The trek back to Acatenango was exhausting – our ninth consecutive hour of slogged vertical hiking – but I felt lighter. The worst was done. Whatever came next, in the night or the next day, would be milder. A mist swept over the mountains and buried us as we hiked back to camp, deadening the red glow of the volcano and muting our tramping footsteps. We passed other backpackers who had set off too late and would reach the ridge of Fuego to find the summit obscured by cloud; they would see nothing but an orange haze. We had been very lucky.
The walk back took an hour, and I tried to strike up conversation with a girl in the French contingent to pass the time. Surly woman was having none of it:
“Whew, that was incredible. Did you enjoy the volcano?”
“Cool, cool. How’re you feeling now? You pretty tired?”
“Nice, nice. Same, actually. Ha ha.”
The other backpackers didn’t appear to have had the panicked world-tilting revelatory experience I had. They all agreed it was cool and that was that. I asked Pierre what he thought of it and he said it was beautiful, but when I told him I was terrified he chuckled in surprise. Half an hour into our return hike, with Fuego hidden entirely by cloud, we heard the largest eruption of them all: it the sky cracked in two and rumbled the mountain we stood on, like the horns of Hell’s chariots. I thought of the backpackers we’d passed in the dark, who by now must have been standing at the ridge. The sky over Fuego glowed a fierce red, but everything else was obscured.
We made it back to the camp just before 9pm and sat around in the smoke of the fire eating pasta the others had cooked while we’d been away. I went to bed immediately after, hauling a thick old sleeping bag over me. I lay down in my hat, jeans and winter coat, but sleep didn’t come for hours. I was too afraid: being inside the tent meant I couldn’t know what was happening outside, and the periodic booms and crashes of the erupting volcano sounded evil from within the tent. I was flat – I know I was lying flat – but I couldn’t shake the sensation I was sleeping on a slant, and might at any moment tumble away down the mountainside. At 1am I drifted into an uneasy sleep, shivering and sweating, dreaming of destruction and landslides.
The alarms of the other backpackers woke me up at 4am. It was time to summit Acatenango.
Before going to bed, I’d declared I wouldn’t be participating in the summit hike in the morning; I’d seen enough already and my body was ruined. Come 4am, however, the sight of the French contingent packing their bags and pulling on their boots made me feel cowardly. With a huff I decided to push myself just one more time.
We the other guide – not Juan – we set off once again, and my calves that had only just stopped shrieking at once reignited. We scrambled up silty landslide debris which filled my trainers with rocks and dust until I was an inch taller. We took breaks every ten minutes, and the stray dogs that live on the mountain and beg for food scraps trotted after us hopefully; our courageous, conquering struggle was their morning stroll.
The climb was in the dark, torches in our hands, and after forty minutes we once again broke through the treeline and emerged onto barren rock. The wind howled and the temperature plummeted, and the last 400 metres of the climb was up a scree slope that swallowed my feet like sand. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the horizon was glowing yellow against the deep purple of the sky above.
With our last reserves of energy we reached the summit, and the thrashing icy winds stole my breath. The extinguished mouth at the summit of the volcano is vast, and what was once a vent straight down to the earth’s core is now a silty expanse the size of several football pitches. I skirted around the lip of the volcano, following the other morning hikers – there were many already up there – for a view of Fuego against the pale sky, still belching red boulders into the atmosphere. I sat with a large group of hikers who had positioned themselves beside a boulder to stave off the wind; strangers huddled together like penguins to share heat.
The sun came up, and I tried to take a photograph but the cold killed my phone instantly. The world below was a great candyfloss ocean racing away to the horizon, and the trees on the mountainside shone orange in the morning light. On every side of the mountain, other volcanoes sat in the morning haze, dwarfing the still-sleeping cities below. The fear that had enveloped me in the nighttime was absent; no lava here, no deathly ridge-slopes, no uncertainty. 3,976 metres: we’d done it.
The climb down was quick and exhilarating; though scree is difficult when trudging up it, when coming down you can run in great lolloping trampoline leaps, each foot plunging in and sinking and skidding, falling on your bum and bouncing back up onto your feet. We had breakfast back at camp – porridge and banana and coffee – and then it was time for the final descent. It was hard on the knees, but I made it down in only two or three hours, chatting to Pierre all the way. We passed a dozen groups of backpackers hiking up the mountain, and as my body ached I felt simultaneous pangs of guilt and pride watching the fresh, flushed faces with no idea of the trials they were in for.
It was the hardest thing I ever did, physically. Trekking in the Himalayas in 2018 it was difficult, but it was only me and a friend, and we could take breaks whenever we fancied, walk at our own pace, and finish the day’s hiking when we felt like it. Not the case with the Antigua hike – I really had to dig deep a few times. But it’s done now, and I’m very proud and happy I made it. No matter what happens to me in life, no matter if I fail or succeed in my future, I’ll have that inside me: I did it. I stood on the slopes of a volcano, I gritted my teeth against the wind and the cold, and I watched fire explode into the sky.