My crampon was falling off again. Just the left one. Always the left one. I’d go to kick the front points into the 45-degree ice and get a stubbed toe instead of a nice solid bite into the ice to stand on. I was on the section of the Jamapa Glacier route on 18,491’ Pico de Orizaba in central Mexico, the third tallest mountain on the continent and the fixation of mine for nearly a year, appropriately named “The Labyrinth.” I was also appropriately off route, halfway up a wall of ice, at 4:00 in the morning, without eating, drinking or sleeping for the majority of the three prior days.
“I can’t get my crampon to stay on,” was what I thought I said to the group I eventually ran into once I got back on route a few pitches later. Judging by the confused look on the stranger’s faces, however, it must have not come out exactly how it should have. One said something about tightening the screw on the back of my crampons. I knew that. Why hadn’t I done that? I clearly wasn’t quite operating at 100%, but I hadn’t expected to be. This probably wasn’t good though. For about the tenth or eleventh time that morning, I decided to just go a little further up the side of Orizaba and reevaluate my condition. I was only four hours into what would eventually become eleven hours of climbing over six miles featuring 4,000’ of elevation gain.
Orizaba captivated me in the winter of 2017. I knew I wanted to do something big to test my abilities and myself, and I knew I wanted to do it when I had the biggest chunk of time off work in December. In a truly inspiring moment, I searched for the tallest mountains outside the Himalayas and slowly worked down the list, filtering based on cost, skill set, time, and various other factors. When I got down to a list of about five mountains, I decided to just pull up pictures of each of them and see which one struck a nerve. I got one glimpse of Pico de Orizaba and stopped searching.
The first line from the description on Summit Post sums it up;
El Pico de Orizaba (known as Citlaltépetl, Star Mountain) is a striking volcano. From the west, it towers over the town of Tlachichuca in the form of a beautiful white cone. The glacier starts around 4900-5000m and covers the upper aspects of the mountain. Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North America after Denali and Mount Logan. Orizaba makes for an excellent first experience at high altitude.
Sold. I don’t need to hear anything else. This was the mountain I needed.
At the time, dealing with a tough breakup and a big lifestyle adjustment moving to Vermont and all the fun stuff that comes with being in your early twenties, Orizaba became a fixation for me. I printed photos of the route and hung them around my apartment. It was the background on every single device from my phone to my laptop. I was obsessed. I ran trails all summer till I puked, then ran more. I went to Colorado and got to over 14,000’ for the first time and puked there too. I ran up and down the stairs around Norwich University before the sun came up so it was as cold as possible. I might’ve puked a few times then too. But through it all, I just kept fixating. It gave me something concrete to look forward to and work towards when things got dark. It was always there, just over the horizon.
I left Northfield at about 3:00 am in the early hours of December 12th. I scooted down to Logan Airport in Boston, and got through security in plenty of time for my 8:30 flight. Just to make sure I got there on time, JetBlue delayed the flight until 11:00 which really did a number on my itinerary.
Waking up on the plane right after we hit the coast of Mexico, I turned my eyes to the horizon and saw my mountain dominating the skyline, towering above the clouds and the entire nation, just waiting for me. That was a top-ten life moment for me, as the task at hand instantly became very, very real.
Once I landed in Mexico City I had about 140 miles to travel via public transportation to the small town of Tlachichuca. I got through the airport no problem and started hunting for a bus ticket to the town of Puebla, the jumping off point to get to Tlachichuca. There are two bus stations in Puebla, and figuring it’d be just too easy to buy a ticket to the right one, I went ahead and bought a ticket to the wrong station.
Arrival in Puebla was disappointing. Hearing that there were no buses from this station to Tlachichuca and that even if I got to the right station, it was by now 8:00 pm and buses may not be heading there anymore today was disheartening. Faced with the options of either lugging myself and my gear bag around the nighttime scene in Puebla trying to find a place to stay with no internet access or just trying my luck at the other station, I decided to get a driver and head over there just to see if a minor miracle could happen.
I got in the car and started chatting with the driver, broken Spanish versus broken English, talking about Orizaba and hip-hop music and our countries. Eventually, he said, “hey why don’t I just drive you the rest of the way to Tlachichuca?” After a brief price negotiation, I took his deal and was on my way.
