The secrets of mountains 

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - secret Keeper Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest mountain.
  • Photo submitted
  • secret Keeper Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest mountain.

This story starts with a volcano. Or maybe it's that one story ends there and another begins. Or maybe it's just that a volcano, with an umbilical attachment to the core of the Earth, is the perfect metaphor of a gateway to another world. Either way, if there's one thing you can usually count on with a volcano, it's a hole on top.

The opening on a Mexican version I'd found myself climbing some 30 years ago, however, had proved maddeningly elusive. At one point, the lip of fractured ice waving to us from the summit, like salt crystals ringing a Margarita glass, had seemingly loomed no closer in an hour of steady climbing. We'd been flummoxed. Had the slope steepened? Was it the slow-mo moonwalk we were executing on the glacier's marble surface to make certain our crampons found firm footing? Our zigzagging around the blue yawn of each small crevasse and resting, so it seemed, every 30 seconds? Or was it simply failing brain function at 5,500 metres — an altitude few accomplished skiers would ever contemplate and most North American mountaineers would never encounter, and that my friend Merle and I, hitching along with no clue, no rope, frozen feet, and hallucinogenic half-breaths, were neither?

Very likely. As in, all of the above.

Still, when there was enough oxygen to formulate thought, we'd figured we should be making progress. And then suddenly, progress appeared. We were staring into the crater, the ice and lava underfoot more like the salt-and-peppered rim of a Bloody Mary, I'd thought, in the abstract way you entertain irrelevant things when you are high — or very high. And I could see why gaining this purchase had seemed too slow: the crater's edge wasn't level, but sloped radically at some 30 degrees. Stumbling through the crevasse field, we'd actually contoured the volcano in the direction of its rising rim. We'd breached it on a false summit halfway around; below to our left was the lower margin of the crater, its adjacent snowfield a mess of ashen streaks, volcanic dribble on a white bib, while above to our right was the summit. Which had meant more climbing. Not a good thing given the nausea, violent headaches, and dizziness we were experiencing, but we'd both been driven by the same thought: How much farther could it really be?

An hour later we were finished, literally and figuratively. Just shy of the rim's highest point — a crenulated mannequin of brick-colored lava — we were too cold, hypoxic, and exhausted to continue. Merle was talking but he sounded like someone sucking on helium. I couldn't comprehend and laughed hysterically, which made my head hurt so badly I wanted to cradle it. He thought I understood perfectly and laughed back. Then he threw up. That's what I remember, but maybe it didn't happen; by that point I was already hallucinating. We took a picture — one of those photos climbers are famous for, with the camera held at arm's-length in front and aimed back toward our conjoined faces. I pulled an inscribed Frisbee from my pack and hucked it far into the crater to honor a friend who'd died in an oil-rig disaster off Newfoundland the year before. The disc arced through the rarified air for a long time before spiralling down into the toxic miasma that rose from a bubbling vent encrusted in lurid yellow sulfur. Sacrificing plastic to the mountain seemed right: a petroleum-based product swallowed by the very Earth that generated it was a fitting farewell for someone who'd been in service of that substance when he slipped into hypothermic slumber, bobbing in the roiling North Atlantic, never to be found.

I'd passed the mountain a secret, and it hadn't come cheap.

The trail I'd followed to the summit of Pico de Orizaba — Mexico's highest mountain and North America's loftiest volcano at 5,640m — had started in my parents living room as an adolescent. There, I'd come across a coffee-table book about Mexico. In it was a full-page, black-and-white photo of an old Spanish church with a massive, snow-covered volcano rising behind. Snow in Mexico? Wow. Could you ski on something like that? It had planted a seed of secret desire.

Mountains, of course, have a way of turning secrets back on us. Already rife with their own confidentialities of time and geology and weather, through no fault of their own they further become repositories of lost human endeavour — something I couldn't help thinking about in early March when two bodies were found entombed on Orizaba.

Near Orizaba's summit, the glacial slopes pitch up to 50 degrees in places, which had made for a more-than-perilous ski for Merle and I on shitty Telemark gear back in 1983. In late February, 2015, however, a climber heading up the very same route we'd somehow skied had slipped, sliding downward before self-arresting with his ice-axe and coming to rest adjacent to a human head and hand protruding from the ice. Another team sent out to investigate found not one, but two corpses, seemingly clinging to each other at around 5,270m. The bodies were believed to be those of Mexican climbers who'd disappeared in 1959 when a team of seven was caught in an avalanche. Four survived but three had perished. Luis Espinoza, 78, one of the former, had been caught in the slide but managed to dig himself out. The press was quick to catch up with him when the discovery was made. After studying photos of the bodies — partly mummified with skin, muscle tissue and some clothing visible — he was certain they were his missing friends.

High mountains preserve bodies for years, like George Mallory on Mt. Everest. And sometimes millennia, as with Inca mummies and the famous Tyrolean Ice Man "Ötzi," regurgitated in 1991 by a retreating glacier on the Italian-Austrian border, 5,000 years after he'd been killed by an arrow.

Merle and I had skied right past those bodies on Orizaba without knowing it. Likewise, the disc I'd thrown in the crater was probably covered quickly with volcanic ash, never to be seen again. If someone from a future civilization were ever to find it, it would be naught but another mystery revealed... from another mountain secret kept.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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