Oh, did I mention the evil sharp varieties of cactus that line the trail? Small, palmlike fronds that slice the calves. Another kind has sharp barbs that go in and detach. Then, when you pull them out, they take a nice little fleshy chunk as a souvenir. Our name evolved for these from the Fucker Plants to the more proper, El Fuckre. (pronounced “El FOO-cray)
We made the summit and had a small snack while the scarves or whatever they were that were attached to the crosses planted there flapped against us as in this picture. Got a bit off trail on the way down, enjoyed a few more scars from the plants but made it back in time to talk to Senor Gerar that night about what he found out about the road to PG.
We learned that the road was still closed but he could arrange for a mule to carry our stuff up the trail. We figured a mule would get just as stuck as we would so we might as well try to hike in ourselves and save the money. We just decided to go ultra-light so that night we pared down our gear. No snow pro, less food, no tent – we’d just stay in the hut, etc. Heck, we even used a pee bottle to bring up the white gas to save on weight. Chris and I decided to share contact lens solution, we tore route pages out of Secor’s book instead of taking the whole book, etc. It was all very Mark Twight-esque (although I am sure he’d think we still carried way too much).
Next morning we loaded up the transport vehicle and were off. Several stops were still needed as Gerar gave us his cell phone and we stopped to get a calling card from a local store. This would allow us to tell him when we were ready to get picked up. Little did we know that the calling card was bogus and the phone turned out to be just extra weight.
The ride up to Piedra Grande was fine if not a bit slow. We stopped around 10,000 feet as a woman in a Land Rover was up there trying to get up as far as she could with her family. Gerar stopped and told her to not continue on as we were about to enter the 4WD section of the road. While we were waiting out that conversation, I snapped this photo of Popo, Izta and La Malinche off in the distance. Not too much further up the road we hit impassable snow and got out to begin the hike up.
Senor Gerar decided he would walk with us for a little bit. Maybe to check us out to make sure we were worthy, maybe just to be nice, who knows. We walked maybe a quarter of a mile or so and he turned back. A few hundred yards after that, we sat down for a rest, neither one of us wanting to show weakness before that point in front of him. We plodded on a bit very slowly trying not to let the sudden altitude gain until that point get the best of us. We all live near sea level so this was a big jump for us.
Luckily for us, a man on a horse came by. He said his name was Antonio Ramirez Morales. Isaac traded pleasantries with him in Spanish and he ultimately asked if we wanted him to take our gear up on horseback. We all gave a resounding “hell yeah” and agreed on 300 pesos. Once he got our gear tied down on his horse, the price suddenly jumped to 350 pesos. Geez, this kind of crap never ends in this place, eh? (The third ripoff of the trip) We were just happy though to get rid of the weight as we all had about 50 pound packs. (our “version” of minimalism) We went quickly from that point on up the trail and came around a turn to see Piedra Grande up ahead. Soon enough we were up there and checking out the hut.
Now, when I say hut, I really mean shithole. The place is infested with mice with one outhouse nearby. Why it is there, I can’t tell. It is filled up to the seat cover with feces so you really can’t sit down on it. There is no door on it, it faces the hut and everyone there and any sizeable rock in the surrounding area has piles of shit and used toilet paper around it. One of the things the profile page on summitpost says is that there are no fees or permits needed to climb this mountain and it’s obvious there really is no governing body taking care of the place, or, at least none that was apparent. Maybe “they” check it out periodically and we were just at the far end of the cycle, who knows.
So, back to the hut. It was filled with people and we were lucky to get the top shelf in the back of it. People were melting and boiling water and getting packs ready all night long. Our plan was to take an acclimatization hike up to 16,000 feet the next day but I got maybe 4 hours of sleep that night and was still sucking wind the next day. Some Mexican climber had been boiling water deep into the night and the fumes that came up to us in the top shelf were noxious.
I decided to abstain from the hike the next day to hopefully take it easy and start breathing easier. I melted water and then filtered it through my purifier while they hiked a bit. I also got a chance to talk to some of the other climbers in the hut.
One of the really cool things about the hut though was the amount of quality climbers and various personalities we encountered. There was “Frenchy”, a 62 year old man who was there with his wife. They live at the base of Mont Blanc and he does that one as a dayhike when the mood hits him. Needless to say, of all the climbers while we were there, these two kicked everyone’s collective ass in strength and endurance and speed on the route. When Frenchy came in the hut and looked around at the condition of things, he muttered “Ah, Mexico” and went about trying to do his own thing. In talking to him, we discovered they have climbed in all the hotspots: Himalayas, South America, Alps, Africa, etc. He was our choice for Alpha Male of the hut.