We pulled up to the address at about 11:00 pm, a dark street in a tiny town in Mexico. He shook my hand, wished me luck, and suddenly I was alone again. I knocked on (what I thought was) the correct door, only to be greeted by a man who kindly told me to please leave him alone he didn’t know what I was talking about and please leave.
I couldn’t believe the swings in my luck. The wandering around I tried to avoid in Puebla would now take place later at night in a more rural area with almost no lodging options outside of two climber hostels, one of which I had a reservation at. If I could just find the damn place.
After touring the streets for what felt like hours but was only probably a few minutes, I arrived back at the address I thought was correct. I couldn’t figure it out. Door three, on Street Three. Seemed hard to mistake. I turned around 180 degrees and what do I see….
It was right across the street the whole time. After knocking on the massive metal gate for a while, I was given an assist by an elderly lady who pointed out the inconspicuous doorbell, gave it a rang, and finally made it into the hostel.
I woke up at around 8:00 am, waved hello to the master of the hostel Senora Maribel, and puttered around the hostel complex waiting for breakfast. Quite some time went by, but I had nothing to do today except take the two-hour 4×4 ride through the National Park to basecamp so I didn’t mind just hanging out. I needed to buy food to take up with me, but figured I had plenty of time to do that after breakfast.
Around 9:30 I started to think something was wrong. The Senora had told me the night before that once she saw me she’d whip up breakfast in less than five minutes, but it’d be over an hour and a half and no word on breakfast. Right when I really started to sweat, she came up and asked if I’d like breakfast before the jeep left in ten minutes.
I hurriedly explained that I needed food, please wait for me. Mexico is not a morning country, with many of the stores (especially in small towns) not opening until 10:00 am in most cases. So I’m flying around looking for some kind of market, anything or anybody who will sell me food. In the end, I managed to wrangle up three apples, three bananas, and a kilogram of mystery deli meat from the butcher.
When I asked him what kind of meat it was, he simply said “good meat.” Works for me.
I threw all my gear into the back of the jeep as soon as I got back, including a five-gallon jug of water that would be my only liquid for the next four days on the mountain, and myself and Maribel’s father Joquin set out on the journey up to basecamp.
We talked mostly about mountains on the two-hour trip up, as he described to me how hundreds of climbs of Orizaba never caused the mountain to lose any of its luster and mystique to him, he’d do it a hundred more times if he could. We talked about the other major peaks of Mexico, accidents, and highlights in our climbing careers, and generally reminisced like two old friends around a campfire. Mountains have that innate ability to erase differences in age, experiences, and lifestyles. Mountains are just mountains.
After about two hours I was dropped off at the Piedra Grande hut at 14,000’. A concrete hut with three bunk levels, it can sleep 40-50 people and is the height of luxury in the Mexican high alpine. My original plan was to just stay here a night before ferrying all my gear up a little higher to make my summit day a little easier for myself, however, the events of the next day would necessitate some changes to the plan.
The prevailing wisdom in acclimation is to “climb high, sleep low.” You work your way up a little higher each day, coming back down to a lower elevation to sleep, and thus allowing your body to adjust. As it would turn out, my body had no interest in adjusting at all.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is characterized by some pretty easy to recognize symptoms. A “mild” case includes dizziness, headaches, insomnia, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath with physical exertion. Most sources list about 10-12 symptoms in all for a “mild” case. I’ve listed the seven I got on the first night.
I didn’t sleep a single minute. I couldn’t keep any food down. I was a mess. I managed an hour or two of restless sleep around 7 am, but still felt like complete garbage the next day.
Another decision point had arrived. Do I do the 2+ mile hike I had planned to get up to some altitude today, or do I conserve the bit of energy I have to make one huge effort on summit day the following morning?
