By Jerry Fine with photos by Lee Waite
The Climb: Day 3: Tuesday: Up and Over
The two climbers slept in the next morning. Lee had wanted to arise at 4 am and start, but Jerry procrastinated. He was feeling kind of beat down by the altitude and the lack of sleep. Finally at around 6 am we were stirring, and Lee did another outrageous stove lighting without blowing us sky high. Breakfast was oatmeal, and hot drinks. Lee cooked, while Jerry tried to get some motivation. His main contribution that morning was to stuff both sleeping bags into their stuff sacks, making an effort that required about fifteen minutes of panting to recover.
We took down the tent, and packed our packs. It was probably 8 am when we were ready to start. The weather seemed cooperative. There was a lot of cloudiness, but the upper mountain was clear and we could see up to the Breast. We hiked through the soft snow of the valley and joined the eastern ridge at the foot of some rock pinnacles. This was the Ridge of the Sun, mentioned in Secor's guide to climbing the Mexican volcanoes.
This ridge, a truly sinuous arete, gains altitude slowly as it rises to a headwall just beneath the Breast. We could look down the mountainside to our right and see the valley of Puebla off in the distance. To our left was the steep Ayoloco Glacier. We stopped to take pictures occasionally, and walked slowly, huffing and puffing and admiring the view. Once we smelled sulfur; a reminder that Ixta is of volcanic origin, although it seems to have no crater that can be distinguished. At a few places the ridge was quite sharp with very steep drops on either side. Our crampons bit deeply into the snow and gave us a feeling of security.
After perhaps an hour of slogging, we reached an area where the ridge broadened and appeared to be blocked by a high, triangular shaped rock wall. After a brief rest we headed up towards the left side of the base of this wall. We were following occasional wands left by Mexican climbers. At the base of the wall we found a route that looked like it would go. It was really just a continuation of our ridge, which climbed the upper left side of the headwall. We were now on pretty steep ground but the footing was good. The rocks seemed to be solidly frozen in place. After 20 minutes or so we had reached the top of the wall, and looking to the north, the final mysteries of the Sleeping Woman were revealed.
Directly in front of us the ridge dipped down and then continued straight up to the final summit area. This area seemed immense, and was bounded by steep ice cliffs on the west. We began to feel the excitement of getting somewhere. Off we went, and it seemed that in no time we were on the final climb up the ridge. It was steep and snowy, but having crampons on made it easy that day. The snow was not deep on the ridge.
Fine (left) and Lee Waite standing on the summit of the 7th highest peak
in North America
We topped a final rise and there in front of us, gently tilting up to the north was the summit plateau. It was as big as maybe 10 football fields. We began slogging towards the highest point. The snow was deep in places and slowed us down, but we were too excited to stop. At 10 am, there was nowhere higher on that mountain to go. We had reached the top.
It was a bit anti-climatic. The summit is not a sharp point, but merely a high point on the north side of the plateau. A single wand, left by earlier climbers marked the spot. We threw down our packs and so lost control of ourselves that we actually shook hands. Old Jerry was dry-eyed though he had been trying to get to this place off and on for about 26 years. Really, it was a good feeling.
Looking north through a break in the clouds we could see the Head. We walked along the edge until we could see the Ridge of Light which is the steep arete leading from the Breast down to the Neck. Hey, that doesn't look so bad. Plus, we knew that from the Neck it would be fairly easy to reach the Hut at Chalchoapan where we could overnight. We discussed it and decided that this ridge was a "Go".
Returning to the summit we made the obligatory round of pictures. Then, Jerry did his only really smart thing of the entire trip. He made sure to untape the sharp blade and adze of his ice axe, preparing it for action. Lee also took off the rubber protective covers on his axe. This was because we were going to be on steep ground and self arrests might become necessary if we slipped.
After less than 30 minutes on top, the two climbing partners started to descend the Ridge of Light. It was steep and the snow was at least calf deep. The initial slope was around 35 degrees which doesn't seem like much unless you are there. It was like descending a steep snow covered roof that was about 1500 feet high. Down and down we went. At one point, Lee's sleeping bag began to slip from his backpack, but he was able to stop it from getting away. Getting it tied securely, while hanging on to the steep mountainside wasn't easy. We were both breathing hard, but not feeling too wasted.
