Climb to the Top of Pacaya, 24 Sept 98

Climb to the Top of Pacaya, 24 Sept 98
First Person Report by Gregory Giagnocavo
Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

My sons, Michael, Daniel, Alan and I climbed Pacaya Volcano on September 24. Michael reached the crater at approximately 5:00 pm, after we had climbed for two hours. Pacaya is about 20 miles from where we live, outside Guatemala City. We moved to Guatemala in 1998 to do missions work and can see several volcanoes from our front yard. Earlier eruptions this year left our house and street covered with ash, so that heightened our interest in Pacaya. In May, the airport was closed for four days due to the heavy layer of sand from Pacaya. They don't have much automatic equipment here, so all over the city, hundreds of men with brooms swept up the sand, into piles along the side of the streets. The dark gray sand made the city so gray and dirty, and people walked around with hankies or surgical masks covering their nose and mouth. There were many car accidents as the sand on the road made it harder to stop. Friends who like gardening scooped up bags of the nutrient-rich sand to use in their gardens.

A few days later, it rained very hard which cleaned the sand off the streets but caused problems in the sewers as thousands of yards of sand were washed down.

Our September Climb Since we had seen quite an large eruption the Saturday before, (19 Sept) we had decided to drive up as far as we could go that Sunday. But it took far longer than I had thought and it got dark before we could drive to the end of the road, so we turned back. But since the boys are studying volcanoes in school, I promised them that we'd try to climb it later in the week. I don't know much about volcanoes and the proper terminology so forgive my "laymanŐs" terms as I describe our trip. We plan to use our field trip, and info from Volcano World to learn a great deal about volcanoes in the coming weeks.

Most everyone we talked to here objected to our trying to climb up to the crater, as they considered it too dangerous. Do to our sense of adventure, my lack of good judgment, and general naivete, we went anyway.

We took Neddy, a professional armed guard, with us due to thieves and muggers who frequent the lower areas of the volcano. Our guide was an 8-year-old boy named Ephraim, who lives at the end of the "road" outside of a tiny village called San Fransisco, which is still inhabited. He was so small and dirty, in little rubber boots and dirty torn clothes, that we really wondered if we could trust what he said. He said he knew the volcano area very well and that he was used to being a guide. I figured he was just trying to make a little money to survive. We asked a man nearby, if it was ok. He said he knows the boy's family and that it would be ok, that we didn't need the family's permission. Things in Guatemala are sort of "loose", and Neddy said he thought it was probably OK. So, Ephraim joined our group. He looked so hungry we gave him a drink and a sandwich right away. He smiled and thanked us profusely. Turned out that later events would prove Ephraim to be a lifesaver. There are absolutely no markers to follow when you climb Pacaya - and setting out, we didn't have a clue as to how clueless we were about our adventure in the making.

To reach the base of the volcano, where we started our climb, we had to drive about 35 minutes outside Guatemala City. Then drive in a four-wheel drive vehicle about 45 minutes on a mountainous dirt road, which was in terrible condition, partially washed out. The last sections off the roadway, is pure soft, volcanic sand, quite coarse, and almost impassable. Small trees and scrubby vegetation. When the road ended we simply had to park and lock our truck, then start to walk. We parked beside two other four-wheel drives, belonging to technicians of radio stations which have their transmitting towers at this point on the side of the mountain. At this point, I think we were at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, with over 3,500 feet to yet climb.

The climbing was very difficult, all volcanic ash, and started out quite steep. At 45 years old, and not a hiker, I wasn't sure I could make it. But the children urged me on. Then we reached a more level area, where we could look down more than 1,000 feet into a sort of huge crater, which seemed to be at least 1/2 mile across. The ground there was too hot to walk on, and gas/steam was coming out through many fissures there. We then looked up and witnessed an eruption from the Pacaya of black smoke with some sand, and we were pelted with course sand. Clouds started to move in with winds of at least 15 mph. In some areas where we had to walk the path was only 14 inches wide. I had to constantly remind my sons to walk slowly, as the excitement was invigorating and they were anxious to get to the top. Only when Alan stumbled and fell, about a foot from the edge of that crater, did everyone seem to adopt a slightly better safety viewpoint.

After an hour climb, we came upon a sign erected by the Guatemalan government tourist agency. It warned us that if we continued on, it was dangerous and we may encounter dangerous gases, and advised that it was a 30 minute climb to the crater. But our guide (correctly) told us that it was more like an hour's climb to the crater. I wasn't sure how serious to take that sign, but ten minutes later, our guide explained that the white crosses we saw were there to mark the death of some earlier hikers. Hmmm. I realized at this point, how foolish I had been to climb with no supplies, no water, no flashlights... nothing. We had guns and knives, but that was all.

