Monday, December 8, 2008

Vs. The Mountain

Mountaineering is a unique sport in many ways. Most sports require their participants to be “on” all the time. That is, if Brett Favre throws 5 interceptions and the New York Jets lose, the crowd boos him and he must explain to the press why he played so badly. If Brett Favre were a mountaineer though, he could just say simply, “I was having a bad day,” and all the reporters would just leave him be. In mountaineering, while certainly not the optimal, nor the desired feeling one can have from a day in the mountains, it is perfectly acceptable to explain away a poor performance by saying just “It wasn’t my day”. All mountaineers sometimes have these days. Every now and then it doesn’t matter how hard you train, how good the logistics are, how perfect the weather is. There will be days you just don’t feel right. It’s an unavoidable fact of climbing. Once Gina and I had successfully climbed  Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, and Mt. Rainier, we set our sights on doing an international mountain. Gina was very enthusiastic about attempting Aconcagua already, but after discussing it amongst ourselves, we figured the cost and time an Aconcagua expedition required meant that we should be more sure of success when we would embark on such an adventure. An intermediate step was necessary, and a step that was within our budget as well. We decided that the Volcanoes of Mexico was the next appropriate climb we should make on our way up the ladder of the mountains. The Mexico trip could be done in just 9 days time, as opposed to minimum 3 weeks for Aconcagua. We could get a “buy one get one free” plane ticket deal to Mexico City, and the thought of climbing not just one peak, but two peaks higher than any in the United States outside of Alaska appealed to our imaginations greatly.

Just a short time in the past, climbers could travel to Mexico and climb all 3 of the highest volcanoes in Mexico. Then in 1994, Popocatépetl (17,887’) erupted, and has been active ever since. So there is no climbing Popo unless you would like to be incinerated by a pyroclastic flow or something. Yet the highest peak in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (18,490’) and Popo’s sister volcano Iztaccihuatl (17,159’), the 3rd and 7th highest peaks in North America respectively, are still available for climbing. It was these two mountains which were our goals for the 9 days we would spend in Central Mexico, and since it was early February and winter in the US (therefore not climbing season), we were eager to getting back to our new passion of mountaineering.

As soon as we arrived at the airport in Mexico City, the towering visage of the surrounding mountains, which included Izta, made themselves visible to us. That is, when we could see them through the overwhelming amounts of smog. I had not been to Mexico since I was young and even then only to the touristy coastal areas. This capital city of Mexico was quite another story. Dirty, crowded and chaotic, Mexico City was nothing like I had expected. When we went to get something to eat I was given another shock. The “Mexican” food that we are accustomed to in the US is nothing like authentic Mexican food in Mexico City. Both Gina and I suffered through the whole trip never quite finding a truly appetizing meal. This trip made me realize that the food we love in the US is really Americanized Mexican food. Of course, we were not here to eat anyway, but I was thinking how great it would be to come down from the mountain to a hot plate of fajitas. I never saw fajitas on the menus anywhere where we ate the entire time in this part of Mexico.

One thing we established on this trip was that when traveling to another country to climb, we weren’t just going to go to the mountain and never see anything else about a place. The culture, sights and sounds of a country would always be a part of our experience when climbing outside the USA. Before heading to Izta, we were able to visit the pyramids and the Museum of Anthropology, playing ordinary tourists for a couple of days. We learned much about the local mythology, and particularly enjoyed learning about “The Sleeping Woman” which is what Izta is known as was to be our first climb. We also were able to get to know our climbing companion Charlie, who was a firefighter from NYC who had been at the 9/11 attacks. The trip was guided by Craig Van Hoy, the owner of Go Trek Climbs. We had heard about Craig the previous summer while climbing Rainier. Jeff (JJ) Justman, our RMI guide, had mentioned that Craig used to hold the record for the fastest ascent of Rainier. He had been to Mexico every year for a decade or so, and knew the mountains we would be climbing well.

