Hiking Volcan Concepcion

24 07 2012

This is the second of three posts about my recent travels to Nicaragua.  The first was about visiting a child we sponsor through Compassion International:  Open My Eyes.

Volcan Concepcion (1 mile high)

Volcan Concepcion (1 mile high)

I have run three half-marathons, two Ragnar Relays, done four triathlons, hiked the Grand Canyon in one day and the Inca Trail, and have given birth twice without drugs.  “Hiking” Volcan Concepcion on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua was by far the most grueling and physically challenging activity I’ve even done.  It was actually referred to as a “tour” in the printed literature from our travel agent.  Tour is much too gentle a word to describe what we did.  So is hike.  I enjoy hiking, but I did not enjoy this.The hike/tour, or as I like to call it, the ascent to Hell, began at 6:00 a.m. and consisted of a 3.5 mile trail with a 1 mile vertical ascent.  We had two tour guides, and two other American med school students, Angelica and Chase, joined us.  The normal completion time is 10 hours—five up and five down.

It began easy enough traveling on a dirt road through a plantain plantation, but that lasted all of .10 miles before it started getting hard.  After about ½ hour on the trail, our little group paused for a break.  We were all sweating and breathing hard, and us Americans were commenting on how difficult it was already.  Our main guide, Naphtali, chuckled quietly before telling us that the difficult part had not begun yet.

The deceptively easy part of the trail.  It lasted all of 10 minutes.

The deceptively easy part of the trail. It lasted all of 10 minutes.

Another ½ hour later, Angelica was cussing to herself and her boyfriend, and I silently agreed with everything she said.  At this point I overhead her tell her boyfriend that this was way more difficult than the Tough Mudder. 

Sidenote:  The Tough Mudder is a race I was recently introduced to and one that I want to attempt in May 2013 in Nashville.  It consists of a 12-14 mile trail run with 20-25 obstacles interspersed.  Obstacles include cargo net climbs, balance beam challenges, rock wall climbing, jumping off small cliffs, and crawling across a mud pit with live electric wires hanging down and shocking you as go.  And people spray water on the wires to give you even more bang for your buck.  I’m not sure that is legal, but the Tough Mudder series has been around for a while.  Anyway, I thought the Tough Mudder would be the apogee of my physical training.  But according to Angelica who had recently completed a Tough Mudder, the Tough Mudder was easier than what we were currently doing.  Nice.  It actually made me feel better about the Tough Mudder, but not about the climb we were currently doing.

Sorry for the butt shot, but this shows the steepness of the trail.

Sorry for the butt shot, but this shows the steepness of the trail.

All the way up, I was worrying about the way down.  Hiking implies you stay upright and use your feet to get you from point A to point B.  In most regular hiking, going down is easier than going up.  Neither was the case.  This was the most technical hike/climb/ascent to Hell I’ve ever done.  A good percentage of the time we were using our hands to climb up rocks—the kind of climbing where you have to pause and feel around to where your finger and foot holds will be to get you up that next six inches.At one point we climbed through a lava canal.  This was the route lava flowed down the volcano during the last eruption in March 2010.  So how was climbing over volcanic rock, you ask?  I can’t repeat what was going through my head, but to put it mildly, it was not fun.  At all.  I wanted to die.  Or at least turn around.  But I am not a quitter so onward we trudged. 

This area of the trail, the lava canal, was over loose lava rocks.  The slope was over a 45 degree angle.

This area of the trail, the lava canal, was over loose lava rocks. The slope was over a 45 degree angle.

And we weren’t even to the half-way point yet.  So, so depressing was that thought.

We climbed through a cloud forest for a good deal of the hike.  If you’ve never been in the middle of a cloud, it’s very damp.  And dark.  And windy.  And chilly.  That combination as I traversed wet, slippery rocks at a 45+ degree angle brought out a lot of prayers.

A typical prayer went like this:  I cussed first, but that was followed immediately with, “Dear Lord.  I’m sorry.  I don’t want to use those words.  I also don’t want to die.  Please help me not die.”  I was completely serious.  I also prayed over and over for our safety and health.  I prayed there would be no injuries.  I prayed I wouldn’t start or be in an avalanche.  I prayed for my strength and energy to hold out till I could collapse—on my bed and not on a large boulder of lava that would impale me.  I think my favorite prayer was asking God to give me feet steady and sure like those of a deer on the side of a mountain.  However, no deer would be stupid enough to try to climb this thing.

This shows the angle of our climb at the top.  Notice how all the rock is loose and unstable.

This shows the angle of our climb at the top. Notice how all the rock is loose and unstable.

