Every time I think something is difficult, or dangerous, or scary…I think of this. This mountain, this volcano, this adventure. I think of Momotombo. It was about halfway through a 10-day trip to Nicaragua to visit/adventure (they really go hand in hand when we’re together) with my friend. We had just spent a couple of incredible days living the Island life…you know the version where you traverse the rocky edge of an island for hours, are escorted off of private property by military personnel, camp out, bathe in the ocean and climb coconut trees. But that’s a story for another time.
After taking the smallest plane ride of my life (practically sitting in the cockpit where one pilot took a nap while the other filed paperwork) back to capital of Nicaragua, we navigated our way in the dark through the crowded, crazy streets of Matagalpa to our hostel (my friend is a rock star at driving in Central America). With intermittent wifi connection we tried to confirm plans for the following day. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to climb a volcano…but we hadn’t narrowed down which one. I recall our overly tired conversation with our physically exhausted bodies going something like this…
“How about Momotombo? That one’s near Leon… I think I heard something about that one.”
“Yeah, it’s not the highest one, but I think I read that it’s one of the hardest. Sounds good to me.”
“This website says they provide special safety gear and masks to wear at the top.”
“Sounds serious…I don’t want it to be a touristy excursion though.”
“Me neither, but it doesn’t look like we can hike it without a guide (because of the permits needed, etc. etc.)…Lets go with this company…it’s all in Spanish so it must be locals and probably less touristy.”
“Good plan. Can we go on such short notice? (Less than 24 hours).”
“Yeah they said it’s fine.”
“ Ok, cool.”
After getting some much needed rest, we woke with the help of pancakes and coffee; filled up the tank and started the couple hour drive to Leon Viejo. Turns out Leon Viejo is different then Leon…as we discovered after we arrived in Leon only to find out we had missed our turn about 45 minutes back. We made it to the tiny little village street where we would meet our guide. We had been told that we would be hiking part of the way up the volcano that afternoon and then stopping to camp and continue to the summit the following day, so we had a big lunch at the only restaurant around and waited for our guide. Actually he waited for us to pack up the rest of our meal for the road.
We hopped in the back of a truck with our guide and a farmer and started down the unpaved road toward Momotombo. And by unpaved, I mean we should have been in a rock crawler…this was serious off roading for a farm truck. As we neared a big gate, the truck slowed and the driver rolled up all of the windows except for his as he and our guide spoke in hushed voices. We pulled up to the gate where the old goucho (cowboy/farmer) exchanged a few words with the guard…we passed through and continued on our way as the driver rolled the windows back down. We had successfully been smuggled into the…hydrothermal power plant without a permit.
After making our way a little further up the base of the mountain, the truck began to struggle in the thick soft dirt and so the driver backed up to a clearing and stopped. We were fully prepared to hop out and start walking up the mountain when our guide began to unload his backpack, and a gallon of water, and another, and another, and then a whole ice chest… and more. Before we could figure out what was going on, the farmer said hasta mañana (no really, that’s exactly what he said). After looking around and trying to decide how this was going to work, I asked our friend (the guide) if we were going to start hiking. No, he said. This is our campsite. We’ll camp here and hike in the morning. …”so…what are we going to do until then? It’s 3pm.” Well according to him, we had lots to do, and he began cleaning the campsite. Yes…he grabbed a stick and started sweeping away all of the leaves and loose dirt from the…dirt. My friend willingly helped and I… well I tried, but I couldn’t quite understand why were trying to “clean” the side of the mountain of its natural qualities. So I held in my laughs and took a picture and pretended to help as I kicked around some of the dirt that would stay there.
After cleaning the campsite and setting up our tent and even having some watermelon, it was now a late 3:30pm. So, we wandered through the brush and trees for a bit to a small clearing where we could see a big lake and a small volcano in the distance. I climbed a tree for a better view (naturally) and when the guide didn’t seem fond of my idea to “wait” for the sunset there, I drew in the dirt, picked up some stick and we started our own version of “volcano side darts in the wind.” Yes, it was every bit as exciting as it sounds. We played more rounds than I expected and I even saw our guide smile once…he took the competition very seriously. We had some chicha (pink drink made from corn and artificial flavors…yep, as weird as it sounds), watched the sun set through the clouds and made our way back to camp.
After sharing some food and new words in each of our languages, my friend and I headed to our tent, and our guide to his hammock, where we got a few hours of restless sleep on volcanic pebbles (we were packing super light…tent but no sleeping bags) before waking up at 1:30AM to have some coffee and bread, pack up camp and start our trek up the volcano. At 2 am we started up the incline of thick soft dirt blindly following our guide in the dark as it began to sprinkle. Despite the obvious challenge of not being able to see… I think hiking in the dark is actually easier. Primarily because of the fact that you can’t see where you are or where you’re going…you just have to focus on what’s in front of you and take it one step at a time. Our path seemed to get a little less steep…but also a little more uneven as we sank further into the side of the volcano with each step. At one point, I fell behind just enough to escape the harsh blinding flashlight of our guide up ahead and was able to see that we were traversing across a steep slope of volcanic ash.
