Sunday, January 22, 2017

CLIMBING THE VOLCANO SANTA MARIA

A MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCE 

The little country of Guatemala is spotted with numerous volcanos strewn about in many of its regions – both dormant and active volcanos. The southern part of the country is very mountainous and has about thirty in all. It was on one New Year’s Day when we were living there, that my son Levi and I thought that a nice way to begin the New Year would be to hike up volcano that we had not yet climbed. We had trekked various other ones before that time, but this one, we had not. It was the volcano named Santa Maria, located in the western part of the country.

How the volcano looked the day before we climbed it
Actually, it was on the previous Thanksgiving Day when we had decided to do this. Since we had no turkey on that day, instead of eating a banquet, we decided to climb a different volcano that was closer to our home. That particular day turned out to be such a crystal clear and wonderful day, that from the top of the peak, we could look down much of the line of volcanoes that runs along this southern mountain range of Guatemala. The range is called the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.

On that day, we could count what we thought were at least eight of these volcanos. One of the further ones that we could see was the dormant volcano, Santa Maria. This volcano, despite being one of the furthest ones that we could see, was only about a half a day drive from our house. We decided right then, on the top of that Thanksgiving mountain, that on some clear day in the near future, we would go a nearby town, get a hotel, and climb it on the following day.

The town near the volcano is called Quetzaltenango, but the original Mayan name for the town is Xelajú. The Mayan name means “Under the ten peaks.” This is because the town sits in a valley surrounded by ten mountains. The volcano Santa Maria is one of these mountains.


As I mentioned, Santa Maria is a now dormant volcano. However, in 1902, it erupted violently – one of the largest eruptions in the world of that century. The eruption lasted nineteen days and sent a column of smoke and debris sixteen miles into the air – that is half way into the stratosphere and higher than any cloud formation. It is where the ozone layer is located and with some meteors even entering into that region. Santa Maria sent 1.3 cubic miles of magma into the air, covering much of the local region as it fell. Some of the ash reached as far as San Francisco in California. The explosion of the mountain killed at least five thousand people. Many more also later died from a subsequent outbreak of malaria that was attributed to conditions caused by the eruption.

The Mayans call the volcano “Gagzanul,” which means “the naked volcano.” This is because historically, in its active years, it was devoid of vegetation. However, in the more than a century since the great eruption, it has become forested with a fine growth of pine trees, some up to four feet in diameter. I suppose that they are about one hundred years old. They have grown quickly in the rich, volcanic soil.

Santa Maria is not completely inactive however, for on one side of the mountain (the side opposite of that which we climbed) a new lava dome has formed. This erupts in small eruptions about every hour. It is forming a new volcanic peak, which is called “Santiaguito.” From the top of Santa Maria, if there is no cloud cover, one can look down into the cone of Santiaquito and watch the eruptions.

Levi and I rose from our beds early on the second day of the year, January 2, ready to climb the volcano Santa Maria. The Guatemalans have a tradition that the first twelve days of January correspond to the twelve months of the year. In the tradition, what the weather is like on one particular day is supposed to be an indicator of what its corresponding month will be like. For instance, if January 4th is bright and sunny, it means that April (the fourth month of the year) will also be a bright and sunny month.

February, the second month, is often very unpredictable in Guatemala. The people in that country call it the “loco” month. I suppose that what they mean by this is somewhat the equivalent to what a meteorologist would call “unsettled.” The day Levi and I were to climb Santa Maria was the second day of the year, the day that corresponded to February, the loco month. We had either forgotten this tradition or did not believe it. Maybe it was both.

As we drove out to where we were to begin the hike up the side of the mountain on the second of January, we saw clear blue skies except for a large cloud covering the upper half of the volcano. From the valley, it looked like only a gentle fog in the higher altitudes.

“I am sure that the sun will burn off that fog by the
time we get to the peak,” I told Levi.


Does that not look to you like a "gentle fog"?
We started our hike under clear skies and watched the sun as it began to rise and illuminate the valley. It was a beautiful hike through the lower mountain meadows and underneath huge pine trees. The growth of trees continued right up the side of the mountain. The higher that we climbed, the valley of forests and fields increasingly spread out below us.

