Holiday in Pakistan

– Islamabad –

The story starts with smoke, curling and twisting in the air, in a dingy lime green hotel room that, like the rest of this country, seems eternally stuck in the seventies. A soap opera chatters away on a flatscreen on the wall, as the underpowered ceiling fan makes little attempt to clear the room of the haze. Sitting in stoned silence, cross-legged on the side of the bed, I watch the smoke twirl while my new friend crumbles bits of Afghan hash into an excavated cigarette.

Getting off the plane in Islamabad was like a bullet being loaded into a chamber and fired with explosive force. At first, everything felt surprisingly normal as I walked the white marble floors into arrivals. Now here I am, a couple hours later, swilling chai and hotboxing a seedy hotel room with someone I just met.

“Are you… relaxed?” Feroz asks me with a devilish grin. I am, the hash went straight to my head. And though my friend keeps asking if I’m feeling okay, I still haven’t figured out if he’s just planning to kill or extort me in some way.

Feroz is a taxi driver, hash peddler, solicitor of disreputable women, and an overall fixer: he knows everyone, all the cops and the airport authorities, and anything one might want – be it a weekend getaway or illicit vodka – he can make happen, at a price.

The muezzin sputters from a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. I ask Feroz if it’s the time for fajr, but already know that it is. He nods but doesn’t look up from his task. The streets of Islamabad are still dark; no soul seems to stir save for the odd dog or cat.

Feroz finishes off the joint, anointing it with a few strokes of chai from the bottom of his cup. As I inhale, I think how surreal this seems, like a scene straight out of some Victorian orientalist’s wet dreams. But it’s really just a scene from my own.

Feroz smiles, his huge moustache fanning out to reveal yellow, rotten teeth.

“You are foreigner,” he says. “But I feel this is your country.”

– Gilgit –

I didn’t travel to Pakistan to get stoned on hash, although that was one of my secondary or tertiary goals. I came here to ride my bike through the Karakoram Mountains, the western extension of the Himalayas, and home to such unprominent peaks as K2, Gasherbrum and Broad Peak.

Before I left, a lot of people asked, “Why Pakistan?” Most people I talked to didn’t know much about the country and had never thought of it as a travel destination. Let’s face it, most people thought of it as a hotbed of terrorism and great place to get yourself killed, so why go there? I’d been drawn to Pakistan for a long time and it was difficult to explain the fascination: whether it was the mystical Sufis or gun-toting militants; big mountains; the pomp and regality of Pakistani culture or even the bad seventies pastiche, there was no single reason that made me want to go – it was all of it.

The starting point for my bikepacking journey is the regional hub of Gilgit, a drab and sprawling city occupying a wide swathe of the Indus Valley. So here I am, dragging my bike bag through the rutted streets as inquisitive children and animals look on.

Feroz didn’t kill me after all, he really just wanted a buddy to smoke with. So a hop, skip, and momentary freefall over the foothills of the Karakoram, and I arrived at Gilgit airport early this morning.

Fortunately my accommodations aren’t far from the airport. I check in to the Park Hotel. International inclusiveness is assured by the array of banknotes pasted across the desk. Security is assured by the sawed-off shotgun propped up behind it.

The first step is to unpack and assemble my trusty Ogre, ensuring my bike bag with the hotel for the next two-ish weeks. I poke my finger at a date on the calendar and shrug, then wave it around erratically to indicate that I don’t know when I’ll be back – just don’t throw it out, okay?

After a foray to gather the last few supplies, I sit down to dine, my chicken biryani and I occupying the Park Hotel dining room singlehanded. I dig into the enormous pile, expecting to savor what is one of my favorite dishes, when I’m treated to a different Pakistani delicacy – dining in darkness. A routine power outage has struck. Staff appear to drag back curtains, the late day sun having to suffice.

– Jaglot –

On the outskirts of Gilgit, I pause to admire Rakaposhi and cue up my playlist. Mission of Burma has been my jam recently, so I thumb through albums and put on Peking Spring for the forty kilometer ride to Jaglot. It feels surreal to be heading out on a decade-long dream, and a slamming soundtrack accompanying the adventure goes without saying.

Over the next few days, it’s my plan to reach Skardu, a small city that is the traditional jumping-off point for expeditions to K2. Instead of taking the regular road to get there, I intend to take a circuitous route across the Deosai Plains.

To say Pakistan is unknown among bicycle tourists would be a lie. The deservedly popular thing to do is ride from Islamabad to China on the Karakoram Highway. But the popularity of said route is the exact reason for my aversion to it. I aspired to pedal across the vast expanse of the Deosai Plains and ultimately reach the mythical (to me) village of Hushe. Thus, these are the only kilometers I’ll spend on the Karakoram Highway, riding south to Jaglot, then chugging east into Astor valley.

As I arrive on the edge of Jaglot I start looking for somewhere to buy a drink. The ride here from Gilgit was characterized by a beautiful kind of desolation made of unending brown moraine. Its very appearance dried me to the bone.

Parking my bike outside the convenience store and walking inside, I experience my first taste of the unique social phenomenon that comes with being a white guy on a bike – or any foreigner, really – in Pakistan. That is, you are the social phenomenon!

One by one the locals appear. First, just two of them. Then two more. Then two more. Then two more. All of them just standing there peaceably in their pajamas, staring at me, chewing their naswar and asking stilted questions: “Who are you?” “Where are you going?” “What is your country?” “Are you married?” “Why not?” The list goes on. Somebody brings me ice cream; I’m chuffed and say salaams with my hand on my heart.

On the outskirts of Jaglot, I stop and arrange to sleep at Salman Guesthouse, a modest homestead offering my first view of Nanga Parbat, one of the Karakoram’s eight thousand meter giants.

I venture off to roll a cigarette and soak my feet in the icy blue creek. A nearby boulder is the bastion of an army of boys, leaping and shouting and launching themselves into the drink. I’m joined by a trio who come to scrub their shalwars and proceed to ogle everything about me: my bike, my watch, my phone, even my shades. About each, they want to know one thing – how much? I decline to inform them that the combined total of these items would equal to them a small fortune.

– Astor –

I’m up before anyone else at Salman Guesthouse, tip-toeing over trays from last night’s chicken karahi and packing my bike out in the yard. The ride out of Jaglot is particularly pleasant, the cool morning a precursor to the oppressive heat to come.

At the Nanga Parbat viewpoint I stop to take a picture, and no sooner do I dismount my bike than I find myself whisked away by two affable Lahoris with invitations for tea and hash. Conversation is batted about their hotel room as they pack and prepare to head to Deosai on their motorbikes. Despite their lateness, calls come for one or two more joints from one camp, inciting protests from the other. They look to me to solve the quarrel but – I don’t object!

I descend and cross the Indus River, then wind my way through the chasm that leads to Astor. The sun is perched defiantly above the canyon walls, which radiate heat into the center of my skull like a microwave. Sweat drips off my face, splashing all over the cockpit of my bike as I negotiate each switchback, telling myself that what I’m doing isn’t as difficult or dangerous as it seems.

At the top I relax a little, but still am careful of huge rocks littering the road and a massive drop down the river beside me. A speeding white Landcruiser appears in a cloud of dust behind me, so I swerve to the side as it skids to a halt.

“Too hodt, too hodt!” exclaims the driver. I can’t tell if he’s saying “too hard” or “too hot”, but either statement is entirely accurate at the moment.

“Too hodt,” he repeats, indicating I should put my bike in his truck and get inside.

“No, no!” I politely refuse. Riding up this canyon has positively sucked, but accepting a ride goes against my principl–

“Too hodt,” he reiterates as he and his brother start manhandling my rig into the back of the vehicle. I’m still standing there vociferating about “principles” with a beet-red face when I’m forced to admit defeat.

“It is too fucking hodt,” I say and hop in the air-conditioned truck.

Kash and his brother are from Astor and returning from Swat with a new vehicle. I expected to find a hotel when I got to Astor but that is now unnecessary. Arriving at Kash’s home, I’m shown to the bathroom and invited to wash. After a shower, I sit down to platter of palau. Of course, it’s expected that I’ll sleep there that night.

Kash lives with his brother, nephew, and a handful of women, the exact number I am not sure. Everybody lives in a green, one storey house with a guestroom accessed from outside, and a large garden in the back overlooked by the mountains around Astor. Kash’s nephew, Hiram, is an engineering student in Karachi and we’re left to strike up a conversation that lasts for a couple of hours.

After dinner, Hiram looks at me sleepily. We’ve been chatting all afternoon, comparing cultural notes, tooling around Astor, and after gorging ourselves on an elaborate feast prepared by his family, we’re both exhausted.

“Tomorrow, what is your plan?” he asks.

“I’m going to Deosai,” I say. I know Hiram has appreciated my presence here. I’ve been more than a novelty, I’ve become a real friend. I suspect he’ll be let down by me leaving so soon.

“In my opinion, you will not go to Deosai by cycle,” he says, and I ask him why he thinks so. This is the low season, he says, the weather is unpredictable. The plains are deserted this time of year. Plus there are man-eating bears. I know Hiram wants to persuade me to stay in Astor, but part of me wonders whether I should listen to him. The truth is, I don’t know if it’s possible to ride a bike across Deosai or not. I haven’t heard of anyone trying and I don’t know if it’s been done before.

“Hiram, I have to at least try,” I say. “I can’t come all this way and not try.”

In the morning, I’m getting saddled on the street while the guys hang out waiting to say salaams. Hiram’s mum waved to me from the window as I hoisted my bike up the stairs, what a sweetheart! These people treated me like more than a guest, I feel like I’m saying goodbye to by adopted Pakistani family.

I shake everyone’s hand and lastly give Hiram a hug. I wish I could stay longer but I’m on a mission to get to Deosai.

– Deosai –

The first drops of rain strike as I approach the army post at Chillam. These guys are trained to take on Indian soldiers but a white dude on a bicycle has them all looking spooked.

“I’m going to Deosai,” I tell them as they hand around my passport with grave looks. With a sullen nod the gate is lifted and I’m directed up the road to find a hotel and chow.

Ravi stands at the entrance of his diner-cum-hotel, smoking a cigarette with one hand on his hip splaying the tweed sportcoat that marks him as a man of the business class. He’s the “manager”, he tells me, smiling proudly as we walk inside, but his friends plunk him in a chair and announce he’s “just a waiter” in a roar of laughter.

Ravi’s restaurant is little more than a squalid dive servicing the procession of Landcruisers plumbing Deosai in the summer, or the occasional truck driver making runs to or from Skardu. His establishment boasts no lighting nor makes attempts at cleanliness of any kind. It simply sports a few plastic tables and a row of divans where two spindly, shawled figures natter amongst themselves and puff away on cigarettes in the dark. I drag a chair over to where daal and karahi are placed and devour them, leaving only the sauce on my fingers to lap clean as well.

The next day heralds my ascent to the sanctuary of Deosai. I wake up on a dirty mattress and brush my teeth in a dirty sink and scarf down breakfast of oily eggs and paratha in my room before setting out to cycle up the hill.

I climb high into the surrounding pastures as a delerious grin adorns my face. Pavement turns to gravel as the road snakes around the contours of the mountainside, over a pass and out of sight. When I reach the top of the pass, a vast, rolling green tableland opens up before me, ringed with distant silver peaks. I pedal along in astonishment as shimmering Sheosar Lake appears to complete the view.

This is the highlight of my life, tires rolling smoothly through the fine brown dust, splashing through streambeds, the sun scorching to little effect in the cool, dry, high altitude air. I’ve even got a little hash tucked in my framebag for a time like this. I stand there coughing, my head abuzz, alone for kilometers and surrounded by wilderness as far as the eye can see. I can only laugh – I can’t believe I made it here.

A rocky descent rattles me and my bike as the orange glow of the afternoon sun floods the basin where, at the bottom, a tiny collection of tents is located. Barapani is the second and wider of two rivers traversing Deosai, hence the name of the river (“big water”) and campsite adjoining it. In summer, a cook tent is set up here by locals to serve food to passing tourists, and I’m in luck that one’s still open.

I take a bowl and stand in line to be served in the musty tent. At a long table a menagerie of Muslim men mow into their meals. I reach the front of the line and a ladle of slop is distributed in my bowl by the cook. “More?” he says, as though wondering why I’m still standing there, but I go and take a seat at the table.

