In 1987, my wife and I traveled to Mexico with our church to assist Dan and Chuy Hall, who are the Field Directors of Mexican Indian Training Center, in Cordoba Mexico. We rolled up our sleeves and worked hand-in-hand with MITC folks doing construction work, concrete preparation, painting and other tasks. We initially flew from Chicago to Mexico City and then onto Veracruz Mexico. With a window seat on the left side of the plane I was able to look straight down into a huge volcano as we made the short flight to Veracruz. Later, I found out that this volcano was called Pico De Orizaba. It was on this first trip that the dream was born to someday climb Mexico’s tallest peak. I was 28 years old at the time with two small children and a great wife.
Over the next three years, I travelled to Cordoba on several occasions and each time, I was able to marvel at the beauty of this gargantuan mountain that rises out of the jungle and fills the morning sky. According to websites that compare various big mountains, Pico De Orizaba is one of the most “prominent” mountains in the world as identified by visible base to summit elevation.
Being an early riser, I was always captivated by the first sunbeams of the day hitting the eastern flank of the mountain and casting a range of colors including pink, purple, orange and red. It was such a beautiful sight that I often observed alone on the roof of a building. Unfortunately, the frequency of my travel to Mexico slowed as I moved to Colorado and the challenges of growing a business consumed our spare time. Fast forward to the present day.
After spending so much time in the mountains of Colorado in the summer of 2011, I decided to tackle Pico De’ Orizaba in Mexico to see how well I would do again at 18,500 feet and to hopefully full-fill a 25 year old dream. Going back to Mexico would have special significance this time; not just because I was going to attempt to summit Orizaba, but because I had decided to dedicate the climb to dear friends, Tim and Joyce Wills.
Tim and Joyce first introduced our family to Mexico and they have played significant roles in our lives as friends, pastor and mentor, over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, Tim contracted Parkinson’s in 1998 and this debilitating disease has taken its toll on Tim and the family as caregivers. Even though they could not make the trip with me, I decided to let them know that I was committing my effort to remember and honor them and that I would take time to pray for them at the very top of a mountain that our families had viewed with admiration so many years before. Prior to the trip, I shared with climbing partner on this trip Chad Butrik my intentions and I was so pleased at his heartfelt response and support.
Upon our arrival into Mexico City we quickly dispatched our bags at the Hilton Hotel, which is conveniently connected to the airport. We hopped in a cab and made our way into the center of the city where we took in the sights and sounds around the Metropolitan Cathedral. It was Chad’s first trip to Mexico and I wanted to take just a little bit of time to show him a few sights and sounds. We visited the cathedral, which is the largest and oldest in the Americas and is adjacent to the Constitution Square. After our tourist gig, Chad and I did some severe damage to an enormous plate of fajitas at a restaurant near the hotel. Those fajitas and the sauces that accompanied them were some of the best I have had. After dinner we were just hanging out in the lounge of the hotel when in walked John Vanseeburg. I briefly met John in Nepal in 2010 as he was a part of the film crew who was shooting the soon to be aired film High Ground. Chad had spent 3 weeks with John in Nepal and so it was a great reunion.
The next day we hired a guide to take us to Teotihuacan, The Pyramid of the Sun, which is one of the largest Aztec cities ever excavated. After the sightseeing in Mexico City, we were ready to get on the road closer to Orizaba.
We took a bus directly from the Mexico City airport and headed to Puebla a 2-3 hour ride. The bus was very comfy and the price was so incredibly inexpensive. As we left the city, the countryside eventually came into view and I couldn’t help but think that the city had changed with improved infrastructure and modernization, but the countryside was still the same. At the Puebla bus station we quickly made a transfer to another bus line and then we were on our way to Teotihuacan. As we got on this bus, I showed the bus driver where we needed to be dropped off and I was pleased when two hours later he dropped us right at the front door of the Cancholas family who run the Orizaba hostel.Ms. Maribel and Mr. Joaquin were there to greet us and to help us settle in. Great hospitality, clean facilities, good food, and hot water! What more can a mountaineer want before going up high? Chad and I felt as if we were in climber heaven.
We woke up in the morning and Mr. Joaquin gave us a ride in his 4×4 Jeep up to the Piedra Grande Hut at 13,800 feet. The hut looked like it was going to be an ideal place to stay for a few nights before starting up on summit day, but it did not measure up to my expectations. We were able to get out of the wind and we didn’t have to worry about getting wet but those were the only benefits. The real challenge was other people. We had no problem with different nationalities and different skill levels; it was just all of the body noises [leave that to your imagination] and the vomiting in the middle of the night [you need to know that this happens in a close proximity with 20 or so other folks]. Sleeping can obviously be difficult with this happening and to add insult to injury, there were folks who got up midnight and commenced with banging pots and pans for TWO hours while the rest of us were trying to get some rest. Unbelievable. And then there were the toilet “facilities”. I thought Lobuche’s restroom facilities in Nepal were nasty, but the Piedra Grande Hut would give them a run for their money. Enough said!
Chad describes it best when he said that we were like two race horses chomping at the bit to start working on this project. Within 30 minutes of arriving at the hut we packed a small daypack and headed up the trail. We just wanted to get higher on the mountain and begin to figure out the route. We were both surprised how well we were feeling as we approached 15,800 feet. We spent a good amount of time on the mountain that afternoon and were in high spirits about our chances of standing on the summit. On the way down, we laid out our plan for the next day. We committed to standing on the glacier and stashing a few pieces of gear for our summit attempt. Our thought was that our packs would be lighter right out of camp and set us up for the best shot at the summit.
