2004 Mexico Volcanoes Expedition
Directed by Phil Ershler
Trip Report – Mexico Volcanoes/IMG – Dia de los Muertos
Hola amigos. Here's a not so brief report about our climbing adventures south of the border. I'm sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Maria Christina. Mexico City. Chad has just polished off one order of french toast and is anxiously awaiting the next. I'm trying to discretely signal for more cafe. I think they are placing bets in the kitchen on how many cups the gringa can put down without going into cardiac arrest. But, honestly, I think five cups is the requisite amount to compliment the huevos revueltos. Like many things in Mexico, these eggs are not what they seem. They aren't revolting at all damn tasty in fact.
We were here for ten days. During this time I found many of my preconceived notions about Mexico and this trip to be incorrect. For example, I thought all strangers in big cities were pushy and rude. I thought it would be really uncomfortable to be in close proximity with ten other climbers for over a week. I thought the Mexicans would laugh at my horrible Spanish. All untrue.
Team members in Mexico (photo: Miles Heritage)
While our flight out of Portland, OR was a bit too early for ANYONE (5:00 a.m.), there were no delays in flights or at customs. The only heart stopper was when the immigration agent asked if I spoke Spanish. "Un poquito". "Pues, no puede entrar sin pasaporte". Okay, I get it. No entrance without passport. Cool. I understand immediately that the guy is an overachiever and simply posturing, because the immigration web page says you can get a visa with a photo ID plus voter registration card. I'm in!
I'm NOT! The agent pointed back to the international arrivals. I just stood there like a deer in the headlights, Phil Ershler's trip instructions flashing before my eyes "bring a passport bring a passport bring a passport". I'm stuttering "pero, pero, pero" like some sort of bad Latin rap artist. I try, "no tengo no tengo no tengo". Finally, the agent shook his head, rolled his eyes and told me I could come in but never to return again (I hope he meant unless I had a passport).
We were negotiating for bottled water when Mike Lakotish from Chicago happened to find us not at the designated spot. We went to the government taxi stand as suggested (yes I can follow some instructions!) I recall trying to make conversation both with the driver and Mike. But kept forgetting who spoke Spanish and who spoke English because we had close calls of the highway kind about every 30 seconds. Good interval training for the heart though. It's important to stay positive in life. And to not attempt to drive in Mexico.
We arrived at the hotel Phil Ershler came up and introduced himself and helped us check in. This was the first of countless times that he made our lives easy on this trip. He occasionally made things harder too, but more on that later.
We all met in the lobby and walked a few blocks to have dinner. This was the first group get-together. I felt immediately comfortable with everyone and this was to be the norm for the trip. I was so glad that there were other women as well. We did the usual introductions, ate some food, heard the plan. Bueno.
Next day we met in the lobby to head out to base camp at Ixta. We did catch an extra hour due to daylight savings time. I just remembered that I forgot to give Phil money for my room service coffee. Crap. Oh well, since he's in Antarctica he'd get ripped off on the exchange rate on pesos anyway.
The first test of the group dynamic was called, "Who Has to Pee the Worst." Ding Ding! Brad Estabrooke! You've won the prize! Step right up to the front of the bus and claim your free bottle of Purell! I almost gave in but you know being a chick among guys has it's own set of pressures you don't want to be the first to ask for the bathroom, admit you are cold or get help carrying your gear. Actually, Brad is numero uno in my book it takes a lot of cojones to make this first request in front of a group.
We got to Rio Frio, re-loaded gear onto our soon to be beloved 4-wheel drive vehicles and headed up the road to Ixta. We had the chance to get to know each other pretty well on the 3 hour jeep ride.
