At eleven thirty PM three crazy gringos awoke from a carefully planned nap and packed every possible long-sleeved layer of clothing into daypacks. Considering we had originally assumed the weather in Guatemala to be appropriate of a blistering summer next to the equator – whereas it’s actually the rainy season, the one Guatemaltecos call winter – it did not take long for us to realize we were woefully unprepared. Six liters of water, six bananas, three bandanas and a pound of granola later, we were as set as we ever would be to conquer Santa Maria.

Conquer would prove to be a very relative term.

At twelve fifteen AM we piled into a van to take us to the peak’s base. Inside, we met our guide Carlos. Carlos is the man. No more than five foot five, he embodies the stereotypical Guatemalan – short in stature, long in character and wit, with a classic mullet to boot. Also, the man could climb a mountain like a goat. He was born to do it. On the volcano, he kept a brisk pace that had all of us, other than the triathlete among us, gasping for breath like chain-smokers in the thinning air. Carlos said he was making up for his last ascent, during which eight Dutch women had bored him with their sluggish eight hour pace. I cursed their country all the way up.

At four thirty AM we were literally on top of the world. One problem: we couldn’t see anything in the pitch black of the early morning. Carlos’ backbreaking pace doomed us to an hour of stagnancy and absolute vulnerability to the type of wind and cold that would make a northeastern winter proud.

When the sun finally lent some rays an hour later, we finally had evidence that 12,300 feet stood between us and the ground. Santa Maria’s massive shadow was perhaps the most impressive, stretching well into the opposite horizon, dominating the landscape at our feet like nothing we had ever seen. Another lesser volcano blew its top thousands of feet below. Mentally and physically validated, we tried to soak it all in. But there were too many colors and too many peaks. Before we could put it all together, we were ready to rumble. It was all just another day’s work.