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Gimpilator
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Gimpilator
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PostThu Feb 09, 2017 2:36 pm 
Have you seen Part 1?

Upon arriving in Guatemala we were excited to join forces with Greg Slayden.  We employed the Adrenalina company to sort out logistics as far as transportation and hotels go.  They would not allow us to climb Volcan de Agua.  Over the years I had heard of routine muggings on that peak, but I was under the impression that you could hire off duty police officers to accompany you.  In any case, it was off the itinerary.

There was more bad news.  6 hikers had just died of hypothermia on Volcán Acatenango when we were in Mexico.  This was the most tragic event ever in Guatemalan mountaineering history.  Acatenango was on our itinerary and the tragedy would have consequences which directly affected our trip.  Adrenalina informed us that for the time being they were legally required to provide us with guides on all the hikes at no extra cost.  Damn!

Greg and John took the news well, but I hate hiking with guides and only do it when legally required (only once before on Kilimanjaro).  I used to be a mountain guide, so I’m very well familiar with the dynamic from both sides.  Anyhow, I would just have to accept that, but I knew in my gut that it would lead to hassles, delays and possibly restrictions as well as attenuate rewards contingent upon our own route finding.   shakehead.gif   I tried to bear in mind that 6 people had just lost their lives and the government was now protecting one of it’s most valuable resources, tourism.

January 22 - Volcán Pacaya - 8373'

video link

During the drive to our first volcano, Greg was speaking to our guide for the day in Spanish.  I don’t understand much Spanish, but I could follow enough to tell that the guide was not going to allow us to go to the actual summit.  Something about too dangerous “peligroso” and prohibited “prohibito”.  By the time we got to the trailhead I had decided to do the hike by myself and go to the summit.

In hindsight, I should have told Greg and John what I was doing, but I was frustrated and not willing to have a guide prevent me from getting the peak.  So it was time to play the dumb tourist.  I hiked fast and the guide as well as John and Greg were immediately out of sight.  I made quick progress through the jungle and came out into the open onto a mars like landscape of bare rock.

the main lava flow below from several years prior and Fuego, Atitlan, and Acatenango in the distance
the main lava flow below from several years prior and Fuego, Atitlan, and Acatenango in the distance
Pacaya above
Pacaya above

The volcano was above me, a steady stream of thick gasses pouring out and over.  I crossed open terrain and found an old access trail leading up towards the rim.  The problem was that the wind was not in my favor this time.  It was coming strong and steady from the west and I had to cross the volcanic gas if I wanted to reach the highest point on the rim.  Not good.

I hiked up to the edge of the gas cloud.  Still no sign of my group back down below.  I thought if I could hold my breath and hike fast, I might be able to get to the other side of the gas.  I waited to catch my breath, took a big one, held it and then started traversing off-trail, aiming for the far side of the gas.  The slope I was crossing looked a bit odd to me.  I’ve been on a lot of volcanoes, but this looked totally different.  It slowly dawned on me that the big sloppy chunks of black lava rock all around me were fresh and newly formed.  Peligroso indeed…

I was half way through the gas when I ran out of air.  I just had to breathe.  Trying to cover my mouth with clothes did absolutely no good.  I sucked it in and started coughing, feeling light headed.  I turned around and ran back down the slope, the way I had come, trying not to fall on the sharp lava rocks.  I was being stupid.  Very stupid.  I knew this, but my desire for the summit at the time was more important to me than being not stupid.  This is the psychology that gets you killed.  Case Study: the climbers on Acatenango had been warned not to go up in the adverse weather conditions.

Back at the edge of the gas I turned around and waited, studying the wind and fumes, not sure what to do.  Then there seemed to be a slight lull and I tried it again.  Like before, I made it about half way before I had to breath.  The smoke was terribly acrid and choking.  I wondered if it was toxic.  I took breath after breath full and then got to the other side.  There were small vents all around me with white steam rushing out.