It snowed in the mountains that week in Mexico. Snow is a rare thing there, but of course the mountains are snow-capped so indeed at times snow comes. As we drove up to our base camp for the Izta climb, we passed several cars coming back down the road from the mountain. It seems many folks from the city had driven up to experience some of the snow and were now happily making their way back home. We passed several cars with small snowmen built onto the hoods, and a few cars with other ornate snow sculptures covering their cars. The Mexicans were taking advantage of the recreational opportunities snow brings and were having a good time with it. This didn’t bother us so much. We had heard reports of high snowfall on Orizaba, which could impact our climb there, but that was still a few days away and the snow should be mostly melted by the time we reach that mountain. The road to base camp was muddy in places but nothing we wouldn’t be able to pass. The patches of snow were actually pleasant to us, reminding us that yes, we were in fact in the mountains, and these mountains were no different really than mountains back home. The base camp altitude was at 13,900’ and we slept in tents that night there.

The first day was our approach to the Ayoloco Hut. It was a good climb, through mostly scree filled slopes. The route granted great views of the neighboring Popo, and a few times we were able to see puffs of smoke still boiling off the top of it. As we climbed higher and higher, every so often Craig’s Altimeter watch would sound off an alarm. Craig had programmed in different altitudes of world peaks into his watch, and so we knew when we were passing our previous “highpoint” of the top of Mt Whitney (14,497’) and were now breaking our personal altitude records with every step. My backpack felt like it weighed too much, I was still not adept at going light and reducing unnecessary gear, but the views and the joy of climbing were too great for me to be distracted by the extra jacket or two that I was packing on my shoulders. After a half a day’s climb, we reached the Ayoloco Hut at about 15,350’. This would be our camp for the night, so not only was this our new highpoint, but we would be spending the night there as well!
We had time to relax and unwind at the Hut, as we continued to acclimatize. There, another team joined us led by John Race and his Mexican assistant guide, Oso. Oso very likely is the most well-known domestic guide/climber in Mexico and in the years since we have met several people who have used his services on Izta and Orizaba. He was also a very friendly and colorful guy. This team had climbed up to the Hut from the north side, while we had ascended from the south. So it was more company for us. One great thing I was learning about climbing was how fun it was to meet other folks on the mountain. We were all there, enjoying basically the same experience at the same time. This group of climbers was from the US as well, but had a completely different itinerary than we had, and we spent lots of time trading stories with them about Mexico and other mountains in the US. In all the years climbing, almost never do we meet people from the same place as we are from. This, to us, is one of the best parts of the great adventure that is mountaineering. I did have trouble sleeping that night in the Hut. We were drinking lots of water to remain hydrated and help adjust to the altitude, and I must have had to go pee about 5 times during the night.

