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  • Markus Miller

Life Is Not A Race - What I Learnt From Hiking An Erupting Volcano

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

Hiking Mount Acatenango in Guatemala


Guatemala is famous for providing the opportunity to climb an active volcano where you can see actual eruptions of lava.


I was lucky to witness that. However, the whole journey taught me way more than just how magnificent our planet can be…


To see the fire, you need to hike up to almost 4000 m above sea level.

For me – someone who is not used to high altitude – going from about 400 m to almost 4000 m in less than 8 hours was maybe not the best decision.


But let’s start from the beginning…


A private shuttle picked us up at 7 am and brought us from the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua to the starting point of the hike which was at 2500 m.



From there the actual hike began. Ascending in a steep slope the path was leading through open fields before going through some lush forests that provided some shade from the harsh midday sun.


After the forest was slowly clearing, we hiked “above the clouds” which was equally magical as surreal. The whole sky looked like a beautiful painting...



Shortly after that we reached the base camp from where we could see the volcano erupting! Simply stunning!



At the camp the guides told us that there was an option to see the lava up-close. For that we needed to hike another 3 hours to the actual erupting volcano. And another 3 hours back.


It was around 4 pm and I had a bit of a headache, but I was still feeling quite fit.

I was exhausted but motivated, so I decided to go for it...


The way down on the other side of the volcano was steep, narrow, and had many loose rocks. My legs were sore, but I could manage.

Things really started to go down South after reaching a plateau from where the ascent to the other volcano began.


My headache got stronger by the minute. It felt like a knife stabbing in the back of my head, perfectly in rhythm with my steps. But we were almost at the top, so I pushed through.


Somehow, I made it to the top of the other volcano. Up there was nothing to see. No fire. No lava. Just thick fog, icy wind and it slowly started to rain.

To be honest, at this point I didn’t give a damn about the lava anymore, I just wanted to get back safely. Which turned out to be one of the hardest things I've ever physically done...


Getting back to camp


With every step my body hurt from head to toe. I finally came to the realization that I had high-altitude sickness.

Every 50 meters we made a break were I just lay flat on the ground to catch my breath again.


I was wondering “How on Earth can I ever make it back to camp?” I knew the way and how steep it was to go back. The mere thought of hiking back made me lose all my confidence.


At the very moment where I was about to give up, I had this one thought that probably saved me…


“Okay, I really don’t think I can hike back to camp. But I think I can do one more step. Just one more. I can do that. Yes!”


So, I decided to not think about the whole hike anymore, but just kept repeating this thought. This thought of doing one more step. Although everything hurt, I could still do one more step.


So, I went. Step after step. And about three hours later I arrived at camp and immediately fell into bed. It was about 11 pm and I’ve hiked for about 12 hours.


The next morning


The next thing I remember was waking up to the alarm of my roommate at 4 am. The tour intended to wake up early the next day, climb the last bit in the dark, and see the sun rise from the very top.


I was awake again and I still felt half-dead. However, I recovered a little bit. I told myself “After what you did yesterday, you can do anything, Markus!”

With my new gained confidence - which was stronger than my physical pain - I decided to get out of bed and prepare myself for another hour of climbing.


I went slow, taking all the time I needed.


When I finally reached the top and saw the summit cross, I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. Tears of gratitude. Tears of humility.


I was incredibly thankful that I made it. I couldn't believe it.


Although I was with some other people, I decided to find a quiet spot to admire the miracle of the sun coming up on the horizon.



It was one of the most magical moments of my life. Up there, above the clouds and seeing the sun rising, just with my own company, I felt a strong connection to an old friend which is no longer here on Earth. The whole time my eyes were filled with tears, out of joy for being alive, out of gratitude for my body, out of pure love…


Returning to Antigua


So, after a while we hiked back down and returned to Antigua. I took some time for myself to think about all that had happened... I came up with two conclusions:


1. Going step by step.


What had saved me while hiking back to camp was taking one step at a time, not thinking of the long journey ahead of me. Just step after step. I knew I could do one more step – no matter how exhausted I was.

It is vital to have some long-term goals, but they can be overwhelming sometimes. So, focusing on the small steps that take us there, is crucial to keep moving forward.


2. Life is not a race.


You might think that my whole hike sounds a bit exaggerated. That it sounds like I climbed Mount Everest and almost died in a snowstorm. Well, exactly this was my second lesson. We tend to put everything in comparison.


For me, this hike was incredibly hard and challenging. For a Guatemalan tour guide who did that already a hundred times it was probably as easy as a walk in the park.


Again, now I say a walk in the park is easy. However, it can be the most challenging thing for someone who is recovering from an accident or suffering from a restricting illness.


How hard a particular thing is, feels different for everyone and depends on our individual perception - no matter if it’s taking one step or running a marathon,


So, we need to allow ourselves to move at our own pace. Regardless of how slow or fast it might seem to others.


Much love,


Markus




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