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Step... step.


"Just make it to that next rock. Okay, now that tree. Just up to that ridge."

One step, one deep breath at a time I pass alpine flowers in reds, purples and blues. Kyah (10) is behind me, weak, shaking, nauseous, but a trooper, and still putting one foot in front of the other.

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I knew this hike would be a challenge. That I'm not in the best physical condition is not news to anyone. My husband can run up a mountain in a single bound, but me, well, I'm more like the tortoise. Slow and steady (and out of breath). But even with a steady pace, would I really be able to climb 4,220 m (13,845 ft)? Up and back before dark?

In fact I had butterflies when we started this morning (you can see me talk more about it in the video below). Would we be able to make it? Would we make it before losing our way in the twilight? How far were we actually going? (We weren't exactly sure.) Where is the trail? We set off slightly blind, except that we could see our goal, Tajumulco, towering above us.

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Our truck (which is being remodeled) driving the road that gets close to Tajumulco

Passing through the town of San Marcos near the Guatemala/Mexico border, we asked a local man for directions to the mountain. We knew there was a road that would take us nearer the summit, thereby reducing our overall hiking time. Since we have five little ones, we thought that would be best.

He showed us the turn off, and we followed the well made (although bumpy) cobblestone road through high mountain villages that reminded my hubby of his time in Peru.

The route was one lane without much space on either side, but we finally found a place to park our rig, near where the road began to wind back down into the valley below. From there, we weren't quite sure where to go. Was there a trail from here? Where was it? (We'd tried to do our homework, but there was a lack of information. Mostly we just looked closely at Google Maps).

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Where to from here?

We find a path and start following it. It's not heading up, but around the foothills instead. It would eventually lead where we wanted to go, right?

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The trail is fairly easy, and the kids are doing well, except for Kyah who started feeling queasy almost as soon as we began (she blamed it on that chunk of coconut she ate when we were starting out.) She is plodding along slowly behind, with a bottle of peppermint essential oil to her nose.

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The alpine weather is fickle, switching intermittently from cloudy, breezy and cool (and requiring a jacket or two) to warm and summery and causing perspiration.

The clouds paint lovely pictures on the mountains and the pale blue sky, and when they occasionally clear, we catch a glimpse of the mountain valley far below.

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After an hour or so it's time for a lunch (and potty) break. Greg expresses doubts about being on the right trail, and if we're heading in the right direction. There had been a possible turn off back there. Should we have taken it?

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Already having traveled this far, we'd lose time back tracking. We decide to continue on and just see where this trail leads. If we haven't reached the peak by 2:00 pm, we'll turn back, to make sure we're off before dark.

Soon, Greg is anxious to climb, and we begin the ascent, leaving the trail and climbing up through the alpine grasses, creating our own switchbacks to make the upward scramble easier on our quads.

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I'm feeling fairly good, but I pace myself (and take pictures of the flowers), and stay behind with Kyah, who isn't feeling any better. Greg and the other kids bound up the hill like jack rabbits.

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After forty-five minutes of steady upward climbing, we pause for another snack (and potty) break (of course.)

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Then it's up we go once more, hopefully to a peak where we can at least see our ultimate goal.

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The air is getting thinner. Greg estimates we're at least 3650 m (12,000 ft). Our aim is the ridge we can see above us. From there we'll gain some perspective, and see if we're even on the right mountain.

And so we come back to where we began. Right foot. Left. Deep breath. Make it to that stump. Just a little bit further. Kyah's legs are shaking, her breath shallow.

Parker reaches the ridge first.

"It's the top!" he exclaims.

"Can you see the volcano?" Greg asks.


Disappointment. Maybe this is the wrong mountain, and we're not even close.

It's confirmed when Kyah and I finally reach the others. This is only the top of a ridge, a saddle back between two peaks, which are shrouded in clouds.

I'd had visions of a spectacular view from the top of Central America. Now, it's 1:30 pm, and we can't even see the top (nor do we know how close it is). For the safety of our family, we'll have to head back down, disappointed. Another example of how having expectations can ruin your travel experience.

View from Tajumulco

I had visions of something like this (photo courtesy of Guat360.com)

Greg and the boys decide to 'see what they can see' by climbing to the top of the cloud covered peak above us. (He takes my camera in case he gets a glimpse of the top.) The girls, Atlas and I rest. I lay down on tufts of alpine grass, lightheaded, and now feeling sick to my stomach. Kyah sits quietly. The clouds grow thick, and I begin to shiver. Aaliyah huddles close, and asks if we can go back now. I'm definitely ready.

"As soon as daddy comes back," I tell her.

He comes back, but he's alone. He looks a little worried.

"Where's the boys?" I ask.

