Climbing at extreme altitudes is somewhat indescribable. It is humbling, challenging, and according to one author, akin to hitting your head against the wall (they both feel good when you stop). As our trip leader JJ said the other day, there are two kinds of fun. Things that are fun in the moment and things that are fun after the fact. Climbing at high altitude is often more like the latter kind of fun.
When you take a body that is designed to run on a certain concentration of oxygen and ask it to perform athletic feats with much less “gas in the tank”, i.e. at altitude, many discomforts ensue. These effects are well documented and studied and come under the heading of AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness. The common rule of thumb is the ordinary body can acclimatize to gaining about 1000 feet of elevation per day with a rest day to catch up after every 3 days or so. This is a very conservative schedule and our modern hectic lives rarely allow for such luxury…so we push the envelop on short climbs like Kilimanjaro and Orizaba to have them fit into nine day schedules so people only need to take one week of work off. So, in the past few days, I have suffered much more AMS that usual…here’s how the week’s elevations advanced…
Saturday Morning: Sea Level
Saturday Night: 7200 feet
Sunday Night: 10,000 feet with acclimatization hike to 14,000 feet
Monday Night: 13,00 feet
Tuesday Night: 14,700 feet
Wednesday Morning: 17,340 feet
Basically in the span of five days, we climbed from sea level to Mount Everest Base Camp! (we usually take 10-14 days to trek to EBC). What has this meant for us in the past five days? Lots of headache, loss of appetite, nausea, inability to sleep…and the summit of Ixtaccihuatl, the 7th highest peak in North America at 17,340 feet/5254 meters.
It was a thrill to share the summit of Ixtaccihuatl with Marian. It was her first true mountaineering peak and she handled it like a pro. It was a very challenging climb because of the quick acclimatization curve as well as several other factors. We’d just been sea kayaking for ten days and hadn’t really had a hard training hike in two weeks. Our feet were soft from beach life (all callouses scrubbed off by the sand) and they objected from being removed from sandals and being placed in big hard plastic mountaineering boots. We kept saying we should have done the climbing first and then the kayaking but it’s worked out in the end and we managed to breath our way to the top of Ixta.
Breathing is a skill. At least at extreme altitude. We use “pressure breathing” to temporarily increase the atmospheric pressure in our lungs to move a bit more oxygen into our hypoxic bodies. As we climb, you’ll hear someone give out a loud pursed lipped exhalation and it will remind you to do the same. We often combine pressure breathing with the rest step (locking the back leg for a temporary rest while climbing) to overcome the tremendous challenge of moving uphill with half as much oxygen as usual. If I had a dollar for every pressure breath I did over the past five days, I wouldn’t need to fundraise for future climbs ever again.
In climbing Ixta, we had a acclimatization hike to 14,000 feet on Sunday. Monday, we transferred to the lower hut on Ixta and took a stretch your legs kinda walk at 13,000 feet. After a restless night, we packed our backpacks and made a really hard carry to high camp. our packs weighed 40-50 pounds and the terrain we crossed was very tough-steep, hot, and filled with some of the largest thistles I have ever seen. We were poked and prodded as we took each and every step further into the unrelenting world of high altitude. We arrived at high camp after six hours of hard, hard, work (in my top five, maybe top three, list of toughest carries). We set up camp and tried to eat and pre-hydrate.
The “wake-up” call came at 1:00 am. We choked down some oatmeal and coffee and starting climbing around 2:45 am. The first stretch was a rocky gully with mid sized talus and scree. At the top of this we reached the glacier and roped up. For the first time on the trip, I found my rhythm. The combination of climbing on snow, in the dark, and on a rope team provided blessed relief to the challenge. I love climbing in the dark. It takes away so many distractions and provides intense focus on the task at hand. It also hides the slope and provides the great sense of surprise at what yo’ve just climbed over when the sun finally rises. The night started warm but the higher we climbed, the more the wind picked up and by the summit I was climbing in all the clothes I had brought including my down parka. It was a cold one-I’m rarely that cold-even when I was in Antarctica…go figure.
Being an ancient volcano, Ixta has many summits. We topped out on one and thought we were all done except that there was another one, 8 meters higher across the glacier. Not wanting to settle for a “false summit”, we descended about 100 feet, crossed the glacier, and ascended to the true summit at 6:45 am. We’d climbed a bit faster than anticipated so the sky behind us was just starting to glow the orange of a new day. It was my first summit in the dark and our summit photos are kinda funny because the flash wiped us much of the background. It was also extremely windy which made holding my flags a bit difficult.
We took many more pictures on the way down than up when the peak was surrounded with the warm colors of early morning. We didn’t stay long on the summit because of our lack of acclimatization and because we still had a big day ahead of us. We arrived back at high camp at 9:00 am, enjoyed hot drinks and a snack, packed and started to carry those heavy bags back down. The climb down was easier than up but not by that much. 12 hours after waking up, we arrived back to the van where Rohealo greeted us with cold Cokes-delicious! Most tried to sleep as we drove down to the “thick air” of Puebla where we enjoy a rest day before taking on Orizaba on Saturday.