Nearing the summit, the wind and moisture became ridiculous.  The big boulders that offered some stability were long gone and were replaced with loose lava rocks ranging in size from gravel to watermelon.  Did I mention it was all loose?  And wet due to the fact that we were in the middle of a cloud.  Volcan Concepcion is an active volcano so add in sulphur smoke fumaroles to the mix for a delicious atmosphere and breathing experience.  Notice I did not say “breathtaking” experience.We finally made it to the top, and the view was . . . stunning?  Gorgeous?  Amazing?  Nope, nope, and nope.  There was no view except cloud and rock.  We couldn’t see more than 20’ in any direction.  I guess being on the literal edge of an active volcano was cool, but it would have been nice to have an amazing view to go along with all of our hard work.  Or at least half of our hard work.  We still had to get down.

Did you notice the spectacular view from the summit?  Neither did we.

Did you notice the spectacular view from the summit? Neither did we.

Everything was completely soaked, and the wind was incredible.  I remember thinking about movies of people who climb Mt. Everest.  At Base Camp, they always show people in the tents and the wind is roaring outside.  That’s how it felt.  We were all scared to stand and even our guide—who is the king of the mountain and my new hero—didn’t recommend it.  This, of course, meant that my dear husband was off and walking around peering over the edge.  I had to close my eyes to him and pray.

Our guide told us that Catholic priests from the 1800’s who came to colonize the island believed that a volcano was the gateway to hell.  Before the island became predominantly Catholic, the natives would offer sacrifices to the volcano.  Both Chase and I offered ourselves as sacrifices at the top.  Sadly for us, this volcano only accepted thin, young, virgin girls as sacrifices.

My gimpy hand.  Thank God for duct tape!

My gimpy hand. Thank God for duct tape!

We only stayed at the crater for a few minutes.  We were all eager to get back to flat terrain.  About four feet from the top—remember it was all loose lava rocks—I slipped and started a mini-avalanche.  Reaching out for anything to slow my descent, I grabbed a larger rock.  Said rock, too, was loose so I let go.  My hand slipped below me, and said rock came crashing down on the palm of my left hand leaving a deep gash.  The blood started flowing, but there was nothing that could be done until we got to more stable ground.  Yay me!  I would have to make my descent with one good hand.  Going up with two working hands was hard enough.  Going down with one was going to (insert unrepeatable words here) stink.  Once we made it down to an area we could stand on safely, we put a tissue on my gash, and our guide wrapped it with duct tape. Now I have to share about the awesomeness that is Naphtali, our guide.  He is 38, likes to run, and does this volcano trek 1-3 times each week.  His fastest time was two hours up, two-and-a-half down.  He is a trained EMT and has carried people down this volcano.  Let me repeat:  He carried another person.  On his back.  Down this trail.  I couldn’t carry myself up and down it very well, but Napthali can do it with another human on his back.  He was going to compete in a salsa dance completion that same night before heading out for another trek the next day.

Naphtali - pure awesomeness in another human I have not seen.

Naphtali – pure awesomeness in another human I have not seen.

At a rest stop, we asked, foolishly, what the most common dangers were of this trek.  I was thinking it was twisted ankles or even a broken leg.  Only two weeks prior, Naphtali shared, he fell asleep at the same place we were currently resting.  He woke up to a coral snake (poisonous) attached to his arm.  What do you do when you are two hours from the nearest medical help?  Naphtali had to go old-school with his treatment:  he made a tourniquet, sliced his arm around the bite, and sucked out the blood.  His only other option was to die, which he also shared happened to a German tourist not too long ago.  “Ten minutes, and he was dead,” said Naphtali.  I should add that there is no way a horse or donkey could do this trail to transport people.  Severe injuries require a helicopter drop; there is nowhere safe a helicopter can land anywhere on the volcano.

Due to my gimp hand and having no energy, I butt-scooted most of the way down.  It was slow, but steady.   I asked Naphtali to duct tape my other hand to offer a little more protection against the jagged rocks.  At least twice on the descent I averted mental breakdown despite my rapidly increasing physical breakdown.  Those two times when I felt the tears coming on and my throat tightening, I was able to pray and do some mental cheerleading to get out of the funk. 

Smiling for the camera, a little over half-way down.

Smiling for the camera, a little over half-way down.  I’m only smiling on the outside.

Half-way down the clouds started to clear and finally gave us an amazing view.  However, the thought that we were only half-way down was really, really overwhelming.

Half-way down the clouds started to clear and finally gave us an amazing view. However, the thought that we were only half-way down was really, really overwhelming.  The other volcano was smaller than the one we were on.

