It’s another day in Panajachel, Christian is running late to fly his tandem, Leo is watching a soccer game, The baba bros are trying a new recipe to brew Kombucha, Tomy is stealing the internet in Santander street, Beca is eating a choco-banana, I am getting over caffeinated at Café Loco and Cade is making the last arrangement for our next mission.
On Monday afternoon we get the call: everything is ready, Volcan Atitlan Bound departing on Wednesday at 6:30 am.
We know two things about El Atitlan: that it looks amazing from this side of the lake and that it is the tallest volcano in the area. We don’t have much information about its topography or the ideal conditions to fly it.
On Wednesday morning the crew gets together at The Real World Paragliding. Everybody is sharp and bright, even the people that are usually late.
At twenty past seven our boat leaves Panajachel toward San Lucas Toliman, the town on the south eastern shore of Lago Atitlan, right on the base of the Volcano.
A blue and clear morning and 9 happy porters receive us at the other side of the Lake. We can already see the first clouds forming bellow the summit and a light north wind starting to flow close to the ground.
Our spoiled crew is in the need of some Guatemalan goodies so as soon as we get off the boat, Tomas, our guide, takes us to a local restaurant where we get a super loaded breakfast with eggs, frijoles, fried plantain, tortillas, fresh cheese and cream. Good thing the toilet is close by.
After our morning feast we walk around San Lucas looking for a landing, we find our best and only option: the main soccer field, a dirt lot surrounded by houses and power lines right in the middle of town. By now we know that we have a small window to fly and land in this complicated spot, before the valley wind kicks in.
Minor inconveniences come out before we start our ascent, Christian has forgotten his backpack and Cade his shoes. Christian runs to a small store across the main square and gets the latest version of Toy Story 3’s backpack and Cade has to pay a full boat trip to get his shoes to this side of the Lake.
We fill up two trucks with 19 people and drive 25 minutes to the trailhead.
Some of our porters wear leather shoes with high heels that look really good to dance salsa but we are doubtful they are suitable for the occasion. They will prove us completely wrong, shoe technology is a myth and human power underrated.
We are enchanted by the diverse terrain through our ascent, a wide dry river covered by big trees takes us to a flat area where the locals plant coffee, avocado, corn, and maybe some curative herbs.
At this point of the hike we have lost our guide. We keep following the porters who will confess, later on, that this is their first time on the volcano.
Along the whole way a unique and weird roar will make us company, getting more consistent throughout the day. We think it could be a big animal maybe the chupacabra or a hungry Guatemalan tiger. We will know the answer of this mysterious sound days after when we have the chance to be in front of the source.
Once the flats end we enter into a massive rain forest characteristic of this central American region: huge trees, long vines coming from every direction, zillions of exotics plants and all shades of green that the human eyes can capture.
We are half way and the group has spread around, I run into Mike and Aiyan that have always something good to share. We sit down to rest, eat some homemade hummus, olives, crackers and enjoy the nice air that this wild ecosystem is purifying just for us.
Our walk continues into this dreamy jungle that keep us hypnotized.
Suddenly the terrain starts to get steeper and the vegetation starts to be less magnificent. The hypnotism finishes and now I’m feeling the lack of oxygen. For the Austrians and the mountain residents is another day in the park, for me is…shit.. I’m feeling loopy. This is one of the downsides of living in Hawaii.
The summit is getting closer, we have left the lush jungle behind and the volcanic rocks start to get in our shoes. The cool north wind is blowing hard and our body temperature decreases fast so does my pace. Meanwhile, I take a break and drink some water, everybody passes me on the way up.
After five and a half hours I reach the summit, I’m the last one to make it. Actually, our guide is still two hours behind.
It is 3:30pm and the summit celebration has begun: Mani opens a bottle of Austrian liquor that tastes like aguardiente and Leo is rolling a puro. Mike shares some amazing food and Tomy makes bad jokes with his cheap British accent. While Becca and Aiyan prepare for a stretching sesh on top of a small concrete shack Christian begins with his striptease show in the bottom.
Everybody is pretty high, exactly 3535 meters AMSL. The conversations switch from Spanish to English to German, with a Chinese soundtrack in the background. A universal connection beyond cultures is taking shape on top of the Atitlan.
After eating and laughing to da max, it is time to run toward the leeside to get protected from the cold north wind. On the other side we find the steamy ground that keeps us warm for the rest of the afternoon. We have forgotten that this volcano is still active and its last eruption happened in 1853.
