1) The Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico. At nearly 19,000 feet above sea level, it towers over the lower valleys that surround it. The first people of Mexico called the mountain Era as Poyautecatl, or the ground that reaches the clouds, and certainly there are days when the peak is invisible, somewhere in a deep cover of dense, white, clouds. When I begged to join a group of experienced climbers in their attempt to scale Orizaba past the clouds, I underestimated the challenge I would face.
2) At fourteen, I set out to be the youngest woman to ever trek to the top. The summer before, I’d climbed three of Colorado’s “14ers,” or peaks that were higher than 14,000 feet, and I had done pretty well. My climbing coach, my dad, said I was a natural, and when I asked if I could come along on his trip to Mexico, it didn’t take a lot of begging for him to relent.
3) But Orizaba was different from the mountains I’d climbed the summer before. Even though altitude sickness can kick in at about 7,000 feet, and 14,000 feet can be considered a very high altitude, 18,000 feet and higher is considered an extreme altitude. At that level, all kinds of dangerous conditions are possible, including permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen. In the thin atmosphere the heart begins to beat faster, and some climbers have suffered strokes and heart attacks due to undiagnosed heart conditions that became evident under the stress of climbing. I’d had a complete physical before the trip, and I knew my heart and lungs were healthy, but as we approached the mountain on the first day of our adventure, I had a twinge of anxiety.
4) The first day of our climb wasn’t a climb at all. We drove over a bumpy primitive road to the trail head, or the beginning of the trail and the first base camp at about 13,000 feet. The Piedre Grande hut, a permanent shelter, is where almost every climber stops, as we did, to acclimate to the high altitude. The hut can hold forty or fifty people, but can get noisy, so we pitched tents and camped outside. We were already tired from the flight to Mexico and the long drive to the mountain and after a quick meal, we fell asleep.
5) Hiking Orizaba is usually done in stages. Most climbers acclimate themselves to high-altitude hiking by going up to a high basecamp at 15,000 feet, setting up a campsite, then returning to Piedre Grande for the night. That was our plan as well.
6) We set off toward the high basecamp the next morning, just as the sun was coming up. The first phase was a challenging hike up a steep valley slope. Near the top we had to clamber over sharp talus, which are piles of rocks that have fallen from the cliffs above and over an icy section known as the Labyrinth. We climbed to about 15,200 feet, where we found a flat area well suited for a campsite. We set up our tents and hiked back down to the lower camp.
7) When we returned to the lower base camp, I felt a bit of a headache coming on and checked my pulse. Eighty-eight beats per minute – high but not dangerous. I didn’t want my dad to know. I didn’t want him to decide I shouldn’t climb. I tried to breathe more slowly, but I began to feel light headed. Dad brought a cup of soup over to me. “Are you okay, Jenna?” He looked concerned. “Fine,” I said. “I’m not really hungry, though. Maybe later.”
8) He grabbed my wrist and looked at his watch. I could see his lips moving as he counted the beats of my pulse. “Calm down,” I told myself. “Relax…relax…” I began to feel faint. “One hundred two,” my dad said. “Do you have a headache?” “A bit,” I replied. “Rest,” Dad said. “We’ll decide tomorrow what to do.”
9) I wanted to rest, and I wanted to climb to the summit, but thoughts were flying through my head at a mile a minute. Would they go to the top without me? Would I have to wait here alone? Would Dad have to abandon his climb because of me? I could hear Dad and the others talking in low voices near the camp stove. I knew they were deciding what to do.
10) I didn’t sleep at all that night, not that I can remember, and when Dad shook me awake before the sun came up, I was prepared for whatever he and the others had decided. “We’re going to stick to this camp for another day,” he said. “Roger has a headache too. We could all do with another day of acclimation. Keep checking your pulse – and tell me if it goes any higher.” I nodded. “I will.” What a relief! We were going to wait another day. I already felt better, at least I thought I did, and I was convinced I’d be ready to climb again the next day.
11) We made a short hike the next day, back to the Labyrinth and saw several other hikers coming back from the summit. I was dying to ask them how it was – but most were too exhausted to do anything other than wave. The next morning, at about 2:00 AM , Dad checked my pulse. “Sixty-five,” he said. “That’s great. Any headache?” I shook my head no. “You’re ready to go,” he said.
12) We climbed back to the high camp for another day of hanging out and acclimating. I couldn’t help but feel like I was holding everyone back. “We’re so close!” I said. “Let’s just go to the summit!” My pulse had climbed to 75, but I didn’t have a headache. Roger also reported his headache was dissipating. It was only another 3,000 feet, just over half a mile. I walked farther than that to school every day!
13) “We’re going to wait,” Dad said. “Those three thousand feet will take us into a dangerously high altitude. The most important thing to remember in climbing is that safety always comes first.” I slept fitfully that night, but not for long. At about 2:00 AM Dad shook me awake. “It’s time,” he said. “We want to start up the glacier before the sun comes up. It’s safer.” I was confused. “Why is it safer in the dark?” I asked. “The sun,” Dad replied. “When the sun’s out, the foot of the glacier can get slushy.”
14) We set off for the summit and the most dangerous part of the climb, the Jamapa Glacier. The moment I stepped onto the glacier it seemed like I’d been transported into the middle of an arctic storm. A cold wind whipped around us, and every step was the most difficult step I’d ever taken. Dad motioned to me to keep drinking, and I sipped Gatorade through a straw until it froze solid. Then I tried to take the lid off the bottle but my hands, even in their insulated gloves, had suddenly for gotten how to work. I rummaged in my pack for my insulated bottle and took a quick sip before dropping the bottle, which rolled away and into a narrow crevasse. I would have to share Dad’s water for the rest of the hike.
15) We leaned into the wind, goggles pressed tight to our faces and fought our way to the summit for nearly four hours. Four hours to walk about a half a mile! Twice in those four hours I fell to my knees, leaning on my ski poles. I didn’t think I could do it, but both times Dad was there, helping me to my feet, and waiting to see if I wanted to continue. I did want to, and I did continue.
16) Finally we reached the top. Orizaba is a dormant volcano and the top is a caldera, a cauldron shaped indentation formed where the earth has fallen away during an eruption. At the bottom of the caldera was an emerald-green lake, and as the sun rose that morning the water glistened like a trove of priceless jewels. I stared out at the peaks around us and the thin clouds below and felt triumphant. I was officially the youngest woman to ever climb Mexico’s highest mountain.