So I Totally Choked on Orizaba. Here’s How I’m Dealing.

 In Badassery, Hikes, International, Mexican Volcanoes
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The shitty thing about desperately wanting something weird is that when you fail, no one gets it.

When a girl goes through a breakup, most people totally get the pain.

Even if they’re not sure what to say, they know what not to say. (“You just need to think positive!”)

(My favorite reaction was from my dad, told me, “Well, you’re really not a spring chicken anymore.” Because apparently in Cleveland, life is all but over at 42.)

Well, I’m here to tell you. Missing the big summit you’ve been working toward for 11 months for can break your heart just as painfully as a cheating boyfriend.

And in some ways it’s worse, because the pain is such a lonely one.

And there’s another part of this story that’s haunting me.

Conditions were super icy on the day we climbed Pico de Orizaba (18,491′, No. 1 in Mexico). And while three friends were still up on the mountain, a climber from another party fell to his death.

The two of us who turned back watched the response unfold at basecamp. And let me tell you, that was a dose of reality.

That tragedy put certain things into perspective. But it also raised some hard questions. And one month later, I’m trying to make sense of it all.

So here’s my Pico de Orizaba climb story, warts and all. This post describes my attempt on Nov. 21, 2017.

This post is part of a series on climbing central Mexico’s volcanoes.

Climbing Orizaba soon? Subscribe to Miss Adventure Pants, and I’ll send you my Mountaineer’s Packing List for FREE! It’s exactly what I used last year to get ready for climbs in Bolivia, Mexico, and Mt. Rainier.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

The Road Pico de Orizaba Climb

So if you’re planning a Thanksgiving trip to Mexico, be aware that November 20 is Revolution Day, and that the celebration continues all week long.

On the night we stayed at the Canchola family hostel in Tlachichuca, the local church was shooting off fireworks all night long. Earplugs and headphones could only help so much!

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Mural at the Canchola’s hostel

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Hope we don’t see this!

The next morning, since I was barely sleeping anyway, I got up early to take a little stroll around town. The morning views of Pico de Orizaba were amazing!

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Orizaba at dawn, from Tlachichuca

Feeling a bit groggy but excited, we piled into 4WD jeeps for a two hour ride to the Piedra Grande Hut at 14,010 ft. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy more stunning mountain views and snap a few pics.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

David packing the Jeep

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Squashed in with all our shit

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

View from the dirt road to Piedra Grande

Piedra Grande is a very basic hut with three tiers of bunks. It sleeps about 40 people and pretty much filled the night we stayed. (A few more groups overflowed into tents outside.)

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

View of the Pico de Orizaba summit from the Piedra Grande Hut

The toilet situation was pretty dire. There was one decently covered shitter, and on the first night someone took a massive dump all over the seat. So you had to choose one of the open air thrones or make do with a blue bag.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Shitter #1

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Open air thrones

Once nice thing about traveling with Nomada and the Canchola family is that they have the hut thing wired. We arrived early enough to score a nice section of bunks. And that night, Vicente cooked us pasta carbonara. I usually lose my appetite at altitude, but it was so good, I ate two bowls.

That afternoon, David led us on a short acclimatization hike. This allowed us to see the first gnarly section of trail in the light. (Our actual summit push would start in the dark.)

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

The summit looks so close!

Sleeping was a challenge. We were all pretty tired from the fireworks the night before. But sleeping in a hut with 40 strangers in never easy.

At 2 a.m., we crawled out of bed, ate some breakfast, packed out lunches, and headed for the summit.

Not my day

So right after leaving the hut, I felt nauseous and dropped to the back of the pack. I wasn’t particularly worried, as food tends to bother my stomach at altitude. It’s one of the big reasons I opt for Diamox. Otherwise I would barely eat!

Half an hour later, my stomach felt better, but I was definitely dragging. I couldn’t figure out if I was feeling the altitude, bonking, or just having a crappy day.

