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​Escaping Expectations and Facing Mortality on Pico de Orizaba

Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl) is Mexico's tallest peak and draws hundreds of climbers to its icy summit every year. We figured, why not try to ski it? Max Ritter photo.

Last November my friends Nora, Tom, Max, Elliot, Aidan, and I joined forces south of the border with hopes of skiing some Thanksgiving corn on Pico de Orizaba. At 18,491 feet, Pico de Orizaba is the tallest peak in Mexico and third highest in North America. Most of us hadn't skied much higher than a few 14ers in Colorado and we were eager to see how our bodies would respond high in the clouds without much time to acclimate.

With only five days in the country and two of them swallowed up by travel to-and-from the mountain, we didn't have much time to waste. From the Mexico City airport our plan was to rent a car, drive to Tlachichuca (the town at the base of the volcano), spend the night at our hostel, and take a two-hour car ride up to the Piedra Grande Hut at 13,900 feet. From there, we’d have less than 72 hours to summit and ski the mountain. If all went according to plan, we'd be back down in Mexico City in a few short days, sipping tequila and stuffing our faces with as many street tacos as possible before jetting back to the States.

An Urban Crux

Getting to the base of the mountain proved just as hard as any of the climbing we would do. Max, Elliot, and I arrived earlier than the other three and made a beeline for the car rental kiosk, optimistically thinking we'd breeze by, grab the keys and be in Tlachichuca in a few hours.

After a stressful two hours arguing over insurance with a very disgruntled car rental agent, we paid a cringe-worthy security deposit on our hilariously tiny Kia Rio, crammed three ski bags into the sedan, and began our journey out of the city.

About seven minutes into the drive, a stern-looking police officer waved us to the side of the road. He took Max's ID and informed us we could come pick it up from the police station next week when we came to pay our fine. Confused about what we did wrong, we inquired his reasoning for a fine when we'd been slowly driving down the road in the flow of traffic.

"Señal de giro" he grunted, reaching inside the car to violently shake our turn signal. Since leaving the car rental lot we hadn't actually made a single turn, but he was relentless. I told him we were on our way out of town and wouldn't be able to come to the police station to pay. He brightly responded that it was completely understandable and we could pay 1,600 pesos to him in cash on the spot instead.

After a few feeble arguments we coughed up the measly cash we had in our wallets (amounting to about $100 USD) and got out of there as fast as we could.

This friendly little guy awaited us in Tlachichuca. Definitely what we would call a "poocho bueno." Max Ritter photo.

The Soap Factory

Tlachichuca is a small town in the municipality of Puebla that sits at about 8,500 feet. Driving in late that night we could barely make out the ominous cone-shaped peak towering almost two miles above us. After almost four hours of driving we pulled up to the gates of the Servimont Hostel, a climber's hostel and guiding service run by the Reyes family.

A sleepy and pajama-clad Señor Reyes greeted us on our arrival and welcomed us into the guest house. Originally a soap factory, the Reyes family turned the compound into a hub for climbers in the 1980s. The large bunkroom upstairs sleeps 30, with a spacious gear room and cozy living room downstairs.After a night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, we loaded our towering pile of gear into Servimont's gargantuan truck and scrambled into the cab perched on the back. We waved goodbye to Señor Reyes as Joel, our driver, whisked us out of town up into the mountainside.

The jolting trip up to the Piedra Grande Hut was akin to what I imagine it feels like to take a ride inside a washing machine. The three-hour drive took us up almost 6,000 feet, winding up the valley in a violent encore of vomit-inducing terrain. Rounding the final corner, we got our first glimpse of the Piedra Grande, a small red blip in the low-hanging clouds that encased the upper mountain. Colorful tents were strewn about, with a collection of drivers napping in their trucks while they waited for their clients to return.

After two hours in the washing machine, Elliot, Tom and Nora were happy to have their feet and gear on solid ground. Aidan Goldie photo.

We stumbled out of the truck, grateful to be on solid ground, and hurriedly ferried our gear inside to stake claim on bunk space.

Sleeping at 14,000 feet isn't exactly what I'd call a deep slumber. We awoke from a restless night to the glow of a bright pink sunrise and a staggering view of the glacier above us. After a leisurely cup of coffee and an unreasonably large serving of Zucaritas, we started our journey up the mountain towards the Labyrinth.

Stashing our gear up high the day before our summit attempt saved us some much needed energy - and gave us a chance to find our way through the absolute maze of an approach. Max Ritter photo.

The Labyrinth is a notorious maze of volcanic rock, a disorienting puzzle that guards the sparkling glacier above. Navigation-wise, it is by far the hardest part of the climb. Since most climbers are ascending in the dark at this point, the tumble of rock and ice often leads hopeful summiteers to unnecessarily steep pitches or dead ends.

