It turned out that Uncle Jon did not have a great deal of mountaineering experience: Kilimanjaro, Rainier, and Snowmass Mountain appeared on his resume often. I suggested Mexican volcanoes as maybe a more fun alternative to Aconcagua. He did some research and got excited; twice when I called Minnesota he was out carrying his pack up and down a local ski slope (something like a hundred and forty feet---don't they have a Matterhorn or something in the Mall of America?) or over doing the stairs at the twenty-four story Radisson hotel (extra hundred feet!).
Uncle Jon went to Mexico before me to acclimate for a few days in Amecameca, altitude 8070 ft. Meanwhile I was acclimating at the beach in California. I arrived at Mexico City at 11:30 p.m. 7 January 1997, in a good mood due to my buddy pass lucking on to a first---``Oh, all right, I'll have some more if you insist...''---class seat on an international flight. I booked a hotel (La Capitol: decent, enormous shower) and taxi at the airport, and the next day, after fried eggs (how do they make that orange sauce?), schlepped to the metro and the bus station. I had my most enormous duffel, which is the approximate size, shape, and color of a nuclear submarine. (I had originally intended to pop up at the airport with just carry-on luggage, but had a vision of myself trying to get through security with an ice axe, bound for the very city of Trotsky's assassination. Of course, if I have a big bag, I fill it.) On the bus I met two German women and we had a nice chat which enabled me to recall enough German so that for the rest of the trip every third word of attempted Spanish came out German (``Si, soy muede, y yo schlafe ahora''). Our chat continued at the bus stop where a friendly gent in a suit offered a ride to the women, and me, too, he thinking I was with them. He worked as an inspector for the government and had a nice car. His previous job had been selling hot dogs from a stand on a street corner in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the police there had hassled him a lot. He was very concerned about American's perceptions of Mexicans, and wanted to make a good impression, which really wasn't necessary, but he did anyway, finding out that he was dropping me off at Uncle Jon's somewhat remote hotel and leaving me at the door. I thanked myself for having the social grace not to attempt to tip him.
I walked into the lobby, which seemed a little chilly, past a very good-looking mid-twenties Mexican man, the dark and handsome type with bedroom eyes, which reminded me that my new wife, Michelle, really isn't interested in mountaineering, so it was probably best that she had not come. He asked if I was Glenn Murray and introduced himself as Roberto, the guide Jon had hired. He had a deep, rich, voice brushed with a Spanish accent, a language Michelle wanted to learn, and I felt it really was for the best that I had not dragged her here. Roberto directed me to Uncle Jon's room, where I went to see how the acclimation was going.
Uncle Jon had been afflicted the night before with a severe case of fever, chills, and sweats, and a little (insert traveller's euphemism of your choice here) diarrhea, so the acclimation was not going well; however, he was making great strides in the weight-loss area. He had all his gear spread around his room, which seemed a little chilly, and I played with this and that while we talked.
Although not very experienced, Uncle Jon has other resources which I do not, and was able to provide himself with new Scarpa plastic boots, Patagonia shell gear, Grivel crampons, a Petzl harness and headlamp, an altimeter, various fuzzy garments, assorted hardware, self-heating meals, Outdoor Research gloves and stainless steel thermi (half-dozen or so), Marmot Gore-tex sleeping bag, Dana pack, Camp ice axe, Leki trekking poles, and a guide with a Jeep Wagoneer, a tent and stove, and two boys. The guide, Jeep, and boys were arranged through Sr. Luis Reyes of the well-known Reyes family. The other gear had been purchased in Minneapolis, which goes to show that Minnesota is not entirely the backwater those of us who have lived in Iowa sometimes think it is.
I had had a previous experience with a well-equipped neophyte on a Mexican volcano---more ``neo'' than Jon. In January of 1991 I was awoken one night in the Tlamacas Lodge by the arrival of a Texan and his small entourage consisting of a drinking buddy and a silent Mexican woman whose role was a complete mystery or painfully obvious, depending on your view of the world at the moment. The woman never said a word, but the Texan said plenty, each afloat in a cloud of alcoholic vapor. He said he was going to climb Popo, but if he died, he made his buddy promise not to leave his body in this stinking damn country. The buddy told me later that the Texan's wife did not approve of this expedition, and that he himself could not walk across a bar floor without getting out of breath. I believed every word of this. The Texan had brand-spanking-new gear, including shell gear which he slept in until one or two, at which time he staggered out of bed and headed up the mountain. A few hours later, he made his retching way back and complained loudly that he was too damn sick to climb this damn mountain and then collapsed into bed.
