Monday, February 25, 2013

Climbing a Volcano: its harder than you'd think

For our second day on Ometepe, we wanted to hike to the top of Volcan Maderas, the dormant, southern-most volcano on this island. But it almost didn't happen.

As seems to be customary on this trip, I work up early, this time not due to a rooster (managed to sleep through the rooster this time), but dogs fighting. I finally gave up on sleep and got up to pee around 5:30. The constant and strong wind over Lake Nicaragua slammed the door to my room behind me, locking me out. After I did my business I went by the restaurant/outdoor hotel lobby and explained my situation to the day manager (who fortunately speaks fairly good English). They were fresh out of spare keys for my room, so he grabbed a worker and came over to get me back into my room.

They basically broke back into my room using a machete. They use machetes for everything in Nicaragua. They are the do-it-all tool for farming, for everything from cutting down trees, to clearing ground layer vegetation, harvesting fruit, even testing soil conditions. I have seen a guy on the side of the road fixing a motorcycle with a machete, and in this case it apparently makes a great tool to pry open a window frame.

As the work was commencing I discussed with the manager how we wanted to hike up to the top of Maderas that day. He ask if we had a guide.  A guide is mandatory due to safety, and cause, you know they, understandably, want to suck money out of tourists. Cesar had explained it as a courtesy since they didn't want any more tourists dying on the mountains (lost hikers had died on both Conception and Maderas on Ometepe in the past decade). Anyway, I was under the impression you just connect with one at the trail head. This was not the case. As it turns out the worker there tearing into my hotel room was also a guide. So I got damned lucky that I got locked out of my room, otherwise we may have found out too late that we didn't have the guide we needed, and there would be no volcano hike for us. Our guides name was Roberto... It sounded strange to me the way he said it at first, it took me a while to figure out that it was just the hard-core Spanish pronunciation, not the anglicized version we are used to hearing in the US, his name is pronounced "Rrrow-vuerto".

I'm sure this was fortuitous for Roberto as well. We payed him $25 to be our guide for the day, I suspect this is 2-3 times what he gets payed for a day of work around the hotel/hostel.

We finally got to hiking around 8 or 8:30. The first thing he showed us was an boulder carved with an ancient petroglyph. I think Roberto told us that it was some kind of ancient calender, if I understood him correctly, but I couldn't see how it was divided up, it wasn't obvious a lunar or solar calendar.

We paid our ~$1.20 to enter the park that is the upper slopes of the mountain, and started hiking up. I took quite a few photos, but I will restrict the ones in this blog to those that give you an idea of what the hike was like. I will spare you the numerous plant photos, so you won't have to look at the super bright blue, and hairy, berries, the textured leaves folded like a Chinese paper fan, or the super hair leaves who's base, Roberto pointed out to me, look just like a vagina. I know most of you all don't find that stuff very interesting... but it fascinates me.

 A group of howler monkeys on the lower slopes. The locals call them 'bongos'.

The lower slopes of the volcano had massive rocks, this was the easy part of the trail.

The first rest stop on the trail actually had benches, we hardly felt we needed a rest break at this point.

The lower slopes of Volcan Maderas were dry topical forest, mostly second growth.

But before long our hike took us into the clouds.

The trail split here at this coffee plantation. From here on up there were no signs of cultivation.

And the trail started to get muddy.

 Valerie is just over 5' tall, so these leaves have a solid 4' blade, almost 6' from stem to tip.

Tree fern!

The trail got crazy steep in places. It was all mud, sometimes just a slick surface, sometimes 6" deep, and a mix of roots or rocks or both.

 And yet just 2 days earlier there was the Fuego y Agua ultramarathon on these slopes. The 100k running race actually ran up to the top of Volcan Conception (5,200ft), then back down to lake level (100 ft), ran along the beach for several miles to Volcan Maderas (4,500 ft) back down again, then across the island again to the start. Muy Loco! I am told they mostly walked/hiked on the steep mountain slopes since it was too difficult to run. But still, loco. This area was called the Elf Forest BTW, I think cause the trees were relatively short.

Finally we descended the even steeper trail into the caldera of the dormant volcano. Scrambled down really. Where we had lunch by the shore of the lagoon. The clouds whipped past above us and swirled in the strong winds, forming as the slope of the mountain pushed the moist air up to cooler elevations where they would condense into clouds. Our lunch break was about 30 minutes long. There aren't many better places for a lunch break.

 Took a photo up there of a horizontal tree branch with just a few epiphytic plants growing on it. I had been shooting with my good camera up to this point, but the trail was so difficult I decided to stash it away in my backpack for the hike back down. This turned out to be a very good decision, but I don't have as many photos from the rest of the hike

 Fortunately for us, they had installed some posts with ropes between them on the trail into/out of the caldera. These were great aids on the climb back up. It may not have been possible without them.

The hike up the mountain wasn't really that hard. I got a cramp in one calf, but I was able to suck it up and get up there anyway. The hike down on the other hand, was, probably the most difficult hiking I have ever done. It was very, very slippery, and rough with the rocks and the roots, and very steep. That and I was wearing my Vibram Five Finger "toe shoes". Whiles these offer a lot of toe flexibility, they have virtually no padding and also almost no tread depth. So I was sliding all over the place on the way back down. I had to grab from tree to tree to support myself, and every big step down pounded into the bottom of my soft gringo feet.

Had to take a couple breaks on the way down, my legs were quivering with fatigue. The third rest stop we did down at the coffee plantation. Where we spotted some white-headed capuchin monkeys in the distance, so I pulled my good camera out of my bag and got some pretty good shots. But for the life of me I can't remember what the locals called the capuchins.

Here a couple other hikers stumbled down the mountain behind us. Both seemed like dirty hippy backpackers. The first spoke Spanish, but very little English, the guy with him spoke very little Spanish though which was odd, instead being a native English speaker. Also, he did the hike barefoot, which he reported was miserable. No doubt.
Our last rest stop was at the first view point, and got some good photos on this unusually clear day.

In the end, I have to say this ~10 mile hike was the most difficult one I have ever done. I heard from more than one local that it was only 8km (~5 miles) round-trip, but measuring it out on the map its pretty clear it was around 10 miles total.

Still, the relatively short distance belies the intensity of the experience: I have hiked to the top of a couple 12,000 ft, 13,000 foot, and even a 14,000 foot mountain. I've hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in a day; 26 miles and a mile down followed by a mile up. The hike up Maderas was notably more difficult than that any of these. My legs and feet have never been so completely 'destroyed' after a hike, my legs have never felt that tired in my life. I could hardly walk uphill/stairs or downhill/stairs for 3 days, and I can still feel the soreness from the hike 6 days later, particularly in my calf where I got the cramp. With that said, its the middle of winter for me so I'm probably not at peak fitness (there were two young Chilean sisters who seemed to fly both up and down the mountain without effort, which didn't make me feel any better about my conditioning).

My choice of footwear was poor (though they were great for everything else we did on this trip) and I'm sure this contributed significantly to my difficulty in descending... good hiking boots would have gotten some grip in the mud and provided cushioning for my feet, in all they might have halved the effort of the descent. Still, I didn't have the worse shoes on the mountain that day:

The Swiss girl these shoes belonged to told me that though they were old shoes, they started the hike in one piece, without any duct tape on them.

In any event, we were all happy to be back at the Hotel/Hostel Santa Cruz. We took icy cold showers and scrubbed as much of the tenacious clay mud off us that we could, which is to say we got about half of it off of us. Val and I ate an early dinner and went to bed by 8 or 8:30.

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