New Obsession or False Dawn?

by | 08.12.18 | Life, Travel

New Obsession or False Dawn?

by | 08.12.18 | Life, Travel

Obsessions

Everyone should have a passion. Preferably large in stature. That juice maintaining a bouyant spirit and firing mind. An accelerant that, once lit, consumes your thoughts.

Triathlon once devoured our time, budget, and every waking moment. A sport that rewards dedication, commitment and sacrifice; attracting the obsessed in their droves regardless of physical ability. Each gorging themselves on the three sports and the assorted equipment that came with it; a selection of shiny objects amassed under the misguided understanding the purchases would perform miracles on race day, peddled with drug dealer smugness by retail outlets keen to enrich themselves on triathlete gulibility.

Claire and I simply swapped one obsession for another. Travel has always been there. A nice disease to have, the only symptom being itchy feet.

Nevado de Toluca – Colima, Mexico

Colima

Mexico has a way of surprising the explorer and is an unexpected volcano fest, the highlands so peppered with different peaks they are in danger of being over-seasoned. Nevado de Colima sits on the Jalisco / Colima border and we chug towards it, noting a thick layer of cloud enveloping its upper reaches, certain to kill any view at the top and dampen the rich reward for mountaineering efforts.

We take a left off the main highway, asphalt quickly becoming dirt. A more gnarled trail than we expected, not too loose but certainly lumpier. We climb, for what feels like an eternity thanks to road conditions and trees that need cutting to avoid scratching the camper, before reaching a clear-cut area where we make camp and set our alarm for an early morning.

The hike itself is fairly short, a 2 hour or so trip starting with an easy section of road that leads to a manned communications outpost. We ask about the summit trail. The uniformed guards not at all happy to comply with our request, citing dangerous weather conditions and claiming there is no trail. Conditions are categorically very good – sunny, calm, warm. We know there is a trail. A quick detour along the road and we find the trailhead. Moving across a barren plain of volcanic sand, on a thin goat path, before scrambling up an unexpectedly sketchy rock face that requires actual climbing rather than scrambling. It’s not long before we reach our first summit. Cloud cover drifting in and out, a blanket of coyness revealing something new each time.

Caldera Base – Nevado de Toluca, Colima, Mexico

Toluca

Something of the disease can already be felt. The physical challenge peaking [sic] our interest. The road up to Nevado de Toluca is unpaved but easy, we pay a small entrance fee at a concrete casita and notice a cool looking Mitsubishi Delica off to our right encrusted with Overlander jewels – MAXTRAX, a top box and plenty of landmark stickers. English speaking company has been scarce in Mexico. The two white figures wandering towards us and US vanity license plate (PESO) give us hope that we can spend a few minutes talking to someone other than each other.

They are Wandering Peso. Outdoorsy, Patagonia clad climbers who tell us to circumnavigate the caldera rim rather than simply hike down to the lakes. We reminisce about bugs, humidity, tortillas and chat about vehicles for a while, then head on our separate ways. Strangely connected through travel despite only sharing 10 minutes of our lives.

Toluca is more barren than Colima and higher too. A visitor area and police hut at 4,100m provides a base camp, already as high as the Colima summit and just as barren; the trees being too scared to venture into alpine territory. The police are friendly, their purpose more for safety of visitors than law enforcement. Friendly enough that we drop by their hut for beers in the evening, briefly watching Mexico play out a sightly dull footballing loss to Chile on their small TV.

 

Pick your camp spots carefully

We camp on the edge of the car park, a steep drop providing a great view but proving an unnerving choice as the wind picks up, somehow gathering speed as it funnels through the ridge that separates the base camp area from the inner caldera. Our camper, Sherpa, is getting battered. The wind throwing haymakers rather than steady gusts and landing plenty of them. The aggressive weather and lack of oxygen combine to deprive us of sleep.

