Iztaccíhuatl

1 04 2017

According to Aztec legend, a beautiful young princess once lived in the city of México. She was promised to marry a handsome warrior named Popoca. Before they could marry, however, her beloved was sent away to war in the distant kingdom of Oaxaca. While he was gone a jealous suitor hatched a plot: he went to the princess and told her that her beloved had perished in battle, but that he would gladly take her hand in marriage. Reluctantly, the princess accepted.

One day Popoca returned safely from war, and the princess realized that her new husband had tricked her. Consumed with grief, she took her own life. When Popoca found out that his love was dead, he died of heartbreak himself.

But that night, two mighty mountains rose above the Valley of Mexico. One had the shape of a woman’s body, pale with snow; so lovely that she could simply have been asleep. The other was a mighty volcano which spat fire and smoke, towering over the woman as if to protect her. They were the two lovers, whom the gods had immortalized as mountains to remind the Mexicans of their tragic tale.

This story teaches us a few things. One: star-crossed lovers dying for ridiculously angsty reasons is obviously not a trope of European folklore, but one that encircles the world. Two: in case you don’t believe in volcanic activity, this is a great explanation for the two mountains that stand guard over Mexico City. Iztaccíhuatl (in Nahuatl, the White Maiden) is the smaller of the two mountains. It peaks out at a staggering 17,160 feet – more than one thousand feet higher than the Mont-Blanc.

You can’t always see the twin peaks in the smog, although classical paintings of the pre-pollution Aztec city always show them huge on the horizon, like the Rockies towering above Denver. It was this exact smog which had been giving me the blues and convinced me that I needed some mountain therapy. When some friends mentioned to me that they had contracted a guide and were planning to summit Iztaccíhuatl, of course I immediately said yes.

Rarely have I stepped into such a wild adventure. Climbing Izta was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done with my body. As if the climb itself wasn’t enough, there’s the intense cold; the treacherous rocks and snow; and the fact that the trail just goes, on and on and on.

Our plan was to start climbing at midnight, after an afternoon (and obviously early-to-bed evening) hanging out at the little base camp, La Joyita. We played all-terrain bocce ball, sat around shooting the shit, and just gazed up at the white-cloaked summit, which rose sleepily from its golden sconce of grassy hills dotted with oyamel pines.

The point was just to relax and let our bodies acclimate to the altitude. Of our group of eight, seven of us lived in Mexico City, at six thousand feet of elevation – and one girl had come from Monterrey, which is practically at sea level. The difference (not to sound like a Buzzfeed article) was shocking. Poor Lina was already super sick within hours of us arriving at base camp – headache, vomiting, the whole shebang. But in the frigid, headlamp-lit shuffle as we woke up later that night, she said she was feeling a bit better, and she started off with us anyway.

The first hours passed in a trance. Only faint suggestions of angles and shadows served to remind us the size of the towering crags we were scaling. At one point, we looked across the Pass of Cortes to where the snowy cone of Popocatépetl was still exhaling its unending ribbon of smoke into the sky. In the nighttime darkness, we could see where the underside of the smoke was touched by a faint red light, emanating from inside the mountain.

Around 4 a.m. we reached the halfway point, a mountain refuge called the Refugio del Cien. We spent a few minutes warming up inside. The place was as spartan as can be: a multi-tiered snore barn of bunkbeds, at that hour filled with sleeping mountaineers. Poor guys, sleeping through the constant chorus of laughs, rustling, mutters and headlamps brought in by every single summiting party which stopped inside the refuge just like we did. From the front step of the refuge, we could look up, up, up to the top of a mountainside that seemed to tower to the sky. The headlamps of people already climbing traced a faint ribbon of lights, all the way to the top – like a nighttime ski run, only in reverse. That was where we were going.

We put on our crampons and started up, and from there on is where it got really gnarly. The cold was bitter and vicious, even through two layers of gloves. And the altitude started to really take its toll. If I fell behind a few steps, then hustled to catch up, the exertion would give me a sudden dizzy spell. I did exactly that a few times on purpose, just because the exertion was the only thing that would warm me up, before realizing what was going on. Dizziness if you walk fast, numbly throbbing fingers if you go slow– take your pick. That was also the altitude where I started to feel heavy – as if I had been transported to a planet with stronger gravity than our own, or into the body of myself fifty years in the future. I had to brace myself mentally for every step as we trudged higher and higher.

Dawn was starting to twinkle red on the horizon as we crested the top of the ridge, where the scattered debris of a ruined refuge offered us places to sit. The beauty of the dawn was almost negated by the horrifying sight of how far we had left to go. Iztaccíhuatl really is shaped like a sleeping woman, and to make the summit with nothing more complex than crampons, you have to trek alllllll the way along the ridge which is her silhouette. The gnarly tower of rock we had just climbed was none other than her gently bent knee. Before us was a procession of peaks: the Hip… the Elbow… and finally, hideously far away in the ragged distance, the summit itself. The Breast.

