Sunday, March 4, 2012

Vs The Mountain: The Rematch

En ingles?
It was finally time. Mauricio, who had been climbing along strongly, or so I had thought, had had enough. He couldn’t go on, he explained to our guide, Javier, and my nephew Rashid in Spanish. I thought that’s what I had understood him saying, but I definitely wanted to be sure. You see I was completely out of gas. Through. Kaput. Toast. We stood at about 17,500’ or so, but sadly this was the end of my climb. Now finally I had my chance to turn around with some bit of honor. I looked at Javier.

“Mauricio says he can’t go on.” Javier told me.

At 9:30am Javier and I had discussed our worsening situation. We were taking too long. I was very tired, and unbeknownst to me, so was Mauricio, who was climbing behind me. Rashid however, I knew was still climbing strong. Javier had pulled me aside and given us to 11am to make progress, otherwise he was going to turn everybody around. I desperately tried to make ground but it was almost futile. No matter how many candy bars, energy gu’s, and 5-hour energy drinks I shoved down my gullet, my body was just not responding. As the 11 ‘ o’ clock turnaround time grew ever closer, I approached Javier to make a deal.

“If I go down, will you promise to take Rashid to the summit? Rashid is still climbing very strong. He can make it.”

“You feel ok to go down by yourself?” Javier asked me.

“I live one hour from a big mountain like this. I’ve done this a thousand times.” I assured him. Indeed, the glacier on Orizaba is for  all intents and purposes nothing more than a steep snowfield. It may be ice underneath, but this day thanks to recent snows it was much more comparable to just walking down something back home. 

But at that point I did not want to go down. Somehow, I thought just maybe I can find the strength to keep going. I really wanted to go on and get a summit for myself.  Eight years before, I had stopped (or been stopped) just 15-20 minutes short of the summit, and I didn’t want to come up empty again. So I pressed on as hard as I could. It was a stroke of luck, really, that I didn’t stop there and convinced Javier to let us keep climbing a little longer. Had I bailed out, and then later Mauricio burned out up higher, the whole team would have turned around. For Mauricio this was his first big mountain challenge, and I’m sure Javier would not have let him walk down the glacier alone. By fate, I had continued long enough to ensure Rashid would be able to continue to the summit.

Mauricio had to go down now. It was the moment of truth. I looked at Javier.

“You will take Rashid to the summit?” I asked again.

“Yes, Rashid can make the summit. I promise I will take him there.” Javier answered.

And just like that, the decision was made. I took the rope out of my harness and I was off. I wasn’t sure how much Rashid, who does not speak a lot of English, had understood from Javier and I’s conversation, so I gave him a hug and told him to go summit for his Aunt Gina. Choking back the tears Rashid said something in Spanish I did not understand. Javier looked at me and translated, “He says he will climb the summit for you.” I gave him another hug and told him to be strong – “Muy fuerte”  I told him.

And I knew he would summit.

Now my attention went to Mauricio. Mauricio would not have been here except for me. Originally this was an idea that I had with two other friends, but due to circumstances they had not been able to participate in the trip. When he heard of the open spots on our trip, Mauricio had volunteered for the adventure, and I was sure glad he did. Mauricio’s friend, Quazi, whom he had met on Rainier last summer, had rounded out our group, and over the few days we had spent together we bonded together greatly. Quazi had to quit early on our summit day though, the altitude being just big of a factor for him. So now it was just me and Mauricio, and here I was walking down a glacier with Mauricio, who had also, by the way,  just informed me he had dropped his ice axe.

Luckily he had seen where it fell. I scoured the whiteness of the Jamapa glacier and I had no idea where his axe might be. We had no sooner recovered his ice axe than he dropped his trekking pole and a glove as well. My friend Mauricio was indeed suffering from a slight bit of AMS, and we needed to get lower as soon as possible. I had told Javier we would wait for him and Rashid at the base of the glacier, about 16,000’ – and that’s where we stayed. Mauricio was still having trouble, but I did not want to navigate what they call “The Labyrinth” on our own. We waited for Javier and Rashid.

