushroom cloud. Amazing.

The Santiaguito crater was formed by a huge explosion in 1902 – the third-largest eruption in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th Century. Ash traveled as far north as San Francisco, but in Guatemala, the government was busy denying that the eruption had even occurred – despite the fact peasants working the many coffee fincas on the Pacific slope were standing chest deep in ash! Seems that Santiaguito was formed at the worst possible moment – right in the middle of President Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s Feast of the Goddess Minerva, whom he had just made the patron saint of the country’s so-called progress.

Coffee prices were down at the turn of the century and Estrada Cabrera had invited diplomats from all over the globe to attend the festival as a guise for eliciting investment capital from abroad. He couldn’t afford to have something as uncontrollable as an eruption discouraging foreign investment, so he simply denied its existence. Ultimately, the ruse failed, and the investors went home, taking their money with them.

Sunrise on Santa Maria is spectacular, except it unmasks all the graffiti and trash that unfortunately marks the summits of most of Guatemala’s volcanoes, many of which are considered sacred and still used by the native Mayans as ritual sites. Santa Maria is no exception; as the sun rose, so did a dozen or so chanting Mayans, who had apparently carried out a ritual the night before that involved a live goat, or so indicated the horns on the charred carcass in one of the many fire pits.

Among the volcanoes that stand out against the pink sky is Tajumulco to the north, at 13,846 feet the highest point in Central America. Tajumulco is not currently active, but was a hike not to be passed up, if for no other reason than for the challenge of getting there and back on Easter Sunday via the chicken bus. Two of my new-found friends from Xela joined me and the day was perfectly sublime until we got lost on the way down and got caught in a violent thunderstorm. If not for a pair of young boys we had seen that morning riding a horse who got us back on trail, we might have been standing where a huge lightning bolt struck the ground a few moments later. To our amazement, the bolt left a red, glowing sphere of energy where it had struck, before violently exploding a millisecond later, throwing debris and smoke into the air. Turns out it’s called “ball lightning,” and it’s usually about the size of a grapefruit. This one was bigger than a beach ball!

Moments later, another bolt of lightning streaks horizontally across the sky seemingly just a few feet above our heads. Instantly, the thunder follows, not in its classic boom, but in a frenzied crack giving chase to its source, as if it were tearing a hole through the sky as it went. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard thunder in complete Dolby SurroundSound!

Through a series of minor miracles, we catch the last bus of the day – twice – and make it back to Xela before nightfall. We stop at the neighborhood tienda to celebrate our good fortune with three more Gallos. Suddenly, they don’t taste so bad.


The following weekend, Fuego has calmed down enough to be climbed and I meet my guide, Rafael, in Antigua. We’re driven up this washboard of a dirt road to the trailhead, only to find the chicken bus already there. Seems there’s no place too remote in Guatemala for the chicken bus. We start up through corn fields and I become worried almost immediately when I see sweat dripping from Rafael’s nose and he’s breathing heavily. I mean, shouldn’t I be the one doing that? But Rafael soon hits his stride as we climb to the summit of Acatenango, at 13,041 feet the third-highest volcano in Guatemala. The summit crater looks like a moonscape; the volcanic dirt is so dark it looks genuinely cobalt in the glint of the midday sun.

Starting down the other side into the col between Acatenango and Fuego – whose summit is already hidden in the clouds that roll up from the Pacific each afternoon – we literally begin to ski down the steep slope. My boots are quickly full of miniature pieces of lava that rub mercilessly again my feet and when we stop for lunch on a rocky outcropping, I dump a cupful of rocks out of each one.

Suddenly, I’m stopped in mid-sandwich by a loud explosion, followed by a rumbling and what sounds like a rock slide. Fuego is awake, somewhere off in the clouds in front of us. It’s an ominous sound that would be repeated throughout the afternoon and into the evening. After lunch, it’s time for the day’s second run, and we ski down to a beautiful, pine-forested glade between the two peaks, where we camp for the night.

