Thursday, December 21st, 2006
We SMITHs tend to be pasty bespectacled urbanites who spend our days tethered to coffee cups and iBooks and never hike farther than the six flights up to our apartments. (Okay fine, speak for yourself, Rachel.) Still, I’m especially excited to present a terrific first person piece that couldn’t be more different from my own experience. David Ferris is an excellent writer, yes, but he’s also an adventurer. His bio is below. Below that, join him on an incredible journey up Mexico’s highest peaks, and into the even-more-mystifying world of that which we cannot control. -RF
David Ferris writes about peoples’ encounters with the wild for a simple reason: when the environment gets extreme, human nature does too, revealing us at our best and worst. David has done some foolish things himself, such as racing 10 days through the jungles of Borneo, surfing the sharky waters of Northern California or climbing remote African mountains without a map. David has covered courts, cops and city hall for several San Francisco Bay Area dailies, worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and other publications, and holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. His latest adventure is unfolding at his blog, www.theferrisfiles.com.
by David Ferris
I climbed my first Mexican volcano behind Rich, a man with legs so pale I needed sunglasses. Everyone in our party wore long johns, but Rich wore shorts, cotton shorts, and every mountaineer knows that cotton can kill you if the weather gets wet and cold. But Rich didn’t know, or didn’t care.
I offered my SPF 30 against his certain dermal annihilation. “Nope,” Rich said happily, his gaze on the sun-splashed trail. He had a drawl like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. “Don’t believe in the stuff. I get red for a few days, then I’m fine.”
Rich is 57 and owns a shoe store in a farm town in New York, a landmass where hills pass for mountains. Now he is south of the border, at 13,000 feet and climbing to the sky, and having a ball. He has the wrong clothes and no sunscreen and is reminding me an awful lot of me whenever I’ve blundered into a new sport. When I look back at the misfortunes that befell that man, I have to wonder why, when we stumble into the unknown, things go right for some and so wrong for others.
Our party of nine Americans, most of them athletes, had come south of the border to summit three of Mexico’s highest peaks in a week, and each one in a single day. We rolled in two Chevy vans west to east across Mexico’s great Central Plateau, to Nevado de Toluca (15,354 ft.), where Rich first touched the sun, then to Iztaccihuatl (17,126 ft.) and finally Pico de Orizaba (18,405 ft.), the third-highest mountain in North America.
We would have included Popocatelpetl (17,887 ft.), the second-highest peak in the country, but we couldn’t because it was erupting, just as it had been when the first Europeans saw it in 1519. “By day and night a great column of smoke comes forth and rises up into the clouds,” wrote a fascinated Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conquistador. He sent ten soldiers up to check it out, guided by locals, same as us. They stumbled to the top, the air thick with fumes and the earth trembling under their feet. As they descended, the summit exploded and burning rock rained all down around them. No one was killed.
We topped Nevado de Toluca under clear skies, getting lucky, like the conquistadors. When we got back on the road we entertained each other with tales of adventures we’d survived.
Bob, the pathologist from Paducah, told of one frozen run in Alaska where he’d accidentally bitten through his bottom lip while attempting to chew the ice out of his water tube, Our leader, Marshall, described the skin-searing cold on Mt. Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica. And my friend Terri gave a blow-by-blow in a booming voice about her recent seven-day trail race across the Sahara, where she ran in 115-degree heat until she lost it and started hollering at the sun.
We had polished off Toluca in a few hours, but our next mountain, Iztaccihuatl, was bigger problem. Ixta, as Americans call it, is a looming massif, the main geographic barrier between the giant metropolises of Mexico City and Puebla. We’d ascend for more than 4,000 feet along a broken, rocky ridge.
It snowed lightly as we set out at 2:30 in the morning, flakes drifting through the beams of our headlamps. We climbed through the night. In fact, we hardly took a break until after sunrise, when we sat on a ridge to admire the dazzling blue sky and Popocatepetl smoking to the South. That’s when I saw that Rich was dragging behind, stopping often to lean over his trekking poles and gasp in the thin air. His face was scarlet from sunburn. When he finally caught up, he looked so tired and sad that I decided to wait for him while the others went ahead.
So I was the only one who saw him get lucky.
Water is an essential fluid when climbing all day, but Rich hadn’t brought much, just a pair of plastic bottles stowed in mesh pockets on either side of his pack. As he swung his bag back on, one of them popped out and flew off the ridge.
It bounced among the red rocks toward Puebla, glinting in the sun and thunking off boulders, and we watched it with our mouths open until it vaulted out of sight.
Rich sputtered and hollered a lot of dirty words I never heard Jimmy Stewart say.
