It was our second time attempting El Pico de Orizaba; Mexico's highest volcano. On our last trip we turned back after the weather got sour around 16,500 feet… (continue reading below)
Photo: Jessica "Parting the clouds"
March 17-18, 2009:
Thin, wispy clouds rolled over our heads like a river. The sun induced a prism effect adding color to the already dreamlike landscape. They seemed to dip down just 20-30 feet above. Were they dropping down into the crater? Had we made it?
We started searching for the Sandman in the early afternoon on St. Patrick's Day. Although the hut was buzzing with people and activity I still managed to find sleep. I dreamt I was home looking through my pantry and for some reason I hadn't had a chance to climb Orizaba. It is probably a common dream for those of us who dream of climbing mountains. I read about a similar dream James Wickwire had while on K2 before becoming one of the 1st Americans to summit the notorious peak. Maybe it was a good omen. The alarm buzzed at 11:30PM and I was up in seconds. I sparked the MSR XGK and finally had it figured out to where if I had any hair left on my hand I wouldn't have burnt it off this time. The stove ignited with the intensity of an F-16's single burning jet engine and had our water ready in minutes. We took a little longer than the efficient little stove and were out of the hut at 1:00AM. This time there were 3 of us; Jessica, Trevor (centrifuge) and myself. How lucky was I? Most guys need to beg their wife/girlfriend to let them go do stuff like this and mine was right here with me for the second time in 2 months. The silent night was already being interrupted above us by the headlamps of the brothers from Texas.
Photo: Jesse "Where the sidewalk ends and Orizaba begins"
Photo: Jessica "Acclimation Hike"
We kept a methodical pace; Jessica was a great excuse for Trevor and I to move comfortably and I don't think either of us minded the leisurely pace as we approached 3 miles above sea level. The route from the hut to the base of the Labyrinth was familiar after several acclimation hikes and we made our way to there with deceptive ease. We caught up to the brothers as they choked down "energy bombs" a.k.a. bean burritos. The easy portion of our day was about to come to an abrupt halt. In January we made our way through here without putting on our crampons and hoped for a repeat. Unfortunately the freeze/thaw cycle was in full effect and wasn't going to allow that; the rock was covered in ice and snow. So we sat down and put on the spikes to prepare for the normal snow path up this section. I started out in front and immediately doubted myself; "I'm not sure if I have the technical skill for this section." I admitted.
Photo: Jesse "Jessica bundled up at the bottom of the Labyrinth"
The slope bulged out with steep water ice covered in thin snow and to the right a rock covered by ice. I went right and dug the pick of my axe in over my head, stuck my front points into the ice and slid up. Once over I was relieved to see an easier path on snow for Jessica and Trevor to follow. We moved passed the bottom of the Labyrinth and quickly became committed to the climb. The Labyrinth is a couple hundred feet of mountain pierced by short bursts of intense 50 degree + climbing on rock, snow and ice. In some places the run-out was troubling but mercifully hidden in the night. I lead while Jessica followed with Trevor behind. We stayed close because between the 3 of us we only had 2 headlamps. A classic mis-placement by me in an attempt to make sure we had them; I did bring the spare though and I'm told by a delicious dinner meat rocker that "2 Outta' 3 Ain't Bad." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_Out_of_Hell)
Photo: Jesse "The beginning of our difficulties"
Orizaba stands somewhere between 18,400 feet and 18,700 feet depending who you ask. It towers above the small beautiful town of Tlachichuca, Mexico. Senor Reyes runs Servimont; a climbers hostel that provides logistics for climbers. The century old building was once a soap factory and is now a living museum that is part of Orizaba's growing history. The walls are adorned with classic mountaineering equipment used by older generations of Reyes. You will not find a better host anywhere in the world then Senor Reyes family and staff. He is also a doctor in case you need any medical support during your stay. Lucia, the cook and master of soups, remembered Jessica's favorite drink from our last stay. Victor, the driver, summed up the attitude found at Servimont and in my experience Mexico at large. When I asked him how he was he replied; "todos perfecto." Meaning; "everything is perfect." Our next visit to Orizaba will only partially be to visit the mountain, the other part will be to see the Reyes and staff again. Reach them at email@example.com.
