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The Cancholas lived in a small, single-storeyed house; their guests lived in a two-storeyed building next to their house and a large front yard separated the two. Their property was surrounded by high walls. I presume it keeps their house safe because people living in mountainous regions are bad climbers.
I had corresponded with Mauricio, who ran the agency. He was going to be out of town for my entire stay, but he mentioned in his last e-mail that Maribel and Canchola would take good care of me.
I was welcomed by a woman in her thirties who turned out to be Maribel, Mauricio’s sister. Maribel showed me my room. I had many questions about logistics for the rest of the trip. I was told that no one drove into the mountains after noon (the road is rough so they only drive during the day time) which meant I had to leave within an hour if I wanted to sleep at the base camp that night. I took a quick shower, packed all that I needed for the trek, and took directions to the town market. I needed some supplies (fruits, medicine for altitude sickness, soup).
Tlachichuca is a small town at the base of Pico De Orizaba. Most shop-owners didn’t speak English, and I relied on my passable acting skills to ask for altitude sickness tablets. At the fruit stall, the bananas were in plain sight and I just pointed at them. Thankfully for everyone there, I did not have to enact anything for the banana.
It is amusing how language is stripped down to its bare essentials when language is used for mere communication. Eventually, even when I spoke in English with locals, I only used nouns and verbs instead of grammatically complete sentences.
The supermarket at Tlachichuca was yet to open. I walked back to the Cancholas’ home and I asked Maribel if she had any soups and breakfast to pack. She perfectly understood when I said I was a vegetarian and within minutes she was back with ready-to-eat chicken soup. Not for the soul.
‘Ummm .. no.’
She came back with tuna soup.
The third time, either she understood ‘vegetarian’, or the soup just happened to be vegetarian. She also packed a couple of cheese sandwiches and mushroom rice for the road.
Maribel believed I was in too much hurry (while at the same time she hurried me to get ready). She was sure I was a typical youngster too reckless to care care of myself. She had assumed the responsibility of being my mother.
‘Have you taken gaiters?’
‘Have you taken your stove and fuel?’
I assured her I had taken everything and that I’d be fine.
‘Okay, but if you forgot anything, tell Canchola.’
Canchola was Maribel and Mauricio’s father, a man in his sixties who had guided people hikers to Pico De Orizaba for over 40 years. His forearms were larger than my biceps. Enough said.
We got into an old 4×4 jeep,and set off. He was a jolly old man. We understood very little of each other’s language and yet we kept talking. I offered him half my sandwich (which looked really good and I was very hungry). He politely declined. I liked him.
We spoke while I finished my sandwich, then I fell asleep (falling asleep was going to be a common feature of this trip). We reached Piedra Grande in a couple of hours. I had come from 0 ft to 14,000 ft. in less than 12 hours, and I was barely able to walk up to the hut. The air was thin, and I could very much feel it. There is a strange tingling sensation when the body is not adjust to the attitude. That is how I can tell if I’m not acclimatized.
Visibility was clear and I could see Pico De Orizaba looming overhead. The mind began mental calculations of the climb and guessing the route to the top.
I chose a spot in the hut and we transferred my gear and equipment inside. Canchola hung around for a while talking to the hikers in the hut. There were 3 hikers in the hut when we walked in: T, with her local guide, and another hiker J who was Mexican.
T was a woman in her 50s from Michigan, and was leaving for Tlachichuca when we arrived. She couldn’t complete the hike because of altitude sickness and nausea halfway through the hike. J was an interesting guy. It was his 46th birthday that day and the 16th time he was celebrating it at the hut. He tries to be at the base of Pico De Orizaba every birthday, and hikes upto the glacier (which is halfway to the summit).
There was an impromptu birthday celebration. We sang and he cut a cake, which was a piece of bread.
T, her guide and J left the hut in some time, I said goodbye to Canchola, and I cozied into my sleeping bag. I wanted to get as much rest as possible. I woke up in a couple of hours, and found two other groups had arrived. It was almost evening. After our introductions, both groups said that they planned to start that very night. However, both groups had been to a nearby peak at 17,000 ft. in the last couple of days. They were acclimatized. I wasn’t, and I was still deciding if I should make an attempt that very night.
By this time, I had forgotten I was in a different country. There was a mountain and there were climbers wanting to summit it, which is what you find at the base of every mountain, even Mt. Everest.
A few thousand feet below us was the country I had crossed to get to this point.
I decided to go for an acclimation hike. An acclimation hike is a small, non-strenuous hike done to acclimatize better and judge how the body is coping to the altitude. I had some soup, packed a light backpack and my wooden flute and started walking on the trail. I walked up a few hundred feet — it was hard and my pace was slow — and settled on a rock to play the flute. I played notes as they naturally came to me and it ended up being raga Bhoopali, likely because Bhoopali has the same notes as Pahadi raga, the raga of the mountains. For the next half an hour, a raga vistaar on the flute entertained the mountains. I was later told by fellow hikers that they found the music ‘inspirational’.
I haven’t formally learnt Hindustani music and it is possible that the music I played would have made stalwarts of Hindustani music jump from Pico De Orizaba.
When I walked back to the hut, I felt much better. I reckoned I could take a shot at the summit that very night. I cooked an early dinner and slept by 7 p.m. The next day was going to be long — if I made it even close to the summit.
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