Mike as mentioned is from Chicago he has style. That's all you need to say. Jeff's from Novato, CA he's a bean counter, but like many people in accounting or engineering, has this Clark Kent alterego thing going on. Miles is also a CPA. Same thing when you first meet him he seems more like a travel critic/photographer/standup comic kind of guy. Howard was flipping me shit the very first night so endearing! Just like my older brother. Howard is the father of two girls and lives in Boston I hope he cleans up his language around the young ones. Brad of the challenged bladder works at Fidelity and researches inside trading tips for his bosses and close personal friends. Brad, let's hit the crag and talk P/E ratios.
Julia is a PA for an orthopedic surgeon and one of those really talented athletic women who manage to not be pompous about it and to be supportive of other women. I think you should move to Corvallis. Terry, you can come too... and thanks so much for your little moments of innocuous support here and there bottles of pop/water, making arrangements, speaking of your views intelligently and openly. I hope you both get back to Austin soon. Kevin Ramundo. You don't look eye-talian! I can only say that because I am. Apparently Kevin's the fastest eater east AND west of the Mississippi. Chad, TC, The Chad it was his idea to climb these peaks. He used to be the fastest eater but not anymore. And then there's Sue...Phil's wife. I'm so glad to have met her she's a little firecracker that had good ideas, great stories and even better energy. Oh yeah, and she's been on all seven of the world's highest continental summits and travels all over doing motivational speaking to large corporations. Nothing much... Me, I'm writing this, and that should tell you more than enough!
You could dedicate this entire trip report to writing about Phil Ershler of course. To say he's a world class mountaineer just doesn't do him justice. He's funny, kind, inspiring, honest, energetic. In fact if he were a dog, he'd be a Jack Russell Terrier bred with a pit bull. Oh yeah, a little black lab to tone it all down a notch! And the man can quote poetry too...
Ixta (photo: Miles Heritage)
Back to the story... we set up tents, relaxed. I felt so pampered the entire trip! I didn't have to dig the pit, light the stove, wash dishes, cook the food, get the water, etc. I felt a little guilty actually. I got over that. We checked out our route and Ixta is damn huge. Damn huge.
We got up the next morning, ate some grub, packed up all the gear/tents/ put em on our backs and headed up to high camp (13 and change). I think we were all walking slow to conserve energy. The camp was beautiful amidst some rocks and beargrass type plants, next to a big cliff band that had running water. I was starting to feel a little sick at this point. We had more food, more "hot ones" as Phil would say, talked more about the climb, and hit the tents. Get up was midnight.
At 11:00 p.m., I was outside the tent alternately puking and well you know. I didn't think I'd go climbing but when I woke up I felt much better. We downed our coffee and breakfast in the dark with headlamps. It was really warm. We started hiking up the canyon. Step, breath, step, breath. I chose to bring one ski pole and axe. We rested every hour or so.
At the high hut, we were at 15 plus. Highest I'd ever been. I was starting to wonder about what I was doing here. Everyone's voices seemed quite loud. Irritatingly so. I guess they didn't realize they didn't need to shout I could hear them just fine. I tried to eat and drink but that initiated the gag reflex so I just added some clothes and called it good. Wish I had a hot one anyway.
We continued up and the climbing got sketchier and sketchier. The snow was intermixed in the rock and if you weren't careful, you may skate down 500 feet or so. On boulders. We got up to where crampons/ropes were needed. I fully intended to jump on the rope with Chad, but didn't have the energy to call that out. I was on Oso's rope I think we were the last but I was really trying to focus on breathing. Oso what a gem! He already had my knot tied. Good idea.
Continuing up the glacier, we went to the right and missed the picket. Damn damn I thought I was in better shape than this! Do you think anyone will notice if I just kind of throw up a little to the side? What kind of dumbass idea was this anyway! Chad! Why did I let him talk me into this I should never listen to him. I never will again. He probably feels FINE!
Rest break time for food. Yeah, right. Time for a mental meltdown. Oh! Madre de Dios! Ayudame! By all that is holy let me just feel normal for one tiny second!!! Okay, I'm just going to talk to Chad he'll understand. I tried, I really tried. Oh, I need to tell Phil? Yes, I suppose he would want to know that I'm leaving.
