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Pacaya ate my tennis shoes (by Rachael)

July 2, 2009

Antigua

The last two days of our Guatemala trip were far from ordinary. On Sunday, we took the Ramseiers to Antigua for shopping, relaxation, and fun. Sadly, Eleanor wasn’t feeling so hot, so it wasn’t as restful or fun for her as I might have hoped, but the boys enjoyed themselves. They had the best seats at the Mono Loco restaurant for watching the U.S. soccer team lose to Brazil in the Confederation Cup Final. Things were pretty hype during the first half of the game when it looked like the Americans actually stood a chance at beating one of the best soccer teams in the world. After the U.S. gained a 2-0 lead over Brazil, the whole restaurant exploded. I heard more English in those few seconds of shouting than I’d heard the entire week! The best part for me was when Ben stuffed his entire hamburger in his mouth after the second goal, so he could give double-handed high fives to everyone around him.

Not only did the boys get to watch a good game, but they did so while also sitting next to one of Guatemala’s most-famous soccer players, Fredy Garcia. He and his wife were sitting at the table next to us.

Climbing Pacaya

Monday was an adventure of an entirely different sort. Since we were going to be in Guatemala the week after our four-year anniversary, Nate thought it might be fun to celebrate our years together by hiking a volcano. While it might not sound as romantic as a candlelit dinner or fancy beach vacation, I’m (almost) always up for Nate’s once-in-a-lifetime adventures. Why not climb a volcano!? What better way to build trust and create a stronger bond than by risking your lives together!

So, we asked Tim, Eleanor, and Ben Ramseier if they’d like to join us. As it turns out, their hosts in Guatemala, John and Amy Banta, have climbed Pacaya several times. Even their kids—ages 6, 9, and 11—had climbed it before. John offered to be our guide, and all ten of us set out early Monday morning for the all-day hike.

The first hour or so up the volcano was a fairly run-of-the-mill mountain hike. The grass was green. The views were pretty. We chatted as we climbed. Okay, so the others chatted. I was huffing and puffing before we made it to the first rest station. And, yes, I did take Nate up on his offer to push me up the hill from behind on more than a few occasions. At one point I heard Nate jokingly say to Ben, “Hey, remember that one time when I pushed Rachael up a mountain?” Sad but true.

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Obviously, this was not the best start to our seven hour adventure, but as Hope (John and Amy’s 11-year-old daughter) told me, the fun part was still to come. The “fun part,” as Hope calls it, was a two-hour climb (note the fact that I no longer use the word hike) up a sharp incline to the volcano’s crater.

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Thankfully, Amy told us ahead of time to wear long sleeves, jeans, and leather gloves. The grassy hill turned into a never-ending slope made of sharp, black boulders.  When the landscape changed, the scrappy dog who had been our faithful companion throughout the first part of our hike gave up and headed back down the hill. But the humans trudged up the rocky slope, thankful to have the protection of gloves since we frequently needed to use our hands to pull ourselves up the rocks. After about an hour of rock climbing, I looked down and noticed that the soles of my tennis shoes were splitting. The sharp rocks had eaten away the hard black rubber and the softer white rubber, and you could now see the foam of my inner shoe peeking through. I wasn’t too worried though, because we were only climbing up the volcano. I figured I wouldn’t really need my shoe soles after we reached the top, because we were going to slide down the other side.  How cool is that?

I realize that, up until this point, I’ve left out one tiny but important detail.  Pacaya is not just any old volcano; it’s active.  While it was relatively cool at the bottom, as we got closer to the top, there were pockets of sulfuric heat that made it feel like you were doing your cardio workout inside an oven.  I’ve heard that if you climb the other side of Pacaya with a tour group, you can actually see rivers of flowing magma. However, if you go with a tour group, they don’t take you all the way up to the crater because the gases and fumes are considered too dangerous.  I think I’m glad we opted for the crater view, but I wouldn’t be opposed to taking another trip up the other side.

Show Me the Lava

At the summit, we ventured up to a crater that was about 10 feet in diameter.  The sulfur had turned the surrounding rocks yellowish green instead of the usual charred black.  I kept thinking we were hearing thunder, but it was actually the deep grumble of the volcano.  We’d hear a rumble and hot steam would come out the top of the hole.  Believe it or not, we were told to take a deep breath, lean out into the crater and look straight down into the steam.  Sure enough, inside the cavern we could see red, molten lava.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

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Ben and the Boulder

After we ate lunch next to the crater, we made our way toward the smoother area of the mountain where we were going to slide down.  Again, I’ve heard reports that the other side of Pacaya is much tamer.  There, you walk down the hill through ash that feels a lot like snow.  We, however, were going down a steep slope that was covered with loose stones, red dirt, and large boulders.  We listened closely to John as he told us about how dangerous this part of the trip would be.  We duct taped our gloves to prevent the loose stones from getting in and watched as John demonstrated how to do a “controlled slide” from one secure boulder to the next. 