About half way up the volcano, we entered the fog, which had not yet lifted. Still, I was sure that by the time that we got to the top, we would be in clear skies. This, however, turned out not to be true. Instead, the higher that we climbed, we found that it began to become windy. There also was a rain that began to fall. We were not prepared for rain (at least I was not), as January is the dry season in Guatemala. Rain was the last thing that we thought that we would encounter. But despite being drenched, we pressed on.

A couple of hundred feet higher on the mountain, it suddenly became quite windy. The big pines began to sway violently. It was windy enough that we were getting concerned that branches might start to break and fall, so we found a spot that had only shorter trees and decided to wait there to see if the rain and wind would let up a little. The temperature was also dropping very quickly with the altitude and with the weather conditions. Levi told me that he had a poncho in his backpack, so we sat side by side, huddled together with the poncho spread out over our laps to try to keep warm. However, after about a half an hour, we were shivering so badly that we decided that we had to get up and walk…but in which direction – up or down? It now looked like the conditions were getting worse instead of better, but neither of us liked the idea of going down. After all, hadn’t we come all of this way to climb the volcano?

I remember talking with Levi about this decision, but I do not remember if Levi and I made any kind of verbal agreement about what to do. However, when we began to walk, it was in the ascent instead of the descent. I do not even remember which of us was the one who turned upwards on the trail. But with his actions, that one spoke for both of us.

Water was running down the path now, making it very slippery. By this time, the trees were aggressive in their swaying back and forth. We kept one eye on the limbs above our heads as we walked.

As we continued to climb, the water on the path began to turn to ice, and the wind roared around us. Levi had put his poncho on but the wind soon whipped it to shreds. We did not have hats or gloves, or even any clothing that was very warm. I had an extra T-shirt that I wrapped around my head, and Levi had a sweat-band type strip of cloth that he
put over his ears. We trudged on, slipping on the path and trying to make headway, the wind thunderous through the tops of the trees.

I yelled to Levi above the sound of the wind, “Levi, we should go under the mountain – through the mines of Moria!”

“No Gimli,” he yelled back. “I will not go through the mines of Moria unless I have no other choice!”

Finally, we broke through the tree-line near the top of the mountain. The winds on the peak were so strong that a person could lean his entire body weight into the wind and it would hold him up. Levi did this, but I was too cold and eager to rush down the other side of the mountaintop to find a shelter on the lee-ward side of a rock. I thought that the wind must be at least 80 miles per hour since it would hold someone leaning into it, and with the temperature below the freezing point, the wind chill made our rain-wetted bodies very cold. Before we had started our climb, someone told me that people have died from hypothermia on this mountain, and I could now easily see how.

Scrambling down on the other side of the peak, I found a nice, high bolder about fifty feet below the peak that cut the force of the wind. It had a small ledge in front of it.

“He will dwell on the heights. His refuge will be the impregnable rock.” (Isaiah 33:16)

There Levi and I waited and shivered. We still had hopes that the wind would die down and the sun would break through the clouds. After all, it was dry season! I had anticipated this day so much that I was not keen to give it up. For many days, I pictured myself on top of the mountain looking eastward along the tops of the range of the Sierra Madres to see the volcano that we had climbed on Thanksgiving Day.

At least next to our rock, we were safe. We were out of the strongest of the wind and there were no trees on the very top of the mountain, so nothing could fall on us. It was not raining on the top, but we were already shivering cold. We sat back to back to try to conserve our warmth, and then walked back and forth to stop our shivering. The sun kept teasing us with an occasional hazy appearance through what we hoped was a thinning of the clouds, but on that day, the sun was not serious in his duty to break through the torment. The wind speed did seem to decrease a little; just enough to give us hope that, if we were patient, we would soon be rewarded with our goal of viewing the mountain peaks of the range.

However, after a couple of hours waiting, we decided it was no longer of any use, and if we were to make it down before darkness fell, we had better leave. By our walking back and forth on this little ledge, we had managed to feel a little warm. I had a little candy in my backpack which gave us a little more energy. But we were still shivering, and it had grown quite intense. In fact, it sometimes had seemed to me that the shivering was getting deeper – even into my core. In the end, with somewhat of a feeling of defeat, we climbed back over the peak and began our descent.

