Altitude

The courtyard at Summit Orizaba was littered with different four wheel drive vehicles, all of them sporting the hostel’s logo on the side. Kyle had been keeping his fingers crossed that we would get to take one of the Jeep Wagoneers up the mountain, so he was a little pouty when we were told to load our stuff into a newer Expedition. I was all smiles because our breakfast of scrambled eggs and ham, black beans, tortillas, and homemade salsa had really hit the spot. We all climbed into the Expedition around nine and we were off. The drive takes you through a couple of smaller towns before it leaves the cobbled road and heads steeply upwards on dirt. The road grew steadily rougher as we ascended. You could see that when a section of road got to washed out and pot holed they would simply build another road about ten feet away. The going was slow and I attempted to chat with our driver, Joaquin but he didn’t prove to be the best conversationalist. Of course, some of that may have been due to my spotty spanish.

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The Mexican country side was much more beautiful than I had expected. Yes, I lived in Mexico before, but I did so at a time in my life when my eyes weren’t very open to nature, especially the desert. I think when I lived in Oaxaca my gaze slid over the scrub brush and the golden brown grass, looking for something stunning. Driving up to Pico I was blown away by the giant towering pine trees and the softly swaying fields of grass beneath them. There were many plowed fields down lower where campesinos were growing corn and beans, but the higher we went the more wild the woods became. Finally we crested above tree line and our road led through rolling hills, swathed in tawny gold, all the way up to the Piedra Grande hut, which was resting at the bottom of the rocky mountain above. Everything was a different shade of brown and gold, washed out by the intense light from the sun.

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When we reached the hut we unloaded, not noticing our heavy breathing until we were lugging our giant twenty liter jugs of water up to a flat spot where we could set up camp. Many people who climb Pico decide to stay in the hut itself, but we had decided to bring tents and set up camp. Not only did a tent camp allow for more privacy but the hut was rumored to be loud, with people waking up at all hours of the night to start climbing, and everyone agreed, it was hard to get a good nights sleep in there. We wanted to improve our chances of sleeping, so tents were our best bet.

I moved around pretty slowly, stopping to suck in a huge breath every once in a while, seeking to fill my lungs entirely and slow my pounding heart. I could tell Sarah was feeling the same way I was, and Kyle too seemed a little slower. Carl on the other hand is some kind of a freak of nature. He actually assured us that this was true, having taken some kind of test in college that showed his lungs ability to absorb O2 was above average. Well above average. So he sprinted around camp and to the hut and back while we all walked on measured steps. After we had camp all set up and had peed around a million times (we were trying to stay super hydrated) we went on a short hike, down away from the hut, to get a little bit of a decrease in elevation.

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Altitude is really a crazy thing. At 13,500 feet (around where camp is) there is about half the effective oxygen that we breath at sea level. Effective oxygen levels actually decrease very quickly when you first start to gain altitude and around 14,000ft they begin to taper and decrease more slowly. Our biggest concern was AMS (acute mountain sickness) which hits you at high altitudes and comes with a bevy of symptoms including: fatigue, dizziness, weakness, headaches, and vomiting. On top of that there are other common symptoms that one experiences at altitude, the worst one of which is inability to sleep. AMS would be our biggest hurdle to overcome in climbing this giant peak.

We ate a huge lunch of cous cous after coming back from from our walk and all clambered into our tents for a touch of a nap and some time out of the sun. We got up later to find that clouds had descended on the mountain and were blowing past the smaller hut right above us. We grabbed boggle and headed into the hut to play some rounds before heading back to bed for the night. Kyle and I snuggled down into our sleeping bags. We smiled at each other. We both felt good. We felt strong and our breathing seemed to have eased throughout the day. Kyle’s farts were terrible, which was normal. Everything was going as planned.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

6 thoughts on “Altitude

  1. Great pictures. Love the play by play. Oh, I so remember my first altitude trip. The sound of my heart was playing in my ears like someone beating a drum, loud and clear. I didn’t know where it was coming from until the more experienced ones informed me that I was hearing my own heart. It was at about the same altitude. It stopped doing that after a few climbs. I took either Sportine or a low dose aspirin after that and it helped. I’m sure it helped that I was already living at 4500 feet. Keep drinking the water even if you have to pee. That does help. Good luck!

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