In the morning, it takes little more than a half hour of steady climbing to reach the shoulder of Fuego, giving us our first view of the heavy plume of smoke that has been pouring from its caldera since 1999. We drop our packs and sneak a few hundred yards closer to where Rafael normally turns his clients around. But things seem quiet and I want to get closer. Much closer.

Suddenly, a golondrina, a type of swallow, whizzes past me in a blur, and instantly I’m transformed into Bilbo Baggins, and the golondrina becomes the thrush that shows the hobbit the secret tunnel leading deep into Smaug’s mountain. I cautiously creep closer and closer, hoping not to wake the dragon and evoke his wrath. Gollum! I suddenly wish we had rings to make us invisible, like the one Bilbo wore enabling him to sneak unseen into Smaug’s lair. We climb higher – higher than Rafael has ever dared before – and eventually get within a good stone’s throw of the fuming crater. Too close, Rafael warns. Now, not only can we see the dragon’s breath, we can smell its foul, sulfurous odor, emanating from cracks in the earth beneath our feet.

We know that if the dragon awakes now as it did so many times the day before, we are easy prey, so we quietly and stealthily backtrack our way off the mountain. It’s not a shiny cup like Bilbo stole, but I pick up a volcanic rock and slip it into my pocket as proof of my courage – or foolhardiness. Fortunately, it’s not missed by the dragon, which, thankfully, slept through it all, unaware of our presence. As we make our way back to our packs, a faint murmur rumbles from the mountain, probably just Smaug dreaming about a nice meal of dwarves or elves. We complete a difficult descent in record time and the dragon never stirs.

Maybe we were wearing magic rings after all!


Safety is the No. 1 concern when climbing volcanoes in Guatemala, but it’s seldom the volcanoes you have to worry about. It’s the bandits. They see you go up the volcano and they lie in wait for you to come down. Nowhere was this worse than on Pacaya. Because of its proximity to Guatemala City and its gangs, and that it’s the easiest hike for the average, out-of-shape gringo tourist, Pacaya had become notorious for crime by the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, officially ending Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

“I used to climb Pacaya a lot when I first came here,” said Colorado native Tammy Ridenour, owner of Maya Expeditions, one of the many eco-tour operators in the country. “But then it got real nasty up there,” she said. “There were robberies and even rapes. The year after the peace accords – 1997 – was particularly bad.”

There were even rumors of disreputable local guides being in cahoots with the bandits, leading their own groups into ambushes and then abandoning them. But things have changed a lot, and while every guide book warns travelers not to hike any volcano alone, robberies now are almost unheard of.

“There have been no robberies on the volcanoes that I have heard of in at least two years,” said Rafael, who was also my guia on Pacaya.

A big reason, Ridenour said, is that the Guatemalan government finally has realized the value of the tourist dollar, and thanks to pressure from local residents, turned Pacaya into a national park, with certified guides and a small visitor’s center – little more than a cement block building – at the trailhead.

“It’s much safer now,” said Ridenour of Pacaya, “and the police are a lot more helpful. They won’t even take a bribe now, that’s how much corruption has been curbed.”

As for myself, I wasn’t sure Pacaya was going to be as exciting as Fuego, even though it’s been in constant eruption since 1965. I figured if the average couch-potato could make the climb, this would be little more than a pre-packaged “McHike,” catering to so many of those camera-toting, sun-blocked pseudo-tourists that get carted around on air-conditioned buses and “interact” with nature by looking at it mostly through tinted glass. “That was nice,” I imagine them saying as they return to their gated, four-star resorts to sip margaritas by the pool. Yanquis, the locals call them. You know them better as Americans.

I picture a day at the zoo, not the safari I was hoping for. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, the climb up Pacaya is as easy as advertised, but its popularity is not so much in the effort as in the reward. Watching the two smokestacks rain down fiery new earth while you can feel the heat of the volcano on your face makes Pacaya not a mere zoo, but a safari where you actually get out and pet the lions!

