(This article contains bold clickable links)
When the KNS published a story about my friend Alan Arnette’s fall descending Twin Sisters peak several weeks ago (be sure to click the link, it actually shows him getting blown sideways) , it brought back memories not so fond. Alan took a serious screamer in a 100 mph gust that blew him almost clean off a Colorado spire. For perspective, I have been friends with Alan for several years via the web. Well before his fame as a tireless Alzheimer’s Champion and summiter of infamous K2. In fact, prior to my own, well documented K3 debacle in which my climbing partner, Brian Moran suffered similar injury, Alan advised me to use another ground logistics outfit. He had dealt with Field Touring Alpine in the past and I ignored his advice with predictable results. Brian’s injury and evacuation consumed but one week of some of the darkest days ever seen in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range.
When the account of Alan’s mishap crossed the Knoxville media, I was already reading an article in Rock and Ice Magazine about another friend from the mountains, Kyle Dempster. For those of you who may think he sounds familiar, I wrote about him in my last book, Father of Ice Mountains. Kyle and I happened to be seat mates on a flight from Seattle to Beijing in 2011 as Brian and I headed to the Tien Shan mountains for a summit of Muztagh Ata. Kyle was already famous by the time we had met and we killed a great deal of time swapping mountain tales in our flight to the Orient. Kyle’s frostbite injury figured prominently in the narrative about my own frostbitten digits. At one point, when I was able to get stateside, my physician prepared me for the eventual loss of a finger. I could only think of Kyle, who had lost the same end of his finger in nearly the same spot. That was my big personal brush with mountaineering injury.
Kyle was embarking upon an unassisted bike tour through the Karakoram and we said goodbye as he pedaled off into a dusty Beijing smog-scape. Kyle had already been granted a Piolet d’Or, climbing’s highest honor for his ascent of the North Face of Xuelin in China in 2010. Kyle’s climbing partner was Bruce Normand. In 2013, while sitting in a remote part of Pakistan called Skardu, I shared several afternoons in the beautiful riverside town being regaled by Bruce’s 209 ascent of K2 documented in the film, Shared Summits. I asked about Kyle and Bruce told me that he was planning to come join him on this trip. One week later, while Brian and I were hiking into Broad Peak basecamp, Taliban, disguised as police, stormed base camp of nearby Nanga Parbat and killed 11 aspirant mountaineers. Kyle assessed the situation and said “F%$# it!” via a well -documented open letter to the Pakistani government. Brian, Bruce and I had no such option. We were halfway into an 80 mile walk to one of the most remote places on earth. Taliban or not, we were heading to the highest peaks on our planet.
Fast forward to 2015. I’m in Talkeetna, Alaska with John Davis, Neil Murphy and Lee Whitten. We are making final preparations for a flight onto the Kahiltna glacier for an attempt on Kahiltna Dome. The weather was bad and we couldn’t fly into basecamp, even had an aborted attempt on the Otter wherein we had to circle around and return for another day. Two ladies were shadowing us, Chantal Astorga and Jewell Lund. We made jokes with them about our bad luck and when we finally landed together, had apparently stolen their crampons which set about another line of jokes. Our team was developing a reputation on the Kahiltna even before arrival. Apparently the weather had cleared late one afternoon and everyone was looking for us to re-board the ski planes. Problem was, we were sitting in a movie theater one hour away watching something on a big screen. By the time we landed on the glacier, Base Camp Annie greeted us on skis, saying, “How was the movie?” Now these two gals were convinced we were thieves. (Our gear had become intertwined, I promise!) Those Uber fit women would continue to make the first all- female ascent of the Denali Diamond while we flailed about unsuccessfully on Kahiltna Dome. I was proud to say we had been alongside history in the making. What I didn’t know about Jewell was uncovered in the Rock and Ice Magazine mentioned at the beginning of this missive.
News outlets generally don’t write about climbing unless something bad has happened. And although most of the time this isn’t the case, the article about Kyle is a posthumous dedication to a life lived on the edge. You see, last year Kyle and Scott Adamson repeated their attempt on the Ogre 2 in Pakistan with disastrous results. They were overdue for a week and a gofund me raised almost a quarter million dollars to no avail. They were likely avalanched off that mountain never to be seen again until a big melt. It was how Kyle would have wished it. It wasn’t until this week and the Rock and Ice piece was published that I discovered Lund was Kyle’s girlfriend. He got her into climbing in 2007 and she obviously took to it with felicity. She was slated to join him/us in Pakistan in 2013.
