I have always espoused the notion that in order to fully appreciate the world’s most awe-inspiring sights, you should have to make some sort of personal sacrifice. By ‘sacrifice’ I mean enduring a certain level of physical discomfort; enough to have you doubting the worth of your endeavour right up until the moment you're rewarded with the sight of whatever it is you've set out to discover.
But 15 minutes into the five-hour hike to the summit of Volcán Acatenango, a 3,976-metre volcano that towers over the town of Antigua and Lake Atitlán in western Guatemala, I couldn’t give a damn about earning my reward; I just wanted it to be over, one way or another.
“The first hour will be difficult,” said Telesforo, a guide from the nearby village of La Soledad, which lies in the foothills of Acatenango and its neighbour, Volcán Fuego.
I suspected that this was a drastic understatement, but chose to ignore it; that and the obvious fact that to get from where I was to where I had to be, I would have to cover five kilometres of horizontal ground and ascend 1500 vertical metres.
Chest heaving in the milky blue darkness of 12.30am, I told myself I was just warming up, and set off once again. By starting the hike so early, we hoped to be at the summit of the volcano before sunrise, and, if we were lucky, get a glimpse of the lava glowing on the side of Fuego.
After the first difficult hour, the only thing that changed was the surface of the ground I was staggering over. For the first few hundred steep uphill metres, we had waded through loose volcanic scree – the black rock that spills down the slopes of the volcano. An hour in, the ground became slightly firmer, and the path began to zigzag, but it was still steep and unrelenting.
I stopped to catch my breath every five minutes, each time making a new excuse to Telesforo, who, at 47 years old, had not even broken a sweat. Bad knees, too old, too much beer, not enough sleep etc. I seriously considered turning around several times, but the prospect of admitting defeat and returning to the Señorita without some triumphant sunrise photos was intolerable.
We made slow progress for the next few hours, stopping from time to time for short breaks to snack and drink water. Each time we stopped, Telesforo added a new layer of clothing as the air grew thinner and colder. By the time we were two hours in I had put on everything I was carrying, including gloves, hat and scarf, and it was still freezing cold, with a vicious wind that cut through all my layers.
Hiking in the darkness, following the small puddle of light from my head torch, it was impossible to see the cloud forest that lined the path, or anything else beyond its dim glow. But the cloud began to lift near the halfway point and a golden half-moon shone down on several towns and villages far below. As we climbed higher and higher, the air grew clearer, and we could make out the distant cone of Volcán Atitlán.
The effort eventually became mechanical, and we made slow but sure progress until reaching the saddle between the two peaks of Acatenango, which tops out almost four kilometres above the surface of the earth.
The final push, which would send us up the remaining couple of hundred metres, was the hardest thing I have done in my life. Every ounce of energy I had was drained, and my legs felt like jelly. Or cement. Both.
The route to the summit was a long slog up steep unforgiving scree: two steps forward and one back, stopping every 10 steps to catch my breath and listen to the sound of my heart pounding in my ears as the altitude approached 4000 metres.
With the summit in sight and a golden dawn brewing off to the left, swirling around the outline of nearby Volcán Agua, I was still pathetically considering giving up.
When I hauled myself over the edge of the crater rim, and turned around to see the world unfold below me, I laughed, shouted and sighed in one long noise that probably sounded like the death throes of a dying man, and the exhaustion evaporated. The scene was biblical.
I almost ran up the gentle incline to the highest point of the rim and was firing off a few photos of the impending sunrise and the cone of Volcán Agua in the foreground, when the other volcano exploded behind me.
The ragged cone of Fuego belched out black smoke and incandescent orange gloop fizzed from its mouth. Rocks were hurled into the air and a noise like collapsing cathedrals boomed from within. It was the most awesome thing I have ever seen, and although I was three kilometres away from the hellish crater on the opposite peak, I could feel the ground rumble.
A few other hikers on the summit exchanged jubilant glances, and someone handed me a small bottle of aguardiente (local fire water) flavoured with flor de Jamaica (a kind of hibiscus) for a celebratory toast.
Fuego erupted intermittently for the next 15 minutes, by which time the bitter cold forced Telesforo and I (and his two loyal hounds who had trekked with us all the way from La Soledad) to head back down the mountain, after posing for a mandatory photo on the true summit of Acatenango.
By now the sun was shining brightly and every step we descended, the air grew warmer. We virtually ran down the volcano, accompanied by panoramic views across steep pine forests to the other volcanoes that surrounded us. The horrendous strain of the ascent was soon forgotten, at least until the following morning, when I was barely able to move my legs.
My belief in the merit of hard work as a means to the achievement of important goals remains firm, despite the fact that somewhere around 3am that day, almost delirious with cold and exhaustion, I had vowed to give up vigorous outdoor activities and finally come to terms with the fact that I’m in my mid-30s and have a beer belly to prove it.
Tomorrow we’re heading to Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by three volcanoes and apparently oozes cosmic energy, if you're into that kind of thing. The hiking is supposed to be spectacular, with plenty of opportunities to explore indigenous Mayan villages, trek through hillside coffee plantations and visit the site of a notorious massacre from Guatemala's not-too-distant dark days.
Then there's those volcanoes...