I’m back. I know it has been a while. But with the birth of my daughter and a busy year of stonework, I have not had a chance for travel or writing recently. But winter is now here and my stone hammer is put away for the season so it is time again to pick up my pen (ahh keyboard…). We probably won’t be traveling anywhere until the end of January and this year’s wander will likely be low key with an infant on board but I still have a hundred or so reckless adventures recorded in my handwritten notebooks from the last 15 years of winter travels. So I shall once again be posting a story a week from my archives as well as occasional commentaries. This one is from 2006 in Mexico.
Mount Itzaccihul; Mexico (December 2006)
So, here I am, all alone in my tent, some 14,000 feet above sea level (4,500 meters). I am freezing cold and suffering from the worst case of altitude sickness I have ever experienced in my life. My brain is ready to explode, my stomach wants to vomit and my toes are solid ice cubes. What will I die from; frostbite, hypothermia or altitude sickness? Great, less than a week into this year’s travelling adventure and I am already having a near-death experience. Let’s just hope it’s not a real death experience. I’m not ready to go just yet. Oh my god, is this the end? Flashing lights sparkle before my eyes as loud explosions echo and boom all around me. What is happening? Is this some kind of vision of the end of the world? It this what one sees and experiences at the moment of death? No No No No! AAAuuuuugh! How in the hell do I get myself into these situations?
I like to think of myself as brave and adventurous but sometimes stupid is a more apt description. For starters, I forgot all my Spanish. I swear, two years ago in Colombia and Venezuela, I was practically fluent. I had long-winded conversations with people about every subject imaginable. I figured, yeah sure, Mexico, piece of cake. But the day I arrive, I am instantly confused. Sure, I can still read it with no problem. But I can’t seem to understand a damn thing these people say. Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe I’ve just forgotten a lot. Perhaps too much marijuana has killed all my Spanish speaking brain cells. I don’t know, but I am having one heck of a time trying to communicate.
I spend four days in Mexico City and it is fairly pleasant. There are lots of nice art museums and the city center is like a non-stop carnival. This city may very well have the highest concentration of street performers on the entire planet Earth. It is so much fun to just wander around and watch and listen. But I don’t meet anyone. Every time I try to talk with people they look at me like I’m from another planet. Is it me? Am I doing something wrong? Maybe I need a haircut.
Looking to upgrade the entertainment level, I go to the famous stone ruins outside the city: Teotihuacan. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a disappointment. Sure, the Temple of the Sun is one of the largest stone structures I have ever seen. But although it is impressive in size, it is not very impressive in skill or workmanship. Perhaps I am overly critical. But having seen Ankor Wat, Macchu Picchu, Borubodur, and Petra, Teotihuacan looks like it was built by a bunch of amateurs who didn’t enjoy what they were doing. Yeah, I know, it’s a ruin, but still, the stonework is just plain sloppy and uninteresting. If you add the thousand tourists and the several hundred annoying hawkers of various souvenirs, I could have given the whole day a pass. This trip is just not starting out the way I want. I need an adventure. What in the heck shall I do?
The guide book says that the second and third highest mountains in Mexico are only an hour and a half outside Mexico city. One, Popocatepetl (Popo), is an active volcano and it cannot by climbed. The other, Itzaccihuatl (Itza), is an inactive volcano that can be climbed. Unfortunately, the guidebook is extremely vague as to what climbing Itza involves. There is no map. There is no indication as to the distance of the trail. And it doesn’t clarify whether it is a mountain that can be hiked of if it requires glacier-climbing equipment like crampons and ropes and ice axes. All the book says is that it should only be attempted by experienced climbers and a guide is highly recommended. At a minimum, a guide will cost $50 a day which is beyond my budget. And besides, I hate having to have a guide. Should I try it alone? Do I dare? If it’s a hike, it shouldn’t be a problem. But if it’s a climb, with ice axes and such, I better pay the piper or not even attempt it. What the hell… you only live once.
So I take a local bus to the small town of Amecameca at the base of the mountain. Once there, I visit the national park office in the center of town to find information. But the visit proves to be a complete waste of time. I pay the park entrance fee of $2.00 a day and have a completely unintelligible conversation with a very confused secretary at the office. She gives me a brochure telling me to keep the park clean and a phone number of a guide I can call and hire. They have no map and no information in English. Either she has nothing to say, or I can’t understand her. Oh well, what can I do? It’s only a mountain. I can always hike up and turn around if it becomes difficult.