One teammate was feeling pretty awful due to sleep deprivation. She turned around just before the “labyrinth,” which is a steep section of snow and rock leading up to the glacier.

An icy mess

We hit the labyrinth, and I’ll admit I had a minor freak out. Everything was pretty icy and crunchy. I’ve snow climbed plenty in Colorado, but almost always on good snow.

Climbers had been reporting icy conditions on the Jamapa Glacier for the past week, and there had actually been several accidents, including one fatality. We purposely left Piedra Grande a bit late in the hopes the sun would soften up the ice.

But as we ascended the glacier, we met several climbers coming down who had been turned around by their guides.

Our team was pretty experienced, and our guide Vicente has climbed Orizaba almost 200 times. (He’s even done it twice in one day!) So we felt comfortable giving it a try.

But as we ascended the mountain’s shoulder toward the summit ridge, I had zero energy. I couldn’t shake the awful feeling that I was holding everyone back and ruining their chances.

I was super down on myself, and everyone else was being super patient with my periodic meltdowns and outbursts of swearing. (Yeah, it wasn’t pretty.)

Part of me was hoping someone would tell me to turn around. But it looked like the decision was all up to me.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

So with a heavy heart, I opted to descend with our second guide, David.

Because the weather was great, David and I hung out for a little bit on the glacier and ate lunch. We could see Vicente and our group making good progress toward the top.

We also saw tons of skiers hanging out on the glacier above. They too were probably hoping the ice would soften up, but it wasn’t happening. In the two hours I spent on the glacier, I saw exactly zero skiers make an actual turn.

On the way down, it quickly became clear to me that descending had been the right decision. My legs were shaking. At the labyrinth, we stopped to put our crampons on. I was so foggy and tired, it took me a good 10 minutes.

I think I was bonking pretty hard. Fortunately David had a secret stash of Gu and Honey Stingers. (Between Orizaba and Itza, I pretty much cleaned him out. I really should send him a case of that stuff!)

The labyrinth was no less icy on the way down. At one point, David helped me jump off a ledge onto an icy slope. I came very close to landing on his feet with my crampons, which must have made his heart pound a bit! But being the total pro he is, he acted like it was no big deal.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

David on the descent

A Death on the Mountain

Back at the hut, our lovely crew was waiting with chicken soup and lots of cold beer. I was super bummed and pissed at myself and got to work drowning my sorrows. My other teammate who’d turned around was there, so at least we could commiserate.

Because the guides all had radios, we knew the rest of our team had summited. But we also knew that the descent was proving pretty treacherous. One of our friends had fallen and the whole team had arrested. In a few spots, they were setting pro and rappeling down the ice.

Then there was a bit of a commotion in the hut. Right away, David came up and told us that our group was OK, but that there had been an accident on the mountain.

The first report made it sound like there were two victims (one dead and one injured). David, who is a paramedic and works with alpine rescue, started mobilizing a team to assist the injured climber.

Just then, a skier returned to the hut and explained that his friend was the skier who had fallen. He was clearly shaken up, but filled David in on the details.

It was an incredibly sad story

The two skiers summited Orizaba at the same time as our friends and spoke briefly to them. They then descended the icy slopes on a different route. (Our group didn’t see them again.)

For the sake of privacy, I won’t share too many details here. But during the descent, one skier lost his footing and tumbled several hundred feet down the ice. It was clear to his friend who watched that he didn’t survive the fall.

The surviving skier radioed a contact in the United States via his Garmin inReach. The message was relayed to the Canchola hostel and to Mr. Canchola at Piedra Grande.

I should note that David and Mr. Canchola were just amazing in this emergency. They immediately made arrangements to take the surviving skier back to town and then on to the airport.

But this was sobering news for all of us at the hut. And it was extra upsetting knowing that our friends were still on the glacier.

