A story of a runner's foray in mountaineering, and how gaining new friends topped gaining the summit...
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I hadn't had much time to prepare for my first mountaineering expedition as it was only a few weeks before we set out that Tommy Danger, a photographer friend and an adventure addict (who has notched six of the seven summits in his belt), approached me with the idea to take three ultra-runners up Orizaba, in southern Mexico. Vulcan Pico de Orizaba sits at 18,546ft (5,636m) and is the third highest peak in North America. (Even with the short notice, we still wanted to have enough time to give back to the local community while we were there, a goal we have set for ourselves to incorporate into every adventure trip this year.)
The trip started with two flights riddled with complications, a three-hour bus ride, two-hour taxi, and a visit to La Casa Concholas Hostel. The next day one more 4x4 car ride to the hut, and we found ourselves sitting at 14,200ft.
With any summit attempt, the adventure must be the main goal, as a successful summit tag is never a guarantee. Though typically considered a beginner-level mountain that can be accessed easily with the aid of an ice axe and crampons, the initial report for Orizaba was not looking good and the poor conditions would make our summit push more technical than anticipated. Blue ice, verglas, and atypical conditions posed significant barriers and left me feeling waves of anxiety as I learned of recent deaths on the mountain, and grappled with the higher level of risk we would be accepting if we continued.
Upon our arrival at basecamp, we were greeted by a crew of five enjoying a card game as they acclimated over three days. After brief introductions at 14,200ft, I dropped my pack and set out on 6-mile acclimation run. Folks dropped their cards, and heads turned as I started running around base camp, exploring the surrounding dirt roads and even enjoying some off-road play. Once back, I asked to be dealt into the next game. New to high altitude mountaineering, I also immediately started collecting beta from the crews at base; I knew we would have to link up with others if we wanted a chance at reaching the summit.
Later on strolling around base camp, I stumbled upon a group from Mountain Professionals, and my former race series counterpart, Stan Lee, the first man to conquer the 4 Deserts Race Series Grand Slam Plus! We immediately went down a rabbit hole swapping stories of the epic feat and planning future race schemes.
That night between 12:00 to 2:00am, we watched as the groups seeking an alpine start for the summit began prepping packs. Buzzing with nervous energy, parties sifted through their gear, cooked food and prepared for their attempt. We fell back asleep, waking up again around 7:00am to prepare our own gear for our approach. At this point, I was still not confident we would get a few hundred feet past the glacier. Low and behold, Nick and Tommy, who had set out with the early risers, were still around. An experienced climber and an ultra-runner, both forced to retreat to basecamp in the early morning after an altitude-induced bonk, did nothing to calm my nerves. Still, now we had two new partners to complete our team if they were willing. After a few hours of fueling up, they took on the challenge and the approach began.
The weather was quite variable with wind and cloud cover which made for a pleasant hike. Jugs of water slinging off of our packs, and energy bars making frequent appearances, we pushed to 16,200ft giggling and swapping life stories. We quickly set up our three-person tent and the four of us squeezed in like sardines, waiting to acclimate and for an opportune window to the reach the summit. We enjoyed stories of Tommy’s ascents up six of the seven summits, and his plots to obtain the last one in Everest next year. We also strategized how we would summit now that conditions were far riskier. Talk centered around ropes, ice screws, ice pickets and debating whether to rope together or not. One fall would increase the risk for all if we linked together. I wanted to close my ears to the high-risk conversations, but knew they would be critical for a safe summit.
Did we successfully acclimate to our new altitude? Let’s just say we did a high-speed chase through this step. But now without consequences—I felt the effects at 2:00am with a raging headache and restless sleep. My nerves kept inching to new levels of anxiety, a newbie afraid of every uncomfortable sensation brought with the elevation left me asking, “Hey guys, my head fuck&^% hurts! Am I dying?”
Still, we rallied early and began the ascent. First ticking off the steps and then swapping to glacier gear. The sunrise came and boy was it epic, beaming bright across the glacial terrain like a spiritual vortex. As we continued to 17,500ft our team began to crumble. The frost nip on Nick’s feet, the blood running from Tommy’s nose into his mustache, and the pounding in my head that felt like someone was smashing it with a hammer made me even warier of the last 1,000ft. As soon as the situation with Nick’s feet began to worsen, we switched gears to bail mode, and started an early descent. Although only 1,000ft shy of the summit, we felt we had to make a safety call.
After blasting down the mountain, we had an amazing reunion with our posse of new friends, they even saved a celebratory beer for me. While we were enjoying the relief of basecamp, Tommy was a warrior, having snagged some of our gear and continuing to the summit. At that moment it was all too clear how important friends and the journey are, rather than merely adding another summit to your resume. With two men missing on the mountain, it was a safe call that day. If you do not enjoy the journey, or more importantly return from it, then what is the point?
You would think that was a wrap, but I quickly learned that this group of friends already had a different scheme in the works. So when Rob came over and whispered in my ear to ask if I wanted to try to tag the southern summit the next day, I jumped at the chance.
The next day, we set out. Skree and falling rock were now the most serious threats as our route was on very steep terrain. Lighter packs, a swift approach and perfect weather had us feeling optimistic. Split in two teams we jammed through the first two hours to 17k. Then we rallied together and took our time watching everyone’s levels as we approached the final bit of climbing to hit the summit. Swift, smooth and steady we took our time watching closely as altitude was affecting each member of the party differently. Beautiful puffy clouds passed across the horizon and the summit came in sight. With a few hundred feet left, we were ecstatic. Then, finally—THE SUMMIT!! Cheering, smiling, laughing, and dancing. Pure bliss. It was so beautiful up top that we were able linger to enjoy the summit.
The decent was a joyous party all of the way down as we skied in our shoes on the skree. However, we weren’t home free yet, and still kept a close watch on two team members who were showing concerning signs of altitude sickness— our top priority was getting Norah and Gabe down quickly and safely. When we reached the hut, Norah was speaking gibberish, and ushered by a couple members of our crew, set off despite bad weather to reach even lower altitude. By nightfall we were all on our way home.
The adventure was concluded with a celebration with friends back at our hostel, and the next morning we packed into an SUV and drove to the airport. We felt accomplished and more importantly had gained friends for life. Orizaba had been a brief glimpse into mountaineering, as well as a lesson in learning the joy of adventuring with others.
Photos: © Tommy Danger
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