7:30 a.m. Yeah! The top! Yes... f_ck no!!! This is clearly the highest point what sort of crack smoker said we have to cross the crater there is not a god!!!! Wow, Oso looks kinda irritated. Fine, whatever!!! Porque no, I said.
7:45 a.m. I wish I could enjoy the summit instead of sitting here wishing I could enjoy the summit. Chad, if you don't get that camera out of my face you will rue the day you ever met me! Breathe, breathe, breathe...thanks god Phil came to his senses and is getting us the hell out of here...
Ixta (photo: Miles Heritage)
I'm sure... I HOPE everyone else had a different experience on Ixta. I will say that I'm glad I got to the top and that I didn't as Phil so delicately point out bale causing others to have to do the same. As I learned later on the trip, it's not right to split up the team.
I felt like crap still at high camp. I laid down and slept. Everyone else was packing up and decided that we would just go ahead and get to Puebla that day instead of camping. That was fine it didn't much matter to me where I slept so long as I did. Several people were nice enough to hike with me (I was the caboose, obviously) down to low camp.
Phil worked his logistical magic and we got on the 4 wheel drive rigs. One of my most favorite interludes of the trip was conversing with Odilon, the drive of the Dodge Ram. Yes, it helped to be in a big cushy car with suspension. Odilon was amazingly willing to talk to me although to call my Spanish understandable would be generous. For only having a little bit of grammar and less vocabulary, we were able to talk about the meaning of life, relationships and happiness. We exchanged addresses para practicar.
Then this next part was really cool. Thirteen stinky gringos got on a bus to Santa Maria, then on a bus to Puebla, then into taxis to Hotel Gilfer. It was amazingly smooth and hassle-free. Traveling with Phil Ershler is like butta.
We all took showers (except I think Howard and Kevin didn't have hot water), ate I think? And slept. As Oso would say, con alma limpia. With a clean soul.
The next day was a pure sightseeing/ hangout day. We had breakfast at Sanborn's (my first experience with the soon to be daily huevos revueltos), then went on a walk to find some of Puebla's sights. Artists markets, cathedrals, tiendas...the pesos were flying.
We had dinner at the Zocolo (town square). I ordered Puebla's specialty Mole Poblano. This is a sweet and hot sauce I had it on chicken. Howard experimented also but he wasn't such a fan of the Mole. He seemed to like the Sol's just fine though.
The next morning we had our last shower, group breakfast at Sanborns and then mounted up the blue bus for the ride to Tlachicuca and Orizaba. This time Brad didn't call the bathroom break... acclimatization I guess. Miles was on paperback #7. I continued knitting my scarf.
We got to the town of Tlachicuca and met the Reyes family. They have a kind of climber's ranch/compound bunkhouse/showers/restaurant/guide service. Great people I hope I make it back there one day. If we didn't realize before the rarified company in which we were traveling, we certainly did after seeing the expedition photos of Phil and Susan.
There were other groups there lots of commotion. We sat down to lunch quesadillas! We put gear on the 4 wheel drive vehicles and headed up the dirt road to the hut at the end of the road.
Again the power wagon butt shuffle and again the impressive driving performance by our Mexican friends. Drinking lots of water, eating lots of food, trying to forget how deathly I felt on Ixta. I guess staying at the hut and sleeping in wouldn't be that bad right? Better than pulling people down the mountain with me, surely.
There was another group of people going to the hut from back east. More on them later. The best part of this ride was Team Jetta. These two Americanos apparently thought the "road is extremely rough and steep 4 wheel drive vehicles ONLY" blurb in the guide book was for those OTHER people. Poor little Jetta! As Terry said, this is yet another reason not to buy cars from rental companies.
