It’s the middle of the night. It’s about 50 degrees and we’ve been sleeping for about four hours. We cook up some oatmeal, assemble our gear, and are out the door by 1:50 AM. Not bad.
Adam immediately took the lead (apparently he was feeling good), but I ended up taking a different path up the aqueduct and led the first pitch up the mountain. We moved at a pretty good pace all the way to the top of the first pitch, or up to the first wall in the picture. From there Tim, Curtis, Greg and I took turns leading and setting a pace. It was difficult setting a pace for six people so we ended up going a bit slowly, but still got up to the labyrinth 40 minutes quicker than the group had yesterday. However, from there there was no path to follow, and we would have to make some routefinding decisions, through a field of boulders, in the middle of the night. We went up on the left side of the labyrinth (not visible in the picture) and eventually got to a point where we couldn’t go right anymore due to a large rock wall blocking the way. I was starting to get a bit nervous because it felt like we were off track, but we plodded on anyway, eventually putting on crampons to climb some steep ice pitches. At that point Greg and I were probably feeling the best. However, after eating a couple handfuls of trail mix I started to feel nauseous and developed a mild headache.
By about 4:30 we topped out on a ridge. It was nowhere even close to the glacier, at least a half mile to the left. Greg took a scouting hike along the ridge to see if we could proceed. It looked doable but we had lost a ton of momentum. Some people were coughing and complaining of massive headaches. At that point I had a pretty bad one myself and has feeling a bit nauseous. After some discussion the sun started to peek over the horizon and we realized we were quite a bit behind schedule. Once climbers reach the glacier it takes about 4-5 hours to summit, and then about the same time to descend. Not wanting to have to rush ourselves and put us at risk of HAPE or HACE we decided to descend as a group.
I was pretty pissed. Three months of anticipation and we didn’t even make it to the glacier. Greg and I briefly considered splitting off from the group and having a go ourselves but we reneged. Instead we took some pictures and started the long haul down. By 8 am we were all the way back. Having your day be pretty much over by 8 am is a strange, strange feeling.
Joaquin came a couple hours early and we were glad to get the hell out of that hut. It was a beautiful day; the sky was completely clear, the wind was minimal, and it was close to 50 degrees. Pretty much the perfect day to be STANDING ON THE SUMMIT. So I’m still bitter.
No matter, because the next evening we were tipping back beers and watching soccer in a sports bar in downtown Veracruz. We were in high spirits despite the lack of a summit, and spent the evening drinking on the beach. One day you’re shivering at 16,000 feet in 10° alpine winds, and the next you’re being warmed by a 70°ocean breeze off the Gulf of Mexico.
We spent the next day gallavanting across Veracruz, going to Museums, an aquarium, and lying in hammocks by the pool. The whole time I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind like I shouldn’t have even been there, but rather on the mountain trying to conquer it.
The next day we took a first-class bus back to Mexico City and watched some decidedly non-first-class movies. It was still pretty relaxing and we arrived in the early evening to the smell of feces that pervaded the city. Our hotel was easily the most expensive of the trip and the lights would intermittently go off and on again. We slept in comfort and made it to the airport before dawn to be back in Philly by four in the afternoon.
Looking back on the trip it seemed that there were a few factors that combined to bar of us from reaching the summit. I’ll go through them to help future novice expedition leaders plan:
- Split up your group if it’s big. Six people is a big group. People travel at different speeds, remove/put on layers at different times, stop to eat and drink when necessary, and otherwise hold the group up as a whole. Splitting the group up by health and speed of travel would’ve separated the able from the unable, and I can guarantee that I would’ve been at the head of the pack.
- Scope out any tough routefinding areas in advance. Here we tried to do this, but by the time the group got to the labyrinth (the day before the actual climb) they were in the clouds and couldn’t see a thing. Having said that, it seems pretty obvious that we should’ve erred to the right rather than the left because there was much less room for error. But routefinding at three in the morning and 15,500 feet will be challenging for anyone.
- Leave plenty of time to acclimatize. People will adjust to the altitude at different speeds. It has nothing to do with how good shape you’re in, but everything to do with where you live. If we lived in Flagstaff this climb would’ve been cake for everyone. That being said, another day or two chilling at 14,000 feet would’ve made the climb a lot more enjoyable.
- Know your climbing partners. If somebody isn’t 100% dedicated to the climb, leave them behind. A 40-degree inclined glacier at 17,000 feet is no place to be asking "Why am I here?"