I could only hope that this sad episode, while reinforcing what all Coloradans know in their hearts about Texans, did not foretell Uncle Jon's fate, and I promised myself that whatever happened, I would do all in my power to prevent Uncle Jon from moving to Texas.
Meanwhile, Roberto joined us and we decided that Jon should spend the rest of the day recovering, and the next morning we would move up the mountain, if he was feeling well. Uncle Jon's original plan was to acclimate on Malinche, climb Iztaccihuatl, and then zoom over to knock off Orizaba. I suggested this was a bit ambitious (we had less than ten days, already shortened by my late arrival and his illness), so we decided to focus on Izta. Roberto and I left him to nap and I toured our hotel.
The Hotel Los Volcanes is a cluster of large rambling stone structures which reminded me of a fantasy novel I started long ago about a castle called Gormenghast. My room (which seemed a bit chilly, but had an enormous shower), looked out on a small garden, had rough stone walls which would have been good for bouldering. One part of the hotel was set around a lovely courtyard. A new disco was being built at the end of the courtyard, but the whole seemed to be in decay, and Roberto confirmed that Los Volcanes' glory days had been in the sixties and seventies. This was confirmed by the view of the huge dry swimming pool surrounded with stacks of broken dining room chairs. The amazing dining room was a huge cathedral-shaped space, big enough to play hockey in, with a vast glass wall with views of the mountains along the southern side. Dining parties there(I never saw more than two) were swallowed up in the space. It was a hike to get from the door to the tables. I expected the food to be pretty bad, and I especially noted on the menu the burrito which Jon suspected of laying him low. But the food was excellent. I ordered enchiladas mole, and really enjoyed them, as it is hard to find mole in the U.S.
Underneath the dining space is a long chilly room of dust-covered billiards tables, with bead counters drooping from wires overhead. After dinner Roberto introduced me to the boys, Jesus and Alberto, and we played eight-ball against each other, always winning due to crucial errors by our opponents. I arrived at my room to find it still nippy, and only then did I finally realize that the entire Los Volcanes Hotel is unheated. There is a cast-iron stove in each room, complete with burn marks on the carpets, but no fuel.
Roberto took us up winding logging roads above Amecameca to a remote campsite at the end of the road at about 12,000 feet, (this is not a place mentioned in Secor's guide). Jon was feeling better and chatted away, making jokes and asking questions, all of which Roberto listened to solemnly. Jon is a high-energy, type-A personality, and we were all pleased to share some of his energy. Roberto, on the other hand, is almost grave. (One of the trips finer moments came when Roberto, with his deep voice, described the great Mexican mountaineer Carlos Carsolio as a person who is ``very serious''). Our basecamp was situated in clumps of tall grass among sparse tall pines in a narrow valley. The logging road trip had taken two or three hours, so we had the afternoon to relax. The weather was not very good, cloudy and breezy, and overnight it got down to about 28 F. We had steaks for dinner, which Jon had purchased at a local butcher shop, turning down a chance to sample from a huge steaming vat of bubbling cow guts. The night before we had eaten one of his self-heating meals, which had ``worked,'' but tasted like you would expect. Our plan was to camp one night, move to the hut at the base of the Ayoloco glacier, and the next day summit and return to basecamp.
The next morning we left around nine. Jon was still feeling weak, but game. However, he wanted to wear his leather boots up to the hut, so Roberto agreed to carry Jon's plastic boots. When Jon's pack still looked enormous, we made him unpack it and leave stacks of stuff behind. Jon complained that he would die without every piece of polypro, but we ignored him. I think this was a bit demoralizing for him, and a bit demoralizing for Roberto to have to take his client's boots, but they both took it well and we were off through the grass and cow patties. For several hours we traversed up and across several grassy ridges until we gained a long rocky ridge. Roberto set a steady pace and had Jon follow behind him, and Jon plugged right along. As we ascended the ridge the wind increased and I put on my shell at the top while waiting for the others. I also put on my gaiters to break trail through a short snowfield to the hut. We arrived cold, tired, and hungry at about 4:30 at 15,000 feet.
