August 14, 2015

Climb for a Year Without Dying, You’ll Probably Make it to Old Age

Cameron Smith on scaling the volcanoes of Guatemala

  • Written by Cameron Smith
  • Photography by Cameron Smith

All humans are climbers; we are built for it. To grapple up trees and rocks is a natural instinct remnant in us from our anthropoid ancestors. I loved to climb even before I can really remember: as a small kid, I spent a significant portion of my life hanging from monkey bars. As I got older the desire didn’t go away; climbing up buildings was a hobby of mine. I would go skating for hours and then try to sneak up a tall building in the city.

“All humans are climbers; we are built for it. To grapple up trees and rocks is a natural instinct.”

There were no mountains to climb in Sydney, where I grew up, but I always knew that one day I would be able to climb for real. Fast forward to that moment in Xela, Guatemala, where I felt like a new level in the game of my life had been unlocked.
Xela is the unofficial name for Quetzaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Xela lies in a valley at about 8,000 feet above sea level, and ruling over it all is the active volcano Santa Maria, a picture perfect cinder cone about two miles from town. Santiaguito, its pockmarked twin, bubbles away at its neck, steadily erupting about once every hour.

I did not expect to live in here and I did not expect to become a climber. The best things in life come unexpectedly. It was almost precisely a year ago when Kat and I rode away from L.A. on our bikes. Xela practically turns into a ghost town at night, as people stay indoors to avoid the streets. Every single person I know who lives in Xela has been robbed by gun, knife or machete. I know people living in Xela on the lam for murder. You can pay a small sum to others for Guatemalan residence, no questions asked. It’s a place where one can go and truly be anonymous.

“Being in the mountains isn’t about sport; it’s a place to think, to find oneself, to be in nature and to breathe real fucking air.”

Here, the Xela climbing gang is a tight-knit congregation of locals and extranjeros (foreigners) – boys and girls that practice at the gymnasium on weeknights and are led outdoors on Sundays by their earthly founding father, Miguel Arango. Miguel started climbing in the Sixties, a time when rock climbing was new even in places like Yosemite. With homemade wooden pegs and scraps of metal tied into the rock, he used surplus nylon rope to climb the first routes at Cerro Quemado, a sacred site where religious locals place flowers in rocky crags, but for climbers the area’s peaks and steep canyons are some of Central America’s best challenges.

“With homemade wooden pegs and scraps of metal tied into the rock, he used surplus nylon rope to climb the first routes at Cerro Quemado.”

Miguel was an escalade addict long before climbing gyms and the X Games. As climbing technology developed he implemented new technologies, and we have him to thank for almost all of the bolts now installed in the mountain rock, which allows for the use of protective Karabiners and safe climbing. He was suspended by rope for two hours to hammer a hand drill to make each hole in the basalt to hold the bolts. Miguel still climbs and sets new routes, but age has been hard on the bolts here and there are many climbing routes that have ones in need of restoration – other routes have no bolts at all. The local climbers (myself included) have been raising funds to fix up old routes and create new ones for all to enjoy. We organised a clean-up day for La Muela, one of the climbing spots, which has been buried in almost as much toxic trash as it has volcanic ash.

There are Mayan pilgrims at the base of this mountain face, there are pilgrims at the top, and, unbelievably, there are pilgrims inside the vertical mountain face – their sobs spill from the lightning bolt cracks that split the rock. I’m a pilgrim here too – albeit of a different sort. I make the short trip from my house in Xela as many times during the week as I can find a partner to join me in my vertical mission. Quite often it’s Kat, because in rock faith, men and women are equal; most women I know can climb better than other men.
We come home bloody sometimes, whipped by geology and eager for more.

Climbers meet at Cerro Quemado on Sundays to climb outdoors, and weeknights from 6pm-9pm indoors at the main gymnasium, located next to the Terminal Market. For more information or to contribute to a fundraiser towards making the climb a safer experience, visit climbxela.com.


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