A Whirlwind After the Mountain – 24 Hours in Mexico City

image
Mexico City from a car window

I want to go back! While we may not have made it all the way to the very top of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico City was its own sort of summit.

The day before we left for Mexico City – when we were attempting to scale the mountain – all the corn that had been drying on the rooves of the village houses had been fed into some monstrous and loud machine that stripped off the kernels.  Now, burlap bags of corn were stacked in front of each house, apparently waiting to be picked up for market.

We had a several hour drive back toward Mexico City.  More and more fields being plowed, with nary a tractor in site.  Corn was being stored in strange concrete pyramids – agricultural homage to the great pyramids of Teotihuacan, perhaps?

Eventually our time travel back into the ancient means of corn production ceased, and we fast forwarded into the heavy traffic approaching Mexico City. So unusual to look across the modern interstate and see the volcanoes towering over, one quite actively puffing smoke. They reminded me of a gathering of old men observing the neighborhood from a high up vantage point, having a contemplative cigar as they looked down.

image

We said farewell to our guides and our fellow climber, and were dropped off at the eminently reasonably priced Hotel Marie Cristina.  J still remembered the Anthropological Museum from his trip to Mexico City with his brothers in the 1970s (his parents actually entrusted their two youngest sons to the care of a slightly older brother for a bus trip from Mexico City to Guatamala; we still have the machetes they brought back with them on the airplanes in that more innocent world). Anyway, that’s a story for a different day.

Suffice it to say that we hopped into a taxi to go to what is effectively a museum row. A tree lined boulevard with parks on either side which houses all the major museums. The Anthropological Museum is spectacular.  Oriented around various geographical areas of Mexico, each part of the museum flows into the next. There’s a courtyard in the center of the square structure with a large water feature.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and we had lunch outdoors at the museum cafe. The wood platforms of Orizaba’s hut felt a thousand miles away.

image

We made our any back to the hotel and somehow managed to fit all our climbing gear back into our duffels. It remains a mystery of physics how the same items take up more space after they have been used on a trip.

In any event, we finally masterd our packing and made our way to Porfirio’s in the Polanca area, a restaurant highly recommended by G. He had told us that 8 pm was the earliest we should arrive – and sure enough, people were only just starting to venture into restaurants. We walked around for about 30 minute before, looking into windows of elegant shops and it was clear that we were in a lull before the evening got underway. By the time we left – stuffed with chicken mole and steak – it was a crowded lively street scene.

image

I would have loved to have seen the Freida Kahlo house, and so much more, but 24 hours wasn’t enough. But the dollar is strong; it’s not a long plane flight – and we will go back.

 

Advertisements

Pico de Orizaba, Mexico – After the Glacier

image
First on the rope – photo by Ricardo Lugo

What goes up must come down. And after our guide R put the kabosh on my secret plan to snail my way ever so slowly up the glacier to the top, timing be damned, the down is what faced us. We started off at a good clip. Ever since my way too long climb down Mt. Elbrus in 2014, I’ve focused on descents, with some modicum of success. R put me at the front of the rope on the way down the canalone – it’s certainly the safest place to be, but it’s also the spot where you get to pick out the route and match all the mixed up steps in front of you to create some semblance of a path down. I could tell I hadn’t acclimatized well because as I descended I felt more and more energetic – and we moved much better as a team than we had at any point on the way up.

We finally made our way back to the scree field, and R went on ahead of us. J and I managed to pick our on way down, albeit with some wrong turns that increased the difficulty of the route. At one point we found ourselves on an 18 inch ledge with a sheer drop on one side. I’m sure that is not exactly the trail we were supposed to be taking. But at least the 18 inch ledge didn’t coincide with the increasingly high wind gusts. Two separate times I was literally knocked off my feet. There was a steady 30 plus mile an hour wind with gusts blowing harder. I didn’t slip – I was simply slapped down.

image

Finally we made it back to the strange stone aqueduct that led to the hut. Apparently at one point there had been a grandiose plan to work with water and drainage on Orizaba, leading to the construction of a now defunct aqueduct feature that forms the first part of the trail up the mountain.

And, how, you may wonder, were the other teams doing? Well, as mentioned, the Italian hadn’t even made it to the glacier before altitude overcame him. When we left the edge of the glacier, we could see three teams of two each inching their way up its stark white. They were no more than little black doodles on a white sheet of paper. It was hard to tell who was who, and it wasn’t until we were back at the hut and the two Russian teams showed back up without reaching the summit that we realized the top most team battling the high high winds was our own teammate G and our guide D!

