This story starts with a volcano. Or maybe one story ends there and another begins. Or maybe it’s just that a volcano, with an umbilical attachment to the earth’s core, is the perfect metaphor of a gateway to another world. Either way, if there’s one thing you can count on with a volcano, it’s a hole on top.
The opening atop a Mexican version I’d found myself climbing with a friend 35 years ago, however, had proved maddeningly elusive. Its lip of fractured ice waved to us like salt crystals ringing a margarita, looming no closer despite hours of steady climbing. Was it our slow-motion crampon moonwalk on the glacier’s marble surface? Our zigzagging around the blue yawn of a hundred crevasses? Or was it simply failing brain function at 5,500 metres, an altitude that my friend and I—hitching along with no clue, no rope, frozen feet and heavy half-breaths—hadn’t experienced?
Soon enough, it had become apparent why the climb seemed slow: the crater’s edge wasn’t level, and we were contouring the volcano in the direction of its steeply rising rim. We finally breached it on a false summit halfway around, the adjacent snowfield a mess of ashen streaks—volcanic dribble on a white bib. The true summit mocked us from above, which meant more climbing, despite our nausea, headaches and dizziness.
An hour later, we were finished, literally and figuratively. Just shy of the highest point—a crenulated mannequin of brick-coloured lava—we were too cold, hypoxic and exhausted to continue. We took a picture, one of those selfies-before-there-were-selfies that climbers execute. With a toxic smell of lurid yellow sulfur bubbling behind, we struggled into our shitty first-generation telemark skis and started down bulletproof ice, hanging on for dear life and desperate for lower altitude.
The long, looping trail to the summit of Pico de Orizaba—Mexico’s highest mountain and North America’s loftiest volcano at 5,640 metres—had started in my parents’ living room as an adolescent. There, in a coffee-table book, a black-and-white photo of an old Mexican church with a massive, snow-covered volcano rising behind it had planted a seed of secret desire.
Mountains, of course, have a way of turning secrets back on us. Rife with their own confidentialities of geology and weather, they also become repositories of lost human endeavour—something I found myself contemplating a few winters back when two bodies were found on Orizaba.
The 50-degree summit slope had made for a perilous ski back in 1983, but in February 2015, a climber heading up the same route had slipped and slid downward. Self-arresting at around 5,270 metres, he found himself staring at two mummified corpses clinging to each other in the ice. In 1959, a team of seven Mexican climbers had been caught in an avalanche at this very spot. Four survived, but three had perished. These were two of the missing, and we’d skied right past them without knowing.
High mountains preserve bodies for decades—like George Mallory’s 75-year entombment on Mount Everest—and sometimes millennia, as with Incan mummies or the Tyrolean Iceman, “Ötzi,” regurgitated by a glacier on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, some 5,000 years after being killed by an arrow. Secrets revealed by time.
My friend and I had shared the secret of Orizaba’s summit, but the mountain had clearly seen fit to keep others to itself. —LESLIE ANTHONY