"I left them up there. I don't think it's the top, but it is a summit. There's campfire rings and litter, and there's a trail off the back side (the side we're actually parked on.) I think it's our best bet for actually getting off this mountain. If we go this way (pointing to the descent before us), we could run into a cliff and have to turn back. And we can't go back the way we came, it will take too long."

We must go up before we go down. Greg carries Atlas and everything he can (the boys left their packs with us.) He helps Aaliyah while I clamber slowly with Kyah.

We don't make it very far before Kyah is vomiting. Her body heaves violently, and when she's done she can't stand up without help, she's so weak.

"You're so tough, Kyah," I tell her. "We can do this, just one step at a time."

I speak out loud and help and encourage her with every step. We reach the final upward climb, which requires bouldering to get on top of the large stone which stands in our way. Using both hands, I pull myself up. Will she be able to do this in her weakened condition, without falling down the rocky ridge behind her?

Giving her my hand, I help pull her up. This is it! No more climbing! It should be downhill from here.

Parker's butt is exposed to the frigid wind when we rejoin the boys, waiting for me to bring toilet paper (oh wait, I wasn't supposed to tell that part.) I recollect my camera and snap a triumph shot.

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When the clouds part, we catch a peek of her behind us -- Tajumulco. So close and yet so far!

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Photo courtesy of SummitPost.org

We're close enough that I'm tempted to go for it... but it would easily take another hour, and then we for sure would not make it off this mountain before dark. So we content ourselves with climbing to the second highest point in Central America. At least for today.

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This girl rocked it!

Now the descent, hopefully in the direction that will take us back to our truck. This is the trail we should have climbed up. There's a campground, a clear stopover for hikers. (It even has a bathroom!)

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Now which way? Spying no clear trail, we head downward in the direction we think our truck is.

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Kyah took this picture of our Guatemalan dog, Epic.

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Down, down, down without an end in sight, sliding on inches thick of pine needles. In a moment of 'tender mercy', the clouds part, and I catch a glimpse of the road far below. The sound of Latin music drifts up from the aldea (town) nestled in the foothills -- the same aldea that is directly below where we parked. We are headed in the right direction!

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My boys are still brimming with energy and make a game out of collecting 'stickers'

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Then we officially see it, the road! We're close.

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As the sun sinks lower and the temperature drops, we make it back to 'Big Red'. We congratulate each other on a job well done, and reminisce on our last big outdoor family triumph, hiking five miles in Capitol Reef National Park. (That time we did get caught in the dark.)

Clambering in, we crank up the heat and begin our drive down the mountain, enjoying the view from the top of Central America.

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Oh yeah, and the dead coyotes hanging at the local tienda. There's always something unexpected. 😉

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Have you had a great adventure lately?



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18 Responses

  1. MelanieMurrish

    Wow-you lot are made of stern stuff! By the way, do you airbrush your photos? You can’t possibly look that glam without photoshop LOL 😉

  2. RFIndependence

    we never found the road you mention and started from way lower. where you arrived, between the two summits is a very nice area for camping and the night is not too cold. From there it took us an hour and a half (ok shape, not top shape) to get to the summit at sunrise. It was well worth the effort, and doing it in two days allows you to take your time at the top to really enjoy the view.

    • RachelDenning

      @RFIndependence We saw the camp spot where most people stop overnight. If we’d known where we were going we could have made it in one day… oh well 🙂

  3. Shelly Bennion

    I love, love, love this video. I borrow from your bravery…and hope to climb some of the highest mountains on my own someday!! Also – how is that you look so good while doing everything!

  4. Mare Weston Stewart

    I’m so impressed that you took all of the kids on this adventure and they did well (minus a little sickness). And I like how you turned this into a life lesson about how sometimes our own expectations can ruin our experience. BUT…as you did for yourselves and your children you changed your outlook. You still had a terrific day, everyone made it back safely AND you climbed the 2nd highest mountain peak. That’s still impressive! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Melissa K

    I am so impressed that you did that with your kids who were happy and not whining (even when tired!)  You guys are rock star parents!!!  Rob and I hiked Mt Fuji and it about killed me (I’m sure I added several hours to our hike) and it was about the same elevation.  Once again your family continues to amaze me.

  6. Jen

    Awesome. Love reading about outdoor adventures as a family. They rarely seem to go as planned but also worth it!

  7. Brigid

    I love that you have a dog there, but what do you mean by your “Guatemalan dog”?

      • Brigid

        RachelDenning Brigid  
        Oh duh! At first I was thinking that you just “adopt” a dog in each country, lol, sounds so dumb now when I type it out! That’s so awesome you guys adopted a dog down there, so amazing! He looks like a pit bull, and he looks really good and healthy! We have a pit bull and she is the best dog we have EVER had! They have such a bad rap, but they are really wonderful dogs, loving and incredibly loyal!! So great for your family to have a pet even while traveling, you are such an inspiration!

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