"What I'm talkin’ about is a game...A game that can't be won, only played.”
- Bagger Vance
Antigua, Guatemala, is a colourful town. Old façades open on charming gardens and ruins of colonial churches decorate the centre. The city is a UNESCO world heritage. In Antigua, even McDonald is a monument. It used to be the capital of Guatemala until 1775, when intense volcanic activity forced its leaders out.
I contacted Paula upon arrival. Her humour and warm embraces cheered me up. Paula is lovely, sassy, and interesting. As a bright biologist and nature-lover, she knew more about volcanoes than any tour guide I met. Yet, she never dared to hike Acatenango.
The Acatenango volcano is 3976m high. Hiking to the summit takes about 9 hours, with a 1500m elevation over 9km; a tough hike. Next to Acatenango sit two other volcanoes: Agua and El Fuego. El Fuego is in front of Acatenango's base camp. On a clear day, one can see El Fuego breathe fire and smoke.
I see hikes like a game, the game of life. We start with different privileges and walk toward the same goal. First, we follow a guide, then we walk on our own. To reach the summit, we must bear the pain, conquer our fears, and overcome obstacles. Not everyone makes it, and those who do ignore what they will find at the top. The path is the same, yet each journey is unique. Every hike has its own rules, challenges, and rewards. And jut like life, hiking is a game that cannot be won, only played.
I met many people that came back from Acatenango disappointed. They hiked all the way up and saw nothing due to bad weather. To avoid frustration, I approached the challenge like a true Stoïc: with no expectations. Hiking I could manage, everything else was beyond my control.
We started at noon. The trail was dusty and steep from the very start. My backpack was heavy with winter gear, beers, cooking gear, and food. Burdened like a mule, I felt my calves with every step. Sweat trickled down my temples within the first five minutes. I focused on my breath. One step at a time.
The thick mist made it impossible to see further than a few meters. We walked on red soil, between trees and through a grey screen. Five hours later, we heard a loud rumbling noise. Excitement was in the air. We all felt it. El Fuego was breathing, awake and angry.
We reached the camp at dusk, drank hot chocolate, and grouped around the fire. Everyone was exhausted. During dinner, the guide told us about a secret night expedition. We would walk down the valley at 3am, then hike up to El Fuego and watch the sunrise from its crater. It sounded reckless, but we would see lava from up close. I didn’t think twice.
I knew about the tasteless pasta they serve at the top from Marco who did the hike before me. So, I brought my own food. The smell of cilantro and roasting peppers invaded the camp. It was the tastiest experiment so far; I wish Marco were there to testify. The first stars faded in the night. After dinner, I rolled a digespliff and sat on the rocks. A light breeze cleared up the mist, lifting the veil on an intimidating dark shape. The dome was massive. I looked up, tense with excitement.
In a loud roar, red sparks shot straight up from the crater, then followed a cloud of smoke. Glowing stones fell from the sky in slow motion, and a red river flowed down the flank of the mountain. El Fuego had spoken.
At night, black clouds formed around the summit and the scenery turned into a battle of titans. The dark sky was shattered by a purple-white scar. Lightning struck through the darkness, poking the beast from the heavens. An instant later, the volcano roared back, blowing lava and smoke back at the storm. Darkness swallowed the last glowing rocks and silence made for a temporary truce.
Lightning and lava tangled in a show of divine magnitude. A demonstration of Nature’s beauty, powerful and merciless. It was hypnotizing. I watched every eruption in awe. I could neither sleep nor look away. From inside my tent, I gazed at El Fuego all night, craving the next eruption like an addict.
The guide found me awake at 3am. We hiked down the valley, our headlamp lighting the path toward hell fire. It took three hours to get to the foot of the crater, and we made it just in time. At the top, the temperature was below zero. The wind felt like razor blades on our faces. We found refuge behind a rock, a rock that marked the “safety” distance from the crater. El Fuego was still raging.
The first lights brushed the clouds with an eccentric mix of gold, orange, and blue. As to show its respect, El Fuego stopped erupting. Everyone was looking toward the light, even the wind took a break. The first beams pierced through the clouds and in a majestic slow entrance, the sun rose above the horizon.
It was beautiful beyond senses, a beauty that humbles, a beauty that touches the soul. I stared, frozen in contemplation, wrapped in unconditional love, ever grateful. Warm tears streamed down my cheeks. I felt touched by God.
I let go of expectations and did my part, accepting whatever might come. What came at the end of the journey was better than anything I could have imagined. The hike of a lifetime.
What I'm talking about is a game. A game that can’t be won, only played.