John illustrated the seriousness of the situation by pushing some of the smaller rocks down the hill.  As they rolled, they gained momentum and brought other rocks down with them.  Nate said they looked like little bunnies hopping down a hill.  The image is accurate enough, but doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of the situation.  It could be deadly to be lower on the hill when people up above loosen stones and rocks and they come rolling towards your head.

You’re still with me right?  Quick review, so listen closely: The idea was to do a controlled slide back and forth across the hill.  Watch out for rocks from above. Hold on tight to the big rocks that are secure. Make your way slowly down the hill.

Unfortunately, we learned the hard way that the boulders we were using as anchors weren’t nearly as secure as they looked.  Ben was following John and his youngest son when the boulder about the size of a bean bag chair that Ben was hanging on to came loose and started to push him down the mountain.  Since I was slated to be the last to slide, I was still at the top and I didn’t see it happen.  I did, however, hear Eleanor frantically screaming, “Ben! Ben! Ben!” and saw her terrified face. 

The boulder started to pick up speed and Ben used his arm and face to push it away from John and his son.  Fortunately, John was able to reach out and grab Ben.  John’s quick actions probably saved Ben’s life.  If John hadn’t caught Ben, the boulder would have sent Ben rolling down the rest of the mountain. The momentum would have been too much for Ben to stop himself.  He could have been crushed by the boulder.  He could have been torn to pieces by the rocks.  Bones would have been broken.  The possibilities are endless and terrifying. As it was, the results were scary enough.  Ben turned ghostly pale, and wouldn’t show those of us looking on from the top the right side of his face.  His ear was badly cut, but thankfully still attached. 

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Sounds like enough excitement and danger for one day, right? But it wasn’t over yet.  With Ben badly bleeding and John and Amy’s youngest son frozen in fear after witnessing Ben’s injury, the group decided to turn around, climb back up to the summit, and go down the way we had come up. 

As Eleanor was heading back up the mountain, she loosened some of the smaller stones that were holding up another boulder about the size of a La-Z Boy recliner.  The boulder shifted and trapped her foot underneath its weight. John was with his son and couldn’t get to her easily without causing a mini-avalanche to fall directly on Eleanor.  Tim attempted to get to it; however, because of his position, the other guys told him to get out from under the boulder in case it came unglued entirely.  Amy, the Banta’s two other children, and I were further up and unaware of what was going on below us.  Nate saw what happened to Eleanor and decided to slide down to help.  He propped up the boulder with one hand and dug out Eleanor’s foot with the other.  As soon as her foot was free, Nate yelled for Tim and Eleanor to get out of the way.  He then quickly moved off to the side and let the boulder crash down the mountain.

Yet another catastrophe averted.

The third and final scare came as we were almost back to the summit.  We were climbing up an area made entirely of enormous and seemingly secure rocks.  I was just ahead of the Ramseiers and noticed that a nearby rock wasn’t as secure as it looked.  Naturally, we decided to look for another path.  I climbed ahead, and Eleanor followed.  She was on her hands and knees on a boulder the size of a picnic table when the rock started to tip back and forth like a teeter totter. I’ve honestly never been so scared in my entire life. “Eleanor!” I screamed. “It’s moving!” And I reached out and grabbed the sleeve of her shirt.  I pictured the rock breaking free, crushing her, and sending her rolling to a certain death.  Thankfully, she was able to pull herself off the rock before it could dislodge any further.

I knew that the two oldest Banta children were watching me from above, so I had to control my emotions.  Instead of screaming and crying, I started laughing hysterically.  Thankfully, Eleanor told me later that she often has the same response in extremely tense situations, so she wasn’t mad at my insensitivity.  A few seconds later, when no one was watching, I turned my face away and let myself cry.

A God who can move (or not move) mountains

After Ben’s accident, John had us stop to pray.  We were scared, but we all believed in a God big enough to move or not move mountains.  Where do people who don’t believe in God find their peace?  Where do they get their hope and confidence of protection? I thought someone was going to die that day, and the only thing I could do to prevent it was pray.  Thankfully, the one thing I had in my power to do was nothing less than calling on the creator of the universe and asking Him to intervene on our behalf.

And, against all odds, we managed to make it down the mountain with only a few cuts, bumps, bruises, scraps, and one completely destroyed pair of Nike tennis shoes.

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3 comments

  1. Wow!


  2. What an awesome adventure and memories to have!
    Nate sounds like you will always give Rachel memorable anniversaries she definately won’t forget! Kudos for also remembering your anniversaries-good husband.

    Great pics too.

    I bet you slept very well that night after first getting home safely and bet exhaustion.


  3. The written describtion was as vivid as the verbal one and I’m in tears and thanking God for you all and your safety that he provided. I don’t know what we would feel if we didn’t believe….and I don’t want to know!
    xox
    Mom



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