I will refrain from saying all I can about huts on Mexican volcanoes; this was neither the best nor the worst. It was a typical half-cylinder shape with two cooking platforms by the door and two sleeping platforms which might each hold four comfortably, sporting insulated double walls, a translucent window to the west, and many foam pads. There was a fair amount of garbage and at least one mouse. Roberto fired up the stove, a Bleuet canister stove. I had never used one before, but was impressed by two things: first, those canisters burn forever; second, it's a good thing they do, since they hardly put out any heat. It took ages to melt snow. Everyone got into their bags and snoozed until the sun finally came out at sunset. We ate dinner and did some packing for the next morning.
It must be said that Uncle Jon was having a hard time. He misplaced an ankle pad. He lost a contact lens. He was tired and cold and didn't have any appetite. He had not realized it would be so tough to eat and drink. He got into his bag and the hood closed up around him and he didn't say much. Remembering that forty hours earlier he had been sweating with fever or shivering with chills in his bag on his hotel bed, I found it remarkable that he was there at all.
Before I went to bed I ventured down the precarious steps and stood looking west. ``That is my town'' said Roberto, proudly. The lights of Mexico City lay like a thick pool of liquid gold among the black volcanoes of the central valley. Back in the hut we lay quietly in a row and Roberto asked us if we knew any climbing ghost stories, but ended up telling them himself, about the rescue he led on Orizaba in November, when four climbers fell to their deaths over an icy patch, and about the four photographers who went up on Popo last year and were found dead with strange jaguar spots burnt into their skin. I looked up at the graffiti dancing on the walls in the candlelight. YO SOY UNA VACA DE HOY.
``Yo soy una vaca de hoy. What does it mean?''
``I am a cow of today.''
``I know that, but what does it mean?''
``It is hard to explain. It is philosophical.''
Uncle Jon took a long time getting ready---he had not practiced the gaiter thing enough---and we helped him. Roberto had wanted to leave at 6:30, but it was almost an hour later before they headed out the door while I tidied up a bit. I heard Roberto outside, saying ``Now Jon, I want you to follow exactly behind me, and breathe in rhythm with your steps,'' and saw them start out at a steady pace. It was light, and above us we could see the hips of the sleeping lady which is Izta. Jon was moving well.
Roberto chose an indirect route to the lowest part of the Ayoloco glacier, one which wound up through some easy mixed gullies. This was kind of fun, and I got to see him do the guide thing: carrying coils, belaying clients over short steep sections with sitting hip belays, and keeping things moving along. It's a great tradition which I think he carries well. Later, he reminded me of a quick way to tie a butterfly knot, and I showed him a quick way to tie an HMS.
This was the second time in my life I had been on an alpine rope team of more than two, the other had been my first professionally guided climb, where I had been the last on a rope of five. Here I was in the middle---the most unhappy place to be. The middle person has the least freedom of movement side to side or up and down, and the middle person is in the worst position to take photographs or take in scenery, whereas the leader has the most freedom of movement and the last has the best footsteps. On the bright side, you really get to feel like a member of the team. We took a break to put on crampons, rolled up some gullies, and started up the glacier.
Crunch crunch breathe breathe. The sun was shining on the other side of the mountain and we kept a warm steady pace. About halfway up the sun hit us and Roberto pounded some axes into the snow and we had a break. I felt fine and Jon was going good.
Shortly Roberto started earning his tip. So far, he had been like a metronome clicking off regular paces on rock or ice. We encountered some breakable crust, and I stopped feeling tugs from behind. I could see his boots kicked in, weighted, and plunging down. Not more than mid-calf, but we were over 16,000 feet; still, the metronome kept going. I broke through occasionally, but the main work was Roberto's. Uncle Jon's trips up and down the hotel staircase were paying off: he chugged right along with us. To the south rumbling Popo and its plume, sometimes wispy, sometimes thick and boiling, came into view.
We stepped across one fist-crack crevasse, angled left, and traversed across some scree-covered hard water ice. Up and out of the glacier and into the wind we were rewarded with a two pi radians view of Mexico. To the east, La Malinche and then the most beautiful Citlalteptl, or Orizaba. To the north and west the Arista del Sol led up to the summit fields, mercifully blocking a view of the brown cloud over the city. To the south Popo belched and to the west we traced our tracks up the glacier.