I go to the market in the evening and purchase three days worth of food (I have no idea how far it is or how long it will take). The next morning, I go to the main plaza to find a bus to take me to the park entrance. I thought for sure the lady in the park office told me I could take a local bus there for a dollar. But I wander around like a confused idiot with a full backpack for a good hour in the morning trying to find the bus before I learn that it doesn’t exist. I finally buckle under and fork over ten dollars for taxi. Great, now that I made it to the park entrance, how am I going to get back? Oh well, I’ll worry about that upon my return.
At the park entrance, I again ask about a map and distances and information. Again, either they have none to give or they don’t understand me. Can my Spanish really be that bad? Is there a place to stay on the mountain or do I need my tent? They give me a key to something in exchange for a copy of my passport. A key to what, I am not sure. I have my tent anyway, just in case I need it. Strangely enough, they never ask for my permit so in reality there was no need for me to have paid the entrance fee at the park office earlier.
So anyway, I set off down the trail with three days worth of food, my tent and no idea where I am going or what I am getting myself into. But I don’t regret it for a second. It is a spectacular walk and I don’t see another soul. I can see the active volcano, Popo, smoking like a god off in one direction. And the inactive volcano, Itza, is straight ahead. Itza is just plain awesome looking. The top of it is a long ridge with four big humps. Of course, there’s a legend that goes with it. Apparently, Popo was an ancient warrior and Itza was the woman he loved. While Popo was gone to battle, Itza died of sadness. When Popo came back from war and found Itza dead he turned her into a mountain. The four humps of Itza, with a little imagination, do indeed look like the shape of a woman lying down. One hump is the knees, another is the belly, another is the breasts and the other is the head. The biggest hump is the boobs, so that is the highest point and therefore the goal. Yes, my friends, I’m going to find my way to the top of those tits.
About three miles or so down the trail, I come to a small building. It is still a very, very, very long ways from the mountain. This is the building, I now discover, that I have the keys to. This is where I am supposed to stay. Now that makes no sense whatsoever. I have hardly begun my hike. I’m not stopping here. I have my tent anyway, so I shall continue on. I walk another leisurely two hours on the wide winding path until I come to a camp and a parking lot. I can’t believe it; there are three cars parked here. Also, at this point, the trail starts to go up. Not up a little, but up a lot. But I feel great. As a matter of fact, I feel fantastic. Onward and upward. I continue for another two hours before I meet the first other people on the mountain. It is two guys from Mexico City and they are all decked out with the most expensive climbing gear you can imagine. They have ice axes and crampons and ropes and top of the line designer hiking clothes. They look like Mexican actors for and outdoor sports gear commercial. Since I’m a friendly guy and I also need information, I try to make conversation. Perhaps it is my ragtag, disheveled appearance that offends them (I really need a haircut). Or maybe my Spanish is just bad. But to put it simply, they are rude. I might as well have tried talking to the rocks. Senor REI and Senor Northface want nothing to do with me and it is obvious. I apparently don’t belong on the mountain. Oh well, I can take a hint. I want companionship for the possible difficult route ahead. But they don’t want to drag along an unprepared liability. I stop on the side of the trail, eat a snack, and let them go on ahead as I look off contemplatively at the distant volcano. Perhaps I am in this over my head. Maybe I should go back and sleep in that comfortable building and forget about it. Hah! I say. Onward and upward. I feel fantastic. I’m not stopping until I have to.
Sometimes, I tell you, I feel like Superman. My energy levels at this moment are through the ceiling. Although I am carrying three days worth of food, plus a tent and sleeping bag, I want to run up the mountain. The views are spectacular, the air is clean and I am happy as hippo in a river full of fish. Who cares if I am not prepared for the top? I’ll go as far as I can. Few things on this planet make me happier than hiking in the mountains. After another couple hours I arrive at the “refugio.” This is the place where the climbers stay the night before ascending the peak in the morning. It’s basically a metal shack with several bunk beds and no heat or anything. And much to my surprise, it is packed full of people. There must be about ten of them and they are all obviously serious climbers rather than simple hikers. They have the gortex and the stretch pants and the crampons and the ice axes and the ropes and all that other expensive shit that goes with the mountain climbing game. Me, on the other hand, must appear the total amateur. I have socks on my hands for gloves, torn dirty blue jeans and a cotton sweatshirt with a hood. I have no sunglasses or ski poles or crampons or anything. Not only that, my Spanish is still totally dysfunctional. How does the song go? “One of these things is not like the other ones (ha ha).”
