Honouring 20,000 Voices: Summiting North America's Third Highest Peak
The best way to successfully climb big mountains is slowly, and at night.
If this conjures images of sleep deprived, heavily burdened summit aspirants slogging remorselessly, and anonymously upwards to meet their fate, you would not be far off the mark. Except, when you are doing your slogging at high altitude, you can probably add 'dyspeptic and gasping for breath' to that list.
Doesn't sound too glamorous does it?
Well, if glamour is your aim then mountaineering isn't your game. That's probably why it suits me, and why I found myself in this situation on summit day, leaving the hut at 1 am on our way to Pico de Orizaba.
My guide, Alejandro (“you can call me Al”) had taken the wise precaution of hiking me up to 15,379 feet (according to my GPS) the day before to further my acclimatization process. It was only a two-hour stroll, carrying minimal gear, taking us less than 2,000 feet above the hut, but this personal lifetime high point experience left me exhausted.
It was hard to get a full dose of air into my lungs and I found myself panting like a dog. Should you wish to try and recreate this experience at home, try holding your breath and then running up a flight of stairs. When you get to the top you will find yourself gasping like a madman (or madwoman, as the case may be.) That's kind of like how I felt. After each step. I couldn't imagine what this would feel like tomorrow as we headed above 18,000 feet carrying about 30 pounds of gear, water and food each.
We returned to the hut, packed for the big day, ate dinner and turned in at 6 pm. We intended to get lots of sleep, rise at the magical hour of midnight, eat breakfast, don climbing gear and depart no later than 1 am on the morning of Feb 25th.
Everything worked out pretty much according to plan except the 'get lots of sleep' part. I've never had problems sleeping on trips like this before, but I discovered that things are different at 14,000 feet for a sea level dweller like me. I tossed and turned through the night for what seemed like an eternity and guess that I caught about two hours of sleep.
Eating anything was also a big effort as altitude is an infamous appetite killer (Jenny Craig - there might be an angle here for you) but I managed to force down, and more importantly keep down, some porridge, toast and jam and, of course coffee.
It was time to head for the summit.
The first part of the route winds up through the canyons left behind by the retreating glacier, threaded by small streams. It was cold (probably about minus 10C) so everything was frozen. This called for some first class route finding and upward snow, rock and ice grovelling through an area known as the Maze.
True to its name, we found several fellow climbers wandering lost in this complex area of glacial moraine, their headlamps jerking back and forth as they fruitlessly tried to find their way. Al called out to them to get them back on the right route, fearing a rescue effort later.
After about three hours of threading through the Maze, we emerged onto the glacier proper. It was still dark, but clear, and the sky was an astronomer's dream. The darkness also hid the true scale of the next phase, mercifully, and we headed up the slope toward the summit, the view confined to the small patch of ice, snow, rope, boots and crampons illuminated in front of me by my headlamp.
It started off steep, about 30 degrees I would guess, and then it got steeper. And steeper. How steep? Imagine you are walking down the street and you look up to ogle the top of a giant skyscraper - kind of like that.
To add flavour to what otherwise might have been a less interesting experience, the surface of the glacier was textured with millions of small, wind sculpted ice ridges that I called sastrugi, but were known to the guide as the 'penitentes' for their resemblance to a crowd of people kneeling while doing penance. What a beautifully apt description of what it was like to cross over these torturous little speed bumps.
As we climbed it also got colder and soon I was wearing everything I carried including, from the inside out: t-shirt, thermal underwear, soft shell wind proof jacket, and Gore-Tex hard shell, all topped with my large down jacket. Helmet, headlamp, rope and harness, and large mitts, helped make me look more like an astronaut on an EVA than a climber.
We settled on a slow, steady pace that ate up miles without burning us out. But it was really, really hard to keep going. Three days ago I was at sea level behind a computer and now, here I was, approaching the cruising altitude for most domestic flights over mountains ranges in BC. Large drops of sweat dropped rhythmically onto the toes of my boots.
Short breaks consisted of slamming my ice axe into the glacier for protection, collapsing, then hurriedly scarfing a chocolate bar snatched from a pocket (must remember to unwrap it first) while rationing a few sips of precious water. To save weight we each carried only two litres.
