Training to Climb a Volcano

"Pacaya Volcano" by Greg Willis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Pacaya Volcano” by Greg Willis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In March of 2009, I climbed an active volcano in Guatemala—Volcan Pacaya. Yes. Really. 

Somewhere, there’s a photo of me with molten lava flowing fewer than 20 feet behind me, but these will give you an idea of what it was like.

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

 

At the very top, I could see streams of magma flowing just below the surface—the surface on which I was walking. People were roasting marshmallows over gaps in the rock. The extreme heat melted the glue holding together the bottom two layers of my borrowed, super-expensive hiking boots, leaving me to flap-flap-flap back down. That mountain wasn’t playing around.

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

 

It was the most adventurous, most insane thing I’ve ever done.

I was never really afraid, though. I remember thinking there’s not a National Park in the United States that would allow such a thing, what with insurance and lawyers and what-not. But I figured we surely wouldn’t have been allowed up—even in Guatemala—if there were any danger of it actually, you know, erupting. (Which it did, just more than a year after we climbed it.)

As we waited at the bottom of the mountain for our guide, kids kept offering to rent walking sticks to us. I’d eyed the path ahead of us, and, in my ignorance, had determined that such assistance was totally unnecessary. Time and time again I responded, “No, gracias.” And time and time again, those sweet kids shrugged their little shoulders and made “Ooookkkkkaaaaaay, lady” faces at me.

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

 

Pro tip: There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to climbing a volcano. Take the stupid walking stick already. Nobody needs to be a hero.

The first part of the climb was simply breathtaking. The trail was winding and tree-lined, and we could see three other volcanoes in the distance. The scenery  was stunning, and the hiking was totally doable.

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

 

Part two, however, was breathtaking in a completely different way. Imagine walking across a beach of loose sand—three or four inches deep. Not so easy on the calves, right? Okay, now turn that beach into a hill—one that’s steep enough, in spots, that you have to set your hand down to steady your climb. And the sand is black. And hot. Fun, right?

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

 

And then came part three: A path comprised of shards of glass masquerading as rock. You might remember from eighth-grade science or some NatGeo special that cooled lava creates igneous rock. That stuff is jagged and rough and sharp. We had no gloves. Sandal-wearers were cussing and bleeding.

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

photo by Jennifer Long

 

Pro tip: Wear closed-toed shoes when climbing a volcano. And bring gloves. For crying out loud.

Some of our team ended their climb after part two. They found shade under giant  rocks, and waved us on with their water bottles. “You sure you want to go all the way up there?” they asked. No question. I’d caught a glimpse of the magma as we were climbing, and I wanted to get up close and personal with that stuff.

Long story short: I made it the whole way. I snapped some photos. We climbed back down. I said, “Again! Again!” which was met with, “You’re out of your mind, Hartnett.” I came home and bought a big coffee table book about volcanoes, I took a lesson at a local rock-climbing gym, and I was completely obsessed with the idea of hiking up another volcano (any volcano) as soon as humanly possible.

I’ve not climbed one since.

Yesterday morning, I wrapped up my second week of training for my very-first-ever 5K, and as I was walking/running/panting across the godforsaken hills of Lake Saint Louis, Pacaya came to mind out of nowhere. And I got a little misty-eyed. Why? Because I’m not ready for her. In fact, I’m not actually ready for much of anything.

I was in the best shape of my life in 2009. I’d been using my [h]elliptical obsessively. I wasn’t training for anything in particular; I just liked feeling healthy and lean, and that machine seemed to make it all happen. And because I spent so much time on that thing, I was ready for any adventure that came my way—including climbing a freaking active volcano. 

And here’s my point:

Sometimes, maybe even often, we need to put in the hard work of training before we even know what we’re training for. 

It’s good to be open to new experiences and relationships…but that’s entirely different from being ready for them. Have we sufficiently processed heartaches so we’re ready for The One? Have we done enough exploring to be ready to settle in to The Rest of Our Life? Have we pushed through the ugly, boring, utterly uninspiring jobs so we know what makes our heart sing when it comes along? Are we developing discipline with our finances so we can put funds toward something meaningful later on—something we may not even recognize as meaningful just yet? Have we allowed ourselves to ache and grieve and press on and fall backwards and press on again so we know what we’re capable of enduring? Yes: Some of that sucks, but none of it is a waste of time. It’s training for an adventure we can’t even imagine yet.

You want to be ready for your volcano? Work out. Process. Think. Feel. Live.

Train.

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