The rim was right above me now.  I went up to it and turned right, backtracking toward the summit.  The wind was so intense; it was near the point of knocking you down.  I went up to the summit and then retreated a little hoping for some cleaner air.  Then I saw it.  Down in the crater below me was an open cinder cone.  This is where the gas was coming from.  It was making a noise I had heard before in a documentary about lava type eruptions.  And lava was bursting up in spurts!  Holy F*ck!

lava!
lava!

All my life I have wanted to see lava directly from a volcano and I hadn’t expected it to happen today.  I was awed, inspired, and afraid.  The forces below me were terrible and amazing.  The unpredictable energy potential there is enough to snuff out life in an instant.  I knew this.  3 minutes.  That’s all I would allow myself up here.  I took some photos and video to remember the moment and then rushed back down through the gas.

after the foolish ascent
after the foolish ascent
Fuego and Atitlan
Fuego and Atitlan

Over the next hour I did a lot of coughing and noted that my phlegm had an odd aftertaste to it.  We descended a different route following the main lava flow below the low point of the crater rim.  Our guide took us to an area of hot rock.  These flows take years to cool off and this one was only a few years old.  I laughed when he took a bag of marshmallows out of his pack and prepared us some sticks.  Greg and I roasted marshmallows over the rocks.


Looking back up at peak we watched as the smoke increased tenfold, turning black.  I was glad I wasn’t still up there.  Never again.  Once is enough.

January 23 - Volcán Tajumulco - 13,845'

Tajumulco can be done in a day but we wanted to really enjoy it so we opted to camp high on the mountain as the locals do.  We were given the option to put some of our gear on a pack horse.  Sure, why not?  It was only my second time using a pack animal.  During the ascent we could see Volcán Tacaná to the northwest on the border of Mexico.  It would be our next objective.

Tacana
Tacana

We camped just below the saddle which separates Tajumulco from sup-peak Concepción.  After setting up camp we climbed the main peak via a non-standard route that had a smidge of scrambling.  The summit is the highest point in Central America.  To the southwest, all was a sea of clouds.  We hunkered down out of the wind and spent some time remembering our late friends Adam and Edward.

Tajumulco summit
Tajumulco summit
Greg
Greg
John
John

On the way down we traversed most of the crater rim before returning to camp.

January 23, 24 - Volcán Concepción – 13,287’

Just before sunset Greg and I went up to the sub-peak for a view of the sunset.  The following morning the three of us went back up Concepción to catch the sunrise.  The chain of volcanoes extended to the southeast in a row.  Lot’s of peaks left for us!

mountain shadow
mountain shadow

January 25 - Volcán Tacaná - 13,343'

This peak is accessed from the town of Sibinal which is extremely remote.  Somewhere between Tajumulco and Sibinal, in a small field, I noticed a single opium poppy flower growing where the rest had either been destroyed or harvested.  This is a testament to the international drug trade and ongoing smuggling at the Mexico/Guatemala border.

Sibinal is a pleasant town where people stand around for hours outside and talk instead of watching TV.  Guatemalans are short compared to westerners, especially in Sibinal.  Three tall gringos walking around stood out like a sore thumb.  That evening I ventured out by myself and watched live music and dancers in costume at the public square.  After dusk a fireworks display put Disneyland to shame.  I couldn’t help but wonder where the money came from for such an extended fireworks show.

traditional music and dance
traditional music and dance

Tacaná is located exactly on the international border and for this hike we were accompanied by two guides, the first of several double-guided hikes.  We hiked a well worn trail past numerous uninhabited shelters.  Another trail comes up the far side of the peak from Mexico.  How interesting.

predawn view of Tajumulco
predawn view of Tajumulco
Tacana above
Tacana above
international border
international border

We came to the international border marked by a line of monuments and then crossed illegally, following the trail up.  Another monument marked the summit.  Views were very good.  To the northeast I could make out our next few objectives, Peña Blanca and the Chemal peaks.  During the descent we spotted some very strange flower petals from a tree which looked liked birds feet.