Photo: Jesse "Orizaba viewed from Tlachichuca"
Photo:Trevor "Senor Reyes, Victor and us"
The Labyrinth refused to surrender to us and the climb wore on Jessica. "Mountaineers need strong legs" Dr. Reyes told us before we left; "but they need strong minds even more." Just before our flight Jessica and I attempted to cancel it; her Grandma Jennie was being tested for pancreatic cancer. Taking a queue from our last trip we thought it might be best to spend this spring break visiting her in Phoenix instead of climbing Orizaba. I'll just say that the trip insurance is kind of B.S. and there was no guarantee we'd get a refund on our tickets so on Wednesday night March 11th, 2009 we reverted back to leaving for Mexico that Friday; the 13th.
Photo: Jessica "Back at the Refugio Hut"
Photo: Trevor "Jessica and Jesse reading by candlelight"
There we were; between 3:00 and 4:00AM in the middle of our first mixed climb at 16,400 feet and if Jessica didn't hate me for it then I'm 6 foot tall. (I don't blame you.) "We can't turn around here." Trevor and I tried to explain, I believe my words were; "we'll get to the top here and re-evaluate." When I finally reached the top I placed a bright orange glacier wand in the growing wind and waited while Jessica and Trevor topped out. The hard climbing on the Labyrinth was below us; above us every step was a new high.
Photo: Trevor "Jesse and Jessica near the top of the Labyrinth"
Photos: Trevor "Looking up at the Jamapa Glacier"
For the first time we could see the glacier up close. The wind reminded us we were way above the clouds but this high the night was clear. A star fell toward the mountain named after it. (Citlapetl is Orizaba's Aztec name and means "Star Mountain") I felt stronger than I had the previous several hours. It was a tick behind 5:00AM and I knew the sun would be rising shortly. Would the light of day invigorate Jessica? Was the glacier too big for our legs? Should Jessica wait at the base while we climbed? Would she resent me for pushing on without her? On our last attempt my very good friend and Grandmother (Nan) passed the morning we traveled to the hut 1.12.2009. On this trip I carried her picture in my chest pocket and brought a purple ribbon from her funeral with me to tie to the summit cross; Jessica wanted me to tie it there.
Photo: Jesse "Jessica and Trevor move out onto the Jamapa"
We set out onto the glacier; Jessica decided to give it a shot. The Jamapa glacier starts off at an easy angle; 20-25 degrees. Our trio made our way in the brilliance of the morning onto the crunchy ice that crowns the top of Mexico. The sun rose to our left and split the sky in half. It seemed as if we were looking at the curve of the earth on the horizon half a world away. Just as the ball of fire poked above the thousand mile cloud to our east Jessica decided to turn around. My watch read 17,400 feet, no small accomplishment. After the 3 of us discussed it Jessica and I turned around and walked hand in hand to the bottom of the glacier while the sun painted our high alpine world red.
Photos: Trevor "Sunrise over Mexico"
"Don't worry Trevor; I'll hustle back to you. Whatever hustling is at 17,000 feet," I joked. With Jessica safely at the bottom of the glacier and in the path of any coming or going climbers I was heading back up at 6:50AM. I caught Trevor pretty quickly and we were on our way. The sun was up, sharp steel crashed through hard ice and snow below our feet, the glacier glasses were on and all of Mexico lay beneath us. It was the first time in my life I felt like I was truly on my way to becoming a mountaineer. I felt great; we were moving good and had the summit in reach. We had taken 2.5 days/nights at 14,000 feet acclimating and had taken 2 acclimation hikes up to around 15,600 to earn this feeling.
Photo: Jesse "Catching up to Trevor"
Photo: Trevor "Jesse on the lower glacier"
The brothers from Texas were good guys; I have 2 brothers. 1 older and 1 younger. These guys reminded me of us guys. They loved each other and that might have been displayed best when they got into a shouting match one Piedre Grande morning. They were not regular mountain climbers; they just wanted a challenge and found theirs on Orizaba. They were as prepared as they could be too which is something I can certainly respect. Another group that left later then the brothers and us caught up and passed everyone; Mr. Turner and Alejandro (one of the Reyes guides). Mr. Turner said that he felt the need to go quick for a few reasons; first because he is "getting old so he doesn't have time to screw around like I do." And second because he was "the only one with a guide and on a rope so he needed to overcompensate by going quickly." Either way it was impressive work.