The clouds has covered the summit, darkness has taken over and we see lighting hitting all around. It is time to look for a good place to sleep. On the west side of the crater we find small terraces, protected from the North easterly wind, to spend the night.
Before getting inside our sleeping bags, we’ll finish the day with a laser show, combine with live music and a free expression session from Christian capable of captivating the masses.
After midnight the cloudy sky clears up, giving us the opportunity to see the southern towns and to enjoy an unique shooting stars show.
I can’t sleep, my mind is going crazy trying to get a glimpse of the future. Even though my mind is trying to play games, I’m convinced that we won’t walk down.
It is 5:50 am, I wake up inside a thick cloud, my foggy vision doesn’t reach more than a few meters in front.
Cade and Tomy come back from the windward side reporting winds of 25 mph+.
It is still pretty early and I have the belief that El Atitlan is suffering from “ a morning sickness”, once the ground warms up we will have a short window to take off.
We pack and walk to the east face. Once we make it to our possible launch, the clouds start to dissipate and we have the first chance to see our final destination.
Nine gliders are out, waiting for the right time to get in the air, the wind is still strong but it feels like it is slowly getting better. Mani opens his glider and two minutes later he is in the air….yeah it is happening… perfect conditions have arrived and we need to move quickly if we want to have the whole team in the air.
Becca and Cade take off shortly behind Mani. I help Mike and Aiyan with their tandem and run to get ready. Things are moving fast on the steep and rocky east face of the Atitlan. I finally get airborne, leaving Christian, Tomy and Leo behind.
The wind is switching fast and the cycles start to come from the back. Christian is taking longer than normal. Leo takes off and Tomy, who waits for Christian, decides to go before the window closes.
Christian is left by himself on the summit, struggling with the changing conditions. The last good cycle hits his face and he’s ready to take it.
Now we can celebrate for real!!!! Everybody is in the air, we yell to each other sharing a good shot of joy. We are surprised by a laminar flow that allow us to soar the summit for quite a while.
After flirting with the last floor of this sexy formation, and before the situation gets gnarly on the ground, we glide toward the landing.
While we fly above a big green jungle, the same jungle we had crossed the day before, I take a minute to digest this moment, this place deserves the time to be properly appreciated.
’m getting closer to town and, from high above, I can see Mani approaching the landing zone. At the same time I see a bunch of tiny dots moving around the soccer field…oooppssss… I think the landing will have another dangerous factor we haven’t considered: a massive audience…
Once Mani touches the ground every tiny dot runs on his direction and surrounds him until he disappeared. Now, I know my future: trying to scape from the multitude.
Cade and I join Mani on the ground and together we keep our new fans under control.
Mike and Aiyan are next. The ground is already warming up, and during their last approach they run into a hot bubble that put their tandem on top of the gradas, keeping the glider protected from the crowd.
Tomy, Becca, and Christian are not that lucky, and they experience all the love that San Lucas Toliman has saved for its new winged friends.
We are back on the ground jumping non stop, hugging everybody that we find on our way; at this moment we are a powerful expression of joy.
We pack our gliders and get a ride, with a super cool local, to the dock. On our way down we pick up Leo, who has landed on the only secondary landing along the road.
It is 10 am and after an hour boat ride we are back in Panajachel, having another loaded breakfast at our favorites spot, Christian takes a sip of his pineapple-garlic-ginger booster juice, place the glass on the table, takes a deep breath and speaks out: this was a really good gift from life. Everybody agrees.
I take a tuk-tuk back to my cave where I’m planning to relax and rest, with the idea to fly another volcano whenever I make it back to Guatemala, but,
unfortunately Cade has a different idea in mind.
Six days later, on Wednesday morning, the phone rings:
-Yo Jorge, Cade
-What up Broda
-Are you seated?
-Conditions are looking good for El Acatenango, we have to hike it today and take off tomorrow morning, shall we?
It is 6 pm and we are on board of Chamu, Cade & Becca’s truck, driving toward the base of El Volcan Acatenango. Five people has joined forces for this short notice plan: The Baba bros, Becca, Cade, and I.
The sky is painted in black, and ,there is lightning and thunder all around, this time I think the forecast is a little bit off. Before we turn around and cancel the mission we stop at our local friend’s house. Yankel, a pilot who knows the area pretty well, is confident that the storm is happening below the summit and he encourage us to keep going with the plan.
