El Pico De Orizaba, Mexico

My First International Climbing Expedition - 1998

We arrived at our designated acclimatization camp (12,500’) on the lower flanks of El Pico de Orizaba (18,850’) in central Mexico just as the sun was setting. The sky lit up in the most majestic oranges, purples, magentas, and reds due to the fact that Popo (a nearby volcano located just outside Mexico City) had erupted days earlier. The brilliant light on the horizon with the mountain looming high above us made for an exceptional view and campground. We ate some pasta, assembled our humble shelters, told a few jokes, and then slept. Day one was complete and we were exactly where we had planned to be, keeping the schedule intact and giving us a legitimate shot at the summit.

The following day, we all moved rather slowly in the thin air of the altitude. The 4WD taxi arrived right on schedule and we were soon off to the climber’s hut at 14,000’ to jockey for space in the oft-crowded accommodations. We were fortunate upon arrival to find that a group had recently departed, leaving ample room for us to set up our home for the next several days. However, I was feeling increasingly worse health-wise. More concerning was that I knew fighting-off a cold or the flu at 14,000’ would be extraordinarily difficult.

I awoke the following morning aching, coughing, congested, and burning with fever. After a hot breakfast and some warm tea, my body slowly started to respond. I was able to climb to 15,500’ to acclimatize and ended up performing strongly on the long slog up the lower icefields. I felt, at this point, that I had defeated the virus, at least mentally, and that it would take something far worse than a cold to prevent me from summiting this peak.

The next day was our scheduled rest day, where all we did was eat, sleep, read, joke, talk, and prepare for a 2:30am departure. A few parties summited that day, which left us feeling anxious as well as eager to get going. The weather had been perfect for nearly four straight days, following an eight-day span of miserable snowstorms where no one had summited, so we just hoped the streak of good weather would continue as we climbed into our sleeping bags at 8pm.

Between 9 and 10pm the weather turned. Winds were whipping outside and tearing at the hut’s fragile tin roof. We mostly sat in silence, listening to the building storm outside, and wondering if we would get our chance to try for the summit. In the meantime, pieces of the roof were being strewn all over the Mexican countryside.

Finally, the 1:30am alarm sounded and it was time to make a decision. I felt that we had little chance of summiting and was willing to give my body an extra day to rest before making our attempt. After some deliberation, we concluded that there was a chance that this was a microsystem, and that it may burn off at sunrise, which would salvage our summit attempt. On the other hand, it could also take a turn for the worse as the heat from the morning sun caused the already aggressive winds to increase. We decided that if it was a true weather system that the mountain would be socked in for days with no hope of a summit attempt. And, although, this day was a definite risk it was at this point still climbable. The sky was clear, likely due to the high winds, so it was hard to say if it was, indeed, a front moving in or not. We decided to climb.

Five of the six people on our team decided to make the attempt, and we were on our way by 2:30am. We made great progress in the dark, early morning hours. The moon had set hours earlier, so the full gamut of stars was out and the night was black. Climbing in the dark is a strange experience. It is as if you are in a sensory deprivation tank. Renowned climber, Joe Simpson, refers to night climbing in his book Storms of Silence, saying this about the experience, “Sometimes in the dark it is possible to convince yourself that you are not actually there on a steep mountainside that if you fell nothing would happen. You would remain trapped in your tiny yellow bubble of light, not falling or climbing, simply there because nothing exists around you.”

Under the star-studded sky, we worked our way up the wind-swept lower glacier. We made great time and maintained a fast pace until we were about ¾ of the way up to the upper glacier. Here we paused in the dark and searched for familiar landmarks, on terrain we had covered only 36 hours earlier. The darkness was playing tricks on us and nothing seemed as it should. We traversed north around the mountain and found nothing familiar. I soloed a somewhat auspicious snow chute in an attempt to scout the mountain above us for a more promising line of ascent. The chute did connect to the slopes above us but nothing seemed correct in the early morning darkness. Everything outside my headlamp beam was impermeable blackness. I returned to the group below and we decided to return to the path we had followed up the lower icefield earlier in the morning. At this point, two more team members returned to the hut as the weather was continuing to deteriorate and did not bode well for a successful climb.

It was now 4:30am and after taking internal inventory, I decided that I had already exerted a lot of energy on the climb, and that even if the weather cleared in the next day or two that I would not be physically up to the challenge again so quickly. Therefore, I concluded that today was the day or it would not happen for me on this trip, so on I climbed. The plan at this point was to get to the upper glacier by sunrise and wait for the weather to clear or get substantially worse. For these reasons, it was important to wait at the upper glacier’s lower limit to see what was going to happen and be in position should things turn favorable.