Dinner is followed by hash with new friends as the sun sets on the great Deosai Plains. We sit in the vestibule of my tent rolling joints and laughing until the orange sky turns black and my friends head home. I notice I’m not feeling well, but chalk it up to smoking too much tobacco peppered in with weed, and try to lie down to sleep.

Five minutes later, I’m bursting out of the tent, furiously ripping open zippers and racing out on my hands and knees to eject my dinner all over the place. I’m trembling, tears in my eyes, but crawl back into my sleeping bag hoping the worst is over.

Five minutes later, I’m bursting out of the tent yet again, this time awkwardly powerwalking in the direction of the outhouse, but it might be too late…

Back in the tent, sufficiently traumatized, I’m drinking water and telling myself everything will be okay. But it’s just a brief interlude for, in another five minutes, I’ll be outside the tent again, expelling even water. In ten, I’ll be back in the latrine. And so the night repeats itself.

The next morning, I awaken under a mountain of blankets in a random yurt I commandeered in the middle of the night. Between puking and shitting myself, I was simply opposed to freezing my ass off also. I stumble out of the yurt and into the glaring sun – my craziest nights with a bottle of tequila never made me feel like this! I crash down into a plastic chair and lazily raise a bottle to take a few agonizing sips. The comforts of Skardu are within reach if I can muster the energy to get there, but the thought of simply packing my bike to leave seems interminable.

The roughest sections of road in the park are those east of Barapani, those I’m now riding. Sleep deprived, devoid of calories and bouncing over massive cobbles in the lowest gear, I feel like my consciousness is going to shake loose from my body. Everything feels like a dream, unreal, like a movie someone’s watching in a drug-intoxicated state. Sadly the drugs don’t cancel out the reality I’m facing up ahead, of a rugged hike-a-bike to Deosai Top.

I won’t say it’s the worst hike-a-bike, for me, the push up to Orizaba wins that coveted spot. But upon arriving at Deosai Top and thinking the difficulties are over, expecting smooth sailing to Skardu, the sweet sense of victory is replaced by the frustration of even rougher roads.

The horrid jumble of rocks eventually gives way to pavement as I coast beside the slate-blue waters of Satpara Lake. This is a moment I envisioned a decade ago, at a time when I knew nothing about bike touring or endurance fitness. For some reason, I always pictured this part, but never expected I’d be in a funk because I was up all night puking my guts out and then getting rattled apart on the descent.

I sit down to roll a smoke, percolating with the feeling of irritation that comes with being too long on a bike, when along comes the buzz of a motorcycle. I’m a sitting duck, a foreigner with a bicycle no Pakistani can resist stopping to ask the usual fifty questions, and I’m in no mood for that.

“Keep going, keep going, keep going,” I plead, sitting still as a stone, as I listen to the noise get louder over one shoulder, then the other, as it seems to putter off into the distance. I’m relieved, thinking the threat gone, when I’m startled to hear the soft voice of a man calling to me from behind.

“Helloo?” he says, but I pretend I don’t hear.

“Helloo?” he repeats, and I turn around to find the sweetest little soul, standing there smiling toothlessly and positively brimming with the prospect of talking to a real, live foreigner. “What is your country?” he begins.

I get up and shake off my crabby countenance, and prepare to indulge the man’s fifty questions.

– Skardu –

Skardu, 2,228 meters above sea level, is the sprawling gateway to K2 and the bigger mountains of the Karakoram Range. A dusty, roughhewn and normally bustling frontier town, I arrive to find the streets empty of vehicles or people on account of the Shia holiday of Ashura. Only a goat wanders, picking up what scraps he can find.

Shops are shuttered, as are hotels, and my only option is the dapper-looking Hotel Mashabrum. I’m shown to a lavish room with a balcony that overlooks the valley and hand over an exorbitant fare but don’t care. After last night in Deosai and the ensuing bumble to get here, I’m willing to pay for anything that resembles comfort.

A few hours later, I’m smoking a joint on the balcony and contemplating the ethereal atmosphere. The full moon shines over the valley and a breeze has kicked up the rustling of trees. One by one, the mosques intone their mantras, reverberating over the city like a choir of wailing, haunted voices. The hymn swells and cascades for an hour before each voice fades back into the moonlit night, leaving only the trees whispering their song.

The occasion is magical enough to warrant dragging out the prayer rug that comes standard in every hotel room and offering a few rakat. I raise my open hands and say, “God is great” and then bow down in respect.

Warm afternoon sun shines through drawn curtains as the ceiling fan slowly rotates. How many days have I been lying sick like this inside the Hotel Mashabrum? It started with a cramping in my stomach, but three days later I’m wire-thin and frail as I stagger into the bathroom to take yet another shit. Sidelined twice by illness, to say I’m demoralized is an understatement. I see no promise of continuing my trip.

There’s a knock on the door. I open it slightly to see the hotel manager looking very concerned. “Are you okay?” he asks. “We haven’t seen you in two days.” I reply that I’ve been sick, but agree to come downstairs and try to eat.

Improving somewhat, I decide to go for a walk. I pass the surly fruitsellers from whom I procure some grapes; the mechanic’s quarter, a veritable graveyard for Landcruisers; then wander down to the creek where linens are laundered and goats are grazed. I continue walking across the valley, past the last few houses, in search of the so-called Buddha Rock. Even Google fails to aid me as I flounder in the bushes looking for this monument from the ancient past.

In the forest, I stumble upon a small house. For a few rupees, a debilitated old man hobbles over and unlocks the gate. Inside, a giant gold flagstone is emblazoned with carvings of the skinny, cross-legged Buddha, supposedly dating from a time when this religion, not Islam, was the mainstay.

Buddha was emaciated and it was a good look, but I wonder how I’ll fare riding a hundred kilometers tomorrow in the same kind of state…

– Hushe –

Alpenglow bathes the huge granite spires lined on the opposite side of the river from the traditional Balti village of Machulu. I push my bike out into the cool air and wave goodbye to my friends at the Felix guesthouse. I barely made it out the door this morning, between endless cups of tea and thoughts of our conversation that ran deep into last night. But here I am with no place left to go but Hushe.

It’s taken me two days to get here, a hundred kilometer push out of Skardu on the first day, followed by a tortuous, if brief, section of rough riding to get to Machulu. Now my bike is pointed at the gleaming white mountain at the head of the valley that is none other than Mashabrum.

Gradually the valley’s peaks come into view, each one an adventure in architectural conception, offending in scale, improbable in design. I ride my bike along a dusty track that is none other than a gallery of the finest mountains I have ever seen. Every curve in the road reveals new forms more astounding than those that came before. This is the reason I came to the Karakoram in the first place, to feast my eyes upon its monolithic granite sculptures.

I pedal along beside a rushing river that has cut into the surrounding moraine over centuries, my rear tire straggling in the silty white sand. Lacking the flotation of a full-blown fatbike, I’m forced to get off and walk.

A truck appears as I’m pushing my bike, the first I’ve seen all day. Tariq is a mountain guide from Hushe, returning home with a collection of whitebearded elders. I pass my hand around, saying salaams, before assuring Tariq no, despite appearances, there’s nothing wrong with my bike and I don’t need a ride to Hushe.

“Do you like to hike?” he asks, inquiring if I’d like to trek in the mountains around Hushe. Hiking is a different story, I tell him, and agree to meet him at the Refugio Hotel.

My arrival is like a scene from a movie. Approaching the outskirts, people are waving and welcoming me to Hushe. Soon, every young male in the village is following behind me like a giant parade, marching merrily along to the Refugio. I show up with my flock to find Tariq leaning against his truck.

“You must be hungry,” he says.

In the dining room, I voraciously shovel karahi into my mouth while Tariq sits in his puffy coat, quietly watching me. Tariq is a hardcore climber in his own right, having been to the summits of K2 and Broad Peak. Attempting both in the winter is a whole other matter. He scrolls through images on his phone, showing me famous climbers he’s been on a rope with. Old black and white photos of bygone expeditions adorn the walls of the dining hall. No jeep can take you to basecamp; Hushe is the last place you can drive before you have to tighten up your boots and start walking.

Tariq promises to show me the upper reaches of the valley the next day. We meet at dawn, his shambly Landcruiser rumbling up to the Refugio. Tariq shoulders a decades-old pack as we start walking, fiery sunrays alighting the pinnacles above Hushe.

Tariq leads me along broad gravel flats, up through goat herds lounging in luxurious alpine groves, then through dross moraine, underneath slabs of stone unseemly in scale. Through the wasteland my guide and I march, to a spot he has brought me to see the Mashabrum Glacier, black and gratuitously spewing its discharge.

Grey stormclouds have appeared and a cool wind suddenly picks up. “The weather is changing,” says Tariq stoically, looking around at the sky.

We stumble down through the boulders until Tariq suggests a pit-stop. He leads me over to where there are a few small huts for the use of shephards, bounded by walls of neatly stacked stones. An impeding goat stands between us and a few raps on the hatch, which is opened after much delay. The hut is residence to three aging occupants presently engaged in a fervent, if lighthearted, bickering among themselves.

We seat ourselves around the crackling fire. A huge jug of fresh milk is passed overhead and poured into a pot on the open flame. Conversation zips back and forth inside the darkened hut, none in any language I can understand. The tea is ladled with infinite finesse, forming a thick broth that comes to me in a scalding cup. The veterans shoot back the liquid almost immediately but I’m forced to nurse the cup in my lap for a bit, until tepid enough to touch my lips, soaking into my soul.

– Lahore –

It’s with mixed feelings that I leave Hushe with my bike in the back of Tariq’s Landcruiser. He’s offered to drive me back to my starting point in Gilgit, allowing me to save three days of riding on some notoriously nasty roads. As we drive, however, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to ride these parts and a bitter resentment comes over me. I remind myself that me riding in this steel box has a motive. While it breaks my heart to leave the Karakoram after so brief an affair, I’ve got a liaison with Lahore.

We return to the Park Hotel where my bike bag is found stuffed in a closet. My final soiree in Gilgit is a trip to the market to secure the implements needed for my excursion to Lahore. I visit around and take tea with the shopkeepers selling similar selections of beads and shawls. The night is concluded dining with an influential gem seller who, despite his efforts to attend to conversation, is distracted by the persistent ringing of his phone.

The bus ride to Lahore is so sedate that I’m totally unprepared for the intensity of my arrival. A wily rickshaw driver races through traffic and deposits me in front of the Best Western – long closed. So I start strolling and check in to the first place I see, Sultan’s Palace.

I have the suspicion I’m the first foreigner they’ve had at this hotel. In fact, I’m possibly the first white person they’ve ever seen. The sari-clad girl at the desk smacks her bubblegum with indifference while the bellboy just stares at me in wonder. They bring out the Sultan’s apprentice to aid the negotiation which just grows more tense.

I’m taken downstairs and introduced to the Sultan, looking like a barrister in his study. He informs me in perfect English that I’ll need to register with the authorities if I wish to stay at this hotel or any other in Lahore.

I jump on the back of the apprentice’s motorbike and we whiz through traffic, cigarettes in our mouths and a piece of hand luggage precariously dangling from my arm. We stalk the halls of one police station, poking our heads in offices, getting redirected to other offices, then being sent across town. We roam a second police station only to be sent to a third. This happens one more time before we finally track down the right authorities.

We walk into what feels like a brutally formal meeting of high-ranking officers. I do not need to register, a mushachioed colonel tells me.

“We have no objection to Canadians in Lahore,” he says. However, it is added that I will “need security”. To me, this implies a reluctant policeman attached to my hip, who would most certainly constrain my ability to roam the city as I please.

“This is a requirement?” I ask.

“No, no, no,” the colonel goes on. “It is simply a recommendation for your safety.”

After thanking them for their time, we leave. Me and my accomplice walk out into the glaring sunshine and put on our shades.

“Should we go to the security briefing?” he asks.

“Fuck that,” I say, and we get back on the bike and go to the hotel.

After one night at Sultan’s Palace, I need to find another jumping-off point to explore the Walled City. My search incidentally brings me to the fanciest hotel in Lahore.

