Living the Dream
In what has become a Thanksgiving tradition these past few years, I decided once again to travel to a beautiful place with wonderful friends to celebrate in a wild and scenic natural area.
This year, the destination was Pico de Orizaba in Mexico. Orizaba, also known as Citlaltepetl (Star Mountain) is the highest peak in Mexico and the third highest in N. America standing at a staggering 18,491′. Anyone who has spent anytime in and around Mexico city or flown over it can attest to it’s extreme prominence and sheer beauty. Having cycled by it on my Canada to Guatemala bike tour a few years ago, I remember looking at it and wanting sooooo badly to come back one of these days to climb it.
Luckily, the star aligned and this year I was able to squeeze a few days away from an uber-busy grad school schedule to meet up with my good bike touring buddy Josh, our mutual friend and avid adventurer Vadim and a new friend from Germany, Sefa, for an attempt on this colossal beauty.
As with any good adventure, the madness began an hour and a half after leaving my house, driving down to El Paso. Somehow, it slipped my mind that I was going to a different country, and would need my passport. Thus, what should have been a 9 hour drive to El Paso to see family prior to heading to Mexico turned into a 12 hour marathon-drive full of coffee, blaring punk rock and a very unfortunate ticket for speeding.
All was well as I settled into El Paso for a day of seeing family before it was off on a bus, across the border to Juarez and off on a jet plane to Mexico City. After a couple hours of confusion at the airport, our team was united and we were off to Puebla! We had decided to get out of the big city on the first day and instead use a borrowed car to grab a hostel. This gave the team time to relax a little, get re-united over a few beers and talk strategy a little bit. It ended up turning into beers, bullshitting and catching up for hours, a perfect start to an adventure!
The next day we were off to Tlachichuca, where we had made arrangements with Sr. Reyes to transport us to the Piedra Grande hut at 14,000′. It was a bit of a rush re-packing and getting up there but before we knew it, we were standing at 14,000′ and moving into our home for the next few nights. It felt odd being transported to quickly to such a high altitude, something we should have thought a little more about…
We decided to spend the afternoon we arrived simply moving in, walking downhill for and exploring for a bit. Nothing too exerting, just getting used to altitude. That night we hung out with the fellow hut-dwellers, ate lots of food (remember, we took a truck to the hut!) and drank copious amounts of Mexican beer. A fine start indeed!
We had decided that the next day would be our scouting mission through the Labyrinth, a 1,500′ maze of glacially deposited boulders that lead to the toe of the glacier. It turned out to be a wise choice since the route had MANY different paths to choose from and it was wise to know the way since on summit day we would be doing this in the dark at 1 AM! As well, we wisely cached our rope, crampons and harnesses (along with Battle Kitty to guard them) as to lessen our weight carried up on summit day. Then we quickly retreated to the hut for food, rest and summit day planning.
Our summit day plan involved waking up at midnight the next/same day, shoving oatmeal and food into our faces and getting out the door by 1 AM. To ensure a successful early morning, we all did our best to go to sleep early the night before. However the mixture of pre-summit jitters, noisy hut-dwellers and altitude related sleeping problems left us a little worse for wear when midnight came around. Thankfully we succeeded in being out the door and hiking by 1 AM, on track for a summit day.
Our headlamp ascent of the labyrinth proved uneventful except for a little early morning ice in one section and before we knew it we had retrieved our gear, gotten to the start of the glacier and were roped up ready to ascend the final 3,000′ to the summit.
If you have never had the privilege to be on a glacier in the pre-dawn hours, I can assure you it is a truly magical experience. The clinking of gear, the crunching of cold snow and ice under crampons and a shallow field of headlamp vision all somehow muffled by the stillness of a pre-dawn snow-covered mountain. Truly amazing. You simply follow your partners gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) tugs on the rope as you ascend the snowy slope going higher and higher.
Unfortunately, after about 1,500′ of this sublime ascent, things started to go south, quickly. Turns out a member of our team, Josefa, was starting to feel a little bit ill from altitude. We decided to stop and asses the situation and decided she would need to descend. At first we tried to girth-hitch and tie all our webbing and slings together so that Vadim could safely descend with Josefa, leaving Josh and I the rope to summit. However, upon further examination it was decided we would all descend to the toe of the glacier as a team for safety reasons. All was not lost however. During this entire situation, we were all treated to the most beautiful mountain shadow I have ever seen. The silhouette of Orizaba casting a shadow for a hundred miles and engulfing entire towns was simply amazing.
But down we had to do and once we safely descended to 16,000′ Vadim said he felt comfortable helping Josefa back to camp solo. Looking at my watch, it was 8:15 AM. That gave me 2 hours before our strict turn around time. I asked if anyone was interested in the summit, but had no takers, So I dug deep, thought about why I was climbing this mountain and made the call to go for the summit solo. After apologizing to the team I headed up, knowing I had 2,500′ of elevation, at altitude, to cover in 2 hours, before I had to turn around.
The next 2 hours were a blur of headaches, exertion and VERY careful ice axe and crampon placements on perfect snow. Finally, 9 hours after leaving the hut; I was on the summit. 3rd highest peak in N. America and my personal high point. and I had it all to myself. It was truly mesmerizing to stare out over Mexico below me, knowing I had made it on my own. I also wished my team had been there with me. I decided to snap a few photos, make a quick video and the sat and reflected for a few moments on how I had made it to this point in my life and all the people who had been with me on this journey. It was a beautiful moment that was soon shattered by the sight of storm clouds rolling in below me. Knowing I was already thoroughly exhausted and need 110% concentration on the descent, I took a compass bearing and began the descent.
Contrary to popular perception, going down is not always easy. Between exhaustion, the threatening clouds and my enhanced worry of sliding to my death since I was solo, it was SLOW going. Eventually I spotted Vadim waiting for me at the toe of the glacier, a friend to the end. Upon reaching him and collapsing for a few moments, we headed down.
I ended up making it back to the hut with only a few moments to spare before the truck was loaded up and we were on our way down the mountain. It felt odd sitting in the truck, only a few hours before having stood on such a big peak, making my way down to wifi, fast food and showers. Before I knew it, we were back in Puebla, checking into a hostel, showered and getting ready for bed.
Our next few days were spent on yet another big mountain, Izta. However the cumulative effects of altitude, illness and exhaustion prevented us form summiting on this peak.
All in all, it was an amazing adventure spent with great friends. Time and time again, I am reminded that the destination is only part of the adventure. The greater and more memorable part is the people you surround yourself with and the shared memories you create. For that, I can never thank you enough Josefa, Josh and Vadim. I hope we all get to play again soon.
As always, I will now shut my pie-hole and instead let the photos do the talking. enjoi!