We made it to the top rock band that signified the separation between the lower icefield and the upper glacier shortly after sunrise. Upon our arrival, the weather seemed unstable but passable. There were high clouds whipping around the mountain’s upper reaches, but the winds temporarily subsided. We were enthusiastic but still hesitant. It would have to clear substantially before it would be possible to continue. There were some other American and Canadian climbers evaluating the conditions here as well. The two professional photographers I was climbing with left to take pictures of the impressive conditions on the high mountain as I attempted to hydrate and take a few pictures as well. Unfortunately, my water bottles were frozen solid despite their insulated covers. My camera as well. So, I simply stood on a rock outcropping, admiring the extensive view below me. Clouds, far below, were whisking past at impressive speeds. I sat and soaked it all in, with my camera down my pants, hoping that it would warm enough to function in the cold at 16,000+ feet.

As I stood there alone on top of the rock band staring far into the distance, an enormous blast of wind hit me in the back. It nearly knocked me off of my perch. Had I not planted my ice axe in the ground to steady myself, I may well have fallen for quite a long way. I hunkered down and waited for the wind to subside, but it did not let up. So, after a while, I managed to crawl back to my backpack. The hurricane force winds were now hammering us at an unwavering 80+ mph. It was time to descend to the safety of lower elevations. After traversing a few tricky ice chutes, I started down at a sprinter’s pace with the wind at my back aiding me greatly.

I was moving as rapidly as I could down the mountain, in my cumbersome crampons and plastic double boots, when I heard a shout from above me. I turned to see, through the encircling ice and snow, my two climbing partners both shouting something, which was incomprehensible over the wind’s incessant howl. Suddenly, I realized what they were shouting about. The wind was not only creating projectiles of ice chunks (spindrift), both large and small, but was also freeing boulders from their icy nests and casting them downhill. A rockslide passed by me about 30 feet to my left, and was headed directly for another climbing team that was below me. I, too, shouted a warning and one of the climbers looked back just in time to see the slide miss him by less than ten feet. The slide was not huge but it was substantial enough to cause a lot of damage and could have possibly swept someone right off the mountain.

I took off and was practically running down the snow chutes and gullies. My two partners caught up to me and we finally felt it was safe enough to rest and catch our collective breaths. With the effects of the high altitude, the subsiding adrenaline rush, and the flu that I was fighting, I was completely exhausted. The mountain had sapped all of my energy, and I had very little left in the tank to even make it back to the hut, which was still more than a thousand vertical feet below. With aching joints, stinging eyes, and dimming enthusiasm, I continued the descent.

We returned to camp by 10:30am defeated but pleased with our attempt. We were all confident that had the weather held for us that we would have made the elusive summit. It was little consolation, though, as we had all wanted a successful summit. So, sunburned, windburned, chapped, with eyes fully ablaze from stinging spindrift, and virtually every joint and muscle aching to some degree, I clambered into the back of the old Chevy truck that was waiting to take us down. We headed back to Tlachichuca that day, officially ending our climb on Orizaba.

Once we returned to Tlachichuca and the Gerrar Hotel we took the much-anticipated shower, and then ate at a small pizza restaurant, containing one banquet table that we all crowded around. We played soccer in the street with the local kids, only before buying them fireworks, which started a full-fledged border war. They loved watching the “old” Americans run for their lives. We closed out the day with some chicken fights in which my 7 year-old buddy, Juan, and I were a force. Eventually, it came time to leave, and after a final toast, we were off.

My climbing partner, Clay, and I made our way back to Mexico City, where we would spend two more nights before flying home. With our last day in ol’ Mexico, we ventured to the far outskirts of Mexico City, via their public trains. We went to El Estadio Azteca to watch a professional soccer match, where we sat right in the heart of the local crowd, and after a few Mexican beers, we began singing with them and cheering for the home team, Necaxa. However, the final problem of the expedition arose when, due to a miscommunication, both Clay and I spent our final remaining pesos on souvenir mugs (which neither of us would ever use). We had 6 pesos remaining between us, which is the equivalent of about 80¢. We had just enough money to get us on the first train, which would take us to Mexico City’s version of Grand Central Station. Once we arrived, we attempted to exchange Clay’s remaining $8 American, but no one would take anything under a $20. Finally, just as it seemed all hope was lost, I spotted an American-looking woman. She agreed to give us 20 pesos for $3 of Clay’s remaining $8. It was more than a fair exchange as we were simply ready to collapse in our cheap hotel beds and this provided us just enough pesos to get us home.

In a blink, it was morning, and, therefore, time to depart. My first international climbing expedition was over, and despite not making the summit, I had caught the bug and was certain that this wouldn’t be my last.