Recounting an attempt to ski the third-highest mountain in North America
I’ve lived out of my Tacoma for the last four years, logging some 160,000 miles across twenty states, three countries and countless dirt roads. During this time I’ve spilled coffee on my lap a few times, accrued a handful of parking tickets and wrenched on just about every component of the rig. Mom, if you’re reading this, know that even when I make mistakes, I try to learn from them.
Nomadic life has warped my perception of many, otherwise normal things. Road trips aren’t a post-college right-of-passage or last gasp family vacations, but rather a permanent lifestyle. Sometimes they offer a rush of freedom. Most of the time they become a long drawl of monotony. And every once in a while road trips provide moments of pure serenity.
Finding Interstate bliss doesn’t require a novel formula. Just fill a mug with cheap coffee, plug in a podcast and let your mind go. I’ll often drive for hours straight, giving my hyperactive brain enough space to process messy questions, curious ideas and opaque future plans. Every once in a while I’ll stumble into a good idea—but this story isn’t about one of those…
8 PM, Friday, August 30th.
I waited for evening traffic to die down before loading the truck and merging onto I-5, the north-south asphalt corridor along the west coast. With Google Maps pointed towards British Columbia and a half-hour delay at the border, I had time to settle in. In Vancouver I would meet friends and journey further north, to climb rocks in Squamish. To some, six hours is a terribly long time to stare at oncoming headlights. But after a long week of shooting, editing and writing, it was just what I needed to reset.
As I drove by the Seattle skyline my mind started to wander towards places that make me feel like home: Oakland and before that, Minneapolis. Now, Seattle was inducing nostalgia, too. I flipped on the FM radio and Atmosphere, one of my favorite bands from childhood, was playing over the airwaves. Feeling sentimental, I asked Siri to call one of my best friends, Wyatt Roscoe. He was officiating a wedding across the country that night and I doubted he would answer. Rehearsing the message I’d leave on his voicemail, I heard a jubilant “Hey brother!” through the speaker.
A few beers deep and recently relieved from the dance floor, Wyatt’s shit-eating-grin was audible from 2,000 miles away. For the next few minutes we laughed more than we completed sentences, trading stories of recent trips. Eventually, like most of our phone calls, we eventually got to it. “Stoked for ski season?” asked Wyatt, almost rhetorically. Without pause I responded, “Of course, the bug has already hit.” And in that fraction of a second it all clicked. “Wanna ski Orizaba next week?”
8 PM, Monday, September 2nd.
I parked the truck at a discount lot and almost forgot my passport. We couldn’t find a recent trip report that was borderline reputable, so we opted to bring the full kitchen sink—ice axes, crampons, helmets, probes, shovels, beacons, ropes, harnesses, ice screws and enough snacks for a small army to summit and descend Pico de Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America. If this sounds organized, let me diffuse that assumption; it was total chaos. Three hours earlier I had hastily stuffed my ski gear, a few spare layers, laptop and camera, a handful of dehydrated meals into a pair of duffel bags, before driving to SeaTac, Seattle’s main airport.
We bought tickets on Sunday for a flight on Monday. The flight was on a budget airline and at the very back of the plane—and, accordingly, we were prepared for any part of the plan to go wrong. Our aim was to red-eye to Mexico City, pick up a rental sedan, load gear, drive to Orizaba, find a 4×4 to haul us up the rough mountain roads to the Refugio basecamp, sleep a few hours, hike up loose scree slopes through the Labyrinth, find the glacier, climb that, too, summit the volcano and then ski down. Just reading that sentence makes me laugh—what were we thinking?
Even for a prestigious plan-winger, I knew the odds were slim. This feeling only expanded as I walked into the airport and was peppered with questions about my ski bag. “Is that a rifle?” “Are you going golfing?” Despite my conviction, even the flight attendant at check in didn’t believe me when I said I was going skiing in Mexico in September. In retrospect, I probably should have headed these warnings, but that’s not who I am. Hell or high water, I was going to climb a mountain just for the chance at some mediocre turns.
8 AM, Wednesday, September 4th.
Roughly a thousand feet below the summit, everything sucked. Despite running long miles all summer, my lungs felt pathetic. My brain was a pile of over-cooked spaghetti. My gloves were soaked and my hands cold. And my legs, well, you can shut up legs. I knew that going from sea level to 18,500 feet in less than 24 hours was going to be hard, but I didn’t think I would feel this bad.
With crampons on our ski boots and methodical (read: incredibly slow) steps upwards, we were finally within striking distance of the crater at the top of Orizaba, the highest volcano in North America. Getting to this point wasn’t easy and the last push would prove to be the hardest. I had managed to snap a few photos as we exited the cloud layer and hit the glaciated slopes, right as the sun rose. It was an uplifting moment, bookended by a lot of pain.
Despite a few miscues, our half-baked plan was somehow working. We made our way to the mountain, stopping only a few times at roadside taco stands. We hadn’t forgotten any critical pieces of gear and even managed two hours of shut eye at the Refugio. When our alarm went off at 3 o’clock in the morning, we crawled out of our bags, slurped cowboy coffee and started hiking uphill. Skiing, the carrot at the end of the stick, can be a powerful motivator.
8 PM, Wednesday, September 4th.
Sitting at a tapas bar in Mexico City, Hannah and Wyatt were both laughing at me. I had sold them both on an epic ski trip and, in the end, we never strapped into our skis. Sure, the summit of Orizaba was just as beautiful as the stories we had heard, and the glacier was even icier than the rumors we had ignored. Choppy and broken up, all three of us, avid skiers in almost any conditions, had opted to just walk our sorry asses off the mountain, carrying our skis to the top and all the way back down.
Both Wyatt and I got some form of altitude sickness, mine a bit worse than his. We puked, then rallied, then puked again. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon on our drive back to the airport that I felt like myself again. Healed from my altitude-induced zombie state, I ordered more food than I could eat and more drinks than I needed, but at that point it didn’t matter. Despite not skiing, we all were happy: The best part of adventures is that you never know what you’re going to get.