Strange are the paths that bring climbers into the big mountains. Sadly too are the ways in which they take people out. My partner, Brian Moran, still suffers from his 100 foot fall at 18000 feet on Broad Peak in 2013. There were three members of our team who did not return from Broad Peak. As an airline pilot, Brian was was forced to miss one year of work. There were times when it wasn’t certain whether or not he would keep the leg with infection an ever present nemesis. To this day, he still cannot run and climbing has been relegated to a thing of the past. Here is a clip that summarizes our experience there. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42um-dpYDyk&t=2s
It sounds like Alan Arnette will make a predictably strong recovery, he is a strong and seasoned climber, veteran of dozens of Himalayan expeditions. At one point, in 2007, while descending from the summit of Denali’s West Buttress route, my team almost suffered a similarly great tragedy as my rope mate, Dan Walters fell 30 feet into a bottomless crevasse. After this four hour rescue, all 11 of us bedded down without tents in a growing storm at 9500 feet. Unbeknownst to me, we were beside a tent that housed Alan Arnette who was making his second attempt of the “High One”. Alan’s luck on Denali mirrors that of mine on all 8 thousand meter peaks.
It was on this Alaskan expedition that I first made the acquaintance of Brian with whom I would go on to share many similar trips throughout the world. As we skied and snowshoed back to Kahiltna basecamp in the ever present midight sun in 2007, snowflakes covered our wearied bodies as my team limped into the landing strip for what would prove to be the last flight out for days. Brian was stuck at high camp, having made his summit bid just one day later than us. His team suffered greatly and they almost lost a guide to exposure in winds that created -20 temperatures. His summit shots look like true Alaskan epics while mine could have included an umbrella drink. Such is the variance within one day.
The Rock and Ice piece on Kyle emphasized the impact this young man had upon a burgeoning sport. He pushed himself to limits and affirmed the mountaineering adage, there are old climbers and there are bold climbers. But there are no old bold climbers. Jim Whittaker said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you are taking up too much room.” That’s easy for Whittaker since he is pushing towards 90. All of us have had close calls in the mountains, the key is to take those lessons and make sure they aren’t repeated. I wish Alan a speedy recovery. It is events like these that remind us who is really boss on high peaks and no matter what your preparation, experience or skill, there is still a great deal of luck that brings us back intact. For those preparing for Denali or the Himalaya this spring like my friend Andrea, I wish Godspeed and good luck.
There is plenty of unhiked terrain at Frozen Head and we are getting it in prior to the imposition of a tax to backpack there set to implement April 1. Recognize this guy? Yep, it is Licklog, aka Rev. Grady. He is back on the trail with the SouthernHighlanders. It was a perfect backpack.
This is the MoCo Mojo. Be prepared, it is infectious. We were exposed to it last Monday night following a presentation by the Morgan County Tourism alliance. They asked us to stay after the County Commission Tourism committee meeting. It is a nice little song.
Last time we approached the Mart’s Field campsite from Spicewood Trail. So this weekend we made the ascent of Chimney Tops, which is the most precipitous in the park. You can see from the elevation profile I mapped via Strava. If you haven’t used Strava, I highly suggest it. I was shown this app from a mountain biking friend and have been using it for the past year over at the Urban Wilderness. When you pass someone, for instance on the trail, Strava will tell you who it is, provided they are on Strava. It is a free app and calculates all manner of data. Now that I am seeing its value in the backpacking world, it will have even more utility. Probably not good GPS in the Smokies but Frozen Head is definitely in network. Here is where you can download. http://www.strava.com
They don’t call it Frozen Head for nothing. We climbed right out of the visitors center and it was steep.
The scenery was beautiful and we passed but a few hikers.
The views, however, were incredible. This is where they conduct the Barkley Marathon. I can see why.
That is the top of our climb. You probably noticed our ascent was 2575 feet in 5.1 miles. I made it in two hours, 14 minutes. There were steep sections.
