The third time had been a charm. I found myself precariously balancing atop Mexico’s fourth largest mountain–Nevado de Toluca—reaching out gingerly for a congratulatory shake of our guide’s hand. I could not help but betray my feelings to Salvador and the other climbers as their happiness for my achievement seemed to eclipse their own. Drained from the effort to summit, diminished by the austere surroundings—craggy fields of rock and boulders blanketed by thick fog, I felt relief mixed with the residue of fear. The silence of the place only accentuated the eerie tension. High fives and picture taking were a brief respite from what the doctor described as the mood from “Dracula’s Castle.”
Walo, my 58-year-old Peruvian climbing partner, put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, “Nice job my friend…we made it.” Talkative, with a wide grin, Walo was the most outgoing of the colleagues making it a point not only to speak English to the “gringo” but to harmonize on a pop song earlier during the ascent. He seemed to greatly relish his recollections of the United States, especially trips to Huntington Park in California. The two of us shared an apple before Salvador urged us to follow him in the descent of Friar’s Peak (15, 390 feet) and begin the trek along the extinct volcano’s ridge.
I was careful not to delude myself into thinking this was over—from experience I knew the descent was always the most difficult part. I promised myself not to relax until we made it safely to the valley floor below.
I could not have wished for better company—a world class climber, Salvador is the most renowned climber in Mexico running a mountain climbing school and business, Mountain Adventures in Mexico City. He had returned from an expedition to Mount Everest the year before where he had been struck down by severe altitude sickness at Camp One and hospitalized in Katmandu for one month. After the elementary climb today, he would be traveling to Bolivia to guide climbers on other peaks. His crowning achievements included Aconcagua (South America’s highest peak), Elbrus (Europe’s highest peak), Mount Rainier (USA) and Pico de Orizaba (Mexico’s highest mountain). Short, compact, and brimming with confidence, climbing was his passion. The other members of our group included Dr. Pepito who had logged more than 30 years in the mountains, and his wife, Nancy. Then Trickee, a veteran climber, and Rosalia, a member of the Mexican Alpine Club for one year. All of them were welcoming and excited to see me “bag” another peak on the mountain the Aztecs called Xinantecatl.
The hike along the ridge was complicated by wet scree and earth, rock slabs soaring hundreds of feet into the air…the constant up and down and the negotiating of unstable rocks and stones. While not initially affected by the altitude, a headache soon came on. My companions urged me to continue hydrating. It was soon obvious the trek would consume the entire day as it included three contiguous peaks. I began to fall behind the group and was thankful Trickee remained with me as the rear guard. My breathing became more and more shallow, my pauses more frequent and lengthier in duration. I sensed Salvador and the group were concerned so I put on a brave face and continued the up and down, clinging to rocks and flirting with some precipices that were not for the weak of heart. I was now getting far more than I had bargained for.
The focus soon changed to that of survival. I kept repeating to myself, “Make it down…all the way down!” I also noticed my friend Walo was mute—having not uttered a word to anyone during the last hour. During a break, I leaned back against a lichen covered rock while Pepito clamped an oximeter to my fingertip.
“The oxygen saturation of your blood is normal but your breathing is terrible. Deep breaths…deep breaths my friend.”
I forced some trail mix into me as nausea churned in my gut.
The second peak barely revealed itself in the mist. This was the first time I heard the wailing of crows and the second time in the day that we had had any contact with wildlife. The group struggled to the craggy promontory called “Eagle’s Peak” (15,157 feet) and shouted down for me to advance, to climb again, to suffer. I shook my head but managed somehow to squeeze out some more energy, to crawl my way to the top. However, on this second summit, I was almost completely spent and had no interest in photos….or much of anything. Photos show me clutching the Club’s flag although I cannot remember those moments. I slumped against a boulder wondering when this would all end.
We moved off and down the second peak continuing south along the ridge going around rocky spires while the late afternoon advanced and we nourished ourselves on water, honey, and raisins. A third peak was located, this one lower and more manageable but now total exhaustion set in. Footing was becoming increasingly difficult, balance deserting me at the time I most needed it. Salvador kept urging us forward—one more defilade of boulders and we would be through and on to the unobstructed part of the volcanic ridge.
My spirits lifted as we spotted the narrow path, completely exposed along a ridgeline which towered over the valley below. Perhaps 30 minutes more and we would reach the narrow path which I knew well from two previous solo and aborted climbs. Salvador was out in front leading us through this rocky maze followed by Pepito, Walo, Nancy and Rosalia. I was next to last with Trickee bringing up the rear and encouraging me to finish strongly. I slowly passed a boulder which caught my attention. On the massive rock was a worn plaque which was in Spanish and read, “In Memory of Dr. Torres who lost his life on this spot.” I chose not to linger in reading the whole passage but it jolted me with the grim reminder that we were not yet safely off the mountain. I reflected on the fate of poor Dr. Torres for a few seconds before I heard the scream.
It was Nancy. Trickee and I hurried down and around a rock wall, slipping and sliding on the wet earth and scree only to find Walo sprawled headfirst down the mountain. His head lay on a rock, his leg twisted like a rag doll. The entire party gathered around his inert body. The site was difficult to work from—at a sharp angle, wet with small stones everywhere. Blood trickled from Walo’s ear.
While nobody had seen or heard Walo fall, the group was now frantically working to revive him. Turning him over, we laid him down gently with his feet pointed toward the valley floor. His helmet was removed while Doctor Pepito labored to revive the Peruvian with CPR. Each of us began rubbing his limbs as if this would somehow bring him back to life. We talked to Walo and eventually one of our party screamed at him to wake up. Had he stumbled, fallen, and been knocked out? Perhaps there was a chance he would come to. However, the longer the doctor labored on Walo and his eyes rolled back into his skull, I knew he was gone.
Salvador was in shock, Nancy wept, tears rolled off Rosalia’s cheeks. Our efforts to save Walo ended at 5:53 pm. We stayed with the body for what seemed to be an eternity before darkness and a damp chill descended on the mountain. There was nothing more we could do for our comrade. Our only option was to leave him on the mountain to await a rescue team—we were still more than two hours from the lodge.
Covering Walo’s body with an iridescent sleeping pad, we placed large stones on the corners to keep the crows away from. Rosalia fought back tears as she led the group in a short prayer. Then in silence and quiet grief, we grimly made our way down to the narrow path and the valley floor below.
I could not resist looking back at my colleague one last time—for a moment the sleeping pad and what remained of our friend seemed to glow in the late afternoon gloom until the implacable fog returned to conceal any trace of the tragedy.
This is the ninth-year anniversary of our climb on Nevado de Toluca. Walo left a wife and two young daughters behind in Mexico City. An autopsy later revealed the Peruvian expatriate died from a massive heart attack. The experience left me with a newly found respect for both the mountains…and my own mortality.
Kenneth R. Strange Jr. is the author of both “It’s Your Camino: One Couple’s 500-Mile Pilgrimage Across Spain” and the upcoming law enforcement memoir, “A Cop’s Son: One G-Man’s Fight Against Jihad, Global Fraud and the Cartels.” He can be found climbing the local mountains of Southern California.