Climbing at this high altitude, I feel a rush of adrenaline. After we reach a certain elevation, the air starts to thin, making us more susceptible to dangerous falls and storms. But that doesn’t take away from the beauty of the mountain or exhilaration of ascending so high. The goal of all mountain climbers is to reach the summit. But what actually defines the success of an expedition?
On Our Way to High Places
This past April, my best friend Rafa and I planned to summit the third highest mountain in North America, Pico de Orizaba (18,419 feet), located about 200 kilometers from Mexico City. Both of us are amateur mountaineers, so we began seriously planning this trip in January of 2018. As the expedition neared, we had our tickets, gear and rough plans. Of course, Orizaba had its own plans — two weeks before our scheduled departure date, the mountain called down 10 feet of snow, a challenge we weren’t prepared to overcome. We eventually decided to climb the relatively-nearby inactive volcano Iztaccihuatl (17,159 feet), called Izta for short. We had a new peak, but starting so late our plans were rough at best.
We reached the city of Puebla, our staging point, on April 6. One of our friends, Eli, was in Mexico by chance and decided to take on Izta with us, though he didn’t have gear suited for the frigid terrain. After some hustling around Puebla, we pieced together a motley array of equipment so that he hopefully wouldn’t freeze on the mountain.
We traveled to the town Xalitzintla, where Rafa approached the driver of the only van in sight to barter for our passage to the Pasos de Cortes, the valley below Izta. While they haggled, the driver was syphoning gas out and back into his van to try to solve an issue with the tank. After an hour, he was ready to leave and we, joined by a few locals, piled into the cramped, rickety van reeking of gasoline. After a few moments where the van seemed like it might break down, we finally made it to the Pasos de Cortes (11,150 feet). I got more excited as I breathed in the cold, thin air, remembering the true awesomeness of high places. But we still had a ways to climb.
We had planned to rent a small cabin, but were told none were available. The sun was setting, and some initial symptoms of altitude sickness, a dull headache and nausea, were settling in. We needed to find a place to sleep.
We found two guides in the parking lot, who sold us some supplies and passage to a higher basecamp. Eli and I hopped in the back of their van, stuffed in with our packs and all the guides’ gear. The back was not connected to the main cabin, so Eli and I were left with only the diminishing light from two small windows. Some time passed before Rafa and the guides got into the front, time enough to start feeling helpless and claustrophobic, locked in the back with no way out. Finally, the engine roared to life and my spirits started to rise along with us, even as night fell.
On the Mountain
We finally made it to the La Joya base camp (13,000 feet). We were greeted by the spirit of the mountain, a man garbed in neon purple 1980s gear with a long, white beard extending from his seasoned face. His name is Marufo.
The guides drop off some gear for Marufo and depart. It’s very cold, so Marufo lets us use his woodstove. The wind whistles through the cracks of the shelter. We are all exhausted and feeling the effects of altitude sickness, made worse by the night chill. We hadn’t brought a tent, but luckily Marufo lends us one with a broken zipper. We head to bed, holed up in our sleeping bags. The return of warmth, however, did not alleviate my aching head and churning stomach.
It takes a long time for exhaustion to overcome our symptoms, which are worse because we skipped our planned acclimation time at the Pasos de Cortes. Rafa is burping uncontrollably and Eli, with his hodge-podge gear, is suffering from the cold. Eventually sleep takes us all. I wake to Eli shaking uncontrollably and saying he might be getting hypothermia. Rafa and I take off some of our extra gear, cover him, and squeeze together to try to bring some heat back into Eli’s cheap sleeping bag. We sleep fitfully but make it through the night.
Dawn reveals a vista of pure wonder, with miles and miles of Mexican highlands all around. Popocatépetl, an active volcano, looms in the distance and Itza towers over us. We are not well rested, but have mostly recovered from the symptoms that kept us up. We decide to hike up to the cabin, halfway to the summit, to acclimate and warm up for our final ascent at 2 am the next morning. For most mountains you need an “alpine start,” or one that begins when it is still dark out, to time the weather patterns safely.
Marufo is already awake, preparing to explore a new, difficult route on a lower portion of the mountain. The hut we seek sits at around 15,500 feet. We begin to climb with heavy ascent packs full of supplies.
The thrill of high places returns as we start to navigate more high-up, treacherous paths, but so does the altitude sickness. The draining feeling seems to come in ever growing waves and stagger between each of us, starting with me then waning as it comes up for Eli, who somehow passes it to Rafa. Eli has developed a small cough.
