December 4, 2014: Arrival.
After traveling all day by car we finally arrived to Tlachichuca, Puebla. Not so far away, we saw the so much anticipated goal: an enormous mountain dominating the horizon, snowed in the highest part, which made it different from the surrounding mountains. And it also happens to be a volcano: Citlaltépetl, Pico de Orizaba, the highest summit in Mexico, and one of the highest in all America with its 5700 meters above sea level.
We arrived to a hostel owned by El Oso, a big guy with a kind voice and warm hospitality. He owns a guides agency for the Citlaltépetl, we would try to reach the summit of the mountain with them.
We entered our room, it was clean with two bunk beds, and with a pleasant smell of wood. Everything looked new and the room had a bathroom with hot water, such a luxury. We went to the living room, where a fire was awaiting us, they’re very necessary on those high places with low temperatures. The living room was decorated with mountaineering things: a little doll climbing down a rope in the ceiling, a crampons (spikes for the boots, intended to walk in snow), and a pretty old ice ax, and some photos of the highest mountains of the world. And there was also a guitar, there’s always someone who plays a guitar, even if nobody of us knew how to do it. We went to the dining room to eat one of the most delicious meals that I have eaten in a long time, and in my case, it was amazing because it was an improvised vegetarian meal.
Then a couple of doctors arrived: they would join us. We would try to conquer the summit: three people from Inflection Point including me, the two doctors, our two guides and trainers from Aventureros and three guides from Pico de Orizaba.
December 5, 2014: Preparation.
That night I couldn’t sleep well, probably because in our trip to Tlachichuca I slept a lot, and also since I’m used to sleep alone, any noise would awake me. We awoke in the morning before sunrise, and what a surprise to see the Citlatltépetl through the window of the dining room! We went to the roof and saw that the sun was slowly arising behind the peak of the Citlaltépetl, in that precise moment, and it only lasted some seconds. But surprises didn’t end there, to the west there was a beautiful view of the valley, and far away, we could see other three giant citizens of the country: La Malinche in the state of Tlaxcala, and Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl between the states of Puebla and Mexico. How high we were in order to see volcanos at perhaps more than 100 km of distance?
Breakfast was also delicious and we prepared to depart. The guides of “El Oso” had climbed so many times that they could tell if we needed a warmer sweater, or a bigger backpack only by seeing us. Fortunately they had some things to lend us. We departed in a truck to the refuge and crossed a little forest. They gave us paper bracelets, perhaps to identify our corpses if needed... but later we realized that they were just tickets to enter Pico de Orizaba national park. One of our guides asked me if I was nervous, but no, ignorance is the best remedy against nervousness. I didn’t see any video about the Citlaltépetl nor investigated that much, so in my mind it was just another hill like the ones in Arteaga, near my house, I’d just walk a little longer and it’ll be a little colder. I preferred to think that.
You also need to be prepared for the possibility of not reaching the summit. I was there on vacations, with a chance to climb to the top. A very important thing to know is that the summit is not guaranteed for anybody, it doesn’t matter how fit you are, there are just so many things that could go wrong: maybe the weather is horrible and the trip is suspended, or we can’t sleep well, our bodies don’t react well in that altitude, the equipment is not adequate, or the clothes, or maybe our group is alone in the mountain and somebody can’t climb, and the whole group has to go back. For everything we can take measures, but no guaranties.
Before reaching the refuge we began to walk in order to get used to the altitude: 4100 meters above sea level. We passed the refuge and continued to some small hills nearby, with a good view of the valley. It was a nice day to take a lot of pictures, we weren’t in a hurry and it wasn’t so cold, and the sky above us was clear. It was amazing that below us there was a sky with a carpet of clouds, and we reached that altitude by land, even walking to some extent. We went back to the refuge where the guides had prepared a delicious meal. It was more than 5 pm, time to sleep. We would awake at 1 am to try to reach the highest summit in Mexico.
December 6, 2014: Climb.
