Day 1: Travel from Toronto to Tlachichuca.
Start elevation: 76m. End elevation: 2,760m.
Our flight to Mexico City was a red-eye from Toronto leaving shortly before midnight on Thursday evening. Fortunately, we were both able to doze for most of the approx. 5 hour flight. On arrival at the airport, we found our way to the bus terminal where we ran into our first "must speak Spanish" situation when trying to purchase bus tickets to the first stop in Puebla. We managed to bumble through, eventually communicating what we needed, and had our tickets in hand. It was a two hour ride to the eastern state of Puebla, and the bus which ended up being a first class bus, exceeded our expectations. We mostly snoozed and read on the bus. Once we got to the bus station in Puebla, we had to take a taxi to another station from which to depart to Tlachichuca. This time we had the request sussed and written out on paper in Spanish so that we could get to the right place. At CAPU station in Puebla, we had for lunch the first of many tacos, with Matt opting for what would become the stock standard: the pork taco / taco el pastor! The second approx. 2 hour bus was a bit of a downgrade from the previous bus, but was still pretty decent. Because it was a standard intercity bus, it stopped more often to let people on and off, and also had several vendors hopping on the bus to sell sandwhiches, chips, and icecream, the last of which we opted for and was quite delicious good even though we weren't sure what the green, pink, caramel brown, and white flavours really were! The bus dropped us directly to the front gate of the Conchella Limon's climbing hostel, as we had shown the driver the drop-off instructions provided by the hostel ahead of time. Maribel, the owner's daughter, showed us to our room which was a fairly basic, large room, with three double beds. This seemed to be the standard room set up (we were in a different room on return from the mountain with the same layout), which lined up with the hostel being a 'climbing hostel' and probably often having larger groups coming through. Once we had dropped off our bags to the room and freshened up, we headed to the small town of Tlachichuca's market and 'main street' to suss out what we might buy for food on the mountain. After coming up with a bit of a game plan for our meals, and exploring the market street, we decided to fill our bellies with a 'proper lunch' before doing the shopping. We stopped at the only local restaurant/café we'd seen, and had a nice steak lunch that came with a ridiculous amount of tacos on the side. Lunch was washed down with a couple of Modelo cervezas. Shopping was a fun challenge, and we probably purchased all of our supplies across 4 or 5 different stores, including 1 mini-mart, the main town grocery, a knick knack store, a butcher, and a couple of stalls in the market place. We got very accurate at pointing at what we needed. In the main grocery the set-up was that everything was behind the counter and we had to ask for it (mostly by pointing or by quickly trying to find the word in the phrase book), and the girls would get it for you from out back. Then, after you had all your items lined up on the counter, you would go to a window where you couldn't see the money handler. You'd give them the ticket with your items handwritten out, and the cash price, and they would return you a receipt. Then, back to the ordering counter, where, after handing over your receipt, you'd receive the groceries. Quite a different system to what we've been used to and in fact probably the first "grocery store" we've been to with this manner of operation. Once we had all our supplies, we headed back to the hostel and got all our gear organized before dinner. Dinner was steak tacos (surprise!), served with black beans, salsa verde, and also a side dish of tamale (essentially a corn cake wrapped in a banana leaf with a tomato-ey chicken filling). The hostel was actually very quiet on our first night there, and we only saw two other climbers (a Mexico-based English gent, and his Mexican buddy) who had just returned from the mountain that day. After dinner, we were soon in bed, keen to get a good nights kip before the trip to altitude the next day.
Day 2: Up to Piedre Grand Hut.
Start elevation: 2,760m. Acclimatization hike to 4,760. End elevation: 4,260m.
It was Christmas eve morning (although it was easy not to notice in the small town we stayed in!). Breakfast was huevos (egg) tacos with the standy black beans and green salsa verde. Washed down with the finest Nescafe granulated instant coffee :). At breakfast, again we only saw the same guys from the previous night's dinner sitting. At around 9am, once Van had all her rental gear (crampons, ice axe and trekking poles) sorted, we hopped into the jeep that would take us up to "base camp" at the Piedre Grand Hut. It was just the two of us on the ride up. The weather was nice and sunny and the drive up took a little less than two hours. On arrival, we took a posy near to the door on the lower level, which proved to be a good place to set up. We'd arrived at around 10:45 so we took a couple of hours to read/chill before making a sandwich for lunch. Over lunch, we saw an incredibly lightly dressed and fit looking older gent come off the mountain. We learnt that he was in his 50's, regularly competed in mountain running/ speed ascent events, and had biked up from Tlachichuca that morning, parked his bike at the hut, and then made it to the summit in 3 hours, all with his small adventurous dog! That was definitely some next level stuff; and we were definitely not taking it as a benchmark! After lunch, we went on our first acclimatization hike, getting up to approx. 4,760m for a gain of 500m above the hut. On this first hike, we took a route up the "right side" on scree and then for the most part, scree-skiied down. We were both pretty pleased with how we were feeling altitude-wise, with only the faintest of a headache passing now and then, and no serious fatigue or other AMS symptoms. Based on how we were feeling, we determined that if the second acclimatization hike went well the next day, we would shoot for the summit the following morning, instead of taking a third acclimatization day before the summit bid. On return from the first acclimatization hike, we cooked our dinner up. On the menu was "pasta el penne con chorizo tomato sauce con courgette, carrot, y broccoli". After dinner the darkness set in pretty quick and, given that there were no lights in the hut and a couple of teams that were going for the summit the next day, believe it or not, we were in bed at 6:30 PM. Probably a record for earliest bed time for 2016 :).
Day 3: Christmas Day & acclimatization hike #2
Start elevation: 4,260m. Acclimatization hike to 4,960. End elevation: 4,260m.