I was glad to see the back side of our old campsite, Mart’s Field. Of course, Laurel and Longstreet had been there for 20 minutes.
Grady came strolling in a short time later. He was cursing me for picking the hardest trail in Frozen Head. He was reminded of why he hasn’t backpacked with me in a while, I’m sure.
We had the campsite to ourselves. I am convinced there is zero backpacking pressure in Frozen Head. Which is why we are battling them over their upcoming backpacking tax. The Morgan County Commission has supported our efforts to propose legislation to the TN State Delegation asking them to halt all backcountry fees in the State of TN for good. It is a long shot but we are trying to stop these egregious fees. You pay taxes for use of this land, help the Southern Forest Watch stop the backpacker taxes. www.southernforestwatch.org. How can you assist? For one, if you buy via amazon, please use this link. .5% of your purchase will go to support our efforts to hold public lands managers accountable.
The weather was completely perfect. No wind with which to contend this time.
There is plenty of dry wood at Mart’s Field. I discovered that the Mart’s family lived there until the 70s and we gathered water from the actual site of their home.
Sunsets are clearly magnificent at Mart’s Field.
If you are one of those twisted scholars of Highlander Lore, you are familiar with the Pink Fleece. The Pink Fleece was an adornment reserved for Highlanders who exhibited extreme cowardice or un-manly attributes. Over the years, several backpackers were required to wear the pink fleece. One backpacker threw it into the fire after being forced to wear it and it was retired. Now we resurrected that garment for Longstreet, the shivering dog. I used to hike with a lot of shivering dogs.
On Sunday morning, or as Kristofferson calls it, “Sunday morning coming down.” Here is what that looked like.
Sunday mornings stats were, 4.4 miles in one hour, 40 minutes. Not bad for a bunch of old men and young women.
Grady killed it off the couch. Another outstanding weekend.
Now for a bit of update on Spring events. Many have been asking about my next climb, as there usually is one. Well, believe it or not, there isn’t. In a week and a half, Laurel and I are flying to Paris, then heading down to the French Alps for a week of skiing in Chamonix. That will be my Spring climb. We got great deals on airfare, $550 r/t out of Knoxville. So we had to do it. However, my climbing mate from Cho Oyu last year and Mustagh Ata in 2011, Andrea Rigotti, is leaving for Everest in a week. He has been training for years to climb his dream mountain and I am experiencing it vicariously through him. I hope to post updates on his ascent here. Andrea is an Uber fit dude. He trains like an Olympian and will be more prepared to tackle Everest than anyone I know. He will be using the logistics of Arnold Coster, my expedition leader on Muztagh Ata. So stay tuned. I hope folks are getting to enjoy this weather.
Here is a link for you bike enthusiasts. https://www.bikemunk.com/cycling-software/
Yes, we went back for two nights, Friday and Saturday. I finished the long part of that section along with Myers and Rob. Those were needed second lap miles for me and first lap for Rob.
We walked the 11.6 from camp out to Maddron. Then Laurel and Terry picked us up and shuttled us back around to the manway.
Rob has a new pack.
Myers did all these photos. Then he got a nasty stomach bug, and transferred it to Rob.
Below is a summary of our mtg with Morgan Co. The SFW is proud to fight fees in the state of TN.
Last night I was proud to stand with fellow SFW members, Myers Morton, Gregg Bostick, Laurel Dunn and Scott Noethen as we presented our concerns about the Frozen Head Backcountry Fee set to implement April 1 before the Morgan County Commission meeting. Morgan County citizens can be proud of their elected representatives as they made a strong statement condemning the fee by means of a resolution and resolved to approach the State delegation in hopes of getting it stopped permanently.
Apparently Frozen Head had tried to sneak these fees in before in the form of an entrance tax. So we had an audience primed. It was a great success for public lands users but the fight isn’t over. Frozen Head will buck them tooth and nail. Keep up your pressure on your state senators/legislators. I have asked my rep, Becky Massey to consider legislation to stop this trend of backcountry fees through the legislature.