Pena Blanca in the distance
Pena Blanca in the distance
Chemal peaks in the far distance
Chemal peaks in the far distance
Tajumulco
Tajumulco
Santa Maria
Santa Maria
two friends sitting on the summit in different countries
two friends sitting on the summit in different countries
Birds feet?  Nope.  Flower petals fallen from a tree.
Birds feet?  Nope.  Flower petals fallen from a tree.

January 26 - Cerro Chemal "La Torre" - 12,559'

Chemal has two main peaks of nearly equal height separated by 2.5 miles.  The northern one called Cerro los Cuervos “Ravens Hill” is probably higher than the southern La Torre “The Tower”.  Previously some peakbaggers have visited only one or the other which turned out to be a regrettable mistake.  We planned to do both.


We hiked up the southern one first and came to some small comms towers.  Beyond that in the forest we found the true highpoint of La Torre.  Guide #1 was a nice chap who only made one navigational blunder by taking us off the trail and unnecessarily up through some dense brush.  We rewarded him by hiking on ahead in the correct direction when he left us to scout around.

January 26 - Cerro Chemal "Cerro los Cuervos" - 12,589'

Guide #2 was late to work and a no show until we were on top of La Torre.  He showed up in bright colored fancy local clothing and proceeded to spend the rest of the day speaking one of the Mam dialects into his cell phone.  He then paused his conversation long enough to direct us to lose 300 vertical feet, unnecessarily dropping down into a small gorge.

following guide #2
following guide #2

By this point, Greg and I had had about enough shenanigans.  When Guide #2 then started leading away from our next peak, we turned directly towards it and split up the group.  John stayed with the guides.  In hindsight we should have used better communication.

Greg and I went to the summit.  Oh, sweet navigation and freedom!  John showed up later, visibly upset.  He said we had left him in an awkward situation and that the guides were down below freaking out looking for us.  He had tried to tell them that we were perfectly capable and probably just went to the summit, but the language barrier was a nuisance.  John was right and we were in the wrong.  We apologized and agreed not to do it again.

Cuervos summit tree
Cuervos summit tree

All day I had been watching carefully for fossils or caves in the limestone.  I had found one small cave that morning but not large enough to squeeze into.  But just below the top of Cuervos I found what I had been looking for, aquatic fossils.  I lingered up there exploring them well after the guys had begun their descent.

January 27 - Montañas Peña Blanca - 11,549'

To reach the mountain we had to first drive to the Pan-American Highway and then turn up the steep road to the town of La Libertad perched high on the slopes.  From town we rode in a truck up an even steeper road.  John and I stood in the back of the pickup.  This was the steepest road the three of us had ever seen, an engineering marvel.

the peak above
the peak above
Greg making a friend
Greg making a friend

We had the same Guide #1 from the day before but Guide #2 today was a 16 year old.  He led the way up the trail.  He was fast and strong.  He turned off the trail and took us bushwacking directly upslope.  I stopped to pee and quickly lost the group in the jungle.  They waited for me ahead, calling out so I could find them.

in the jungle
in the jungle
overhanging limestone cliffs
overhanging limestone cliffs

We traversed below impressive overhanging limestone cliffs.  We then passed through a natural arch and proceeded to the summit where ruined comms tower buildings and decommissioned towers remain.  Overlooking the cliffs, we could see La Libertad far below.  Peña Blanca and the Chemal peaks were the only mountains we did in Guatemala, not of volcanic origin.


January 28 - Volcán Santa María - 12,375'

Due to time constraints, we had to choose between Santa Maria and Pico Zunil.  Santa Maria is an attractive cone rising high behind the city of Quetzaltenango and has the added bonus of a connected sub-peak called Santiaguito which is active and would provide us with a decent chance of viewing another eruption.

We started predawn.  After the first half-mile, I attempted a small fart and sh## my pants.  Uh oh.  Time in Nepal, Algeria and Morocco has schooled me in the many forms of travelers’ diarrhea.  I could immediately tell that this was not one of the really nasty ones which make you puke while simultaneously pooping blood.  More of a nuisance really.  I told the guys I would catch up and had to stop to take care of something.