We took our time through the snarl of jagged rocks and after a few hours, found a spot at 16,000 feet to shed some of the weight on our backs. Spirits were high as we sorted gear and passed around snacks, hastily devouring pre-packaged bags of refried beans that we'd purchased in bulk at a market en route to the mountain. The experience was equal parts horrifying and delicious.

Elliot taking in the first rays of sunlight at 16,000 feet. Tom Kvilhaug photo.

Into the Sky

That night we left the hut around 2:30 a.m. and worked our way back into the Labyrinth. The maze of sharp rock felt haunted as we followed our path from the day before. Before long, we ditched our trail shoes to gear up for the rest of the climb. I winced as I slid my feet into frozen ski boots.

After an hour of climbing through mixed rock and ice, the sky began to illuminate. Shades of pink and orange quickly replacing the empty black horizon. Looking up at the glacier, skins seemed futile against the rock-hard ice, so we continued up the glacier with skis on our backs.

As we kicked our spikes into the unforgiving ice, our team of six began to string out on the glacier. Soon Tom, Nora, and Aidan had rounded the corner and were out of sight completely. Confused as to why they delineated, but determined to summit, Max, Elliot and I pushed onward.

Max and Elliot trying their hardest to enjoy every. single. step. at 17,500 feet on the way up the glacier. Aidan Goldie photo.

I can tell I'm pushing the limit when I start to count my steps. Usually it's because my lungs are tired and my legs are heavy. This time, to my surprise, my lungs felt fine but every glance down at the steep slope of blue ice below me made my stomach lurch. I sang Billy Joel's “Piano Man” over and over in my head and fixed my gaze on the target ahead, steadily growing closer.

The ice wasn't softening, but in my head the end was still at the top. I'd get to click into my skis, and although it may be survival skiing, we'd get down quickly.

I looked up and suddenly, our group was within spitting distance of the crater rim. The wind was violently howling and we could barely hear each other as we crested the peak, but we were ecstatic.

We immediately looked around for any sign of Tom, Nora, and Aidan; if they'd continued, they should have been nearing the top. Elliot immediately spotted Nora's blue jacket about 1,500 feet below. The three of them had retreated from their detour, and had rejoined our route. Although relieved they were okay, we didn't feel like we could wait much longer at 18,000 feet and started to assess our descent.

18,491 feet marks the highest point in Mexico. This is Elliot's stoked face atop the summit. Max Ritter photo.

Even as a skier who's more comfortable on skis than on foot, staring down at 3,000 feet of sustained ice looked menacing. I peered over the edge with skis on my feet. Something didn't feel right.

"I'm not skiing this," Elliot said firmly.

I looked up, turning his words over in my head. Max slid over to us from about 10 feet away, barely able to stay upright on the impossibly smooth surface: There was no doubt about it—skiing down was out of the question.

We traded our skis for crampons again. I took a deep breath and glanced down. One slip and it would be a long, painful ride to the bottom. I took slow, calculating steps, trying not to focus on anything but my next foot placement.

Getting down required some interesting techniques: everything from front-pointing, french stepping, even a short rappel. Aidan Goldie photo.

Looking further down our path we noticed Tom, Nora, and Aidan had returned to the bottom of the glacier. After what seemed like eternity, we made it down to even ground, to learn why the rest of our party had abandoned the climb.

Two skiers had passed us on our ascent. One of the skiers had attempted to ski from the top, lost his edge, and slid down the entire face of the mountain over the cliff band below. Tom, Nora, and Aidan, watched the accident unfold, and turned around to see if they could assist his partner. Their efforts were for naught; the fall killed the skier.

A wall of emotion came crashing down. I shuddered, thinking about how close we were to making the same mistake as him. We sat there for a while, processing the day's events, not quite sure what to do ourselves. Aware of the fact that we needed to get off the mountain, we slowly got up and made our way back down through the Labyrinth one last time.

Emotional, but beyond ecstatic to be safe and sound at the hut, the crew repacks our mountain of gear for the trip home. Max Ritter photo.

At 4:30 p.m. we stumbled back to the hut. It had been 14 hours since we'd left. Exhausted and zombie-like, we crawled back into Joel's washing machine for another gut-wrenching ride down the mountain.

As we bobbed around in the cab, we reflected on our decision making over the trip. We all agreed that the risk immensely outweighed the reward of skiing down the third highest mountain in North America.

The trip went the complete opposite of smooth. Close to nothing went according to plan. But that's where good partners come in—tragedy, potentially fatal conditions, and way too many bags of pre-packaged refried beans are all navigable when you're surrounded by people you trust and care about.

My heart still aches for the man who lost his life on the mountain. For all the places he won't get to see because of one small mistake. No mountain is worth dying for, and it's a humbling reminder of our mortality. It's always okay to turn around. Abandoning Plan A is not admitting defeat. True victory is getting home safely. 

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