Every once in a while we crossed crevasses, which you could sometimes plainly see striping the surface of the glacier. These cracks, up to a foot wide and who knows how deep, we negotiated with adrenaline fuelled leaps worthy of a prima ballerina, or more accurately, landmine jumper. I found that any sudden extreme exertion like this was equivalent to a kick in the guts and I had to stand, doubled over and gasping like a landed trout, until I had recovered enough to go on.
I heard the story of a climber, travelling alone and unroped, who had recently fallen into one of the larger crevasses and had to stay there for a day until other climbers, luckily, heard his calls for help and pulled him out.
The sun finally rose at I have no idea what time, time having lost all meaning for me by this point, and the eastern horizon was riven with a beautiful bright red and multi-hued band the likes of which most people only see from airliners. I could now see the mountain ahead.
The true summit of Orizaba is well defended by a series of false summits so that looking up, you see the crest of what might possibly be the top but it isn't. In my state at the time this was roughly equivalent to a castaway spying a passing ship, which turns out to be a mirage. Well, several mirage ships passed me by until, finally we hit a dirt track which, zigzagging through some steaming volcanic vents (hey, I thought you said that this volcano was dormant?) led inexorably to the summit nine hours after leaving the hut.
On reaching the top, I was immediately proudest of the fact that I did not throw up at any time during this successful climb. Honest.
Following the obligatory summit photos, and flying the Berlineaton 20th anniversary flag, we descended. Most climbing stories leave out this part. I am convinced the main reason is that most people are exhausted by the effort of getting to the top and have chosen to forget the additional suffering for reasons mainly related to their personal mental health.
Let's recap the previous day or so to this point: acclimatization hike to personal lifetime high point, not much sleep, not much food, several thousand vertical feet of suffering punctuated by various scary events. Dehydrated. The weather was pretty much perfect though, with little wind and clear skies: a godsend to mountaineers.
We descended through the dreaded 'penitente' in the full glare of the now fully risen, tropical sun. Warm clouds rose up the valleys and enveloped us in a high altitude Turkish bath. Making for a specific exit point from the glacier, which connected to the track back to the hut, we traversed downwards and sideways for .... forever.
With no reference points it was impossible to judge distances accurately so with the battle cry 'no brain, no pain' we continued on, smashing relentlessly through acres of icy ankle breakers. I was in front the whole way down, roped to Al who would brake me safely if required. Eventually we made it to the track, and I threw myself onto the bare earth like a starving man hits a box of Tim Bits.
By this point, I was getting a bit wobbly.
We were unable to return the way we came as the sun melts the Maze, returning it to its more liquid and dangerous state, so we followed an alternate route back to the hut that meanders through several square miles of glacial detritus.
With the sun at its high point the glacier spewed huge gushers of ice melt, cascading downwards across our path. Ironically, although fully dehydrated and out of water we were unable to drink from any of these streams due to health concerns.
Regardless, this area is a geologist’s dream and I was fascinated by the many and varied physical features along the winding trail.
By 3 pm we had returned to the hut - 15 hours after the alarm sounded.
A full day, indeed.
Oh, and what was I doing on Pico de Orizaba in the first place?
It’s Berlineaton’s 20th
anniversary on March 1st.
Challenging Pico de Orizaba was my way of paying tribute to the bold spirit of the 20,000 people we have worked with over the past two decades.
Mexico's Pico de Orizaba, at 18,491 feet, is North America's third highest peak and is a much sought after summit in the global mountaineering community. It's extreme altitude, treacherous weather and terrain make it a particularly difficult challenge and, as a result, many who try to summit subsequently fail. For me, it was a worthy goal in line with Berlineaton's motto: Be Bold.
This climb is the first of many ways that Berlineaton will celebrate our 20th anniversary through the theme: 20 years, 20,000 voices.
We’ll be sharing our experiences and learnings from collaborating with 20,000 bold and visionary people committed to making their organizations more effective and impact more substantial.
This will be a year of celebration, giving back, and expressing appreciation to our clients, staff, associates, family and friends.