When I first spotted them coming down, I was a little worried. It had seemed so quick, maybe they too had needed to turn around before the summit. I sat and worried a bit, and sent some messages on my Spot 2 to my wife Gineth back home. The Spot 2 is great, but I really wanted a 2-way communication right now. In what seemed like a flash, but was probably 45 minutes, finally Javier and Rashid were almost down.

I stood up and walked to greet them. Javier approached first. I was pensive, although I was optimistic they would summit, I still didn’t know for sure. Javier walked almost all the way up to me, then stopped. The grim look on his face turned to a smile and he said simply “Summit”. I threw my arms around congratulating him heartily, and then turned to Rashid. Another great bear hug, so strong that I lifted him up in the air. I could not have been happier if I had summited myself. This was what the trip was all about, him getting to the top. And he had done it.

Unlike the first time I failed to summit Orizaba, I did not feel any sense of failure. The expedition had been a success, even though 3 of the 4 of us had failed to top out. And I really didn’t get the feeling from Mauricio or Quazi that they were anything but happy with the trip, certainly there was no sense of disappointment with any of us. Both of them were essentially beginners, but they had learned a wealth of knowledge to take with them in the future.

Of course, some of that had to do with our traveling mates on this trip. Upon our arrival in Mexico City, we had found out that we would be sharing logistics with the world famous mountaineer Jake Norton, and his client who we later found out was named Josh. Josh was a photographer, and was documenting Jake’s climb for his cause Challenge 21 – in which he is climbing the triple 7 summits – the 3 highest peaks on each continent, in order to raise awareness for his cause Water For People.

It was neat being in the company of such a notable mountaineer, and to be sure we all picked his brain for what tips and insights he was able to give us. We really traveled as one whole group of 6, not as individual groups of 4 and 2, and we all got to share that feeling of camaraderie that can only develop on expeditions in the mountains.  

The trip started out with a climb of La Malinche, a peak of 4462 meters, or just about 14,640’ – it’s just a little bit higher than Mt. Whitney in the USA. I didn’t really know what to expect with this one, when I had been to Mexico 8 years ago we did not climb this one. On the way there, we stopped in the little town of Tlaxcala, where a festival was going on. It was really an enjoyable afternoon, and the food we were able to find at the local restaurants wasn’t bad. Rashid and I were careful though, going off of Gina’s experience on the trip before, I was not about to take any food chances. Still, I felt a little silly dumping the ice out of my coke. Maybe it was too much, I don’t know, but I did not get sick so I guess I did everything the best I could.

Finally it was time to get to the mountain. I was pleasantly surprised to find some very comfortable cabin accomodations. La Malinche is something of a mountain resort area for the Mexicans, as we saw lots of families playing and relaxing, enjoying the alpine air. There was even a restaurant there, although we did not stop in. Our guides had provided everything we needed, clean water and dinner, and we ate the delicious quesadillas they prepared.

We woke up before dark, somewhere around 5am. I had hardly slept at all, I don’t know if it was the altitude (the cabins are at about 10,000’) or just nerves – I was excited to finally be climbing. The first part of the climb consists of walking up a wide trail through the forest that dissects a road that climbs the mountain several times. The road is closed to traffic, but no matter, I really didn’t feel like taking the easy way up this mountain. Shortly after daybreak, we broke out of the trees and hit the slopes of the mountain.

The sides of the mountain were very sandy, and instantly brought back unpleasant memories of Parinacota in Bolivia. Add to that the sun was shining very hotly on us and the climb turned into a trudge. But soon enough we gained the primary ridge on the mountain and we were plenty high enough not to stop now. I was carrying my Koflach Degres in my pack. La Malinche usually does not have any snow, but the recent storms in Mexico had left it white capped this day. In packing for the trip, I had just assumed I would climb this one with my trail shoes. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a third pair of leather hiking boots. So the conditions of the day dictated that there may be ice up high, and crampons might be necessary. I regretted not bringing my Yak-trax – conditions like these they are perfect for. Instead I lugged my heavy plastic boots on my back up to around 4000 meters, when finally the snow encompassed the whole trail and the group got our crampons on. It’s funny how something can feel so heavy in your pack but then can feel so light when they are on your feet!