After the initial onset, I had to stop 3 more times.  Greg gave me his toilet paper.  I made a mental note to dose myself with azithromycin back at the hotel.  I was determined not to allow loose bowels to prevent me from getting the peak.  I was hesitant to eat anything else though.  We climbed up through the jungle and out into the open.  There were some small vents with steam around the upper mountain.

Acatenango, Fuego, Atitlan
Acatenango, Fuego, Atitlan

We bypassed the summit and went directly over to the far side where we could view Santiaguito smoking down below.  We agreed to wait a little over an hour, until say 11am, in hopes of viewing an eruption.  Another group gave up and left at 10:45am.

Santiaguito
Santiaguito

At 11am there was a sound like a jet passing overhead.  I thought it was jet.  Santiaguito was erupting.  I grabbed my camera and starting filming, also making sure to be in the moment and take it in with my own eyes.

eruption!
eruption!

What mushroom cloud!  Wow.  I asked the guide to take a photo of us.  After the eruption we went up to the summit boulder.  Nearby a group of local people were singing hymns in Spanish, presumable to the virgin.


January 29 - Volcán Atitlán - 11,604'

Peña Blanca had been a 6k gain day, Santa Maria was over 4k gain and now we were faced with two more tough days, 6.5k gain and 5k gain.  That’s 22,000 feet of gain in 4 days, not to mention the fact that I had just sh## my pants the day before.  I was feeling better though after the antibiotics.

Volcan Toliman
Volcan Toliman
Lake Atitlan and Volcan San Pedro
Lake Atitlan and Volcan San Pedro

We crossed Lake Atitlán in the dark on a small motorboat.  I wondered what would happen if said boat collided with an unseen floating log.  We started our hike at a small dock in the village of San Lucas Tolimán.  We crossed town and following trails through coffee plantations, climbing up to the saddle between Volcán Atitlán and Volcán Tolimán.

Something was wrong with Greg.  He was moving very slow.  He had been sick in the night.  I had woken up and listened to what sounded like some drunk puking near our room, but it was Greg in the bathroom.  John and I could see that Greg wasn’t going to make it, but we didn’t have the heart to tell him.  We let him make the decision.  He resigned to sleep among the coffee bushes and wait for us.


John and I sped up after leaving Greg.  In fact we had to keep waiting for the guide to catch up to us.  John estimated we might make the summit by noon.  The trail was the steepest of the trip and covered with loose dirt.  We climbed from jungle to forest and then out into the open volcanic rock.  There were more vents and steam.

passing by some vents
passing by some vents

John and I reached the top at 10am.  We were both shocked that it was so early.  I guess a steep trail makes for fast progress.  After sitting up there for awhile, two Canadian women with two guides in camouflage carrying machetes came up from the other route on the far side.  From what I had read, that side of the mountain is more likely to get you mugged.  I asked them if you had encountered any banditos.  Nope.

Atitlan summit
Atitlan summit

John and I returned to Lake Atitlán.  It appeared as though Greg had left his spot and returned to the lake.  Our guide did not speak English but he was on the phone and it sounded as though Greg had taken the boat back across the lake to the hotel.  When we arrived at the boat Greg was not there and the captain assured us in Spanish that Greg was not at the hotel either.  Where was Greg?

coffee cherries
coffee cherries

John and the guide decided to go back up to find Greg while I stayed at the dock in case he showed up.  After several hours Greg turned up with John and the guide.  All was well and Greg was even chipper after sleeping all day.  The wind on the lake was intense and our crossing was not easy, but it was scenic.

reunited
reunited
Atitlan and Toliman
Atitlan and Toliman

January 30 - Volcán Acatenango - 13,041'

Acatenango, the mountain which recently claimed 6 lives, and our last peak in Guatemala.  Our guide for the day was a 14 year old machete wielding boy.  He carried a sleeping bag as a precaution and I carried my down coat.  It was forecasted to be unusually cold again.  We ascended through dense jungle on a good trail.  There were numerous small shelters at designated rest areas.

