Editor’s Note: About the author…Ollie is a a student who is currently traveling around South America and loves to write. On his blog (Oliver’s Travels) he combines the two thus creating fun and interesting stories of his experiences around the world. Within Oliver’s Travels, you can witness Ollie learning, making mistakes, and having as many fun experiences as possible, all written in a creative style.
The Biggest Climb of My Life
At the start of writing this, I am unsure how it will come across. It may become an epic tale of my girlfriend and I adventuring up the highest peak in Mexico, or, it may come across as a hands-on guide on what NOT to do when climbing the highest peak in Mexico. If you read on, I leave it to you, the reader, to decide what this post is.
Pico De Orizaba
Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North America. It is a dormant volcano (at least I hope so) and is the highest volcanic summit in North America. It reaches 5,636 metres above sea level and has the largest glacier in Mexico. Or in other words, it is big and scary and who would possibly want to climb that? Well, the answer to that question is my girlfriend and I. We had recently conquered the volcano Malinche with Molly’s parents (an act we would have been immensely proud of, had we not gruellingly reached the top, hiking sticks in hand, only to be greeted by a young woman who went up IN SOCKS and was wearing a ‘wildly’ (no pun intended) impractical leopard print jacket. Not to mention the guy that had carried his pet beagle the whole way on his shoulders). Despite the embarrassment, it was clear we both wanted to seek another adventure of this kind and in response, Molly’s parents very kindly gifted Molly the classic 21st birthday gift of a guided tour up the highest peak in Mexico. We were thrilled.
We found our guide and looked at the guidelines to see what we needed to take. It read :
Spare change of clothes
And that was it.
We began our search. We figured that we needed to get some more layers, however, hiking clothes in Mexico were limited to ‘North Face’ which was far too expensive, so we went to the next best place – Walmart. Here we found said sleeping bag, headtorch and a few extra jackets to layer upon. We were all set, feeling very accomplished and prepared, as though we may even be too warm going up pico. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be far from the truth.
For the journey, we had to meet our guide in Mexico City and then travel to the base at pico. We stayed in a hotel that night. We were immediately worried about our choice as a poster at the entrance of the hotel surveyed, first and foremost, the prices of staying in the hotel for 2 hours, then 3 and then 5. Our preconceptions of the hotel were not wrong and for the entire night, we were serenaded with distant sounds of moans and groans. I achieved very little sleep – for a very different reason than our fellow guests.
After a lovely stay in a lovely hotel, we awoke and met with our guide. He seemed sweet and seemed very impressed by the lightness of our bags, exclaiming “wow, you guys pack light” – a comment I was proud of at the time. We then made our way to the basecamp of pico.
The drive to the basecamp was bumpy, rocky, steep and very dangerous. It was about a 35-minute drive going straight up, over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. Running water had caused huge slits in many of the sections and the terrain switched from mud to desert, to ice in brief intervals. It was breathtaking. The flatness that lay behind us became further and further away as we continued venturing up. It felt as though we were journeying to a new planet; in a very shabby spaceship.
The base camp was a little red barn on a flat piece of the mountain. The front of the cabin looked over expansive valleys in the mountain and behind it lay the overarching peak. The cabin had a section for tables and a section for beds, which were just layers of wooden planks where you could put your sleeping bags. There were no toilets so we had to go behind a big rock; which turned out to be everyone else’s idea so it was not particularly pleasant. This part would be my biggest criticism of the camp. There was nowhere to put toilet paper or rubbish so people just left it on the mountain. All around the campsite rubbish could be seen.
The night before
To go up Pico at a safe time, you must begin the ascent at about 12am. This means that, although the ice is still very evident on the way up, it will begin to thaw on the way down and you are able to safely reach the bottom before the sun goes back down. Therefore, we had to go to sleep at around 5-6pm. The cabin was ice cold, and our sleeping bags proved to not be sufficient in the slightest to keep us warm. Due to the altitude my breathing that night “sounded like a hoover ” so Molly was faced with the difficult decision to sleep next to a henry hoover for warmth, or be cold but peaceful.
We woke at 12am and after a brief breakfast of peanut butter on toast, we began our climb. What struck us first was the brightness of the stars and moon. The surroundings took on a grey tint, and in the distance, the glacier was bright white- smirking down at all of us. During the initial stages, Molly and I felt really strong. We powered past the other climbers and could see their head-torches in the distance. The rocky terrain proved difficult with the ice and we had to be careful to sustain our footing. We took only two or three breaks during the initial section which was known as the labyrinth because it was so rocky and maze-like. During our breaks, we looked at the surroundings and were amazed by the scale of what was around us. The coldness was very manageable at this point and I had to unzip my coat to ensure I did not sweat. However, as we gained more ground and the looming glacier became ever closer, the wind began to increase in both coldness and intensity. My hands began to numb and I began to shake. I zipped my coat back up.
