Friday, March 2, 2012

Hiking Nicaragua's Volcano Concepcion.

As soon as I arrived on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, the two towering volcanoes that form the island, fueled my sense for adventure. I had three days on the island, and wasn't going to leave till I hiked at least one. As soon as I looked up at Concepcion, still smoking at the very top, I had already made up my mind which one I would hike.

I've always enjoyed hiking volcanoes. For some reason, it's a bit more exciting than hiking a normal mountain. So when ever I get a chance to hike one, I jump at it. Especially if they are still active.

I've hiked a good amount of volcanoes, during my travels and love spending time exploring them. From Kilimanjaro 19,320 ft, Mt. Cameroon, 13,500 feet, Novarupta in Alaska, Kilauea on the big Island of Hawaii. My Mom tells me about a time, when I was young ,where I threw a huge temper tantrum because my parents wouldn't let me climb some volcano, we passed while sailing off the coast of Hawaii. So I guess I never have grown up.

I did some reading about hiking the two volcanoes. Maderas is the smaller more accessible volcano to hike. Traveling along muddy trails, it takes about 8 hours to get to the beautiful crater lake and back.

Concepcion is a more "serious" 10-12 hour hike, up step volcanic rocks. The way up would be hot, the top would be cold, and the decent dangerous enough to claim hikers lives. Conception is also still steaming, the last eruption happened only years ago.   

I've always loved pushing the envelope when traveling. I've always maximized my experiences, so there was no way I wasn't going to attempt Concepcion.

Morning came fast, I was picked up at 5:30 am at my hotel, by my guide, which was mantatory, and taxi. The horizon was just getting light.

The hotel I stayed at, had no food I could buy,  to take with me on the hike, so we had to wake up some poor woman who owned a street market, with chickens running all over. It didn't have much of an option. So my only choice was to buy 10 bread rolls and two small packages of cookies. It would have to do.

The first mile of the hike is a flat walk through farms, getting my legs warmed up. The closer to the volcano I got, the more adrenaline started pumping. I started sizing the volcano up like some big guy in a bar, that I was about to fight. Trying to figure out if you can take him down.

Howler monkeys were everywhere in the trees. More than I have seen anywhere else. They were howling away, like a crowd cheering on a fight.

By the time we reached the volcano's base, the very top of Concepcion was clear, teasing us. Looking up at the top seemed so far away, a tiny part of me, deep down in my brain wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and turn around. But the adventurous side said,  "fuck it, bring it on."

The first part is pretty gradual. You walk through tall trees and lush rain forest. You enjoy the bit of shade you get, since it doesn't last long. Once you get above the 400 meter mark, the intense heat from the sun, beats down on you. You have nowhere to hide.

The hike only gets harder. There is no switch backs up Conception, rather you just climb your way straight up the volcano, like stairs on a Mayan temple. At times you almost have to rock climb.

Half way up we stopped to soak in the view, catch our breath. In the distance, Maderas's top was blanketed in clouds, so I knew there was no hope in the top of Concepcion being clear anymore. I didn't care, I was actually looking forward to reaching the cooler cloud layer.

About 4,500 feet we reached the blowing cold cloud layer, it felt great. At this point the clouds coming in from across Lake Nicaragua, smash into the tall volcano and thrust up and over the top.

Just before the top we stopped, at the last little flat section, where we could hide from the wind. We waited for about an hour, hoping the clouds would lift and let us enjoy the amazing view.   I pulled out by bread rolls and began eating. A fat rat soon appeared, his face cute like a mouse. We shared lunch together.   

I would have loved to have just hung out on the top till the clouds cleard, which they had been doing in the afternoon, but my guide was starting to get cold.  I gave him my rain jacket to keep him warm, but it wasn't helping much.  He looked at me like I was crazy,  having my shirt off, he didn't understand what cold really was. 

It didn't take long to make it to the top, once we continued.  There isn't much room at the top to celebrate.  It dead ends right into the drop off into the crater.   I could only picture the hellish looking scenery below me.  The rocks were very hot to the touch and even with the strong winds, I could smell sulphu. In reality we were standing on a ticking time bomb. At any minute this thing could blow, with the power of a nuclear bomb. We didn't stay at the top any longer than to take a few photos.

The loose ash made it easy to slip on the volcanic rocks. It would have been nice if the side was just a sandy ash, then you could run down it like a sand dune. But it wasn't it was hard lava rocks, scattered about, which made you have to focus on where you stepped. Most accidents and deaths, in mountaineering, happen on the way down.

Just a few years ago, a guy slipped and fell to his death, while decending from Concepcion.  So I was very careful on the way down.

By the time I got to the bottom my quads were turning into jelly. I was glad to be down.  As soon as I arrived to the bus stop on the main road,  I turned around and looked back up from where I came.   The clouds began to lift before my eyes. And then the top became clear.  I laughed and said outloud, you little bitch.  The guide laughed as well.   The volcano gods were messing with us.

I arrived back to the hotel, my legs covered in volcanic ash. The bartender asked me if I turned back half way because I was back so soon. I said, hell no.   I had already gone to the top and back.  Three hours to go up waited for an hour, to see if it would clear, then took  two to come down.  "Oh, muy rapido"

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