Watching a volcano erupt from the top of another volcano
It’s not too often that one gets a chance to see a volcano erupt. It’s even less common to be able to spend the night near the top of a volcano while watching an adjacent one erupt over and over. Fortunately for us, just such an opportunity is available for visitors to this area of Guatemala and as you might imagine, we jumped at the chance to take part.
Volcán Fuego is a very active volcano in Guatemala and several outfitters routinely lead groups to the top of Volcán Acatenango, Fuego’s neighbor and less-active cousin. The base camp where people sleep is at approximately 3600 meters and the climb to get there is, according to Strava, 1484 meters. While not technical, the walk does take some effort, especially because you need to pack in all your water, some food, and some warm clothing*.
Special thanks to our daughter Cassandra and her husband Robert. This hike was their Christmas gift to us. Also, thanks to Kenneth Mark Vampram who sent us a Christmas gift via our website’s Donate button. Merry Christmas!
Initial briefing before beginning our climb.
Rest break number 1. We even got a coffee here!
Adding layers of clothing as we climb.
Both Rebecca and I were very surprised to see just how active Fuego is. Almost as soon as we rounded the corner that exposed Fuego to us, the volcano erupted sending a huge cloud of smoke and ash into the sky. That was just the first of many eruptions that we witnessed.
We were warned that the temperature near the top of the volcano is cold and that is no understatement. There is a quote that I read that said something to the effect of “if at some point in your travels you’re not wearing every bit of clothing that you carried then you packed too much.” I can finally say that I have done so, and I was still cold!
First sighting of Volcán Fuego.
Our base camp with Volcán Agua in the distance.
I carried this beer in my pack from the bottom. It tasted good!
View from the latrine. Most scenic toilet ever?
As the sun sets the temperature drops!
At 4:00 AM the guides come around and wake the climbers to hike from base camp to the top of the volcano where the idea is you’ll be able to sit and watch the sunrise. That’s how it works in theory, and we had every reason to believe that it would actually play out that way. In fact, halfway through the 400 or so meter climb from the base camp to the top I actually said, “the weather couldn’t be better.” It was true… at the time there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we could see city lights for miles and miles. We even saw Fuego erupt a couple of times, sending sparks high into the sky. Oh, how things would change.
In the space of 30 minutes, just before we arrived at the top, the strongest winds I have ever experienced began to blow. The wind was so strong that it threatened to blow us off the mountain and when we finally arrived at the top, it had created such a sandstorm that our visibility was pretty much zero. That, and the seriously cold temperatures, exacerbated by the wind chill, forced us to all retrace our steps back down the mountain. There would be no sunrise viewing at the top for us.
The weather is no joke. “Six tourists died of exposure on Acetanango in January 2017.” — Source
Volcán Fuego with city lights in the distance.
The campfire helped to keep the cold at bay.
Sunrise as witnessed while descending from the top.
Almost back at base camp.
The top of Fuego obscured by the clouds.
Descending in the clouds.
As you might imagine, the descent, both from the top back to base camp, and from base camp back down to the bottom, went much quicker than the initial climb. Unlike the previous day though where we had great visibility, the clouds filled in, blocking our view of the nearby volcanos, and in fact, of nearly everything around us. Because of that, I have to say that I feel we were quite fortunate in the weather that we were dealt, even though it did turn south on us at the end. The climbers that we passed during our descent were making their way up into clouds and may or may not have witnessed the amazing spectacles that we were able to. And as for the windy climb to the top, that just added to the adventure and gave us fuel for an even better story.
Note: I was not able to get any good nighttime shots of Fuego erupting but our friends Mark and Hana did. Check out their blog for some amazing photography!
*The outfitters that we chose already had tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads at the base camp for us. It looked to us as if some of the other hikers were carrying their own sleeping gear.)