Off to the left, we could see Guatemala City, surrounded by lush green fields. It was a beautiful site -awesome- in contrast to the hundreds/thousands of acres of black ash that had surrounded us for the last hour, and was to be our surroundings for the rest of our climb. The only living things we saw at this elevation were some scrubby bushes and.... we did see some greenery pushing its way up through what must have been a recent covering of ash. We also saw several large bright green insects that looked similar to a cross between a praying mantis and a grasshopper. They were still, and could easily be picked up. We saw several butterflies, lying still and a brown caterpillar, and incredibly -- two wild horses!

The clouds became denser and the wind picked up to well over 20 mph. We could barely see, but the general consensus was that we were too far to turn back. By this time we had ash in our eyes, hair, ears and camera equipment; the moisture from the clouds had made us damp and chilly and water was dripping from our eyes, ears, and hair, too. Our shoes had long ago filled with sand, but now there were larger, more course pieces working their way into our shoes, and we had to stop from time to time to empty them.

After 20 minutes the ground became quite warm. I stuck my finger in the sand to see how hot it was and burned my finger! I wiggled a little stick into the sand, as deep as I could, and when I pulled it out, it was smoking, as if it was about to burn. I wondered how close the lava might be to the surface. The angle of ascent seemed to be about 60 percent, and I was having a hard time walking. The sand was soft, and it seemed as if we took two steps forward, only to fall/slide one step back. At 7,500 feet, the air was getting "thin" and I was having a hard time breathing. My sons took turns holding on to me as we continued to climb. Due to the clouds we couldn't see the top, but our guide knew the way.

At this point, we saw lightening and heard many thunder crashes. I realized that we were in the upper areas of storm clouds. The wind picked up, and many times visibility was about 50 feet or less. From time to time, the cloud cleared and we could see the peak. The site was awesome, but not reassuring as it seemed so high, as if all our climbing wasn't getting us much closer.

I looked at my watch, it was almost 4:30 and darkness would come in less than two hours, and we weren't sure when we'd reach the peak. My sons, the guard and our guide insisted on pressing on, trying to climb faster. Against my better judgment, I acquiesced. Alan, 12, started to have trouble breathing, too, but was trying valiantly to keep up and did a good job of it. Every five minutes, I had to stop and rest.

The ground was getting warmer, and we began to see many larger volcanic rocks, some almost two feet across. Some were warm to the touch. We didn't see what I would describe as lava flow, but perhaps the recent eruptions of ash covered that evidence. We did see some rocks that were 'curved', as if they had been 'scooped' like ice cream, and left to harden. I would have liked to take one as a souvenir, but they were larger than 12 inches and at this point I wasn't looking to increase my load.

Finally, we saw that the crater was about another 5 minutes climb, but at an even steeper angle. The clouds were still coming and going so we waited until they cleared a bit then Michael and Neddy climbed to the crater. We heard him shout about something, but then cloud covered the peak, and Michael, and we couldn't see or hear him.

Meanwhile, we explored a large fissure, a bout 12 inches across and fifty feet long. As I leaned over it, a huge blast of hot, sulfur-smelling air blew me back. It felt like putting my face in an oven - it was hundreds of degrees hot. Our boy guide said it was too dangerous to go on, that his boots didn't protect him from the warm sand, and he seemed anxious to leave.

Looking around we saw many little fissures, with "smoke" coming out of them. There were many larger rocks, and we noticed that they seemed far less dense - lighter in weight -- than the rocks we saw when we started our climb. We took some smaller ones as souvenirs.

It was after 5 pm, and we simply had to go -- now. We shouted for Michael, whom we couldn't see, and a few minutes later he came leaping down. He excitedly told us he had reached the crater's edge, and there was a wide fissure, with gas coming out. But just then, cloud cover came in, and he couldn't see anything, not even his hand in front of his face. So he had to simply stand still, not knowing which way to go. As soon as it cleared a bit, he came back down.

Going down was easy, sort of like skiing in the soft sand. But in a few minutes we were horrified to see that heavy clouds cut our visibility to about 50 feet. Now we were lost, and couldn't see and it was getting dusk. Our boy guide insisted on going towards the right, and Neddy insisted that we had come from the left. Our family agreed with Neddy, but to hedge our bets, we sort of went down the middle. We had to go slowly, as we knew that there was a fall of several thousand feet awaiting us on both sides, should we misjudge our steps too close to the edge, in the fog. We prayed out loud that God would lift the fog so we could see, and that we could get down to our truck before it got dark.

In a few minutes, the clouds lifted a bit, and sure enough, our boy guide had been correct. He correctly assumed that if we could get to the edge overlooking Guatemala City, we could get our bearings and vector back to where we needed to be. Miraculously, the clouds lifted, although they came and went, but we could again see clearly enough to walk safely. We had to hurry, as we had a long walk to reach the truck before nightfall.