After we eat lunch, numbed into an unfazable trance by the raw beauty unfolding at our feet, Pacaya burps up a couple of particularly dangerous fireballs and our guias finally yell, “Vamonos,” and with hesitation we begin to head back down. On the way, we pass a group of ascending tourists who as yet have no idea what awaits them.

As we near the parking lot, Pacaya lets out a roar that can be heard for miles. I look back at the rim expecting to see tourists scurrying for cover. But there they are, still standing side by side, snapping away.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hiking Vulcan Atitlan in 2004

SAN LUCAS TOLIMAN, Guatemala – The alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. and I'm instantly awakened not so much by the buzzing of the borrowed clock as by the boom, boom, boom of the Latin rock still reverberating outside my hotel room.It's early morning on Good Friday during the weeklong celebration of Semana Santa, when all of Guatemala shuts down for a week of festivals and parades leading up to Easter Sunday.

The night before, the revelers – some of whom appear to be little more than 14 – had promised that the night's party would cease at 2 a.m., but as I stumble bleary-eyed up the steep, cobble-stoned streets of the lakeside village of San Lucas Toliman, I look back to see that they are still going strong despite the coming onset of dawn.

But I am not in the Western Highlands of Guatemala to party with the locals, as enticing as it may be. I'm here to hike volcanoes, and from my vantage point at the Hotel Don Pedro -- where the rates during the holiday week have been tripled to nearly, well, $9 U.S. – I can see three of them, including Volcan Atitlan, which, at 11,666 feet, towers above the lake of the same name.

Or at least I will be able to see it, once the sun creeps over the eastern rim of a spectacular mountain range that encircles the Lake Atitlan caldera, created by a huge eruption 85,000 years ago that sent rocks flying as far away as Florida and Panama.

I meet my guides for this trip, which I have saved for the final day of my vacation, in the town's square, which is all decked out for the Semana Santa procession scheduled for that afternoon. But at this hour of the morning, no one is about save for a few mangy dogs and a couple of the indigenous Mayans who are eating breakfast before setting up their booths of local crafts that to many constitute their livelihood.

Richard Morgan, of Adventures in Education, greets me along with Carlos, his hired guide for the day's climb, which starts in front of Carlos's house well outside of the parade route. We hike through alleyways and dirt roads before we begin to climb steadily through the coffee fincas and fields to the saddle that separates taller Atitlan from its sister volcano, the double-peaked Toliman, which is to our right. We turn left, and immediately begin a constant, breath-stealing ascent that three hours later brings us to treeline, a few hundred meters below the summit.

Richard has carried a .12-guage shotgun with him during the climb, while Carlos has been given a 9-millimeter pistol -- just in case. Though there have been reported cases of hikers being robbed on climbs on all the volcanoes in Guatemala – mostly on still-active Pacaya, which is a sometimes haunt of the gangs from nearby Guatemala City – we see no one on the mountain other than fellow hikers, including a group of 10 young men from the nearby town of Godinez, who enjoyed a nighttime ascent under a waning full moon.

The guidebooks say that climbing Atitlan is a two-day excursion, with hikers camping overnight at the summit in a refuge, or hut. But, in fact, the hike can easily be done in one day – though admittedly a long and strenuous one – and the so-called hut, which was located in the col between the two volcanoes, is no longer there, according to Carlos. There is, however, a foul-looking, cement-block building atop the mountain, but it is apparent that those who have camped over on Atitlan's exposed summit have simply erected stone-wall barriers to block them from the wind. Unfortunately, the concept of "Carry in, carry out" has yet to take hold in the Third World, as trash litters what would otherwise be a pristine landscape.

The final scramble to the summit – and the slide back down to treeline – requires all four limbs, as even Carlos – at 32 a father of six – is sliding backward with each step in the loose volcanic scree that makes the final few hundred yards seem like you're trying to walk on pinballs. But once you reach the summit and look around, you know why you are there. And this was a cloudy day.

