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I woke up at 3.30 a.m.
The first thought I had was ‘WTF am I doing here in an alien land leaving in a few minutes for a peak I know little about, instead of waking up in my warm, cozy comforter and my bed back home?’. These thoughts swing by when I wake up before every hike. They pass in a few minutes, but I know they’ll be back before the next hike.
It was a chilly night. I couldn’t hear the wind outside; it must have been still outside. It was also a full-moon night — moonlight found its way into the hut through the windows. I got out of my sleeping bag. By then, the other groups were awake too. I had ready-to-eat Maggi noodles for an early breakfast. I split the food I had carried for the hike into two parts, just in case I had to again make a summit attempt the next day. In about 20 minutes after sandhyavandanam (one wishes), I was ready to leave. One group left before me, and the second group invited me to join them. The first thousand feet was steep, and I was lagging behind the group. I asked them to go ahead so I could continue at my own pace: a pace reasonable for my current acclimation and oxygen intake. There was some snow on the initial part of trail increasing as I climbed higher. In a couple of hours, I had to wear crampons.
I could see the other groups — they were roughly 20 minutes ahead of me — but we were all moving very slowly. I needed more breaks than them. I was trying to breathe heavily and drink enough water to help with the acclimation.
The eastern sky was brightening up, and I still hadn’t reached the glacier. Looking back, I think the sunrise that day was spectacular, but I was in no condition to appreciate it. That’s how it always is.
I reached the glacier at 8 a.m. The glacier began at 16,500 ft. The other hikers were a hundred meters ahead of me. I strictly followed their footprints so that I didn’t discover any new crevasse. Upto 17,500 ft. the glacier wasn’t steep. At 17,500 feet, the trail steepened to around 50 degrees slope (This looks about right). There was very little oxygen in the air. I needed breaks every 10 minutes, but I had enough food and I felt quite good after a couple of minutes of rest. I knew I was going to make it to the summit.
From 17,500 ft. to ~18,300 ft. the steep path continued. A slip at this point was dangerous so I couldn’t let sleep or fatigue overtake the senses at any point. At 18,300 ft. is the summit ridge, after which it is an easy walk to the summit. It was 11 a.m. by now and I was still a few minutes from the summit ridge. I saw the other two groups appear on the summit ridge from behind the horizon. They were already on their way down! This also meant the summit couldn’t be far from the ridge.
At the summit ridge, I saw them rope up for their descent. I asked the first climber rappelling down how far the summit was. He said an hour and a half. Bollocks. They certainly weren’t three hours ahead of me to summit and return. But I had no way to judge. I couldn’t even see the summit from where I was. The guide for one group asked me if I had a rope. I said no. He advised me against climbing further up else I’d face problems on the way down. To me, it seemed pointless to return at this point. I was 10 minutes away from the summit ridge, after which it was an easy walk to the summit. I would have 10 extra minutes of difficult descent in exchange for summiting Pico De Orizaba. Fair deal. I told him I’d be fine and walked on. I made the summit ridge at 12.00 p.m. and saw a humongous crater in front of me. Pico De Orizaba was an active volcano centuries ago. An eruption in the 1600s left behind a crater that was a few hundred meters in diameter.
The trail follows the edge of the crater to the peak (as you can see in this photograph). I was mentally rejuvenated to see the peak, but physically still tired and adjusting to the altitude. I staggered along for the next 15 minutes and walked on the highest point at 12.20 p.m. I threw my backpack on the ice and fell down exhausted.
I felt nothing. I had travelled so far for exactly that. To feel ‘nothingness’ after an accomplishment.
Days or years later, I will be happy to have climbed Pico De Orizaba, but for that moment, all I wanted to relish was nothingness. I didn’t care about anything else in life. It was a feeling that trivialized everything else I knew.
I woke up when I started to feel chilly. It was well below zero degrees. There were mild winds further lowering the temperature. The sky was clear and the visibility was good. I absorbed the stunning views for a few minutes, took some photographs, ate some protein bars and dry fruits, drank some Gatorade but unlike other peaks, I didn’t call anyone. Not that I didn’t want to share the feeling, but it was more important to get back to the base safely first.
Just before leaving, it struck me that I was close to 19,000 ft., and — trusting climbers on the other highest peaks on the planet weren’t at the summit that very instant — it was possible that I was the highest person on all continents barring Asia at that moment. At the very least, I was the highest person standing on five continents. It was a wonderful feeling that meant absolutely nothing.