I wanted to wait to greet them when they returned, hopefully after a successful summit, but after we’d packed up and they still weren’t down, it was clear it was going to be a lot longer. We’d already been climbing for about 8 or 9 hours, and the green of the forest below was starting to seem inviting.

And this is where the people part of the trip became bizarre enough to rival the uniqueness of our natural surroundings. We’d heard rumors that the Russian team included a high ranking politician and others – but how high ranking we didn’t realize until R arranged for us to hitch a ride down the mountain to the village in their two jeeps while he waited for G and D.  There was one free spot in each van. J went with the politician and his fiancée; she hadn’t climbed but still looked pretty wind blown.  When we say high ranking, we are talking cabinet level. I know; I figured out names and Googled everyone. Google images helped confirm I’d locate the right bios. Who expects to spend a night sleeping in the freezing cold on wooden platforms in a hut in remotest Mexico with government officials from Russia.

My jeep mates were equally illustrious in Russian political and academic ranks.  Perhaps even more so for a would be mountaineer, as one of them had been a professional climber who had summited Everest in 1992 (where he and Scott Fisher of Mountain Madness fame had argued about placement of fixed ropes) and climbed K2 in 1996. He was also a snow leopard – meaning he had summited all of the highest peaks in Russia, no mean feat. (I found that last bit out through Google.) Anyway, we had a fascinating conversation on the way down, and it certainly added an international flair to the trip.

image
Luxury accommodations compared to the hut

Back at the hostel, we read and had a very late lunch. Eventually G and D showed up, with the glow of the summit still surrounding them and only a few bruises and battle scars to show. They had battled unbelievably high winds, and even though they couldn’t even stand upright on the summit, had the glory of being the only two climbers to make it to the the top that day. I just kept hoping a little of that karma would wear off on me.

We had one more night in the hostel. A whirlwind of Mexico City  comes next.

Pico de Orizaba, Mexico – Facing the Summit

image

Pico de Orizaba. From the steep scree slope that starts the climb to the glacier to our multi-national companions in the Piedra Grande refuge – this trip had enough twists and turns for any best selling novel.

After our day of rest at the Hacienda Santa Barbara, we packed up and drove a couple of hours through farmland and small villages into the heart of rural Mexico.  We were aiming for the Orizaba Mountain Guides hostel, located in, I believe, Tlachichuca. It’s a very small village.  One gigantic house, protected by an elaborate gate and wall, dominates the streetscape.  We understood it to be a vacation house owned by people from Mexico City. Corn was drying on the rooves of many of the village houses, which a couple of days later was being fed into a machine that stripped off the kernels.  A lot of houses had large gates leading into courtyards not visible from the road. Again, I was struck by the interior nature of life here – little looks out on the street. Everything is directed toward the private family life behind the walls.

image

G, our team mate, husband J and I had a room with two sets of bunk beds, perfectly adequate, but cold. My light weight down jacket was practically glued to my body by then. We all went out and took a look at the mountain when it appeared between clouds – and it looked steep! No two ways around it.

Lunch was late – and filling. Pasta with a cheese sauce, followed by chicken breasts stuffed with ham and cheese. I decided we were just carbo loading. The afternoon was for rest and a few hours later it was time to eat again – this time steak.  My mountain reading this trip was the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels quartet, and My Brilliant Friend was a good companion in the freezing room.

image

image
The trusty 4×4

Next morning we changed vehicles from the van to a beat up 4 wheel drive jeep that is de rigueur for the drive up to the mountain hut.  Through an old growth forest to the tree line, continuing on a rutted road to the hut at about 14,000 feet. We were well aware that the wind forecast was very high.

image

Outhouses around the world
Outhouses around the world

The hut contained three levels of simple wood platforms and two counters for cooking and meal preparation for whatever teams had shown up. The outhouses were rivalled those at Mt. Elbrus in the Cacausus Mountains in Russia.  These had even fewer walls, but an equally commanding view.  We commandeered a lower level platform as soon as we arrived, and immediately afterwards were sent up on an acclimatization hike to high camp. We’d had a lot of conversation beforehand about whether to spend the night at high camp – which would have meant starting off with heavy packs and trying to sleep in tents – or whether to have a day with more altitude gain – but sleep in the hut and be better rested for summit day. In light of the wind forecast, we opted for the acclimatization hike to high camp and sleeping in the hut.