After virtually no sleep that night we got out of our sleeping bags at 6:00 AM, gulped down some fine instant Starbucks coffee and a cup of hot instant oatmeal, and were on the mountain about an hour later. Both of us were really surprised at how fast we were, although to be completely honest, Chad is so much faster than me. I always seem to be slow for the first hour until my breathing and my body gets synchronized and then I usually feel fantastic. Chad is just a thoroughbred and to realize that he has a prosthetic on one leg is just amazing. We reached the steep snow of the Labyrinth an hour and 40 minutes after leaving the hut. We strapped on our crampons and began to tackle one of the technical aspects of this mountain. One hour later we found ourselves at 16,800 feet above sea level and at the base of the glacier.
Upon arriving at the edge of the glacier we were feeling really good and the air temperature was 75 degrees. We couldn’t believe how incredibly warm it was. We had a discussion about pushing to the summit because we were feeling great and we surmised that we could probably knock it out in another two hours [that was definitely a wrong assumption!]. It was so tempting but we also knew that the summit would soon be covered in clouds. So we decided that our best chance at a clear summit would be first thing in the morning. In addition, I really wanted to photograph the sunrise on Orizaba and had planned to share those photos with Tim and Joyce so we headed down.
That afternoon we had a real good time as we made a lot of new friends who were acclimatizing and took some great pictures. We stashed our gear and fired down to the hut for an afternoon of relaxation and preparation for our summit attempt. We half-joked about “clear and copious”, a common mantra that Charlie Mace, a world-class mountaineer and friend, had shared with Chad. . Once again, I will leave it to your imagination as to what bodily fluid should be clear – a sure sign that you are properly hydrated.
Knowing that sleep was going to be difficult to realize because of the noises in the hut, I decided to put on my Bose “Noise Reduction” headset with the goal of drifting off to sleep. But after two hours, the headphones weren’t working and I was still awake. At 9:30 pm I could hear one of the other climbers in the hut starting to blow chunks in her sleeping bag. Yuck and sad at the same time. Nausea is one of the side effects of altitude sickness and the good Lord knows I have had this happen to me before. Somehow I managed to get 60-90 minutes of less than sound sleep but it was enough and when I woke at midnight, I was ready to go. Exactly 22 minutes later, Chad woke up and we started to prep for the great adventure ahead.
Once again we quickly devoured a breakfast of instant oatmeal and a hot cup of instant Starbucks coffee. After topping off our water bottles and checking our gear we were “quietly out the door at 1:00 AM and we were the first to be underway. In retrospect, the two previous acclimatization climbs were absolutely the smart thing for us to do. Our bodies had made the adjustment to higher altitude and there were zero effects. In the early morning hours we were flying up the mountain and reached the edge of the Jampala glacier in just over two hours averaging 1500 vertical feet per hour. That time included a stop to put on our mountaineering boots and crampons that had been stashed the day before in the Labyrinth section of the trail.
We knew it was still pretty early in the morning and I personally became slightly concerned that we were going to get to the summit 1-2 hours before sunrise. But, once we started to traverse the glacier in a zigzag route we quickly realized that the incline and the remaining distance were not going to be done as easily as the first 3000 vertical feet. In the end, we just kept walking as the incline became steeper at nearly 45 degrees. We opted not to do a rope team as there were no crevasses wide enough to swallow either one of us and as long as we kept a steady pace we were slowly reaching the rim. Close to 18,000 feet as the sun began to rise, we felt the full force of the steep glacier. Every step required real work and I definitely noticed the lack of oxygen but my legs were not fatigued and so I was pretty confident I could reach the summit.
Chad shared with me that when he was a kid he remembered the first time he was on an airplane. He remembers flying above the clouds and the felling that he had looking down. On that November 9th 2011, morning it was remarkable for both of us to walk above the clouds and look down on them. To see the earth in all of its vastness [some say you can see the curvature of the earth from Orizaba but I never really noticed] before you and to realize that nowhere on the entire continent of North America was anyone as high as we were that morning was pretty cool. We were able to see the pyramid shadow of the mountain as it sprawled out in the valley. I shared some personal comments with Chad in an emotional moment about Tim and Joyce and then I took some time to pray God’s peace in their lives. After that, we celebrated our effort to the top of this spectacular mountain. We took so many pictures, shot video and talked to the other climbers as they made their way to the summit. We were “fully engaged in the process” of success that morning and as the endorphins kicked in, we were ecstatic at where we were and what we were experiencing together.
The walk down was equally awesome even though we were both tired and were ready to get down. We arrived at the hut as Mr. Joaquin arrived in his Jeep. We quickly gathered out gear and threw it into the Jeep and within 10 minutes we where headed down the mountain. Right before we left, I was able to mooch a Coke from one of the Cancholas and enjoyed this sweet beverage during the two-hour ride down the mountain and back to the hostel.
I was really pleased with the personal effort before and during this climb. Over the summer of 2011, I had climbed thirty 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado and I felt very strong. Once Chad and I arrived at the Orizaba Piedra Grande Hut, we proceeded to climb nearly 10,000 vertical feet in 48 hours. On summit day, our round trip time was right at 11 hours with plenty of breaks and one hour on the summit.
After the trip, and on our way back to the United States, it didn’t take too long to ask the obvious question of “what’s next?” But honestly, for at least a couple of weeks, I just wanted to take it easy, get back to my family and enjoy the photos. At some point soon, I really want to get above 20,000 feet so the best options require me to go south to Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina or Peru. Time will tell but God willing there will be more great adventure.