Curiosity Fed the Cat: Nick Russell snowboards in Mexico, by himself
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine.
Through the voyeuristic channels of 2017 I saw that Nick Russell was in Mexico. At that point, I recalled an instance months prior when he expressed in passing a fascination with snowboarding on a peak down there, and I was glad to see he pulled the trigger. I sent him a text that turned green and asked him to call when he had a chance. When my phone rang a couple days later, I inquired as to who went, what photographer, the plan for content. His response was the most refreshing thing I'd heard in some time. He'd gone by himself, with nothing but his phone on airplane mode for documentation and for no reason other than the desire to fulfill a daydream about snowboarding on this particular volcano. He did, however, agree to write some words and share the photos on his phone's camera roll from his solo mission to Mexico. — Taylor Boyd
There are places that currently only exist within the mind. We've studied photos, researched Google Earth and checked weather. Perhaps some are known classics, others more obscure. Until pixels are transformed into tangible earth, imagination runs wild as to what it would be like to stand in the presence of fabled giants. That line is always somewhere in the back of my mind.
March 19th — Truckee, USA
Feelings of restlessness arise with my morning coffee. An extended period of unfavorable weather dominates the extended forecast. Thoughts dig deep and circle back to a peak that has been on the list for several years. A weather search soon expands beyond the Sierra Nevada and outside of the country. It looks promising—high pressure and minimal winds. I open a new browser window to Expedia; there is a cheap flight that leaves later tonight. A recent hashtag search and message to a random climber reveals that there is indeed snow.
I call up a couple friends that might have a wild hair. No luck. In phases, I've been somewhat obsessed, simply due to exotic mystique. I have been loosely monitoring the weather in this region for over two years in an attempt to determine the best time for riding such a line. It's no surprise to me that no one is convinced to pack their bags and leave in a matter of hours for a mountain they've never heard of.
Casually, I begin to organize my gear while I consider the logistics of embarking on a solo mission of this magnitude. The cutoff time to drive the four hours to the airport is rapidly approaching. Weighing the factors of going alone, I rule out crevasse danger due to my route choice; chances of avalanches are unlikely because of the current forecast and the typical snowpack of high altitude peaks like this one. Confidence and a willingness to turn around if needed overrule doubt. I can't think of a good enough reason not to go. I enter my credit card and contact information and get in the car. By 10:45 pm I'm sitting by myself in the international terminal at the San Francisco airport. At a mere 90 feet above sea level, I ask myself, "Is this crazy?"
"Yes, of course it is." A desire to fulfill a human necessity for firsthand experience can bring us to the strangest of places. A voice booms over the intercom, "Now boarding, United Flight 412 to Mexico City."
March 20th — Mexico City, Mexico
Standing at 18,491 feet high, Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltepetl, is the tallest peak in Mexico. It is also the third tallest peak, and tallest volcano, in North America, I first learned of this southern behemoth a few years back, amidst a classic Pacific Northwest volcano tour. No matter where you are in the world, a volcano is an inspiring sight. They proudly plant their roots in the lowlands, rising high into the skyline with alluring presence. Their glaciers and defiant snowpacks are icing on the cake. Any enthusiast can attest; volcanoes draw you in and keep you coming back for more. The appeal for this one in particular is the simple fact that there is a mountain in Mexico with snow. A short drive from the Gulf and surrounded by prehispanic archaeological sites, even the most creative imaginations couldn't recreate a geographical landscape such as this. To deprive myself of a tropical descent would be a travesty.
Landing just after sunrise, I apprehensively sign a rental car insurance form written in Spanish. I'm not sure if I am paying a deposit or getting fully ripped off. Regardless, I'm here and need to drive three hours southeast to the state of Puebla. I somehow navigate through the anxiety-inducing city center and onto to an open highway. The smog and traffic dissipates, concrete traded for barren flats. Periodic jagged peaks with glimpses of snow rise through the haze on the horizon. Is that a mountain or a mirage? Small towns with oddly located furniture and tire stores pop up every so often. The disturbing sight of dead dogs on the side of the road is a cringing reality of these roadways. Women and children line the shoulders with small umbrellas, selling juice, fruit, and candy.
Cresting a small hill nearly an hour outside the small town of Tlachichuca, I receive a virgin glimpse of the peak. She is stunning. Her round white cap looks out of place amongst this desert terrain. Knowing my low-clearance rental car wouldn't make it up to the starting point on the mountain, I had searched for an outfitter in the area prior to my flight and came across a place called Servimont. Knocking on the gate, a woman slides a large fortress-style steel door open. There is a short man with a sombrero working on an old car. I learn that this is Señor Reyes, the fourth generation of a climbing family in the area and owner of the company that offers trips to Mexican volcanoes.
I timidly ask, "Hola, are you the mountaineering guys?"
"Si, you want to climb the mountain?"
"Si. Well, snowboard. I'd like a ride up to the hut."
He looks around to see if anyone else is walking in behind me. "You are alone?"
"Si, I'll need some water and fuel too."
He pauses and checks his calendar, "When do you want to go?"
"This afternoon if possible," I say.
There is another long pause, "Okay, come in and have lunch first, and then we go."
