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What it is Like to Start a High Altitude Climb

What It Is Like To Start A High Alti­tude Climb” 

Writ­ten by Mary Hous­ton, who is a for­mer Moun­tain Mad­ness Cotopaxi mem­ber and is attempt­ing Oriz­a­ba at the start of the New Year with MM.

(For info about Mex­i­co Pro­grams click here )

This week I’d planned to write a warm, wit­ty post that would be a detour from swamps and sum­mits and instead would cel­e­brate the fif­teenth birth­days of my two West High­land white ter­ri­ers. Enti­tled A Dog’s Life” or some such sim­i­lar name.

But life over­whelmed, and as I find myself on an evening flight to Cleve­land, yes, Cleve­land, look­ing down on the rib­bons of light that carve up the great Amer­i­can Mid­west, and in the midst of Decem­ber’s par­ty giv­ing and par­ty going, the present pur­chas­ing, and the tra­vails of trav­el logistics..such plans fell by the way­side.

Instead, I find myself focused com­plete­ly on the sev­en days that J and I will have in just four weeks as we take our sea lev­el lungs back up into the clouds, and, I hope, reach the great height of 18,491 feet at the sum­mit of Pico de Oriz­a­ba.

In the midst of the Decem­ber chaos, it’s the antic­i­pa­tion of the com­plete silence that sur­rounds you when you start a high alti­tude climb that’s serv­ing as my real­i­ty check. It’s a world unto itself. It’s the peri­od between sen­tences.

You rise at 1 a.m. or so, strug­gle into what­ev­er lay­ers you did­n’t sleep in, clam­ber into your climb­ing har­ness, and strap on your hel­met. You eat as much break­fast as you can force down at that god­for­sak­en time, and hope that instant cof­fee will have enough caf­feine to keep you going. Every­one is always tense. The guides are mak­ing quick for­ays out­side the hut to check on con­di­tions and tem­per­a­ture. No one knows exact­ly what either the moun­tain or your own body has in store for you.

Final­ly, hop­ing you’ve wast­ed only an hour or so, gear assem­bled and back­packs on, you ven­ture out into what you hope to be a clear black night. The stars are as sharp as the lights of a laser point­er. If you’re lucky, there’s no wind. Ahead of you is the white glac­i­er and the steep slope up. Even­tu­al­ly it’s time to rope up. It’s still total­ly silent and you don’t talk except for nec­es­sary instruc­tion. You’re high above the clouds and your heart is pump­ing at a speed it nev­er would nor­mal­ly. But you find a rhythm in the deep silence and time stands still. Min­utes pass and you’re sur­prised when it’s time for the every hour break.

That feel­ing isn’t always with you on the moun­tain. Lots of times, and espe­cial­ly as the sum­mit draws clos­er and you’re at the increas­ing­ly ver­ti­cal slope lead­ing up to a sum­mit ridge, the rhythm goes, and it’s just kick and step and plant ice axe with every mus­cle of your body call­ing out loud­ly. Silent, that’s not.

But much as I love the sum­mit, I trea­sure those qui­et moments in the dark at the begin­ning. There’s noth­ing to do but to climb, one foot in front of anoth­er, know­ing that sun­rise is waiting.

Writ­ten by Mary Hous­ton, who is a for­mer Moun­tain Mad­ness Cotopaxi mem­ber and is attempt­ing Oriz­a­ba at the start of the new year.