Made it to high camp
Made it to high camp

Our guide, R, decided to take everyone’s pulse ox (measures oxygen saturation) in the hut. Except for one time on Kilimanjaro at 16,000 feet, I’ve never had that done before. It’s not really clear what the measurements mean, and it can freak you out a bit. As it did me.  G, our ironman companion, was well in the 90s; J was about 89; and I registered a whopping 84. Nope; not acclimatized.

But after our acclimatization hike scrambling up the scree field to high camp for a couple of hours, I could tell I was breathing better and better the more elevation I gained. Sure enough, by the the time we descended and were eating dinner and ready for our paltry hours of sleep before summit attempt, I was back up to 90. I think even our guides were surprised. But the fact is, I think the extra days of altitude I’d had in in Ecuador really helped me Eachieve that Cotopaxi summit.

Here are the players in the hut: our team: G, whom you’ve already met through this blog – Ironman triathlete and corporate executive, J, me, and our guides D and R. Next was an Italian climber, athletic, into snow boarding,  with a Mexican guide. He read a paperback novel much of the afternoon before our summit attempt. A German woman with her American friend who walked from the hostel to the hut, arriving in late afternoon. We’d helped out by taking their wheeled suitcases from the hostel in our jeep and they were going for the summit the day after us. Possibly the first wheeled suitcases the hut had ever seen. I kept envisioning them pulling the suitcases up that rutted road. Then there was the group of Russians and their guides.  More on them later. For you mountaineers out there – suffice it to say  – Snow Leopard.

We had whatever hours of sleep could be snatched between the howls of the wind and arose at 2 am. You sleep pretty much in what you’re going to climb in so base layers were already on. For some reason, R thought we should hold off on putting on our climbing harnesses until we needed them higher up – never again will I do that. I’ve always put my harness on before starting a climb and that’s a lot easier than fighting with it in the side of a mountain.

It was unbelievably windy as we started, and the night stars glowed like sparklers. We headed up the same steep scree slope we’d just climbed that afternoon. But it felt even steeper and more exposed at night, and I also quickly realized that my resistance to putting new batteries in my headlamp (they were fine in Malinche? they are lithium?) was just dumb. It was definitely dimmer than everyone else’s  and that makes a difference on a mountain, at night.

It was clear from the start that we were at a different pace than G, and not long after we began he and D, one of our two guides, took off up the mountain.

Finally, trudging away, we passed high camp, where we’d been just a few hours before, and kept going along a slightly less steep area to the canalone (spelling unknown), fighting wind every inch of the way. We knew in advance we weren’t going to attempt the Labyrinth, a steep outcropping of rock. It was too icy, and the canalone, a smooth flow of snow, was accessible. Only at that point did I start to feel that smooth movement where you are just putting one foot in front of the other and your breathing falls into rhythm.

By then we’d roped up and were in crampons – and I had been way too over confident in my ability to don crampons without practice, relying only on my success in July with them. Some things you just need to do over and over.  At some point the Italian climber and his guide headed down. Apparently he’d had altitude issues and didn’t make it to the top of the canalone. The smooth slope up of the canalone quickly changed and we were back to rock and ice and deep steep snow up toward the glacier.

Sunrise over Orizaba
Sunrise over Orizaba

By then the winds were increasing even beyond what they had been, and it was pretty clear a summit attempt was not a realistic possibility. We were just too slow. I wasn’t properly acclimatized, and while small steps were manageable and I could get a rhythm, each time big step up required a real effort that then wiped me out for the next few steps.  The wind was blowing; the sun glinting.

But you know, I probably would have kept plowing away forever, at whatever snail’s pace I was going. And I think R, our guide, realized that, because when we finally reached the glacier at about 16,000 feet he simply announced that was all for the day. I think he thought otherwise I would just keep putting one foot in front of the other, however many hours it was going to take.  The glacier was beautiful. A steep field of snow, the summit peering down. Way up on that steep white meadow we could see the others on the mountain who’d passed us. There was G and D, from our team, and two groups of the Russians. All in all, we had reached the glacier, the Italian team had returned, and there were six climbers left on the mountain.