I manage a basic conversation with one guy who is standing outside the refugio and I learn that it is another five hours to the top. I’m not sure, but I think he also says that because the weather has been warm, the glacier is soft and it might be possible to make the top even without crampons and ice axes. Indeed, the weather is fairly warm. It’s about 35 degrees F (2 degrees C) at an altitude of some 14,500 feet. Since it is 3:00 in the afternoon, an ascent to the top at this moment is impossible. But I might be able to do it in the morning. I think about staying in the refugio, but there doesn’t appear to be space and I am definitely getting that “we are climbers and you are just a hiker” vibe. Oh well, I have my tent (even if it is a cheap tent designed for the beach rather than the mountains). I don’t need no silly refugio. I find a flat spot about 100 feet away from the refugio and set up my little camp.
After organizing my things, I eat a cheese sandwich and then stroll around to enjoy the view. How does it feel? Incredible! I’ll tell you what; there is no buzz for the brain better than the one you get from high altitude. Take it from someone who has tried a great variety of mind altering substances from the far corners of the planet, a high altitude high is the very best high of them all. Something about the lack of oxygen and the fresh air, and well, I don’t know. If they could bottle it, everyone would be addicted.
The golden sun is going down over the volcano. White puffy clouds like animated cotton balls dance about in the sky. I suck in great gulps of air to feel the oxygen soak into my happy lungs. I am just about ready to flap my wings and fly. Oh yeah, who needs the fancy equipment? Who needs the technology and the expensive modern world assistance? Tomorrow I’m going to make the top and I’m going to make it using nothing but my own strength of will. That’s right, I feel like superman and nothing is going to stop me from reaching my goal.
The thing about getting high from magical substances is, you can always overdose and suffer the consequences. Same thing goes for altitude. If you take too much you get altitude sickness and the symptoms are horrendous. It is a very dangerous physical condition that kills several people every year.
After about a half an hour in heaven, I go to my tent to relax a little bit. I curl up in my sleeping bag and doze off. How quickly the universe can change… When I awake a few hours later, I am in absolute hell. The sun has set, darkness has descended, and the temperature has dropped like a body off a building. I can’t breathe, I want to vomit and my head feels like it is going to explode. I have altitude sickness and I have it bad! I have had it before a little (last year on Kilimanjaro). But I’ve never had it like this. Oh my god, I’m going to die. The pain is so bad I want to die. It just keeps getting colder and colder and I am getting more and more and more miserable. My sleeping bag is rated for 10 degrees Farenheit but by nine or ten at night it must be near 0. What can I do? Nothing. Lie here and suffer. Sure, I guess I could make a dash for the refugio and ask for help. But the notion of getting out of my sleeping bag in this cold the way I feel just doesn’t seem possible. Will I die of altitude sickness or from the freezing cold? Either possibility seems very real.
In retrospect, I honestly believe that near-death experiences and intense suffering are good for the soul. It helps you see the world differently. It teaches you to appreciate things and enjoy moments. But at the time it is happening, I just want it to end. I stay awake more or less the whole night. Except for the time I almost died in the desert of India, it is the worst night of my entire life. I think it is around midnight when I start going crazy. Strange flashing lights sparkle and shine before my eyes. Is that god? The sound of explosions and gunshots are all around me. What the hell is that? Could it be the volcano? Is it erupting? Or is it perhaps my soul that is erupting as my spirit leaves the mortal flesh. No, it doesn’t sound like that. It sounds like war. It comes from all around me. More flashing lights, more sounds of explosions as the pain and the anguish go on and on and on. I’m so cold. I just want to be warm again. I want to breathe again and have no more pain. Do the flashing lights mean something? I want to crawl from my tent and see what it is all about. But maybe it is just inside my head. It can’t be real. Is this what it is like to die?
It is just starting to get light out and I am still alive when the windstorm comes. It blows my tent off its stakes and crumples everything. So now, in addition to the cold and the altitude problems, I am tangled up in a mass of material that is no longer a tent. I have to do something. This situation is just too absurd. In a last desperate ploy for survival, I climb out of the mess, gather everything in my arms, and make a dash for the refugio. I must look like a desperate crazy maniac and so I am…
Much to my incredible surprise, upon arriving at the refugio, I find that it is practically empty. Only the caretaker and the two guys I had met on my way up the mountain are there. Everyone else left while I was napping the afternoon before. The two guys look at me when I come in and sort of laugh at me as they ask in Spanish, “How was your night?”
