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Survival Stories

The Mountains Show No Mercy

On the "easy" climbs up Mexico's volcanoes, ignorance and arrogance can be deadly. A classic story from the Backpacker archives.

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This classic story originally ran in the February 1996 issue of Backpacker. Subscribe to O+ to support more storytelling like this.

She started crying later, after they took him away.

“It’s so sad…” and she choked and held her hand down over her mouth, and the starlight began to run down her cheeks.

We were standing on the shoulder of the mountain amidst the crosses. It was night. I put my arms around her but it didn’t help. She kept shaking. You do that, hold someone, because it’s the right thing to do in these circumstances, but it makes you feel oafish and mechanical, like one of those badly dressed mannequins we saw on the sidewalks of Mexico City.

“It’s just so sad.” She pushed her forehead against my shoulder and her words dropped out in small soft pieces. She said she could picture him up there, all alone, but I don’t think she could. I think she felt him up there. I saw him, though, because I’ve been there before. I could imagine him sitting down in the snow and not getting back up, the smooth metal-gray sky and the jagged cold slowly closing over him like cellar doors. But I didn’t feel it like she did.

“You act as if nothing has even happened.” She was angry as she turned away. Thought I was being cruel. The red taillights of the jeep had passed down out of sight. There were so many stars and the summit of Orizaba arched up above us like a cathedral pointing to the heavens.

“All I was trying to say is that it wasn’t the mountain,” I calmly told her.

“What does that mean?” Her voice quavered. “You’re the one who said mountains have no mercy.”

“I know but…” I decided to wait. Wrong time.

We went back into the hut. It was pitch black. We took off our heavy leather boots and shimmied into our sleeping bags on the wooden shelf. I started to fall asleep but then woke myself because her eyes were open. I could feel it.

“Can’t sleep?”

“I keep hearing that knock at the door,” she said.

“Want to talk about it?” That’s a throwaway. Just something you say. You know the answer. It’s just a way to show you care even when there’s not a damn thing you can do.


In the morning we got up late because it was a rest day. Originally it was set aside so we could adjust to the altitude, but now attitude was a primary concern.

It was hot in the sun, but it was that high altitude hot that turns cold as ice with the barest breeze, and everything in the shade stays frozen. We brought out our foam pads and sat with our backs against the warm stone hut, staring at the mountain with our heads back and our sunglasses on. The mountain was perfectly still. Radiant. Didn’t look like some place where someone could die. But then mountains, especially big ones, are duplicitous.

“Looks beautiful up there.” I wanted to be cheerful.

She didn’t answer. I couldn’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses. Instead I saw two perfectly reflected miniatures of the mountain.

You see what you want to see. It was a mountain above us. I think she saw, far off but plain as day, a stiffening, scared young man nailed to the snow with an ice axe. That’s how they found him.

Two climbers had spotted something in the snow. A man weak and incoherent. They sank his ice axe and tied him to it, then the two descended. By the time the rescuers got back up there he had slipped and was hanging from the ice axe like a tangled puppet, his body rigid as wood. They frantically massaged him and stuck him in a sleeping bag. He strained to unclench his teeth and open his mouth. He whispered, hardly more than air, “Umberto.” then he died. That was his name. They pounded his chest and gave mouth-to-mouth but he did not come back like people do on TV.

When they knocked on our hut door and dragged him inside, someone shined a flashlight on his face. His mouth was still open. He had little whiskers on his chin. They found his ID in his pocket. Umberto was from Acapulco. He was 18 years old.

As we leaned against the hut in the sun I tried to talk to her about it.

“He made mistakes. Terrible mistakes,” I told her.

She nodded.

“It’s a tragedy,” I said.

“I keep thinking about his family.”

I think she was thinking more about our family. That’s what happens. You read about it in the morning news but it doesn’t get to you because it’s only words on a cheap paper. But when the body of a man who’s hardly more than a boy is pulled in and laid at your feet, it becomes immediately real, then you think about the people you love.