That night I slept even less, fortunately I didn’t feel sleepless, maybe it was the emotion or the adrenaline. *Mental note: get used to sleep in the hard, cold floor in the sleeping bag before doing this again, and with noises, because that was part of what prevented me to sleep well*. We awoke at 1 am, and the effects of the altitude began to appear in some of us: I had a little headache, others some nausea, but we could still try to climb the mountain. The nocturne sky was clear and beautiful, the moon, almost full, was illuminating the road with enough light to turn off the lamps. We passed a cross that some mountaineering club dedicated to their fallen buddies, or at least it said so. Creepy. I was so much agitated in the first moments, the pace was a little fast, but soon I saw that the others were also showing signs of fatigue. After some time I could get used to the pace and advance positions, until I was almost in the top of the group. We reached an opening formed with stones named “The Nest”, where we rested a little bit. The cold was getting more intense. After a while the rest of the group arrived to the Nest, but I departed with the doctors while the others were taking a break. The big group was breaking and smaller groups were appearing. We continued walking for hours, a difficult part was when we had to climb big rocks using feet and hands solely, because that broke our pace and every time it was more difficult to gain it back.
In some way, walking under the moonlight that night was comfortable to the mental strength, I had the sense that everything we could do by night was something “extra”, it doesn’t matter if it was a lot or a little, we had the night and the whole day to climb to the top and return to the refuge. It was restful to know it. Maybe I was dreaming and suddenly, on the sunrise, I would be near the top.
In one of the breaks we wore the harness, which meant that we were near the glacier. Suddenly there were only the guide, the two doctors and me when we reached the glacier. I wore the crampons after an eternity. The night, my numb fingers because of the cold and the inexperience were taking their toll. In that moment another guide arrived and they started to discuss how to form the final groups. I would go in the first one, tied to the others. I could no longer be slow at my will to catch my breath, and one of the golden rules is to know your own pace and respect it, without trying to go faster to reach the others. I wished to go in the second group that hadn’t arrived yet, maybe it would be less tiring, but it was too late, a pull of the rope brought me to start walking in the glacier. Crampons are wonderful, I could walk on an ice slope without falling, as if I was walking on a grass slope.
It was dawn, soon the sun would arise behind the mountain, and it was when the icy wind started to blow heavily. My water hose was frozen, even though I was blowing the water into the bag every time I used it. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t thirsty. The wind was so heavy and cold by my left that I closed my eye by fear that it became frozen or something, it was still a bit dark and I couldn’t use the goggles. The slope became more and more tilted, and several times I was slowing the pace. I got to the point of inhaling while I was lifting my foot, exhaling when I was putting it in front of the other, stay still a couple of seconds and repeat the process. Lift my foot, put it in front of the other, stay still. Inhale, exhale, stay still. One time I lost the pace, began to feel tired and asked for a break, but the balaclava I was wearing over the mouth and the strong wind prevented the others from hearing my voice. Lift the foot, put it in front of the other, stay still for a longer time. The rope stretches and the ones above me are forced to stop a little. Sometimes we stopped in the 50° slope to adjust the crampons, and I was taking advantage of every break to catch my breath, but only to start walking again and finding the pace was taking a lot of extra effort.
The hours passed, it was morning already but the sun was still hiding behind the mountain. Every time I looked up I was seeing all the way left to go and it was disappointing, so I decided to look the ice wall in front of me, and nothing more, and have a pace that I could maintain indefinitely. After a while the sun arose above the mountain, and I heard someone screaming “summit in sight!”, the guide took off the rope we were wearing and the female doctor ran to the summit. Good for her. I was walking with my little pace. And then I saw the summit: there was no ice, only soil in the land, the female doctor was lying on the ground and there was a big cross, taller than a person. I reached for the cross and suddenly I saw the landscape behind the mountain. The cross had a little Mexican flag. I touched the cross and it was something magical, after a lot of stress and effort, fighting the mountain slope and the cold, everything was in peace. It was like if someone was waiting at the top, and when it saw me it transmitted a message: peace, everything was silent, there was nowhere else to go, no higher land. I was at the top of a millennial watchman, a watchman that could see everything. And it wasn’t alone; far away, to the west, I saw Citlaltépetl friends: Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl and Malinche, the other three volcanoes. To the east there was a sea of clouds, people say that when the sky is clear you can see the Gulf of Mexico. I also could see a really big wall of rock, I forgot in that moment but Citlatltéptl is a volcano, and I was seeing the inner side of the crater. It was difficult to breath in the top, the simple effort of opening my can of water left me agitated.
Then we started the way back. Walking down is much easier than walking up, but I was tired and the way back seemed like an eternity. After a while, some falls and a lot of sun we arrived to the refuge. It was like 2 pm, time for a good meal.
December 7, 2014: Farewell.
We awoke at dawn, I wasn’t sleepy. We saw the sun arise above the mountain again, and far away, to the west, the spectacle of Popocatépetl exhaling a big cloud of steam. Good bye volcanoes!, See you again some day!