As he raged, I looked for his other bottle. It twinkled at me from its pocket, brimming with water. Rich had sent an empty down the mountain. His climb was saved. “Hey Rich,” I said, “Check out your other bottle.”
Rich was so happy he wrapped me in a bear hug.
The word “luck” was invented in the late Middle Ages by the Germans, about the same time that country mastered the art of making beer. “Gelucke” had two meanings: good fortune and happiness. In the transition to English, however, the term lost some of its optimism. Nicholas Rescher, a philosopher of luck, defines luck as “good or bad fortune acquired unwittingly, by accident or chance.”
But Rescher points out that luck doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is surrounded by a fog–a fog of ignorance. We all live in this fog, whether or not we like to admit it. We don’t know if it will rain tomorrow, where your boyfriend is, whether a sperm has breached the egg, who will win the promotion or the election, or which bottle will slip from your grasp. “Many of our actions–perhaps most of them–are to some extent stabs in the dark, akin to shooting at a target we cannot see clearly,” Rescher says. “And hitting the bulls-eye in such circumstances is exactly the sort of thing that luck is all about.”
Remember those conquistadors of 500 years ago who climbed into an erupting volcano? The Spaniards were lucky, because they didn’t know their quest was suicidal. Had they known–subtract their ignorance–we’d call them bozos.
Another mishap awaited Rich three days later on our next mountain, Orizaba, when he set his backpack down on the ice. And this time he couldn’t plead ignorance.
We returned from the summit caldera of Orizaba on a windy, clear afternoon. Carefully we picked our way down the Jamapa Glacier, a bulging, 2,500-foot high ice sheet where many people have fallen to their deaths. Rich, Terri and I were in the same climbing team, wearing sharp steel crampons on our boots and clutching ice axes. We traveled in a line, tied with rope to each other and to Lupe, our taciturn Mexican guide, who replied to any question about “how far?” with the answer, “ten more minutes.”
Rich had shaped up his act since Ixta. He was head to toe in synthetic clothing and had even rubbed sunscreen onto what was left of his face, which was now a brown mask of rotting skin. Terri, however, was not convinced of Rich’s transformation, and periodically barked at him when he did something dumb, like, for example, setting his gloves down loose on the steep, slippery ice when we stopped for a breather.
The air was so thin that even marching downhill we huffed for breath. When we halted to rest, Rich unshouldered his backpack and put it down on the snow, just like Terri had told him not to. Straightaway it obeyed the law of gravity.
In a moment it was beyond our grasp, and then all we could do was watch. It flipped and skidded down 2,000 feet of glacier. The zipper was open. “My wallet!” Rich cried. It headed for some unknown point on the miles of rock below. Two water bottles popped out of the bag and joined the ride. They got smaller and smaller. Where would they end up?
The medieval Germans brought us luck, but many centuries earlier India conceived of karma. This philosophy maintains that everything one does–every decision, every thought, every action–has a ripple effect in one’s life, and even into future lives. It is like a giant and unforgiving bank account where every sinister or thoughtless deed dings your balance, and every good work restores it. In this system, you don’t just happen to hit the bullseye. You get what you have coming.
During our week together I’d learned that Rich had lived a life of substantial karmic investment. In his hometown of Wellsville, New York, he had founded a charity run that raised thousands of dollars each year for worthy causes. Terri has visited him, and she tells me that Rich is a beloved figure on the streets of Wellsville, kind of like Jimmy Stewart, the kind of person who asks “how are you?” and actually sticks around to listen to the answer. Once Rich caught a kid who stole a pair of Nike Air Jordans from his store. Rather than hand him over to the cops, Rich insisted the kid visit the store every week, so Rich could review his grades.
Perhaps the gravity of karma acted on Rich’s belongings that day. As we watched, the bag and its bottles took a northeast heading and coasted to a gentle stop at the glacier’s edge. Twenty yards away, our lead party sat on a rock, waiting for us.
What happened to Rich–to all of us–on this epic trip to Mexico was. . .no tragedy whatsoever. We lost no digits to frostbite, nothing got stolen, and later we emailed each other photos of smiling climbers in the sun. Back in Mexico City, over shots of tequila, our Mexican guide, Cristobal, assured us with wonder that topping these three mountains in perfect weather almost never happens.
From Mexico City we parted ways. Rich flew to Dallas and then Pennsylvania and then drove for hours in the dark, and didn’t crash. He entered the house quietly and slipped into bed next to his sleeping wife. The next morning, Rich told me later, she turned over and screamed; her husband had gone to Mexico, and now in her bed was a creature with a face like a baked tomato. Mostly it was ghastly brown, but here and there were cracks of pink where, as luck would have it, new skin was growing.