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Kissing Stars and Endless Nights: Climbing Citlaltépetl

When the distant crest of Citlaltépetl first peaks above the low rolling hills my eyes widen and my stomach drops.

I come from glaciated planes of Missouri and the rolling river bluffs whose wide-spread feet make the valley below. Here lies the Gasconade. Spring-fed Little Piney. The Missouri River herself. We live under the trees by the water's edge.

Of snow-capped, glacier-cradling, star-kissing mountains, I know nothing.

And yet, here I am in the early morning watching her grow on the horizon, praying that I may cross her back tomorrow in safety.

Citlaltépetl is Pico de Orizaba. In nahautl, it means Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Stars. We have come to climb her, this mountain rising some 18,000 out of the earth and sea. This is the tallest mountain in México and the third tallest in North America behind Logan and Denali.

We are five, friends from a Meetup group that plans mountaineering activities from Mexico City. Two Mexicans and three foreigners. Three English teachers, one astrophysicist, and one environmental engineer. Four men and one woman. One who has been to Citlaltépetl before and four who have not.

Pico de Orizaba National Park

Five hours after leaving México City, we reach the base. Gear in tow, we climb to the refuge, a well-worn, stone and mortar building painted Tang orange. We're welcomed in with other adventurers to settle in for the afternoon. Group by group, those who summited earlier that morning make their way back to collect their things. It's mighty windy, they warn.

Home for the night Views from within the mountaineers' refuge

The refuge is high above the tree line among gray rocks and boulders. A graveyard of volcanic activity where, in places, one can imagine the mighty explosion has only just occurred. The wind is cold. Even here in the valley of the mountain, it licks through layers of insulation and impermeable fabric.

In the shelter of a large boulder, I sit down to stare at Citlaltépetl, to study. Her two rocky spines extend to the west, and to the south is the scree field. Ice patches cover her higher reaches, a white dress with some 50 degrees grade. From here I cannot see the summit, nor the glacier that hugs her northern face.

I feel so small in her presence. She stares back, unmoving, imposing, and tall. The resolve a mountain must have. Before I can sort through my own thoughts, I hear my voice. I am singing. Chin raised to the mountain, I share the sweetest and strongest songs I know. I have come empty-handed to her feet and know that even in summiting, I do not warrant a stamp of ownership. I do not know you, I think. Please teach me.

Citlaltépetl welcomes her nth sunset in golden revelry. The sun first falls over the clouds that drift far below us. Simultaneously, its bottom half appears again below the cloud line, round and red, setting over the land. All the climbers are gathered outside, watching in anticipation - as much for the spectacle as for the beginning of night. We will see light again somewhere on the slopes. The wind is quick and cruel with biting cold as soon as the last touch of red flashes out. We rush inside.

Huddled inside around camping lanterns, we speak of our favorite summits, tomorrow's forecast, and where we come from. We are Mexican, American, English, and Scottish. Around cold spaghetti and smashed ham sandwiches, we discuss the recent incidents on the north face of Citlaltépetl, where, in the last month, some individuals have died and others have had serious accidents.

A mountain deserves respect, I am told.

Even the well-climbed mountain guides know this. It doesn't matter if you've climbed it once or climbed it a hundred times: it is always different, and caution must always be exercised. You have to know when to turn around. When to listen to not only your body but what Citlaltépetl may be trying to tell you.

A quiet doubt holds me.

By 7:00 pm we are cuddled up ten in a row on wooden planks, sleeping bags high around our heads to keep the warmth of our breath. I toss and turn, listening as more people arrive in the night and loudly lay out their gear. I toss and turn, thinking about what it will feel like to crawl into thin air.

From a short and troubled sleep, I am abruptly awakened by the commotion and jolt up. "Temblor?" I throw out to the climbing partner to my left, hands poised to jump from the bunk. He calmly replies, "No, Maria. It's time to go."

Though the earthquake in Mexico happened some months ago, sometimes I still feel the earth tremor below me. Phantom shocks. The discomfort of knowing the stability of the solid earth can be put into question doesn't ever completely leave you.

I breathe. It's 12:30 am. Adrenalin running, I move with rhythm in unfamiliar tasks, putting the woolen long-johns over synthetic wear and strapping the ice ax to my pack. After wolfing down a can of tuna with bread, I turn to the brownies. I want to be like a polar bear, warm and fat and ready for the climb.

The dark soup of night pushes the metal door open as soon as we unhinge the lock. My group is the first to leave. Headlamps shining from our helmets, we step out. We can see her looming ahead of us, massive negative space outlined by stars. The half-moon sits like a warmly lit yurt on Citlaltépetl, hugging her contour.

Eyes to the ground, we begin. Little piles of rocks mark our path as we weave up the hillside. My heart beats faster. Though it's relatively easy, I'm feeling the altitude. Two times, I stop my partners to pull off layers of clothing. Sweat kills, I think. My cold-weather training in the midwinter of the Wisconsin Northwoods has served me well. To be too hot or too cold is dangerous. Too hot means sweat, sweat means wet, and wet begets cold and hypothermia.

My thoughts are not grand these first two hours, simple mantras of preservation and perseverance: Stay hydrated. Breathe through your nose. Eat more carbs. Gummy bears are in the right-hand pocket.

But sometimes I look up or down. Shooting stars pass over, pointing towards the summit. Pueblos and small communities glimmer below, beyond the borders of the national park. I am being, I smile. Each step I take is the highest my land-born body has ever been. We do not talk about what we see, perhaps each caught in our own mantras or these personal reflections of what it means to climb, to breathe, to be.

