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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

The Weekly Summit

The saddle of Mt. Elbrus, Caucasus, Russia
The saddle of Mt. Elbrus, Caucasus, Russia

I’ve been practicing yoga on Wednesday nights now for at least ten years. Each time I enter the yoga studio at 7:30 I’m struck by the feeling that now I know I’ll make it through the rest of the week. That old “it’s all downhill from here” saying. (Of course, climbing down a mountain can be the hardest part, but somehow that’s not true for surviving Thursdays and Fridays.)

That hour and 15 minute carve out on Wednesdays marks having reached the summit of the week. And it’s interesting how time has a way of recreating those mountain patterns for us, peaks and valleys and traverses – even when we’re not aware of it.

Yesterday I went to go buy a new pair of running shoes. When the very nice person at the store looked me up on the computer he did a double take – it was exactly one year ago to the day since I’d bought my last pair of running shoes. I had no idea. It must have been some internal clock thing. (Or just really worn out shoes.)  I can prove it was a year ago too – just look at https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/11/02/training-and-the-power-of-the-shoe/ , published on this blog on November 2, 2014! A lot of miles on those shoes, and a lot of highs and lows.

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I also managed to find a Bikram yoga class to go to yesterday – the first in several months since the studio closed. And you know where it was? In the very same location where I took my very first Bikram class some 10 or so years ago. That was before the new fancy studio, back in the somewhat dingy location down by the expressway, in a terribly humid room – but oh how good the class felt. It almost felt like a full circle….

And finally, another ritual that marks the pattern of time – dear friends whom we met in Lamaze classes (we regarded ourselves as the only normal people in the class!) have been spending Halloween with us for at least the last 22 or 23 years. The four children between us have now moved on, but the Halloween tradition remains, marking the point each year that starts us up the steep incline toward the holidays.

It’s reassuring to sense those patterns. One thing about mountains is that they are predictable in one way. There’s always an up and there’s always a down. As I train for Pico de Orizaba the first week in January 2016, I keep thinking about that.

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.)

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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.

The Real Mysteries of Puzzle Mountain, Maine

Looking up toward Puzzle Mountain
Looking up toward Puzzle Mountain

Mysteries surround Puzzle Mountain, which was the site of last weekend’s Maine adventure.

After a successful rampage through the L.L. Bean clearance facility, we started the journey northeast to the weekend home of N’s parents. It’s a lovely old farmhouse near the Appalachian Trail. And on the way – the mysteries begin.

9. How does Google maps pick its prescribed route from point A to point B?  Somehow we found ourselves taking a one lane road dotted with potholes through multiple small towns. Extremely scenic, but I’m sure there was a more direct route.

8. What’s a bean supper? Every small town in Maine seems to have one on Saturday night.

7. What are confederate flags doing in Maine? That was a really weird one to me. Here in the south, we spend a lot of time working to take them down, but they seem to be going strong up north.

6. How many ways can you cook apples? Daughter A is an expert pie maker (a skill she did not inherit from her beloved mother) and brought a delicious apple pie up to Maine, which she somehow carried on an Uber ride to a train station, on a train to Portland, and on our trip in N’s Previa up to Northwest Maine. She returned to Boston with another two bags of apples, picked fresh off the tree. Unclear what can be done with a hundred or more apples.

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5. What mountain ranges can you see from Puzzle Mountain? We set off fairly early on Sunday for our trek up the mountain. It was a short drive to the trailhead, and the leaves were at their peak color. The trail climbs fairly steeply in sections, but is interspersed with enough flat sections to keep it interesting. The first part was all birch forest, pale yellow leaves set off against the peeling white bark of the somewhat spindly trunks. Finally, we came to an opening in the woods and could see across the patchwork valley to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and other unnamed ridges.

Birch forest
Birch forest

4. Where were all the people? It was Columbus Day weekend (or more correctly, Indigenous People’s weekend), and I would have expected at least some other hikers, if not the raging crowds we’d faced on Mt. Washington last year. But except for one other group who only made it to the first peak of the mountain, we saw absolutely no one.

Mount Washington in the distance
Mount Washington in the distance

3. Where did the blue blazes go? Most of the trail is nicely maintained. But after we reached the second and highest peak (a whopping 3100 feet), we took a loop trail down that was considerably overgrown. At one point, coming out onto a rock outcropping, it simply petered out into a tree. Although there were some remnants of blue paint on the rock, and a very misleading cairn, it turned out the real trail was in a completely different direction. And it turns out that daughter A’s belief that always going left was the right answer did not work.

2. Which way is down? Now, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. But not so. The descending trail seemed to have as many uphill parts as down, and at one point I was convinced we were corkscrewing ourselves around the mountain.

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1. Where is Puzzle Mountain? Some mysteries are best left unsolved. And I promised our hosts that I’d help keep it hidden!