It was the first time since we've been overseas that we had woken up on Christmas morning that it didn't really feel like Christmas! The only festive décor was the santa hats that the two of us had brought and wore on our hike that day :). We had initially planned to set out at around 8am but opted to doze a little longer and it also took us longer than it should have to organize our day packs, meaning we eventually set out a little after 9am. We took a slightly different route up the first part of the climb, with a bit of scrambling up rocks interspersed with snow. We got up past high camp and then through "the Labyrinth" without difficulty as the conditions were fairly good (no recent snow, clear tracks, good cramponing conditions). We turned back at 5,960m, the highest we'd both ever been, which was the halfway point, elevation-wise, between the hut and the summit crater. We did notice that the going did get a bit tougher as we got higher, but we both felt like we had it in us, in terms of feeling better than we expected at altitude, to push for the summit the next day. After returning to the hut, we had a light late lunch. We read and relaxed the rest of the afternoon, while the hut got more and more full. It was a pretty full house by the end of the evening and we had learned that around 10 of us would be pushing for the summit the next day. For dinner, we had the same as the previous night, except with tuna subbed in for the chorizo. Gear was organized and lights were out by about 7pm, with the alarms set for 11:30 pm that night.
Day 4: Summit Day & Return to Tlachichuca
Start elevation: 4,260m. Summit hike to 5,660. End elevation: 2,760m.
Alarms went off at 11:30 and after getting in some breakfast and getting geared up, we were on our way at about 12:15. We were the second to leave the hut after an American pair that had started at 11pm. Matt had been getting sub-par sleeps for the couple of nights in the hut and was feeling it for the first ~700m of the climb. Even still, our descent yesterday had allowed us to discover the best route up the first part of the ascent before the labyrinth, so we actually managed to do this part quicker than both the previous acclimatization hikes. The first part of the climb, from the hut to the glacier, felt like it went quite quick, since it was all in the dark. As we got higher, it got colder, and was bitterly cold and very windy pretty much just as we were getting out of the labyrinth before arriving at the glacier, and only got colder from there. We hadn't fully appreciated how much of a slog the glacier would be. It was about a 45 degree incline, and with no logical resting places, seemed to go forever! Part of this was, of course, that with both the fatigue from getting to where we were, plus the effects of being at high altitude, our rate of ascent had significantly tapered off from the beginning of the climb. We only took two short breaks for water on the glacier, digging in the ice axe and not really getting any leg rest as we stood facing uphill to drink our water. While a slog, it was an ascent with amazing views as we were going up the glacier as the sun was rising. The difficulty was well worth the reward, and more. The mountain cast a shadow over the land below, and the skyline and dawn were spectacular as we made our way up. Matt had read a trip report that we would reach a "lip" and then after that, there would be a bit of a taper off before a 100m gain to the summit. When, at one point, we were in actuality perhaps 30-40m from the summit, and his watch still indicated around 100m, Matty stopped for a sandwich (we were both starving by this point since we hadn't found a natural stopping place to rest/eat on the glacier). As Van was leading and was around 5m above Matt, and wasn't going to go back down for a sandwich, she continued to push on as was sure that she could see the "lip" just ahead. Driven by hunger, Van pushed hard up this part. As she got nearer, she could see for sure that the incline tapered off (finally), and then it became evident this was actually the crater rim, wahoo! Matt's altimeter losing a bit of accuracy meant that we had thought we were further from the summit than we actually were, so it was very much a relief to step food on the crater rim. As soon as you stepped from the snow onto the loose rock, there was an instant bathing in sunlight which was much appreciated. We took about 15 minutes on the summit to get some photos and get ready for the descent. It was an epic feeling to be the highest people in Mexico at that time (and as Matt pointed out, possibly even all of North America with Denali/Mt Logan summits very unlikely at the time of year). Our "summit buddies" were a couple of lads from San Francisco who had caught up to us on the glacier. While we hadn't roped up for the ascent, we did for the descent so that Van would be able to go faster downhill with the confidence-booster of having the rope in place. The trip down, while shorter in time, felt longer than the trip up, owing to sore muscles and fatigue from the trip up. We took a lot more rest on the way down than the way up in fact. Van definitely dragged the chain some on the way down, being not quite as "endurance fit" as Matt. All in all, it was just under a 14-hour day for us between leaving the hut and getting back. While we consider ourselves reasonably fit, we were at the slower end of the scale for the climb, likely owing to (a) spending so much time of the year at sea-level and (b) having not done any training hikes/climbs mainly due to the lack of hills in Toronto. Such a great day and a great achievement all the same! We'd both gotten to the highest we'd individually been, Van had gained a lot of confidence in snow-travel technique, and Matt was instilled with confidence in his ability to handle high altitude, to take forward to his Aconcagua expedition. Originally, we had arranged our ride down from the hut for the next day since the original plan involved an extra acclimatization day. We were lucky that on the glacier, we'd bumped into one of the guides associated with the climbing hostel that we were staying at, and also that the lads from San Fran were ok with waiting for us before heading back down to Tlachichuca (we probably took an extra 45 mins to an hour to get down than them). Once we got back to the hut, we hastily packed our gear and then hopped into the jeep, bound back to the hostel. The road was crazy bumpy on the way down, we think the jeep must have had a lot less suspension than the one that we took up. Matt got lots of useful information from Deepak, who had had a couple of attempts at Aconcagua. Also over the hostel's chicken taco dinner we met Wes, who also had lots of Aconcagua knowledge to share with Matt too. The hostel was much busier than when we had first arrived. There were a tonne of people at the hostel that night, all headed to the mountain the next morning. The dining room was full in both the evening and morning. We got a much needed and much deserved approx. 11 hour sleep at the climbing hostel that night!