Finally, in what seemed like the middle of night, Craig arose and we departed for our Summit Day. Our route was the Ayoloco Glacier route, but really it’s nothing like a glacier on say, Rainier. There were crevasses to cross, but they were more like moderate trenches than crevasses, and the climbing was mostly rocky with a few snowy and icy sections to relieve us of the grating sound of our crampons crunching on rock instead of the surfaces they were meant for. As the sun began to rise and shed light on the mountain, a magnificent sight was before our eyes. The “Arista Del Sol” – Ridge of the Sun, stretched out in front of us, and it was brilliant. This has inspired me to a life long love of “The Ridge” that has repeated itself for me on several other mountains. Like a surfer seeing “The Wave”, on every occasion I’m climbing and I come upon a ridge section – I just become filled with the awe and exhilaration that this is why I climb – to see myself and other climbers traversing along ridges and making our way to the top. There is no other feeling that I know of like it.
After climbing for awhile and topping out over a few false summits, Craig finally consulted his altimeter and declared us on the apex of the mountain. We confirmed this when we found lying on the snow covered top the Summit Cross, which seems to populate the tops of most Latin America peaks. The morning weather was perfect and we snapped all our summit photos. We all felt strong and good reaching the top. It was an absolute perfect Summit Success. A look to the west revealed the brown cloud of pollution which perpetually hung over Mexico City, so we looked over to the east in order to pick out what would be our next objective, the highest peak in Mexico – Pico de Orizaba. We descended back to the Hut, gathered our stuff quickly and kept going down to base camp, in what turned out to be quite a very long day of hiking. Fortunately, Craig’s assistant had a hot pizza waiting for us at camp, which we eagerly devoured. We then drove to the city of Pueblo for the night. At breakfast the next morning in Pueblo, I had what I was having for every breakfast I ate in restaurants in Mexico – French toast with a coke and no ice. We were of course worried about the warnings of drinking the water. Unlike Costa Rica, where you can easily find fresh, clean water, all Mexican liquids are looked at with much skepticism. To this point, we had both been very careful. Gina had orange juice with her breakfast, which we were told was OK to drink, by both our guide and all the guidebooks we had read. After breakfast Gina and I had a few hours to ourselves that we intended to go visit some churches (they have beautiful churches in Mexico) and visit some markets for souvenir shopping. No sooner had we hit the first market than that’s when disaster struck.
In less than an hour, we were scrambling back to our hotel so Gina could get to the baño. She had been hit with “Montezuma’s Revenge” or whatever you like to call it. It was bad too. It was very bad. She was in much pain. I had no idea what this illness really meant, having only read about it before, but soon enough I was dispatched to find the nearest pharmacy and something – anything – that would reduce my poor wife’s agony. Some Imodium was purchased and eventually her condition improved a little bit. She was still sick, however, and I wondered if I would be climbing Orizaba without her, or if I would have to make a decision to forego my climb in order to stay with her and take care of her, if she got worse or didn’t get any better. That day of rest in Pueblo turned into a day of worry about the future of our expedition.

The next day we left Pueblo for the town of Tlachichuca and then onto the Piedre Grande Hut where our Orizaba climb would begin. On the way to the hut, the truck we were riding in got stuck in the still muddy roads (from the snow the week before) and we were forced to hop out of the vehicle and help push. Even though I had had ample time to acclimatize by now, the lack of oxygen hit me immediately and I felt like I was totally useless in pushing the truck from its predicament. The Hut sits at just about 14,000’ and we were not even above 12,000’ where we had gotten stuck. It should have been no problem for me by now, and so my lack of strength began to play on mind and worry me a bit. Gina was still sick, but was diverting herself conversing in Spanish with our driver, who was very taken with the first Costa Rican climber he had ever met in all the years he had spent ferrying people up the mountain to the Hut. It’s a common reaction that I’ve seen many times since when sturdy men of the mountains meet my 5’ tall wife and learn that she is a climber of some of the highest mountains in the land. I always feel great pride that she chose me to be her husband at such times. The Hut was crowded with climbers from all over the world. That day we waited outside and watched climbers descending from their summit mornings. We watched a climber fall several times while descending. This looked like a difficult climb indeed. Gina was still not feeling well, but let it be known to me that nothing was going to stand in her way of climbing the next morning. I started to feel a little better and tried to get some sleep. With all the other climbers packed in there, however, sleep became a tricky proposition. There was a lot of coughing and hacking, and constantly someone was getting up either to go to the bathroom outside or to start preparing for climbing the next morning. Our own night was cut short as an early rise to the climbing day is necessary to push for the summit all in one day. Craig woke us up and we geared up for the climb.

Our route was the Jamapa Glacier route. The lower part of the route is mostly rocky, much like our earlier climb on Izta. I was feeling okay, but a little hungry or something. At one point we stopped for a break, and I thought Craig was hurrying things up a bit too much. The batteries on my headlamp gave out, and I didn’t feel like he gave me enough time to change them. To me, it seemed like we were being rushed up the mountain. We hit the bottom of the glacier, just as the sun was coming up from behind the mountain, and rested finally for a little while. From here on out, the team would be roped together, Craig first, Gina second, me, and Charlie bringing up the rear. Although not a dangerous glacier from a crevasse standpoint, the Jamapa glacier is very steep, and any fall could be deadly so the reinforcement of a rope team is an excellent safety measure. We had been roped up on our Rainier climb the summer before, so we felt comfortable with the fine points of rope travel.

