The alarm clock goes off at 1:45 a.m., and no one’s particularly happy about it. Getting and staying warm in our tent at Orizaba’s 14,000-foot base camp wasn’t easy, and now it’s time to venture into the cold.
I’m in southern Mexico, on the flanks of the continent’s third tallest mountain, preparing for a summit attempt with fellow climbers Patrick Sanan, Joel Scheingross, and Josh Zahl. We had left the oxygen-dense altitudes of southern California just two days earlier, and I was skeptical of my body’s ability to handle such a quick displacement to Orizaba’s 18,500-foot summit. But the sky was clear and everyone was feeling good: there was no time to waste.
Climbing ice-capped mountains in the middle of the night makes practical sense – getting up, down, and off the glacier before the afternoon sun loosens rocks and renders the slope a slippery waterslide is a good idea – but it also has psychological allure. If you can’t see the peak looming over you, you’re forced to focus on each step, unburdened by the hours of climbing to come. And it’s a lot easier to delude yourself into thinking you’re almost there.