Hiking an active volcano: what can it teach you about business or career goals?

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Fuego Volcano, seen from Acatenango’s base camp. Antigua, Guatemala, 2020.

High elevations, steep and rocky hills, exposure to possible hypothermia. Those are some of the features one could find while hiking Guatemala’s Acatenango Volcano around winter time. The scenic views and constant eruptions in its neighbour, Fuego Volcano, bring together both the air of challenge and reward, if one reaches its 4,000 meters peak (or 13,000+ feet). What I didn’t expect was that this endeavour would provide me with more insights about career and business resilience than many books or courses out there.

In this post, I’ll try a double whammy, and not only cover the hike experience itself, but also the learnings after making it under crazy dehydration conditions (you’ll understand) and how it impacted my life overall.

Arrival in Guatemala and heading to the Hike

Perhaps an experienced hiker might think that the 4,000 above sea level peak is not really a challenge, but a practice for something bigger. It’s most likely the case. But in my case, I’m not an experienced hiker. And as an extra factor, for over 12 days prior to the beginning of the hike, I’d been facing severe food poisoning (well, diarrheas), caused by Mexico’s famous “Venganza de Monteczuma”, a special treat some foreigners are gifted while spending some time in Mexico.

So to sum things up: I was in northern Mexico, facing an awful diarrhea in Monterrey’s public hospital, and decided to buy a last minute ticket to Guatemala, to spend a couple of days and hike Acatenango, wishing to see some lava show while camping with some other travellers. Little did I know that Monteczuma would decide to join me in this adventure.

Jumping to my arrival to Guatemala City Airport (La Aurora International Airport), around 11pm, prior to the 5am wake up time schedule the next day, I’ve ran on the road to reach Ox Expedition‘s hostel in Antigua, Guatemala, around 50 km outside the country’s capital.

After waking up to the beautiful and chill weather of Antigua’s January mornings, we’ve prepared our bags, sipped some Guatemalan coffee (which, by the way, is one of the best you’ll have), had some “getting to know each other” time, and headed to the 40 minutes drive to Acatenango’s trail start, close to a little village called “San Jose Calderas”. My dehydration after 12 days of severe diarrhea was still there, and knowing that I’d be far from bathrooms for almost 36 hours wasn’t the most exciting detail.

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Antigua’s simultaneously Picturesque and Busy mornings – Acatenango’s intimidating presence surrounding every corner of the city.

Acatenango Volcano: The hike of a lifetime

I was lucky enough to be on a very diverse and adventurous group of people, ranging from full time travellers from Germany, to American Backpackers, to British experienced hikers, Australians, Canadians, Brazilians. A team of 15 people with very varying physical resistance, ages and goals on reaching Acatenango’s summit.

From the very first step, the steep hills and elevated altitude get you tired, and the “would you like to continue” topic is a constant one within the group.

Within the first 10 minutes of hike, one thing is already clear: being surrounded by an energetic group of people, with an experienced and confident group leader (my man Zach) AND a clear plan knowing exactly when for how long to stop for water and food, was trivial for the success of the adventure. That doesn’t change much from the corporate environment, in reality – having a confident and involving leader, a motivating team willing to reach a common target and a clear plan are musts to being able to hire and retain good talents, not to mention being able to executing targeting market challenges.

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Acatenango Crew: Australians, Canadians, Brazilians, British, Germans, Guatemalans, Americans,….

Within 5 hours of hiking up the mountain, and countless “bathroom” stops in the outer woods throughout the way, I was an exhausted human being, feeling aggressively dehydrated, unable to eat anything but carbs (I really couldn’t afford to stress my gut at that point) – but I was accomplished! That wasn’t the final destination, but it was a huge achievement already! That was one of the main milestones of the PROCESS. Seeing the open terrain, where we’d put our tents for camping, was so relieving, and the fact that we’d achieved it as a group, those freshly developed friendships, with a beautiful landscape surrounding us, that was a dopamine shot like I’ve never had in my life.

For a moment, the dehydration feelings were over, the body fatigue was barely perceived, and the stress of “boy, I’ll be the jackass that’ll quit in the middle of the way” flew away, and for a couple of minutes, we were able to chill, set the camping site, eat some carbs (in my case) and watch the daily eruptions of Fuego’s insanely active crater, a couple of hundred meters away from us.

Acatenango’s dense woods and muddy paths.
Fuego’s summit a couple of hundred meters away (and part of our campsite, in Acatenango’s basecamp).

The resting period was about to be over, when we’d dropped some of the bags, and head to another couple of kilometers for a hike that’d take us to an extra checkpoint, and the closest point of Fuego’s summit, which was showing it’s power with an insane frequency of eruptions, with 3/5 minutes of intervals between each other.

The hike was overwhelming. The path was even more challenging, the hills even more steep, and although there was less weight in our backpacks, the volcanic rock terrain was stressing and, for one who was facing the continuous signs of diarrhea (which the Dopamine couldn’t hide for that long), the challenge was tripled by at least 3x.

But the prize for that effort….. is completely priceless. Being able to not only surpass the continuous “STOP, BRO” mental requests from my body, but getting extremely close to an active and erupting natural beast, is a feeling that is even hard to explain. It’s just magical, and that dopamine shot quickly replaced my body stress and the gut movements. Again, the exciting and engaging group of people and our experienced british leader, were key factors to make the hike even possible.

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Cellphone shot of a smokey Fuego summit – couple of meters away from chaos.