It’s very sad. I know. But we know better,” I reassured her. “We know what we’re doing. Remember Ixta?”

Several days earlier on our hike up Ixtacihuatl we strode fast and I was feeling great. Then it started, just above treeline, a little ache between my eyes. We kept going because it wasn’t anything.

An hour later my head felt like someone had hit me with a brick. I laid down in the dirt. She felt fine, wandering about and searching for a campsite. When I sat up I thought I was going to vomit. We put on our packs and went back down the trail.

It got dark and started to rain. The rain turned to sleet that slashed across the blackness. We were between huts and didn’t have a tent. We found a cave. I stretched out and breathed deep to hold my stomach while she cooked. I ate as much as I could and drank and drank. By the time we fell asleep I was back.

I woke in the middle of the night. I heard something. I aimed my headlamp outside the cave. It was snowing hard. In the morning we found coyote tracks everywhere. We had usurped their shelter during the storm.

Popocatepetl at sunset (Photo: Harry Kikstra / Moment via Getty)

Oatmeal. Hot chocolate. More hot chocolate. Raisins. Pack up.

We were only two hours from the high hut. We rose up onto the moraine in full mist, approaching then passing cross after cross after cross. Simple and baroque, metal and wood. A path of crosses.

In the afternoon seven Mexicans arrived. They were all young and good-natured, drinking tequila and smoking cigarettes and a little anxious, but acting brave. They didn’t have enough ice axes and only four pairs of crampons. They all had large knives on their belts, and wore busted work boots and torn woolen sweaters and red neckerchiefs. They were rough and ragtag. One fellow had a thin rope like you use for tying down a tarp. It hung on his belt in a noose. Landlocked pirates they were. I believed they were brave. I hoped they were not too brave.

Several hours later another group arrived. Three young men and a boy. They had brand new gear, bright expensive backpacks, shiny ice axes, and colorful jackets. They did not act brave.

The weather was playing tag. Sunshine and then swirling flakes and then impenetrable murk. I didn’t think any of them should be climbing this mountain. We found out later than none did.

In the evening I borrowed some binoculars and between waves of fog and snow I glassed the wall. I wanted to do something challenging. I found a route, a straight line, base to summit. Directo al pecho.

“Not even a full pitch of ice,” I said over noodles. “Besides, we can’t do anything difficult, we didn’t bring equipment.” We had crampons, one ice axe each, a rope, and three ice screws.

My eyes have always been bigger than my mouth. She knows this. She also knows the problem with mountaineering is that once you’ve got it on your plate, you usually have to finish it all because you’re too high to back down.

The ice made for desperate conditions. I had to gouge fingerholds in the blue ice for my weaponless left hand. We bloodied our fingers clinging so tight. I got frostbite on my knuckles. She bruised her knees so badly they turned a livid violet.

And right in the middle, when things were already fun enough, the weather came at us. Light vanished, replaced by a tactile gloom. Graupel blasted from all directions like buckshot from a dozen shotguns. We teetered on our front points and kept hard at keeping our heads. One move. The next move. Nothing more.

When we finally got back on snow it was essentially over. Only 500 feet left to the summit. She found her smile again, although she made me promise we’d do the normal route when we climbed Orizaba.

But it wasn’t over. You’d think you’d learn that just when you think it is, it isn’t. But you don’t. Hope is imperishable.

As we pulled on top and began straggling toward the summit, a howling, popping, screeching sound struck us like a club. Instinctively I crouched and held my ice axe out in front of me as if preparing for battle. The noise was so shocking I was certain the crevasses that ring the top of the mountain were shearing off and that were about to tumble 3,000 feet down the face.

But the snow wasn’t moving. The crevasses weren’t widening. I was bewildered.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” The wind was so strong she was screaming. Clouds were rolling over us like breakers.

I was hunched over like an animal. I had plunged my axe into the ice to stop a fall, but were weren’t falling. I thought we should be tumbling through the air like skydivers without chutes.