Unless you are ready to see these fees in YOUR state park, I suggest you contact your representative as well. The iron is hot. Frozen Head was looking at 10 bucks per person. That’s $40 for a family of four FOR ONE NIGHT! Do you think that families will spend that to sleep on unimproved ground? Of course they won’t. Two nights is $80. They will simply go to Dollywood. Remember, YOUR taxes paid for this land. YOur taxes pay the salaries of these FEE drunks public lands managers. And YOUR taxes give them the power to do so. Take back public lands and help us keep them in public hands. Don’t know your legislator? Find it HERE “http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/”>
It has probably been twenty years since I wandered into this place. I remember going in there with Wendi and we hiked a good loop and spent the night somewhere. When a break in this usual January dreariness happened, I wished to go outside the Smokies and this was the result.
Comes by the name honestly. It was cold but sunny. The wind was consistent as we embarked along what ended up being 1800 feet of climbing in about 3.5 miles.
I knew that I could conscript Laurel with a hound friendly area.
I was reminded of the regional beauty of Wartburg. Proximity to Knoxville is one hour from downtown and it was the opposite direction of Maryville. I drive to Maryville daily and any opportunity to go in another direction is appreciated.
It was a climb, though and my thighs remembered the joys of toting a true Highlander pack. Still we found solitude and a fantastic campsite high along a 4000 foot ridge.
By now the wind had increased and as Laurel set up the tent, I walked about in search of the two W’s, water and wood. The latter was no trouble, this spot had obviously seen no action in months. Water took some walking. But it was there as well.
You see strange things in the backcountry. I guess Indians were on our trail.
Good thing we had hound protection. It was a bit chilly for Longstreet so he took to running the hills till he figured supper time approached.
Not much on the wood gathering, this mutt, though.
Sunset was amazing and we braved the wind to soak in full effect.
So pervasive was the wind, our fire conferred little benefit. Longstreet chilled down some.
At about 7 pm, the hound decided it was time for everyone to bed down. Problem was, we were not ready. All I could see were his eyes glowing in the dark over by the tent, where he wished to escape the wind. The temperature was in the high twenties and you could certainly feel it.
Wasn’t that a bodacious sunset?
After a one dog night, wherein the hound crawled into a sleeping bag, (and not with me, I might emphatically interject) Sunday morning rolled in with snow flurries. We hurriedly packed in hopes of catching the buffet at Bombay, Knoxville’s best Indian Restaurant.
And with that, we concluded our ascent in Frozen Head with frozen hands and feet. However, there was one sad reminder of things. I can’t seem to escape it.
We are moving to get this fee stopped. Please email these Morgan County commissioners to express your concerns. firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
The following was posted on the facebook page of Jerry Grubb, who identifies himself as the ranger who euthanized the bears that were responsible for the only documented fatal mauling in the Smokies in 2000. I am publishing the entirety of his post. https://www.facebook.com/SFW.hh.13/posts/1245289758872023
I reached the summit of 18,600 foot pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest point and North America’s third highest point at 8 am on Jan 4, 2017. My path to the summit went through la Malinche, detailed HERE.http://southernhighlanders.com/new/2016/12/29/summit-la-malinche
Laurel was in great form as she and I ascended the old familiar and dormant volcano that had seen my ascent two years earlier. In fact, this whole trip wa a repeat of this sojourn. http://southernhighlanders.com/mexican_volcanoes.html
Think I look like a bigfoot?
La Malinche was a lot of fun. We rode a taxi from Puebla to make the summit in about 5 hours with about three for descent. It was a taxing climb straight out of Tn and no elevation. I was proud of Laurel for pushing through the scree field to the 14 k top of this formerly smoking giant. Ironically, la Malinche was named after a native who sold out to the Spaniards and helped them conquer and colonize Mexico. We had our taxi wait for us and then return to Puebla. This is a common acclimatization trip for Orizaba aspirants. You go from 10 k to 14 k and back down. Orizaba is, from the Grand Piedra, a 4600 foot climb from 14 to 18,600. That is huge elevation for a summmit day.
Returning to Puebla, we dined at the famous Mesones Sacristia de la Compagnia, where I stayed on the last trip. Their mole sauce is world famous and cheap. it was the best meal of our trip. Of course, I would proceed to catch a dose of Montezuma’s Revenge from a taco restaurant near the zocalo. That is to be expected of a John Q expedition. Speaking of the zocalo, were enjoyed the festive Christmas adornments and lively holiday atmosphere.
