Friday, March 11, 2011

4) EPIC Lunar Eclipse and Full Moon experience on Volcán Santa Maria

The most epic adventure I had with Qtrekkers was hiking the volcano Santa Maria during the full moon and lunar eclipse. This was definitely one of those special experiences that I will always remember. We started hiking around midnight in the light of the full moon. Shortly after the eclipse began. At first just a sliver of the moon had darkened, but within a short time the entire moon had turned a deep orange color. It was so peaceful hiking by the light of the moon, stopping regularly to watch the shadow of the earth creep across the face of the moon. By the time the eclipse was full, I had to turn my headlamp on because there was simply no moonlight for hiking. Approximately a third of the way up the volcano, we stopped for a long break. I left the group and found a quiet place to lie on my sleeping pad in the tall grass and watch the stars. To my pleasure, I saw 5 or 6 shooting stars between the volcano and the eclipsed moon. 

We resumed our hike to the summit. It was quite a huff as we climbed around 3,500 - 4,000 vertical feet. Xela sits at 2,335m and Volcan Santa Maria summits at 3,772m. I think this was the first time I was really affected by the elevation. I would find myself exhausted and breathing hard after only 50-100 steps, but after a short rest I would be fully recharged. I continued this pattern to the summit, resting every few minutes to marvel at a form of the moon I had never seen before. At approximately 4am, after about 4 hours of hiking, we approached the summit as the eclipse waned. I was exhausted and was not prepared for the view I was about to experience. 

It is hard to put into words what I saw. As I stood on the top of the volcano, I could see for countless miles in every direction under the intense light of the full moon in a cloudless, starry sky. Below me to the northeast glowed the lights of Xela. To the northwest I could see Volcan Tajumulco (4220m), the highest point in Central America. Past Tajumulco stood Volcan Tacaná (4093m), just inside the Mexican border. To the southwest, a thick layer of fog had crept from the Pacific Ocean over the coastline and had made its way up the valley bottoms between Santa Maria and Tajumulco, accenting the long mountain ridges. To the southeast rose the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Occasionally, I could see a small plume of smoke and ash spurt from Volcan Fuego in the far distance. This view was truly spectacular, truly breathtaking. 

Before I was able absorb the view, I put on all 5 or 6 layers from my pack as it was extremely cold atop the volcano. There were no clouds, but there's no question there was a cold wind was present. After taking in as much of the cold as I could, I curled up in my sleeping bag behind a rock. At the southwest base of Santa Maria is Volcan Santaiguito, the one I talked about earlier. From my resting place I could see part of the crater below. At approximately 5:30am, I looked over and saw a large plume of smoke rise towards the summit and gently float away. Pretty cool to see a volcano erupt from above. 

Just after 6am, the sky began to lighten and the sun began to rise. I had to move to the other side of the summit, facing into the wind, but it was worth it. I enjoyed a spectacular sunrise over the southeastern volcanoes of Antigua. The sky changed colors, from black to deep blue, then to pink and orange. After the sun had rose, I walked back to the other side of the summit where I witnessed the giant, triangular shadow of Santa Maria extending toward Volcan Tacaná in Mexico, just below a brilliantly pink northwestern horizon. If that wasn't enough, the tip of the shadow was almost perfectly aligned with the moon. Chance? I think not.
After the moon had set and the sun was climbing in the sky, we began our decent that warm December day. I was awestruck. All I could think about on the way down was what I had just seen. I couldn't believe it, it was truly a magical experience. I have seen some amazing views in my day, but this was different than the others. There was something very special, almost surreal about this vista. I cannot describe it, but I can feel it as I close my eyes. It makes me smile. I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the chance. 

I soon realized how fortunate I was to have this experience. The following day I talked to my dad who said he had trouble seeing the eclipse as it was a cloudy night back home. That would not be the first time I would hear about the clouds as some of my friends had a hard time catching a glimpse of the eclipse as well. I was also informed that Central America was the best place in the world to see the eclipse. All things considered, I would say that the stars (and moon in this case) were perfectly aligned. I will cherish this experience as long as I can. 

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