The final push to the summit was pretty straightforward and reminded me something of climbing a Colorado 14er. Basically just a walk up, with only minor scrambling involved on the final summit block. Still, it was a fun summit. Jake, the pro mountaineer, arrived well ahead of the rest of the group and Quazi came up last, having battled a cramp a little lower on the hill. But eventually the entire team was on the top, where we celebrated and high-fived each other, and took many victory photos. The conditions were not perfect, clouds came in and covered us again and again, so panoramic shots were not the pictures of the day, and the cold wind constantly reminded us we were on a high mountain.

Much to our surprise on the way down we passed a few other groups climbing the mountain. Not surprising that they were climbing, but surprising that they were climbing the mountain with absolutely no gear or proper clothing. Once again, I was reminded of Colorado, where anybody with feet can attempt to climb a 14er. No matter, I’ve seen enough of people like that to know that their dumb luck saves them 99% of the time, and I needn’t worry about what happens to them. The guy climbing a mountain in jeans and a cotton shirt just always has nothing bad happen to him – well, almost always.

It seemed like forever to get down from that mountain, I certainly did not remember walking that far in the morning, but finally we reached the parking lot. We were supposed to be in Tlachichuca that night, so our excellent guides stopped at an Italian restaurant (I don’t remember what town, but I think it may have been Tlaxcala) and treated us to dinner. There is really not enough good things I can say about Orizaba Mountain Guides – they treated us first class at every opportunity, and went above and beyond what a  guide service normally cares for with their clients. I highly recommend them to anyone considering an Orizaba adventure.

By the time we finally reached Tlachichuca it was pretty late at night. We were all tired and dirty from the climb, so we gladly waited 10 minutes for the hotel owner to start up the hot water heater so we could take showers.  The hotel was not fancy, but it did have Wi-Fi. Well, not like how you might think, but it did have it. The Wi-Fi’s range was pretty limited. The router was in the hotel office, so to get a real good signal strength for the internet, one had to sit right outside the office door – if you went inside your room the signal dropped to almost zero. So this produced a rather comical scene of anywhere from 4 to all 6 of us loitering around the office using our smart phones. Still, it was good to Skype my wife, in this connected world we live in it sure has become difficult to leave technology behind.

We woke up in the morning and Skyped our final goodbyes. From here on out, our home would be the Piedre Grande Hut, 14,000’ up on Orizaba. The old Jeep Wagoneers muscled their way up the sides of the mountain. It was interesting for me, when I was here 8 years ago we were sheltered in the back of a truck camper, bouncing around on the 4-wheel road. I have been on rougher roads in Colorado, but certainly the trip to the Hut ranks up there with them, at least in dust content if not shake factor. But eventually we did reach the Hut, where we enjoyed a relaxing rest of the day acclimatizing. 

Inside the Hut we were one of three groups. There was a Dad from Colorado who I learned was named Chris, climbing with his young son, Abram. The other group was a group of 9 people (5 of them climbers) from Costa Rica. After dinner we turned in to our sleeping bags. The Costa Ricans were being very noisy and exuberant. I thought this was a little odd, but didn’t think too much more of it. Being married to a Costa Rican I know that they like to talk a lot, and perhaps the sound level in the Hut was high just due to the excitement of their coming climb. Both Chris and the Costa Ricans were spending the night here at the hut, but then putting a higher camp up at the foot of the labyrinth. To be honest, this was the way I had wanted to climb Orizaba myself, should I ever return again. I had thought the same thing 8 years ago. To go for the summit from the Hut seems like such a monumental summit day, going from a high camp cuts down on so much time early in the campaign trying to inch your way up scree fields. But unfortunately, the itinerary we had called for going from the Hut. There is a downside to camping high, and that is you have to carry your stuff, tents, etc, up to that altitude. Still I think if I ever return, it will be a worthwhile trade off.