The cathedral is one of the oldest in Mexico and is a reverent and peaceful place. We took a few days to recover from Malinche. Our thighs and quads were spent from all the ascent and downhill pounding. I thought it somewhat strange, given the rapidity of my last ascent without any residual soreness. Attributing it to old age, I ate vitamin I(buprophen) and walked off lactic acid as we toured the following site.
This is a huge pyramid, one of the largest in the world, supposedly. It was touted as a rival to Chichen Itza and Giza. I doubted this but we went there anyway. What we discovered was a purgatory of claustrophobic proportion. And to think we paid to walk through this underground tunnel for an eighth of a mile.
I would have paid not to have experienced that enclosure. I am not easily unnerved but to have your head scrape the top of something and shoulders rub the side of underground passageways is quite suffocating. I am more of an uphill person, not a burial mound guy. Escape was necessary.
We clamored for the heights and found the best view in Cholula. Again, a cathedral adorns the top of this former pyramid, reminiscent of the propensity to find Catholic edifices atop Christian sites in Israel and throughout the world.
We caught sight of Popocoteptl, the unclimbable, currently erupting volcano and Iztacchuatel, a smoking giant at 17k. Our ultimate goal, however, was Orizaba. it shadowed us through another sightseeing side trip to the Mexican train museum.
I recommend this trip in Puebla if you dig trains in any fashion. I inherited a love of trains from my Dad. Here, they have all manner of engines and cars that showcase the development of travel throughout Mexico.
By now we were ready to start making our way to Tlachichuca for our gateway to Orizaba via Maribel and Joaquin Concholas-Limon. Their Orizaba service is legendary and we became family the first time I lodged with them two years ago. Instead of boarding a bus and going through all the hassle therein, we decided to use something that has proven to be of great benefit. If you haven’t availed yourself of the Uber app, I strongly suggest it. We would have had to get a cab from our hotel in Puebla to Capu bus station, then board our 100 lbs of climbing/camping gear and secure two ten dollar tickets to Tlachichuca, some two and a half hours away. That is what I did last time. However, with Uber, we simply had a driver meet us at our hotel, load our gear and go straight there for about $35 US. Can you believe that? Money well spent, in my mind. I enjoy riding buses but in Mexico, you have to watch your gear. Someone could make off with it if you are not careful. This Uber opportunity alleviated that fear. And we got door to door drop off. Touring the Mexican countryside was a treat for Laurel for whom it was her first trip south of the border. We landed in Mexico City but barely caught a few hours sleep before getting on a bus to Puebla at the beginning. Had we thought of the Uber option then, things could have been different. We were super tired then and it was Christmas night.
This is a pic of the Limon compound in Tlachichuca.
We immediately went to the rooftop to catch a glimpse of our objective, dauting though it may be.
We walked around the hamlet of Tlachichuca and retired for the evening. In the morning we would make our way up to the Piedra Grande hut at 14 k via the infamous 1.5 hour 4wd trip offered by Maribel’s father, Joaquin. Joaquin is quite a character. At 72 years of age, he has retired from guiding Mexico’s highest peak. Now he is content with navigating the tricky off road ascent from Tlachichuca at 8k to the hut at 14 k. His carriages show great signs of wear as we boarded the same Jeep from two years prior through ruts and wash outs. It is quite thrilling and Laurel enjoyed the adventure, being a 4wd enthusiast herself. (she owns a vintage toyota land cruiser, circa 1985)
a view from the dashboard as we straddle the mountainside.
I found things at the refugio to be much as I left them two years ago with the exception of considerably more climbers. You may remember that I was totally alone on the mountain and in the hut, quite uncharacteristic on Orizaba for October. December and January are the peak climbing times so I was prepared for company this go around and company we did have although not too many. We said goodbye to Joaquin and set about for a mid day acclimitization run of a thousand feet or so prior to our planned alpine start of one am.
Even from here, the summit seemed miles away. Because it was. Laurel and I started up the wrong path, OK, my fault.