I decided to just give it a go and see what happened. In the end, I didn’t get as far as I wanted to, but I think it was a benefit to go. Every step was exhausting and I just could never catch my breath. Taking all that into account, I took tomorrow’s departure time of 2:00 am and bumped it up to midnight to give myself some extra time before the afternoon sun hit Orizaba and melted the glacier ice, making it impassable after noontime. A mile-long slip and slide at 18,000’ sounds fun in theory, but is probably less fun in actuality, so I did what I needed to avoid that.
Upon return to base camp, I resumed my horizontal position for the rest of the day. I wasn’t fully all there, kind of sleeping kind of in a sick daze, just watching time slide by and gritting my teeth to keep the contents of my stomach in. After I got down, my teeth and jaw were sore for a week from clenching tight for four days.
Midnight arrived finally, and it was time to gear up. Showtime. The moment I’d waited over a year for.
Layers of clothing and a harness thrown on. Ice ax, crampons, water, headlights, food, all in the bag and slung on my back. A clear, cold night with just a little five-foot circle of light to show me the way. One last reminder to myself, get as high as you can and get back down. Then, just like that, it was time to go.
The first section of the route winds through a massive rockslide with little to no trail markings. Some go-getters have placed cairns (small piles of vertically stacked rocks) at random intervals to mark small sections of a path, otherwise, it was a blank slate. Luckily, I had a pretty general of idea where I needed to be thanks to the previous days of climbing.
The thin air continued to cause problems, as I was reduced to just a hundred or two hundred feet of movement before needing to rest and suck wind for a few moments. People were passing me, it was about 2:00, and I had covered maybe 1,500’ of the 4,500’ I needed to climb. And this was the easiest section.
At about 4:00 am, I reached a shelf between the rock slide and the section of the route known as The Labyrinth. Here is where your movement on ice is first put to the test. 14-point crampons get strapped to leather mountain boots, the straight shaft mountaineering ax comes off the pack, and things get very vertical very quickly.
Formed by the receding of the Jamapa Glacier over the last few decades, The Labyrinth is a maze of gullies and rock falls encased in ice exposed by the retreating glacier. The cause of many failed summit bids over the years, people simply get turned around and lose the route and are forced to turn down after too much precious time spent in The Labyrinth.
So I immediately got lost. Wandered a little too far left, it would turn out. The ice pitched up at times anywhere from 35-40 degrees, but in the cold night air, it certainly felt like 90. Kick, kick, ax, kick, kick, ax, over and over again, balancing on just the two front points of the crampons. A crampon would snap loose, I’d need to balance on the one good crampon and fix it, at times 20-30 feet above the last bit of horizontal ground.
I should’ve been, but I didn’t really get scared. Sometimes you’re simply too focused on the task at hand, too focused on using your little bit of skill to stay alive when you’re in way over your head, to even notice how real things have gotten. There’s no room to be scared, thankfully. Looking back on it, I don’t know why or how I kept going. I think I had the rock-solid confidence in myself one needs to have to be successful in the mountains, but I also have to wonder how much my sickness was contributing to my decision-making process. Would I have gone on if I was thinking completely clearly? I can’t say for sure. To me, that’s one of the big aspects of climbing I love. How close can you take it to the edge, can you peek over the edge and look into the pitch black abyss and still get home safe? That balance and trying to constantly find it out there in the hills, that’s nirvana.
After hours of climbing, I cleared the last pitch of The Labyrinth at around 5:30 am. I was now on a plateau between the prior section and the beginning of the Jamapa Glacier. I decided to hunker behind some rocks, rest, and wait for the 6:00 sunrise before continuing. Crouched behind a rock at 16,500’ with the wind whipping and the temperature far too cold for a Mexican vacation, I had grumpy thoughts about the handwarmers I left in my bag at basecamp and how I really like surfing too and why didn’t I just do a surfing trip for once damn it, until finally, blessedly, the sun slowly started to rise.
There are a lot of things I find hard, or even impossible, to describe. It’s hard to know what certain experiences are like unless you’ve been in them yourself. I imagine mountain climbing is a little like having a young child though. It’s frustrating and terrifyingly hard work, but there are moments where it’s just perfect and you feel all the love and caring you have for this thing flow through you and you kind of forget about the nightmare diapers or faulty crampons or markers on the wall or altitude sickness or any of the other headaches. Because in that moment, it’s just really, really amazing.