The rockiness began to disperse as we got higher, and all signs of all wildlife were gone. Before us was nothing more than a few more rocks, then the glacier. We walked through the last section before the summit. While sheltered by the rocks the wind felt cold but manageable, however, as we walked past the final shelter we were struck by a torrent of wind. As it struck, all the feeling in my face left and I could not stop shaking. It was so strong that it rocked us back and forth as we made our way to the base of the glacier.
At the base of the glacier, we had to stop to don our crampons. The stop made me really question whether or not this was actually safe for molly and me. Looking at Molly and seeing the way her body was shaking I knew I was not the only one regretting our choices of clothing. Filled with images of my large nose (an easy target to the cold) and my fingers falling off, I asked “wwill we be able to do this?” to which the guide said, “You guys are not wearing the correct gear for this”. Shivering, unable to feel my fingers, feet, or face, I said. “Well, will we be able to gget up? Like, is it ssafe for us to go up because I am rreally fucking cold!?”. Then after a brief pause and the final snap of my crampon, our guide said “Okay, let’s go”. And the snowy ascent began.
Head down, all feeling gone, we started walking. I can easily say – as a boy from Suffolk who had been up one mountain in his life – that this was the hardest thing I have ever done. The glacier, though foreboding at a distance, was terrifying up close. Though still dark the glacier shone bright and looking up, all that could be seen was a steep abyss. We pushed our crampons into the ground and began waking up. Being the first climbers of the day to reach this point there was no clear footpath and the ground held a layer of soft snow, meaning we had to be really steady to keep our feet stable and not fall (a fall, in our lack of proper kit, in my head at the time, would have resulted in us freezing immediately). On the way up my toes began to hurt more and my nose was running under my face mask, which quickly froze, meaning I had to swap it around frequently, exposing my face (nose included) to the cold. Roughly 35 minutes in, the thought of us reaching the top became a distant dream, yet the thought of going down was just as intimidating. I felt dangerously cold, my trouser leg had become slightly exposed due to a slip and my legs began to shiver too. In my head, I was in a life or death situation, (in hindsight a little bit dramatic) and the only option was to complete the goal and reach the summit – whether or not I lose some fingers or toes. This sounds very heroic, and would have been, were I not to have been grunting and shouting and making every noise under the sun – noises reminiscent of our hotel guests in Mexico City, but again, for a very different reason.
We marched, and we seemed to be getting close – we must be close. I shouted to Molly, who then shouted to Ricky, how much more and he said about 30 minutes. This was either a lie, or those were the longest thirty minutes of my life. The higher we climbed, the more intense the wind became, the thicker the snow and ice. However, we were nearly there. I could see the peak. This was the windiest part of the walk and my whole body was numb. We marched, kept our heads down, and we made it to the top. The peak had a metal cross that held many flags and ribbons from previous climbers. It was unbelievably cold as we now had the wind blowing from every direction.
I have always assumed that the top of the mountain is the point at which you feel completely accomplished, and makes all the pain and difficulty worth it, however, I did not experience it at that point. I felt amazed; Molly said “we are the highest people in Mexico right now” (minus planes, that is cheating) and it was an incredible thought, but it did not hit me until later. The sky was black, yet a bit of blue was starting to emerge. The other distant peaks were beginning to show. This was the most incredible thing I had ever done, yet I felt quite displaced as if I was not actually there.
The Way down
We took a very bad quality picture of Molly and me at the top and made our way down.
The altitude sickness only started to kick in on the way down and despite cramming down bar after bar, and drinking Powerade by the bucketload, my head began to feel very light and I had to be very careful to sustain my footing. The sun came out on the way down and the views were breathtaking – yet I still had the feeling of separation I had at the top, in fact, it was intensified due to the lightness of my head. We walked down the same way we came up. Whilst going up it was one step forwards two steps back, on the way down it was 1 step forwards two more steps forward. It felt like we were skating down, past the other climbers going upwards whom I did not envy. As we got further and further down the coldness subsided and I started to regain some feeling.
After we finally got to the bottom we rested by the camp. We had just climbed the highest peak in Mexico, and finally, it started to sink in a little bit. We were exhausted, my feet were bleeding, Molly couldn’t feel one of her fingers, however, the overwhelming feeling was of pride. We had just pushed our bodies further than we had ever done before and I can genuinely say it felt worth it.
I would say that the top was one of the highlights of the experience, but it was not the highlight. I loved the experience of planning and being excited about the trip, I loved the journey to base camp, I loved the process of getting up, I loved the feeling of being on another planet, I LOVED the feeling of getting to the bottom and I loved having a Chinese and a few beers that night in Mexico City to celebrate. It was the process that was incredible and the knowledge that; if we can do this, we can do so much more.
So… the moral of the story is; you are probably capable of far more than you think possible – and wear the right fucking kit.
– Ollie (A Suffolk boy who travels the world)
For more from Ollie, check out his website HERE.