Inches Away from Lava

Pacaya, Guatemala

Instead of walking across the stage at my college graduation, I trekked up an active volcano in the pouring rain.

July 31, 2010. This is a day that I will not soon forget. This date will be inscribed on the diplomas that will be waiting for me when I return to the United States in mid September, but it is also the day that I climbed Pacaya.

Pacaya is an active volcano just outside of Antigua, Guatemala. When I say active, I truly mean it. In fact, just a few weeks ago it erupted causing lots of damage to the area around the volcano, as well as sending ash all over the country.

Before the eruption, you could toast marshmallows over the lava that freely flowed out of the ducts; however, after the eruption, the entire volcano is now covered with over a foot of ash and debris that now makes it impossible to see the lave coming out of the earth. Even though it was disappointing to not be able to see any lava, there are new fascinations that have been created from the natural phenomenon.

The climb to the “blast zone” was extremely difficult. Instead of solid ground that is typically present when climbing a mountain, Pacaya has lots of very small rocks that resemble large pieces of sand rather than solid ground. Each step was a challenge and required constant concentration so you did not fall backwards and tumble-down.

In addition to the difficult terrain, we found ourselves in the dead center of a torrential downpour. We found shelter in a make shift hut for a few minutes to try to wait out the rain, but we soon decided that the rain was not going to stop. Our choice was to either push forward in the midst of a storm or turn back and head down the volcano. Instead of doing the logical choice of turning around for safety, we pushed on and reached our destination right as the weather shifted for a few moments of relatively clear skies.

Do you remember in the Disney classic The Lion King when they enter the Elephant Graveyard? It is full of skeletons of animals whose prime has long since passed as well an eerie feeling of death. This was the type of atmosphere that I felt on top of Pacaya. The eruption had killed all life that once called this area home. All of the trees were mere stumps with leafless branches. The only sounds you could hear while on the top are the other people commenting around you and gusts of wind that often rush past your jacket.

In the midst of the bleak surroundings, we found a duct that had molten lava flowing just inches below our feet. It was hard to tell if the mist surrounding us was a result of the heat or fog from the rain. Either way, the heat coming from the duct could easily have served as a natural sauna, so that is exactly what I used it for. I climbed inside and relaxed for a few minutes before the heat was unbearable. We set off once again in the midst of rain to make our way back down the volcano.

The weather may not have been ideal, but the memory I created would not have been the same without the drenched clothes, extra time spent under coverings on the side of the volcano, or a cold and bumpy van ride back to Antigua. This is one more item off my bucket list, and a memory to last a lifetime.

Bryan Clifton

Oklahoma City, OK