By the time we've crossed over the first rocky spine, our trail has turned from clear, to vague, to wholly non-existent. The grade has increased to 40 degrees and we're mostly on scree: gravel that gives way underfoot. We climb three steps and fall one. I learn to jab my foot into the dusty mess like a garden hoe to get better gripping.

What rocks there are can be easily loosened, causing a mini cascade of pebbles and rocks at the expense of the climber behind. We each do ten steps and pause, watching and waiting for the one ahead to find sure ground, and begin again. My balaclava is wet and cold around my mouth and nose as my lungs dredge in air for oxygen.

Citlaltépetl never ends. I push myself not to think of the summit, which is only the halfway point and not why I am here. To climb only to reach the top is to deny oneself the pleasure and the rich satisfaction of the present. I push myself not to think of the descent, which with each step seems more and more out of the realm of possibility. The only way appears to be up.

When the first altitude headache hits I do not know what to call it. I ask for a break. Dregs of water and food give me back my stamina, but the headache is stubborn. Far, far below specs of light make out the other climbers in groups like our own, weaving their way up the mountain. Long, deep breaths slowly bring me back. We continue.

The night never ends. We are scrambling over boulders that jut out of the scree like small houses and climb rock walls using both hands to push ourselves up. In some parts, a foot cannot even reach and I pull forward on my knee, praying each time that my handholds are as sturdy as I hope. The wind is now so strong that I am pushed to the right while climbing. The small ray of light extending from my headlamp is the only thing to break the night.

Howling winds whip at my side and in both directions, I can vaguely make out ice sheets and drop-offs into the dark abyss. The scree is the loosest it has been and I'm practically on all fours. It is in this setting, on one of the vertical climbs that my animal mind takes over. My heartbeat spikes and I start getting panicked. This is dangerous. Getting scared never helps. A fact that makes me more panicked.

I finish pulling myself up over the next rock ledge and crawl into the scree a few steps before melting onto a small but solid rock. "I need to stay here for a while," I yell to my companions. I am heaving in air like a fish out of water.

Slow down, I command myself. I am shaking, both from the cold and the fear. Even letting go of this rock without good footing could send me down, down, down. Citlaltépetl has nothing to say. I feel her observing me as I observe myself.

I think of my warm bed, the pies I have yet to make, my parents who will soon visit me for Christmas. I've got a lot to do, and this hike will not be the end. I'm regaining my awareness and reach for food. My granola bar is a solid rock. The water pack is icy slush. It's not 'if' I will get down, it's 'when.' I take steadier breaths.

You may not be able to control the situation you are in, but you can control yourself.

On a rock above sits the astrophysicist, breathing heavily. "And why are we doing this?" he asks our companion at the lead. I'm not the only one afraid, which both reassures me and gives me a wary pause. I push this back and think about his question.

Why do we do this? Why do we climb mountains?

We do it to challenge ourselves physically and mentally and push through our known limitations. To see the world like a bird, or Zeus, and remind ourselves how small we are. We do it because it's there. For me, I wanted to know if by climbing I could kiss the stars. I look up again, catching three shooting stars in just a few minutes. See? I think. You nearly can.

By the time purple creeps onto the horizon, we are nearly at the top. I can see beyond the reaches of my lamp light now, to the ice fields around us and up to the crest. I'm so confounded to look down on where we've trekked that I have to quickly turn my eyes once more ahead. Keep going. Step by step.

The light is finally good enough for a photo

We summit at 6:23 am. It's been some five and a half hours since we began. Smiles and hugs abound, the nervous tension of the climb is finally released as we look around us. The land is turquoise and now warm yellows grow on the horizon over the Gulf of México. To fight the negative Celsius windchill, we settle down like penguins and face east.

We sit on the lip of the crater ringed in jagged sheets of ice and snow. The caldera. A sea of clouds rolls around the foothills of Citlaltépetl, blanketing her outstretched limbs. Veracruz is before us, the emerald mountains and valleys stretching to the ocean. Behind us is home, marked by Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl. My darling stars have all faded.

Waiting for the sunrise (In order from left: Pete, Matt, Jorge and me)

When the sun breaks, a universe of colors I have no names for burst out from the landscape below. Roses, greens, oranges, purples, and blues in all directions. The air is so cold, my body so tired, and the beauty of the world so inadequately captured by words. I am crying for joy, my tears sting and cling as ice to my face.

We stay in awe of Citlaltépetl and the vista she shares for over an hour and a half. We marvel at her noble, solitary shadow extending far to the west. We point to La Malinche, Sierra Negra, and the other mountains we can see.

And finally, with crampons strapped on and our hearts satiated, we nod at each other, take out our ice axes and continue our journey. We have some five hours more to go to return to our Tang orange refuge.

I tell the others to go a bit ahead and stay at the peak. In all my imagining, I didn't realize what it would mean to climb this mountain. Citlaltépetl gave me a chance, and perhaps I did too. A chance to trust in my own strength and resolve, to be simultaneously humble and audacious.

I spin around and all I can see is Mexico, beautiful Mexico, whose stunning lands have been my home, my classroom, and my office for the last three months. Standing alone at the top of the world, I close my eyes. To each step, to each climb, to each sunrise, and each unending night, I whisper. Breathing deeply, I readjust my helmet, dig my crampons into the scree and start the descent.

1:00 pm. Exhausted and relieved after my hardest climb to date.

Note: This is the part where I say, don't do as I do. I went with a group that had never been on the southern face. Even I could have respected Citlaltépetl more by going with people who know the way. Be sure to watch weather reports beforehand and listen to your body. If you've got altitude sickness, slow down, pause or turn back. The mountain isn't going anywhere, and there can always be another climb.

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