After we all stood around laughing openly at these guys while the guides pushed the car out of the ditch and turned it around, we got back in and continued up to the hut. It was sweet! For some reason everyone wanted the lower bunks, so Brad and I had the penthouse shelf all to ourselves. Aside from a little extra ladder walk and stove gas smell, it was the place to be. Still more food and hot ones to consume, pictures to take, gear to organize. Team Jetta showed up about 3 hours later after hiking up the road. There was some extreme concern on my part about this until I made sure there was space for them on the other side of the hut.
Orizaba (photo: Miles Heritage)
You know, I'll never have myself figured out. One day I'm sure that I'll never do a particular thing again and two days later you couldn't stop me from doing it by any means. Ixta was a ghost in the past beautiful Orizaba was calling my name. I knew I could do this one and I'm not sure why. I barely did the last peak and it was much lower. No problema.
I slept great from about 7:00 p.m. til midnight. Sadly, others reported that they were kept awake by Team Jetta and by the other group. I started thinking of them as "Cackle Hen and her Banty Roosters".
What a day. The weather was fantastic, people were strong, the air was clear. I was on Oso's rope again he was very patient with my inexperience. Chad and Jeff were great to walk with. At the breaks we ate, took photos, chit chatted. I know some folks didn't feel so great, and Ixta was fresh enough in my memory to really sympathize. If you wanted to turn back, if you wondered why you were there, if every step was the hardest thing you have ever done, then you have my utmost respect.
We all made both summits. What a rush. The downclimb was just as ridiculously hard as they ever are. The trail was long, the scree was loose, my feet were nuclear. My head hurt, my water tasted like iodine, but each time I turned around to look at Orizaba and my climbing companions, I had a great huge smile inside.
Orizaba (photo: Miles Heritage)
We packed up our gear in record time and jumped in the jeep. This was probably the first "Mexico Time" thing that happened. Understandably the drivers wanted to caravan together. Sadly, this meant we had to wait for Cackle et.al. It was a bit crowded in the Power Wagon so Chad and I chose to ride in the back of the pickup with the other group.
HUGE MISTAKE!!! Let's see we had the cackle which was MAGNIFIED intensely in the close quarters, we had "I would've gotten to the summit if you hadn't gone the wrong way" guy, we had "oh, my crampons wouldn't stay on so I just decided to go on without them" chick, we had "I just decided to slide down the snow gulley on my ass but it kind of hurt when I landed on those rocks" dude. Surprisingly, none of their party reached the summit.
At the first break I lept out of the wagon, put my hat in my hand and my tail between my legs and begged our group for mercy. As a testament to their character, we were allowed back in the Power Wagon. I'll never leave our team again. The prodigal daughter and son returned.
The rest of the journey back to Tlachichuca was uneventful unlike the trip up, we were able to see the mountain clearly. As always, it seemed really surreal thinking that a few short hours ago we were inching up the glacier.
Back at the ranch we unloaded gear, took showers, found beer. Everyone got a spot up in the bunk room. Except Brad. And Phil. Brad "slept" on the shelf in the gear room. Sounds like most of the time he dozed fitfully hearing over and over "Is that Brad?" "What's Brad doing here?" "Is that Brad?"
Apparently there was no room in the Inn for Phil either. But that's what happens when your priorities are confused playing Hearts or acquiring a bunk...you make the call. Terry reminded me that Phil could be really demanding at times, "okay people, start putting on those packs! Eat some food! Drink some water! Tighten up those crampons! Two minutes!" I think that Phil's bed on the floor that night was some sort of sweet and just cosmic payback.
We had another very tasty dinner prepared and served by the Reyes' and I think some of the local townspeople. We did invite Oso to dinner but he was talking to another client. Later he admitted he went to his favorite taco stand. Can you blame him? The first thing I did when I got home was eat a gigantic salad (there were very few veggies on the trip most likely because everyone knows that our delicate stomachs would rebel at even the water used to wash the leaves).
