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Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Day I popped my Altitude Cherry

Everybody remembers their first time. Unless you’re a superhuman it’s was probably a difficult and draining experience: gasping for breath, panting like a sow on heat and, occasionally, farting. 

I thought I’d lost mine on the summit of the Volcan de Agua, back in December 1989, the fag end of the eighties. Turns out it was only a touch of foreplay, at just 3766 metres above sea level Agua was a bit like that bit of how’s-your-father you enjoyed on the sofa whilst your parents were safe in bed after a sneaky glass of your mother’s sherry, a fumble then a rumble in your loins but nothing more than a wet patch in your Levi 501s. This time I know it’s for real, this time I went all the way: to the summit of Xinantecatl/Nevado de Toluca at 4700m.

Altitude. Poncing around at sea level we don’t really give it a second thought. I might worry about height gained and lost, about climbs and descents on any of the Caminos de Santiago but I don’t have to worry about a lack of oxygen in my blood. I might, toward the end of a 40km hike, feel the burn in my calves and my thighs but I won’t be worrying about my heartrate, light-headedness or the dreaded headache that indicates the beginning of mala de la montaña – mountain sickness. I felt all of these symptoms and none as Piotr, my guide, and I trotted up from the car park on a gentle slope, immediately overtaken by a group of Mexican athletes undergoing high-altitude training. High-altitude: it has a nice, slightly glamourous ring to it, a whiff of risk and a hint of danger. To say one’s off on a high-altitude hike suggests you’re up there with the big girls and boys; less pedestrian – no longer a pedestrian, in fact. You’ve set off on a journey that will take you not up to the lofty summits but along a trajectory in which you enter the terrain of the climber or – heaven help us – the mountaineer. You are now counted amongst the elite and look down – literally as well as metaphorically – on those who stick to the lowly, lowland trail. 

Sounds exciting and, in many respects it is, but like every glittering prize it has a mundane reality. I might have imagined the classic warning signs of altitude sickness but I was imagining the shortness of breath that seemed to increase with every stride. ‘Take it easy’, advised Piotr, but I’d been waiting for this moment so long I flew out the traps. And I felt the need to prove myself, that I could make the leap from long-distance walker and pilgrim to the lofty heights of the mountain hiker, right up there, above the clouds. 

After about three minutes I gave up and followed Piotr’s advice; though the truth is I had little choice. At anything under 2000m above sea level, I could’ve completed the first stage of the Xinantecatl climb at a fair pace, here the fabled tortoise might have given me a run for my money. And it would get worse, cresting the ridge between the crater and the slope was straight forward enough – I could even engage in conversation without sounding as if I were drawing my dying breath but Xinantecatl is a volcano, albeit an extinct one, so there’s plenty of steep scree and loose rock to negotiate: three steps forward, one step back. I cursed the effing mountain, I cursed my guide and, most off all, cursed the romantic imagination that had lured me across the Atlantic Ocean and 4500 metres up into the atmosphere.  Where was my inner pragmatist when I needed her most?

What do you mean ‘inner pragmatist’? She doesn’t even exist: never has, never will. Which is just as well, otherwise, at every point where I was ready to throw in the towel – and they were increasing exponentially with every metre gained – she’d have been egging me on, the devil to Piotr’s angel, calmly and confidently assuring me I would get to the top. 

I have to confess that I didn’t believe him, even less so when he took a reading of my heart-rate and blood-oxygen levels. ‘If you were at sea level they’d put you in an oxygen tent …’; I thought he was going to say ‘… and you’d be dead’ but he shrugged his shoulders and suggested I go on. The last 50m of ascent to the summit of Xinantecatl is a pleasant scramble … no, let me rephrase that, would have been a pleasant scramble over firm and jagged rocks had I been 3000 metres lower; I wasn’t just an unconfident scrambler, I was an unconfident scrambler rapidly running out of breath. 
Piotr (Mexico Extreme): my fantastic guide

But I made it, dear reader. Of course I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the balls to write this post. In the overall scheme of things, the 600m of ascent from the car park to the summit of Xinantecatl isn’t exactly Everest’s North Face but on this test of acclimatisation and fitness hinged the success of the whole Fire in the Blood expedition. I’m writing this at 4000m in a freezing hut in the shadow of Iztaccihuatl, 5200m, which I attempt to climb tomorrow, setting out at 02:00, in true alpine style. I hope to make it to the top and, having made it to the top of Xinantecatl, I believe I can, though I accept that physiological circumstances might conspire against me. In a sense, in climbing Iztaccihuatl I’m a bit like the old women who swallowed a fly and proceeded to ingest a series of increasingly large insect, avian and animal species to catch the elusive fly. Or perhaps I’m a jealous lover, flirting with Itza to get close to the sensually elegant cone of Popocatepetl on the other side of the Paseo de Cortes. For Iztaccihuatl is, in Aztec mythology, the ‘Sleeping Lady’ but Popo is a woman on fire. And she is out of bounds so all I can do is watch her explosions from afar, not touch nor feel her seismic rumblings, nor sniff the sweet smell of her sulphur.

People – students, teachers, academics as well as ‘normal’ people – have been asking me what it is about volcanoes that I love, expecting, in return, a pithy lecture on physical geography but I have to bring them up in their tracks straight away. ‘It’s not love, it’s pure, unbridled lust’, I tell them and as I do I believe my eyes become craters of blood-red lava spitting fire and fury. They back away, I head home for a large gin and tonic.

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