Without a doubt, I am not sophisticated enough to be a guest at this hotel, which caters to suit-and-tie types, foreign diplomats, the upper echelons of society. I barely made it inside past the paramilitary security perimeter, now even the waiter is loath to look at me so I can order some breakfast.

In my room, I slip into the garments I procured in Gilgit for the purposes of looking the part of an unassuming northerner, so as to go out on the town undetected. A rose-colored kurta is paired with slender white trousers that draw to a close tightly around the ankle. A raggedy keffiyeh about the shoulders completes the look. All I need now is the right kind of walk – the Pakistani strut – to penetrate the Walled City without anyone blinking an eye.

As I walk through Delhi Gate, it feels like toppling through a portal backwards in time. Rows of shops are beginning to open, cloistered below fluttering canopies. The morning light barely reaches beyond the wanton web of electrical wiring strung between tottering havelis. I get lost in the maze of corridors grouped by area of specialty: the shoemaker’s bazaar; the bicycle bazaar; the ladies’ fashion bazaar, glowing like a neon acid trip. I get lost in back alleys where children run and and cats roam. Everything feels ancient, weathered by centuries, every surface like it has a story to tell.

My wanderings lead me to the ornately decorated Wazir Khan mosque, where I pitch a few rupees to the shoe-minder and step inside to pray namaz. My feet are caked in dirt from walking the streets of Lahore, underlining the prescription to give them a ritual wash before stepping inside to pray.

My last stop is Badshahi Mosque, majestic heirloom of the Mughal era which, when I stumble upon it late in the day, is like a temple of serenity and peace. I step through the gate into an elaborate courtyard encompassing a grand prayer hall hued the same pink as the sky and topped with three enormous white domes. The group prayer is about to begin so I hurry to take a spot in line with the other men*. After prayer, I retire to a quiet corner to turn my beads a few rotations in the manner of a meditative Sufi.

*Women pray in adjacent room.

I lounge awhile on the grounds of Badshahi, taking in its supreme sublimity, before weaving my way back through the alleys of the Old City after dark.

Returning to the hotel, I’m halted by frowning faces assailing me with a barrage of questions in Urdu. Forgetting I’m wearing Pakistani garb, I realize my gaunt and unshaven look likely has the appearance of some Afghan mujahideen who’s spent too many a day out in the field. A figure who doesn’t belong here and can’t be up to any good.

A few words in English are enough to disarm the situation, their hostile faces breaking into awkward laughter like they’re the victims of a practical joke. I saunter past the grand piano and into the elevator, which rises high above jewelled chandeliers. I laugh at the contradiction: the epitome of luxury in a city of squalor and here I am, a poor Pashtun, something to be shooed away like a stray animal.

– Islamabad –

After two weeks off hash, I’m uncomfortably high. Feroz has just returned from Peshawar with a ball of sticky black charas he’s eager to try, so we retreat to the gaudy green hotel to dig in.

Staring at Feroz, my vision tunneling deeper, a halo radiates from around his demonic head. I’m convinced he’s going to kill me, the way he coldly sits there, sizing me up, premeditating my murder. This is it, he was waiting till now to satisfy his bloodlust! But that isn’t the kind of lust Feroz is feeling. He’s fixated on getting us a hooker.

Sitting in the dim haze, smoke streaming from the end of the joint, he leans forward and confides: “I like beef, you know?”, then gestures to indicate a heavy woman with large breasts and thighs. “Not single,” he says, meaning a skinny woman. “Not good for fuck.”

Feroz’ family life is no impediment to visiting his “girlfriends” whose husbands work in Dubai. He’s arranged to shop these girls out in the meantime, generating a little extra cash for everyone in the process.

He asks what type of girl I like, and I say it doesn’t matter to me if a woman is big or little, what’s important is that she’s pretty. I point to the actresses on the soap opera we’re watching. For such a conservative country, many women on Pakistani TV wear their hair uncovered and are drop-dead gorgeous.

This idea has never occurred to Feroz, so it seems to disqualify the “girlfriends” he had in mind. Then he has idea. There’s a red-light district where one can find any kind of courtesan one desires, picking them off a page like an entree at a restaurant.

“In the marketing area,” he says, “anything is available. Any girl, any beauty.”

His last ditch is to suggest we round up a couple girls and go to Murree, a hill station outside of Islamabad. He’s been singing the praises of Murree ever since I got here, so for one last day, we’ll compromise.

“Okay,” I say. “No girls. Just you and me. Let’s drive up to Murree for the day and come back to Islamabad tomorrow night.”

If Feroz is anything, he’s resourceful, and in every corner knows a trusty hotel owner in whose establishment he can safely get high. Murree is no different, as we slowly savor fumes with with his old friend. Murree is a popular spot to flock, evidenced by what sounds like a dance party next door. Otherwise, our friend’s silk shirt, slicked-back hair and enormous gold ring suggest that business isn’t bad.

Feroz and I take the rickety chairlift up to the top of Pindi Point to admire the view, but it’s already becoming obscured by clouds. Tendrils of fog stream over the hillside on which Murree sits, creeping down avenues and blotting out the town. Feroz is filled with amazement as we watch. As someone mostly confined to a hot and smoggy city, he’d been trying to explain the novelty of this place, where the cooling mists intermingle with the hills.

He jabs me in the shoulder and points at the rolling fog. “You see? The weather, it comes down!”

Clouds are forerunner to rain, so we order do chai and wait out the storm under a fluttering tarp. Once the rain lets up, we make a break for the chairlift, but get loaded on just as the rain resumes and are stuck, held captive in the mortifying sprinkle. The tattered, rainbow-colored umbrella mounted above does nothing to prevent us from getting completely soaked.

When we get to the bottom and are released from the tortuous chairlift ride, Feroz asks if I’ll take a picture. “What?” I say, about to beeline it to the car. But he wants a picture of himself with the chairlift station and asks if I’ll take one. So I oblige, capturing the image of a man who is king of vice, dealer of temptation, my Pakistani Mephistopheles, standing and smiling contentedly in front of one of life’s simple pleasures.

This story has no climax. If there is one, it was two weeks back, riding across Deosai or into Hushe. It ends like it begins, on the white tiles in the open-air terminal at Islamabad airport. Feroz sucks back and jettisons a glowing butt that gets swept up by the broom of a passing janitor.

I could say some trite bullshit about how much I loved this place, how challenging my trip was, or the lessons I learned. But I just scraped the surface, I’m cognizant of that, and while standing here waiting for my departure, I’m hungry to come back for more.

“Thanks,” I say to Feroz, and he looks at me confused.

“For what, ‘thanks’?” he says.

“Thanks… for everything, I guess.”

“You are brother,” he says. “This is no ‘thanks’.”

Feroz is a man of metaphysical extremes: I am always afforded the height of chivalry and respect, yet in the same breath he’s always trying veer me into some fairly nefarious things. He was a contradiction, like the country itself, a whole mosaic of them, interwoven like the pattern of a Persian rug.

It’s what I was going to miss the most. But as I bid Feroz a hearty salaam and wheel my bike bag towards the departure gate, I have the funny feeling this isn’t the last I’ll be seeing of him or his country.

– Bikepacking Trip Summary –

05/09/19 Gilgit to Jaglot – 52km/385m

06/09/19 Jaglot to Astor – 56km (picked up after 25km/495m)

07/09/19 Astor to Chillam – 54km

08/09/19 Chillum to Barapani – 36km/~800-1000m

09/09/19 Barapani to Skardu – 50km/403m

10-12/09/19 Skardu (rest/sick)

13/09/19 Skardu to Khaplu – 98km/878m

14/09/19 Khaplu to Machulu – 15km/~100m? but brutal road, had to push a lot

15/09/19 Machulu to Hushe – ~30km/~500m

Holiday in Pakistan

Sufferfiesta

27I’m being escorted out of the airport by security who say “no bikes”, even though I just spent over an hour putting mine together outside Starbucks between sips of latte. Now, however, it’s “no bikes” but that’s convenient because it’s time for me to leave the airport and face the whirlwind that is Mexico City.

We step outside and the first thing I notice is heat, not sounds or smells or traffic or tacos. There is a sun here, and it’s hot compared to the cold, dark place I just came from. I push my bike over to the curb to roll a cigarette. I’m staring into the sun, sweltering, wishing I’d put on shorts before getting kicked out of the airport.

I’ve returned to Mexico in an attempt to link up three of its highest mountains using human power alone, and the capital city is the starting point. Not only that, but I’ve elected to start in the deepest part of the city, the centro zocalo, and fight my way out from there. The urban chaos is part of the adventure.

But before that, I have to reach my hostel in the zocalo, in one piece.

226dI must be getting close, because there are so many people that I have to get off my bike and walk. It’s Sunday: vendors are out, indigenous Nahuatl dancers are putting on a show, and people of all walks throng about, eating street food and taking pictures of everything.

With jugs of water and snacks to sustain me over the next few days, I migrate from 7-11 to the massive cathedral across the street that dominates the central square.

It’s no wonder I didn’t latch on to Christianity as a kid, I think as I wander inside. Catholic iconography is scary. I gaze up at the blood and the thorns and the cross and all the ornateness, and shiver. It’s psychedelic, but like an acid trip gone bad.

But the architecture is impressive, the ceilings are high, mass is being performed and the whole experience is powerful. The gravity of what I’ve come to do here wells up inside of me. I’ve spent months planning, fretting, doubting myself, encouraging myself, and ultimately forcing myself to do this. Now here I am, at a church in Mexico City on the eve of my trip, clutching a straw cowboy hat and feeling very emotional.

Birth and death and exorcism and transcendence, all rolled into one.

3

Day 1 – Mexico City to Amecameca

After breakfast, I make a quick pit-stop to pick up gas for my stove, then circle back to the zocalo to start the trip proper.

Rewind to my first trip to Mexico, two years prior: I’m thinking of the foolhardy but Instagram-worthy idea of renting a motorcycle and riding it around to climb the various peaks. Never mind that I’ve never ridden a motorcycle, let alone in another country — it’s going to look great on the ‘Gram. It’s good that never materialized, for I surely would’ve died in traffic long before ever seeing a mountain in Mexico.

Picture me, selfie-stick style, riding across the open plains on a motorcycle, towards some distant peak — leather jacket and all. Now here I am, doing pretty much the same thing on a bicycle.

227Heads up, eyes peeled. Fugazi is blasting in my headphones as I mash at the pedals, darting in and out of lanes and drafting in the wake of colectivos. Traffic isn’t heavy, but it’s fast, and it’s exhilarating to ride around the way most Mexico City drivers do — by not giving a fuck.

See, on my first trip, I learned the rules of the road in Mexico City: do whatever you want, and everyone else simply deals with it.

After a few blocks of high-octane bike karate, everything suddenly stops. I’m being funneled into a tighter and more congested alleyway, which is technically a road, but today it’s a market, so deal with it.

I hop off my bike and try to squeeze through: first past a guy pulling a dolly stacked with teetering crates; then a three-wheeled bicycle just as precariously overloaded. Pedestrians zip every which way and vehicles moored in the chaos idly sit there, resigned to their fate.

“I’m going to make great progress at this rate,” I moan, but in this moment of hesitation, someone half my size with a barrel of horchata twice as big as me has already cut in front, and is off like a bullet and out of sight. I can only shrug: Mexico City rules.

6Arriving in Amecameca, I embrace a lukewarm shower and a huge sandwich at the torta shop. Altzomoni Hut is closed, according to the woman at the national park headquarters, but it only puts a minor kink in my plans to climb Iztaccihuatl. The black stormcloud hanging overtop of Izta threatens to pose another.

I take a bite of my gargantuan sandwich, the cubana, loaded with everything in the sandwich shop. Between the hill that appeared sadistically at the end of the day, and sheer anxiety that’s been consuming me calorically for weeks, God knows there aren’t enough cubanas in the world to make me comfortable with what I’ve taken on here. But at least the crux of the trip is over — I made it out of Mexico City alive.

7

Day 2 – Amecameca to Paso de Cortes

With only twenty five kilometers ahead of me today, I feel fine to lounge, probing the mysteries contained in my breakfast burrito and the curious sauce in which it is steeped. Those twenty-five kilometers, of course, contain 1200 meters of elevation gain — the height of most mountains around Banff. So I’ll be climbing a mountain on my bike today, just to get to the base of a real one.

