While studying at Duke University I joined a group (BOLD – Building Outdoor Leaders and Doers) which among other, sets out to tackle a physical challenge each year, and along the way learn new leadership skills. This year the challenge was to climb a 18,491 ft peak in Mexico, Pico De Orizaba ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pico_de_Orizaba). It is actually the 13th highest peak in the world by prominence so no walk in the park!
I was coming off a good base level of fitness as I had been training for the NYC Marathon just a couple of months earlier. For this ascent we needed to pick up some new technical skills (using ‘clamp ons’, pick axes, working in small groups etc) and we needed to arrive earlier to acclimatize to the altitude which was going to be one of the major challenges.
We arrived in Mexico around 5 days before the ascent, spent a couple of days exploring the local Cities. We enjoyed Xmas? NYE? In Puebla, and and did a ‘warm up’ ascent of La Malinche (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Malintzin) to start acclimatizing. This totally wiped me out! Then it was time to gear up and get ready for the main ascent.
We woke in a lodge on the side of the mountain nice and early, 12:30am. Had some soup and other snacks, got geared up and then started the climb. For the first 6 hours or so we needed our torches, the climb started on rocky trails, then gradually had more snow, then finally we needed to put on your cramp-ons for the ice. At this point it was starting to get very steep. It was approx 50 degrees and we were carving flat switchbacks.
Our team had been split across seven groups (approx 4 in each group, connected by a single rope, and with a guide), by early the distance between the fastest and slowest groups, started increasing, and there were some calls for us to turn back. But as a whole, we decided to keep pushing.
In the mid morning we were hit by a nasty Ice storm. I’ve never experienced one of these before and didn’t really know what they were. Basically, it was raining ice! The ice would just hit you and stick. I built a nice ice layer on top of my hood. This was pretty extreme and in additional our visibility dropped significantly which added some extra dangers for our group. After a few more group discussions we made the hard decision to turn around and head back down… the guides told us this ice storm was pretty rare. However we were told we had made it to 18,000 feet (very close to the top!). Perhaps they were just saying that to make us feel better, we couldn’t really tell as the visibility was so bad but I’ll believe them.
We returned the base camp, then back into the City and after a rest enjoyed a final night out. It was disappointing to not make it to the summit, but you need to respect the peaks and know your limits. I loved this challenge and definitely want to tackle more like it in the future.