“The mountains can be reached in all seasons. They offer a fighting challenge to heart, soul and mind, both in summer and winter. If, throughout time, the youth of the nation accept the challenge the mountains offer, they will help keep alive in our people the spirit of adventure. That spirit is the measure of vitality of both nations and people. A people who climb the ridges and sleep under the stars in high mountain meadows, who enter the forests and scale peaks, who explore glaciers and walk ridges buried deep in snow — these people give their country some of the indomitable spirit of the mountains.”
— William O. Douglas
I recently spent two weeks in Mexico with 7 high students and five teachers from a canadien high school. Their primary objective was to climb the 3rd and 7th highest peaks in North America. This trip represented an earned opportunity for a group of high school students – one that they had to physically train for over the past several months through their school physical education program. Their student ages ranged from 12 to 18.
The true value of such an endeavor is found not on the summit of a mountain but in the experiences getting there and back. Landing in Mexico City the students quickly found themselves unable to understand most of their surroundings. Suddenly they were immersed into a strange new world where focusing on simple needs like what do I eat, where is the bathroom again became paramount. Over the next few days the group began to cull out individual strengths such as learning to say a phrase in Spanish and sharing it with the group. And this continued… In the town of Amecameca they gained more comfort by enjoying the local carnival alongside the locals who now seemed a little less different than they had been only a couple days ago. Smashing and crashing on the bumper cars and getting queasy on the Tilt O Whirl can magically bring different cultures together. In the morning we gave them $7.00 each and sent them shopping for fruits, vegetables and other staples in the local open air markets. Their bartering skills quickly evolved and they came back with more than enough food to feed the fifteen of us for a couple days. And with this they learned the world was a little smaller place.
Next we moved up onto the slopes of Iztaccihuatl our first mountain objective at a summit altitude of 17,100 feet. Here we would stay for three days doing increasingly longer and higher hikes until our summit climb of “Izta” on day 3. Now they had to live together in a efficient manner. Meals needed to be cooked on three small camp stoves, the altitude gave you a headache, dishes needed to be washed, someone else always seemed to have the group toilet paper, etc. Yes, the challenges of group living were manifesting themselves. Reality has a way of forcing your hand though and soon systems evolved that worked for everyone – the TP would be left here, you would get a drink when the water was hot, and little food would be wasted, etc.
Rising at 0100 we began the ascent of Izta at 0230. We made good time passing the Portillo – our high point of hiking. Soon we were facing the steep scree and rock of the “the knees”. Two steps up, one step back for hundreds of feet. A new reality was hitting home – that despite all the training, all the desire, and all the effort that each individual put forth some would not make it to the summit ridge. But by starting and trying they were already winners and those who did make the summit just got a little frosting for the reward.
The transition from one peak to another meant travelling back to Mexico City where we would transition to public transportation for the second half of the trip. Seems simple enough until you realize that the road you have mapped out you just can’t get on. Three times we tried and three times we failed. With fifteen collective problem solvers working it out we did eventually manage to find our way back to Mexico City and the pleasantries of a modern hotel.
In the morning we packed and headed for the bus station. By now, packing was getting more efficient – yes learning was occurring – the less I bring, the less I carry. Hmm. Perhaps we should all carry all our necessities on our back!
In the early evening we arrived at the door of the Canchola family in the small farming village of Tlachichuca at the base of striking Orizaba (18,400 feet). Joaquin, Mirabella and other family members would be our hosts as we staged for our Orizaba ascent. We did our laundry wash on concrete washboard and now shopped in the village markets with more ease. We were served a delicious traditional Mexican dinner and breakfast.
In the morning we left in rugged four wheel trucks that would take us to the Piedre Grande Hut at 14,000 feet. In the U.S. there are people that would have paid hundreds of dollars for this 4WD adventure over steep, sandy and rocky hand made roads.
By now hut life was pretty routine for the next night and day.
Finally it was time to shoulder our packs and aim for the snow covered summit 5,000 feet above. Making our way slowly through the rock bands the unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds were slowly taking there toll.
Nearing 18,000 we made the decision to descend due to cold, wind and some altitude issues for some folks. Although disappointing to some of us, this is the way of the mountains and we are always reminded that the only one truly in charge is nature.