I roll out of Amecameca and start granny-gearing towards the pass. The scene seems quintessentially Mexican: mountains, cornfields, donkeys tied up by the side of the road, and dudes siesta-ing around a pickup truck even though it’s only, like, ten in the morning. This is something I’d looked forward to seeing from my open-air cockpit, at this snail’s pace, not the back seat of a taxi whipping along at mach speed.

The route turns left and with it comes a sharp increase in steepness, the concerted climb to the pass. I pedal past the last village, maintaining some measure of dignity, then hop off and resort to pushing my bike up the hill. Still, small roadside tiendas beckon me to come sample whatever they’re cooking.

9The road is paved and meanders in wide switchbacks, granting increasingly wider views of the valley below. The foreground scenery is also noticeably green and verdant. The going is tough but not impossible, and my performance is enhanced by a warm Fanta from one of the spartan snack shacks along the way.

Rain starts with a sputter, then like someone’s turned on a tap. I look at my watch, it’s three PM: precisely as forecasted. Lucky for me, I’ve happened upon a vacant shack at just this moment, beneath which to shelter from the elements. If you don’t like the weather in the mountains, just wait five minutes, I say.

10One hour later, the elements show no sign of stopping. I’m bundled in all my layers. I already drank one Nescafe, but I’m starting to shiver, and thinking about brewing up another. But in my periphery, I see movement.

A man is walking up the road in a t-shirt and shorts, obviously undeterred by the drenching rain. He walks over to my shack and we make conversation that quickly surpassesmy limited grasp of Spanish. He is, as far as I can tell, a man with nothing walking somewhere.

He opens a plastic bag and produces an enormous mushroom, presumably plucked from the forest. He shoves it my way, seeming to suggest I should eat some. Now I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to foreign food, but I don’t wish to be poisoned, or have a hallucinogenic experience right now, no gracias.

He shrugs and devours almost the whole huge mushroom in one big bite before sticking it back in his sack. Next is the pelt of some small animal which he’s pulling out to show me. Cool, right? But then he demonstrates his real intent: he’s going to wear it on his ballcap, Davy Crockett-style. But for the moment, it just looks grotesque.

11It’s almost dark, and the red light is flashing furiously on the back of my bike. The pass has got to be close. I leapfrogged in front of Davy Crockett and he’s following somewhere behind me. My mind is reeling: If he likes to skin animals, maybe he wants to skin a gringo… So I’m pushing my bike real fast up this hill now.

At last, I get to Paso de Cortes and go into the park office to try to find a place to sleep. It’s obvious I’m not going to reach La Joya before dark, and I don’t have ambitions to get there tonight anyhow. I’m pooped. They say I can camp right here, and point towards some trees where there are apparently campsites.

12A little doggie accompanys me. It’s cold, and I’m rushing to set up the tent and boil a package of ramen noodles — habanero flavor I discover, upon taking the first sip. I need to recover at least 1000 calories, and they all sear on the way down.

I lay down in my sleeping bag and try to identify the sound I’m hearing, like distant thunder. It could be a number of things: the sound could be fiery lava-balls ejected from the top of Popocatepetl. Or the ubiquitous use of dynamite for mining, which across Mexico sounds like the continuous refrain of artillery fire.

In this case, it’s actually thunder, and as it rises in intensity, I wonder what sort of scene I’ll wake up to in the morning.

Day 3 – Paso de Cortes to Cholula

97I’m gripping the brakes, descending down a washboard dirt road for at least the last hour. My bags are threatened of being shaken off my bike, and I readjust my helmet which has sunken over my eyes, in an effort to squint through the fog.

I woke up at Paso de Cortes in the clouds and wrote off an ascent of Izta. There didn’t seem much hope of clear visibility on a snow-covered mountain, plus I was a bit frazzled from the day before. I wanted warm eggs and coffee, but breakfast consisted of a smoke and thimbleful of Nescafe, tasting vaguely of habanero seasoning, while standing in the damp Scottish pall.

14 bI should be in Cholula in no time, I say, expecting a thousand-meter descent on smooth pavement to deliver me to a steaming plate of eggs and coffee. But here I am, white-knuckled and weaving between massive rocks on a road that is, “at least sometimes passable by 4-wheel-drive vehicles,” as per the most cursory of sources on the Internet. Trip research fail.

Eventually I’m back on blessed pavement and pushing my bike through a small town with the ambiance of a huge carnival, looking for someplace to eat. I sit down at one establishment and coffee is doled out of a huge vat on the stove, then microwaved until molten. Coffee Mate is added to produce a potently noxious elixir. Tacos are consumed by the plateful as kids zip underneath tables and marching bands contribute to the relaxing atmosphere.

Day 6 – La Malinche

25Finally, a mountain. Just a mountain. I’m not fighting my way out of a city, or pushing my bike up endless switchbacks, or lost on some God-forsaken backroad. I’m simply walking up a mountain, an easy one, and one I’ve walked up before: La Malinche.

For the first time, I actually feel comfortable on this trip, but clearly other people around me do not. Groups are halted on the steep, sandy embankment like frozen congo lines, struggling to catch their breath. One guy is throwing up on the side of the trail, though we’re not even out of the trees yet.

26I crest the ridge as tendrils of cloud are uplifted by the mountain, standing alone in the landscape for a hundred kilometers in every direction. Arriving at the summit, I face a veritable party dominated by… Germans? But the views from this “easy” mountain have me transfixed. You actually can’t see much because of the clouds, but through brief glimpses of crumbling rock in the caldera, I’m given a vision of heaven and hell.

29

Day 7 – La Malinche to Ciudad Serdán

It’s early, I’ve got a hundred kilometers to get to Ciudad Serdán, and already have two complications: a swollen ankle from miscalculating my descent while hurtling down La Malinche at Kilian Jornet pace, and a headache from drinking a few too many with Marco and Pepe ’round the campfire last night. I bundle up and prepare for a chilly descent into Huamantla in search of food and coffee.

After breakfast, the day begins innocuously. I’m riding mostly downhill, against the grain of some kind of festive parade involving decorated trucks, combined with a relay race with bikes and on foot. The vista opens up as I ride across the wide salt lake, Totolcingo, mashing the big ring across the flats towards the snowcapped summit of Orizaba.

32With ninety degrees’ change of direction comes a 180° reversal of luck. I’ve hit a headwind that batters every effort to make forward progress, and still have 40 kilometers to go. The road’s definitely no longer downhill. It looks flat, but it feels like I’m riding up a mountain.

34After a long, bonky crusade against the wind and exhaustion, I arrive at the Hotel Montecarlo, a true refuge for the mountaineer in this part of Mexico, compared to the crude shipping crates which pass for huts up high. It feels surreal to be here again but with my bike as means of transport.

It’s my second time in Serdán, so I know all the good torta shops. I plop down at my favourite one, order una cubana y cerveza, demolish both, and order another round. My legs are in pain from the day’s effort, and any attempt to move them results in protests of agony.

With good weather coming on Orizaba three days hence, I decide a rest day is in order. A glorious day to wake up late, linger over espressos, wander the streets and see the sights, eat tacos, take pictures and — best of all — not ride my bike!

35

Day 9 – Up to Orizaba

After a rejuvenating day doing nothing, I’m riding down the street in Ciudad Serdán on my fully loaded bike, en route to my final mountain. But one coffee wasn’t enough, so I’m pulling over to nurse another. Besides, I’ve got an easy day today: 25kms and 1500m of elevation gain — been there, done that — and climbing Orizaba itself doesn’t faze me. I’m finally smelling the barn.

Leaving Serdán, the route is invariably uphill; sometimes riding, sometimes pushing, but I’m comfortable with the process now, doing whatever feels natural. I’m chugging along beside picturesque fields, with flocks of sheep and German Shepherds guarding them, and kids that should be in school but are out in the fresh air pretending to do farm work. For once on this trip, everything sorta feels right.

38I poke around the last village in hope of a taco shop or something to satiate my desire for lunch, and realize there’s little more here than a bunch of houses. The sound of artillery fire is atrocious, and my entire body is punctuated by a shockwave when one unexpectedly goes off.

Suddenly I get to the end of the village and there is nothing, just some brush and maybe a dry riverbed. I stare down at my GPS, then at the jumble of rocks and dirt, in confusion. Fortunately there are two boys there, having a conversation about whatever ten and twelve-year-olds talk about in Mexico.

228“Pico de Orizaba?” I ask, pointing in the general direction of the mountain.

“Si,” says the older boy, dressed in neat schoolclothes.

“Donde es el camino?” I ask, and the boy proceeds to provide a lengthy discourse upon the local geography, of which I comprehend almost nothing. The gist is: you can go all the way around the long way, otherwise this is it.

He’s not very old, but despite the language barrier, the boy’s breadth of knowledge indicates that he knows what he’s talking about. Before delving onto the dirt path, I ask, one last time, if this is the right way. They assure me it is, but I can’t be certain they aren’t just fucking with a clueless gringo.

39“You said you wanted to suffer!” I yell, in between expletives and gasping for oxygen. I can’t deny that I did. And while this is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I’m conscious that this is exactly what I asked for.

I’ve been pushing my bike up this “road” for the past two hours, the same road Google says you can drive up in a car. Ha ha, bullshit. The rocks are sliding under my feet as I push my bike two, three steps upwards before clenching the brakes to stop it from rolling backwards on me. I collapse over the bike in an effort to catch my breath — but I’m not making progress doing nothing, so off I go on another series of fruitless steps.

93Altitude I’m cool with. Endurance, sure. But this is like some kind of Herculean punishment, like pushing a rock up a mountain that continually rolls back down.

My watch reads 1500 meters but I’m still climbing, and although the grade is less steep, the air is thinner and it’s not any easier. I break out of the trees and there is blue sky. But a rumbling below betrays some sort of motorized vehicle — in this case, a farm tractor, hauling a contingent of climbers intent on bagging Orizaba.

Our arrival to the pass is a tie, and I even manage to ride the last few meters, but I don’t have the energy to push my bike up to the main climbers’ hut 500 meters higher. I’ll have to camp here and climb Orizaba in a single push tomorrow morning.

43

Day 10 – Pico de Orizaba

I sensed it, before it happened. I heard the truck pull up, the voices, then bang, bang, bang! They were kicking in the door and firing questions at me in Spanish which I didn’t understand.

No entiendo,” I say. I don’t have the mental capacity to try and muster a response to the questions they’re asking. It’s three in the morning and I was just asleep in my sleeping bag before these assholes showed up to offer me a wake up call.

I found a place to sleep in the lower albergue, a stone building at the pass divided into two rooms, the inside of which could easily double for a Hollywood dungeon or torture chamber. I heard them examining the adjacent room. Then, “Hey, what’s in here?” Bang, bang, bang!

No entiendo,” I repeat. They motion that I should go back to sleep. But I have to get up and climb Orizaba anyway.

44A half-hour later, I’m out the door. “Maybe I’ll get a headstart on the rest of the climbers,” I say, but can already see a line of twinkling dots scaling what I assume is the Ruta Sur.

Having done this once before, I have the ascent dialed. I traverse off the loose scree early, over to the boulders, and make quick progress using my hands and feet. One climber, a young guy, is coming down, disoriented, with the light of his cellphone to guide him. I point him in the direction of the rifugio and continue on my way.

89I reach the wall of steep, loose scree that is mainly a nuisance, but a risk to one’s life in the most inane way: rocks are easily dislodged here and this final stretch is not only slow due to altitude and terrain, but also a shooting gallery of debris kicked down by parties up above.

I don my bike helmet accordingly, and claw my way to the summit of Orizaba, exasperated breath by exasperated breath.

224Back at the dungeon, six hours later, I’m being interrogated by two boys who want to know everything about my bike, where I came from, and where I’m going next.

I’m sitting on the stone wall making soup and packing my bike. A little girl is staring at me. This family is out for a day trip, enjoying what fresh air is to be found at four thousand meters above sea level. After soup, I’m rolling up a smoke, and the father comes over to ask, I assume, to have one. I hand him the tobacco.

“Roll two,” I say. But he just wants a few papers so he can roll a joint.

With the help of the boys, I’m done packing my bike and ready to go. The father is leaned up under the shade of a tree, sucking his ganja. I saunter over and ask for “uno puff” and inhale the filthy mota as deeply into my lungs as I can. I walk back to my bike, get on, and say adios. They all say adios to me.