Another climber was a young Mexican who was searching to put up a new route on Orizaba. He is headed down to South America to try to put up a new route on Alpamayo soon too. He also bombed this mountain up and down.
Others included “Scotty”, a Scotsman who apparently works 1 year and then takes 4 off to do this kind of thing. He couldn’t imagine why we didn’t just all quit our jobs to do fun things like this. He told us tales of trekking through Mongolia, Alaska, etc. He was the last one besides us to stay on the mountain that week.
There was a large climbing group from Colorado that would end up taking all day to do the route and then get lucky when they came down to have the first trucks that were able to make it through in weeks take them down the mountain. Several Mexican teams came and went throughout the week as well as one German team.
So, as I talked to some of these guys while melting snow, Chris and Isaac hiked up the route to just under 15,000 feet and then came back in clouds. Seems every day like clockwork about 1 pm clouds roll in and stay until dinner time. After which, they clear up and the night is pleasant and clear. We were also lucky to have a full moon this week which made it easier for the climbers to move up without use of headlamps.
That night in the hut was worse than the night before. There was never any time that someone was not making noise, heading out to summit, boiling water, puking from the altitude or just waking up to chat loudly without respect for anyone else who was trying to get some sleep. I was still sucking wind and got absolutely zero sleep. We had decided that afternoon to stay an extra day and not try for the summit this night as I was still not acclimatized. I was really thankful my buddies did this for me as I really wanted to climb this sucker.
Anyway, that afternoon we discovered the cell phone wouldn’t work and sent word down to Gerar via some climbers who were heading out to not pick us up until the next day. This would also allow me to do an acclimatization hike on the day in between. This was a Godsend as I was starting to get loopy from lack of sleep by now. So much so that I abandoned the idea of the hike up to 16,000 feet to sit and rest. Chris and Isaac were a bit tired too so they did the same.
The day was spent melting/purifying water and talking to others. Trying to get a nap in but it was useless. And I still was sucking air. The sleepless night had been a nightmare for me as every time I would come close to sleep, my body would take a deep breath and it would wake me up. This was literally torture all night long.
The really good young Mexican climber descended from his summit that day and had given his water to another Mexican climber who he said was in really bad shape. I gave him some of the water I had just purified which came in handy later as he remembered that gesture and gave us all his unused white gas for our extra day on the mountain.
One good thing that happened though was that this day was Sunday and apparently, nobody wants to climb on a weekday in Mexico. Everyone cleared out by late afternoon and we had the hut to ourselves. Well, except for Scotty who was tenting a ways away anyway. There was also a dog who had come up at some point in the last day or so who was hanging around scrounging for food. We all fed him LOTS and he became our buddy but he would not come inside the hut.
That night we decided to get up and midnight for a 1 am start. By this time I was pretty much exhausted and still sucking air. This was really weird as I had never had this much problem before. However, I also had not spent days at 14,000 feet before.
We went to sleep about 7 pm and I was awake at least until 9. At that point, I fell asleep but it was really almost worse as it was nothing but nightmares. Three times I found myself outside the hut looking around wondering how I got there. I kept hearing mice scurrying around us too on the platform. At one point, I woke up wrestling with someone who wasn’t there. I was really freaking out from lack of sleep and wondered how much more of this a body can take. I gave myself zero chance of getting very far that day. I figured I would just go up to maybe 15,000 feet and turn around to let those guys go on to the summit.
Midnight came and we got ready quickly. We were actually off by 12:50 am. We slowly walked up the aquaduct as the dog followed a short while. Once we were outside the camping area, he stopped. We walked up a few hundred yards gaining about 200 feet in elevation when Chris, who was leading, stepped in a puddle on the side of the sidewalk. This was probably the only puddle on the mountain but it was deep enough so that freezing cold water rushed in and drenched his socks. He asked us what he should do. Isaac and I both said if he could not keep walking and keep his feet warm he should go back and try to dry off and then catch up with us later. We would be going really slowly anyway.
He did turn around and go back and while Isaac and I continued climbing, we kept checking for his headlamp to come up after us. It never did. When he got back to the hut, he discovered his liner boot was completely soaked so he just dried off his foot and went back to sleep.
Meanwhile, Isaac and I continued on up the first snow gully slowly. We took one water break about 14,500 feet and then quickly made 15,000 feet where there was a small flat area at the top of the gully. This was a new altitude record for both him and me so we were already moderately pleased with how things were going.
