January 6 &7, 2012
Summit Day started early for Team Mexdream with a midnight wakeup call from our guides. After gulping quick cups of soup and coffee, we began the day’s first challenge: figuring out how to put on our alpine boots, gaiters, harnesses, and other paraphernalia. The other climbers in the Refugio must have been shaking their heads at all the chatter: “I think that goes on like this” and “I meant backwards the other way.” Eventually we sorted ourselves out and stomped outside for roll call and our first look at the mountain under the stars.
Our route took us up an abandoned aqueduct and into the snow and scree on the mountain’s north face. The nearly-full moon lit up the snow so well that we barely needed our headlamps at first. This portion of the ascent wasn’t particularly challenging, although a biting wind blew up that chilled us thoroughly as soon as we stopped, providing excellent motivation for keeping our breaks short. The slope kept increasing, however, and our guides soon instructed us to put on our crampons and rope in together – we had entered “the labyrinth,” a section of large rocks and loose snow in the col directly beneath the glacier.
The labyrinth gave us an opportunity to try out our mountaineering techniques on actual snow and ice. Had we had more energy and oxygen, I’m sure we would have started a debate on the relative merits (energy efficiency, anyone?) of the duck step versus the German step. As it was, we concentrated on following the foot placement of our guides and sucking down as much of the thin air as we could. By this point, the moon had sunk below the mountainside and the stars had started glittering.
Our first rope team reached the base of the glacier around 6 AM local time, four hours after starting, with the other teams in hot pursuit. Oxygen deprivation must have kicked in, because we showed symptoms of delusional thinking and mild euphoria as we contemplated the climb ahead: “That’s the glacier? We’ll be at the top of that in thirty minutes!” And so we began the final ascent, hacking our way up a 40-degree incline with ice-axe and crampon.
Apparently, judging distances in the mountains is harder than it appears. An hour into the glacier climb, when the sun first appeared on the horizon, the summit looked about the same size as at the bottom. Two hours into the climb, when we had to hack seats out of the icy slope just to sit down for rest, the summit looked just as far away. Three hours into the climb, our guide had to resort to trickery by telling us that the crater was only fifteen minutes away. Finally, at 10 AM, the first team climbed one last switchback to the summit. For all the months of planning and training that led up to the moment, the summit was almost anticlimactic. We posed for the cameras, surveyed the scenery (La Malinche, Popocatepetl, and Iztaccihuatl were all visible in the west, and Orizaba’s crater was a few feet below us), and then flopped down on the snow to eat and drink. Any attempt to think of something profound was replaced by a single thought: “How am I supposed to get down off this thing?”
A layer of sheet ice had formed on the surface of the glacier by the time we started our descent, but we made it down safely despite aching legs and minor slips and slides. One rope team practiced self-arresting with ice axes, while another learned how to do controlled slides down the glacier. Most of our slips came in the labyrinth, where the snow had melted into slush during the day. By the late afternoon we were back in the truck, winding our way through the pine forest on our way back to Tlachichuca. A few last glimpses of the mountain glowing red in the late-afternoon sun reminded us of how much we’d accomplished in the past few hours, before we turned our attention to more pressing matters: food, showers, and sleep.
(Posted by Jesse)