Leading the Way Up Pico de Orizaba
I had December 11th 2018 circled on my calendar since the beginning of the year when I opened an email confirming that I had received the Mazama’s Monty Smith Grant to fund my very first mountaineering expedition.
Even before I found out about the grant, my sight was set on climbing Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl) located in Mexico. At close to 18,500’, it’s the third highest peak in North America and the seventh most prominent peak in the world. I was confident that climbing Pico de Orizaba was well within my mountaineering skills, however, I knew the expedition would be a challenge due to the elevation and the international logistics—exactly the kind I was seeking.
The grant itself took three months for me to complete. I agonized over every detail to include planning the daily itinerary to ensure proper acclimatization; securing reliable transportation for four people and ten large gear bags; determining appropriate climbing equipment and more—the list goes on, all while staying within a reasonable budget.
After the grant process, it really didn’t get any easier. I started to second guess every decision I had made. Was I really ready to take on an international mountaineering expedition and maintain responsibility for the logistics and the safety of other members on the team? I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I was going to find out soon enough.
Plane tickets were purchased, duffle bags and backpacks were packed, and checklists were tripled checked. It was go time.
Upon our arrival in Mexico City, we awkwardly gathered our ten bags while searching for our pre-arranged driver. We knew he would be wearing a shirt with the Servimont logo—a fourth generation owned climbing organization and hostel.
After a half-hour of searching the airport with no sign of our driver, self-doubt consumed me once again. My brain was racing. Shit, what do I do? We were stranded at MEX airport with a massive amount of gear, minimal Spanish and a strict schedule to keep. Just as the anxiety began creeping in, things started falling into place. Our driver showed up, having been delayed due to the heavy traffic caused by the Valle de Guadalupe festival. Servimont’s communication had been impeccable after all—not sure why I ever doubted them.
At last we were on our way to Malintzi at nearly 10,000’ to unwind before summiting nearby La Malinche, 14,636’ the following day. Constant stop-and-go traffic got us there later than anticipated with just enough time to eat, prep for the climb, and get some sleep.
After traveling from sea level to 14k’, we definitely could have used an extra day to acclimate. Well, lesson learned. As we ascended La Malinche, we were plagued with headaches, troubled digestive systems, and nausea. The altitude troubled me the most. Let’s say I climbed with a migraine and simultaneously felt that I had the worse hangover of my life. Doubling over in pain every ten minutes made a straightforward climb pretty unbearable. Looking back, one more day of rest at Malintzi would probably have spared us the misery.
After we returned from La Malinche, we packed our bags and headed to Servimont, a climbers' hostel. We were greeted by Sr. Reyes, the owner of Servimont, who took us on a brief tour of the hostel, a converted soap factory, whose mixed décor included antique soap press machines and mountaineering photos.. We were thrilled to call the inviting atmosphere, home for the night, especially when it meant warm showers, bunks, and food that didn’t have to be rehydrated.
Once again, we ate breakfast and repacked our gear, limiting ourselves to absolutely necessary equipment, before taking a 4x4 up to Piedra Grande Hut at 13,972’—basecamp. We had two days at the hut to acclimatize before pushing higher to the summit of about 18,500’. Our time was spent drinking plenty of electrolytes, and medicating with Diamox and Ibuprofen which caused lots of ‘bathroom’ trips behind the boulder field due to the diuretic effect. We cooked our packaged meals, took photos, and rested as much as possible.
We managed to take it easy and prepare both physically and mentally for the big climb. We knew the climb itself wasn’t super technical, however, the real challenge would be the high altitude. None of us had ever been higher than 14k’. We were charting new territory and didn’t know what to expect, except that merely breathing and walking was tiring business.
Well rested or not, it was time. My ten o’clock alarm sounded, and we reluctantly crawled out of our sleeping bags. Headlamps came on, layers were donned, final items packed, and bites of food were consumed. The plan was to leave at midnight but we ended up leaving early around 11:30pm since there was no point in waiting around. The sooner we ascended the sooner we could descend and celebrate with a few cervezas—something we had all been craving ever since we gave it up about a week before the climb.
