Volcano Climb Extraordinaire – Concepción, Nicaragua (26.10.17)

The sight of Concepcion, the country’s second highest volcano, as you approach Ometepe Island across the tropical waters of Lake Nicaragua, is impressive enough. From the top, the 360° panoramic view is simply phenomenal.

The Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea stretch away into a fairy-tale distance, as the surrounding patchwork of farmland, glistening lake waters and volcano-dominated skyline peek out between the clouds. It’s a gods-on-high view, made even more dramatic by the knowledge that you are standing on an active, ready-to-blow volcano.

Volcán Concepción is regarded as ‘pristine’, as its make-up and perfect shape have been formed without any influence from other volcanos. Since increased volcanic activity started in 1883, it has been one of Central America’s most active volcanos, with eruptions in 1921, 1944 and 1957. Since then there have been regular explosions, ash blows and a constant threat of minor eruptions.

North east summit view over bowl and distant Volcán Maderas.

Staggeringly beautiful, wonderfully wild and brutally hard, it is without doubt one of the most impressive, as well as demanding, day hikes I have ever undertaken. Climbing all 1,610 metres, across farmland, up vertical tropical jungle, along precipitous lava debris and on to the steep sulphurous summit, you feel as if you are entering one of nature’s rawest high temples of sacrifice.

Factor in sweltering upper 30° temperatures (I needed more than 7 litres of water), over 60% humidity, diverse and challenging terrain and the need for a head for heights and you have one mother of a challenge. It will reward you with memories for many years to come.

The descent is as demanding as the ascent, with hour after hour of 3-in-1 gradients making the job of staying on your toes a concentration contest. The physical exertion of hauling yourself up and down a combined total of 3,200 metres in one day takes everything you’ve got. My travel partner Moose Bond and I, (both aged 55) completed the round trip with two guides in just over 11 hours, one hour more (with stops) than the recommended time. We returned through the lower jungle terrain to the magnificently haunting primeval sound of roaring howler monkeys by torchlight after sundown.

A mandatory guide is essential, as the route is far from clear, especially when the clouds and ever-changing weather kick in. In addition to food and as much water as you can carry, you will need a stick (ideally walking poles), long light-weight trousers, sturdy walking shoes/boots, hat, sun-cream, mix of dry-fabric layers, a water- or wind-proof jacket, Trojan energy and sense of adventure. You must also check that you have appropriate trekking/climbing/activity insurance. Remember that however high you get, the ultimate goal is to return invigorated, but in one piece.

Starting at La Flor, near Moyogalpa, the early part of the route takes you past the National Park rangers’ hut where you sign a registration book, before continuing up through rich, dark-soiled farmland. At around 300m you start the muddy climb through dense jungle, and are soon heralded by a chorus of birdsong and the fearsome roar of howler monkeys. The jungle, along with its beautiful butterflies, thin out at 1,000m, with opportunities to see inquisitive white faced monkeys and the start of the first unbroken panoramic views.

1,300m – half way up.

The path then climbs through a mix of vegetation and scrub to 1,300m, where the gradient becomes steeper, rockier and more exposed. Climbing parallel to lava gullies, across steep loose stone slopes, the drama of the landscape begins to unfold as you climb up to 1,500m. The final ascent involves a sheer scramble up loose gravel and ash, with a particularly precarious final 30m to a small open flat platform summit, which looks down into the sulphur steam vented, barren basin below.

As the swirl of cloud over the summit opens and closes, snapshot views in every direction are as awe-inspiring as the sense of accomplishment. The lakeside farmland is so far below you can pick out your route just by gazing down past the top of your knees.

Volcán Concepción – outlandish, stunning and one heck of a long way up. Go for it.

My photos taken this week, in ascending order:

Deceptive route explanation.

The start – ranger station noticeboard.

400m – jungle path.

500m – blue morpho butterfly.

600m

700m – howler monkey.

800m – thinning jungle.

900m – view down from 1,000m.

1,000m white face monkeys.

1,050m above the jungle offering first panoramic views.

1,100m.

1,200m.

1,300m.

1,400m.

1,500m up to summit.

1,595m.

1,610m – crater rim.

1,610m – summit view over Volcán Maderas.

North west summit view across to Reserva Nacional Volcán Mombacho.

Sunset descent from jungle (400m).

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