One-thirty a.m. came around too soon, but other climbers in the hut were up and about getting their own breakfasts out of the way and starting their ascents. At 2 a.m. it was a cold, hard slog up the first leg of the trail. My fingers and toes were frigid, and we had to stop every ten minutes to change the batteries in my headlamp because they didn’t last long at such low temperatures. Lupe and Hector had LED headlamps that consumed very little battery energy, but mine was the older bulb kind. Each stop left me more chilled and more worried, because I don’t see well in low light and I knew sunrise wouldn’t come until around 7 a.m. I finally gave up on the headlamp and figured I’d just have to make do with the light ahead from Lupe and the light behind from Hector.
We soon reached the point where we had to don our crampons, harnesses, helmets and piolets. My teeth chattered and my legs wobbled uncontrollably. Once we set off, this time on an even steeper segment of the trail through pure snow, I warmed up a little bit but my toes and fingers were still achingly cold. Digging into the snow with the piolet and Nordic pole, heaving myself upward in semi-darkness, I felt like I was in one of those movie sequences (representing suffering) where the guy is hacking a pickaxe into the side of a mountain with snow swirling and wind howling all around him.
Oh, so THIS is what mountain climbing is like
How on earth did I think I was cut out for this? I had been to the top of the highest mountains in Arizona, in Scotland and in Wales and it was pretty much just walking uphill with boots on and a sack lunch. And I have done a fair amount of backpacking in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, which present more of a challenge. But mountain climbing — real mountain climbing — was a completely different ballgame. I really had no idea how hard it would be. It made me laugh to think how ill-prepared we were in the way of equipment and experience. Not wanting to let myself become completely daunted, I kept my eyes focused on Lupe’s boots ahead of me and refused to look up or down.
Eventually the sun rose as we approached the base of the glacier. It was a heartening, joyful sight. The crack of orange seeping in above the nearby ridge, the snow-encircled boulders gradually taking shape, and the crisp white glacier looming above us made me feel so much better. I now thought to myself, yes, we can do this. We can make it to the top. It doesn’t look so far away now.
The slope evened out a bit at the glacier’s base and the peak rose above in a single, smooth, white cone. I was still cold and starting to get hungry and a little light-headed at 5,000 meters, so we took a quick break. I knew I needed energy for this last leg but could only eat a few bites of my sandwich and a few squares of chocolate thanks to the cold and wind. Lupe reminded us that we had four more hours to go, and it was now time to rope ourselves together to avoid a serious fall (or harness us together for a fatal, three-person downhill tumble).
Four hours seemed like an exaggeration because the peak looked so close. Hector was energetic, enthusiastic, feeling fit and smiling, so I redoubled my optimism that we could make it. Now united by ropes, we headed up the side of the glacier, crunching our crampons and piolets hard into the snow. Again, I chose to focus on Lupe’s boots in front of me instead of the dizzying angle of the slope we were on. The wind roared in my helmet like an airplane overhead, stung my eyes and chapped my constantly dripping nose. The pace was slower than felt natural for me but just right for Hector, who smiled and gave me a thumbs-up every time I turned around. It was harder for me to take small, slow steps. I tried a silent mantra of “we can do this, we can do this” or “just take tiny steps, just take tiny steps” to keep me going as we zig-zagged up the increasingly steepening mountainside.
Shiver Me Timbers
The elevation wasn’t really affecting my breathing and I was glad not to have the headache that plagues many people at this altitude. But each time Lupe stopped for us to take a quick breath, my legs shook. More than two hours later, I felt hungry and thirsty again. When I stopped to eat a few squares of rock-hard chocolate and try to unscrew the lid on my water bottle, frozen shut, my whole body shook. I could not stop myself from shivering. I looked out at the surrounding countryside. We were above the three other volcanoes in the distance — as seen above, from left to right: Popo, Izta and La Malinche, which we’d summited three times — and the view was stupendous.
Lupe told us we had another hour or more to go, and we’d need to speed up a bit to make the summit by 11 a.m. After that, the sun would begin to melt the surface of the glacier and make the downward trek slippery and riskier. I nodded and lurched forward a few more paces, and then it dawned on me that this was dangerous. Hector was still smiling and eager to keep going all the way, and I knew he had the desire and the conditioning to make it. I also knew I had the strength to make it to the top, but I wasn’t so sure about the trip back down. I doubted whether I could safely descend with shaky legs and being weak with hunger. I had visions of myself falling and dragging the others down the mountain with me, all three of us ending up as little more than human machaca with helmets and boots.
I asked Hector if we could turn around. He said if that’s what I wanted, that’s what we’d do. I nodded that that was what I wanted. His face fell, but he hid any exasperation he might have felt as we turned back, so close to the summit.