Malinche was a funny mountain; it is the sixth highest mountain in the country of Mexico yet because it is located so close to Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl it is often overlooked. This was the case with me… when we took the bus down to Merida (the capital of the Yucatan) I only had eyes for the two mighty volcanoes that lay on the western side of the highway. I never thought to look to the east until we took the bus down to the Caribbean in March and the two mighty volcanoes were wreathed in clouds so bored and frustrated I looked to the east and there lay this enormous mountain that dominated the landscape only slightly less than the sleeping lady and her warrior protector did. My curiousity was piqued more than a little. Malinche had a huge long ridgeline that tapered to the south down to the floor of valley and it rose a full 2500 meters over the city of Puebla which lay southwest of Malinche. It was also a pyramidal peak which drew my attention in a big way in that it differed from all of the other Mexican volcanoes that I had seen. Its not that I didn’t know anything about Malinche, I had first seen her from the summit of Tlaloc three weeks earlier, and had known of her from my regular investigations into the mountains of Mexico. Yet on this day it seized my attention and captured my interest in a big way.
What began as a scratch grew into a gnawing, consuming desire as I explored about Malinche on the internet… especially on summit post. The pictures I saw secured in me the desire to climb this peak, and before long I began picking Gustavo’s brain about his knowledge of the peak. While he had never climbed it he still knew about it, both the approach and a bit about the ascent. Gustavo suggested that maybe he could come along with Rachel and me to climb Malinche so I was more than a little excited about the potential to climb this mighty peak. We had set a date two weeks before I was to climb Iztaccihuatl, it was supposed to be an acclimatisation hike for my assault on the Sleeping Lady and it was also quite simply to sate my blossoming desire to summit this serious peak. A peak that was higher than anything in the contiguous States and anywhere beneath Mt. Fairweather in the northwest corner of British Columbia in Canada. This made the peak more than a little interesting to me; I would have to climb 1500 meters in one day which was awesome practice for my lungs and prepare me physically and mentally for Iztaccihuatl.
On the Wednesday before we were supposed to leave Gustavo informed me that he would be unable to come, in no way dashing my hopes but putting something of a dampener on my spirits. It was more than a little difficult to get to the IMSS camp where the trail began, so I asked Gustavo if he could drive us early in the morning to La Malinche. Once again Gustavo proved to be my saviour, acquiescing readily to my
Request, he simply appreciated where I was coming from, my desire, my passion for mountains. I was like he was, and our common language (the mountains) granted us an understanding of one another that went beyond words. This in my opinion was why he went so out of his way to help me in all that I asked of him with regards to climbing the mighty Mexican peaks while I was there.
So on Saturday morning at around 5:45am Gustavo and his very understanding wife Iraselma showed up at our apartment and after I answered the call of nature we were off along the old highway to Vera Cruz. The drive took just over two and a half hours, and the weather was miserable. It was a rainy morning the clouds were scudding by very low yet my luck held and as we approached Malinche the weather improved the skies cleared, the mountain was silhouetted against the egg shell blue of the sky. Rach and I were trying to catch a little shut eye, but for me it wasn’t happening I was nervous and brimming with anticipatory excitement.
So I drifted in and out but never really slept, and when Malinche became visible after only an hours worth of driving it dominated not only my field of vision but my thoughts as well. The mountain was looming on the horizon and growing steadily larger as we drew closer and closer. Also as it cleared I began to make out some of the mountains many features. On her southern slopes was a horn which looked huge from a distance, but as we drew closer I realised that it was a small rocky outcropping far down the slopes along her elongated south-western ridge. I also noticed how imposing the summit ridge looked even from the great distance we were from the mountain proper. It was a clear rocky rampart that reared a full 500 meters above the tree line and ended in a clear rocky pyramid. We stopped on two occasions as I was keen to snap a few pictures before the approaching clouds moved in and all I would be able to see was the slate grey of the clouds and rock.
We wended our way up through the loamy pines freshly glistening with the morning dew and the light showers that had fallen early in the night. The road went through switchbacks as we made our way up to 3000 meters where the trail began. At around 8:30 we made it to the trailhead. The day had turned cloudy and I was worried that we’d get rained on (much like teacher’s day earlier in the same week) and our trip to Malinche would be rained out. The clouds were low and thick and the summit was clearly obscured.