He has arranged a group of porters that wait for us in La Soledad, a small village on the base of the volcano. Even though the weather looks pretty sketchy, we decide to drive closer to the volcano before we take our last decision.
After driving on a winding road for about an hour and a half we finally make it to La Soledad where we meet with Juan Sis and our porters. The sky has opened up, the stars are shining, the rain has passed. According to the locals the weather is improving.
We are going for it…
As usual, the baba brothers open their magic bag where they carry a bunch of goodies to share: Kombucha, red beans, home make cookies, tortillas and a variety of Chinese devices that have made our life better since we arrived in Guatemala.
After a short but energizing rest we are ready to start our hike. It is about midnight. As the locals predicted the weather has improved, the sky is moonless with a trillion of stars that will join us along our ascent.
Even though our vision is limited, the terrain is easy to navigate, the path is wide and clean. With time our eyes get used to this planet of wild silhouettes and dark textures, they feel at home. We cross through farmlands pack with coffee to dive into a cloud forest with old wise trees that fully cover this natural freeway.
Hiking at night feels extremely fresh, so Mike and I increase our pace and pass the porters following the easy road up.
A few hundred meters higher and a couple hours later we stop to take a break, the air is getting colder and we are sweeting, a bad combination. Mani shows up follow by Beca and Cade.
It is time to switch to warmer clothes, Mani borrows my puffy jacket, I get a pair of gloves from Becca, Mike puts another fleece on and the Wyomingites get ready for the occasion too. Now we know why Yankel gave us foot warmers, this is getting f….. cold.
There is no sign from our friends, the porters, and their canine brigade. We can no stay still any longer, either we keep moving or we will be frozen food.
I’m the first to feel the altitude, we are passing the 3500 meters mark and the loopines has triggered in my brain. The cold is getting to our bones, even the high mountain residents are shivering.
Our energy level and our pace have decreased drastically. At this point, we know that we have taken the long way to the top.
Slowly we follow our way up trying to keep the rhythm, of course I’m in the back getting tow by the crew, I haven’t felt this tired and cold in a while.
Once we reach the volcanic zone and after almost 5 hours of hiking, we reunite with our porters. They have been waiting for us in the saddle that connects the two summits of the Acatenango. They confirm our theory, we have taken a longer approach to Yepocapa, the lowest summit at 3830 meters.
At 5:30 am we reach the highest cone, better known as Pico Mayor at 3976 meters. The ground is full of ice cube with the perfect size to prepare a cuba libre. The storm we saw while driving has released more that rain.
Our porters taste the freezing conditions, eat a snack and say good bye, not before we express our appreciation for their priceless help.
The sun rises on the horizon giving us the first glimpse of the place. Toward the south El Volcan de Agua wakes up surrounded by a big whithe blanket.
The Babas unpack their gliders to get warmer while Cade looks for his light harness, puts it on and start to walk along the east face.
Beca and I pull out our cameras and start to shoot and run all around to keep our bodies in motion.
Twenty minutes has passed and Cade, who looks like in need of his caffeine dose, comes flying toward us:
“Yo guys we need to go now, this might be the only chance we have…”
I look around and the only thing I see is a massive layer of clouds that covers the ground from here to Honduras.
Even, if I try to go now, my body is still recovery from the exhausted hike, and, my brain hasn’t got enough oxygen to be clear in the air.
I’m about to reject the idea, but the chief “Becca” jumps in front and answer:
“If you want to go, go for it, we will wait”
Cade replies with a broken “OK”. He wouldn’t go without Miss Breherford.
From now on we start our communication with Yankel who has waken up early to give us support from the ground. He has armed us with a tweak radio that will reach his base camp.
At first we can’t hear him properly so Mike, Cade and I walk to the North side to get a better signal while Mani kites his glider with the perfect south flow that is hitting the summit.
We reach the north tip and the first report comes through: “las nubes no estan tan altas como lucen y de seguro tendran una buena ventana pronto” (clouds are thinner than they look, I think you will have a good window soon).
I’m facing south trying to receive another message from our ground support, when I hear Cade:
I look around, and, in that precise moment the most powerful sound I’ve ever heard reaches my ears…BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM
… the ground is moving but we stay still … Volcan El Fuego, is erupting…
We look to each other and with no verbal communication we start the most synchro jumping session I’ve ever being part of.