As we made our way up the glacier, I became aware that I was not moving as fast as everyone else. I was trying to keep the rope in front of me just off the snow but it kept getting pulled tight. Concentrating both on the rope and on properly cramponing, it was not long before I began to wear down. We kept going but I was getting noticeably slower and slower, and soon I was winded and asking for a break. I was just having a bad day. Sometimes when you are having a bad day on the mountain, there is just nothing you can do, and today was one of those days for me. This was the first time this had ever happened to me though, since we started climbing. Many things went through my head. I should have trained harder. I should have eaten more, drank more water the night before. I was searching for a reason as to why I just didn’t have it today. No reason was readily apparent though. When we reached the rim of the volcano crater, I informed Craig that I could not go on. I had nothing left. The three of them would have to continue on their summit climb without me, and I would have to wait here and watch their summit celebration from afar. I was extremely disappointed. Gina gave me a hug. We both knew I had made the right decision for that day, a day I just couldn’t climb hard enough. It was still demoralizing to watch them all go for the summit, however. I sat with a bottle of water and was soon alone with my decision. Gina summitted without me.

I was having a bad day, that day on Orizaba. It had nothing to do with how well I had trained. It didn’t have anything to do with what I had eaten or not eaten that day. I’ve had these kinds of days there on an 18,000’+ mountain. I’ve had them on our home mountain, Mt Shasta. I’ve even had them on little 9,000’ Mt Eddy. Altitude is not the cause. If you climb long enough, you will have these days as well. There are just some times – some days – You just don’t feel right. They just happen. Unfortunately for me, it happened on this mountain, this day. As I sat on the crater rim, I could see my fellow climbers make their way to the summit. I had fallen about 500’ vertical and 25 minutes or so short of my goal. There were no crowds booing me, though. There was no coach yelling at me, telling me to go back out there and give it 110% or some such thing. There was only the thought inside my head and the constant second guessing and self-questioning that would not stop. As I sat and waited for them to return, a feeling of self-doubt settled over me, a feeling that I would not shake entirely for over a year. No matter what I climbed at home, it would always be with me. Not until our Russian trip in July 2005, when we stood on top of Mt Elbrus, would it finally disappear from my head.

There is no scorecard in the self struggle of climbing. Sure, you can count how many peaks you have bagged, or how fast you reached their tops. That is all fine and dandy, but the only score that matters is the score inside your own mind and what that means to you. Some people need higher and higher peaks to climb to keep challenging themselves and feeling that worthiness. Maybe for some it’s the conquering of a granite rock face with only a few helping cams, nuts and a little bit of rope that gives that special reaction. Then for some folks, the exhilaration that comes with just reaching the summit of a long hike can feel exactly the same as it did to those climbers. It’s the mental battle, the test within, that separates climbing from most other sports, at least in my opinion. For that elusive sensation, that glorious frame of mind, that is what keeps us climbing again and again. No cheering crowds or inquisitive reporters are necessary.

This trip also was the dawning on me that my darling wife was no ordinary climber. I had known without question that she was strong and fit, but I didn’t really realize how incredibly tough her mental fortitude was. Racked with diarrhea the whole night before, she had continued climbing steady, because she wanted that summit more than anything at that point in time. No matter the pain the intestinal infection was causing her, she pushed on and on until she reached the goal she had set for herself. She had won her clash with the mountain, while I had lost. In later climbs I would see again and again the combination of physical and mental strength that made her the world class climber that she is today. We were still learning in Mexico. Among other things, I had learned a little more how great and what an amazing climber my wife was becoming. Even though I had reached a summit over 17,000’ and gained the crater rim of another (around 18,000’), it would be several more climbs before I would have a positive feeling about my own climbing abilities. Something only a summit can deliver. To this day I have not returned to Orizaba. Like Rocky and Apollo Creed, I left Mexico thinking “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” But just like the Rocky movies, I still have some unfinished business that someday… someday…. I will have to take care of.