We bade a quick farewell to Gustavo and Iraselma, who made sure that we had his cell phone number as he had a fatherly side that clearly showed through from time to time. He simply wanted to make sure that we would be safe as he knew we were more than capable of making it to the summit of Malinche but he was also keenly aware of how quickly things can turn ugly on a mountain. He wished us the best of luck and looked a little disappointed that he couldn’t come along with us for the climb.
Rach and I had some trouble ascertaining the route as there were two clear choices. One route was a trail that crossed over the roads and moved upwards through the thickly treed forest. The other route was the road that snaked its way upwards and offered an unimpeded path upwards. We were fairly sure that we should be following the trail through the trees but since we weren’t 100% sure we asked a fellow who was chopping wood and he pointed us along the trail we had assumed was the right one.
The trail rose gently upwards through the lofty pines. We passed clean campsites where smoke was slipping upwards through the trees from the fires where breakfasts were being prepared. It was a pleasant start to the hike. We kept up a steady pace, but I was very aware of Rachel and her level of fitness. This is not to say that she wasn’t in excellent shape and more than a little prepared to make the summit, but her confidence would flag on and off throughout the day as would her energy level, so I tried to keep her spirits and her focus up because I didn’t want to be faced with the decision of whether I might have to leave her on the trail to make a bid for the summit by myself or more than likely opt for the second choice which would be to scrap the climb and go home defeated, demoralised and more than a little pissed off.
We were enjoying the first part of the hike it was great for acclimatisation, as an ease into the rigors that the rest of the day would prove to be on our bodies and minds.
The next portion of the hike was perhaps the easiest of the day. For a twenty minute period we followed the road as it rose gently upwards and then for a brief period we enjoyed a section of the trail where we weren’t climbing at all. We passed a few people along the way as our pace was relaxed but steady, the kind of pace that can cover a lot of ground but not leave you exhausted. The key was to effectively manage our energy levels so that when we were above 4000 meters we would still have energy reserves to draw upon to complete the climb and to ensure that we didn’t ‘wig out’ at a critical juncture.
The trail eventually headed back up into the thinning trees and began to climb again. At first it was a gradual climb but then the trail rose steeply, over 100 meters in places. We were fully involved in the climb now. We had our first real break stopping to sit down and catch our breath before we began our first serious uphill climb. A fallen tree blocked the path and we chose to stop and sit on it for a five minute interval while we had a quick snack of granola bars and fruit and caught our breath. The tree was big and our legs dangled several feet above the ground, as we rested a large group of teenage boys who had been trailing us passed by. There were about twenty of them and two teachers who I’m sure were serving as chaperones. They were loud and boisterous, possessed of the self same bravado that I saw on a daily basis in all three of my classes from many of my boys. It was hard to shut off my ‘teacher-like’ instincts and simply appreciate their spirit of invincibility and invention… yet I tried, and was successful to a certain degree.
After catching our breath we began the first large uphill portion of the trail. The trail was hard packed dirt and offered solid purchase as we covered a section that offered us a steep thirty degree slope. We worked our way over the grassy slope zigzagging
across the narrow trail working our way steadily upwards stopping briefly on a couple of occasions to catch our breath to ensure that we didn’t burn out our energy reserves early.
The trail levelled off for a brief section but before too long we were on a second steep uphill portion where again we were breathing heavily and working our way back and forth across the narrow face of the grassy hill we were scaling gradually. After a series of short climbs followed by brief rest periods we were at the top of the second steep uphill portion and the trail levelled off again. It also cleared out as well, the trees were thinning and it seemed like we were clearing the tree line at last. We rested here having caught up to the large group of boys that were on a school outing… much like our class trip to Nevado de Toluca. They were showing no ill affects from the climb or from the altitude seeming to take it all in stride, like most things at that stage in life.
From here there was a huge ‘plug’ that rose up through the mist and hinted that the summit might be close at hand. We were at around 3800 meters and this rocky promontory was clearly 300 to 350 meters higher than we currently were and towered 150 meters or more above the ground. The view had opened up as well as we were now almost 2000 meters above the valley floor that stretched away to the horizon at least at intervals when the clouds cleared enough so that we could see that far. After another substantial break Rach and I headed out along the gently rolling terrain, enjoying this section of the ascent more than any other portion except the ascent up the final ridge.