But she was still smiling and prepared for the longest night of her life. She just didn’t know what kind of really long night was in store. It was New Year’s day, 2017 and I guarantee Laurel will remember this evening for the rest of her life.
Jan 1, 2017 8 pm Piedra Grande Hut:, 14,000 feet, Pico de Orizaba:
I was awakened by the sound of gasping and panting. Laurel was having trouble breathing, which isn’t unusual for someone’s first time at altitude. She was having other problems in addition, though. It didn’t take long for me to diagnose her with Acute Mtn Sickness, a potentially dangerous altitude related malady for which there is but one cure, rapid descent. I had forgotten my pulse oximeter, something that is usually standard in my expedition kit. In this situation, it was probably a good thing because her saturations would have likely been in the 50s. At sea level, you are supposed to be nearly fully saturated with oxygen. My regular TN sats are 98%. In addition she was coughing and having pulse fluctuations. The problem is, we had no way to get her down until the next morning. I knew we were abandoning our summit bid and stayed up with her and tried to be reassuring. I did have emergency Dexamethasone, a high altitude rescue drug handy but didn’t want to administer it because it would be another 11 hours before a 4wd could be dispatched.
(read the sign next to poor, sick Laurel!)
My only option was to sit with her, reassure her and watch her vitals. I made her pressure breathe and reduce anxiety levels and drink water. Lots and lots of water. Water thins the blood and helps carry more red blood cells to the body. Intermittently, I slept and nudged her to keep breathing deeply. During the night, our fellow hut neighbors began their preparations for summit bids. I couldn’t help but notice that the weather was ideal with no wind and a full star scape. Sometimes we would get up and go outside and enjoy a fire at 14 k. Now at midnight, all I could think about was Laurel’s safety and keeping her breathing until we could get her off this hill. It was a long night.
As our neighbors departed, Laurel dozed off and I lay in anticipation of rescue. There was a guide who returned the next morning around 10 am and helped me to radio Maribel to hasten the Jeep. Laurel went outside and began vomiting. Time was of the essence here, my finger was on the dex pill jar ready to pull.
(its pretty bad when you are laying on a rock for comfort)
Soon Joaquin arrived to whisk us and one successful Orizaba climber away. A Japanese lady had summited in record time from the hut and we all climbed aboard the Wagoneer and beat a retreat from Citlatepetl, aka Orizaba. Every thousand feet saw an improvement in Laurel’s condition, as I knew it would. I forced fluids down her throat and we soon were breathing the thick air of 8 thousand feet in the Concholas compound. Remarkable is the rate of recovery from altitude sickness with descent. Laurel was back to her old self by the end of the afternoon but not without a day or two of hangover type symptoms. I was able to consult with my personal, high altitude physician, Dr. Dan Walters via email who assured me that we did the right things and that Laurel would be fine. I will say that Dan has always been spot on with any medical diagnosis. He has not only prescribed my high altitude prescription medical kit, but tended to me through my frostbite situation on Muztagh Ata and aided so many through similar, trying times.
Jan 3, 2017 Tlachichuca Casa de Concholas
Laurel ate food, drank water and started being her normal self. She then insisted that I return for a summit bid. I hadn’t really though of it since I was preoccupied with her recovery but started doing the math. We had several days remaining on our itinerary and it was feasible. I still had plenty of gas in the tank. What was the weather situation? Looking good according to Mtn Weather forecasts. I started to entertain the possibility. I really wanted that summit, especially after the last two attempts. We spent the night again at Maribel’s and I mulled things over. Prior to dozing off, I decided to let Laurel’s condition be my guide. We would reassess in the morning.
Jan 4, 2017: On the rooftop again, peering up at beautiful Orizaba, aka Citlatepetel, Laurel and I enjoyed coffee and she began dancing a jig of recovery. It was at that point I knew it was safe to return to the mountain, so I ordered a Jeep and within the hour was off back up the hill. We said goodbye and Laurel resolved to mill about town and explore the hills and crannies of this small Mexican hamlet. I reboarded the Wagoneer with Joaquin and all the gear and we crawled back up the mountain that had become my nemesis. Orizaba is a beautiful strato volcano with a silhoutte rivaling some Himalayan giants. As we approached her she seemed to wink at me. I hoped this meant I had somehow curried favor in the mountain’s eyes. A few hours would tell.