Illiniza Norte Or How I Ended Up Rock Climbing After All

Cotopaxi from the hut at Illiniza Norte
Cotopaxi from the hut at Illiniza Norte

Some of you may remember that one reason we ended up in Ecuador instead of the Grand Teton was our conclusion that we preferred mountaineering to rock climbing. (See “Cotopaxi, Ecuador – 180 Degree Turns.”)  So it was somewhat inexplicable that I nonetheless found myself on July 1 hanging on for dear life to an ice encrusted basalt wall with my left hand, ski pole in my right and nothing but an almost vertical drop of rocks below. Oh, and this was at about 16,000 feet. And did I mention no ropes?

Illiniza Norte is one of the two Illiniza peaks (the other, obviously, is Sud), and is a common acclimatization hike in preparation for Cotopaxi. It reaches about 16,500 feet, and is the taller of the two forked peaks in the right in the photo. Its sister peak, on the left, is much more technical and is covered in snow.

The Illiniza Peaks
The Illiniza Peaks

It was about a three hour hike to the mountain hut where we were to stay for our ascent of Illiniza Norte so we left in early morning. After fighting through Quito traffic, we followed modern highways for a while until we abruptly turned off to cobble stone roads, still in the same condition as in the 1940s when Ossy thought they were originally built. Jaw breaking and winding is an understatement. More on that later.  We passed through several small villages, stopping at one to drop off things we wouldn’t need on the hike. Once we parked the car near the trailhead, we met up with the two men who took our supplies up to the hut on horses. Each day the horses plod up to the hut with full loads and bring trash back.  Despite the routine, they seem quite content with their rather proletariat role in life.
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The mountain hut is primitive – but there are flushing toilets, even if you do have to go outside to get to them. There’s a series of about four bunk beds, going up to a triple level, a small eating area and a tiny kitchen. No electricity. We were the only people there, and, in fact, the only climbers on the mountain the next day. That night we were treated to a spectacular sunset with a full moon. The entire Avenue of Volcanoes was visible, including the white capped isosceles triangle of Cotopaxi.

We got up at 5 for an early morning departure. The weather cleared as we hiked. There was more snow than normal, and many of the rocks were encrusted with icicles. I was glad of my climbing helmet since I hit my head several times on wide swathes of ice sticking out from the rocks I was trying to hold on to.

There are several sections of rock, the most difficult probably the one right below the summit. We climbed up through a chimney, along exposed ledges – and all without ropes. Ossy very carefully instructed where to place hands and feet and how to balance – and ultimately we did make it to the summit which is marked by a metal cross. But that wasn’t before a bowling ball sized rock hurtled down from the top in J’s general direction, followed by a smaller one in his more specific direction. Fortunately, no injuries. We now know the best way to react to rockfall (besides not experiencing it in the first place!) is to make yourself as small as possible. Sort of an airline crash position.

Summit of Illiniza Norte - that's the summit cross that appears to be sticking out of my head
Summit of Illiniza Norte – that’s the summit cross that appears to be sticking out of my head

Coming down was exhausting and Ossy roped me in after I slipped twice. I think I’d burned up a lot of nervous energy on the ascent – not to mention physical. And we not only had to descend and get back to the hut – there was still the three hour hike back to the parking lot ahead of us, and then a couple of hours to drive to our next stop, the Hacienda Chilcabamba, outside Cotopaxi National Park.

For someone who actually froze on the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and who still has recurring dreams about being stuck on the old swinging bridge on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, reaching this summit was huge. But it also reminded me that figuring out how to get down from summits is just as important as going up them.

Summits are Not Symetrical and the Pearls in the Peanuts

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Mountains do not rise up from the earth like isosceles triangles.  And most things in life don’t have that perfect equilibrium either.  Like this week  – everything just a little off.

It started when I unpacked a gigantic box containing a keyboard that had belonged to an uncle and now had wended its way to Central Florida. In reaching down into the thousands of styrofoam peanuts that surrounded said keyboard in order to ensure we had located all its bits and pieces, the husband pulled out a carefully wrapped plastic package. I cut it open, expecting a plug or some similar piece of equipment, only to find – a string of pearls! A visit to the jeweler the next day confirmed they weren’t real, but now I still face the task of contacting UPS to see if they there is any report of missing pearls in peanuts.

That set the tone for the rest of the week.

One of our elderly Westies continues to be profoundly deaf and is proving not very capable of learning sign language.  His brother has decided he can only eat dry dog food if scattered on the floor outside of his bowl. And the ancient cat continues to believe he is a mountain lion and to attack dogs.

My dearly beloved ten year old car blew the same fuse for the second time in six weeks. Who knew the same fuse that controls the radio controls the ignition. But combined with a very leaky convertible top, the prospect of having to change fuses on the side of the interstate while driving to an out of town meeting on Monday was enough to cause us to finally buy a new car.

At least events of tomorrow should determine my schedule sufficiently that we can actually book our Cotopaxi trip.  At yoga last Wednesday night the moon was full but for a slice off one side, teetering against the black sky. I’m hoping that this next week – with the next summit firmly chosen and set – restores equipoise.