2011 Volcano Challenge

Guatemala_2011_-_All.jpgIn mid-January, four Jersey folk flew out to La Antigua in Guatemala, in support of Le Tournoi and Education for the Children Foundation (EFTC). They were following in the footsteps of the 2010 Challenge trekkers who sucessfully conquered the three monster volcanoes in the inaugural EFTC challenge.

Andy Le Seelleur (pictured far right) returned to the former Guatemalan capital, having been one of the 2010 trekkers. This time there were no volvcanoes for Andy, just a desire to go and be part of the amazing story that is EFTC's mission there.

Phil Bouchard (pictured above left), Senior Producer at Spike Prodictions generously gave his own time to travel out and film the EFTC story with the aim of making a full-length documentary in the coming months, which will be used by EFTC to promote their charity and raise funds. Phil was a fantastic ambassador for Le Tournoi and was hugely appreciated by the EFTC team.

Andy Jarrett and Tracey Watson rose to the Volcano Challenge and raised £4,000 towards the ongoing costs of the school project.

Below is a first-hand account of the challenge, as written by Andy Jarrett...

Day 1 – Volcan Pacaya

AJ10.jpgThe challenge briefing was comprehensive and apprehensive at the same time, different guides for different days as climbing three volcanoes in three days is crazy! Guards as a precaution only, but HM offered a couple of the embassy staff to look after us too whilst on down time from Special Forces work, we came to learn they love treats and in particular Jelly Babies!

We met the following day at OX offices where tents, water and provisions were handed out, we drove for about 90 minutes before being dropped off at a remote village. I put my rucksack on and thought I was going to be crushed with the weight. Slowly we ascended Pacaya, learning about the local farming traditions and fauna. Eventually and personally exhausting we made camp, today was supposed to be an easy day getting us ready for what was to come, I was growing concerned for what was to be required in the following days. The small, tiring three hour trek to base camp was just a taster of what was to come, an aperitif it you like.

Having made camp and as the sunset with the temperature rapidly dropping we set off into the lava fields in search of hot tubes and flowing lava on which to toast marshmallows, the guides did not disappoint!

I learnt that I like toasting marshmallows but lava burns them much quicker than you think and what is more it is easier than you think to set your toasting branch on fire, thereby loosing your marshmallows in the process! We trekked on to find a lava tube, a cave created by a fold of molten lava, the near freezing outside temperature was sharply contrasted as you approached the entrance, inside the cave was almost too hot to stand, I starred through torch light into the depths of the cave nature had created and was still keeping very hot.

We trekked back to camp with only head lamps to guide the way to be greeted by a roaring fire and red wine (I could see at that point why I’d carried a litre, it was a welcome sight) dinner was served soon after with hot sauce made from a local plant, camp fire jokes and tales were exchanged as we bustled round the fire to keep warm.

Day 2 – Volcan Acatenango

Rudely awakened before it was light I staggered out of the tent and walked to a nearby plateaux to greet the sun rise, beautiful and majestic, the orange glow warming the air with its touch. We wandered back to camp for coffee and bagels before breaking down the camp and trekking back to the pick up point.

AJ06.jpgWe drove to our next volcano Acatenango and a significant change in the scale of the challenge a head. First we were greeted by our five armed guards, we were then given 6 litres of water and food for two days. My rucksack packed and over flowing I was fully laden as I looked up at the enormous volcano stretching out into the clouds, it’s peak somewhere beyond them. The ladies wisely decided the day before to arrange porters to carry their rucksacks, I was beginning to think that was very wise and I was apprehensive that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. What followed was hours of trekking first through fields and then forest, hard work even for the Special Forces guys. It become clear the “hired guns” were no different to the rest of us, treats were welcomed with smiles and Jelly Babies offered by Tracey ensured that in any gun fight she would be the first to be saved.

