Pico de Orizaba has been on our radar for quite some time. Peter Neumann, Mark Christison, Rob & Mary Aumer, and I have been dreaming, scheming, and working on this climb for months. We knew it wasn't an overly hard climb in regard to technicality... it's pretty much a walk up and at least from my perspective, a comfortable mountain... except for a little reality called altitude. Peter, Mark, and I were coming from close to sea level and within two days would ascend to 14,000 feet. This is a big jump. Some of us were on the drug Diamox, a high altitude helper, yet it's one thing to climb a peak in the Colorado Rockies at this elevation, it's entirely an another thing to live at that altitude for days on end - and climb higher. We had a stellar altitude schedule put together by Peter, and we began what is commonly done in the big mountains, climb high - sleep low. We did acclimation climbs the first two days getting to 16,230 feet on our last one. Then we took a rest day and prepared for our summit bid which would start at 12 midnight in the pitch black dark. Our summit day would be somewhere around 14 to 16 hours of steady climbing through the dark morning scrambling up and over rocky debris going higher and higher into oxygen deprived air. This would give us a summit time of around 9 to 10am in the daylight and plenty of time to descend. Our summit peak - 18,400 feet or close to 6,000 meters. Pico is the 3rd highest mountain on the North American Continent only 1,900 feet shy of Denali (Mt. McKinley).
Alarm clocks went off at 11pm and close to 12am midnight all our gear was on and we headed out into the thick darkness of night with a beast of a mountain looming over us in the starlight. All of us were excited and felt confident as we proceeded up the mountain, Rob searching for the correct path through the minefield of rock. As we climbed higher we started to separate in speed and took periodic breaks to bring us all back together. It was evident that Peter was not up to his usual self and yet he pursued on giving it his best. At one point, we convened to discuss our progress and our worry that Peter may not have the gas to make the summit, let alone get back down safely. There is a well-known saying from the American climber Ed Viesturs who has summited Mt. Everest 7 times... "Summiting is optional, getting back down is not." We all agree. I have to hand it to my friend, Peter was in full awareness of his condition, yet he was not willing to give up the summit that easily. So we proceeded to the "The Labyrinth," a jumble of huge volcanic boulders encased in ice, beginning at 15,500 feet and ascending to 16,200 feet. At this point, one must put crampons on their feet and climb with their ice axe for safety. It was here that Peter knew he was in no shape for the summit. I'm very glad he did not persist, for this rock, ice, and angle were a deadly combination if one fell.
We all stared at Peter, at each other, and our freezing feet as we reluctantly talked about what to do. We were not guided clients. Clients who hire a climbing guide pay for a summit opportunity. Clients who climb with a guide service have people who ferry those who can't make the summit off the mountain. We were on our own. We were responsible for all logistics for the trip and.... we are responsible for each other. None of us had been in a situation quite like this before. None of us wanted to summit without Peter. None of us wanted to forfeit the summit ourselves. Yet, at 15,500 feet in the cold darkness a decision needed to be made.
I've been known to speak before I think... this was not one of those times. As the words eased out of my mouth that I would go down the mountain with Peter in the pitch black dark to make certain he was safe, every bit of preparation in the gym and planning came into vision. Cardio with a 65 pound pack, weight training for months. The time away from my two girls and wife that I love, the money spent on hotels, hostels, food, gear, and the ridiculously high 55,500 mile award ticket to make a 22 hour travel day to the mountain. I was in great shape, acclimated for the climb, and ready to stand on that summit.
...It all flashed before my eyes.
.... and the exhausted and sick look of my friend was IN my eyes.
I have no regrets for going down the mountain with Peter. I would do it again. I have an obligation to my friends to watch after them when they need help - and they have the same obligation to me. One day I may need to collect.
Peter and I had many talks in the preceding hours and days. He came on the climb tired from work and busyness of life, and became sick. Not necessarily AMS, but probably from a chubby kid sneezing and coughing all over him on his flight down to Mexico. When you combine the effects of altitude to the mix, where doing everything is 4x as hard plus sleepless nights - you have a recipe for disaster. It wasn't Peter's fault, it could have happened to any of us.
Peter & I didn't make it to the top. But our friendship has strengthened even more and as a group of climbers we have grown deeper through conflict.
"A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need." Proverbs 17:17
Peter & I have unfinished business with Pico de Orizaba. We'll be back, Lord willing.