Sunday, January 24, 2010

Schmo Versus the Volcano

It's pretty much impossible to go to a foreign country where you don't totally speak the language and avoid making some mistakes along the way. So, on a multi-month voyage through another continent, a whole range of misguided decisions is pretty much guaranteed. To a large extent, you're relying on the distribution of the mistakes to tend towards the not-so-stupid and not-so-problematic. So, in that sense, I'm quite fortunate that the only legacy of my first significant blunder is a set of extremely sore quadriceps and some dirty fingernails. In fairness, the main issue wasn't really climbing the volcano. The issue was doing it in sandals.

Before heading off to Ometepe, I read up on the island, its lore, and its twin volcanoes in my Lonely Planet guidebook. The author, to his credit, highlighted the immense difficulty of climbing Volcán Concepción, and went as far as to say "bring real hiking shoes" and "be in good physical shape." He also mentioned that it's almost always cloudy at the top, so the spectacular vista is a rare one. So, having read all this, I decided to leave my hiking shoes in Granada and settle for enjoying Ometepe's lovely beaches and sunsets. But, damn my affable personality, I made two friends on the boat across the lake, and they were planning to go up the volcano. So, I looked at my Keen sandals, with their pretty solid traction, and I decided that I could probably make it. I had been told it was pretty tough, but I didn't think it could be that much worse than biking 30 miles in 80 degree heat, so I went with the flow. And so it was that I set out with Sam and Ben, two Oberlin grads, and Levi, our guide, to peer into the crater of a 1,610 meter high active volcano.

Even setting the sandals aside, the climb up was without a doubt the most physically challenging thing I've ever done. Levi told us that the volcano doesn't like it when people climb her, and she does her best to take it out on them. I can definitely see his point. As you begin the trek, howler monkeys fill the air with an ominous groan that signals a warning. It might be one that's worth taking. Most trails up mountains (and volcanos) involve a sequence of switchbacks to reduce the grade at which you're climbing. Not at Concepción. The trail is straight up, base to crater, with terrain in a sequence that basically goes dirt, large rocks, small rocks, large rocks, gravel, large rocks, small rocks, mud, muddy gravel, large rocks, mud, hot muddy gravel. Tree branches and thorn bushes scrape and scratch at your legs. Each sequence is more punishing than the one before it--really, "punishing" is the best word for the whole experience. It is exhausting and grueling. Because of the heat emitted by the volcano, the air coming out of the crater condenses, meaning that the summit is almost always engulfed in clouds. The day we went, the clouds stretched halfway down the volcano, which meant that, starting about 2-3 hours into our 5 hour climb, we could no longer see anything more than 100 or so feet ahead of us. We've gone back and forth as to whether this was a benefit or not, but I ultimately come down on the side of Sam's argument that if we really had known just how much farther we had to go, we might definitely have given up.

At about 900 meters the wind started to howl, and at 1,000 meters the clouds turned to rain, and dirt to mud. It was truly amazing to think that here we were, slogging our way through this maelstrom, and just a mile away people were on a beach enjoying an 80 degree day with a clear blue sky. As we climbed higher, the wind grew stronger, and visibility decreased. We were all soaked and trying to keep our breaks to a minimum. I have to give my sandals credit for the work they did getting me up the first 1,200 meters. They had excellent traction, and I was surprised at how well they worked. But as the ground got less firm, and balance and ankle support became more pertinent, I began to realize the flaw in the plan. For the last 400 meters, I lagged a bit behind everyone else, and paused several times to catch my breath and get my balance. I used my hands as much as possible for additional leverage and stability, particularly taking advantage of a plant known colloquially as "hoja grande," or "big leaf," which has very rough (and thus easily gripped) leaves and deep, strong, roots.

We stopped every 100 meters or so to catch our breath, and figure out whether this was really going to happen. I didn't say it out loud, but I was increasingly certain that there was no way I would make it to the crater. Sam was having a tough time with the mud as well, and there was a moment when he turned to Ben and expressed concern about dealing with the soggy and slippery mud on the way down. I silently wondered whether Ben might decide it was worth calling it quits, and thought I might agree. But, to his credit, Ben said "I think we can do it. We've come this far." So we kept going.

Just as I was growing certain that I couldn't do it, as I was preparing to look up and say "guys, I'm gonna wait here," I saw the other three taking off their backpacks and putting them down, placing large rocks on them to keep them from blowing away--the wind was that strong, even though we all had at least one full 2 liter water bottle in our bag, as well as a packed lunch. I scrambled up the 15 feet of mud, water, and gravel to where they were, and asked what was going on. "We're going up to the crater," Sam told me. "It's right there." He pointed and, sure enough, I saw a point only 30 feet ahead where the terrain seemed to come to an abrupt halt.