Once an old soap factory over a century ago, the building has been transformed into an alpine lodge. Old climbing gear and expedition flags line the walls. There are dozens of photos of the mountain from decades past around every corner. Silently noting the healthy snowpack in the grainy pictures, it's as if Señor Reyes is reading my mind. "Tell Trump there is no such thing as global warming," he says with disappointment.
Basecamp is found at the Piedra Grande hut on the north side of the mountain. From town, a steep winding dirt road leads the way past farms, through the forest, and into the National Park. We top out above treeline, traversing across an open plain and into the sun. In the US, our tallest peaks are fourteeners, and most take a strong effort to reach their summits. Here, a truck takes me directly to over 14,000 feet. Views of and from the hut take my breath away.
Inside, it feels like an infirmary. It's only 5 pm, and there are a handful of climbers in their sleeping bags, ghostly pale and silent. A girl sitting on one of the bunks holds her head up with one hand, a roll of toilet paper in the other. She rushes outside to throw up. Even at the base of the climb, the altitude is no joke. I make myself a thermos of tea and go outside to watch the sunset. A sea of clouds engulfs the valleys below. Above, lies the biggest mountain I have ever stood upon. Seemingly validating Señor Reyes' comments on climate change, the snowline is drastically further away than imagined based on photographs. But I have no doubts on my decision to be here. My goal of descending the Jamapa Glacier will still hold a couple thousand feet of fall-line freedom.
March 21st — Pico de Orizaba, Mexico
I'm woken just after midnight to the sounds of jacket zippers and ice axes falling on the floor. The climbers are starting to make their trek upwards. I happily drift back to sleep knowing that today is not my summit push. Waking to a warm sun and moderate temperatures, the plan is to acclimate with a hike to just below the snowline. Cairns line the lower stretches of the trail as the switchbacks increase in steepness. Lizards sunbake on stones heated from the midday sun. My pace decreases as the air thins out. Higher elevations require an increased intake of fluids and snacks, something I came well-prepared for. Each large flat rock provides the perfect opportunity for a quick break. Gaining a small ridge just below 16,000 feet, I reach a high camp below what is known at the Labyrinth, a tricky maze of rocks where the snowline begins. I've brought my board up with me to stash in a nook for tomorrow morning's push to the top.
Back at the hut, the Mexican climbing guides are somewhat tripping that I am solo, with a snowboard. "We start at midnight. This is a big mountain; you need to start early," they warn. After dinner and another thermos of tea, I set my alarm for 3:30 am.
March 22nd — Pico de Orizaba, Mexico
Midnight comes, and a small party of climbers give another gear-shuffle wakeup call. Three hours later, I rise to an empty hut. Alpine starts initially give a gut-wrenching feeling caused by a lack of sleep and slight apprehensiveness surrounding the climb. As soon as walking commences, however, tension subsides and one enters an entranced state of perpetual motion.
Reaching my cached board in the morning's darkness, I swap approach shoes for snowboard boots. Navigating by headlamp allows the mind to shut off and focus only on what lies few feet ahead. The mountain's route options split off in various directions. With only slight shadows in the distance, I unknowingly zig where most have zagged. Crampons and an axe are now necessary, and I'm front-pointing up a 40 degree slope with no clue if the pitch goes or dead ends. Optimism prevails, and thirty minutes later a crux is defeated. An orange glow on the horizon line begins to illuminate vision and spirits. Above 16,000 feet, a shadow of a lone canine roams the lava flows presenting what I consider to be a powerful omen. Another mirage? I blink and he's gone.
Stepping onto the glacier, the realization hits that I am several hours too early. The sun has barely shown its colors, and there is not a chance in hell this snow is going to soften up. The altitude is taking a toll. I've forgotten my puffy and cannot wait around any longer. I need to keep moving forth in order to stay warm. At a snail's pace, I French step diagonally, one foot in front of the other. Three roped climbers descend the slope above, with the lead guide basically dragging two deadweights.
Hours pass and steam vents rise from around the corner. Along the summit ridge, a view into the depths of a dormant stratovolcano becomes visible. Tattered flags on a cross mark the ceiling of Mexico and a new personal high point. Layers of green and brown more than 10,000 feet below exist in a daze of beauty.
A moment of peaceful solitude atop a cold, windy summit is disrupted by nausea and a pounding headache. Time to descend. I remove the crampons from my boots and place my feet into bindings. A harsh reality of high-altitude peaks is that they are usually aggressively windswept and rugged. Citlaltepetl is no exception.
There were no misconceptions of riding blower pow or perfect corn, and I knew I was in for a wild one. Turns are cautiously linked down the face, resting every so often to catch my breath and appreciate the views. A bittersweet feeling of gratitude to experience this Mexican snow field before it's gone is met with disheartening sentiments. I laugh at the fact that this is by far the worst snow, or rather, ice, that I have ever strapped in on, and at the same time a highlight of my life thus far. Regardless of conditions, it is these spontaneous decisions that make for lasting memories.
The Jamapa Glacier has receded upwards of 50 percent over the last two decades. It is our duty to explore these endangered places and showcase their beauty to the world. The wilderness lands of our planet are not to be taken for granted. Driving back down the bumpy dirt road to town, I stare out the rear view mirror of the truck at Orizaba. With one dream line checked off the list, I ponder what's next.