The third time was the charm, so the saying goes.  I sat down on one big boulder about 3 feet high, strategically placed my hands to lower myself down, and then I made my mistake.  I looked up.  I looked ahead, and what I saw did me in.  I couldn’t handle what I saw—more of the same big rocks, loose rocks, sharp and jagged rocks—and I lost what little emotional stability I had left.  The tears flowed, and I just sat there.  I couldn’t even tell you what was going through my mind at that point.  I just cried.

I only smiled on the outside.  This is how I really felt.  (But isn't the view incredible?)

I only smiled on the outside. This is how I really felt. (But isn’t the view incredible?)  This was actually before my final breakdown.

I’m not sure how long I sat there as I was the last in line.  At some point, Matthew must have noticed my absence, and I heard him walking back to me.  This is where I get to tell you what an incredible husband I have.  Very gently he said, “You can do this.  Let me help you.  You can lean on me as much as you need to.”  I thought Jesus himself had spoken those words.  They were the energy I needed to continue.

I wasn’t in pain, as you might have thought.  (That came the next day.)  I simply had no energy left.  Each step I took made my legs wobble and my knees buckle.  I didn’t trust that I could take another step without collapsing.  If you’ve ever seen a baby taking his first rickety steps on legs with barely enough muscle to hold up his weight, that’s how I felt.  And I still had 2-3 hours to go before reaching the end.

Back to my incredible soul mate.  Matthew was perfect.  With each step down, he would hold out his arm and let me lean on him with as much force as I needed.  He would tell me in advance where each rock was, where there was tree trunk or branch I could use for extra support.  He even put up with my quiet cusses and negative comments without any kind of reprimand.  I’m not proud of what came out of my mouth at times, but Matthew handled me with grace and tenderness.

Almost 12 hours from when we began, we finally made it to the end.  Our host at the plantain farm we were staying at met us with his truck.  I got the coveted middle seat in the front while everyone else who was not a physical gimp sat in the open bed of the truck.  It was pleasant inside the truck, but once we got out at the plantation, I immediately began shivering violently, and then it hit me why I had been so miserable for most of this trek.  I didn’t not have enough calories (energy) for my body to work properly.  The night before I had chicken and vegetable soup, but barely ate half of it as I just wasn’t hungry.  Breakfast that morning was maybe 300 calories, and while on the trail for 12 hours of difficult climbing, we had been given only some granola and a sandwich for lunch.  We also had two small candybars we consumed, but all in all, I had not nearly enough calories to see me through the day.  Afterwards, I didn’t have enough energy in my body to keep myself warm.  Despite my feelings of being really hungry, I couldn’t keep food down for the next 48 hours.

On the ferry back to the mainland the day after the "hike."  How much fun can one person have?

On the ferry back to the mainland the day after the “hike.” How much fun can one person have?

When all was said and done and I’ve had some time to think back on this experience, this was one of those things I wish I had never done.  I can’t think of any other physical challenge where that is the case, but this volcano beat me to a pulp.  There are only two things for which I am thankful:   1) living through it, and 2) experiencing the sweetness that is my husband.

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9 responses

24 07 2012
Tyanne

You climbed a VOLCANO? How COOL is that!!!! Way to go Kelly and Matthew!!!! So glad you were safe on the hike and that everything went okay. Wish I could be 1/1000th of adventuresses as you and Matthew are!!!

24 07 2012
Robin

Wow Kelly! That is hard core. You are a great writer…I would say that I felt like I was there while I read it, but you might slap me since I am sitting in a comfy chair at my computer! Thank God for such a gracious man to do life with…sounds like serious bonding!

27 08 2012
anawefullybigadventure

WOW, this looks amazing. It’s so cool to see how adventurous you are and how much there is to explore outside our own little world. Thank you so much for sharing!

3 09 2012
jezioroj

That’s what’s up! Mountains are very very high! Have you ever been rock climbing outside?

29 09 2012
burruss

This is so cool! I would never be able to hike that!

6 12 2012
This Is Why You’re Not Getting a Christmas Card From Us This Year (or maybe ever again) « To Kick a Pigeon and Other Musings

[…] it here:  Open My Eyes.  You can also read about the amazing amount of fun hell we had as we hiked a volcano on Ometepe […]

20 08 2013
T

Very well written. Just did the climb today myself and decided to see what people said about it on Internet… Could not have described experience better than you – fortunately/unfortunately I probably would not have done it if I saw this post earlier.

20 08 2013
huddlestonk

Thanks for reading!

8 05 2016
Emma

Hahahhahai just did The “hike to hell” 2 h ago. I hade s brake down on The way up to the too with all The lose Stones. I just hate that Vulcans. Now eating a pizza and feeling better. Did The hike in 8 h, our guide was kids running

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