Momotombo Volcano - Conquered!

Trip Start Aug 26, 2005
Trip End May 26, 2008

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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A huge Volcano called Momotombo dominates the landscape in Leon. There are hot springs, waterfalls and importantly - the 'Flor de Cana' factory (local Rum). It’s enough to keep me here for a week at least.

Momotombo is a 1240 meter high active volcano that dominates the Landscape around here. When you mention is name in the street, people scream and run. It’s that scary. So at Midnight, I'm climbing it. Trevor - my English traveling companion and I had heard rumors of this vicious volcano for many months and from its first mention in a conversation down in Panama, I knew I wanted to climb it. When we arrived in Leon, we didn’t have to search for it, we just looked up and there it was – spewing toxic gases from its cone.

We planned on doing a night time hike. The reason is simple, it’s so friggin hot during the day that we would be cooked alive, not by lava but by the Nicaraguan sun if we did it during the day. It’s the hottest month of the year in this country right now and by crikey the sun is intense. Luckily the hostel has a pool and as I sit here any type this, it’s about 3 meters from me. I jumped in about 3 minutes ago and already I'm dry and have started to sweat again.

Back to the point - there is one tour company in town, called ‘Quetzal Trekkers’. They offer a two day tour to the base of Momotombo for $50 US. It Involves an easy three hour hike on the first day, then camping overnight in the tree line at the base of the volcano. The next day, you rise early and climb partially up the Volcano, where you get a great view of town before coming down. Trevor and I thought this to be an impractical idea as apparently it only takes 5 hours to get to the top. We could summit the Volcano in one session without camping. Although we had never met anyone who had been to the top, these were just our estimates. So we proposed that at midnight, we start climbing and arrive at the top for sunrise and a cheeky peek into the cone, then come back down before the midday heat. We thought it sounded easy enough, when we planned it a few days earlier, but when we presented it to the tour company, they were totally against the idea and refused to have anything to do with us.

We proposed that if they didn’t guide us, we would simply do it ourselves. ‘Impossible’ they said. A Geothermal power plant sits at the base of the Volcano and heavily armed security guards will not let anyone through without written permission from the tour company and manager of the plant. It seemed that we couldn’t get near it without the help of the tour company.

We gave up for the day and returned to the hostel to re-think and re-plan our options. That night, we sat and formulated a few ideas but after much brain storming, we were determined that our suggestion was the best. We returned to the tour company the next day, begging for a pass through the Power Station. After much consultation with various guides and phone calls to the Power Station Manager, the tour company agreed to get us a pass and to our amazement, would also be providing a guide at a very reasonable price due to the activity of the Volcano and maze of paths to get through the Power station and the forest at the base of the Volcano. Of course we had to pay a few dollars, but it was considerably less than the $50US overnight fee they were asking.

All seemed set, until an hour before departure, when a staff member from the tour company came around to the hostel, hunting for us. He was, an American, who said he spoke to the boss and they don’t want us to do the summit at night. The power company came back and said they didn’t want people crossing through the plant at night. Even if we were getting escorted through. So therefore the tour company won’t take us. Just a minor setback for us. But it’s certainly not going to stop us. The tour company won’t provide the guide or the pass now, but we have asked them to provide the transport to at least get us to the starting point. We will dress in our best camouflage gear and at midnight, get dropped off just out of sniper range of the property. From there, on our bellies we will crawl for about a kilometer across the power plant, then run up the volcano, and be there for the sunrise. Then just as the sun is coming up, we plan to throw a small Incan child as a sacrifice into the lava and then run back down before we get burnt to a crisp by the angry Hot Magma Gods. Easy.

A few days later: It wasn’t easy, but Trevor and I made it to the top of Momotombo. We survived, we think, and only just made it back to tell the story. It took us lots of hard work and hours of hiking, then five hours of climbing and sliding and eventually, we made it to the summit, just before sunrise as we had planned. We were at the summit, or so we thought, just as the sun was meant to rise, not that we would have known. The cloud and mist cover was so thick that we couldn’t see a thing. Visibility was less than a few meters. We were forced to descend due to thick sulfur fumes and almost fell into the lava but survived to tell the tale after losing our guide.

In the end, the tour company decided to come with us. It was a last minute decision as they realized we would be going with or without them. We used an old permit to cross through the Geothermal power plant. The tour company simply photo copied a pass they had used a few months ago and with a new date, and a forged signature we were through.

We took a private car from downtown Leon to the entry gates of the Geothermal plant, arriving just before midnight. The security guards were dazed and confused and could barely see when we pulled up and flashed our permission slip at them. They waved us through without a question and we crossed the plant. On the other side of the plant was another checkpoint. The security here were a little more alert and scrutinized a little more but nonetheless, waved us through. It was that easy. The car dropped us off and we geared up and started our ascent a little after midnight.

The first part of the hike was easy enough but terribly hot and sweaty, even at midnight. We zigzagged our way up a well used trail, climbing steeply in the darkness, with crickets chirping loudly in the low dry grasses. Slowly the vegetation changed from thick trees to grasses on a dry and dusty volcanic soil.