It is too late to run, if it’s the time for this volcano to show us its max potential we better relax and enjoy this unique opportunity. In the distance we see Mani and Becca doing the same.
Now we know what was the sound that join us during Atitlan’s ascent, the mystery has been solved.
On the southern tip Becca & Mani enjoy the show
After spending some time contemplating El Fuego roaring to life, we get back to our flying plan with a different approach.
It seems like after our eruption experience, our supernatural powers have waken up and we are ready to dive into the white ocean that surrounds the Volcano.
We walk fast back to the South Face where we find that Becca has mutated into Michelangelo, the ninja turtle, and Mani is getting ready for the mission, the volcanic ashes have affected everybody in the same way.
The clouds are looking thick, I hope the X ray vision we got from El Fuego’s eruption is working well.
Before I get ready, I drop the radio and run to release my ballast, even though my underwear has already suffered from the natural phenomenon there is more to let go. On that precise moment another broken communication comes from Yankel:
“Deberian esperar un poco las nubes estan creciendo de nuevo la cosa se ve bastante tapada, yo creo que en una media hora se destapa” (You should wait, the clouds are getting bigger and the ground looks completely covered, I think it will be better in half an hour).
I will get this message 3 days later…when I saw Yankel again.
Back on the South face everything is ready, the place is so big that we can open the gliders one after the other.
The cycles are still coming up nicely Becca takes off, and it’s my turn but
unfortunately my glider comes up facing the only three big rocks there are around and I need to reset.
I turn around and yell to the boys: go for it don’t wait for me!
It takes Cade, Mani, and Micky less than a minute to leave the ground. I enjoy my last seconds of solitude on the summit while another ash cloud is released by our friend El Fuego.
A good cycle rolls in and I take it. Everybody is in the air!
Mike the only pilot that has a GPS and a landing waypoint, is higher and far away, my trusty and small Akira 18 will never catch up with his XC glider. Following the guy with the instrument is now out of the equation. Mani is the only one that follows his brother closely.
Below and in front I see Cade about to get to the cloud top, Becca keeps some altitude waiting for Cade to make da move.
He positions himself above the only available hole in kilometers and, before it vanishes, spirals down into this foggy tunnel.
I’m sinking fast and take the decision to follow him. I’m spiraling down following his trail but the terrain looks extremely close, the only thing I can barely see is the canopies of the big trees waiting patiently to hug me.
Finally we appear underneath the clouds 40 meters above the trees. The valley is not too far and in few seconds we gain a hundred more meters. Cade slows down and looks around, he hasn’t realized I’ve been following him closely. He is about to turn around and head south when I fly beside and yell:
-Yo Cade let’s keep going on that way and I point North.
– Shit Ok but I’m not sure we will make it.
-Yes, we will make it.
Without hesitation he changes his direction and follows me north.
I turn back to see Becca pocking out of the clouds behind us, she will follow too.
I hope to be right on this one…
Surprisingly, on our way, we find some floaty air and I arrive with some extra meters above our closest landing.
I keep pushing forward and barely make it over a long power line, now I’m flying above another valley system with 40 more meters to spend.
Rapidly I scout around for a new landing zone.
Between the houses and the coffee plantations I see an open dirt lot. I take a better look and realize it is a soccer field… hold it! Am I heading toward La Soledad, the place where we’ve started our hike and where our car is parked?
I keep looking around and I find the only thing I remember from the night before: Asis’ family yellow house …Stoked…
I land followed by Cade and Becca, just in time to look up and see the baba Bros passing through the clouds and showing up right on top of the LZ with plenty altitude to do some helicos before landing.
An old German GPS and some… let’s call it fate… have brought the team back together to where everything started.
Now it’s time to relax, and share fresh memories from our latest glide.
Our hearts are still full of that natural boooooooooooooooooommmmm that, now we know, gave us superpowers, but, our bellies are empty.
Following our volcanic routine we say good bye to the Asis family and start our drive toward Antigua to get a deserved Guatemalan breakfast.
On our way we look around amazed by the numbers of volcano that this Central American land possess, and the cycle starts over again Mike saves some waypoints on his GPS while Cade tries to guess the altitude of the cone we have in front.
I don’t know if it’s that roar that comes from the magma chamber, the ashes in the air, the amazing company or the massive breakfast we get after every flight but this Volcanomania,
unfortunately, has not cure.
Thanks guys you rock… BTW Cade, we are waiting for your next call…