I did not sleep hardly at all that night. I tossed and turned from one side then to another. Someone in the hut was listening to music too – hadn’t these people ever heard of headphones? It seemed quite rude, but everyone was too busy trying to sleep to say anything. Eventually I think I did fall asleep for maybe a couple of hours, and to hear stories from the rest of the group in the morning, all of them had similar restless nights of non-sleep.

Our plan called just for an acclimatization hike up to the foot of the labyrinth, or to a little over 15,000’. I noticed many of the Costa Ricans from the night before had somewhat blurry expressions on their faces, but again I didn’t put it together. Mauricio, who speaks Spanish, had told me that the Costa Ricans were using a lot of bad words, but maybe that was just how Costa Ricans talked. I thought they would be off before us putting up their high camp, but in fact we left the Hut on our day hike before them.

The day hike went well and we all felt happy and good.  We had lunch at our top point and talked about the next day’s climb. I was a little worried about the weather, this day the weather was clear and perfect, but I’m always afraid the clear and perfect day of today will be the last and tomorrow the storm comes. Luckily, this would not be the case, but it did weigh on my mind somewhat.

We returned to the hut and were surprised to find the Costa Ricans had still not left yet. Their numbers had dwindled to, as the 4 non-climbers had departed. A great sigh of relief passed our faces when finally they picked up their packs and headed up. Definitely, we didn’t want to spend another night with these noisy folks. After they left, Mauricio walked over to their side of the Hut. There, he found an empty wine bottle and noticed wine spilt over their tables. Suddenly, it all made sense. Now I like my drinking to be sure, but I would never drink on the mountain. I guess some folks can handle that, but to me it just seemed a bit disrespectable, both to the fellow campers in the Hut and to the mountain itself. But that’s just my opinion.

We went to bed early that night, excited for the summit try the next day. The wind was picking up and it seemed colder, so I was still staying worried about the weather. I did sleep better that night, compared to the night before, but still not a full night’s sleep. It just seems impossible to do in those conditions. Before we went to bed, our guide Emilio informed us our start time would be 2am, not 1am as we had previously thought, and I suppose that was because of the colder weather conditions.

We woke up in the middle of the night and the weather did not seem too bad. After a quick breakfast of a muffin and some water, soon we were packing up our gear for the big push. The night air was crisp but not too bad. Indeed, I’ve been much colder on different mountains, and I was glad I did not wear an extra layer. We headed off towards the peak, and I just hoped my muscles and tendons were ready for the beating they were about to endure.

As we came to our first rest point, it was already well apparent this would be a more difficult climb than our day hike the previous day. I was carrying a lot of “just in case” gear in my pack – gore-tex pants, a balaclava, a set of heavy-duty mitts. Sometimes I wonder why I take so much, especially when it feels like I’m carrying an angry midget on my shoulders. I just never want to be caught unprepared, but surely I wished right now I had a few less pounds on my back. I wasn’t the only one either, Quazi already seemed to be struggling a bit with the high altitude and extra weight.

We kept carrying on through the darkness, until finally at last we came to where our day hike had terminated the previous day. Here we got out and prepared our harnesses (to be roped up higher up) and put our crampons on. I helped Rashid with his, he was using my old Petzl crampons, which are crampons I hate, but I was able to fasten them to his boots quite securely. They are easier to put on someone else than they are to put on your own boots. I was ready and soon I was following Javier’s headlamp up through the labyrinth, with Mauricio and Rashid close behind me.

Jake and Josh were somewhere heading up a parallel gully. Apparently, the labyrinth gets its name from all these finger gullies heading down below the glacier. I really wasn’t aware of where they were in relation to us, I just knew they were somewhere around. Also, it didn’t occur to me where Quazi and Emilio were. I was too busy concentrating on climbing the relatively soft steep slope in front of me. At a point, Javier took out the rope and Rashid and I tied in. I really hate being roped up, and I was envious of Mauricio, who for some reason Javier did not feel the need to have roped up with us. The rope frustratingly just got in my way, and I did not do my best repressing my frustration with the situation.