That’s kind of what it felt like watching the sun light up Mexico from high above. The purple and red hues of light hitting the blanket of clouds laying far below. The glacier above me, seemingly right on top of me, getting hit by the sun and shining too brightly to look at. A million stars slowly slipping away into the daytime. This was what I wanted, this is why I was here. After a year of struggle and hard work and determination, here I was. Samsara really is nirvana. There can’t be joy without struggle, happiness without pain.
I thought of approximately none of this at the time. I took some shaky photos because it was too cold with my glove off to operate the camera, did notice it was very pretty out, but had to get moving almost immediately.
I had been headed upwards for about twenty minutes before I ran into a guide heading down. We chatted in Spanish, and he informed me that the last 500’ of ice to the summit was very rotten and his opinion was that no one should attempt it today.
Figuring I could always just see for myself, I pushed up the beginning slopes of the glacier and pushed higher still. I reached the point where the glacier steepens to its most extreme angle, having already heard several more accounts of the bad summit ice, and about 1,000’ from the summit I made the decision to turn around.
Exhausted and with the entirety of the descent still to go, from a purely rational standpoint it was far and away the right call. To be honest, if I was my own partner headed up, I might’ve made myself turn around much earlier.
Of course, however, mountain climbing is deeply emotional. Pride and ego are killers in the mountains, and I heard plenty from those two as I tried to decide what to do. In the end, champion climber Ed Viesturs said it best; “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
I walked the correct route down the mountain (much easier to find in broad daylight) and made it back to base camp around 11:00 am. I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept mostly straight through until the next morning. The only interruption came from two other climbers who shook me awake at separate times to ask if I was ok, to which I mumbled something about being “fine, just worked” and rolled back over.
My ride came the next day, taking me back down to Tlachichuca. Senora Maribel was not very pleased with my condition and even less pleased when I told her how the climb went. She fed me my body weight in dinner and told me to go right to bed, which I obliged. I slept in a real bed that night, and the adventure was officially over.
In the end, I lost between 10-15 pounds in four days on the mountain. I ate one banana and one Cliff bar the entire time, and drank barely half of my five-gallon jug of water. I reached a height somewhere between 17,000’ and 17,500’ by my estimate and came within roughly 1,000’ of the third tallest peak on our continent for my first ever experience in the big mountains of the world. And I did so as one of only a handful of climbers so far this season to go solo and as the youngest soloist people had seen so far this season.
I rested in Tlachichuca for a day or so before jumping on a bus back to Mexico City. I spent nearly a week in the city, seeing amazing museums and eating fantastic food and generally falling in love with Mexico. It’s a beautiful country filled with terrific people and I don’t think this will be my last trip there.
Overall, I’m pleased with how the trip went. A summit would be great, and a huge part of me already wants to go back sometime and finish the climb. But I didn’t go to Mexico to get a summit. I went to Mexico to test myself in the best way I could, to learn what it takes to operate in the big mountains, and to have an experience I wouldn’t forget. I got all that, and a lot more, from this trip and couldn’t be happier.
People have asked me already, what’s next? That’s everybody’s first question. The days immediately following the climb, I vowed no more high altitude unless I moved somewhere I could practice at high altitude more frequently. But….
Mera Peak in the Himalaya is interesting at 21,247 ft. I’ve discussed 15,781′ Mont Blanc in France with some people. Aconcagua is also in the running at 22,841’ and one of the Seven Summits
For now, though, I’ll just be. The Whites and maybe even Katahdin will be nice to get back to. Just sitting on my ass and practicing the ancient art of Do-Nothing will be exquisite.
Thanks for reading, until next time.
“Everything was everlastingly loose and responsive, it was all everywhere beyond the truth, beyond emptyspace blue. “The mountains are mighty patient, Buddha-man,” I said out loud, and took a drink.”
― The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
“There was a shepherd the other day up at Findon Fair who had come from the east by Lewes with sheep, and who had in his eyes that reminiscence of horizons which makes the eyes of shepherds and of mountaineers different from the eyes of other men.”
― Of An Unknown Country, Hilaire Belloc