Offloading my gear for the second time, I started making for another acclimatization run up the hill. This day I would scramble for two hours and gain about 1500 feet until the base of my dreaded labyrinth. It was here that I lost my way in 2014 and floundered about helplessly for hours. I was determined not to get lost in this maze and had a cache of maps from all angles prepared. As I ascended, the maps were consulted. Rock features looked all the same. I would be doing this in a couple of hours in pure darkness. My trepidation was starting to increase. Some paths would peter out and others climb into nothing. I would have to rely on other climbers as a guide. It would be a sleepless night. Returning to the hut I choked down some dinner and reminded myself why I hate dehydrated backpacker pantry meals. The next several hours would be spent lamenting an overpriced lasagna dinner as my stomach rolled and broiled. My head was formulating ways to navigate the labyrinth in the dark. Soon, the 12 midnight alarm would ring and most of the hut occupants rose to began preparations for the longest of days.
1 A.M. January 4, 2017 15000 feet pico de Orizaba
An unblemished starscape envelopes the Mexican skyline as I don double plastic mountaineering boots, multiple layers and headlamp. Metal clinks against my heavily laden backpack as a pick and adze clamor for space against two sets of metal spikes. Sooner than expected I will be attaching them to my boots as my fingers begin freezing from the efforts. I spy a line of headlamps not far above me that seem to be veering to the left and hugging a precipitous gully. From the two previous forays I knew the trail to go straight up the ridge line and followed it from memory and stones I had placed for markers just hours before. It wasn’t long before I intercepted that line of lights and found myself in their midst as foreign climbers of eastern European descent squawk at each other indiscernibly.
By three a.m. my water bottle had frozen solid much like my fingers and toes were feeling, although I knew better. Frozen digits are a specialty of mine following some poor decision making on Muztagh Ata. I knew to don down mittens and remove my watch. My hands were happier. I also passed some of the “Russians” and inched up on a guided group. We ascended this tricky section that I was able to video on the descent. In retrospect, I’m glad to have completed it in the dark.
And the steep part was hours away. I didn’t want to get too far ahead of the other climbers as I knew the crux of the labyrinth beckoned. My toes began to numb and the temps bottomed out at what had to bee single digits here at 17 thousand feet. Despite sweating from the effort of ascent heat wasn’t reaching my toes. When I spied the beginning of the true glacier, I squatted to remove crampons, boots and put on another pair of mountaineering socks. This caused me to lose the group but I was not concerned. We had finished the labyrinth and now the glacier was sole obstacle to Orizaba’s summit ridge. It was straight up a precipitous snowfield with hidden crevasses somewhere in the middle of the night. My body was trembling from cold and the time was now 5.30 am.
Praying for the sun, I started duck walking up the 35-45 degree slopes. Soon I was passing the European climbers who were laying over their ice axes in hypoxic delirium in darkness broken by star rays. The sun would soon have to rise and I mistakenly looked West for it to beckon. In mountaineering, you are at the end of your ascent when you resort to step counting. I had been here for about an hour as I spied the prominent feature known as the sarcophagus behind me. The sarcophagus is a notorious feature where an American climber fell to his death two years ago. The snow slope was now approaching 50 degrees in pitch and the seriousness of a fall became very real to me. I would not appreciate how real until the descent. 50 steps ended up being 30 steps which ended up being 20 steps then ten. I was approaching 18,000 feet now and over the wrong shoulder, traces of red broke the stars to suggest the possibility of daylight sometime. I was now past most all climbers and there were but one or two folks a few yards above. There was no definite trail to the volcano caldera. We were spilled out all over the snowfield.
Orizaba casts her long shadow over Mexico
The rising sun confers a psychological benefit but little warmth. Seeing this made me forget all about freezing.
There was little chance of not summiting. Two guys were ahead of me and approached the familiar cross and broken metal I recognized from photographs. Sulphur permeated the air as I gained the caldera ridge. Within minutes I was on top of Mexico as the rising sun hung over my left shoulder. It was 8 am and a new morning greeted us here at the top of North America. I was certain that we were, for a brief period of time, the highest people in America as no one was on Denali or Mt. Logan in the middle of winter to my knowledge.