We made great headway, and towards the level area on the "other side" of that tourist agency warning sign, we met a group of German tourists, with their guides, guards and several National Police officers who apparently accompany tourist buses, for safety. They were astounded that we had so 'casually' climbed to the top. Their guides would not go further than that sign, as they said it was too dangerous, especially due to recent and ongoing eruptions. They were so disappointed and wanted to go up to the craters, but their guides said no way.

A few minutes later the clouds lifted even more, and we could see an awesome view of the volcano peak. At exactly that moment, (just 20 minutes after we had left the crater's edge) there was another eruption, with dark black billowing "clouds", followed in seconds by an "orange/mustard - colored" eruption. We marveled at how the clouds had saved us. If it had been clear, we all might have been standing at the crater's edge when this eruption happened. We might not have survived to tell the story. Our guide said Michael and Neddy would have been killed, just 20 minutes earlier.

It was an awesome sight, and I got a few seconds of it on video before my battery died. Incredible.

We made it back to the truck just as it got dark, but it was quite foggy. We couldn't see to drive; the black sand seemed to soak up all the light, that the fog didn't reflect. The truck slipped from side to side in the soft sand, which was not reassuring, as there was a four thousand foot drop on the left side. The roadway was, at places, only 9 feet wide. So we crawled along, holding flashlights out the window to try to spot the edge of the road. Finally, we simply could not drive any further. Just then, one of the radio tower technician's trucks came up behind us. The driver knew the road very well, and had extra fog lights. So we crawled along to a point where I could sort of climb up the right bank, and he squeezed through on the left. He drove slowly and we followed very, very closely. That two mile section to the edge of town took us about 10 minutes to navigate.

We stopped at Ephraim's house, such as it was, and I felt that we should explain to his parents where he had been, as it was now 6:30 and completely dark. There were no lights, but Ephraim said his family was home. Sure enough, about 8 people came out to greet us. they were happy to see him, but said they weren't concerned at all. I told them what a fine boy they had, and an old man stuck his hand through the gate and proudly announced "I'm his papa". They seemed startled to see our armed guard come up from the other side of the truck. But, being Guatemalan, Neddy assured them that everything was OK, and they invited us to take Ephraim along if we ever came up again. These people live in a sort of abandoned, partially finished cement house, with no running water, no electricity. They don't own it, they stay there to 'guard' it for the owner.

It was time to pay our guide. The going rate is Q30, the equivalent to $4.80, but I gave him a crisp Q100. In that area, that's equivalent to about three day's pay He was very, very happy. I could see him showing the money in the dark to his family and they were all giggling happily.

Our drive down the mountain took longer than expected, as the road was washed out more than it was when we came up. That's when we realized that there had been a storm with heavy rains. This was the storm that was raging below us, when we saw lightening and heard thunder.

Within 90 minutes we were at the edge of town, ready for a stop at McDonald's. Neddy doesn't get to eat at McDonald's as he only earns $200 a month, so I thought it would be a treat for him, too. (It was) But he said he wasn't allowed to leave his shotgun in the truck, that he must carry it, loaded, at all times. So, I went in to ask permission from the manager. She asked if he was our personal bodyguard. When I told her that he was, she said we could bring him in, but would we please sit along the side. Every McDonald's and other such businesses have armed guards, so it wasn't unusual to see a guard at McDonalds. But, sitting down with customers might have seemed unusual, I guess. As we waited in line, we realized that we looked like war refugees to anyone else. We were covered in ash, our hair was matted down and damp, our clothes were torn and dirty, our faces streaked with gray ash/sand and we looked exhausted (we were). We sure received many strange looks from everyone at the restaurant, but at this point we were too tired to care what others may have thought.

But the manager must have thought we were somebody, as she moved everyone out of the way and asked two others to help get a large order ready, and kept asking us if everything was OK.

So we took our time eating, recounting our experiences of the day, with Neddy smiling like crazy with his BigMac and super-sized order of fries -- and loaded shotgun on his lap. It was pointed at Michael's stomach on the other side of the table, but in some strange way, we've gotten used to loaded guns casually pointed at us when the guards talk to us. I think Michael was too tired to wonder much about it, either.....

A few of us had sore throats and were sick for the next two days. But it was worth it. The boys said it was the best experience they ever had.

Our next assault on Pacaya? We're going again at the end of October, when our pastor friend from Penna, Jeff Landis, comes to visit us. The rainy season will almost be over, and the skies are not cloudy all day. We'll take some supplies, fresh batteries and lots of film this time, and leave at 8 am, so we have time to relax and enjoy the experience. Neddy says he can't wait to go again! Rachel, our 7-yr. old wants to go, but she'll have to wait 6 more years. And my wife, Anita? She's already trying to discourage "that crazy idea".

Maybe we are crazy, but we'll have great pictures, video and souvenirs to prove it.

Gregory Giagnocavo
Guatemala, Central America

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