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Volcán Concepción, Nicaragua: Climbing an angry volcano

After spending a glorious few days in Costa Rica, I crossed the border into Nicaragua and headed straight for the little town of Rivas near the shores of Lake Nicaragua. From where the big rickety bus dropped me, its a short tricycle ride to the ferry pier in the village of San Jorge on Lago de Nicaragua. When I thought the bus was rickety, I was in awe to lay my eyes on the ramshackle wooden Lancia (boat). I placed my backpack on the roof and found myself a small standing space in the overcrowded sitting area. If you get easily seasick, or you are scared of facing death - don't do this trip. Taking the larger ferry would be less death defying. However, the trip to Ometepe Island took less than an hour through choppy waters and dropped me, surprisingly, safely at the village of Moyogalpa. 

Ometepe Island, formed by two volcanoes, is located along the west side of Lake Nicaragua. Volcán Concepción (Conception Volcano), an active volcano, makes up the larger, northwest part of the island, while Volcán Maderas (Maderas Volcano) on the southeast side of the island is dormant. These two volcanoes are connected by a narrow isthmus and their respective summit elevations are 1,610 meters (5,283 feet) and 1,345 meters (4,413 feet) above sea level.

I came to Omotepe Island to climb the peaceful dormant
Volcán Maderas. As I strolled down the dusty streets of Moyogalpa on my first evening of arrival, I met up with Imke, a lovely Dutch gal, who said she was planning a trip up Volcán Concepción with a fellow Dutch guy (Don) and a Swedish guy (Hampus). All super nice people! They have arranged a local guide who will take them all the way to the top of the volcano so they could peak inside the crater. Start time is 6 am the next morning and I am more than welcome to join them. What an invitation! While I love volcanoes (I'm a volcano freak!), I am well informed that Volcán Concepción is an active and dangerous volcano and scaling the crater should not be attempted without a professional guide only when the volcano is "sleeping" and no signs of imminent eruptions of stone blowing.

The fact is: Volcán Concepción is one of Nicaragua's highest volcanoes and is also one of its most active!

Concepción is a stratovolcano and since 1883 it has erupted at least 24 times. Eruptions are characterized by frequent moderate-sized explosions. While the most recent large eruption ended in 1986, Concepción has had frequent moderate explosive eruptions in the past century, most of which have originated from a small summit crater.

My visit to Concepción was on April 10th, 2006. The eruption just prior to my visit was on 28th July 2005 and the following eruption occurred on February 9th, 2007, which means I visited during a relatively quiet time. However, volcanoes can be highly unpredictable! So, my hesitation to climb Concepción was well founded.

I met up with my three adventurous friends at a restaurant that evening to discuss their, or our, plans. I shared with them my concerns and some obvious dangers which Concepción may literally throw at us. As expected, these youngsters (all in their early twenties - me in my forties), laughed at my concerns and assured me that they have a well respected local guide lined up who said Concepción has behaved very well lately and we should have a smooth 5-hour climb to the top. Globerovers being a Super Adventurer, I didn't need much convincing to join the new founded 4C (Concepción Crater Climbing Club). I was as excited as I could get, yet I felt I wasn't prepared at all with the necessary gear, food and water. After dinner we scooped up a few packs of snacks and bread at the limited kiosks in the village and set off for an early night's sleep.

Early riser gets the biggest worm. As I got up at 5 am, I knew that today will be either one of the most exciting days of my life - or it could be my last.

My team slept in and then decided to first have breakfast. Eventually at about 7 am, well behind schedule, we started our hike to the base of the volcano via the tiny village of La Flor. Each of us armed with 5 litre of water, a few packs of crackers and bread, and a lot of guts, we started our ascent just past the banana plantations. I believe in the value of a hiking stick, yet my young 4C team members did not show any interest. So, along I walk with my brand new hiking stick.

The first 25% of the climb is quite interesting and not too strenuous. As we crossed into the second quartile of the climb, we talked less, drank more water, and had to stop more often to rest. The vegetation forms almost clearly defined bands around the volcano - except for the south
eastern side which is mainly covered in old, and not-so-old, lava flows. We started at the banana plantations at the bottom of the volcano and then crossed into the high, almost tropical tree line. This was followed by several bands of tree lines in declining order of height. Eventually, the tree line ended into high shrubs which was followed by low shrubs. From here it was mainly high grass, then short grass, and eventually no grass where the hot gravel starts. The gravel ends at the ridge of the crater. By the time we reached the high shrubs, each of us have had at least a few spectacular falls. Fortunately nothing more than a few scratches and bruises.