I was very pleased and very tired. For 30 minutes I lingered, too tired to bust out the Gopro. A guide and his client did make some pics for me and I recognized one of them as John from Florida, with whom I had conversed at the hut. Orizaba was my prize, after two failed attempts. I wish that Laurel had been able to join me but after seeing the technical sections, I was glad she had been in the safety of Maribel’s home.
Here is a video I shot of the actual volcano crater, aka caldera.
It was a glorious summit day, near perfect in my estimation. However, the task of descent loomed and I wondered how to drop down that 50 degree snow slope safely. My tactic began with an ice axe and one trekking pole, side-hilling with overlapping steps. The ice axe was in my uphill hand with the trekking pole giving me something to lean on with the downhill one. It took about two hours to drop down the slope and I passed a few slit cracks in the process. Thrilled to finally finish the glacier portion, I sat down next to John from Florida who had just finished vomiting for the third time. I had felt that way myself on multiple occasions on the ascent. Now, seeing him in this state didn’t help my present circumstance. I drank some now, partially frozen water to realize it was about one half quart consumed in the last 10 hours. I ate but one energy bar and a gu gel.
It would be almost 2 pm before I got to 15000 feet and everyone had beaten me back. Many with whom I was ascending the dark, cold and precipitous snow slope had turned round, beaten by the hulking volcano. The worst moment for me was to repeat a mistake I made two years prior. On descending the icy labyrinth, there a choice to go straight or turn left. More bootpack had indicated straight but it was the wrong choice. I had, once again, dropped unnecessarily down for an eighth of a mile into the wrong gulley. The sun was now painfully strong burning my already burned forehead and neck. I was in all my layers, still in a climbing harness but stripped down to liner gloves. Re climbing that hill was the ultimate penance. I had very little uphill energy remaining. It added an hour to my return. I recognized every step from two years ago. It was an epic descent. My crampons were necessary for all but the last half mile.
When the refugio came into view, someone waved at me down the trail. It was Laurel and I was thrilled to see her back up the mountain. She was a sight for sore eyes. Not only had she conquered her altitude issue but restated a desire to return to Orizaba. Who knows, it is a fun mountain!
Happy New Year.
I reached the summit of icy Pico de Orizaba at 8 am on January 3. It was a 7 hour solo push from 14 k to 18.6 k and nearly 11 hours roundtrip. Laurel, having succumbed to acute mountain sickness was escorted back to Tlachichuca the previous morning in Joaquin’s 4 WD. There she made a rapid and full recovery. She then insisted I return for a solo run. Having made sure that she was in condition to be left down there in the trusty hands of Joaquin and Maribel, I heeded her insistence and returned to high camp and began my summit push at 1 am.
We are presently in Chattanooga having been caught in the snowstorm in our return from Mexico. Just thought I would share a few preliminary notes before giving a full Expedition report.
Hope everyone is safe and warm.
BTW, Laurel and I just set a SouthernHighlander record that will likely never be broken by any other “highlander claiming” person. Enjoy this 14,000 ft SOUTHERNHIGHLANDER campfire on Orizaba.
It was a grueling but worthwhile ascent of 14600 foot La Malinche. It’s best described as two thousand feet straight up to the tree line. Then above the Treeline you get on a scree slope that is quite slippery . I would describe this as the the crux of the climb . You take one step forward and a half step back. When you gain the actual Summit Ridge at 14000 feet there’s a bit of walking and a very small bit of rock scrambling to gain the true Summit . 7 hours and 4 thousand feet of pull produced this remarkable view.
We could see for a good ways across Mexico and into the eyes of Popocatepetl and Iztacchuatel and our ultimate objective, Orizaba.
When we arrived at the crowded summit a group of Mexican climbers were resting. They asked where we were from and there was a pregnant pause until I related that I did not vote for Trump. At this juncture one of them said they would probably not have to sacrifice us to the mountain gods.
Then they allowed us to take as Summit selfie.
Laurel got to feel the pain of high altitude and it was truly a thin air experience for her but she prevailed and pushed on. We will spend a couple more days here in Puebla before catching a bus to Tlachichuca. Stay tuned. Below is a pic of the volcano from Puebla