Volcan Tajumulco– 13, 845 ft (4, 220 m)

On May 21, 2011, just before 6am, I stood atop Mt. Tajamulco, the highest point in Guatemala and in fact the highest point in all of Central America.

I was with my friend Elyse and our friend and guide Josue (Patza), whose dad Eduardo owns Kaqchikel Tours in Quetzaltenango “Xela.” For me and Elyse, it was a huge deal. For both of us, it was the first time we had done an overnight hike, sleeping on a mountain at high altitude. (We slept above 13,000 feet, and it was a lousy sleep. I felt as if I woke up every five minutes. I hear this is normal at altitude.) For Patza, it was no big deal, he goes up the mountain usually three times per month. Apparently his dad has the unofficial record for the mountain. I believe his dad has summited 112 times. That’s nuts. At this rate, I think Josue will surpass that sometime sooner rather than later.

Well, Elyse and I hold a record, too. We’ve summited the mountain once. Yep. It was great. For a few minutes, I stood on top of the roof of the world, well, the roof of Central America at least. I love our summit picture, thanks to the timer on my camera.

My favorite picture though is this one I took of Elyse looking down into the crater.

I love these pictures at the summit. The pictures commemorate the accomplishment of a goal. However, and I expect a lot of mountain lovers might attack me for saying this, reaching the summit, for me anyways, was in fact not the high point of the experience. (Sorry about the pun.)

I’m not saying reaching the summit was a letdown. It was a great relief after a day’s worth of dragging oneself upwards. It also feels good to make it to the point where you planned on getting. It was the highest altitude I had ever walked up to, I got to see one of the best sunrises, and I also realized that I had made a good friend — Elyse. When traveling it’s easy to make “single-serving friends” as Brad Pitt calls them in Fight Club, but after significant travel together in Belize and Guatemala and a mountain to top that off, I knew I could count on staying friends with Elyse in the future so that we can plan another adventure. So, the summit definitely was a marker for great things.

But again, I insist, it was not the best part of the trek. The best part of the trek was just that,– the trek. The summit marked the end of the uphill portion and marked the beginning of the “it’s all downhill from here” part. (Though let’s all keep in mind how we have to be even more vigilant on the way down from a mountain to make sure we don’t have any stupid accidents.)

The summit marked the end of a certain feeling. I’ll try within my mortal capacity to put this certain feeling into words.

The trek itself was some of the best hours of my life. You know what you’re doing. It’s obvious. It’s clear-cut. There’s not much grey area. There’s a lot of black and white, (and a lot of green and brown earth tones). You’re going up. You’re sucking as much oxygen out of the air as you possibly can with every step. You confront yourself, you confront your puny mortal frame that needs so much more air, even though you are breathing hard, almost gasping, stopping for a breath after 10 steps. There’s that moment of panic you have while eating your lunch sandwich. You’ve already been sitting for ten whole minutes, and your breathing is pretty normal, but now you realize your heart is trying to bust through your rib cage. You panic momentarily, because you can feel that the air is thin and is hardly doing you any good. For a split second you think you will die; there just isn’t enough air. (At least I thought for a split second I was going to drop dead. I don’t think Patza and Elyse are as prone to excitement of that sort.) And then you are lying down in the tent trying to sleep, and your heart continues beating as if you were running a marathon. Actually, you are in fact in the middle of a sort of marathon.

In other words, you’re aware that you’re alive. Your pounding heart reminds you of this, and your dissatisfied lungs remind you of this. Back at sea level, it’s not something we are conscious of with every step.

Even this awareness of mortality still isn’t the best part of the trek. Every hike up a mountain, whether 2,000 feet, 13, 845 feet, or 29, 038ft, is a quest for glory in some way. Come on, admit it. It’s a trek towards a feeling of elevation, either in comparison to those still standing at sea level or in competition against yourself. To do something others haven’t even attempted and will never attempt, or to show those who have already done it– look here, I can do it, too. And maybe I’ll do it faster, and when I get to the top, maybe I will carry up a tiny pebble, balance it on the summit, and teeter on my tiptoe on top of it so that I will have stood a millimeter higher than you did when you came up.

For me, it was the toiling towards that elevated feeling, the expectation of the elevation, the desire of it, that was so much more enjoyable than the actual attainment of it. So, I want to climb more mountains, not to reach more summits, but to experience for several intense hours or several intense days, that feeling of expectation of the actual and metaphorical elevation that comes with climbing mountains. I suppose that rather than being a summit-driven person, I’m more about being “in the zone” as some people say. And when it comes to mountains, I guess this is a good thing. The time on the summit is so fleeting, while the time in the zone pretty much comprises the whole experience. I’m glad I like it there, in that zone. I love the zone.

Then there’s also the people you meet along the way. Mere minutes after convincing myself I would die from asphyxiation, these kids came bounding up from the other side of a hill. I figured if they lived there, surely I wouldn’t die. They just came out of nowhere.

I sat there in wonder. These kids LIVE on this mountain.

I mentioned the sunrise earlier. When the sunrise comes up over rocks like that, you can feel like you are on another planet, or at least the moon. At any rate, you feel different than you do back down lower on the ground. It’s as if the rocks were an ocean and you’re looking at a different sky. That pretty much sums up the mountain experience. You may not be on an entirely different planet, but you know for sure you’re somewhere else. You’ve reached that higher elevation.

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2 Comments on “Volcan Tajumulco– 13, 845 ft (4, 220 m)”

  1. Victor Hugo Carvajal Rivera September 7, 2011 at 23:21 #

    Great story… I will try climbing this mountain in 2 weeks from today. Very good pics. Your words motivated me!!
    Victor from Costa Rica.

    • Marisa LaValette September 8, 2011 at 01:06 #

      Gracias por leer mi blog, Victor!

      I hope you see the little kids who live up on the mountain, too.

      I hope you have a great time up there. Make sure you bring warm clothes, hat, gloves, jacket, for the top. It was raining a lot when we set up our tents, and we had an extra tarp with some extra rope / parachute cord that we used to tie up the tarp over our tent between some trees to block out the rain.

      ~ Marisa

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