Lifting my phone displays 12:30am and Claire sends me out into the cold and rain to check whether we need to move to shelter. Sitting inside the camper seems to be magnifying the winds effect; better the devil you know. I head back inside. Its cover blown, the wind gives up and heads elsewhere.

We start early. 7am. Hitting the initial small trail to the caldera and making our way along a smooth ridgeline. The caldera is large, a volcano ring that circles around a dormant flat area that houses two clear lakes. The slopes between rim and bottom consisting of a thick and steep mass of powdery volcanic sand and ash that seeks out nook and crannies in your clothing. Half of the caldera rim is fairly smooth, undulating. The other half resembles a royal crown cut in half, peaks and troughs of jagged rock.

The summit itself is around 4,600m with several mini peaks along the way getting almost as high. While the initial smooth trail flatters our progress, the rock strewn peaks take an age to conquer. After 5 hours and plenty left to go we realize that you can never judge a volcano by it’s caldera.

 

Toluca Summit

Summiting was welcome but strange. A mass of paving stone style lava rocks dropped unceremoniously in a heavy mess. Huge gaps between each slab seeking opportunities to trap a limb and close up. The Venus fly trap of summits. Eschewing tradition for the fearless summit photo, Claire clings, belly down, on the summit rock and smiles for the camera.

Toluca, once conquered, is a quick mountain to descend. Rather than retracing our steps we slip along the remainder of the rocky edge and trail down to the lakes in the centre. One sharp, brief, breathless climb left before we drop back down to base camp, pack the camper and head back into the city. Our headache subsiding as we camp ceremoniously in Walmart’s oxygen rich parking lot.

The final ridge – Itzaccihuatl, Puebla, Mexico.

Iztaccihuatl

Puebla, a city in Puebla state that, although reasonable, is outshone by neighbouring Chulula. A town with a sixties showgirl name and a similar way of encouraging you to stay longer than intended. Claire busies herself ensuring another volcano is added to the itinerary.

Over 5,200m high and almost impossible to pronounce, Iztaccihuatl (Its-Ta-See-What-al) adds further difficulty by starting high and staying high. The mountain profile resembling a lady reclined on her back and, thanks to a usual dusting of snow, is known as the ‘White Woman’.

Each peak is anatomically named. Feet, Knees, Breasts, Head. A series of volcano calderas linked together; the lack of perfect volcano shape mocked by the stereotypical cone of neighbouring Popocatépetl that exhales regular clouds of volcanic smoke with a frequency that prohibits climbing it.

A mountain guide, Mesh, and camp host, Gustavo, pick us up from Chulula in a small Ford SUV. Mesh is small, even by Mexican standards. Good looking with trial features. He looks like a rock climber rather than a mountain guide. He is both. Constantly chattering. Constantly moving. Someone who consumes the same energy required by a much larger person and fires it back into the world like a bulb receiving too much power. His constant conversation has a thread, weaving from one topic to another, each one started as if he’s just thought of something important to discuss. He plays faux instruments and sings to the car stereo while maintaining a conversation. A one-man air band conducting an interview.

Gustavo is also good looking, but with softer features and more ‘mainstay’ Mexican. His personality is gentle. His English far weaker than Mesh’s, and he seems somewhat unwilling to give it a go even though you can tell he is desperate to learn. Gustavo is the more grounded of the two, an all-rounder as opposed to Mesh’s greater intensity and specialized personality. As we drive the paved roads towards the trail I question whether either is the ideal mountain guides, regardless of actual mountain skills. The too loyal hound and the unchained wolf.

Halfway towards basecamp Mesh darts into a local tamale store offers us delicious tamale tortas to disprove our previously discussed dislike of that particular ‘comida’. He is right, they are delicious and unlike any we have had before. He trades seats so Gustavo can gain some driving experience. He needs it. There is no real danger other than to the vehicle’s suspension. Potholes, drops and rocks battering the shocks before Gustavo starts to afford them extra respect.