The trail opened up considerably here and the trail wound upwards gently twisting back and forth through stands of pine trees. It was a nice clear section of the trail that really allowed us to sit back and appreciate our surroundings. To attune ourselves with the mountainous beauty that surrounded us and really see how magnificent this alpine scene was. So we wondered up the trail deciding to take a longer break on a quieter section of the trail where we could sit and appreciate the imposing silence that was settling in as the clouds encompassed everything and the people thinned out. We picked another fallen log to stop and have our break on. This was one of the more beautiful sections of Malinche, the forests were open and vibrant, veritably humming with life. Also rocky outcroppings were appearing and the sub summit was right in front of us, so these signs that we were approaching the summit buoyed our spirits. We breaked for ten
Minutes and then continued onwards and upwards passing a few more tents that had been erected… and at long last cleared the true tree line.
We stopped under the last tree before we began the ascent up the 200m high scree slope. There we spoke with several of our fellow climbers, and between our blossoming Spanish and their halting English we exchanged reasons for climbing and wished each other luck.
At this point we had a choice of two directions and chose to follow the route I discovered on summit post which turned out to be the wrong choice far and away. Rather than taking the scree slope there was a steep rocky slope that offered us much greater purchase and would have provided us with a much simpler and more straightforward path to the top, rather than slip and slide up the scree slope we could have climbed up onto the summit ridge in a third of the time it took us to crawl up the dusty scree slope.
The slope was littered with weathered rock and remnant ash from the days when Malinche was still active. The mixing of these two constituents made for one of the most difficult climbs I have ever faced in my life. This section took almost 1/3 of our time and it was less than a kilometre in length. As the slope steepened we lost one step for every two we took and because the purchase was so uncertain, and the altitude was starting to get to us, Rach and I were becoming steadily exhausted. Rach’s spirit was starting to flag and I was forced to utilise some of my energy reserves to keep her focused and mentally tuned to the reality of her and I summitting Malinche. We slogged our way up taking a 2 minute break every 50 -75 meters or so, being dogged by one of the many stray canines that tagged along with all of the party’s that worked their way up to the summit. After 40 minutes we were half way, and for the next fifteen minutes it seemed like we were hardly making any forward progress at all. We were breaking even more frequently as the difficulty achieving any sort of purchase and the subsequent inability to make any real gains was grating on our minds, and was beginning to exact a heavy toll.
Yet stubbornly we crept upwards… Rach remained strong, she was emotionally and spiritually spent, yet she continued upwards determined to reach the top. I was spurred onwards by a deep desire to see the world from a different perspective, to challenge myself on all levels, and to prepare my lungs for the challenges I would ask of them on larger mountains in the upcoming weeks. I firmly believed that mountain climbing was in my blood and it was one of the 1 or 2 things I have a talent for. So there were different forces at play when it came to my personal motivation. I had to be strong, because to fail or to perform at a less than respectable level was completely unacceptable. I was more than sure that I was possessed of that unfaltering determination that will people to succeed when the spirit, the mind and the body flag. If I failed at this test than I would be far, far less than I believed myself to be… besides I had climbed higher and had had longer summit treks in the preceding months so history was on my side. The forces driving me were rooted deep in the core of my soul; there was no stopping, no quitting. The only result was to stand on the summit and gaze in awe at the world unfolding beneath this mighty mountain. I longed to see how Tlaloc and Telapon looked, to see different views of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, and to see if Orizaba, Sierra Negra and Cofre del Perote could be seen. To me the summit offered an encapsulated parcel of life at its finest, one of those moments we add to the treasure trove of memories that sustains us throughout the duration of our lives.
So we continued our inexorable drudgery up the crux of the climb and after another 20 minutes we were within striking distance of the summit ridge and freedom from the misery of this dusty, slippery slope. This provided me with a surge of energy and Rach and I were soon free…
The summit ridge was beautiful, the most clearly delineated summit ridge I was on while I climbed in Mexico, although an argument could be made for Orizaba as it is one long unbroken ridge from base to summit, no disparate sections… (at least from the south side), also an argument could be made for the thin beautiful ridges on Izta and the final razor’s edge ridge up to the summit plateau.
This ridge was the traditional moderately steep, thin rocky crest that ran from a shoulder up to the summit itself. We were near the base of the shoulder and could for the first time look out to the south and the east, but sadly the weather wasn’t co-operating and the summit was shrouded in greyish clouds
This was truly alpine weather I was experiencing, hyper dynamic… threatening and stormy at one moment and vibrant and inviting the next; though the clouds were the predominant climatic feature on this afternoon. At times they were beautiful, spilling over the side of the mountain, an ephemeral cascade of thin scuttling clouds that surprisingly resembled a true waterfall.