At one point, Mr. Canchola was looking for volunteers to go back to Tlachichuca. But the two of us who were waiting on our friends wouldn’t even consider it.

Someone from another party said, “Oh, they’ll be fine! Just get in the car.” At which point I had to retreat to my bunk to keep from flipping the fook out on him. (Yes, I was a little high strung at that point.)

But thank god, everyone from our group made it back fine.

They were out for about 16 hours altogether. And they all agreed that there had been a few hairy moments during the descent.

At first, they couldn’t figure out why we were completely out of our minds with relief to see them! They didn’t realize that the guy they’d met on the summit had fallen until they got back to Piedra Grande.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

It’s Complicated

So after the Orizaba climb, I had a lot of feels.

On one hand, being close to a fatality and watching the aftermath put everything in perspective. I was just gutted for the skier who fell. Really, it could have been any of us.

At the same time, I felt super grateful to be alive, and relieved that all my friends were safe.

It also raised some hard questions for me. All year, I’d been pushing myself past fears. But how much risk was I really up to?

And perspective notwithstanding, I was still completely enraged at myself for choking on the ascent. Eleven months of training — all that time, all that money — and I was still this slow, fat, old, out-of-shape slob who FAILED.

It’s definitely been a hard thing to wrap my head around. But the meaning of it all has been gradually sneaking up on me. Here are a few things Orizaba taught me.

It is totally fine to have limits.

I once thought I’d at least try to climb a 7000-m peak. (One of the easier ones is in my fav country Kyrgyzstan.)

And it would probably be good for my business if I climbed Denali or Aconcagua.

But I’m not sure that level of risk is for me.

That’s OK, and it doesn’t make me any less of a mountaineer.

And it doesn’t mean I should just give up and climb 14ers (as someone unhelpfully suggested to me early in this journey).

There are still plenty of cool peaks, including high altitude ones, I’m excited about climbing.

One bad day does not define a climber

It’s funny. I can have a rockin’ day on the mountain and still feel like the same person when I come down. But if I struggle, I’m suddenly fat, old, lazy, etc.

It’s probably time to change that thinking pattern.

The truth is, everyone who climbs has bad days. There are just too many factors — altitude, jet lag, sleep deprivation, Montezuma’s revenge, blisters — that can collapse on you like a house of cards.

No one likes those days. But if you’ve never had one, you probably haven’t been climbing very long.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Believe in your awesomeness

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m not big on the power of positive thinking.

Hey, I have tons of positive thoughts. Mostly about things that are easy for me. But when I’m severely disappointed in myself, positive thinking can eat a dick.

But I did see a variation on positive thinking on this trip that I thought was pretty cool.

For most of our time in Mexico, we actually traveled with another group (also with Nomada).

A guy in that group really struggled with the climbing part. He was from the coast and worked offshore a lot. So I imagine it was pretty tough to train.

At one point, we were all in the same van, and I was talking about how I’d really failed at training. Back in January, I’d set out to get in the best shape of my life. I’d worked my ass off and gotten maybe 75 percent of the way there.

To my surprise, this guy just turns to me and starts mansplaining. “You need to make training a lifestyle,” he says. “You need to put in 100 percent effort!”

This from the guy who made it up zero mountains. Yet he still felt qualified to give me training advice!

So whenever I worry that no one will read a blog post by a girl who couldn’t even drag her sorry ass up Pico de Orizaba, I remember that guy’s wild overconfidence. Because I actually do have helpful advice to give, and I shouldn’t let a lack of perfection hold me back.

When you’re severely disappointed with your life, go straight to a hot springs.

Which we did. Grutas de Tolantongo is located in a box canyon. Between soaks, we camped beside the river, sat by the fire, and drank lots of beer. The photos say it all.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Pool with a view

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

The grotto

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Waterfall massage

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Cave entrance in a box canyon

So there you have it. The story of my Pico de Orizaba climb in all its messy reality.