Another party appeared below us on the main ridge of the mountain; we had joined the standard ``knees'' route. Roberto admonished Jon to drink, and we headed up the ridge, Roberto and I carrying coils of rope. One summer Roberto once did this in tennis shoes, but this time there was a few inches of snow. The weather was magnificent. After several false summits (1.``That's it, Jon!'' 2.``It's just up there!'' 3.``We're close now, Jon!'' Roberto said, unnecessarily encouraging us) we popped out on the summit snowfield. Roberto probed with his axe for crevasses. I tried to remember it from my last visit. Two climbers were visible on the summit several hundred yards away. We walked up. Roberto was not very English: everyone got a formal hug. It was about one-thirty.
Down we went at the metronome pace, down across the summit field, and down the ridge, where I heroically considered leaping to the opposite side if Jon fell, but he was solid all the way. Down we went across the frozen scree, stumbling in the exact way at the exact spot I had stumbled on the way up, and where we had a view down across the white footprint-perforated sheet of glacier. Down the footprints, stopping the whole team while crossing the crevasse, where careful photography would lead to a photo of an enormous gaping abyss, if not for the two-story boot toe in the corner. Down to the rock, where finally I freed myself and romped down to the hut while Roberto insisted on lowering Uncle Jon instead of belaying him for a little practice downclimbing. How free I felt! And to be first to the hut, where I could look hard and honestly feel tired.
We had considered staying at the hut, but now there were eleven people there, with more arriving, including a large party of Englishmen. At least I guessed they were English, they never hugged each other, they had a giant tin of Bovril on display, and they asked me many polite questions with an English accent. In retrospect, this strikes me as odd, since you would never say of a native-born Russian speaker that they have a Russian accent while speaking Russian. I put some snow on to melt and watched Jon and Roberto click down. Uncle Jon disappeared into the hut and I began sorting gear. Soon I nagged him out. The descent had taken quite a bit out of him. I've never done anything that hard, he muttered. We began loading up the packs for the descent. The sleeping bags and pads went into Jon's pack. I took his plastic boots and other heavy items. This is a crazy sport, he said, do you want these, gesturing to his crampons, and this harness?
Now I'd been a dirtbag climber for a long time, and was sorely tempted, but I nobly said that this is not the best time to make these decisions. This fine spirit crumbled the next day, however, when I broke down and accepted an insulated water bottle cover from him.
With cheerful farewells to the English we were off. This was the
worst part of the trip for me, I wanted to fly, but we stuck together
down the ridge and we stuck together while the sun went down and we
stuck together with our headlamps following Roberto through the
gullies and ridges of grass. I put my mind into the plodding zone,
clomping one boot down after the other, my head linked to Uncle Jon's
leather boots by a fading beam of light. I drifted on memories brought
on by the spinifex-like clumps of grass, and vaguely noted the outline
of ridges under the stars, the distant glow of the great city, and the
welcome silhouette of pines. Our headlamp batteries burned out, but we
had spares, and we kept going, stumbling down grass-hidden steps,
stopping often for rests, and finally trudging into camp at about nine
The next morning I was fully prepared to sleep in, but Uncle Jon was suffering from severe descent fever. He was up at eight with a full head of steam, packing and nagging (1.``We're about ready Glenn'[', 2.``Are you about ready then, Glenn?'' 3.``We should be getting going, Glenn''). I stuck to my bag, hoping for sun, but finally drew myself out and stretched. The tent was down and the boys were loading the Jeep. Uncle Jon was pacing back and forth, trying to help out here and there, speculating about the hamburgers and Coronas he expected that night, when Roberto, ever serious, reported that the Jeep ``does not want to start.''
Jon met this news with disbelief. I met it with regret that I had let myself be persuaded out of bed. We gathered around the patient. It was painfully obvious to the most casual observer that the battery was dead. The starter gave a low moan and the engine made a quarter-turn. I cleaned the terminals and checked the connections without effect. Suspicions were passed about the boys having disco sessions the night before. Because the headlights came on, Roberto would not believe the battery was dead, and every so often he would make the engine moan again. There was a reasonable, but short and rough, downhill stretch, but Roberto seemed reluctant to risk the Reyes' Jeep's automatic transmission with a running start.
