When you climb big mountains timing is everything. I’m not sure if our timing was good or bad last week but on Saturday, 04 October, three of us were allowed to summit and ski from the top of the 18,405-foot Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltepetl as the natives refer to it. The forth succumbed to the effects of high elevation on asthma but at least made her record elevation height of 16,000 feet.
I left Guadalajara with a brand new head cold and the idea of meeting Corey, Peter, and Annie inside the Mexico City aeropuerto. Because of my head cold I left Guadalajara late and because of the Mexican highway system I was turned around in Toluca and because of Mexico City I quickly became lost in Mexico City. However, I managed to show up just five minutes after the threesome stepped out onto the terminal sidewalk to wait for me. Timing.
We left Mexico DF and made our way to the beautiful converted monastery of Hotel Colonial in Puebla. We tried to leave Puebla about mid-day but because of construction and the usual Mexi-chaos we were turned around and around in Puebla for a few more hours. Luckily, just as we found our way out of the city we also found a grocery store to stock up on supplies and a gas station to stock up on fuel. After that we were on our way. More timing.
We made it to Tlachichuca—the sort of base town for would be climbers—and to Senior Reyes’s compound were we would enjoy our last complete meal and hot shower for the next six days. That night a storm rolled in that would plague us also for the next six days. (A quick note about the Reyes compound: While the prices for the services of transportation, meals, and lodging may seem high for Mexican standards, the atmosphere of the place, the stories and climbing history of the Reyes family, and the obvious love and attachment and commitment to Pico de Orizaba shared by the Reyes legacy makes this before and after resting place an almost necessity.) We left Tlachichuca the next morning in a 1962 Power Wagon—a truck that all trucks aspire to and another reason to stay with the Reyes’—at about noon.
At 14,000 feet we arrived at the Piedra Grande Huts. We experienced the first effects of high altitude while moving all our gear from the truck uphill one hundred yards to the huts. That was plenty of exercise for the day so we spent the rest of the day staring at the scene that was offered to us also for the next six days: gray clouds, two hundred foot visibility, and light mist. We all figured the storm would have to break at some point, we just weren’t sure when. After all, this is Mexico, Land of the Sun, right?
The next day we waited out the morning rain then headed uphill with all our climbing and skiing gear to stash at high camp (16,000 feet) and then return low for the night. At times the two hundred foot visibility shrunk to one hundred feet and for most of the trip we could hardly see what we were climbing in and on. We made it to the high camp, though, stashed our gear and were given a brief five-minute look at the summit that towered 2,500 more feet above us. This was the last five minutes of sun we would see until Saturday.
The last half of the hike back down was spent in the rain that did not lift for a day and a half. In fact, the rain canceled our plans to return to high camp the following day for a summit attempt on Friday. Instead, we remained at the Piedra Grande on Thursday—in retrospect, a good decision, both for acclimatizing and for our only chance at the summit on Saturday.
We were bound and determined to reach the high camp on Friday and even though we woke to the same gray, low visibility day that at that point seemed the only weather pattern possible, we made it. Our gear was soaked, the clouds persisted, but we were happy to be high and ready for the summit attempt the next day.
It rained at 16,000 feet that evening and then that night it cleared and froze. Hard. Corey and I spent an absolutely sleepless night, probably from nervous excitement but more likely from elevation. That didn’t matter, though, because we all woke to a perfectly blue sky and sunshine. We were all excited (except for Annie who was suffering from asthma) and began to prepare our gear. Within an hour, however, the same fog, mist, and then complete rain moved in again and everyone had to retreat to our still frozen tents. My morale plummeted.
At that point I decided that the weather was too bad to try for the summit and that I was more interested in descending from the mountain and admitting defeat than holding on for hope. Corey hedged a bit as well but had the patience and energy enough to wait as long as possible. Saturday was the only and final day for us to attempt the summit as our ride back to town was scheduled to pick us up on Sunday. It was now or never.
We looked out our tent to find Peter preparing his pack and skis and though the weather hadn’t changed Corey decided that he, too, would try for the top. I, on the other hand, didn’t like the conditions at all. Better safe than sorry, I thought. And besides, sleepless nights and high elevation were definitely catching up to me. I felt awful, frustrated, and exhausted.
About an hour later the tent suddenly became very bright and very warm. Soon thereafter Peter, Corey, and Annie (who decided to hike to the toe of the glacier) radioed down to me and encouraged me both to check out the sun, view, and blue sky and to reconsider an ascent. I did. Quickly.
I hopped out of my now dry tent, powered a Power Bar, strapped on my boots and pack, and within another hour I caught Peter and Corey well on their way up the glacier. With crampons cramped on, skis on our backs, the warmth and energy of the sun above us, we all three knew that there was no stopping. Clouds blew in and around us, at times preventing most or all visibility, but the winds were light and our determination was high. Four hours later, tired and gasping for oxygen, we made the summit of Pico de Orizaba. The mangled and wrecked collection of crosses that mark the high point and that serve as memorials reminded me that humans aren’t always so welcome or lucky on high places.
As we prepared to descend the sky once again opened up and afforded us with our first views of the valleys and forests far below. We skied from the top under perfectly blue Mexican skies. For the first five hundred feet the snow was stiff and a little ice crusted but otherwise turnable and so we did just that. The steeper forty-degree pitch of the top gave way to thirty-five degree slopes and sun-warmed soft snow that made for ideal—and well earned—skiing. We took it slow and easy the entire way down, gleaning all we could from the views of the mountain and valleys and enjoying every turn that we waited all week to make.
We spent the night at 16,000 feet again under relatively peaceful skies. We woke and prepared to hike back down. And, as if to affirm to us who was really in control, the clouds, wind, and rain once again rolled in and our tracks and the peak high above once again disappeared from sight. We slogged our doubly heavy loads back down the mountain and had about an hour to spare before we were picked up. When we returned to the Reyes compound Dr. Reyes greeted us and while shaking his head kept repeating, “You are so lucky,” with elongated accents on the ‘uh’ and ‘ee.’ Lucky, indeed. We all knew he was right because no one knows the mountain better than him.
Hot showers, hot food, and a warm, comfortable bed preceded a long night of sleep. The clouds and gray skies remained the next day and the mountain was obscured from sight. We saw the mountain from afar only once as we were traveling up from Tlachichuca and only for about three minutes. We saw the mountain only twice from up close, once for five minutes and the second time as we attempted the summit. We were lucky. Timing is everything.
The return trip to Mexico DF and then my home re-introduced us real quick to the world we lived above for the past week. I will only say that I will never again criticize cell phones and that I thank the Four Directions above for my tough Idaho-bred wife who happens to work in high places. The episodes on the way home were reason enough to risk bad weather and health for the brief opportunity to experience what might be the purest, most singular, and vital form of living.
"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."