Crikey! I am glad that Derek and I did not find these on our ascent!
Crikey! I am glad that Derek and I did not find these on our ascent!
We were settled in our tent but the wind rattled it all night pausing only occasionally for breath before resuming its assault. Derek had no sleep and I did little better. Not the best preparation for the day to come. We did not need the 2am wake up call. We were ready to go well before then, assuming Miriam considered it safe to do so. The excitement of the night came with a mouse that scurried by within a couple of whiskers’ lengths of my nose. Derek was not convinced of its existence until we found, let us say, the evidence in one of our bowls. Yuk!
We were off on the dot of 3am leaving our tents behind. The wind had died a bit and, as on our Izta night, the moon and stars cast light strong enough to cast shadows. The path for a while was actually pleasant and soon we had to shed a layer. Progress was felt rather than seen. There was an icy gulley where we had to put on crampons and harness, in many a place we had to use our hands to scramble up easy rocky stretches.
Altitude was gained steadily overall. Looking back I could see the lights of other climbers way below. We had a couple of rest stops and reached the glacier whilst it was still dark. It was 5.30am. I drank half a litre of water. We roped up here, Miriam leading, Derek next and then me. The hour or so before dawn was especially cold. We had our down jackets on and my feet remained warm despite just wearing my Scottish winter boots.
At long last a red line appeared to our left. The day was making a belated appearance. To our right there was an unbroken sea of cloud. Soon Pico cast an enormous shadow to the west. La Malinche breached the cloud but was overwhelmed by that shadow.
As the sun rose, Popocatapetl and Izta could be seen beyond La Malinche. Below cliffs turned a burning red. Onward and upward we went up the relentless slope. The view up did not seem to change. The worst of the steepness was eased by zig-zagging – perhaps a few too many times, as each switch meant shifting ice axe and rope.
One false summit was passed and the slope continued the same trajectory; zig-zag, zig-zag. This is where the mental will to continue kicks in. But the weather was perfect – sun and light wind – and the snow conditions were equally perfect – crampons biting and no deep snow. There was no excuse not to carry on. Eventually rocks could be seen above. Derek and I wanted shallower zig-zags. Miriam was determined to take the direct route. Being at the bottom end of the rope I could control the pace. So I did!
And then we were on the crater rim only about 50 vertical feet from the summit. I peered into the crater. It looked like the jaws of a ferocious monster. I took a quick picture of my rope mates and a couple of minutes later we were on the top of Mexico. It was 8.30am.
Although cold, the lack of wind made it quite pleasant and we were able to spend over 30 minutes on the summit. Views into the crater were partly limited by the crumbly nature of the rim. Below on a neighbouring mountain was a telescope. Popocatapetl and Izta were visible in the haze. You are supposed to be able to see the Gulf of Mexico from the summit but the clouds below put paid to that.
I think it is a privilege to be in places such as the summits of these Mexican mountains. It was tempting to stay longer but we were mindful of the forecast and that we were a long way from Tlachichuca.
So reluctantly I left. I was now in the lead. I followed a series of wide zig-zags.
Looking down the glacier
A third of the way down we could see some figures just coming on to the glacier. I steered a course towards them. By the time we reached the first of them they were well spread out. As anticipated they were the four Americans we had seen the day before. They were toiling under the heat of the sun. We stopped to chat with each one to provide encouragement and a realistic minimum time to the summit. They were all from Huntsville, Alabama, somewhere coincidentally I and the rest of the family have been. They had arranged for a lift from the hut at 3pm. No way were they going to summit and be back by then. We learned later that they had made it to the top but did not arrive back at the hut until 7pm.
We were at the bottom of the glacier by 10.30am. Here we were glad to peel off some layers, unrope, remove harnesses and drink, drink, drink. We were now at the level of the top of most of the clouds. Some clouds were also intermittently swirling around the summit. Looking up we could still see the Americans.
Boiling clouds at the foot of the glacier
After 20 minutes we were ready to move. Whilst going down the snow was a pleasure, if steep, we were now faced with the usual loose terrain found on volcanoes. Here I started slipping behind the others (as well as slipping occasionally on the loose stones). I was tired and a headache was starting to develop. But we were back at the tents before noon and packed up our gear in the swirling murk.
I popped a couple of pills and left a couple of minutes before the others. I was almost half way to the hut before they caught me and we were all back down by 1.15pm. There is not much more to say other than we had the 90 minute roller coaster ride followed by 20 more minutes to Tlachichuca and our accommodation for the night. We never did see a storm though it was a bit gloomy at first the following day.
So that was more or less the end of our Mexican adventure. The following day we went straight to the airport for our flight south. Many thanks to Jagged Globe who made the in-country arrangements and to Miriam Diaz and Ricardo Lugo who ensured a safe and fulfilling experience.