And for some strange reason, I felt GREAT. Maybe it was the fresh air, maybe it was just finally getting out and doing some climbing. I didn’t care, I felt awesome. Very awake and strong and no problems breathing now.
After a quick food break, Isaac asked if I wanted to lead so I went on picking my way through patches of snow, ice and rock. The trail is pretty evident so it was pretty easy going. About 15,250 feet though, the altitude really hit us. The familiar sucking of the air into the lungs returned and Isaac mentioned he had a small headache now. We kept plodding on and getting more uncoordinated as we went. The feet started slipping out more and more or tripping over rocks. It was a really weird sensation.
My head was clear though and aside from feeling out of breath, I was good though. We hiked through the middle of two ridges up to 16,000 feet where you turn up on top of the left ridge and saw a few stone shelters. We had made it to the high camp!
We put our packs down and immediately went for the parkas. It was really cold here and we were both winded. Isaac then told me he was not able to go further. He was pretty nauseous now and had a bad headache. He asked if I wanted to go on a few hundred more feet to the base of the glacier to see it but I declined. This was as good a place to turn around as any. I would not have been able to go much further alone and the altitude was getting to me as well breathing-wise. We could all come back another time. But how weird was it that I, who had felt like crap all week long, was the one who ended up feeling the best at the highest point.
Well, maybe “best” is too strong a term. I was sucking air pretty bad and was absolutely fine with 16,000 feet being the highest we go. I crushed my previous altitude record by a couple thousand feet. But we all decided this was one to come back and knock off at some point in the future.
We bombed down the mountain in no time and were back to the hut by 5:30 am. I finally was able to sleep for a couple hours. After a late breakfast, we all had to wait until 5 pm for the truck to show up and pick us up. Let me tell you, it was the longest, most boring day I’ve ever had on a mountain. We ended up throwing rocks at the aquaduct, other rocks, etc to pass the time. All nicely while the smell of feces wafted through the area. We were all so sick of Gu and power bars by this time, nothing appealed to us. The highlight of the day was when a truck showed up to take the German climbers down but they weren’t there yet. We ended up picking up garbage that the dog had strewn all over the place the while we had climbed. Apparently, WE were the governing body of the hut now. (neat shot while we were passing the time, at least the view was nice)
But wait, it’s not over. The truck never showed up and we eventually decided to hike back to town. We hiked down to about the same spot we were originally dropped off where we found Senor Gerar with his Jeep stuck in a rutted muddy mess. He had been there for an hour and a half trying to get up to us. Seems all the trucks that had been making it were coming up earlier in the day when the ground was still frozen. By late afternoon it was a mess and that is where we found him. We loaded up and headed down towards town as the dog, who had followed us down as we were the last ones on the mountain, sat in the middle of the road watching us drive away. Hope he made it down to Hidalgo.
That night we ate in Tlachichuca as the last bus had already left.
Early the next morning we caught the bus to Puebla, then to Mexico City where we got a hotel room by the airport (only got stopped once on the highway by law enforcement for an inspection). Went for some beers at arguably the grossest bar I have ever been (El Gordo’s). There were cockroaches on the walls and two prostitutes sat across from us putting on their makeup for the big night ahead. We had a few beers there and went on to another place in the airport that was your typical American sports bar where we sat watching the US soccer team get pounded by Mexico to knock us out of the Olympics.
The next morning we were at the airport where the security people at the x-ray machines confiscated my batteries (about $15 dollars worth) without any explanation. I had also forgotten my camp knife in my carry-on bag. They looked at that and said it was alright to take on the plane. So, apparently, Double A’s are more dangerous than a serrated plastic knife. (??) What a place!
So, Mexico is awesome, gross, corrupt, beautiful, amazing, with incredibly friendly and very seedy characters. I’ll definitely be back. The peak reminds me somewhat of Rainier on steroids and the flanks of it are like Eastern Oregon with pine forests and big tussocks of grass. Tlachichuca is great. Lots of helpful and nice people (with the exception of Sr. Reyes) who would do almost anything for you. It’s got a neat market, restaurants, laughing kids running around, women carrying the day’s food from the markets, animal carcasses hanging up at food stands, sounds of roosters and donkeys everywhere. And many, many dogs. They were on the roofs, in the streets, on sidewalks, everywhere. I’ll remember this trip for a long, long time although next year we are thinking about Mont Blanc. Maybe we can catch up with Frenchy?