Back at 18,300 ft. looking down from the summit ridge, the descent seemed fairly steep. But I had a secret weapon: glissading.
Glissading is the usually voluntary act of descending a steep slope of snow in a controlled manner either for the sheer thrill of the ride or to bypass tedious scree. Glissading is an alternative to plunge stepping and also cuts down on descent time.
Sitting glissade: This is the easiest type of glissade and generally provides the best feeling control. It is also less tiring than a standing or crouching glissade in softer snow. To perform a sitting glissade one sits down and slides on the slope usually holding on to an ice axe in a self-arrest position, especially when the run-out of the slope is in question.
I had some experience glissading at Mt. Shasta and I thought I could merrily slide down. I took off the crampons, I tied them to my back pack and sat at the edge of the slope with the ice-axe in a self-arrest position and ready to glissade down. I slid down a bit and using the ice axe, I stopped myself in 15 feet. The ice seemed okay for glissading. The next 20 feet glissade was fine too.
On the third slide down, I slid down a few feet and pushed the ice axe into the snow to lower the speed. No change in speed. I turned around and pushed by entire body weight onto the ice axe. I was still sliding down. This wasn’t supposed to happen! Pushing one’s entire body weight is the most one can do to arrest the speed. However, the snow was soft and melting in the afternoon sun, and I kept sliding. Even worse: The trail took a left in a few hundred ft. and the path I was on headed towards a rock cliff. The first 3 seconds or so is the only time you have to react in case of a slide. Once you cross that, the speed of fall is too much to stop yourself.
All this went was going through my mind in a split second. I wasn’t sure what to do (I wasn’t wearing crampons to help get a grip on the snow; I took them off before glissading). As a last resort, I kicked as hard as I could into the snow. My right foot went right into the snow, I got a foothold and the slide stopped.
I was stunned for a minute. I had to calm the mind and let my breathing to return to normal before I could plan ahead. I knew I had *narrowly* escaped from something rather bad. I had also lost precious energy reacting to the fall.
After I regained my composure, first I made sure my current foothold foothold was okay. Next, using the ice axe, I dug a hole in the snow large enough for me to stand in. The crampons were off the backpack and on the shoes. I slowly started walking down. It was steep but I followed existing footprints and it didn’t seem too bad.
A few hundred feet later I was on the glacier and the slope was much lesser. It was a vast open ice field, with no danger of cliffs or rock. I reckoned I could now glissade down and avoid having to walk the distance. The crampons went back into the backpack. Very cautiously, I started glissading down. This time though, the ice was hard (I was on a glacier), and I couldn’t push the ice axe far enough into the ice. In a few seconds — this time upside down facing the mountain — I was tumbling down. The slope wasn’t much so I didn’t pick up much speed. The ice axe was tied to my wrist, so I got hold of it and manage to arrest myself. This was the first time ever that I had tied the ice-axe to my wrist.
The other climbers were in sight at this point. They looked up when they heard me crashing down the ice. They were probably wondering WTF was up with me.
I was done with glissading for the day (just for the day, not forever), even if it meant I had to walk all the way back. It was around 3 p.m. and I had a couple thousand feet to descend. I didn’t think I could make it back before dark, but I had a headlamp. I took frequent rests and lost the way for a few minutes after dark. Having to scout for the trail kept me thinking and didn’t make me realize that I hadn’t had a proper meal for over 14 hours. In the fifteenth hour — at around 7 p.m. — I staggered back to the hut.
A couple of climbers who had arrived during the day welcomed me as I walked into the hut. They had many questions about the mountain. I could barely speak, but I gave them some tips (the first one being NO glissading) and went back to my spot. I was hungry and sleepy. Sleep won, and I fell asleep in a few seconds. I woke up at midnight when the newer groups were preparing to leave, cooked dinner and went back to sleep.
A couple of days ago back in the U.S., I narrated this story to a few friends. My friend’s wife asked me if I’d go there again, alone. I said ‘Absolutely!’. Her reply: ‘Some people think they are smart just because they were lucky.’
Not quite. I know the scares could have been avoided. I know I didn’t make some of the best decisions. I don’t consider the experience as something heroic on my part: At the most, I merely reacted to events that could have been avoided altogether.
Someday I might not be so lucky. It’s just probability. I’m aware of that. But it’s a choice I have made.
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