Next up – how we battled winds on the way down, hitching a ride to the village, and who got to the top of the mountain.

image

 

 

 

 

Malinche, Mexico – High Up and Low Down

Ridge on Malinche
Ridge on Malinche

According to one of our guides, the mountain of Malinche, officially 14,636 feet but higher when measured by GPS, is home to one of the world’s highest forests. It’s a mix of tree and rocky trail, shielded forest glades and exposed ridges. Almost a metaphor for our entire trip to Mexico. The name given he mountains by the Tlaxcaltecs was Matlalcueyetl, which means “lady of the green skirts,” a goddess of rain and wind.

After our visit to the Teotihuacan pyramids, we drove several hours further, southeast toward Malinche, located in the state of Tlaxcala. On the way, stopped for lunch at restaurant where lamb tacos and rabbit were high on the list of menu choices. Venturing further and further into rural Mexico was a time machine experience. We soon left behind the truck stops – rows and rows of non chain cafes (except for the ubiquitous Oxxo – the Mexican version of 7-11) – and were driving through fields of nopales – the cactus that is the base for incredible salads.

There wasn’t a tractor to be seen. Men were plowing the land with horses and donkeys. Each small village had several shrines on the side of the road occupied by ornately dressed saints. And there were similar smaller shrines adorning the gates of many houses.

image

Eventually we reached the IMSS cabins in the park surrounding Malinche, at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. As I understand it, they are operated by the ministry of health or some other equally unlikely branch of government. They are two room cabins with a bathroom, nice tile but some unusual features. A refrigerator, but no stove? The bathroom leading off of the bedroom, railroad car style? One electrical outlet? No heat of course, and we were all wearing our lightweight down jackets (which had become like a second skin by the end of the trip).

We had quesadillas made with Oaxaca cheese for dinner, and went to bed early in preparation for a before dawn start up Malinche.

We started walking about 6, accompanied by three dogs who were our travel companions all the way to the summit. They clearly did this everyday, and seemed to be in excellent shape, so their presence didn’t cause my animal loving heart any angst. The first part of the Malinche hike is through beautiful forest that we could just make out by the glow of our headlamps.  As the sun rose, the trail got progressively steeper.  There had been frost, and drops of water sparkled on the grasses and bluebells still blooming here and there.

Eventually we reached the tree line, crossed a brief grassy section and moved onto steep rock and scree. Close to the top, you traverse a ridge, narrow in some points, and finally up a steep rocky section to the summit.

image

The wind died down just a bit so we, together with our dog companions and a couple of other climbers, could enjoy the partial views we got when the sun briefly appeared.  It was surprisingly comfortable in the grey cloud at the summit – as if we were in a nest of cotton, safe at the top of our mountaintop tree. The dogs scratched the snow away and made beds for themselves on the warmer dirt. They were getting ready for the long trek down.

image

It took us about 5 hours to reach the summit – appoximately 4500 feet of elevation gain. We came down fast, running at times, in just under three hours.

Once down, we drove a short distance to the Hacienda Santa Barbara. Built in the 1600s, the hacienda is huge, yet only a few rooms are available for guests. J and I were in a large room, high ceilings and a small bathroom inserted into one corner.  Heated by only a very small stove, we definitely needed all the blankets from the two beds.  The floor was stone, and the window – which locked by way of a giant beam that slid across it – looked out in more ruins of outbuildings.  Meals were in a dining room occupied by one large long table.  And in the morning we had atole, as well as coffee, a hot drink made from corn and tasting like chocolate.  Dinner was chiles rellenos, hot enough to warm us up even in that frigid dining room.

It was now Tuesday night.  We knew Pico de Orizaba awaited.

.

The Start – Pico de Orizaba via Mexico City and Teotihuacan

image
Glacier of Pico de Orizaba; photo by Ricardo Lugo

On this grey sad day – where we all awakened to the news of the death of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, or whatever persona the talented Mr. Bowie was currently assuming – the world I returned from yesterday in Mexico seems as far away as Mars. 1930s techniques of corn production – that sums up the village life we experienced. Steep harsh terrain and 35 mph winds – that sums up the slopes of Pico de Orizaba we attempted to scale.

But to begin at the beginning. After a four hour flight from Orlando to Mexico City on AeroMexico – again enjoying the amenities that U.S. airlines seem to have completely dispensed with – we found ourselves in an extremely long customs line.  But we did get to meet an interesting young woman who was on her way to spend six months in Veracruz counting raptors and doing bird research. Interesting folks were a theme of this trip. Wait til I get to the part about our Russian hut mates on Orizaba.