minor trail erosion
minor trail erosion

We passed a small sub-peak and began ascending loose scree along the edge of a large crater.  Again we bypassed the summit and went to a place where we could fully view Volcán de Fuego which is active and connected to Acatenango.  We were hoping for another small eruption, but this time no dice.  After awhile we gave up and traversed a large bowl over to the summit.  Volcán de Agua was visible across the valley to the east.

the crater
the crater
Fuego
Fuego
Agua
Agua

Greg and John told me to look over there.  Volcán de Fuego was erupting, slightly.  Wow.  We descended, this time on the far side of the crater.  Our guide killed a small lizard with his machete and Greg scolded him.  He was a nice kid.  Perhaps he was trying to impress us that he was not afraid of Diego, a mythological spirit of the mountain who punishes people who are mean to animals or plants.

a minor eruption
a minor eruption
Acatenango summit
Acatenango summit
our machete wielding 14 year old guide
our machete wielding 14 year old guide
descending
descending

Video report:

Continue to Part 3

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Brushbuffalo
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PostThu Feb 09, 2017 7:06 pm 
Vulcan Pacayo-  pushing the edge a bit too far for another summit?

Judgment vs. desire= mental battle

Who among of us hasn't crossed the line a time or two, or more? rolleyes.gif
I had, until I made a conscious decision to become an old climber rather than a too-bold climber.

Careful out there, Gimp!  up.gif

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Passing rocks and trees like they were standing still
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Gimpilator
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Gimpilator
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PostFri Feb 10, 2017 7:52 am 
Absolutely right Doug.  It was idiotic.  I could have written the story differently to make my choices look better, but I decided not to hide the facts.  I have no intention to ever get that close to volcanic activity again.

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Brushbuffalo
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PostFri Feb 10, 2017 8:04 am 
Gimpilator wrote:
decided not to hide the facts.  I have no intention to ever get that close to volcanic activity again.

Thanks for your candor, Adam. up.gif

Having said what I did about judgment vs. desire and all that, I have to admit that what you did at Pacaya must have been tremendously stimulating in the doing,  and  mind-blowing to the max upon reflection afterwards!

However, I want to offer up some amateur psychology.

Negative-event feedback (doing something with high risk but surviving) tends to cause us to minimize our perception of risk because nothing seriously bad happened.  The next time a similar scenario becomes easier to plunge into, even easier the next time, then finally  eek.gif ...BOOM!

Risk = "probability of an occurrence" times "consequences of the occurrence"

It isn't the objective assessment of risk but rather the subjective perception of risk that changes. Statisticians, scientists, and insurance execs. tend to be good at assessment  (objectively based), while most of us are better at perception with its subjective basis.

Am I advocating, then, just to stay inside to minimize risk?
Hardly. People keel over on their sofas and die all the time while watching TV and subconsciously "being safe."
Besides, virtually everyone who participates in NWHIKERS forum would probably die of sheer boredom if we were so totally paranoid  to the point of never taking any chances "out there."

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puzzlr
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puzzlr
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PostSat Feb 11, 2017 5:53 pm 
It's really fun to read this report because I was in Guatemala at the same time you were, but our schedules didn't allow our paths to cross, even though we tried to make it work.

My wife and I spent a week around Lake Atitlan with a church group building outhouses and vented stoves on a Habitat for Humanity organized trip. I highly recommend this kind of trip if you want to feel like you're doing something meaningful beyond feeling disgruntled at misguided immigration policies. If you don't want people immigrating here, do something to help make their lives more bearable!
Work on outhouse #1
Work on outhouse #1
Work on stove #1
Work on stove #1
Lake Atitlan with Volcan San Pedro in back. The bump on the penninsula is Cerro De Oro
Lake Atitlan with Volcan San Pedro in back. The bump on the penninsula is Cerro De Oro
UCC Habitat for Humanity group
UCC Habitat for Humanity group

But after that week we hung around the beautiful Lake Atitlan for a few more days. I was constantly looking up at Volcan Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro wishing I had the time to climb at least one them, but not on this trip. One thing we did manage was a hike up Nariz Maya, or Indians Nose, on the NW side of the lake. There was some really creative trail work being done there - maybe WTA should start recycling old tires!

