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Sunday, 20 December 2015

(Don't) Climb every Mountain

Thus far I've attempted to reach the summit of six volcanoes and suceeded only once: Xinantecatl/Nevado de Toluca (4300m), on the very first day of Fire in the Blood, as it happens. I came nowhere close to Mexico's third-highest mountain, Itzaccihuatl (5286m), defeated at about 4300m by a combination of altitude, ticky tummy and a 02:00 start. On Nevado de Colima/Zapotepetl (4340m) we turned back about 300m below the summit, having seen what we came to see - though we would have climbed to the top had my I not still been suffering from the trots. As I took the wrong turning I arrived at the base of Paricutin (2774m) too late to hike it so I had to hire a horse and guide - quite possibly the most uncomfortable journey of my entire life. 200m beneath the summit crater I was distracted by the fumaroles and didn't have enough time to climb the steep slope of ash and cinders. 
Then yesterday, on Guatemala and Central America's highest mountain, Tajumulco (4220m) we decided, in the teeth of a gale and amongst thick cloud, that discretion was the better part of valour. We were 250m below the summit but cold and wet and seeing absolutely nothing of the volcano's famous vistas
One out of six isn't a particularly auspicious record though the only one I regret not climbing is Iztaccihuatl, having gazed lovingly at this mountain basking in the late evening sunshine whilst skirting its flanks on the autopista from Mexico City to Puebla I've already decided to come back and have another crack. The others, as much as I'd liked to have got to the top, were more a means to an end than an end in itself; Nevado de Colima to see the magnificently active Volcan de Colima, Paricutin to see the lava fields and fumaroles. Even Iztaccihuatl was supposed to be a viewpoint from which to watch Popocatepetl rumbling away, as Popo itself has long since been out of bounds.
In the same way that I spent much of this summer's TransCantabrica hike trying to work out whether I was a pilgrim or a hiker, so there's been, in the first fornight of this Fire in the Blood expedition, a tension between alpinismo/montanismo (mountaineering) and 'mere' senderismo (hiking). One of the reasons I failed on Iztaccihuatl was the 02:00 start; it's not that I don't like walking in the dark, more that I like to know where I'm going and be able to watch the landscape around and beneath me evolve as I pass through it. This clearly set me apart from Piotr, my guide, for whom the summit was the goal and, to a certain extent, nothing else mattered. Descending Nevado de Colima, I asked Mauricio if we could follow the dirt road from the microwave station back to where the truck was parked, for the first time I was more at ease on the terrain than my guide. and yet, on Itzaccihuatl, I had, in my rucksack, a set of spikes to attach to my boots to negotiate the glacier and I was looking forward to what would have been my first such experience and, despite the altitude, I enjoyed the scramble to the summit of Xinantecatl, the feel of hard rock under my hands as well as my feet. Yesterday's ascent of Tajumulco was more feet than hands but still my guide, Rudi, insisted we were montanistas.
What all three of my excellent guides would probably agree on is the relationship between altitude and mountaineering, and that 4000m is the cut-off point. Indeed, I suspect Piotr and Mauricio - and I hope they'll correct me if I'm wrong - would look down on any summits beneath that magical number as metaphorically as they would literally. As an avowed qualitativist and sworn enemy of quantitativism, I would, of course, beg to differ, and not just because of my attachment to less lofty but indisputedly 'mountainous' peaks and ridges of the Cordillera Cantabrica. 
My principal PhD supervisor, Professor Paul Cloke, co-authored a fascinating paper based on an orchard in West Bradley, Somerset which, to summarise very crudely, asked what are the qualitities that qualify an orchard to be consiered an orchard, because there're clearly much more to it, culturally, socially, politically - even, in my case, spiritually - which turns a bunch of farmed apple trees into something of cultural significance which goes beyond the rather mundane task of growing a fruit to produce an alcoholic drink. 
The orchardness of orchards; the same might apply to the mountain-ness of mountains and the mountaineer-ness of mountaineers. Can one really be considered a 'mountaineer' if one doesn't necessarily intend to stand on the very top? Even if I wear a helmet, carry crampons and set out before dawn? Back in the good old days - you should, by now, know I'm referring to the 1980s - geography teachers were invariably beard-sporting males wearing hush-puppies and jackets with elbow patches, these were the defining qualities of the geography teacher in much the same way masculinity, Catholicism, Castillian-speaking and heterosexuality defined hispanidad under Franco. Nowadays, geography teachers are as equally likely to be female and even, heaven forbid, a curious combination of both genders.  
Richard Dawkins can rest easy, I'm not about to drag outdoor pursuits into the walking-on-eggshells world of identity politics, jusy trying to orientate myself in what can be a confusing and often exclusive lexicon. As I move south, from Mexico into Guatemala then El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica the volcanos keep on coming but what they begin to lack in altitude they more than make up for in attitude. My flirtation with 'mountaineering' has, for the time being, come to an end, and I now have to prepare myself for scrambles up steep slopes of scree, ash and cinder, of three steps forward up, two steps back. Where does this modus ambulandi fit into the equation? Volcanista, anyone? 

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