After many hours trekking in cloud forest the trees began to thin and eventually gave way to a moon like landscape with cloud below. Eight hours into the trek and exhausted we reached the peak before the real peak! From this vantage point we could see the daunting task a head a trek up a ridge with death on each side and hard work written all over the middle. About 9 hours into the trek I summated euphoric and exhausted I looked down at my fellow trekkers most had the hardest 250 meters for their life to come, 45 degree on volcanic ash which slips from under you as you try to push up, words cannot describe how hard it is, photographs tell only half the story, watching each member of our team summit their faces, screams, cheers and tears told their individual stories. Karen’s tantrum was my favourite, she clearly had her own battle with the volcano and her vengeance was evident as she staggered swore and threw her walking sticks down in defiance at the summit, just before she collapsed. Such was her effort to summit, she went immediately to bed, exhausted and suffering from the altitude with every ounce of energy expended. Our guides kept a watchful eye on her and several other members our team suffering from the effort required and the altitude, the guides were very familiar with the symptoms and treatment and confided to me that it was normal to have as many as half a group suffer at this point. It was interesting to watch the guards summit too, their faces could not mask their relief and delight to join us on top of the world.

AJ07.jpgI lay back in the crater of Acatenango with a well deserved cup of red wine, and looked up at the stars, the constellations were not that easy to pick out at first there were so many stars that it was hard to recognise them all! My peripheral vision picked out the edge of the crater framing the unusually bright starry night sky, the milky way seemed to stretch from one side of the crate to the other, it felt like I could almost touch it, I was in one of the most amazing places on earth.

In the background I could hear loud rumbles and then bangs, like thunder, that was Fuego, our next challenge, reminding us of his presence and coughing large ash clouds into the air. The guides lit a fire and prepared dinner, the night was apparently warm but I don’t call freezing warm when all there is between you and the frost is a nylon tent. Fuego erupted virtually every hour and on several occasions showered our tent with ash, a gentle headache turned into a raging one and I wished I had not touched the vino, 4,000m up and with water rations, glugging wine in celebration was not my best idea so far!

Day 3 – Volcan Fuego

AJ03.jpgWe were greeted with another spectacular run rise, the sort you only see above the cloud line, I love watching the night sky provide a blue haze before turning orange as the sun prepares to provide its all powerful smile warming the day. In the background Fuego coughed and showered us with ash again.

After packing camp the guide points in the general direction of death and says that’s the way down. All 10 of the trekkers stopped and looked at each other, this is no time for a joke, “Really you can’t mean there?” We proclaimed in unison.

The next 2 hours was breath taking, vertical at times, slippy, dusty, rocky and for the most part heart in mouth scary as we made our way down the volcano to the base of Fuego who laughed at us the whole time.

We dropped the rucksacks at the base of Fuego and just carried water and lunch, the weight reduction was very welcome, scaling Fuego was tiring but significantly easier without the rucksack. It is interesting to see the distinct layers of vegetation as you ascend, trees give up growing at a certain altitude, smaller trees strive just above the tree line but never seem to get bigger than a bush, the grasses eventually fade away and then the landscape is just volcanic rock, moonlike in appearance. The clouds drew in from both sides of the volcano encasing it and us in a blanket of chilly air. Eventually we summated just peaking above the clouds and ate lunch.

Returning to our rucksacks I was not alone thinking that was an amazing three days, where’s the bus? But I was to learn we had about six hours of hard trekking to complete before we were back to civilisation, my heart sank. The first two hours were tough, mainly up hill with several scary crossings. Eventually we reached the point which was largely down hill, however, that did not make it significantly easier as my thighs complained with the effort. The cloud forest seemed to appear from nowhere, suddenly the trees were dense, you could smell the dampness, the floor became slippy and the guards for the first time agitated. They split themselves between us and made us bunch up and stay close, apparently, now knackered, was our mostly likely chance of attack! An hour or so later we were out of the forest and safe. Two hours later and after a total of ten hours trekking that day we emerged filthy, exhausted and elated back at the point we had departed.

AJ01.jpgThe ride back to Antigua was made all the more pleasurable with a couple of cold local beers provided by the OX team. We arrived at the local pub to a crowd of people warmly greeting us with cheers and smiles, it was all the teachers and staff, including the kitchen staff from the school we were raising money for. I felt sorry for them, they were cheering and hugging us, but we must have stank and they smelt so clean and fresh! We went in and celebrated with them for an hour before heading back for a soak!

Would I do that again, nope there are other mountains to climb, but I do encourage you too…