“Not very good,” I answer, “I was a little cold and I had a headache so I didn’t sleep very well.”
“Yes,” they say, “it was cold and we didn’t sleep well either. We think it was coldest night of the year. Too cold in fact to climb the mountain. We are not even going to try. How about you? You going to climb?” They are packing up to leave.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “Maybe later. Right now I need sleep.” I stretch out my sleeping bag on one of the bunks, climb in, and realize I am going to live. I then fall fast asleep.
I awake two hours later and feel surprisingly better. There is no one in the refugio except for me and the friendly caretaker. My head still hurts a little. I can’t eat, but my breathing is normal and I don’t feel like vomiting. The sun is also out and the temperature has risen to about 32 degrees farenheit; downright comfortable.
“Are you going to climb the mountain?” asks the caretaker. “I don’t know,” I answer. “My head hurts. But I may try to go a little ways.”
“That is from the altitude,” he tells me. “If you go up, just go slowly.”
Am I stupid or brave and adventurous? Fifteen minutes later, I am on the trail, heading up the mountain on my own.
It is one hell of a climb or hike. Actually, it is sort of the middle path in between a climb and a hike. The trail goes straight up over rocks, but the hand holds are such and the footing is such that you don’t really need ropes or anything. Sure, a little safety equipment would probably be a good idea, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. A couple times it is rather precarious and I fear a very, very long fall to the rocks below. But I continue on. Slowly, slowly, slowly. One step at a time. Where does the trail go? It’s kind of hard to follow. My head is a little dizzy. It’s probably not smart to be semi-rock climbing on my own with a headache. But I put one foot in front of the other, one hand in front of the other, and slowly crawl my way up. After about two hours, I come to a place where I can no longer see the trail. The rock wall seems too steep. I don’t think I should go on. I’ve done enough. I have nothing to prove. I guess I shall turn around and go back without making the top. It’s been a hell of an adventure, but enough is enough, right?
And that’s when I meet Superman. The REAL Superman. Not me, pretending to be Superman. But a guy named Daniel who puts me to shame.
He comes zipping up the mountain behind me like a billy goat on amphetamines with nothing on his back but a daypack and a bottle of water. He has bright sparkling eyes and a huge smile. Miraculously, when he speaks in Spanish, I understand every single word he says. I tell him I am about to give up because of my headache and the steepness. He says in Spanish, “Don’t give up now. It is only fifteen more minutes to the knees. Follow me.” And so I do. I follow Superman up the mountain. He is soon quite a ways ahead, but I can see him and it gives me confidence. His fifteen minutes to the knees is forty-five minutes for me. But I make it. I make it to the top of the ridge. Superman is ahead of me on the ridge, continuing on towards the stomach and then to the chest. I follow slowly behind until I catch up with him on the stomach. He has stopped. “It is impossible to go on,” he says. “I was hoping the glacier would be soft, but it is frozen solid. We can’t go on from here without crampons and ice axes.” He is right. It is indeed impossible. If Superman can’t do it, neither can I. But hey, we made it to the top of the mountain, even if it isn’t the tippy-top. And the view from the top… well, it’s a damn shame my camera doesn’t work at high altitudes. It is so beautiful in fact, that it is almost worth all the suffering… almost.
I descend the mountain with Daniel. About a third of the way down we meet his long-haired hippy-looking friend who came hiking with him. By the time we reach the parking lot we are all best buddies and for some strange reason my Spanish is completely back. Perhaps the long night in the cold and high altitude somehow shook all the Spanish from the back of my brain to the front. I’m not sure how it happened but somehow it did. It’s like some kind of linguistic miracle. Anyway, they have an automobile, and they offer me a ride back to Amecama. We have lunch together and a couple of beers at a restaurant en route. They are two of the nicest guys I have ever met. They give me all kinds of good info about where to go and what to do in Mexico. As it turns out, Daniel is a 44 year old psychology professor at a university in Mexico City who runs marathons in his spare time. His friend is a PhD student in psychology. Just as we are saying goodbye, I ask Daniel how a professor could manage a day off in the middle of the week to climb a mountain.
“Didn’t you know? Today is the Festival of the Virgin of Guadulupe. One of the biggest festivals in all of Mexico,” he says. “I am surprised you didn’t see fireworks from the top of the mountain last night. As a matter of fact, there were so many fireworks in this country last night I’m surprised you were able to sleep at all.”
“Ahh,” I say. “Fireworks. That explains a lot.” And so we say goodbye.