By the way, one of the most common questions people ask me is, “When are you going back to finish Orizaba?”

And for now, the answer is NEVER. (Though I reserve the right to change my mind.) I think that day is going to keep on haunting me. And honestly, there’s a ton of great shit out there to climb that doesn’t have a black cloud hanging over it.

Got tips on how to deal with severe disappoint in the mountains? Comment to share! I need them.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

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Showing 6 comments
  • Jamie
    Reply

    Great account with astute observations about failure in the mountains. We’ve all been there and it sucks. The ego takes a hit but we live to climb another day. Orizaba is a tricky beast given the rapid ascent to the 14,000′ base camp. My partner just didn’t feel right on summit day and didn’t make the top either. The climb is only about the summit if that’s how chose to measure it. Some of my best adventures and memories have come when the summit eluded me. Great work. Keep on climbing.

  • Bryan McFarland
    Reply

    I spent over a year training to race mountain bikes. I was a monster – and then I crashed my bike breaking my ribs and tearing up my knee. That was it for me, or so I thought. Almost 20 years later I’m a better biker than I ever thought possible. I’ve never become a racer, but I’m a pretty good biker. That said, I always go through cycles. And sometimes, like you in this story, I show up to ride and have just nothing. It just happens. Like Superman on kryptonite.

  • Brittany Haas
    Reply

    You just articulated something that I think we all struggle with, especially those of us who aren’t adrenaline junkies. I have countless stories of gut-wrenching decisions I have had to face, as I am sure many of us had. I’m lucky, that in one of those instances, I had something we rarely get…hard proof that it was the right decision. The hard proof was a lot of flash flooding in the exact moment I was supposed to be in a narrow slot with a huge drainage area. Now It is easier to trust my gut, but I usually get super grumpy and cry a bit when my gut says no. Thanks for taking the time to write this, and being so open about it.

  • Les Petits Pas de Juls
    Reply

    Sarah, you ARE a bad ass climber!!!! You did everything you had to do and no, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Things can get messy up there and we know it, my throat is still choked up by the adventure you lived up to and it’s such a relief that YOU got home safely. It is SUCH a pain, such a huge loss that another life was taken…

    Meanwhile, keep enjoying yourself while climbing, you ARE awesome, inspiring and true to yourself. Thanks for making me see how hard those climbs can be, when i’m simoetimes all dreamy and wistful of Hugh altitude climbs.
    Imagine: if I couldn’t make it up Mt Blanc with almost no training at all, how on earth would I make it up Pico de Orizaba even though it’s been on my mind since I climbed Malinche peak 6 years ago….

    Don’t beat yourself up. You did everything you could do.
    You absolutely ROCK!!!!!

    Enjoy resting now!
    Cheers to the many other summits you’ll get to in 2018!
    Xoxoxo

    Jul’

  • Steve Norman
    Reply

    It’s got to be dissapointing that your bad day had to be your summit day on Orizaba. But a choke, nah. From what I can tell, you really put yourself out there this year, threw yourself against the mountains and had many great successes. Graduated from HAMS, the Snowmass climb, Mt Rainier, and many other experiences and memories. You went big in 2017, are no doubt stronger for it and I say well done M.A.P.

  • Tom MacDonald
    Reply

    “Mountaineering is a complex and unique way of life, interweaving elements of sport, art and mysticism. Success or failure depends on the ebb and flow of immense inspiration. Detecting a single rule governing this energy is difficult – it arises and vanishes like the urge to dance and remains as mysterious as the phenomenon of life itself.” Voytek Kurtyka (Wojciech Kurtyka)

    I’m certain you already know this: Failure is an inevitable part of it, not to be feared or fought, but accepted. Most guides say that even the top-tier clients (fit, experienced, prepared) succeed on average 50% of the time on big peaks. I too am 0 for 1 on Orizaba (got a dose of Moctezuma’s revenge at 16,500, and that was it for me). But I am going back.

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