As we climbed down we came to some really steep and icy places. We both turned around and faced into the mountainside as we descended these. As we got lower down the ridge began to be more pronounced and sharp. Once we passed a rock, on which was written in Spanish, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". There were some occasional rock pinnacles which we had to bypass. About 3/4 of the way down, Lee wondered out-loud if it might be better to drop below the ridgeline and traverse . Jerry decided to try it, got onto steep ice with only a light powdering of snow on top. He slipped and was off to the races, sliding down the mountainside.
Fortunately, Jerry kept his wits about him. Flipping over on his belly, he drove the blade of his axe deep into the hillside, and tried to get his weight onto it. This tactic worked, and he slid to a stop after about 50-75 yards of travel. Fun. Lee didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so being from Missouri he just gave his partner a hard time.
Jerry got up, and gingerly traversed to a spot where he could join Lee. We followed the ridge, facing inward in a few awkward spots. Finally at about 12 noon we reached the col between the head and the breast, moved down some rocks and were off the snow. We heaved a sigh of relief. Chalchoapan, here we come. Actually, at this point we were talking about going even further down the mountain if time allowed.
The route to the hut was not as straightforward as we had hoped. Number one, we could not see the hut as we looked down the valley that lies between the head and the breast. Actually, all we could really see was what looked like the top of a line of cliffs. We descended several hundred feet and stopped for lunch. It was pretty sunny and a feeling of happiness came over us. The only cloud on the horizon was uncertainty about the route.
Leaving our lunch spot, we started looking for the route. To our left we were stopped by a line of very steep cliffs. Maybe we could climb down them and maybe we couldn't. Lee scouted to the right, and finally found a traverse to the side of the valley nearest the Head. There we connected with a long sloping scree ramp which would seem to take us downward. We were perplexed at not being able to see the hut, until finally Jerry spotted it in the distance. The scree sliding was all downhill, at least, but it was quite tedious.
It was around 3 pm when we reached a relatively level area at the foot of the slope. We were now definitely having trouble with the weather. Clouds closed in on us, spitting snow. It was getting harder to see ahead. Finally, the hut appeared again on top of a moraine in front of us. The last walking of the day was a climb of about 100 feet up to the hut. This was where we had spent the night in early January, 1989. The circle had closed.
The hut was in appalling shape, much the worse for wear. It was littered with trash, inside and out. I guess we went in there because we were tired, and didn't want to set up the tent. But, it was like camping inside a garbage can. The sleeping platforms at the south end of the little two room structure were cleanest so we moved in there. There was not a soul in sight. In fact, we had not seen a person all day. It must have been that the three day weekend was over and all of the Mexicans had left the mountain.
Fine in the Chalchoapan Hilton (maid service was fairly weak but the room
rates were excellent)
Jerry tried his hand with the stove that night, and was soon able to get it cooking. We had ramen noodles and hot drinks. There wasn't a lot of food left now, but we stretched supper out for a while. Jerry remembers long talks about various things that evening. We were not quite as breathless now that some acclimatization had taken place. The sleeping bag felt good. But alas, the hot rocks backfired. One of the candidate rocks had a petroleum content and actually started burning. Lee was not happy with Jerry for bringing in that rock.
As we drifted off to sleep we could look out of a little window at the
end of the hut and see the lights of the world's largest city far off down
the mountainside. Jerry did not sleep well. He had strange dreams. First,
he dreamed that he had been elected secretary of the Rose-Hulman faculty.
Next he dreamed that he was an impressario in Nazi Germany. He was trying
to set up a radio quiz show called, "Stumpf der Fuhrer". Yes,
the contestant was supposed to try to ask Adolf Hitler a question he couldn't
answer. Needless to say, this dream had a dicey ending. Plus, there were
alarms and excursions at night. Once we were both awakened by loud noises
right in the hut with us. Mice were hard at work trying to get into our
supplies. That hut was a mess.
After the Climb
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Copyright 1997 by Lee Waite and Jerry
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