The temperature must have risen slightly, because as we descended, the ice was thawing. Nevertheless, the path was so greasy with the mud and water running on top of the ice, that we slipped and fell several times (at least I did). It was still quite windy, but the wind speed had decreased significantly. However, the validity of our fears about being hit with a falling limb were confirmed as we saw several branches four to six inches in diameter that before had been living branches, but had been ripped off the pine trees by the malicious and invisible hands of the wind, and then violently thrown across the path where we had earlier walked.

Finally, we descended below the cloud and the storm that continued to rage around the peak of the mountain, and we once again entered a lower valley. Here at the lower altitude, the sun, which had failed us on the peak, dried our clothes and warmed out bodies as we walked. I was glad for the warmth, but I felt a little like a child who had been spanked and then given a hug by his parent.

I said to Santa Maria, “I know that you love me, but you did hurt me.” 

We sometimes hear people speak of “mountaintop
Picture in the newspaper of mountain on the day
after Levi and I climbed it
experiences.” By this term, these people usually mean arriving at a place where they have risen above any point of difficulty and are enjoying a situation of basking in the warm rays of the sun and the scenery that can be afforded only from a privileged position. They are above the problems of life and are walking in victory. Experientially, this was my hope and my expectation as Levi and I began our climb on that second day of that year. I had hoped to have a literal mountaintop experience like this.

However, those who actually do climb mountains know that mountaintop experiences are not always that of the warmth of sun and panoramic scenery. Mountaintops can sometimes even threaten one’s very life. The view from a mountaintop is completely dependent upon the circumstances in which one finds himself when he arrives at the top. Some days are very pleasant, like our earlier one had been on Thanksgiving Day, but on some days, we feel as did Moses of old, when he said of the top of Mount Sinai, “I am full of fear and trembling” (Hebrews 12:21 NAS).

Spiritual and emotional mountaintop experiences have much in common with literal mountaintop experiences. Sometimes people feel that when the circumstances in which they find themselves are going along brightly, that they are on a mountaintop in their spiritual lives. But do you see that this type of mountaintop experience is still based upon circumstances? As quickly as one arrives at a mountaintop to feel the warmth of the sun, clouds and wind can envelope the experience and bring misery. It can quickly turn into what the Bible writer calls, a mountain of “darkness and gloom and whirlwind.”

To know true victory in one’s spiritual life, one must learn what it is to live above even the experience of the mountaintop. That is why the writer of Hebrews goes on to speak of another mountain, a mountain other than Mount Sinai.

“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men…to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24a NIV).

The writer of these words is also speaking of a mountaintop experience. However, Mount Zion is not a literal mountain to be found in some mountain range. The writer of Hebrews is speaking of a mountaintop experience that rests not on circumstance. It is above circumstance. This experience rest only on the strength and the power of God. This type of mountaintop experience understands that even when the circumstances bring “fear and trembling,” at the conclusion of all things, the experience will be “a kingdom that cannot be shaken”.

To know this secure type of mountaintop experience, one also needs to know the power of him whose voice has the potency to shake the earth. One also needs to know that God has also said, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven” (Hebrews 12:26 NAS). This is the true mountaintop experience. A true mountaintop experience is to know and fear the power of him who holds the authority over all circumstance and all mountaintops. Once we know him and understand that he is the Sovereign One, he offers us a kingdom that cannot be shaken. It is only this that gives one the ability to live above the circumstances of life.

This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote: 

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13 NAS). 

Levi and I had begun our climb with expectations of quiet contemplation as we looked over the peaks of the Guatemalan highlands. Instead, we were treated with a test of resolve and a demonstration of a force of nature that we had never before known. Quite honestly, it was a reminder to me not only of the power of the natural realm, but also of God himself. It is God who wields the power even over this realm.

“Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29 NAS).

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this exciting post with us! I believe you passed the test, with God's gracious provision.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Don for this exciting post! You passed the test, I believe, through God's gracious provision.

    ReplyDelete