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.
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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.