I crank on the drivetrain and, in a cloud of volcanic dust, I’m gone.

232After climbing Orizaba, I’ve earned the easy part: a three kilometer descent on my bike. Putting that in perspective, it’s a big drop. Like cycling down two Banff mountains stacked on top of each other, no pedaling required.

I lose vert like nobody’s business, bombing though farming villages, alongside herds of sheep, shepherds nodding as I pass. I cross into the watershed east of Orizaba where wet air from the Atlantic slams into the Sierra Madre and the vegetation appears immediately more lush. I’m going thirty, forty, fifty kilometers an hour, passing trucks on the highway creeping cautiously down the endless decline.

I reach the oasis town of Orizaba, where an intoxicatingly romantic waterway runs through, lined with exotic pets: a panther paces in its cage; another is as dull as a sloth. I don’t care to see the bears. The hills take on the hue of sunset as I walk back beside the river, dragging my hand along the damp and mossy wall.

55

Day 11 – Orizaba to Soledad de Doblado

I stumble into the taco shop like some sort of zombie and plunk down in the plastic chair. I order two quesadillas, Fanta and lots of water. Beads of sweat have blistered on my arms, and there’s a streak of black dirt across my face. I didn’t expect today to be so hot, baking on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, staring at the last sip of water slosh around the bottom of my Nalgene bottle.

It was my plan to reach Veracruz today but it’s late, and I still have forty kilometers to go. I don’t want to bunker down in this desolate village, so close to being done, but fear I won’t make it to Veracruz until after sundown. Riding my bike after dark in Mexico is something I’m not willing to do.

57But there’s a hotel here in Soledad de Doblado, I’m told, and I’m racing through the streets behind an ATV that’s offered to take me there. I go up the steps of Hotel Jardin and an old lady looks at me contemptfully. With a wrinkled nose she takes my 200 pesos and shows me to a dilapidated room. The bed is sunken in the middle and insects scurry when I pull back the sheets. Faded Toy Story curtains round out the decor.

The shower’s hot, however, and I understand why the woman looked at me funny when I look in the mirror and see the black streak across my face.

58

Day 12 – To Veracruz

Lying in my sagging bed, I’m awakened by gale-force wind shaking the entire building. The windows chatter, something on the roof is clanging away, and that broken sign that made this place seem like even more of a shithole, it makes perfect sense now.

I peer out the window at the flapping flags strung across the street and do some geographical arithmetic: I’m fucked. Today is the last day of my trip and supposed to be the easiest one, but it’s no surprise I’ve been tossed this curveball as if to say, “the sufferfiesta’s not over yet.”

59bLegs madly spinning into a wall of resistance, I’m growling through clenched teeth. I desperately look at the altitude on my watch, expecting to see it drop towards zero, but the number is going up, not down. Today’s supposed to be a descent to sea level — why am I still climbing then?

In the industrial outskirts of Veracruz, three lanes of gridlocked transport trucks provide solace from the wind. I’m run off the shoulder by one but don’t care, I’m ripping through the dirt and passing the offender. Then I’m in the suburbs, racing towards my goal. Someone steps off the curb while staring at their cellphone. I slam on the brakes and skid around, leaving them petrified in my wake.

I don’t care about any of this. I’m on a mission to get to the ocean. And while the city of Veracruz may hold some casual interest, I’m too focused to care.

208I come around the corner of a pastel-colored hotel and see the blue expanse. I’m not sure if there is relief, or just shellshock. I cross the street and there’s a sense of, “Wow, I did it, I’m really here”, as I ride along the waterfront but, honestly, I just feel numb.

I lean my bike against a chair that’s been carved out of stone, looking out over the ocean. The wind still howls and threatens to blow my bike off this solid support. I gaze at the water as the waves crash and the wind blows so loud it’s impossible to think. But I’m not thinking about anything. After a few minutes, I take a couple pictures and scan the oceanside: where’s McDonalds?

62

Day 14 – Home

“I’m sorry, Mr. Amaral, but we can’t transport your box.”

I’m very civil when they explain about the holiday baggage embargo. Other people might explode like there’s dynamite strapped to their chest. In Veracruz, I’d procured a cardboard box for my bike, loaded it with the accoutrements, purchased a flight home, and sat down contentedly to a seafood dinner. Now the airline’s saying no bueno.

The ticket is refunded and I drag my box over to the next desk. “Cargo,” says the agent and directs me to a building across the parking lot. I lug the box across the parking lot — as arduous as pushing my bike up to Orizaba — expecting to get the problem sorted. But it’s Sunday and the cargo division is closed.

I slump on the curb and roll my last pinch of tobacco. In the past, I’d have a meltdown right now, but I’ve taken so many punches on this trip, I can only laugh.

225As I sit beside my giant box repeating the F-word, my guardian angel appears on a white moped. I assault him with questions, assuming he works in cargo. He is very kind with my desperation. He’s actually a ticket agent and suggests we go back to the airport. He wants to know exactly what happened and leaves to speak with his colleagues. After a couple minutes, he comes back and says, “Mr. Amaral, we can transport your box.”

Another adventure complete. I lean back in my seat and am catapulted back to Mexico City. What took me two weeks by bicycle, takes thirty minutes by airplane. But as I stare out the window at Pico de Orizaba, I don’t regret taking the slow, painful, excruciatingly rewarding way to get there.

28

Summary:
03/12/18 Mexico City to Amecameca – 60km | 329m ↑
04/12/18 Amecameca to Paso de Cortes – 25km | 1249m ↑
05/12/18 Paso de Cortes to Cholula – 37km | 1543m ↓
06/12/18 Cholula to Tlaxala – 45km | 465m ↑
07/12/18 Tlaxala to IMSS La Malinzi – 22km | 854m ↑
08/12/18 La Malinche (4460m) – ~1500m ↑
09/12/18 IMSS La Malinzi to Ciudad Serdan – 103km | 516m ↑
10/12/18 Rest day in Serdan
11/12/18 Ciudad Serdan to Orizaba/S. Negra col – 24km | 1536m ↑
12/12/18 Pico de Orizaba (5636m) + to town of Orizaba – 66km | 1300m ↓
13/12/18 Orizaba to Soledad de Doblado – 94km | 472m ↑
14/12/18 Soledad de Doblado to Veracruz – 43km | 394m ↑

map 2

Sufferfiesta

Corax Niger

3b
Mark Twight used to cut away relationships, then go climbing hard. I got cut away, then went climbing hard because of it. From the darkness of one winter it felt I’d just emerged, and I was about to delve into the twilight of another.

Gorak, my bike, lay skeletal and anorexic on the floor, surrounded by an array of camping and mountaineering equipment in a state of semi-organization for my next trip. Curiously pinned inside the open flap of my top-tube bag was one incisive, derogatory word. Five letters long, it was something someone might invoke in a moment of particular malice, to indicate the total weakness of another.

blk 4I didn’t want it to go on like this, to descend down this dark, weird path. But the knife that was used to cut, was used to twist, and in the black flames of resentment I found myself twisting back, “buying the ticket” to show her, and myself, that I’m the opposite of weak.

I know no one else who forces themselves to stare into the skrying bowl of Fear, again and again. Sometimes I overcome my fear, sometimes I don’t. But when other folks are planning their dream vacations, mine usually keep me awake at night. The story of me is doing shit that scares me, over and over. And no, I don’t want to fail and I don’t want to die − not because I’m scared of dying, but because that’s just poor style.

Two years later, what was different? The fear was the same. The objective was similar, with a new, mandelbrot-ian complexity that made me want to vomit. I was going to ride my bike 500 kilometers, from Mexico City to Veracruz, and tag three volcanoes along the way. I was going to revisit the summits of La Malinche, Iztaccihuatl and Pico de Orizaba but entirely using my own power.

On paper, the objective looked totally reasonable. But inside my head, anxiety began to spiral like an Ouroboros, eating its own tail and devouring me along with it.

At first, I couldn’t even admit to myself what I was doing. Meanwhile, another part of my mind, somehow divorced from conscious acceptance, dutifully did tasks to get ready for the trip − re-learning Spanish, working on my bike, gathering stuff for the trip, etc. Yet I still couldn’t admit to myself what I was intending to do.

Then Chris suggested we ride bikes and hike up something. A perfect opportunity for a longer ride on my touring bike before my upcoming bike touring trip. And although I could finally admit to myself what I was cooking up, I lacked the ability to share it with Chris.

I couldn’t yet expose my idea to that high of a standard. Chris’ opinion I trusted, both as a mountain endurance junkie and as a far more experienced cyclist than myself. I barely had enough confidence to do this, let alone to use Chris as a sounding board for my half-baked bikepacking mission. So we cycled for sixty kilometers and it remained unsaid.

Two weeks left, and the black crow still circled. I had to call my parents. I had to tell them what I was doing, and I knew they’d think it was a bad idea. I already felt a bit disconnected from my family, maybe even seen as aloof. I couldn’t let my parents learn I was riding my bike across Mexico by tuning into Instagram, or from my brother mentioning it offhandedly. This was my vocation, not just a hobby, and I had to call my parents and explain what I intended to do.

I told my dad about my plans, then the subject shifted, but I could tell he wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

“Look, bud, you’re an adult and you can do what you want,” he said.

“No, I don’t want to just ‘do what I want'”, I said. “I want to have a conversation about this. I want you to understand why I’m doing this. And, as little confidence as I have in myself right now, I’d like you to have confidence in me, in my ability to choose objectives that are challenging but not stupid.”

Because dying’s just poor style.

The tone shifted, and he acquiesced. Suddenly we were speaking in positives.

“Well I guess you’ve been there before and you liked it…”, he said, and then we proceeded to catch up on other things.

I hung up the phone and felt a warm wave of relief crash over me. Had I just called to get my parents’ blessing to go on an adventure?

One week to go. All the pieces were seemingly in place except I hadn’t truly committed. I thought I’d severed and peeled apart the layers of my discomfort about this trip − by admitting to myself, telling others, telling peers, and telling my family − yet a kernel of reluctance remained. Did I even want to do this? Did I have the mental or physical capability?

Maybe I was just a pussy after all.

It didn’t matter whether I wanted to do this. It didn’t matter if I was strong enough. And it didn’t matter if I was scared. I was being an enormous pussy, and it sickened me.

The truth is, I didn’t want to do this; it was big and intimidating and culturally strange. So many things could go wrong. And it was going to be physically difficult. I didn’t want to work hard, and I didn’t want to face challenge. I just wanted to claim the achievement without experiencing the process to get there. This was precisely why I needed to do this. Not to feed my ego, and not because I was resentful about a woman. Not to say “fuck you” to any voice other than the one in my head telling me I couldn’t do this.

Like iron in a hot fire, I needed challenge and difficulty to transform me. I needed to suffer.

Corax Niger

Five o’clock

Five o’clock. The sun hasn’t dawned on the tip of Cascade yet. On goes the espresso maker with a flick of the switch. It’s another morning meeting Chris for a pre-dawn skin up Sunshine or John for a session of climbing ice.

Chris and I team up each Sunday to take our planks for a walk. Most days we begin with headlamps and hit the meadows amid a raging wind just as the sun starts to rise. The sky is bathed in pastel colours. Or else it’s a white-out and we’re skinning up a white surface in an ocean of white.

At work, I nag John to see if he wants to go ice climbing. Our relationship is mutually beneficial; I can learn a lot from climbing with John, and he needs a partner to go with, so he agrees. A little something in the backyard of Canmore is arranged for working on skills, not so much a backcountry outing.

Copious breakfast is consumed and workplace politics dissected. We rock up to the Junkyards, “thriftstore alpinists” John calls us. We do a couple laps on Scottish Gully then trade ropes with another party and try their steeper pitch. Lunch is conducted as Kananaskis Public Safety bomb the flanks of East End of Rundle, a very “Apocalypse Now”-ian scene as John surveys the damage while I implore my Bialetti to hurry up and boil.

The day is concluded with a rap down Scottish Gully to bring down our rope, followed with practice lead climbing a moderate pitch. We get back to the car in the dark, John having an eight hour night shift ahead of him that evening.