I had found Izta hard going. My general fitness had been just about OK but the effects of the altitude had been greater than I had bargained for. Despite keeping well hydrated and popping pills, a combination of painkillers and Diamox, I was a little down. Pico de Orizaba is at a different scale again. It’s 400m (1,300ft) higher than Izta. Our capacity indicated that at these altitudes we could manage perhaps 250m height gain per hour. As with Izta we would have to put in an intermediate camp.
Pico de Orizaba (or Pico or El Pico as the locals call it) is a mountain of the sort that young children would draw. It is an almost symmetrical cone capped with snow. The peak starts steep and then gets even steeper. It is a mountain that tests the thighs as well as the lungs. And talking about lungs, I had developed a common mountaineering ailment, namely an irritating cough caused by breathing the dry mountain air.
As we approached Pico, it stood high above the surrounding plain, clear with barely a cloud in sight – good day for climbing it? Not necessarily. We found out later in the day that in apparently similar conditions a summit attempt had to be called off because of high winds.
That’s the thing about these committing mountains. Quite a lot has to be with you. It isn’t just your fitness and health. To a large degree these are under your control. But there are those things that aren’t or are less so: the weather; the conditions under foot; the condition of your companions; the impact of being at altitude; the potential for accidents, and being away from loved ones.
I am a relative novice at this. But the management of these aspects fascinates me and I am happy to admit that I am very much still learning. And of course these are not static conditions – weather which starts fine may turn for the worse; snow which may be firm in the chill of the night can become thigh deep porridge under the glare of the sun; an otherwise healthy person may develop an irritating cough. Any and all of these are likely to impact on performance and the speed at which you move through the terrain and, in consequence, the period during which you are exposed to risk. One way of managing risk is to employ guides, as Derek and I are doing, though even guides can’t control the weather or give you extra fitness.
Then there is the one aspect that I have not yet mentioned – the psychology of the climb. I have for a long time considered that climbing mountains is only around 70% about fitness and the skills necessary to negotiate your way safely through them (often called hillcraft). The other 30% is about the psychology of the climb. Often you will be going into the unknown. You wonder if you do have the necessary fitness, strength and will-power; you may worry about those things over which you have no control. In short you worry whether you are up to it. This can be destructive. It can gnaw away at whatever confidence you have. It can make a strong man weak. Even if a person is otherwise “up to it” he or she can psyche themselves out of completing or even of participating in a venture. I guess that this can happen in many walks of life. Mountaineering then is no different though the factors are not the same.
So on Monday, 10th November we left Puebla with a weather forecast that was not looking too good for our attempt on Pico the following day. A storm was moving in and due to arrive in the afternoon.
First we had to call in at the person who would transport us to the mountain. This was in the tongue twister of the town of Tlachichuca, the nearest large habitation. As usual the house was surrounded by high walls. Access was available through 3 metre high gates. Inside there was a courtyard filled with a collection of Jeep Wagoneers. On one side was the house and a communal dining room. On the opposite side was a two story accommodation block with eight rooms.
We stopped here briefly to load what we would need for the climb into one of the Jeeps. The rest of our belongings were left in the vehicle we had been using. Then we were off. The road started off as a regular metalled surface. Passing through a village suddenly we turned right and then right again. Neither turn was sign posted to Pico. It was the right way but it seemed odd that the route to Mexico’s highest mountain was not obvious.
The reason might be said to have become obvious quite soon afterwards. The road became a dirt track which only a 4WD vehicle would have been able to negotiate. At the final village the road became a road in name only. Rarely much wider than the Jeep it caused us to buck and twist, squeeze between trees and wonder how long it was going to go on for. Fortunately the only vehicle we passed which was going the other way was at a rare widening in the track – that vehicle we found out was carrying an American who had to be taken off the mountain suffering from cerebral oedema. 90 minutes later we had ascended 1,000m (3,300ft) and travelled ten miles to a refuge at 4,200m (13,800ft).
Piedre Grande refuge
At the hut we had a final gear sort and a bite to eat. It was 3pm. I must admit to some trepidation, probably a combination of the Itza experience and the weather forecast. Derek and I had felt that putting in a high camp rather than staying in the hut would give us a better chance of success. Miriam now said that she did not think it would make much of a difference.
Pico from the hut
So off we went. Miriam had arranged for someone to help with the load carrying. 350m higher and 95 minutes later we had reached our spot for the night. The terrain was the usual volcanic rubble. At one point we had passed a group of four Americans who were returning from an acclimatisation hike. We all helped to put up and anchor the tents and, as Derek and I sorted ourselves out in ours, Miriam arranged for the evening meal to be prepared – cream of corn soup and spaghetti mixed with ham and milk followed by tea. It was not pleasant eating outside. It was cold and the wind was blustery. We wanted to finish our meal before it became dark which we just about managed.
Setting up camp – before…
Derek and I were settled in our sleeping bags by 6.30pm in anticipation of the 2am wake up call in readiness for a 3am start to catch the snow at its best and to beat the oncoming storm.
Pico from the camp site