Roberto had a two-way radio and began trying to contact Sr. Luis Reyes in Mexico City. He suggested we wait until we made radio contact. After a couple hours, Jon was furious. I thought he was going to hire himself and sue the Reyes family. He explained to Roberto that another night at the camp was not acceptable. Jon wanted movement immediately, and suggested we walk towards Amecameca while looking for a jump start and making radio calls along the way. Roberto vetoed this suggestion. John said that his wife was expecting a call, that she would worry, and the thought was intolerable. Roberto said that you may not know it, Jon, but inside I am like a volcano; I am very frustrated. Jon said that if radio contact wasn't made by noon he would start walking out. Roberto coolly replied that Jon could do what he wanted. The situation was tense. A madman ran out of the woods.
Ah, Mexico! Not up the road, but bushwhacking down the valley side, and shouting up the mountain as he ran. Thin beat-up running shoes, faded shorts and singlet hung from his skinny frame. An old plaid coat tied around his waist gave him a slightly Scottish aspect. He ran up to Jon, looked us over, turned and shouted angrily up the mountain. I looked up expecting: another runner? Rescue squad? Bagpipes? The runner began talking excitedly. Roberto came over from the Jeep and they began talking, one serious, one excited, their conversation occasionally interrupted by angry shouts up the mountain. After a while the runner shouted again, and took off through the grass and trees up the opposite side of the valley. Jon and I gathered around Roberto for a report.
``He runs in the mountain for training. He is going to run in a marathon in Houston. He says he will call Sr. Reyes when he gets to a telephone, maybe in two hours. I gave him fifteen pesos.'' Roberto paused and said, in a lower voice, ``I do not trust him. He believes the mountain is alive and shouts at it. He says he can talk to the spirits.''
After more moans from the Jeep, Roberto announced that he and Alberto would walk to a telephone. If they made radio contact on the way they would turn back, but we should prepare for another night.
Uncle Jon and I went for a stroll. The weather was glorious, the air crisp and alpine, the sun warm and friendly, and the view of Popo formidable. We meandered down the road and chatted. Jon works in the Big Brother program and he told me about the boy he has been working with. The first time he took the boy out to lunch the kid tried to take the ketchup bottle home, but since then progress has being made. The short downhill stroll was surprisingly tiring and Jon became resigned to another night without hamburgers and Coronas. We spent the afternoon reading and snoozing.
After my nap I collected snow for water and started the stove. We had enough leftover food to eat well, and we enjoyed it around a big campfire. We talked into the night, occasionally hearing the grumblings of Popo, but not the coyotes Roberto had promised. We joked with Jesus and went to bed expecting to be rescued in the morning.
We said goodbye to Roberto outside the hotel Ariosto. He said that we had made a good team, possible future climbs were mentioned. We were sad to see him go, but happy that we had got to know him, and we promised to stay in touch. My room in the hotel, in the Zona Rosa, Mexico City's high-rent district, was the most luxurious I had had that trip, but had the tiniest shower. Go figure.
``Pardon me, Cuba?''
``Isn't it illegal to go to Cuba?''
``You pay a fee and they won't stamp your passport. Of course, I'll have to check with Janice.''
My mind was having trouble shifting from climbing to Cuba. Carabiners and crampons to cigars and '57 Chevys. I puzzled over it, and in the end it seemed like a moral question, which is really the easiest kind of question because you usually know the answer.
``Sure, why not? I'll go to Cuba with you.'' Yo soy una vaca de hoy.
But Janice said no, not this time. Perhaps if Minnesota had not been locked in a fierce January deep-freeze the thought of balmy Havana would not have been so alien.
We bailed from Mexico. We stayed up late packing and watching fine cable movies (Forrest Gump, Madame Sousatzka); we got up early and took a taxi to the airport, where the usual airport chaos ensued. We shopped and I bought a small mother-of-pearl box to take home to my new wife. We ended up with different flights luckily departing at the same time.
My standby ticket got me first class from Los Angeles to Denver. An almost painful happiness: I was homeward bound with my new wife's mother-of-pearl box, a water-bottle cover, a thermos, exposed film, a glass of wine in my hand, and a mindful of memories---gazing out on pure white desert, marbled with deep red-striated canyons which split into arteries of side canyons and the veins and capillaries of gullies and arroyos, lit crimson against the white by the setting sun, or black with winter shadow.
I thought Roberto was an excellent guide, handling several difficult situations well.
Antonio Ancona #31 Depto A-301
Col. Coajimalpa de Morelos
C.P. 05000 Mexico D.F.
Tel. (915) 812-3265