A stunner day riding the lift to the top of North American at Norquay. It feels like the first taste of spring. I have a pass but yesterday I skinned (read: bootpacked) up here from town for shits and giggles. Today I’m just riding bumps. And steep cruddy crap, even though a few days ago this place was pow-city. Oh well, at least the sun feels nice on my face.

It’s the end of the month and Chris and I are ready for something beyond the whole Sunshine thing. I’m used to riding steep terrain in shitty conditions; the skiing might not be pretty but I can make it down the hill. So obviously I’m ready to ski a couloir in the backcountry. Chester Lake is suggested and although I expect/hope for Chris to talk me out of it, he seems enthusiastic. Fuck.

4-e1519767064575.jpgAfter a few kilometres of easy skinning, we rock up to the huge fan at the base of the couloir and put our skis on our packs. Out come the ice tools and crampons for eight hundred metres of frontpointing. We make good progress up the slope, alternately taking turns to break trail and kick steps for each other, though it’s hard work.

6.jpgA short distance below the top, the climbing turns to wallowing in unconsolidated powder so we say “fuck it” and put on our skis. Chris goes first, his first few turns unsuccessful. He navigates down a narrow section, then I go. The same. I might be used to riding steep terrain, but not in powder, and most of my turns leave me resignedly lying like a heap in the snow. I laugh, but it’s frustrating.

7-e1519766984501.jpgEventually we make a few good turns down the gully. Chris skis down the fan and out of sight. Suddenly the powder turns into ice and my skis are skating down the slope. I’m in an uncontrolled glissade and headed directly for some rocks and/or a cliff. I strike with my ice tool and it’s wrenched out of my hand. I desperately plunge my ski pole into the ice and drive it in with more and more pressure until I slowly and painstakingly come to a stop. My skis dangle from my toe pins, ice tool still planted in the slope fifty metres above me. Otherwise I’m unscathed, save for my dignity. Yeah, so ready to ski a couloir…

Five o’clock

Tower Reversed

The Bialetti sputtered on the stove and I raced over to rescue its contents. A map of Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash hung on the wall, in a mundane spot beside the fridge so I would look at it every day, committing its lofty passes and peaks to memory.

It was my goal to run the 130km route in a single push, no sleep. It usually took people a week to complete the circuit around this Himalayan-esque range, but I intended to do it in a day. If the slow and heavy “usual way” was to trekking as “siege style” was to mountaineering, I likened my single-push trail run to “night-naked”, light and fast, alpine style climbing. And I thought I would be the first to do it.

Cue an innocent inspection of the South America subforum on the Fastest Known Time message board when I came across this:

screen-shot-2018-01-26-at-8-39-14-pm-e1517024941274.pngMy dream of two years had been poached. I wasted no time bemoaning the situation or even considering trying to do it faster or unsupported; the whole point was to do a “first ascent” and that possibility was gone.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to visit this stunning area. I didn’t intend for it to serve solely as the backdrop for my egocentric ambitions. It possessed all of the components I identified as the “ultimate trail run”, but once I learned it had already been done, I wrote the whole thing off altogether. I can walk around this range when I’m in my forties, I reasoned, but now is the time for fucking sending.

I closed the window, turned the page, on hopes and dreams I’d built up over many months into something almost salvatory in stature. Running the Huayhuash wasn’t the only one. January drew to a close and the new year was already off to a melancholy start. I swallowed the last few drops of espresso along with any sense of certainty in my newly unbounded future, and began to contemplate Plan B.


John Green rappelling down Chantilly Falls, Kananaskis

Chris Reid skinning to the top of Lookout Mountain, Sunshine Village Ski Resort

Bre Mirynech sending one of the steeper pitches at Balfour Wall, Icefields Parkway

Marcy Montgomery soaking up the sunrise from East End of Rundle in Canmore

Tower Reversed

Past-Present-Future ’17/’18

20170720_122907_HDRPast
It’s been ages since I contributed to this blog — eleven months to be exact — despite the fact that I had my most memorable year in the mountains and I’ve had lots to write about.

What made it so great? First, I went to Mexico and tagged three high-ish altitude volcanoes. The trip was independently researched, funded and facilitated and was fulfilling because it was so far out of my comfort zone. A full report can be found here. I see this trip as the first in a new chapter of my mountain life that focuses more on running and mountaineering objectives abroad rather than organized trail races.

Second, I used a bike to access most of my mountain adventures last summer. This decision came initially out of practicality; when my ex-girlfriend and I split up last spring, we sold our car as I reasoned it wouldn’t be necessary to me. As I went on longer and longer excursions, I fell in love with my bike and the whole self-powered medium. I can’t articulate how satisfying it is to do long daytrips in the mountains using entirely one’s own steam.

20170724_115354_hdr-e1513822506965.jpgThe self-powered style reached its zenith for me in the context of the Mount Temple Duathlon, in which I cycled 70kms from Banff to Moraine Lake, tagged 3544m Mount Temple, then rode all the way back to Banff. I completed this challenge twice this summer, the second time doing it unsupported (no outside assistance, not even cafés) and brought the time down to 10h05m from my first attempt in 2016 which took nearly fourteen hours to complete.

Next, I spent a ton of time in the Valley of the Ten Peaks this summer, which is arguably one of Banff’s most picturesque and popular areas. It feels great to have built such an intimate relationship with this location and its iconic peak, Mount Temple, via eight excursions in an variety of styles, both solo and with various friends.

I can’t do a recap of this summer without mentioning my crack at the Temple FKT, which represents to me my sharpest, most refined state as a mountain runner. While the story is told here, the long and short of it is that I expected to fail but succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I will never forget looking over my shoulder during the final ridge ascent and becoming overwhelmed both by gratitude for my capability and the sublimity of the view.

20479543_10159282367115106_6847230140752366069_nI’ll conclude with the last few episodes which come to mind:

Completely failing at my big project for the summer, a bikepacking-style link-up of three 11,000 foot peaks. I thought I’d trained enough but the night before I was due to head out, I completely fell apart. This happens regularly for me with smaller objectives, but I was genuinely crushed that I wasn’t feeling confident enough to take it on. Oh well, there’s always next summer…

Ha Ling “Rice Bowl” (north bowl) with Chris Reid. This is the semi-technical slabby bowl separating the north faces of Ha Ling and Miner’s Peak. I’d done this once before with Sean Bradley but it’s definitely at the upper end of my comfort zone when it comes to scrambling terrain. Like last time, we sent it safely and without issue, and it was nice to take on something more demanding than a hike or run with a bud with whom I plan to tackle more technical objectives in the future.

20170909_113225Elizabeth Parker and Abbot Pass Huts with Marcy Montgomery. A little different for me as I’ve somehow spent six years in the Rockies avoiding carrying a heavy pack and/or doing overnight trips, but in terms of sheer enjoyment, this was one of my favourite weekends in the mountains, ever. Lake O’Hara was at its peak of golden larch season so the eye-candy was incredible and as for the company, the girl is a fucking riot.

Present
After several weeks of declining activity and drive to take on big adventures, as of November 1st I started consistently running and training in the weightroom again. While there’s nothing too epic to report, the motivation for this renewed activity came from the stars lining up for my next big mountain adventure, planned for September of next year. Guiding my efforts has been the wisdom imparted in Steve House and Scott Johnson’s book, Training for the New Alpinism.

My actual outings have consisted of the usual winter objectives: Sulphur Mountain in Banff; Ha Ling and East End of Rundle in Canmore. I’ve continued plumbing the semi-technical Sulphur 3 in varied conditions this winter and, as I still don’t own a car, most of my ascents of Ha Ling and EEOR start and finish in town.

While stoked to get out on my skis this winter, I haven’t had as many opportunities as expected. Ski trips have included a daytrip back and forth to Bow Hut with my buddy Tomas, and tagging Lookout Mountain at Sunshine Ski Resort with Chris.

img_20171226_101131_647.jpg

Future
Unlike in the past, I’m less inclined to discuss my plans for the future. Perhaps I’m just growing up and wanting less to talk about things I haven’t done yet, but I do believe there’s a certain energy preserved in keeping things secret.

While many of my future plans are tempered by other factors (work, for example), there are a few details I’m willing to disclose:

I want to become a more fully rounded mountaineer. I feel a tangible sense of being limited as a hiker/runner/scrambler and want to learn the systems which permit more vertical travel in the mountains. The logical source of this knowledge is taking a course, but my opportunities for doing this next summer will be limited, so I hope to learn from knowledgeable peers as well.

I signed up for a half-Ironman in Calgary. While I’m unabashedly infatuated with the mountain environment, the culture and hardcore exertion of Ironman triathlons fascinates me. Plus, I have all the gear and basically all the skillsets. Based on some of the adventures I took on last summer, this doesn’t faze me as much as perhaps it should.

I want to continue with the self-powered/multisport style in the mountains. I don’t know if I want to do every approach on the bike like last summer, but I don’t intend to forsake it altogether. Futhermore, The Picnic AKA Grand Teton Triathlon has had a lasting impact on me and I intend to import this kind of craziness to the Canadian Rockies.

I have a big international mountain adventure scheduled for September 2018. I won’t disclose many details except that it involves ultra distance, high altitude and a jaw-dropping mountain environment. This is something I’ve been thinking about for at least a couple of years and is one potential response to my philosophical question, “What would the trail running equivalent of the world’s gnarliest alpine climbing routes look like?”

Past-Present-Future ’17/’18

El Pico Experience

A few months back, I was hiking up Sulphur, still deliberating whether to travel to Mexico. It had been my intention for some time to seek out mountains where I could experience altitudes higher than the summits of the Canadian Rockies. I could go to Colorado or California, but it was still winter in those places and the peaks that were viable required sizable approaches, in some cases on skis. In the Lower 48 I could only reach upwards of 4400m, which didn’t provide the heights needed to prepare me for my future goals.

In Mexico one could accessibly reach altitudes over 5000m and quickly return to civilization. My money would go a lot further; plus it allowed me to escape the deep freeze we’d been experiencing this winter in Banff.

My mind turned to the horror stories painted by the media. Not long ago I swore I’d visit Afghanistan before ever setting foot in Mexico, for I’d rather be kidnapped by radical Islamists who (I presumed) lived by a set of religious morals, as opposed to thugs motivated only by money. I pictured myself held captive by the Taliban, fed and watered, whilst discussing the finer points of religion, whereas in Mexico I imagined my body dumped in a ditch with my throat cut.

In terms of mountains, Mexico was the logical choice, but I couldn’t shake the sense of discomfort. On more than one occasion, including this hike up Sulphur, I had an utter meltdown.

I pleaded, why take “vacations” that upset me, that cause so much turmoil? The reasoning came back that the theme of this stage in my life seems to be about meeting my fears head-on as much as it is about traveling to cool places or bagging peaks.

And when all is said and done, this turmoil and the growth that results from it, is beautiful.

I made up my mind to go. I shot off a few texts to try to wrangle a partner but knew it was last minute and secretly relished the fact when replies came back negative. As nervous as I was about this trip, doing it solo just emphasized the elements of self-sufficiency and other reasons why I’d elected to do this sort of thing in the first place.

I delved into a book on Spanish, refusing to be in the same boat I’d found myself on trips to Italy and France. Flailing through a foreign culture was maybe cute the first time, but I knew it wouldn’t fly trying to climb mountains in Mexico.

I also researched altitude, learning the symptoms of altitude sickness and taking precautions to prevent getting it. As I would be relatively alone with no one to monitor me, it was imperative to be aware of how I felt, to make conservative choices and back off if symptoms presented themselves.

My objectives in Mexico were three mountains (volcanoes actually) increasing in height, with a couple days resting at lower altitudes in-between. As Steve House mentions in his book Training for the New Alpinism, “The body cannot easily do the work of acclimating while remaining up high”. The days spent low (~2500m) would help consolidate gains made at higher altitudes.

Looking back, my experience was wholly positive and as usual my fears were greatly exaggerated. However I don’t for a moment chastise myself for any precaution I took.

It’s easy to develop a narrow view of a broad and diverse country based off a few juicy stories printed by the media. Certainly Mexico has problems with poverty, organized crime and corruption but my experience was of very pleasant people living a simple lifestyle free from the pretense of norteamericano culture.