The Ford also contains some equipment a more technical climb requires. Overly cautious ice axes are added to necessary crampons along with some alternate items of clothing to keep us dry and warm, some tents and some food. We want the full mountain experience, leaving the camper in Chulula and opting to sleep under canvas – or at least nylon – at basecamp; a not too picturesque area at the foot of the trail. Basecamp is a parking lot. A small line of concrete shelters, a couple of vehicles and a few tents. Our chances of sleep are slim given our 5:30 pm bedtime and 12 am rise for the climb.

camino cabo este, baja california, mexico

Mountain man (just visible) tends to his tent at basecamp – Iztaccihuatl, Puebla, Mexico

Mountain Man

Arriving in the afternoon we do a small ‘pace’ climb. A chance for Mesh to evaluate our fitness and also add altitude to our blood cells. The air is thin but acceptable. No headache yet. We return to camp, a lone character gliding down from a trail opposite us. I’ve met several in my time and this definitely counted as one. A character. Tall, thin, too old to be called ‘rangey’ but you get the picture; all limbs, like a vertical spider. A man who would instil fear into anyone he asked to guess his age. Possibly forty or fifty but looks eighty. Skeletal and heavily bearded. A selection of mountain inspired clothing hanging limply on a stereotypical ‘mountain-man’. Gandalf in oversized vintage North Face.

He makes his way into the camp, each movement practised. A routine. Backpack to tent. Stove to counter. Match to stove. Water to Kettle. Like watching a documentary. The gritty concrete cabana the perfect backdrop to a human so outwardly devoid of emotion that I couldn’t imagine him having a face let alone a voice. His beard easily thick enough to hide both.

I quiz Mesh about Mountain Man. “Oh, he lives here.” Lives here? Who the fuck lives here? A gravel parking lot with early Soviet shelters and an open toilet that is without question the entrance to hell. The man didn’t speak. A simple nod the only gesture to indicate he was aware of any human presence. The urge to speak to him is overwhelming but beaten down by the impossibility of the task. Mountain man is a black hole of conversation. Void of substance with a gravitational pull sucking in all potential human interaction. I have to physically use one hand to stop the other removing a camera form my bag. He stoops low and flows into his tent. An hour later he is back out. Walking methodically down the unpaved road into the low cloud cover. We never see him again.

 

Go Time

Nine-thirty PM is no time to be waking up. I am dizzy and my head is starting to pound. Reports from others suggest I am not alone in believing the source of an altitude headache stems from neck tightness. I know that’s wrong but knead away anyway. Stretching my head left and right in the belief it will help. I am fully clothed and cold, in a not-up-to-the-task sleeping bag. I drift in and out of sleep, punctuated by time checks on my phone. Midnight thankfully arrives. I get up, eager to get on with the climb. Unsure whether I believe movement will reduce my altitude sickness or whether I am just keen to get it done and get back down to civilization.

Mesh, Gustav and Claire are still asleep as I pace the cold parking lot, wondering whether I got the time wrong. Eventually, there is movement. A tent bound Gustavo shouting a panicked wake-up call to Mesh who has decanted himself into the Ford’s back seat at some point the previous evening having set his alarm for 12 noon rather than midnight. Breakfast is thrown together quickly and we saddle up. Ice axes strapped impressively to our backpacks as we head into the night. Head torches somewhat redundant due to the full moon. The head torches of others indicating a couple some distance ahead and another couple further back. We start the climb at a speed I will soon learn to be too fast. Initially, it is a hike. A hard packed trail with a few rocks and boulders. I feel poor. Slightly dizzy, thick-headed. An un-ordered cocktail I am forced to drink and that gets consistently worse.

 

Altitude is a horrible drug

We hit the rest hut at around 2 am. A wooden cabin with ratty bunks. It reeks of the unwashed and camp stove fuel, is littered with empty gas canisters and convenience food wrappers, and contains the two climbers we saw ahead of us. I sit down, a welcoming party of dizziness, physical fatigue, tiredness and nausea receives me with open arms. Great, a drink free hangover. Just two hours into the climb and I am already requiring the same mental fortitude that my Ironman triathlons required towards the end of the race. That same urge to stop.