The experience at the crater was like nothing I've ever seen or heard of. The wind rushed by us at hurricane speed. We got low to the ground--the poisonous gases would kill you even if you did survive the fall into the crater. The rain was cold, but the ground was hot, warmed by the huge pocket of geothermal energy just beneath us. We crawled to the lip and looked over into a sea of fog. The clouds were oatmeal-thick, and you could not see more than 15 feet in any direction. Even the rest of the group, sitting 5 feet away from me, were like apparitions in the mist. It looked a bit like heaven, and it felt a lot like hell. We looked at each other and smiled, took a few pictures, and started the brutal journey back to the base.

As tough as the trip up had been, the trip down was worse. While the climb had been a serious cardiovascular challenge, the descent was all about muscular endurance. When you're walking down a series of 2-3 foot high bolders, each with a slick, wet surface, every step must be absolutely sure. If you slip, you could crack your skull. And it's pretty tough to get an ambulance into a cloud at 5,000 feet, not to mention the several hours it would take for someone to get down to town and notify anyone. So with every pace, I put all of my attention on my legs, ankles and feet, using my hands to cling to nearby trees with as firm a grip I could muster. I fell a few times, once drilling myself in the back with a rock on the ground. If I had lagged behind the group on the way up, it was nothing compared to the trip down. I felt bad about it, but they were very patient with me. Of course, as Sam pointed out, the thing that sucks most about being that guy is that when everyone else stops for a break and you finally catch up, everyone else is also ready to get going again. I have to express my deep appreciation for Sam, Ben, and Levi's willingness to give me an extra minute or two here and there to rest my weary ankles.

As we got out of the clouds about halfway down, we took a longer break to appreciate the view and rest up with the extra time we had. Coming down may have been tougher than going up, but it was still quicker. From the viewpoint, or "mirador" in Spanish, we could see the other volcano, Maderas, and the water flowing all the way around it. To our left, we could see the town of Altagracia, from which we had walked starting at 7 that morning. And behind us, a low forest disappearing into clouds. We stayed at that point for a good 20 minutes, feeling the full heft of our effort in our arms and legs, clothes soaked with rain, mud, and sweat. At a couple of points, some turkey vultures swooped in for a closer look, just to see if they might learn where they'd be getting their dinner that night. We decided to make sure they'd have to find it somewhere else, and walked the two remaining hours down the Volcano and back to Altagracia.

I am certain I have never been as grateful to sit down as I was when we got back to our hostel. That night we went into town to have some meat with gallo pinto--extra servings of both--and drink a few Toñas, and a lot of water.

I've taken a lot of pictures on this trip, so I understand that most people aren't going to bother going through them--and certainly not through all of them. But I definitely recommend taking a tour through the pictures of Ometepe in general, or at least just the trip up Concepción if that's all you have time for. The swirl of fog around us was completely out of this world. It felt like one of those levels in a Super Mario game where you can't see anything except a small circle around your character. But real. And totally freaking crazy.


  1. Wow--these entries (photos and text) are mezmorizing--like a novel you can't put down because you're so excited to read the next chapter. Of course, it's not fiction, and the next chapter isn't ready until you (you Seth) live it and write about it.

    As your mom I have to say that I'm glad to read some of it once I know you came through it whole. Phew!

  2. Unbelievable. This seems like one of those experiences that you really will get to remember for the rest of your life. It sounded grueling when you were describing it last night, but the pictures and your account here really demonstrate just how daunting (and then, exhilarating) it must have been. Kudos, regular brother. I don't even want to make the all-too-obvious Mount Greylock joke here.

    I have to tell you, I'm also loving the pictures and account of day-to-day stuff just as much as the big blow-your-mind stories and views. It's great that you have enough time to get to appreciate that part of the travel experience as well. Plus, your family definitely needs to know every detail about the food.

    Shirley says thank you for the picture of the Panditas. They've got kind of an Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks thing going on, don't you think?

  3. In honor of you climbing the volcanoe, Mike and I decided to drink the Argentinian Malbec you gave us. :)

  4. I am as overwhelmed by your adventuring as your increasingly-vivid writing! Despite the clearly grueling nature of all of this, I've got to say... pretty darn jealous, my friend!

  5. Awesome story--great material and great delivery. Assuming you all had veal for dinner, yes?

  6. Concepción will do that to ya ;-)

  7. This is the single best travel blog entry I have read! So vivid and such an incredible story!

    ps. I love the trip tracker


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