The morning sunlight was spectacular glowing creamy-gold on the snow. But as we trekked, I reflected on why I love the mountains. I think the answer is that I love the way perspective and scale mingle, twist and surprise you at that border between two worlds: the surprisingly small human world below, and the surprisingly big alpine world above. We were in the upper world now; a frigid, lifeless, and alien world. The mist-screened hills which were slowly lightening below were so far away that they had no perspective or scale whatsoever. They might as well have been a painted backdrop. And it’s not that I realized that alpine mountaineering isn’t for me. But I realized that though I consider myself a lifelong lover of the mountains, this adventure wasn’t scratching the itch I know so well. This was a new experience, and it had a different, frightening sort of enchantment. Not the one I knew.

The hardest part was crossing the Panza, or the Stomach. As you could imagine (if you’ve ever seen a sleeping woman before) it was a long, even saddleback, covered with a smooth coat of snow. It looked deceptively peaceful – it was even flat! – but as soon as we stepped onto the snow field, we were hammered sideways by a freezing, biting wind that screamed over the low point in the ridge and down into the Valley of Mexico. The snow was thick, and just icy enough that you never knew if you would sink or if you wouldn’t. What had appeared from above like a stroll about the length of my block suddenly seemed like the length of a football field. I put a bandanna over my nose, but my breath made the cloth moist, and after a minute the mask only made my face colder. Bent double against the wind, we struggled on.

The instant we hit uphill again, on the other side, the wind died down and went silent. Without a single tree, bush, or piece of flappable debris on the Stomach to give away how hard it was blowing, it was like it had never existed.

We were close now. We actually left our backpacks on a stone knob above the Stomach before making the final push to the summit. During that last climb, I felt the effects of the altitude redouble – not making me sick, but just making me weak. With every new step, my body didn’t want to obey my brain. I felt lightheaded, like I had drunk too much coffee on an empty stomach, and then quickly stood up.

When we finally limped bedraggled onto the snowy knob of the summit, we discovered that the biting wind passed across it, too. We took our pictures, stared in a daze at the icescape below, and within five minutes, we were on our way down again.

Honestly, I didn’t really feel pleased with myself until further down the mountain. It was like waking from a trippy dream which exists in its own calm logic, and only then  reacting to how trippy it was. Maybe the altitude had changed our brain chemistry slightly.

There’s not much to say about the way down, except that it was long. Even after the refuge, we were freaking out at every corner which revealed the trail ahead, wondering how the hell we had climbed all of this in the dark without noticing it. But the refuge was really a turning point, too – it was when our brain chemistry returned. Suddenly, instead of solemnly concentrating on our every footstep, we were chatting, cracking jokes, talking about how f***ed up that just was. And it was where the sunlight returned to normal strength, too. At one go, I shed a rain shell, a puffy down jacket, my gloves, my beanie, and my heavy snow pants (under which I had been wearing jeans). We were back in the human world again.

Lina, the girl from Monterrey, barely made it down in a dehydrated, half-sick haze. She sat at the refuge recovering for a while, and I think our guides were considering getting her some sort of rescue mission. But in the end someone took her pack, someone else mama-birded her a river of electrolyte fluid (OK, from the bottle), and we all made it the rest of the way down together.

My buddy Erik had it the second-worst, presumably because he smokes cigarettes. He was hilariously grumpy during the last exhausting leg, even once we got back to the base camp and celebrated with fresh tacos and quesadillas folded in thick tortillas of blue corn. (“You have to eat, man. Here, have one taco.” “I GUEEEEEE-eeesss.” And so on.)

In the end, good humor returned to all of us, and when we got back to the twinkling lights of the city, we stumbled into Ubers to go home and collapse. This was two weeks ago, and I’m still not convinced that my legs are back to normal. But I’m not convinced it’ll be my last flirt with alpine mountaineering, either. Expectations are everything, and you just can’t foresee all the ways the mountain challenged us. Now I can, though, for next time. It was the epitome of type-2 fun. And I couldn’t be happier I did it.

Here I am, back in the heart of the human world. Here the mountains are of steel, glass and stone; the bounty is picked from taco stands and hole-in-the-wall cafés; and the drama of predator and prey is played out between social classes; locals and foreigners; pickpockets and plutocrats. This is the urban jungle where I only have three weeks left.

Yeah, I’m pretty stoked to be going back to a world where the days are spent on bikes, out in nature, or in sleepy and lovely villages. A world where work doesn’t get in the way of life, bit where work is a way of life.

But dear sweet Virgencita, I’m going to miss this place SO. MUCH.

Once again it comes back to perspective. A mountain can be small and picturesque if you see it from the city; massive and daunting when you’re at its foot…. and strangely small again when you look down from the very top.

In the same way, three weeks can be the blink of an eye. Or they can be the time in which a whole life chapter goes down.

I’m sure these three weeks will be a little bit of both.

But as usual, I’m plotting the latter.

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