A nice leisurely (7 a.m.) wakeup the next morning. People stowed gear for the final time, ate breakfast, sat in the grass, petted the horse, chit chatted. I still have these great pictures in my mind of the colorful stucco buildings and cobblestone streets. It's like going back in time. Multi-generational families live in the same town and frequently the same house. I reflected on how open and friendly the Mexican people are as a rule (policia excepted). We have so much more money and possessions, but these people appear to be genuinely happy with what they have. In fact, one man who is a grandfather had owned some stores previously but had sold them because the affluence wasn't worth the stress. He was happier doing odd jobs and traveling. How often does this happen in the US?
I don't know about the rest of the group but interacting and observing the culture and society was very enlightening to me. It made me realize just how fortunate I am in many ways. It's much easier now to be grateful and appreciative of what I have, not focus on what I don't have.
We got on a different bus this time to go back to Mexico City. This one was green green windows, green curtains, green seats. We stopped near some corn fields to take a group shot of us against the backdrop of Orizaba. I think we should be in Outside magazine damn we look good!
We got into Mexico City early afternoon. Some of the boys went down to the Zocolo (the town square, has ruins, museums, palaces...) Susan, Lindsay, Chad, Terry, Julia and I decided to check out the Bazarro Sabado. Saturday artist's bazaar. This was so great the art in my eyes was quite incredible. There was everything from little girls selling small woven placemats to extremely expensive Dia de los Muertos statues in fancy galleries.
Chad bought an oil painting of an agave plant that had Ixta and Popo in the background. I got a beautiful hand embroidered tapestry. I think everyone was happy with their purchases..this was a good place to practice your bargaining skills. But honestly, I felt a little guilty doing that when I saw the grandma behind the tapestry booth industriously sewing away. I have so much and most of these people have so little.
I mean, whenever I have a bad day at the office I'll remember the man in Puebla who waits for the traffic light to turn red, runs out in front of the cars, lays down a rag full of broken glass, walks on it, takes a bow, and collects a few pesos from the cars. This is what he does ALL DAY LONG. I guess my desk job isn't so bad...
The final evening went way too fast. Mexico City is really busy lots of people, sounds, smells, cars... for a country girl like me it's a little overwhelming. We went to an outdoor cafe and ordered up some celebratory drinks. It was starting to hit me that the trip was over. I had another glass of wine and tried to talk to as many people at the table as I could, knowing I wouldn't see them for a long time, maybe ever again.
We walked back to the hotel, then decided to spend the rest of those pesky pesos at the hotel bar. We were a little rowdy, but apparently Phil said previous groups had actually gotten kicked out. Let's just say no one sat on anyone's lap the wrong way... The closest we came to being ejected was when Howard starting talking rather loudly about the Phil's "f-ing reindeer hat". The bar started clearing out. Brad kept ordering drinks for everyone, even if they already had a full one. My kind of guy! One by one the members of our team left. Finally the remaining norteamericanos exited the bar (to the relief of the other patrons) and the evening was over.
A few people had really early flights Chad and I didn't fortunately. We walked down to the Mexico City Zocolo this is a must see in my opinion. Everything from taco stands to puppet sellers to famous Diego Rivera murals. Oh yes, there was a "hoop jam" happening in the center of the square. Sigh.
We ate pretty much all day (still spending pesos), shared a taxi with our amigo Mike (thanks for paying, man hopefully I can buy the taxi the next time). We bought the requisite duty free tequila, got on board and rose above the city.
I had never done a guided/arranged trip before. I would do this again in a heart beat. This or another trip with IMG and most especially with any or all of the my team members. It was a pleasure and an honor spending time and challenging myself with all of you. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time. Phil, Lindsay, and Oso, thanks for an incredibly well organized, fun and memorable trip.
Safe Travels to you all.
Alana Erickson, IMG Climber
If you can keep your head when all about you
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Website: Anya Zolotusky