During the first three hours, our 4C team stayed closely together and shared lots of chats and laughs. However, as Imke increasingly lagged behind, our guide and I remained close to her while the two guys kept moving faster. Soon they were out of view. We weren't too concerned as we expected to meet up with them at the top.

The real fun started as we crossed into the fourth quartile of the climb which was about four hours into our ascent. We were in for a great treat. Muck, deep muck! The muck here is decomposing organic matter which has reached a point of disgust. The band of muck formed when plants, mostly low growing ferns and grass, were destroyed in a recent mud flow following an eruption. At times we were walking ankle deep in muck and often sank knee deep! We were covered in dirt beyond belief!

As we worked our way through the muck, we found that the two guys, who left us earlier, were
nowhere to be seen. From here we had a clear view of the top, except for low hanging clouds and fog near the crater edge. We kept going as we expected to find the guys in the clouds near the edge.

Past the muck, it was time to scale the very steep warm gravel. Shoe traction was key. At this height the wind blew fiercely and without good shoe traction, it was often one step forward and two steps down.

Just ten meter from the crater, the wind was blowing so strong we could hardly stay on our feet. By now we were enshrouded in clouds and could barely see more than a few meter ahead. The guys were nowhere in sight which was a great concern. I realized that this was going to be an unforgettable day - if we survive!

I went into survival mode and dropped flat on my stomach. This was going to be the safest, and probably the only way to get to see inside the crater. On the increasingly hot gravel, I crawled closer and closer to the edge - my body and particularly my hands, were now getting very hot. I felt like a little desert lizard. Those who keep two feet in the air on the hot sun soaked sand. Imke and the guide decided they had enough and stopped short of the final ascent. I was totally determined and
soon I was peeking into the smoldering crater. While the view was not entirely spectacular due to sulfur cloud coverage, I did see some amazing yellow sulfur formations. I wish I could have spent more than 30 seconds peeking into the abyss, and taking photos, but this was clearly one of the most inhospitable places on earth. This was also not only one of my scariest and most exciting moments of my life, but was absolutely one of the most dumbest things I have ever done. In retrospect - the hot edge I was lying on could have dropped into the crater with me, or the fierce wind could have blown me inside. In fact, I was greatly concerned that this was the fate of the two guys.

I retrieved from the edge and rejoined Imke and our guide. I managed to take a very quick snap
of the crater's edge with my small pocket camera but we all knew it was time to get out of the hot spot. Back to the muck, we could no longer endure the uncertainty of the two guys. Our continued calls to them didn't get far as the wind carried our voices back towards the crater edge. Our guide then asked us to stay put while he walked down into the higher shrubs to look for them. Imke had another spectacular fall and sank deep into the muck while hysterically crying. This was crunch time and I had to keep the spirits high with my sense of humor and silly jokes!

After half an hour of searching, the guide's calling eventually reached the ears of the lost boys and we were all reunited. They explained that as they approached the crater walls, they decided it was too dangerous to stay long and turned around. Due to the high winds and clouds, they were disoriented, could not find the path leading down to where we were ascending, and so they ended up about 30 degrees off course lower down the slope. By this time they both had a few more spectacular falls, were drenched in muck and bruises, and most concerning - were seriously running out of water. Our Swedish member had hardly any water left and the Dutchie complained that his knees were giving in.

I remained strong - thanks to my sense of humor. While it took five and a half hours to ascent, the decent was going to take us only five hours. In many ways, the decent was more difficult as we ended up having more falls going down, than going up. Also, as we started our decent, we were all extremely exhausted, had no food left, and had to seriously ration our water intake due to limited supplies. I had to share my last litre of water with the Swede as he ran out of water even before starting the descent. My walking stick proved to be very effective, in particular during the descent.

We were a very happy but tired bunch reaching the first village where we started and downed almost the entire stock of cold drinks at the first kiosk. After relaxing under a tree for a while, we headed back to our guest house in the town of Moyogalpa.

Next time you see me, ask me: What was the most amazingly dangerous day in your life? I will likely tell you about my great respect for Volcán Concepción. Or, I may be telling you about "Hiking the hot lava of Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano", or "The flying rocks of Mount Azur, Vanuatu, South Pacific", or "Crawling to the edge of the 
Dyrhólaey Cliffs in Iceland" or who knows.....