We finally emerged from customs to find we were the last to pick up our luggage – our duffels were off to the side of the conveyor belt but all contents safe and sound. And the gorilla tape used for tear repair was still holding.

We must have looked like lost American tourists because it took no time for R and D, our guides, to recognize us.  They drove us to the Hotel Marie Christina in downtown Mexico City, and within a few minutes we were already undergoing a gear check. We passed! The hotel is an old Colonial building with a feel of faded glory.

image

That evening we met up with G, our fellow climber and excellent travel companion, and had dinner with R and D at a nearby shopping area. Somehow grilled octopus seems just right for the occasion. It was close to the Feast of the Three Kings; the Christmas lights were blazing; and children were having their photos taken with the three kings who had somehow found themselves in a high end Mexican shopping center, apparently sidetracked from their journey to the manger.

The next day we had a breakfast of frijoles and fried eggs at the hotel, and then took off for the pyramids at Teotihuacan, en route to Malinche, our first acclimatization hike.

Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Sun

Two thousand years old, the pyramids loom over the landscape like alien beings keeping tabs on the mortals below.  As you walk along the long Avenue of the Dead the massive Pyramid of the Sun peers down on your right.  Experts guess it’s the pyramid of the sun simply because it faces west (which did not seem a particularly scholarly rationale to me, but I guess it’s difficult to reach conclusions when there’s no written language). At the end of the avenue is the smaller, but somehow more graceful  Pyramid of the Moon.  G, J and I clambered to the top of each of them, figuring they were our first summits of the trip.  To the left of the Pyramid of the Moon stands the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, with multiple pillars emblazoned with owl iconography. Apparently owl imagery is found throughout Teotihuacan.

image

On the way into the pyramids we saw several men high up on a pole, tethered by ropes, wearing masks and costumes. All of a sudden, playing instruments, they fanned out from the pole, whirling in circles round and down in a gradual descent. An apt analogy for our next days of mountain climbing?

image

Next up – the IMSS cabins and an ascent of Malinche, accompanied by three dogs.

 

Shifting Gears – A New Year and A Gear Check: Orizaba Here We Come

image

So we leave in two days and I’ve managed to do an unbelievably good job of procrastination with the gear check. It started off as – oh, we did this six months ago, how much more can there be to do – to, well, maybe I need to go to Trak Shack and by more gu’s tomorrow because I’m down to five.

But procrastination – i.e., let’s do anything besides the gear check – enabled me to do just a tiny bit of work this morning to welcome in the new year in appropriate lawyer like fashion. It also helped me take down all the Christmas decorations, mop the kitchen floor, communicate with daughters A and S, and go for one last leisurely walk with pack on. Oh, and there was time for the martini on the porch while watching the sunset.

But while on the porch, I did find myself black thread and needle in hand as I mended my Thermasilk glove liners, which clearly could not be replaced within the next 24 hours of globally warmed Florida. Just before sundowner hour we did venture into our guest room, which is where we do gear assembly, to start the preliminary review. What I hadn’t realized about a gear check after having climbed a number of mountains is that you wear out your equipment. As I pulled out the glove liners and saw each index finger was completely ripped, I suddenly recalled that I’d climbed Illiniza Norte in Ecuador with only my liners – they kept my fingers warm but I could feel the rock, unlike my heavily lined gloves or my even heavier mittens. (But I was very happy to have those mittens on Cotopaxi when I realized my fingers were going numb.)

There’s still an overwhelming amount of stuff to go through in what used to be called the guest room. And only 72 (or is it 48) hours to sort it out.  Are the lithium batteries still good? Is there a leak in my Thermorest pad and does it really make a difference anyway? And will gorilla tape actually work to repair our very ripped up duffel bags?
Any answers to these questions or other tips for climbing Orizaba are more than welcome!

I’m excited. Next post – from Mexico, at altitude.

Topsy Turvy Days of Christmas

image

Anticipation.

That’s a watch word of the holidays. And as true this year as any other. But this year the beacon of Pico de Orizaba is looming ahead of us – our first January climb – and the first time we’ve climbed a big mountain only six months after another (Cotopaxi).

The path to the summit has been anything but straight this last few weeks. It’s been a bit like one of the children’s fairy tales I used to read where the young girl and boy suddenly find themselves in upside down land.

We’ve gone from the perils of party giving (only a few broken wine glasses) to the hurrahs of house guests. I’ve turned my normal cooking routine into a small scale catering operation. And we’ve had and are having a round of visits from both daughters 1 and 2 (now known as A and S), and boyfriends N and P, respectively, not to mention my parents and uncle.

