Illustration by Bob AulThe recent war in Iraq brought me back a decade to the First Gulf War, when, as a Navy helicopter pilot, I saw more death than your average gravedigger. I guess I spent the next few years running from mortality in a series of adventure expeditions. There must be some epigram about running into what you're running from, because I pretty quickly ran smack into death on the side of a Mexican volcano.
I'd come to Orange County after the war, but found it hard to settle into a desk job. Weekend hikes, marathon runs, iron man competitions—I took every chance to exhaust my body and keep my brain from circling instinctively back to the Gulf. That's why I accepted a friend's offer to climb Pico de Orizaba, one of a trio of lofty volcanoes east of Mexico City. Orizaba rises 18,700 feet out of the surrounding Mexican farmland like an ice tower.
On an acclimatization hike during our first day on the mountain, we spotted a lone climber unsteadily descending the glacier above us. He was well outfitted—Gore-Tex jacket and pants, a down cap under the jacket hood and an ax for the steep ice. The face that showed was burned. We asked if he was okay. He said he was fine, but his friend was stuck somewhere near the summit.
They had come from Colorado to challenge Orizaba. Early that morning, they had left their base camp among the boulders only a few hundred yards from where we stood, and had begun climbing toward the summit. New to mountaineering and exhausted by the altitude, his friend fell behind. After a few hours, nearing the peak, they violated one of the first rules of climbing: they separated.
The lost climber had picked one hell of a mountain on which to learn. If he were indeed struggling to descend from the peak, his unfamiliarity with crampons would likely strand him after dark on the bitterly cold, windswept glacier. That would just as likely kill him.
The sun was sinking fast. His situation was desperate, and now we realized that, whatever else we'd come for, this is what we were up to now: rescuing a stranger from a snowy mountaintop with darkness covering the place like a body bag.
We headed up, slowly picking our way through a no-man's-land pitted with snow cups, avoiding ridges of ice. The wind blew over a nearby ridge in screaming, moaning blasts. We climbed a few feet and then braced ourselves against the wind. The gusts came quickly, an eerie howl presaging each arrival like the exclamation point at the beginning of a sentence printed in Spanish. It was as if the mountain were trying to shake us from its flank. I hunched over in a three-point stance of ax and crampons. When the wind paused, we climbed: Remove ax, plant higher. Step. Step. Hunch. Wait for wind to pause. Repeat.
After 30 minutes, we thought we saw the climber—a barely discernable dark spot on the blinding white glacial slope just below the summit. With excruciating slowness, we continued toward it. Only three days from sea level, we had pushed to 17,000 feet. Gasping for air, our bodies fought desperately to adjust. Normally, we would have taken several days to acclimatize, climbing around the lower slopes, letting our bodies learn to do more with less. The thin air and cold burned our lungs; even now I remember the unsettling progress of numbness in my feet and hands. And despite all that, the stranded climber was still far above us, his dark form slowly merging with dusk like a fast fade to black.
We drew close to take stock, shouting over the wind. My jacket flapped violently, the hood's pull cords lashing my face. We had set out on a day hike; we weren't outfitted for a night ascent in high wind. Given our light clothing, we would almost certainly suffer frostbite and possibly some sacrifice greater than the loss of mere fingers or toes. The temperature would plummet in the next few minutes.
At this pace, it would still take us several hours to reach the summit, and even then it would be difficult to locate the lost climber in the dark. In the distance, at about 18,000 feet, his dark figure moved slowly about the peak, neither up nor down, but hopelessly.
In the Navy, I trained endlessly in search and rescue. I know when to move forward and when to turn back; to follow procedure without feeling; to manage risk to avoid creating additional victims. And I know that when things go badly, the feelings come later, not just mild regret, but dense sadness that crushes the childlike certainty that you are the master of the universe.
We retreated, knowing the chances for the man above were remote. We turned our backs and concentrated on descending the icy slope. The wind howled victory.
Darkness fell before we reached Mexican guides in the base camp at 14,000 feet. They formed a search party and headed onto the glacier by first light. And though they searched all day and through the night, they did not find the climber.
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We took that day to recover, and set out again toward the summit on the next. I remember few specifics, only that it was painful. Physically drained, gripped by regret, we struggled up the glacier, searching for any sign of the lost climber. But the wind had erased all evidence of his presence. It was as if he had never existed.
At mid-morning, we reached the barren summit. A toppled metal cross marked the highest point of the crater's rim. We did not celebrate. We descended in silence.
After returning home, I read a brief newspaper article about a Colorado man whose body had been found on Orizaba.
The memories are less powerful now, like a vivid dream that fades with time. The regret never goes away entirely. But now I know better than to run.