Right out of the gate my pace was fast. I stopped every four minutes to suck in the thin air, thankful for my team members yelling at me to slow down! It was a marathon, not a sprint. After a few tries, I found a pace that was just right, slow enough to breathe, but ‘fast’ enough to make progress.
There were three sections of the climb – a rocky scramble, an icy labyrinth, and then the glacier. The climb was straightforward, but the cold and the altitude slowed us down considerably. We finally made it out of the rocky scramble and steep icy labyrinth, intact, and headed for the glacier. The sun came up, and Orizaba's magnificent shadow was seen over the valley floor. However, it also became apparent that we were nowhere close to the summit.
We were making progress, but progress was excruciatingly slow. The altitude was kicking my ass. Once again, nausea came on in waves, my head began to pound, and I just couldn’t shake the constant chills despite the sun shining on my face.
I could see the concerned look on my team’s faces—the doubt in their eyes on whether or not we were going to make it to the summit. The pain I experienced was something I had never encountered—pure torture, but I also knew I had it in me to continue. I knew we were going to make it—mustering all of the positive energy I could, I told my team “THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN!”. Instantly, the somber mood lifted and my team’s dynamic shifted. We all livened up, digging deep down to finish the final 1,500’ of the climb.
Unable to physically lead due to my slow pace and knowing that the team was getting cold during every stop I made, I urged them to continue. Keeping up with the team kept me focused, as did counting my steps and counting the piles of bloody vomit left by previous climbers that littered each switchback.
Finally the summit came into view. This time it really was obtainable. By focusing on one step at a time, I finally made it…to the false summit. My teammates and I collapsed in the sun incapable of moving our tired bodies another step. The true summit was about a few hundred feet away—it looked like a mile. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea of getting up and dragging myself any farther. Somehow, we did just that. We kept going. We had made it this far in agony, we might as well see it through.
Looking back, I wish I had mustered the energy to congratulate the team enthusiastically. I managed a weak smile (I think it was a smile, my buff was covering my frozen face) and an even weaker high five. I sat on the ground with my head bent between my legs, breathing in the thin air at 18,500’.
Periodically, I lifted my head to take in the majestic views. Internally, I was already redirecting my focus towards saving energy for the descent. Then my symptoms worsened, which meant our time at the summit had to end.
As we descended, I was racked by chills—despite the intense sun rays I just couldn’t keep warm. As if nausea and a headache weren’t severe enough, flu-like aches crept in.
Our pace down the mountain was slow and labored. We were nearly the first ones up, but practically the last ones down. We retraced our steps down the glacier, through the icy labyrinth, and down the rock scramble before finally arriving back at base camp. We were exhausted, sunburnt, and weak and, most of all, thankful that our driver hadn’t left without us since we were five hours overdue. We decided to forgo celebrating and immediately piled our gear in the 4x4—relieved to be done!
Soon we were back at Servimont, where we finally indulged in a few cervezas. We also realized that just because we were done with the high altitude climb didn’t mean our bodies had recovered. We all had reacted differently to the lack of oxygen, but ultimately it took days for us to improve.
To sum up the expedition, no words can explain the impact of high altitude climbing on the body. For me, it was the most pain I have ever endured while mountaineering and the effects lasted well beyond the climb. I had unintentionally lost seven pounds. Even though my stomach was racked with hunger pangs I was only able to eat a few bites of my food before feeling satiated and nauseated. Additionally, pulmonary edema was something that hadn’t even crossed my mind. Thankfully, an EMT from Colorado who overheard me hacking up a lung convinced me to get checked out. A few steroids later, handed out by the physician’s assistant on our team, did just the trick.
My body went through the wringer and then some. However, I discovered a reserve of strength and tenacity that I didn’t know existed. I discovered that I am one tenacious woman who is capable of persevering to accomplish a goal.
I don’t think I could have made this trip a success without the support of my incredible climbing partners, the logistical assistance from Servimont, and the financial aid from the Mazamas. It felt like a climb of a lifetime—one which I will certainly never forget. I’ve learned so much and can’t wait to take on my next expedition—which I already have lined up!