I was able to record my thoughts day-by-day as a way to occupy myself during the downtime, so I share with you the events of my adventure climbing the volcanoes of Mexico.

16/01/17 – Mexico City to Apizaco
I arrived at Mexico City airport early in the morning and proceeded to weigh down my already heavy backpack with six liters of bottled water. My next objective was to find fuel for my camp stove somewhere in the city.

I had three options and picked the one closest to the bus station. I took a taxi from the airport to Deportes Ruben’s (near the centro historico) which sold several different types of fuel as well as other hiking and mountaineering goods. From there, I traveled to Mexico City’s large and modern TAPO bus station.

After an hour on the bus, I got off and roved the busy streets of Apizaco, inspecting row after row of identical-looking colectivos for one destined for Centro Vacational La Malintzi, a campground at the base of La Malinche. Another forty-five minutes brought me to the campground where I settled in for the next three nights.

Although everything went smoothly on the first day, I felt way in over my head. The chaos of Mexico City, then Apizaco, certainly contributed, but I was also reconciling my motivations for taking this trip with the reality of actually being there.

The sun set behind the trees and though it was still afternoon, it immediately got chilly. Despite committing so much energy to this trip, now that I was there, my impulse was to go home.

At least there were doggies.

17/01/17 – La Malinche (4461m)

Putting melancholy sentiments aside, I woke up and started hiking shortly after 8am. Besides the altitude, the trail to the top of La Malinche was easy, its height ideal for acclimatizing for higher peaks.

When I got to the summit, I hung out with a lone Mexicano dude and for awhile we were the only ones up there. Eventually his friends arrived, and after chatting among themselves in Spanish, hollered over at me:

Amigo! Cannabis?”

I walked over and they handed me the pipe. I could tell by looking at it that it was pretty sad fare compared to what you might find in Canada, but said “gracias” and took a hit. On top of La Malinche, I was officially the highest I’d ever been — the weed contributed little to the situation.

As the crowds and clouds started to converge on the summit, I felt it was time to depart. I hiked back to the campground to eat lunch and play with puppies and stuff.

14.7km | 1369m | 6h24m | Movescount | Strava

18/01/17 – La Malinche (4461m)

I set my alarm for 4am but didn’t wake up until a half hour later, and had to climb over the campground gate as it was still closed for the night.

My little canine amiga tagged along, though a full-blown ascent of La Malinche was probably more than she’d bargained for. Numerous times she tried to curl up and go to sleep but refused to get left behind.

I felt way more sluggish than the previous day. Maybe it was the previous day’s ascent still in my legs, a lack of calories or a lack of sleep, but I was feeling it from the get-go. Hence I was a little late to catch the sunrise from the summit but still saw what I went up to see: epic alpenglow on Popo and Izta and the shadow of Malinche extending all the way to the horizon.

The ambitious pup followed right until the summit block but wasn’t keen on getting hoisted up the final couple meters of class III which puts you on the summit proper. She curled up along the ridge and waited as I soaked up the sun, the views, the solitude and the altitude this baby volcano provides.

19/01/17 – Amecameca
After another frigid night, I woke up at 7:30am and made coffee. Somehow, an hour and a half wasn’t enough and I was scrambling to pack up my camp and catch the colectivo back to Apizaco.

I traveled back to Mexico City TAPO, ate some fast food (mmm, sodium) and caught the next bus to Amecameca.

I’d heard that getting a ride to La Joya, the starting point for climbing Iztaccihuatl, wasn’t difficult, and taxi drivers would approach as you got off the bus. However, I stepped off the bus and saw no one, just the vacant streets of an unfamilar town.

I walked for a block towards the San Carlos, a hotel popular with climbers, before passing a lingering cabbie who asked me, “La Joya?” I said si but wasn’t sure what time and wanted to check into the hotel first. The driver handed me a business card and I kept on walking.

The San Carlos was located a few blocks from the bus station in the central zocolo. I walked across the square to discover a fleet of military vehicles arrayed around the hotel and the entrance blocked by two soldiers with assault rifles slung across their chests.

I walked up the stairs but they politely informed me there were no rooms available and pointed in the direction of different hotel.

I checked into Hotel Bonampak for one night and for relatively few pesos got a modest room (it had a hot shower so good enough).

The next step was to get a national park permit and arrange to sleep at Altzomoni Lodge. These were the only bits of red tape involved in climbing mountains on this trip and wasn’t difficult at all. As for Altzomoni, I’d decided to stay at this utilitarian bunkhouse instead of sleeping in my tent at La Joya to avoid freezing my ass off like the first three nights.

I filled out the permit application and made arrangements to sleep at Altzomoni at the Izta-Popo Zoquiapan park headquarters right beside the San Carlos. If only a permit is needed, it can be obtained at Paso de Cortes on your way to La Joya.

I walked back to the bus station to try to organize a lift up to La Joya the next day when I bumped into the same taxi driver I’d spoken to before. I asked if he could take me to La Joya and pick me up two days later; he said it was no problem and would pick me up at ten. If climbing Iztaccihuatl, “Bring tun, chocolate y… tequila,” he said. I told him I’d save the tequila for after.

20/01/17 – La Joya

Oscar was waiting outside the hotel at twenty to ten. I heaved my pack into the back of his car and we were off, whizzing along country roads bound for the “Sleeping Woman”.

We stopped at Paso de Cortes to get access bracelets and a key to the lodge. After crawling up the dusty road to the communication compound on top of the hill, I rifled through pesos but seemingly didn’t have enough cash. Oscar didn’t appear too concerned but I promised to pay him as soon as we returned to Amecameca two days later.

I’d developed a mild headache from driving abruptly up to the lodge, but went inside, dropped off my stuff, ate a snack, and headed out for a hike to help acclimatize. I chugged water every fifteen minutes and hiked up to the Grupo de Los Ciens hut (4700m) on Iztaccihuatl in about three hours. I poked my head in the hut, which was residence to a few sleeping mountaineers and mice who scurried around my feet.

Seventy kilometer-per-hour winds conspired to blow me off the mountain and send me sailing down to Puebla. My only course of action was to brace with my poles and move like molasses into the headwind.

Charming tufts atop of Izta and Popo mid-afternoon built into flying saucer-esque lenticular clouds by the time I got back to the lodge. The storms turned into cyclones that whipped through the volcanic rocks of each mountain’s respective summit. Soon it got dark and Altzomoni was engulfed as well.

I looked at the forecast on my phone — showing clear skies and decreased wind — set my alarm and laid it beside me. I went to sleep feeling optimistic that when my alarm went off a few hours later, the skies would be calm and starry.

21/01/17 – Iztaccihuatl (5232m)
I woke up at 1:30am, ate breakfast and got out the door just after two. The skies were clear, the air cool, and the moon’s crescent looked like a little happy face, as my poles click-clacked down the trail to La Joya.

I caught up to a bunch of my hut-mates who’d left shortly before me then slogged solitarily into the darkness. I made good time up to Los Ciens despite getting a little disoriented in the jumble of rocks below the hut.

The wind was no better than the previous day and if anything, worse. After reaching the hut, I decided to take the couloir on climber’s left to gain the rodillas (knees) rather than the trail that goes directly up the slope.

The path was a little indistinct to find in the dark, but enough tiny cairns existed to guide me into a channel where the way became obvious. As I picked my way through the rubble, I saw headlamps emerging from the hut.

It took more time and effort to reach the top of the knees than expected and I topped out relieved I was done the slog up the gully. But one challenge was replaced by another as atop the exposed knees the wind was at its worst, and as the sun hadn’t risen, I couldn’t see a thing.

The wind alone was sufficient to make me want to bail and it was easy to say, “Oh well, not today Izta.” I huddled behind a concrete pillar belonging to the old hut which ironically was destroyed by weather. I thought it would be safer to wait for the sun than try to find my way back down the gully I’d grovelled up in the dark and looked at my watch: 5:51am… I still had an hour until sunrise.

Wind usually blows in one general direction providing reprieve on the lee of some boulder or other large object, however it seemed the wind gusted from every angle, making nowhere remotely comfortable. I squatted in a ball with my arms around my knees as volcanic sand, hoisted by the wind, scoured the surface of my Gore-tex hood. The steel girders of the ruined hut creaked and groaned.

At last the horizon started to glow and lit the sleeping woman with rose-colored light. I saw the series of peaks and ridges and the faint path that sneaked through the scree from the summit I was huddling on, up to the next one. I’d intended to descend as soon as the sun came up — and spent the last hour bemoaning my situation — but with the sun dawned enough confidence for me to at least give it a try.

At 6:51am I descended the third-class step off the knees and worked my way up to the ridge. I growled as the wind froze my face but it wasn’t long before I was staring across the belly glacier and digging out the Microspikes. The surface of the glacier was like a dry icefield covered in tiny penetentes. Ice crystals sheared off and sifted around my feet as I walked.

After crossing the glacier, I tagged a series of false summits before reaching the real ones. I emerged onto a high plateau containing another icefield, ringed by a number of modest bumps. This icefield covered the volcan’s crater and these were its highest points, the pechos (breasts).

I came to a mound of dry earth on the west side which I assumed was the highest point. When I got there however, there was no marker besides a tiny stick and another peak at the far end of the icefield looked higher and had a cross on top. Realizing this wasn’t the true summit, I marched across the icefield to the mountain’s highest point.

I arrived at the summit but wasn’t any warmer and was still getting hammered by the wind, thus my experience was made brief by the feeling of extreme discomfort. Though somewhere deep inside I was stoked to be there, the selfie I took depicts a person not having fun at all.

The descent went smoothly although I continued to get battered by the wind, especially at any sort of saddle such as the belly glacier, where the wind was channeled by the surrounding peaks.

I didn’t encounter anyone else along the route until I got back to the rodillas where a bunch of mountaineers were lingering around the ruined hut, just as I had, debating whether to brave the wind. By the second portillo the weather became tolerable and I began to encounter a variety of folks: families out for a dayhike; trail runners picking their way up to the hut; montanistas on their way back from Los Ciens stopped to have a morning snack.

In many ways, that hour spent shivering in the dark was one of the highlights of the entire trip and vastly more rewarding than if I’d climbed Izta on a calm, sunny day. This is definitely an experience I’ll be able to call on for perspective when faced with challenging situations in the future.

19.8km | ~1300m | 8h46m | Movescount | Strava

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22/01/17 – Amecameca

I walked down to La Joya to meet Oscar and after twenty minutes thought to look around the parking area, which was inundated with the vehicles of weekend warriors. I located him standing on a small hill, searching for me on Iztaccihuatl with binoculars.

We drove down to Paso de Cortes where Oscar strongarmed the park staff to return a $100 peso deposit I didn’t know they took. We walked outside and I thanked him; he nodded and gestured with a couple blows to the chin.

We got back to town went to the bank so I could pay him. I handed Oscar a healthy sum, appreciative for his congeniality and not leaving me stranded when my pesos ran dry. I gorged myself on a torta, guzzled a cerveza, checked back into the Bonampak (the San Carlos was still occupied by soldiers) and got lost in the market.

The market swells one-hundred times in size on the weekend, or so I learned upon returning to Amecameca. For blocks I squeezed past hundreds of people engaged in various acts of buying and selling, cooking and eating, and returned home with a veritable bounty, from lychees to pizza to expired Indian cigarettes.

23/01/17 – Ciudad Serdán
I woke up at six to try to get to Ciudad Serdán, — the jumping-off point for my final mountain — early. While the bus left Amecameca before the sun came up, the bus to Serdán didn’t leave Mexico City till sometime in the afternoon, so I sat around TAPO listening to the Enormocast.

Google Maps said the drive supposedly takes three hours but the bus took closer to five, fighting our way out of Mexico City, then stopping at a series of small towns on the way to Serdán. Thus I didn’t arrive until nearly seven p.m.

I was anxious to check into the hotel and arrange a ride up to Orizaba the next day. As I hadn’t actually booked any hotels ahead of time, I was running the same risk I encountered at the San Carlos in Amecameca.

I checked into Hotel Monte Carlo for two nights and mentioned to the manager I intended to find a taxi to take me to the south side of Orizaba. She replied something to the effect that it couldn’t be done. “Atzitzintla” she said, which was another town a half-hour down the road.

I took her response as groundless pessimism, and with my mind firmly set, went to find a taxi to take me there.