After another 4 hours of hike, including a night (and dark) share of the path in order to come back to the base-camp, where we’d spend the night, and we arrive in time for some tea, dinner and marshmallows over bond fire.

On a quick recap of my day, I could only realise how grateful and lucky I was to be there. Even though my body wasn’t in its best days (at that point, I could really feel the impacts of dehydration, and the “bathroom” visits were still frequent), I was surrounded by the best environment, with an amazing group of people who barely knew each other and already had achieved something amazing (again, we’re not experienced or professional hikers).

That feeling of completion, celebration, triumph talks, would work as an extra fuel for what was about to come, once the most challenging part of the hike (reaching the summit) was about to happen after the 5 hours of sleep over freezing weather that we’d have. Of course, the night eruptions and the group vibe were still around, though!

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Fuego Volcano and its intense activity over night time.
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Our “balcony” for the night: bond fire, tea, some spaghetti and legit eruptions all night long.

The 3am alarm ringed waking the group up and reminding us that the time has arrived. The windy, cloudy and zero degrees celsius atmosphere, after a night of poor sleeping in the packed tents, was just an anticipation of the upcoming hours.

The then silent group started to pack things up, for the 4am departure, while in my mind, the quitting thoughts were pumping. I was pretty weak. Haven’t really slept at all, had dehydrated even more, couldn’t eat due to the irritated gut. I had some carb gel shots as the previous 3 meals, I wasn’t sure I could afford to move up to the top.

Though at that point, with the group starting to get psyched, our man Zach giving us the instructions and the plan being shared to the team, giving up wasn’t an option. Not to me. I wanted to achieve it. I wanted to run that last couple of hours, move with my team, hike up that badass volcano and check the final reward, which was the sunset on top of one of Guatemala’s highest points.

The final stretch was insane. No light aside from the head lanterns, poor visibility, very humid 1 foot deep crashed lava ground, steep and high hills, insane clouds moving around you, slippery moves. But the will to make it was big. At some point, I really thought I was about to face hypothermia for the first time in my life. A couple of (very challenging) meters away from the top, I was freezing, shaking to the close to negative temperatures, when somebody gave me a hand warmer patch, to heat my hands, and another bud gave me an extra layer of jacked, so I lied down for a bit, warmed up, and continued. I was destroyed. I know it sounds like drama, but it was a crazy feeling.

But I did it. I can’t say I didn’t think of giving up (several times) along the way. That’d be a lie. But the factors were showing me I could do it, and that my brain was about to choose the comfortable and easy exit, which would be giving up. Sometimes we don’t realize that, but the strength, the knowledge, and all the resources we need are out there. But for some reason, we’re mostly tending to choose the easy exits.

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The only photo I could take on top of Acatenango: the visibility was awful, but still, the energy was priceless.

And the rest is history. Hiking back to the basecamp for a quick 2 hours meal and rest, packing back in order to hike all the way down back to the village, was an easy task, after the whole mayhem of the way up under sever dehydration.

Ok, but what does that has to do with Career and Business Life?

Exposing yourself to the elements of nature, under tricky and challenging conditions (sometimes even death risk based conditions), forces you to learn how to handle those situations with the resources you have in hands. And corporate life, or career in general, is no different.

We always look at the final goal: that desired position, a dream salary, the completion of a project, an approval to a specific recruitment process. Looking at that distant point, and not considering the process we need to create and go through, the obstacles we’ll face, puts you on a very distant position, and sometimes, it might even look impossible, or too tiring to achieve.

Our brains will easily think we might not have the energy, the resources, or the knowledge for it. And we forget about the process (perhaps we didn’t even have one), giving up on the first challenge we might face, and choosing the easy and alternative ways (less challenging positions, half delivered projects, average companies, etc).

Nowadays I recap and try to understand how was I able to complete the hike to Acatenango’s summit, on those (dehydrated) conditions. It was insane. But in reality, it was simple. There was:

A.) A CLEAR GOAL TO BE ACHIEVED: We all knew where we wanted to achieve. And not achieving it wasn’t an option.
B.) A Process: A set of milestones, times for each of those to be achieved, expectations and knowledge of the challenges.
C.) An Exciting and Energetic Team: People looking towards a common goal, with different set of skills or knowledge, but focused to achieving the target together as a team.
D.) A driving leader: Our guide, Zach, leading the way and going through the rough path with the rest of the team!

Having a clear (and motivating) goal, a process that aims to the achievement of this goal, expectations aligned to the fact that blockers will show up constantly, and the will to making things happen, are basically all we need in order to tackle business and career goals. And, of course, if an energetic team and a driving leader are also there, even better. But I’d honestly say that, on the career analogy, those are not necessarily always present. So you might perhaps need to mirror those outside to you, or friends looking at similar goals in different circumstances.

Nature and business (or career) have a lot in common. In different ways, they carry similar steps, similar environments and similar elements. Going out to the nature always brings me learnings that I feel I can use across all verticals of my life. Low temperatures could easily be an analogy to poor company culture. Dehydration, to constant stress. And erupting volcanoes, perhaps could be mirrored as market share dispute along your industry.

But the reality is that one who’s prepared to face the elements, could easily be more prepared to face corporate challenges. Or at least, learn how to solve problems with different approaches.

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Guatemala’s Flag around Antigua’s picturesque landscapes.
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Antigua’s crowded streets.

Published by Gui Porto

Traveler, wanderer, minimalist, tech enthusiast. What am I thinking right now?

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