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The Volcanoes of Mexico – Two Summits!

January 7, 2019

By Chris Kesler, Lydig Construction


Dustin Shelton and Chris Kesler raising a banner for cancer research on the summit of Itza, the 7th highest mountain in North America at 17,159 feet.

When I first considered this expedition one of my thoughts was, do I really want to travel five hours on a plane to another country to find out if I can successfully climb at high altitude? Is this a realistic climbing and fundraising goal?

How was I to face my fear and uncertainty of attaining summits above my previous mountaineering experience? I settled this internal struggle when I remembered that this is exactly why I climb for Fred Hutch. I choose to push myself for people cancer has given no choice.  Friends, family members and colleagues with cancer climb physical and emotional mountains they haven’t chosen. I choose to help fund life-saving research and the innovative scientists at the Hutch. With this realization, I decided to extend myself far beyond my comfort zone.

The Volcanoes expedition includes ten days in beautiful Mexico – two travel days, six days of climbing, and a couple of days of inter-country traveling with cultural experiences. Pretty straight forward, right? It was so much more.

Soon after arriving in Mexico City all nine climbers exploded the gear bags on the lawn of our hotel for our mandatory gear check with our two Alpine Ascents International guides, Stuart Robertson and Dylan Cembalski.  Both Stuart and Dylan have guided many Climb to Fight Cancer expeditions. Our group’s ages ranged from 29 to 59. This gear check meeting began the bonding of our shared experience. Once we commenced we were joined by Arnoldo, a Mexico City native who would be our local tour guide, van driver, storyteller, legend interpreter and man of history.

Prior to attempting our first climb on Iztaccihuatl “Itza,” the seventh highest mountain in North America, we spent time visiting the Museum of Anthropology, then driving to a remote area as we acclimated to the increasing altitude. On day three we did an acclimatization hike to elevations of 12,000 – 14,000 feet.  This was finally my chance to see how I felt being at the equivalent of the summit of Mt. Rainier, my mountaineering elevation high point to date. The following day we donned full backpacks and began our climb of Itza in earnest. It was a big but manageable day and we reached our high camp of 15,000 feet. We were treated to an unbelievable sunset and spent the evening telling stories. img_7267I was filled with excitement and if I’m honest a little apprehension for what was ahead. I was trying to sleep, manage a slight headache and thinking about what I’d eat. The night before any climb can keep a mind racing, and I was nervous about how I’d do at these higher elevations. Could I really climb to over 17,000 feet?

In the pitch black darkness of the early morning we begin our ascent. The rhythm of my breathing settled me. As the morning awakened, we could see our objective. We slowly completed the final push up the spine of the mountain and before long I was standing with my teammates on the summit of Iztaccihuatl at 17,159 feet, my new elevation high point. The air was crisp, the skies clear, and the feeling rewarding. After a short time we descended, packed up camp, and made the long trip to Puebla, Mexico.  The warm food, drink and hot shower were all greatly appreciated.

The time spent in Cholula (yes, the home of the hot sauce!) and Puebla was awesome.  We visited some of the oldest sites in the Americas including pyramids, libraries, cathedrals and many other historical landmarks. It was serendipitous for sure. We left this beautiful area and headed to the solitude of the slopes of Orizaba, our second objective.

We drove to the Orizaba mountain guides facility. We were treated to a delicious lunch and we loaded our gear into 4×4’s.  Nearly two hours later we were above the tree line and in the sage brush decorating the flanks of one very big volcano. This was our base camp – Piedra Grande at 13,800 feet. Our camp had a cooking hut and a separate group eating tent. We spent the balance of the day hanging out together.  We slept late the following morning and eventually geared up for another acclimatization hike. We worked our way up to somewhere near 16,000 feet while enjoying the rugged beauty of the moraine we were traversing.

All too quickly we headed back to our camp and the anticipation of our upcoming summit attempt in the pre-dawn hours filled my head. The time period from my oatmeal and cider, to packing up and leaving camp is still suspended in time for me. We spent hours in the dark sky, our crampons crunching the firm snow, our head lamps bobbing, the sounds of our steady, deep breathing, and the comforting cadence of climbing. I felt like I belonged there. We roped up as we came onto a massive snow field. We were sensing the first signs of light. This is always the coldest time on any mountain.

The sun brings out the magic of the alpine environment. The peaking of the first light, the silhouettes of other climbers become visible, and ultimately the shadow the volcano casts itself over the landscape below.  It never gets old.  Three+ hours on the ice and I was even more focused on breathing and maintaining a solid rhythm.

We reached the crater rim bathed in full sunlight. The summit was thirty minutes away via a ridge walk toward what appeared to be an endless blue sky.  Along with my teammates I absorbed all the doubt and fear that had lived in the back of my brain for months. I was climbing for those I love and for those I have never met. I was actually doing it.

The hugs and handshakes were satisfying, but nothing compares to the feeling of doing something bigger than myself. As my friend Kelly says, “Love them all, let their spirits flow.”  As I crested the summit of the third highest peak in North America, I did.

We are filled with so much gratitude for these two summits and the journey that brought us here.

Thank you.

Chris Kesler.


Volunteer, climber, fundraiser, blog author and explorer Chris Kesler takes in the view.

My crux

In mountaineering, the crux is the most difficult section of a route. This is why I train.

In cancer research the crux is the most difficult obstacle to overcome that leads to a breakthrough, or the place where the greatest viability lives. This is why I climb.

In planning a route, it is important to know how far it is before the crux is reached, because cruxes can only be overcome with sufficient reserves of strength. This is why I train.

In traveling the path towards discovery, it is important to know how far it is before the crux is reached, because cruces can only be overcome with sufficient reserves that support where the trail leads…towards cures.  This is why I climb.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    January 9, 2019 3:35 am

    Fantastic article climbing bro. Nice work! Well said!!

  2. Keri Bruce permalink
    January 15, 2019 3:36 pm

    Beautiful climb, beautiful words, congratulations Chris!

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