The waves of white, puffy clouds bounce along the spine of Central American's highlands like a chorus line of Michelin men, each framed by a brilliant blue background. Occasionally, breaks in the clouds enable me to see more of the range, with twins Agua and Fuego – which is also currently active – rearing their heads above the clouds to the south, near the original Spanish colonial capital of Ciudad Vieja. The city was buried by a mudslide when the caldera atop Agua collapsed in 1541 and emptied the contents of its summit lake onto the city below. After that, the Spanish moved the capital of its Mesoamerican empire to the nearby town of Antigua. That city, in turn, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, and the Spanish again moved the capital to present-day Guatemala City.

To the north are a line of volcanoes that pop out of the clouds as they string their way to the Mexican border, several hours away by bus. To the west – somewhere – is the Pacific Ocean, but on this day it is hidden from view by a band of low-level clouds that resembles the stuffing that has been removed from an oversized pillow.

Morgan, who organized the hike, is a retired U.S. Army colonel who was wounded in Vietnam in 1972. He moved with his wife, Sharon, and son Luke, 12, six years ago from Tucson, Ariz., to the nearby town of Panajachel, located on the opposite side of the lake. Morgan, 62, grew up in New Jersey – a long way from volcanoes – but has been carrying on a virtual one-man crusade on Lake Atitlan to promote the three dominant peaks that give the tourist town known simply as "Pana" its picture-postcard view.

"I've been trying to get the Guatemalan government to see the volcanoes as a resource, as a tourist attraction," said Morgan, without the results he would like. He hopes the new government, which has been in power for little more than a year but seems receptive to promoting tourism, will see the country's 37 volcanoes – three of which are currently active – as a way to lure more tourists.Already tourism is the No. 2 source of income for Guatemala, trailing only the money sent from abroad by nationals living outside the country. It has supplanted coffee, which was once the top money producer, but coffee has fallen on hard times since its price has plummeted in recent years.

"Tourism is something this country needs," Morgan said. So far, he's had very few clients sign up for the rigorous climb up Atitlan, but is optimistic that will change once people begin to discover the eco-rich country. From where he's standing, it's a good bet.

"The view from Atitlan is magnificent," Morgan says as he looks out from the summit. "It's one of the toughest climbs in Guatemala. I haven't seen anything as impressive."

And as for the .12-gauge shotgun housed in his old Army backpack? "I do carry a gun on the trip,” he admits, “but I've had no need to use it.

"It's called worst-case planning in the military," he says, though his own brochure – which offers other hikes and even some eco-cultural tours – cautions that robberies have occurred on the trails. "I've lived in this country for six years and I've never seen a crime," Morgan says, adding that reports of Guatemala being a dangerous place are greatly exaggerated. "I've walked in Zone 1 in Guatemala City and never had a problem.

"While Atitlan, or its less-climbed neighbor Toliman, are climbs which will require you to hire a guide, the third volcano on the lake, San Pedro, is an easy day hike that will take only about four or five hours roundtrip, rather than the 10 that it took us on Atitlan.

San Pedro, which stands at 9,900 feet, can be reached by boat from Panajachel (go straight to the dock at the end of Calle del Embarcadero and don't deal with anyone other than the captain, who will be at the dock; cost: about $1.20 each way). The lake crossing takes about an hour and deposits you in San Pedro, where opportunistic guides will besiege you with warnings that it is too dangerous to climb without hiring them. Graciously explain you don't need a guide – the locals in the center of town will help point you to the trailhead – and enjoy the views from the summit, which include stunning vistas of both the villages of San Pedro, where you started, and of Santiago, located on the opposite side of the volcano.

The summit of San Pedro is a protected area under the dominion of the environmental group Vivamos Mejor (We All Live Better), in conjunction with funding provided by The Nature Conservancy in the U.S.

Bring plenty of agua pura, bottles of which can be bought in San Pedro for as little as three quetzales (37 cents).

For the more difficult Atitlan climb, the cost to use Morgan and his guide is $48, but includes overnight lodging at his hotel in Panajachel, called the Posada Los Ecuentros, pre-dawn transportation to San Lucas Toliman, a box lunch and plenty of water. And that includes the hot tub back at the hotel after the hike.