I walked to the bus stop where a bunch of taxis were waiting. I approached the first one I saw and in broken Spanish explained I was looking for someone to take me to the Orizaba/Sierra Negra col first thing in the morning, wait for me to climb Orizaba and bring me back when I was done. The driver thought about it for a minute and with a swaggle of his head replied, “Sure, no problem”.

I verified the various components of the arrangement to make sure we were on the same page: He would pick me up at 6am? Si. Wait while I climb? Si. Drive me back to Serdan? Si.

Cuanto cuesta? 600 pesos. It was a hell of a deal but I shook his hand and said I would see him in the morning.

Content that I’d made a relatively complex arrangement using my shoddy Spanish, I trotted off to Soriana to procure the final implements for an ascent of Pico de Orizaba the next day.

24/01/17 – Ciudad Serdán, continued…

I woke up at 5am, made some breakfast, went down to the hotel lobby and waited. For a half hour I waited but the taxi never turned up.

Disappointed, I went back to my room but reasoned that this happened for some meaningful purpose, like things often do on trips for me. And while I didn’t feel like sticking around at 2500m another day, I didn’t really have another choice.

I headed into town, my first mission to procure coffee, my second to procure a ride to the saddle a.s.a.p., as my weather window on Orizaba was closing in a couple of days.

I spent most of the morning trying to arrange a ride but soon learned the taxis didn’t have enough power to make it up the road at 4000m. My whole plan to climb Orizaba from the south side was dependent on a misunderstanding I had made in presuming a cab could drive me to the col.

After asking the third driver, I sat down on a bench in the zocolo feeling pretty let down. I started considering a few bolder/stupider options (such as walking from Serdán — “Better start walking!” I said) but it was obvious I wasn’t prepared for that kind of endeavour.

As my final ditch, I went back to the hotel and asked if they knew anyone with a truck that could do it. The woman behind the desk pulled out a folder, ran her finger down a list, picked up the phone and — well, it wasn’t that easy but it was a start. By two in the afternoon, we’d tentatively arranged for a man named Hugo to drive me up to Orizaba the following day.

Hugo stopped by with his father to talk about the specifics. I estimated taking nine to twelve hours and he agreed to wait while I climbed. I explained I had a helmet (genuinely required), crampons (I had Microspikes — not needed), poles not a piolet… And tried to explain to Hugo’s dad why I had no need for a harness. I’d inspected the south side of Orizaba via webcam every day for the past few months and knew there wasn’t a flake of snow on it. I seemingly knew more about conditions on the mountain than they did.

I said I wanted to arrive at the saddle no later than 7am in order to avoid the ordeal on Iztaccihuatl. Hugo typed out a response on my phone and hit “translate”: “At the time you want to go out of here, you suggest at 6 am”.

I agreed to be ready and said I’d meet him outside at six the next morning.

25/01/17 – Pico de Orizaba (5636m)

Once more, I woke up at five, ate some breakfast, went down to the lobby and waited. Right at six, Hugo’s Jeep Cherokee came roaring along the otherwise silent streets and stopped in front of the hotel.

The trip to the saddle took a little over an hour and was passed mostly in silence, besides me prying from Hugo that he was indeed a mountain guia as evidenced by the stickers on his truck. We passed through a couple increasingly spartan farming villages as a faint glow appeared above the fields through my window to the east.

We turned onto the road to the saddle, which was surfaced for a few hundred meters with brick, then dirt and rocks.

A taxi would’ve gotten owned by this”, I thought.

At the top of the pass I expected Hugo to drop me off, but he kept on driving up the rugged 4×4 track towards the hut at the bottom of Orizaba’s south face. A half-kilometer from the hut the road became too rough, even for his Jeep. I asked Hugo if he wanted me to start walking but was already pulling over and simply said, “yes”.

I started chugging up the hill so Hugo wouldn’t be too worried but, truth be told, it took a good fifteen minutes to feel warmed up. Having sat around in town for the past three days, I was worried my acclimatization might be totally shot but I didn’t feel AMS symptoms, I just felt slow.

From the firetruck-red Fausto Gonzales Gomar hut at 4700m, one follows a well-worn trail through the rocks that tromps up to the base of Orizaba’s lado sur. I followed a footpath that started ascending the scree slope east of the bouldery ridge.

The scree wasn’t bad at first — granted I’m seasoned by the worst Canadian Rockies fare — but it soon became interminable. There was a traverse off the slope higher up but I didn’t want to wait that long; the ground was sliding under every footstep, so I clambered over to the ridge and started scrambling through the boulders.

From down near the rifugio, I’d spotted a party two-thirds of the way up the mountain, easily identified by the bright orange of someone’s mountain apparel. By the time I reached them, they’d barely moved.

They asked “Que tal?” and I joked, “muy bien“, feigning (not really) hyperventilating and/or a heart attack. The momentary contact with other humans was a pleasant reprieve from the incessant slogging. Alhough I managed to move consistently, I could only actually hike or climb for a handful of moves before I had to stop to catch my breath.

At 5400m, the convenient ridge came to an end and I was faced with an expanse of chalky white scree before reaching the “pulpito”, a rock tower at the top of the route. The ruta sur followed an aesthetic curve from the saddle to the summit, but here that curve ramped up and became chaotic like the whitecap of a wave.

I took a few steps and found it almost impossible to avoid kicking down rocks. I take pride in being adept in this sort of terrain but it was testing the limit of any skill I thought I had.

I premeditated each move, from semi-solid rock to semi-solid rock, which would shift in the mounds of scree when I put any weight on them. I mused half-philosophically whether I’d rather have rocks knocked down on me or be responsible for killing someone in the party below… before grimly electing that I preferred to be above.

I was getting annoyed, feeling it was irresponsible to bring clients up this technically easy but objectively hazardous route, which was for all intents and purposes a shooting gallery. As it was, I managed to knock most of my debris into the gully east of them and quickly scrambled up the side of the pulpito and out of sight.

Crawling around climber’s-left of the pulpito I discovered the remains of a small crashed airplane which provided the best handholds on the entire route. A small field of penetentes provided more things to hold onto, unless one happened to snap off.

Atop the pulpit, one can see the summit cross and from there, it’s only a short distance to reach the top of Orizaba.

I got to the summit and no one was there. I’d expected to meet a mob of mountaineers who’d come up the north side but I was alone to take in the 360° view of Mexico. The weather was pleasant besides a cold wind that whistled through the mass of steel on the summit adorned with prayer flags, crucifixes, and other objects non-religious in nature. Behind, El Pico’s crumbling caldera yawned.

After hanging out for an hour, members of the guided group started to appear. I apologized for kicking rocks on them but they seemed unfazed and we all exchanged congratulations. The group contained two Americans, the first gringos I’d met on this trip, but everybody spoke English, so it was nice to not struggle to make conversation for once.

By this point I was getting pretty cold, so I took a group picture and left them to enjoy the same solitude I’d been able to.

During my approach, I’d seen a perfect line of light gray scree descending from the summit all the way to the rifugio at 4700m. This appeared to me like the perfect descent and I was anxious to try to ski it in my runners on the way down.

I said adios, tightened my sombrero and dropped off the summit majestically but the hard-packed slope was covered in a fine layer of rubble and my attempts to ski resulted in me spinning, sliding and swearing. Below the pulpit, it became easy to plunge through waves of soft, pillowy scree. I plummeted a thousand meters in a half-hour, giggling and gasping for oxygen all the while. Sure, I had a small mountain of rocks in my sneakers when I was done, but gaiters are for wimps 😉

A short traverse brought me over to the rifugio and back to Hugo’s Jeep, where I found him waiting on top of a huge boulder. Five hours and one minute after leaving I’d returned, dusty and deliriously happy.

Pico de Orizaba was supposed to be the climax, the final test of this trip, but felt anticlimactic while climbing it. After the ordeal on Iztaccihuatl, the ascent of Orizaba felt fairly easy, lazily scrambling over boulders on a calm, sunny day. However I won’t deny that Orizaba loomed in my mind as a big challenge, a feeling that wasn’t reduced when I saw it from Malinche for the first time earlier that week.

The challenge of climbing the south side of Orizaba had little to do with climbing and more with the logistics of getting there. As Aleister Crowley wrote in his Confessions: “We had intended to finish our programme by climbing Citlatepetl; but there were difficulties about mules and none about the mountain”.

Arranging the means of supporting one’s mountain goals; building a (hopefully accurate) mental map from scraps of beta and information gleaned from books and the internet — these to me are important components of going on big adventures. As one gets into bigger or more remote mountains, red tape and the hurdle of organizing transportation and porters seems almost as big a challenge as the mountains themselves. It thus appears helpful to be as skilled in this capacity as one is as a mountaineer.

6.9km | 1125m | 5h01m | Movescount | Strava

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27/01/17 – Nevado de Toluca
You might think after Orizaba I’d be satisfied, but I’d hardly finished dumping the scree out of my sneakers when I started thinking about another volcan. I was ahead of schedule and had two days to kill, so rather than visit cultural sites like a normal person I elected to camp in a crater instead.

I left the Monte Carlo early in the morning and traveled back to Mexico City TAPO. I caught a cab to Observatorio bus station on the west side of the city and from there bussed to Toluca.

The nevado was further from town than I’d imagined and the taxi driver was asking a hefty fare to take me up there and bring me back, but it was the end of my trip and I was resigned to pay for one last experience.

The driver had lived in Chicago for a few years so we talked in English about a variety of subjects, not least the trainwreck of American politics. As we came around the curve of the dusty road we happened on the sight of two people whose double backpacks — overloaded trekking bags on the back, daypacks on the front — immediately marked them as free-spirited-hippy-traveler types.

Aliah was from Quebec and met his girlfriend Isabel in Mazatlan; now they were taking the scenic route back to Mexico City. As camping inside the nevado was prohibited, we pitched our tents on a patch of sand outside the crater rim.

We ventured up to the rim to catch a glimpse of the nevado’s famed sun and moon lakes. As the sun was setting behind El Fraile, the volcano’s highest point, details at the bottom were hard to make out. Aliah and Isabel did yoga poses over on an adjacent summit while I soaked up the remaining few minutes of daylight.

We met back at the campsite after they descended into the crater to get water while I went the opposite way, to the forest, to scavenge for firewood. The evening was spent having what felt like the quintessential Mexican experience: cooking over a open fire in the dry, high mountains underneath a canopy of stars. The only thing missing was our donkeys tied up nearby.

28/01/17 – Toluca to Mexico City to Home

We endured a freezing night in our tents, which was little surprise as we were perched high on the side of a volcano. Aliah immediately got a fire going as I jogged around in circles trying to restore circulation in my limbs. The next challenge was defrosting the Nutella jar…

When the sun peeked over the crater, it was like a godsend. We finished off our haphazardly conceived, but delicious, camp granola, struck down our tents and headed up to see the lakes one last time. With the sun at our backs, the Sol and Luna lagunas displayed their respective hues, set in a landscape uniformly yellow with variations of orange, brown and red. Again the volcanoes of Mexico suggested the features of another planet.

As we were all headed to the same destination, we split on the taxi to Toluca, caught the bus to Mexico City, then they helped me navigate the subway to the airport. It was nice spending the last two days with a couple hip, friendly strangers to whom I related in a surprising number of ways.

I returned to the airport accompanied by a sense of accomplishment and pride. I thought back to how I felt when I’d landed twelve days prior: how heavy my bag was; how embarrassed I was to speak Spanish; how worried I was about getting killed or robbed.

Now I was back, filthy, sunburnt, clothes caked in a layer of dust, with three Mexican volcanoes under my belt. I strutted through the airport feeling like the fucking man.

After going through security came the last and most important objective of my trip to Mexico: purchasing high-quality tequila.

The duty-free shop appeared and welcomed me as though I’d entered the pearly gates of agave heaven. After spending a half-hour discussing the science which distinguishes an anejo from a reposado, I made off with a bottle of sweet, smooth, amber-colored Herradura which spent two years aging in a Jack Daniels cask.

I boarded the plane, stashed the tequila and reclined into my seat. I’d not only survived this adventure, better yet, I had a great time and achieved every goal. I’d traveled to Mexico for its mountains but was leaving with a bit of a crush on the country itself.

El Pico Experience