We’ve been hiking for about two hours with periodic breaks. The thin air makes normal physical tasks taxing. We’re all trying to get thinning oxygen to brains and muscles low on fuel. It’s only a 2,500 feet ascent over a range of about three miles, but it is taking a very long time.
After stopping for lunch we assess our water supplies, realizing we should have brought more. Moisture gathers in the air and the sun disappears, making it colder. Looking up the mountain we see ominous clouds gathering. We continue on, guessing that another 500 to 1,000 feet lays between us and the hut, maybe another hour of climbing.
At this point my symptoms are making it hard to think and a few minor hallucinations begin to manifest. I’m seeing small twinkles of light and shimmers in the mist. I’m clearly not at my peak mental or physical ability, and in the mist our range of vision has decreased to only a dozen feet. We continue to climb through the rain. As we come to a hard upward incline halfway up, the sprinkle hardens into pea-sized hail, which the wind whips into our exposed flesh. We stop for a water break and check our progress. We are at roughly 15,000 feet, and the trail is narrow and rugged with exposed flanks falling down into the mist.
Today was only supposed to be our acclimation day, a warm up, but it is thrashing us. We eventually decide to turn back for La Joya. My heart is yelling at me to complete the mission and get to the hut, but my feet are unsteady and my muddled mind reasons that today is not the day to die. We descend slowly, finishing our water, and I breath deep, trying to suck in oxygen for my suffocating organs.
A quarter of the way down, we meet another climber wearing just sweatpants and tennis shoes. He asks how far the hut is, and it’s clear he is planning to sleep there. We tell him our rough estimate and warn him of the worsening conditions ahead. We watch him go with a sinking feeling, but he seems more experienced and determined to go on.
We finally make it back to La Joya, where the weather is sunny and clear. I lie down and take many deep breaths, eyes closed, trying to fight yawns, nausea, and headaches. Looking back up the mountain, the whole upper portion is completely obscured by dark clouds. Marufo returns at 3 pm. Drinking hot coffee, while Marufo smokes, Rafa confers with him about our options.
Our borrowed tent does not close, and it’s begun to sprinkle. As the wind picks up, I realize we need a way to keep our belongings and sleeping space dry. Luckily, I had brought a tarp aptly named “Noah’s Tarp.” I begin to rig up a shield as the wind goes from a breeze to a minor gale and the sprinkle evolves into the hail/snow that had followed us down the mountain. Rafa, Eli, and I now wrestle with the tarp, which is billowing up like a sail, trying to pin it in a way that will protect our equipment. Once it’s secure, we all lay down and Rafa explains Marufo’s advice. He’d said that we should try our alpine start again and see how far we can get, but I have been researching more about altitude sickness. Based on our symptoms, we have veered into dangerous territory. I detect possible signs of cerebral and pulmonary edema (swelling of the brain and respiratory system), which can be life-threatening. We also know that after tomorrow it will rain on Itza for the next week, so this is our last shot to summit.
I have rarely, as an adult, not been able to finish a task I set for myself. I see it as a failure to not even try. By that definition, we failed. As it hailed outside our tent, we decided that trying to do that same trail in the dark, in our condition, may actually kill us. We would descend the next day.
We woke to a clear morning. While we packed up to descend, the man from the day before tramped down, looking a little worse for wear. He hadn’t made it to the hut and had huddled under a boulder instead, teeth chattering until dawn. He was lucky to be alive, and as soon as visibility allowed, he descended.
Marufo chats with us as we pack. We tell him about our disappointment at not summiting, but as we are about to leave he says, “Si no mueres en la montaña, es una experiencia mas para montañas,” which roughly translates to, “If you do not die on the mountain, it is one more experience for the mountains.”
Rafa, Eli and I are stubborn. It irks us that we didn’t reach the top of Izta. The experience has made me think a lot about failure.
You should always try things that push your limits. If we stay inside the protective dam of our comfort zone, it is easy to become like a pool of stagnant water: a place where disease and pollution can build up. Getting the still water to move encourages healthy growth.
I have begun to think of failure as slamming yourself against that dam. Hitting that wall hurts like hell, but will result in a trickle of still water getting through. That trickle can become the rush that takes you to the next level of selfhood. The balance is to not break yourself trying to break through and know when to go back down the mountain.
I learned so much from that trip, and Marufo’s last words have stuck with me. An edge experience, though not painless, is one that pushes your comfort zone. If you aren’t broken by those struggles, it is just an adventure on the path to becoming a complete person. Thus I really don’t think of my experience on Itza as a failure, I think of it as “one more experience for the mountains.”