Indians Nose from the boat ride to Santa Clara
Indians Nose from the boat ride to Santa Clara
The trail goes through fields of coffee plants
The trail goes through fields of coffee plants
One of the steep parts on the trail
One of the steep parts on the trail
Innovative trail construction materials
Innovative trail construction materials
Creative trail work
Creative trail work
Indian Nose view point
Indian Nose view point
A rest stop shelter on the trail to San Juan
A rest stop shelter on the trail to San Juan

After that we went to Quetzaltenago with the intention of climbing Tajumulco, which you did. Unfortunately, by that time a cold we caught during our week of work took full hold and there was no way we'd be able to get up the "24th most prominent peak" in the world! We high tailed it back to Antigua the next day for a couple days of recuperation before our flight home. While there we were able to enjoy a spectacular eruption of Fuego as we ate in a roof-top restaurant. It's not uncommon for Fuego to erupt, but we knew this was something out of the ordinary when even the local waiters where taking photos with their cell phones. Later on when it got dark the fountains of lava at the summit were awesome, but my camera couldn't capture that.
Volcan Fuego erupting with the sun setting behind the ash cloud
Volcan Fuego erupting with the sun setting behind the ash cloud

However, I enjoyed the Habitat work so much I expect to be back, and next time I'm scheduling in time for some of those volcanoes, including Tajumulco.

BTW, our local coordinator for Habitat has also spent a lot of time guiding groups up Acatenango, where the 6 people died earlier. It was interesting to read the report you linked to and compare with the stories he was hearing from many other local people familiar with the peak and guiding groups. I'm not in a position to judge the accuracy of any report, but as usual there is a lot of ambiguity and discrepancy between various accounts.

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Gimpilator
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PostTue Apr 18, 2017 11:24 am 
Brushbuffalo wrote:
However, I want to offer up some amateur psychology.

I appreciate your thoughts Doug.  As a matter of fact, my major at WWU was Psychology, so I was quite aware of the processes at work within me during the ascent and after the fact.  I'd like to to point out that with the No Spray policy, the general silence on this issue from the rest of the community probably speaks of disapproval much louder than words.

I cast my vote along with the consensus that it was idiotic to climb Pacaya.  I was operating on less information than I ought to have had to be in such a dangerous place and I allowed summit fever to take hold.  It's as simple as that.  Will I do something stupid like that again sometime in my life?  Probably.  Will I do it if an active volcano is involved?  NEVER.

puzzlr wrote:
While there we were able to enjoy a spectacular eruption of Fuego as we ate in a roof-top restaurant. It's not uncommon for Fuego to erupt, but we knew this was something out of the ordinary when even the local waiters where taking photos with their cell phones. Later on when it got dark the fountains of lava at the summit were awesome, but my camera couldn't capture that.
Volcan Fuego erupting with the sun setting behind the ash cloud
Volcan Fuego erupting with the sun setting behind the ash cloud

Monty, thanks for tacking on your report.  It's wonderful to see your photos and hear about the important work you were doing there.  I'm sorry we weren't able to connect abroad.  Your view of Fuego's eruption is awesome and I bet the lava at night left a lasting impression.

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Matt Lemke
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PostTue Apr 18, 2017 11:49 am 
I am so jealous! I've been wanting to see a volcanic eruption for years!

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ree
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ree
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PostTue Apr 18, 2017 12:01 pm 
Wow, such an impressive trip report!!  And the pictures were sensational to boot.

I know for sure I don't have your determination.  Yipes, inhaling those gases!

Glad you took such nice shots, and I could enjoy it vicariously.  I wouldn't think to go hiking in Guatemala.  Seems like there would be a lot of nasty bugs and snakes.  (Where there?)

The terrain in your pictures is lovely, and definitely worth a trip.  Such amazing volcanoes.

Enjoyable write up.  up.gif

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Washakie
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PostFri Oct 27, 2017 3:30 pm 
I spent a coule of days at the lake over 20 years ago.  Didn't do any climbing though.  Beautiful place.

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