Photo: Jessica "Jesse meets the brothers"
High on the glacier my body would deceive itself and I'd move too fast before getting winded and struggling to catch my breath in the emaciated 18,000 foot air. Each step felt more and more like a dream then the last; was I really above 18,000? Was I delirious from lack of sleep or the altitude? Was I aware enough to continue safely? "Be here now;" I would think to myself. An expression I picked up after reading Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival. At one point I coughed and felt nauseous. Should I turn around if I throw up? The summit is close I know it. Alejandro and Mr. Turner are no longer visible above us. False summit or crater rim? Trevor dubbed it "Alejandro's Crest" and proclaimed that must be it. We struggled upward sometimes taking short sit-down breaks. What looked like a boot track from the hut turned out to be a crevasse. It only spanned about 2 feet wide and was mostly filled in. I probed my axe in and felt air though, spooky. We both quickly jumped across with our ice axe in self-arrest just like Freedom of the Hills suggests. That's why it's good to have read each section of that book like 50 times; I remembered it at 18,500 feet.
Photo: Trevor "Jesse high on the glacier"
Like I said earlier this trip was almost cancelled. Right before we were supposed to leave we learned Jessica's Grandmother Jennie was being tested for pancreatic cancer. Jennie is a two-time breast cancer survivor with a surgery as recently as fall 2008. She is 86 and refused pain pills after surgery; she's a tough woman. Her test results came in on the last day of our trip as we sat at the airport. With so many painful memories of calls back home from Mexico we pushed them aside and put out positive thoughts for this call. They were met with good news and all negative tests for Grandma Jennie. We still are going to go visit soon.
Photo: Jesse "Looking up at Orizaba from a memorial near the hut"
Thin, wispy clouds rolled over our heads like a river. The sun induced a prism effect adding color to the already dreamlike landscape. They seemed to dip down just 20-30 feet above. Were they dropping down into the crater? Had we made it? Jessica sat 2000 feet below us looking up and saw the clouds too. They hadn't been there all day until we arrived; for me Nan was greeting me to the top of her mountain. We were there; the glacier was below me and for the moment could be set aside. The brothers had just arrived as well and were sitting comfortably on the crater rim of Orizaba. It was 9:00AM; we took just over 2 hours to get up the glacier. Here we did what I suspect most groups do and sat down ourselves and our packs. The clouds seemed like they were trying to one up the view of the crater. Thousands of feet below and thousands of miles to the east was a down blanket of clouds. The views, the altitude, the exhaustion all collaborated to form the most beautiful and surreal moment of my life. I made an effort to capture the scene with my camera but nothing can replicate it. It is one of the "why's" I climb. All of the pain, altitude headaches, travel, stress and soreness of the trip are easily forgotten but that moment will always live with me. I can always go back to it and escape from my mundane and usual life outside of the mountains. The pain, sacrifice and risks that it takes to get to those moments are the only way to afford what is priceless.
Photos: Trevor "Jesse nearing the crater rim"
Photo: Trevor "Jesse sits down after reaching the crater"
Photo: Jesse "My ice axe perched atop the glacier"
After trying to take it all in and regaining what we could of our breath we headed for the true summit. My bright red down jacket came out and warmed me up as I marched up the final hundred feet. We passed Alejandro and Mr. Tucker as they were on the way down and I asked them to please check in with Jessica and tell her; "we are right behind you and I love her very much." With all of Mexico below us we all celebrated on the windy summit. My cheap altimeter read 18,698 feet and because there is no official altitude of Orizaba I choose to believe it. Whether that is technically right or wrong is irrelevant, that's how high it was when I was there. I immediately took Nan's ribbon and tied it tightly to one of the tangled metal crosses that marks N. America's 3rd highest point. Then I took out the most beautiful smiling picture of Nan from my chest pocket. The sight of her brought it all out of me. I didn't cry so much as I wept if that makes sense. Tears just flew out of me but I wasn't otherwise physically upset. I placed the picture at the base of the crosses and set some rocks on it to keep it in place. It was the perfect send off; she loved our Colorado Mountains and I'm sure she loves Mexico's now too. I'm thinking she's going to love all the mountains I'll be bringing her to from now on.
Photo: Jesse "Nan's ribbon blowing in the wind"
Photo: Jesse "Nan on the summit"
Photos: Jesse Left: "One of the brothers rests on his way to the summit" Right: "Alejandro and Mr. Turner peer into the crater"
Thanks for reading and or watching. If you have any questions about Orizaba feel free to send me a PM.
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