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  • Writer's pictureChrista Niravong

Mountaineering in Mexico

Twenty years ago, we offered mountaineering trips to North America's third highest mountain, El Pico de Orizaba. Two sixteen year olds joined that expedition and one of them wrote her story:

Summit Day on El Pico de Orizaba

March 11, 2002.

It's finally here - the day I put every last ounce of strength I have to push for the summit. I know I have to fall asleep, but I'm too anxious. I've been anticipated this day for months. I try to block-out the sound of scampering mice in the walls, the heavy and irregular breathing of my teammates, the dogs barking outside... It's hopeless. I'm wide awake, counting down the hours until we leave.

Finally the alarm sounds at 1 a.m. - time to get ready. I energetically scurry out of my thermal sleeping bag, already dressed (I've been wearing the same set of clothes for over a week). The team for today's summit push consists Fred (our instructor), Ashlea and I. Eric and Michelle had to descend for they had altitude sickness, but hope to return in a couple days.

We grab a few tortillas for breakfast, then "Gore-Tex up". I don't want to dress too warm because once we start moving, I know I'll get overheated. The team snaps several pictures of each other to remember step one of the journey.

I pick up my bag, satisfied with the weight which I agonized over yesterday to get the lightest possible pack. I step outside the hut and gaze into the cloudless sky which is illuminated with countless stars. We turn on our headlamps, adjust our trekking poles and start up the aqueduct. This is the most dreaded part of the trip as it is boring, hard on the knees and seems very long.

At last we are at the end of the cement path and reach the frozen scree. The frozen ground makes it a to easier to hike since you don't keep sliding down. There isn't much to look at so I start humming songs to entertain myself. We wind our way up the mountain, pausing every so often to catch our breath.

Fred is finding it increasingly difficult to see the path. Several large groups attempted to summit the previous day, and wandered between routes, ruining some of them. We have to stop to direct the beam from our headlamps all around, in hopes of sighting a half-decent trail. I've stop humming by now in an attempt to regulate my breathing. Feeling drowsy, I search the ground for rocks that are positioned in such a way that they will propel me up. As I begin to give Ashlea some encouragement, a giant gust of wind knocks the breath out of me. I gasp for air and notice that my headlamp is so dull that I can barely see where I am going. How can this be? It's only been two hours and I only brought one set of spare batteries. I continue hiking, being guided by a dull glow, repeatedly stumble of rocks. I have to stop to change my batteries.

The sun is still hidden, but it's becoming bright enough that I am beginning to recognize some landmarks. The trek is becoming monotonous. It's been over four hours of plodding over dirt paths and up boulders. All I can think about is the peanut butter and jam bun I have in my pack. I try to hold-over my hunger with a piece of spearmint gum.

We approach a steep slope that looks like an ice sheet. Fred instructs us to strap-on our crampons and get out our ice axe. I have a "gear war" with my crampons, but I finally manage to put them on. I take this opportunity to eat one of the buns which was suppose to be my breakfast - I just can't tame my hunger anymore. This gave me an abundance of energy as we put our axes in stake position for a direct ascent up the slope. The beam of my headlamp is becoming dull again. The batteries are suppose to last eight hours, not two.

Every step I take, I hear the sound of ice shattering. The streams are frosted over, but we break the thin layer of ice with our crampons. The hose in my hydration system is full of ice, so I can't get any water out; I am very thirsty. It doesn't seem long before we have a quick break for a snack. As we are sitting on an enormous boulder, Fred asks me to shine my headlamp in various directions so he can see what the best route is to get to the snow glacier. We are very close - just over the ridge and we'll be on the snow.

From the weak beam emitted from my headlamp, I see a fairly steep ascend up ahead. Following my teammates, I begin to climb the short pitch. I kick a foothold with my crampons, then dig my axe in to help pull myself up. The sound of me ascending, "Crunch, crunch, groan" becomes almost like a song. I try to adjust my pack as I kept moving. "Crunch, cru- gasp!" I lose my footing and slip. Wow, what an adrenaline rush! I'm becoming drowsy and I am worrying that if I fall, I won't be able to self-arrest. Fortunately we reached the end of the ridge and are now on the snow.

The sight I am viewing right now is indescribably magnificent. The sky fades from black to a burnt orange in a picturesque scene. I am in awe. We are above the clouds which are being warmed by the sun that's peaking over them. A sliver of moon is still resting high in the sky.

We take a lengthy rest at the bottom of the snow glacier. The summit looks so close, but we are not even half way there. I polish off the rest of the food that I packed for the day, then lie down on the snow. The lack of oxygen is becoming more noticeable. Ashlea and I start to drift-off to sleep as Fred tells us it's time to rope-up. I put on my harness and tie an alpine butterfly on the biner clipped to my belay loop. Since there is only three on the team today and we are short-roping, the excess rope goes on the top of our packs.

The painstakingly long trek up the snow glacier begins. We are switch-backing because it is steep and it makes it less tiring. The blisters on my right foot are becoming irritated - I should have changed the week old gauze before we left. We see three specks coming down from the summit and one behind us near Sarcofago. It's hard to judge how much longer it will take us to reach the peak for our pace has slowed-down considerably. The intervals between our rests is getting shorter. Luckily, Fred packed me some snacks because he knew I would run out of food. After eating a few cookies here and there, I feel pumped. I notice Ashlea keeps stumbling and asking to keep taking breaks - signs of the altitude effecting her.

Hours pass on the snow hill. The top looks so close, but the snow is deceiving to the distance and steepness. I am becoming anxious to reach the top. Fred warns us of an upcoming crevasse, so we have to keep the rope tight in order to safely pass it. Another hour crawls by and we reach the crater. From here, I can see the summit and feel like I can run to it. The crater is about one kilometre in diameter and is full with ash and volcanic rock. After spending a few minutes here absorbing the sight, we begin to hike around the crater, up to the summit.

I can't believe that I'm almost to the top! The snow is becoming scarce as well as the oxygen. We arrive at the dirt hill that leads to the summit. Only twenty more steps to the top. Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen... Three, two, one.

We made it to the summit on our first attempt! Of about twenty who attempted to summit this week, only a few made it. I am overcome with joy and satisfaction - I just summited the third highest peak in North America. What an accomplishment! The view is breath-taking. I feel like I'm on top of the world!

El Pico de Orizaba, my first conquered mountain, is just phase one in what I hope to be a life full of climbing peaks. This trip was the experience of my life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

By: Steph M


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