Eventually we met up with Jake again, and I could hear radio chatter as he talked with Javier. Javier broke the news to us, Quazi had to turn around and Emilio was helping him go down. Disappointed for our friend, we continued to carry-on, as we were now nearing the bottom of the glacier. The sun was just rising as we stopped for a snack at the base of the glacier. The wind was whipping cold, and I put away my liner gloves for a slightly heavier set. Besides my hands being cold though, I really didn’t feel much discomfort from the cold, just feeling the exhaustion from the climb in my legs, and just a touch of feeling the altitude of about 16,000’ here.

We started out together, with Josh sprinting up the glacier a little ahead to get shots of Jake climbing. Soon we were all climbing past Josh, and Josh did not seem like continuing was going to be part of his day. More radio conversation followed, and finally Jake announced he was taking Josh down the labyrinth, where he could meet up with Emilio – who had returned up the mountain after taking Quazi down – and then Jake would re-ascend from there. For an ordinary human, this would be an exceptional feat of strength, but for a world-class climber like Jake it was another day at the office. He waved to us as he started down with Josh, and told us he would see us at the top.

We soon spotted two figures descending from the top. Turns out it was Chris and Abram, coming down from a daybreak summit. I had worried about Abram the day before, as he passed us carrying what his dad said was a 40-lb pack. “You need to rent him out as a Sherpa” I had joked. Well, no need to worry, an Orizaba summit was his, and a sincere congratulations to him. It was right about this time I started to feel major fatigue in my legs, and this is when the climb started to turn.

I fell back to my old standard – counting steps. Usually when I’m on Shasta, I can count 50 steps before I need a rest. But this day on Orizaba the most I could muster was 20 steps before a rest. As Jake had recommended, I started making little goals for myself – “Just get to the end of that snowdrift” I would tell myself. I was trying not to get too caught up in how much time we were taking. I just knew that I couldn’t go on without resting. The altitude was taking its toll on me, and sapping whatever strength I might have had left.

That’s when Javier pulled me aside finally. “It’s going to take too many hours at this pace” he told me. I begged him not to turn us around, and to prove my new found resolve chugged a 5-hour energy bottle and gobbled an Almond Joy candy bar. Unfortunately, all the sugar and caffeinated rush was not going to get me up that mountain. There is simply no way to train for altitude, and the effects it might have on you. I do believe I was in good shape for this mountain, but what I could not prepare for was the extreme height. During training, the highest I had climbed on Shasta was 10,000’ – while this would be good for a lower 48 climb, it just wasn’t quite good enough for the high mountain I was right now trying to climb. Now Rashid was doing fine – a chip off the old block of his Aunt Gina, who are not at all effected by higher altitudes. But for me it was the end of the climb.

My decision to turn around was easy. This whole trip was really to give Rashid the experience and thrill of big mountain climbing. I have no doubt he will climb much bigger mountains in his life, and I’m so happy I could be there with him at the beginning of his journey, which I believe will eventually take him to places no lower than highest peaks on earth. I really don’t feel bad about not making the summit either, to be honest. The last foreign expedition I had done previous to this, Bolivia, was a disaster and made me never want to climb again. While I did have that feeling for a short time descending Orizaba (it was such a LONG way down) that feeling went away very quickly and very soon I found myself thinking about what mountains I will climb next, and my ultimate goal to climb Denali in 2014. I definitely need to get in much better shape than I am now, but I don’t feel that it’s so impossible.

This Orizaba trip was a success. The summit wasn’t mine this time, but it didn’t matter. Rashid’s summit was my summit and besides, the experience and brotherhood of my comrades during this trip all coalesced into a gigantic freaking great trip. So what I’m now 0 for 2 against Orizaba? When I returned to the Hut after our summit attempt, Emilio told me that my decision to let Rashid continue and for me to go down with Mauricio had saved the expedition. He also reminded me that the mountain will always be there, and maybe someday I will go back. I had said before I would never go back, yet here I was. My friends whose first attempt also wondered if they would ever return - I told them to look at me- because here I was. Maybe someday I’ll go back to you once again, Orizaba. Maybe someday.