The cracking grew worse. It crashed and expanded and shrilled until it felt as if it were inside my head. Then my scalp began to vibrate. Then the skin on my face began twitching and jerking like the face of a rabid animal.

“WHAT IS THAT?” I called.

“WHAT?” she yelled. I couldn’t believe it. “LOOK AT MY FACE!”

An ocean of white sky was gushing around us. I could see her shaking her head. She took one step toward me then jumped back in horror.

Something was malfunctioning. Something inside my skull. Synapses snapping, shorting out, frying.

Then suddenly, ineffably, I understood. I was a human lightning rod, a wet flesh cathode for the greatest river of current in the Western Hemisphere.

We began to run, side by side, holding our rope up like a skirt, unflinchingly leaping across crevasses, aiming for the descent ridge. We didn’t even stop for a summit photo.

Slips of vapor began dressing the sun and it wasn’t hot anymore. We decided to hike up Orizaba a ways. Recon the trail in the daylight that we’d soon have to do in the morning dark. If we did do it.

She was thinking about going down. She didn’t say it but I could tell she was wondering if it was worth it.

Once it had been. Ten years ago we climbed all three of Mexico’s highest volcanoes: Popocatepetl (17,925 feet), now fuming sulfurous gas and spitting pyroclastics and thus unclimbable; Ixtacihuatl (17,154 feet), named for a mythical naked woman lying on her back, her breasts the summit; and Orizaba (18,405 feet), third highest peak in North America.

We were lovers then. It was a lark. We flew down and without a thought scampered up the triumvirate in 10 days. But there was death then as well. Two Austrians perished on Orizaba.

Now we are husband and wife and parents with two daughters, Addi and Teal, 2,000 miles away with grandma. Three years old and eight months old. Addi so thrilled every night for her bedtime story and the adventures of her imaginary friends. Teal so close she screams with delight if she hasn’t noticed us for five minutes. Being a parent changes the way you view the mountain, and what it can do to you. You’re not so cavalier as you once were, and your goal is not merely to reach the summit, but to get back home.

We hiked up almost to the glacier, hardly speaking. Just in case, I built little cairns, talismans, at places I thought I could recognize in the dark.

Once she stopped and held my hand. “Do you think you know when it’s coming?”

I tried to think of all the times I was terribly cold. I could remember many times when my speech was slurred. Once or twice when I was so cold the shivering stopped. Seemed to me I always knew what was going on and what would happen if I didn’t do something about it. But I’d grown up in the cold, a place where it snows every month of the year. If I’d grown up someplace warm, I might not.

“Maybe not,” I said. I wasn’t sure.

But inside I didn’t believe it. When it comes slow like that, even if you can’t see it, I think you feel it and you know.

“We could have been struck by lightning on Ixta,” she said. “Electricity was coming up through my feet.”

“We could have.”

We were back down at the hut by six. We cooked inside, with yellow light angling in through the broken glass.

“That was good for me,” she said as steam from her mug curled up around her face. “Made me remember what it is. That that’s all it is.”

I started my old song and dance about how it wasn’t the mountain, that it was arrogance and ignorance. “They’re the killers.” I didn’t get any further. She didn’t want to hear it. She thought I was being arrogant.

Our alarms went off at 3 a.m. We were hiking under the stars by 4. Up past one talisman after another. At 6 a.m., just as the sun split open the morning sky, we unsheathed our axes, popped on our crampons and tied into the rope.

The snow was perfect, like vast steep sheets of white styrofoam. Crampon points sunk easily and securely. You felt like you could hang upside down from them.

Three hours. One step in front of the other. Diagonal across the neve. Up to the rocks. Drink water. Eat a candy bar. Up through the rocks. Around the crevasses. Up to the ridge. Up the ridge.

There is a monument of wind-mangled crosses and crucifixes on the cupola of Orizaba. They must have been carried up on the backs of disciples. Some of them are there for all the dead. Some of them are there for all the living.


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