Continuing seems to be less certain. I no longer want to be on the mountain, the summit holds zero pull and I could actually cause some serious issues if my condition worsens, putting myself and others at risk. This is not a particularly difficult climb, but there are few crazy enough to enjoy carrying someone else down. Two more climbers enter the hut, an Englishmen and his guide. We share the platitudes of unfamiliar faces in shared conditions. I am too quiet so people start asking after my well being. I feel stupid and sick, answering them with my head hanging, a punch-drunk boxer on his corner stool.

I decide to press on, knowing that movement seems to help and that we are already high; despite the long climb ahead, we don’t actually have that much more altitude to gain. Heading back into the night I consider the five extra hours left to the top, the six hours of descending back afterwards. The thought is appalling, to ninety percent of my brain, yet strangely appealing to the remainder; that portion – small but strong – that draws me to endurance sports. Claire, on the other hand, seems daisy fresh with a workmanlike eagerness to get to the top. Jealousy formulates a plan to launch her from the summit.

 

Up the Knee

Any irony about our rest stop being the hardest point of the climb is not lost on me. As we make our way up a more technical climbing section called ‘The Knees’ my demeanour improves. The climb has won the argument. The Knees are steeper, rockier. They need climbing but remain a rope free endeavour. After The Knees the trail goes up with a steadier grade; several traverses before it’s time to add crampons for the looser sand sections and glacier. My size thirteens precluded me from renting mountaineering boots so I buckle the crampons to my hiking boots, actually approach shoes, that are suited to the previous climb more than they are to the cumbersome apparatus currently being applied. The boots are too flexible. Giving way whenever there is side pressure, the crampon frame digging into my feet adding insult to injury.

The glacier is easy, a visible trail down onto the dome of crystalline ice that sits on top of the ridge like melting ice cream. It is the perfect place for the first rays of sun. They creep from behind the horizon, spreading a light blue and orange hue across the sky, mirrored wonderfully on the bald white pate of the glacier.

On the Summit of Iztaccihuatl – Puebla, Mexico

On Top

The summit, a previously retreating quarry, has now fatigued more than us and we are gaining ground. Not only visible but tangible. The last curve of the trail being swallowed with each laboured step counted down with the lazy certainty of the second hand on a nursing home clock.

There is a certain build-up of appreciation at a summit, a moment or two of increasing joy as you take a breath, regain your physical order. Then the prize. The view you have been subconsciously avoiding for the last quarter of an hour, embraced, welcomed, soaked in. There is no more height. Everything around us is lower apart from Popocatépetl volcano beside us; taller but not discernibly so and letting out a triumphant puff of ash in appreciation of our efforts. The distant dawn lights of Puebla fading as the sun dials up the brightness.

We sit on top if the world for a few minutes. Smiles are traded. Cameras swap hands as people take pictures of other people with other peoples cameras. The last climber arrives. An English guy whose office lifestyle dragged him far enough down that he became obsessed with climbing back up, taking in several peaks over the last year or so, his nine to five resignation still giving him goosebumps of pleasure. It’s hard not to see the hopelessness of corporate toil from such an elevated platform.

Despite the smiles and joy, there is a small elephant in the room. One we face after a few minutes on the summit. We stand up. We stretch. We nod in the universal way that indicates everyone is ready, and start to retrace our journey back down.

The question of whether we have replaced one endurance obsession facing a stark reality. The answer is no, not yet anyway.

Sponsors

During the planning of our trip, we have been fortunate to meet people who have shown a great deal of enthusiasm about the expedition and have supported us through sponsorship of products and/or services. They played a part in helping make This Big Road Trip a reality, are passionate about what they do and passionate about doing it well. If you're in the market for their product or services then we can highly recommend them.

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