In the midst of it all I keep thinking that in a week we are off to Mexico. And in another ten days or so we will be wending our way up 18,500 feet. I checked the weather and it actually doesn’t look too cold. Probably good, given that we are now acclimatized to 85 degree Orlando Christmases. I celebrated Boxing Day today by deciding to run a 5K in intervals. I probably should have started this particular training endeavor more than a week before the trip. Interesting – even with eight minute runs followed by a walk my times were the same or quicker than my regular long distance training runs. I’m just hoping a little of this will give me that final push that I need for the inevitably and always incredibly steep push up to the crater rim.

Christmas and family and friends. There’s a never ending flow of shared memories. But new ones are created each holiday. Like a river picking up flotsam and jetsam – they form new land – a big muddled complicated island somewhere near the ocean. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What It Is Like To Start A High Altitude Climb

image
Cotopaxi sunrise

This week I’d planned to write a warm, witty post that would be a detour from swamps and summits and instead would celebrate the fifteenth birthdays of my two West Highland white terriers. Entitled “A Dog’s Life” or some such similar name.

But life overwhelmed, and as I find myself on an evening flight to Cleveland, yes, Cleveland, looking down on the ribbons of light that carve up the great American Midwest, and in the midst of December’s party giving and party going, the present purchasing, and the travails of travel logistics….such plans fell by the wayside.

Instead, I find myself focused completely on the seven days that J and I will have in just four weeks as we take our sea level lungs back up into the clouds, and, I hope, reach the great height of 18,491 feet at the summit of Pico de Orizaba.

In the midst of the December chaos, it’s the anticipation of the complete silence that surrounds you when you start a high altitude climb that’s serving as my reality check. It’s a world unto itself. It’s the period between sentences.

You rise at 1 a.m. or so, struggle into whatever layers you didn’t sleep in, clamber into your climbing harness, and strap on your helmet. You eat as much breakfast as you can force down at that godforsaken time, and hope that instant coffee will have enough caffeine to keep you going. Everyone is always tense. The guides are making quick forays outside the hut to check on conditions and temperature. No one knows exactly what either the mountain or your own body has in store for you.

Finally, hoping you’ve wasted only an hour or so, gear assembled and backpacks on, you venture out into what you hope to be a clear black night. The stars are as sharp as the lights of a laser pointer. If you’re lucky, there’s no wind. Ahead of you is the white glacier and the steep slope up. Eventually it’s time to rope up. It’s still totally silent and you don’t talk except for necessary instruction. You’re high above the clouds and your heart is pumping at a speed it never would normally. But you find a rhythm in the deep silence and time stands still. Minutes pass and you’re surprised when it’s time for the every hour break.

That feeling isn’t always with you on the mountain. Lots of times, and especially as the summit draws closer and you’re at the increasingly vertical slope leading up to a summit ridge, the rhythm goes, and it’s just kick and step and plant ice axe with every muscle of your body calling out loudly. Silent, that’s not.

But much as I love the summit, I treasure those quiet moments in the dark at the beginning.  There’s nothing to do but to climb, one foot in front of another, knowing that sunrise is waiting.

Where We Are Going Next – Pico de Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico

image
Photo – http://www.sil.org/~tuggyd/Pix – Pico de Orizaba

Over the last few months I’ve been publishing posts that refer to Pico de Orizaba, our next climbing destination, as though it’s a location at the forefront of everyone’s personal geography. That certainly can’t be the case – this particular mountain wasn’t close to the forefront of my mind until we started to try to find a big mountain that could be climbed in winter and in under seven days. When you live in Florida, the choices are limited.

So after looking at our options, we settled on the Orizaba Express trip, again through Mountain  Madness, the company that has successfully and safely led us up Mt. Elbrus in Russia and Cotopaxi, Illiniza Norte and Cayambe in Ecuador.

Pico de Orizaba is a strato volcano 120 miles outside of Mexico City, on the border of Veracruz and Puebla, by the town of Orizaba.  According to Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge, it has gone by a number of names. Non-Nahuatl speakers in the area call it Istaktepetl or “White Mountain.” During  the Pre-Columbian Era it was referred to as Poyautécatl, which means “the ground that reaches the clouds.”

My favorite of its names is  Citlaltépetlas, which is what it was called in the Náhuatl language when the Spanish arrived in this part of the world, and means “Star Mountain.”