At 2am we had made considerable progress and our thighs were burning from the climb. The trees had given way to small shrubs and a few grasses. The vegetation was thinning with sporadically placed trees. We rested and admired the view back down toward Leon, with Managua shining brightly on the other side of the huge Lake Nicaragua. Covered in sweat and sitting in the dark, we ate and drank and prepared for the hard part of the climb. From here up, it would be a rocky, slippery sliding mess of a crawl up an avalanche path to the summit of the volcano. It started with a few boulders, that slipped from under our feet and caused mini avalanches and landslides which at times took us a few meters back down to where we had come.

As we climbed, a thick fog grew thicker and visibility was down to 2 meters. The lights from our headlamps were so bright in the thick fog that all we could see was a wall of white fog. If we turned the lights off, it was pitch black. Absolute darkness, we couldn’t see a difference looking up or down. Because of this, we stayed close together, walking in single file, taking it in turns to cross the sliding avalanche prone soil.

As we climbed up, the rocks became smaller and we were on our hands and knees, crawling on pulverized rocks. Up and up we went but a few steps up, we just slid back to where we started. It seemed useless but the guide, Adam, a local assured us there was no other way up. This is why people don’t climb this volcano. Its hard work, and especially at night, when we couldn’t see a thing. We were starting to wish that we listened to the tour companies advice.

The last two hours were hell. We were cut to pieces on our hands, knees and legs from sliding on the sharp rocks and we had no option but to go straight up or give up. Every so often we spotted a boulder which we ran for and would dive onto, clinging onto it to avoid slipping all the way back to where we had started. It was hard going and only got steeper and harder the higher we got. Occasionally the boulders that we launched at and used as anchors would come loose and we’d slide all the way back to our last checkpoint, occasionally a little further, moving out of the way of the avalanche we had created. We would sit still and listen as the rocks rushed down the side of the volcano. I think by the time we got to the top, we had climbed it twice, at least, it felt that way. At around 4am, we were still among the rockslides. Perhaps during the day with sunlight, we may have been able to see the top, and a better way up but for now, all we saw was darkness in every direction. We ended up climbing with our headlights off, as all they would do was illuminate the thick fog around us and block out our vision. Their only use was to find each other in the darkness. We would reunite every 5 minutes, and continue the climb.

Adam assured us that we were making progress and said all we need to do is go up. Our frequent stops to check in were slowing us down, so we made a decision: No more stops, just go for it. All we needed to do was head straight up. We would meet at the top. ‘There is no way to get lost’ said our guide, ‘there is a rim of a volcano up there, see you at the top’ . Trevor and I wanted to be sitting on the top at 5:10am, for the sunrise, so we made a furious effort to keep climbing. Trevor would take off and I would lose him in the fog. I continued and would find him, collapsed and recovering slightly higher up 10 minutes later. Then I went first and the same thing would happen. We took it in turns to lead and we went up and up and at some point, we arrived at a 2 meter high lava wall. There was no way around, so we spent a few minutes kicking and pushing rocks aside and using the harder rocks as picks. We had made a staircase which we scrambled up and that, to our relief was the end of the pulverized rocks. From here on it was old lava flow, which had grip, and once again, we could walk upright.

It was approaching 5am and the first signs of light began to show. We could walk without our headlamps from here and looked up and down, seeing nothing but fog. Sulfur fumes began to blow in and this signaled us that we were somewhere near the top. Fantastic. But where is it?

We kept going up and the sulfur became super strong. It was burning our eyes and lungs. Heated steam holes penetrated through the crust and we used them warm up in the pre dawn cold. The ground began to heat up and our boots started melting. We decided to find another way up and moved to the side, where the sulfur was slightly bearable. The ground leveled out and holes spewing super heated gasses were all over the place. The air got super cold in the mists and even with the new light of approaching day we couldn’t see much more than a few meters. We had a quick investigation and decided this was as far as we could go. It was so cold with the clouds blowing past and soaking us and we took shelter in a small crevasse, where the heat from the volcano warmed us a little.

We had a big problem now - No guide! The best option we thought was to go back and retrace our steps. We started heading down but after a few minutes, Adam appeared from the mist. He told us this was the top and thought we were dead, but all was good. He had been here before and said that if we had continued any further up, we would have walked into a lava hole. He took us on a dodgy path around the cone, where we should have got a good view, but the lack of visibility from the fog, meant that our summit experience was an anti climax. We had no more than a few meters visibility. It was 6am and the sun was well and truly up now. It wasn’t going to be the magical sunrise we were expecting.

It was time to go down. We took the easy way. No path, just a rock slide all the way to the bottom. We basically slid all the way down, 2 hours worth of sliding and cutting ourselves to bits and we were back in the tree line. After about 30 mins of sliding down the mist cleared and gave us our first view of the lake and villages below. Wow we were high! We had no idea how high we had climbed in the darkness, but we probably would have got vertigo if we knew where we were. No wonder we were sliding down. We basically scaled a vertical cliff face of old lava flows and had Conquered Momotombo!
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