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The day started with a delicious breakfast in the sun on the hostel roof, admiring the blue skies overhead. There was no sign of any impending thunderstorms or threats on my life; just a delicious omelette, fresh orange juice and the blazing sun. All that would soon change.
Today we were climbing Acatenango, a huge, active volcano nearly 4,000 metres high. The plan was to hike up, watch sunset, camp overnight and have breakfast watching the sun rise while neighbouring Volcan Fuego spewed smoke and lava in to the air. Sounds good right? Well it didn’t quite turn out that way.
We left out bags in Antigua, met our guide and began the hour long journey to the start of the trail. We were dropped off on the side of a road in the middle of the countryside, with no real indication of a volcano being nearby.
The trail was loose and muddy, really muddy. Mud and steep slopes don’t go well together but we avoided falling over as we scaled the difficult track up the volcano. The trees got greener as we passed through multiple ecosystems before the rain set in. The light rain was quite refreshing at first, keeping us cool as we got higher and higher but things changed quickly.
When the rain picked up a bit, we spotted a tree which looked perfect to shelter us. The rain was coming from all angles as we attempted to eat lunch, with the quiet grumbles of thunder somewhere in the distance. Sat under a bin bag, under a tree, we still found it completely impossible to keep dry and so quickly decided to push on to our camping spot once we’d finished eating.
This is when things got interesting.
We hadn’t got further than ten metres away from the tree we’d been sat under when a huge CRACKKKKK echoed out around the tree lined clearing. I could feel the noise physically shake my ribcage, as the flash that accompanied it turned everything around us a bright white. A chunk of wood arrowed across our path, narrowly missing my leg while other pieces flew in every direction around us.
What the hell was that? I thought before quickly realising that we were inside the thunder storm we’d heard miles away, just minutes before. We all looked around and everybody was ok. We tried to work out what the huge bolt of lightning had hit, as we turned around to see our guide pointing back to where we’d just been.
The tree we had been sat under had been destroyed. Completely obliterated in fact. Dry pieces of wood lay strewn around the clearing, our shelter from the rain was no more. If we had stayed there for another ten seconds, we would probably be scattered across the volcano too. Everyone looked in shock as we suddenly realised how lucky we were to still be alive.
With loud crashes of lightning all around us we weren’t sure of what to do. The rain was torrential and the temperature had severely dropped. We were soaked, cold and still stood in the middle of the biggest and loudest thunder storm I’ve ever seen. We huddled in the middle of the clearing, unable to continue with trees lining the path up the volcano.
After 45 minutes of been lashed by wind and rain, long after my toes had ceased to provide any sign that they were still attached to my body, our guide told us the only option was to turn around and go down. The thunder storm was staying at the top of the volcano but we could get out of it by going down (which in itself was still risky as we passed trees on our descent).
Soaked through, we headed back along the path that had taken us to where the tree used to sit. We were quickly out of the storm, and while disappointed not to be able to camp at the top, we were pretty happy to be alive.
Cold, wet and tired, we headed back to the hostel we’d stayed at the night before. Having a dry and warm bed for the night felt pretty good knowing that the thunder storm was probably still destroying trees at the top!
Have you ever had a near death experience?