As we got further along, the volcanic ash became speckled with bigger volcanic rocks making it very difficult to find or keep our footing as we continued to follow our guide through the dark. “The good news,” I thought to myself, “is that we’re knocking out the hardest part in the dark. We’ll practically be at the top by the time it gets light.” As we sat down among some jagged boulders and sporadic plants to have what was probably our 3rd breakfast that morning, we were able to see the faintest hint of daylight on the horizon. We could still see a few lights twinkling in the distance and could see the faint outline of a smaller volcano across the lake. I could see even more light up above/behind and could see a horizon, a plateau, something. So I eagerly scrambled up through the boulders and plants to level ground. The wind was strong but the view as exciting; A lake with a view of Momotombito (literally means Little Momotombo) and up above what we thought was just a little ways to the peak of our volcano. Our guide kept saying the day before that we would go part of the way up and stop and look at the view and the volcano and then come back down…unless it was clear enough for us to go to the top. I tried my hardest to understand and nicely explain to him that I do not climb volcanoes, or any mountain for that matter, to only go part of the way. No. I was going to the top of the volcano, so whatever gasses he kept talking about better just blow away. I don’t come to hike just part of a volcano. I guess this was the “part way” point he had mentioned.
“There’s not too much gas,” our guide said. “That means we can go to the top!” I looked up and finally put together that what I naively assumed were clouds covering the top of the volcano the day before were actually volcanic gasses engulfing the summit and pouring down the side.
FUN FACT: After 100 years of being dormant, this volcano became active again in December of 2015. In the 6 months between then and the time we hiked it, the volcano had had over 500 small eruptions. You do the math. Disclaimer: we had no idea how active it was until after we hiked it.
After a couple of photos (since it was finally light enough for some grainy ones), spirits high thinking this was the final push; we started making our way to the top of Momotombo. With our goal in sight, and enough light to actually see where we were going, we didn’t care quite as much about the steep incline, the loose rocks or the extremely strong winds. The incline got increasingly steeper and the terrain less stable. We finally opted to leave our trekking poles along our path so that we could use our hands to stabilize ourselves/crawl up the mountain.
Soon our path was altogether non-existent as we continued to crawl up the steep slope now consisting of…dirt. A little loose dirt and ash on top of hard mountain. Yeah the combination is as slippery and frustrating as it sounds. We soon forgot our naïve comments about being “almost” there as we literally clung to the side of the volcano, which was getting increasingly warmer to the touch. As we continued our way up and started traversing at a more horizontal angle. There were no nooks or crannies or boulders that we could stop and rest at. If I had known that before, I might have sat down and rested my muscles for a minute before hastily making my way for the “final ascent”. This may be a good time to mention that I had spent the couple of days before trying to climb coconut trees. I don’t know if you have ever tried that before, but it’s difficult. Every muscle in my body was sore. Including muscles I didn’t know I had.
With physical fatigue setting in and no sign of the summit in sight, I became more aware of my surroundings and the reality of our situation. Now, looking back, if I had actually fallen, I’m not sure what would have happened. I suppose if I laid against the mountain I would have been able to slide down and I would of stopped eventually… Right? But it would have been a long ways down, and at the time, without thinking rationally, the idea of falling was terrifying. Every time I would find what looked like a rock, something to actually grab onto for one second…it would crumble beneath my fingers and start a miniature landslide.
The side of the volcano soon became rockier and a little more level. While probably just as unstable and unsafe, I could finally relax for the first time in what felt like forever. We followed our guide down and around crater of the volcano, which sat just off to the side. It made sense now, all of the gas he was talking about the day before and how we might not be able to go to the top. Is smelled strongly of sulfur and our eyes and lungs began to burn. Our guide suggested we pour some water on our shirts/ and use it to cover our nose and mouth. We all three soaked in the views in awe and took photos and videos as we followed our guides lead wandering around the edge of the crater. At one point he led us down into the crater a little ways where gasses were pouring out so thick that you could barely breathe or see. This might have been the clearest our guide had ever seen the volcano as he was just as excited as us to be admiring the views and taking advantage of photo ops. After my heart rate finally started to lower and it became harder to breathe and keep my eyes open, we started to make our way back around the crater. Our guide asked if I was afraid to go back the way we came, and I admitted (for the first time in my life that I can recall) that yes, I was scared. He asked if I would be able to make it and I asked him if a helicopter would come pick me up if I said no… he chuckled and started leading the way.
Instead of going back the same way we came (around the mountain…which still terrifies me trying to imagine going back down that way)…we decided to start going down the mountain, literally sledding, and once it got less steep, surfing down the side of the volcano (with our pants and our feet). After making it back down to the plateau we had watched the sunrise from earlier that morning, we had our 4th breakfast of the day before continuing our way back to camp. This time in the daylight. By the time we arrived at our campsite, the Farmer was already there with his truck, ready to take us back to town. With wobbly legs, we loaded the truck and took a deep breath as we looked at each other very satisfied yet partly in disbelief of what we (my adventure buddy and I) had just done. We took the scenic route back to town…literally driving in the dirt along the lake. Our guide left us at the restaurant where we had 5th breakfast before driving to Managua. I think this stands as my record for the most breakfasts in one day…all technically still during morning hours.
This was almost 9 months ago, and I still find myself daydreaming about it and reliving it in my head like it was yesterday. I’ve wanted to write about it since the adventure itself, but I was afraid of not doing it justice, of not being able to describe it accurately or portray the situation. I haven’t included every detail…that would be too much. But this adventure is too great not to share.