During the colonial era, the mountain was known by the rather boring appellation, Cerro de San Andrés, due to the nearby settlement of San Andrés Chalchicomula at its base.

It is the third highest mountain in North America (behind Denali and Mt.  Logan), one of the volcanic Seven Summits, and the second most prominent volcano in the world, after Kilimanjaro. Pico de Orizaba measures 18,491 feet high, a statistic I find particularly notable because one of our teammates on Mt. Elbrus was part of the group that measured the mountain using GPS some years ago.

After arriving on AeroMexico, according to our trip itinerary, we will start acclimatizing in Mexico City, around 7,341 feet. From there we journey to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, and the next day climb Malinche, 14,640 feet. After that we travel to Tlachichuca, and – somewhat ominously – “transfer to four wheel drive” for the trip to the hut at Piedra Grande (13,972′). Our final acclimatization hike is to the toe of the Jamapa glacier at about 16,000′ and back down to the hut.  Summit day involves elevation gain of about 4,500′ – which is a lot, and may be one of the biggest elevation gains we will have done in one day. To reach the summit, you traverse a rocky section named after one of my favorite words, the Labyrinth. The section right below the caldera looks really quite steep – definitely an area for ice axes. If it’s anything like Cotopaxi, I anticipate collapsing at the top – assuming the gods bless us with good weather and the mountain lets us summit.

We’ll have a night in Tlachichuca and one final night in Mexico City – and then it will be back to Orlando on an airline I had never even heard of until yesterday, Volaris. I realized one of the reasons it’s so cheap is that you have to pay to select seats – but they let you have a free checked bag!

I’ve been looking for free images of the Labyrinth, but couldn’t locate any. Perhaps a testament to the comparative obscurity of this mountain.  But I love that it’s a mountain of many names. As I said above, and as many a mountain guide has told me – you don’t climb a mountain; it lets you climb it. And I hope that Pico de Orizaba will look favorably on us in just a few weeks.

 

Observations on a Mountain and Otherwise

Ecuador - Avenue of Volcanoes
Ecuador – Avenue of Volcanoes

Lots of times on the way up a mountain it’s pitch dark. And even if you’re lucky and the path is lit by thousands of silver stars and perhaps the glow of a brilliant white moon, it’s pretty difficult to look around you to take it all in as you trudge up, all senses aimed at planting your feet so as not to take a tumble down hundreds of meters of snow, ignominiously ending up on a pile of rock.

Even in daytime it’s not always easy to take the extra moments to look about. By then you’re worried that the snow is softening, avalanche and rock fall risk getting greater, and you still have to clamber back down.

The last few weeks have presented just enough strange little coincidences that remind me, though, that sometimes it is worth taking those extra moments and noticing those connections you might otherwise miss. One thing about running as part of training – it gives you a lot of time just to observe – and basically to try and focus on anything other than how sore you feel.

I wrote about the first such coincidence a couple of weeks ago. That is, ordering a glass of Malbec at two restaurants over 1000 miles apart, two nights in a row – and being informed at each that was the last Malbec – not of the bottle but at the entire establishment!

This past week, I learned via Facebook on the same day that two unrelated people I know, one through work and one an old college friend, were both making their standup comedy debuts in a very far apart states on exactly the same night. I had not hitherto thought of stand up comedy as something hordes of people were lining up to do.

And just recently, while engaging in some unexpected dialogue about the poet W.S. Merwin, again on Facebook, of all places, a friend mentioned her love of his book, Vixen. Back in 1996 or so, I cut that poem out of The New Yorker when it was first published, and it’s been on my work bulletin board ever since. (Somehow I just add to the bulletin board. I never take anything off. It has an archeological feel by now.)

image

Now, any two things can look strangely connected if you examine them hard enough. And it certainly makes life more interesting to do so. But the reality is that there are an awful lot of fun things to look at out there that can liven up any part of a journey.

There was the incredible wild orchid I saw in Ecuador in our hike to see the hummingbirds. And on Friday when I walked home from work I was delighted to find an Italian restaurant that featured Hawaiian pizza and gyros. And as close as my own backyard are some tiny basil plants springing up volunteer. We’ll see how long they last in our Florida “winter.”

Taken through an IPhone rain cover - a little blurry!
Taken through an IPhone rain cover – a little blurry!

We have just over two months before we attempt Pico de Orizaba. There will be a lot to look at before then.