We rested here and relished the fact that we had survived the scree slope, and would never have to climb it again. On any future trips we would most certainly climb via the alternate route. There were many people on this section of the summit ridge; most of them were on their way back down from the summit as it was getting late in the day and past time for people to be on the summit. We enjoyed this break as we were now certain of our shared success, and secure in the knowledge that the worst this mountain could throw at us (on this day) was behind us.
After a much deserved rest we started our trek up to the summit and quickly realised how great a toll the mountain had already exacted from us. We were both beyond weary and were feeling the exhaustion down deep in our bones. Our packs which were ungainly, and awkward, completely unbalanced and improperly cushioned for the uses we were employing them for were making things even more difficult. So after ten minutes or so we found a suitable spot. A five meter hike rocky outcropping where we could hide our packs for the remainder of our climb (safely) and retrieve them on the way back down. This invigorated us in a way that achieving the summit ridge had failed to do.
We felt unfettered, free from the confinement of the packs and we scampered up onto the thinner high portion of the summit spine and began picking our way along the backside of the summit ridge (on the southwest side of the mountain) until we caught sight of the summit. I really enjoyed this section of the climb, as scampering over and up rock is the type of climbing I most enjoy on this earth. Even Rachel seemed to have undergone a resurrection of sorts she was excited too, at the prospect of achieving such a difficult goal. We had learned first hand that climbing Malinche was no mean feat. It took a lot out of a person to reach her summit, more than even I had expected, and I always err on the side of caution when I am preparing myself mentally for a climb or longer trek.
We crested the rise and began clambering across the spine keeping to the southwest. The mountain top was open to us and despite the veil of clouds we could make out the summit and both of Malinche’s false summits (that I hope to return and scale on another occasion). We could make out another group in the distance climbing up the 10 meter face to the summit proper where a large group was in repose enjoying their time on the summit. We snaked our way along the backside of the ridge until we came to the base of the summit and climbed the final 10 meters upwards until we were at the summit. Rach and I each climbed up onto the highest point and asked a member from the large group that was hanging out on the summit to take our picture. We only lingered for a few minutes as there was nothing to see because we were in the clouds and I was more than a little disgusted with the condition of the summit. It was adorned with several decades’ worth of spray paint from ignorant fools who had chosen to leave their pointless legacy behind to forever ruin the serenity of the summit and the purity of the alpine experience.
The down climb back to our backpacks was a blur, I remember little of it except the occasional eddying when the clouds lifted and we could look down the steep slopes 2200 meters to Puebla. We half ran, half slid down the scree slope and were well on way to the scrubby trees that marked the beginning of the sub alpine zone where we stopped for a breather under the same tree where we talked to a large group prior to making our assault on the scree slope that led up to the summit ridge. As we rested a lone man joined us briefly under the tree and inquired about the length of time up to the summit in halting Spanish. So we switched to English and found out that he was a Canadian living and working in Monterrey who had returned (after failing to summit Malinche on his first attempt) to gain her summit on this occasion. As we talked we found that he was from Sudbury, Rachel’s hometown and we had an animated conversation with him remarking on how truly small a world this is when you can travel 5000km from your country and bump into someone from your home town on the slopes of an obscure mountain peak.
We left him wishing him the best on his late attempt for a summit bid and headed
down through the twisting trail that snaked through the sub alpine zone and hiked rapidly down making the down climb in less than 2 hours. By the end my legs were shaking and I was on the edge of exhaustion. I was amazed by Rachel’s strength; she led for over half of the descent and seemed as strong as me or stronger by the time we returned to IMSS La Malinche campgrounds. For the final forty minutes of our descent through the woods the skies cleared and sunlit shafts dappled the pathway and the forest came alive with birdcalls and the hum of insects. Much as I suspected the weather had turned just as we got off the mountain. On the bus ride back through the quiet forests on Malinche’s lower slopes we were rewarded with some great views of her. Just enough to whet my appetite and make me want to return to climb Malinche on a day when the weather is better so I can see Orizaba, Izta and Popo and Tlaloc and Telapon from her lofty summit.
"No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep coming back and back until one of you is dead."