Students scale 18,460-foot volcano in Mexico

While a majority of students were enjoying time at home during winter break, a group of 11 Colorado State University students, alumni and staff were ascending an 18,460-foot volcano in Mexico. The 10-day, three-climb trip, which was hosted by Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Program, set new personal-best altitude records for all the students involved.

The expedition was led by Rodney Ley, assistant director of the Outdoor Program; Andy Nelson, coordinator of the Outdoor Program; and Jim Davidson, a seasoned trip leader. Group members included CSU alumni Natalie Gerding, Ben Gerding, Brian King and Kristen Dean, and students Richard Salas, Dean Anderson, Kari Lanphier and Daniel Shugert.

La Malinche Peak

The group arrived in the quiet town of Puebla, Mexico, on Jan. 2, 2015. Located in south central Mexico, Puebla is known for its colorful festivals and delicious street food. After enjoying an evening of Mexican culture, the group awoke at 6 a.m. to scale the first of their three planned summits, La Malinche. At 14,600 feet, La Malinche is taller than any of the 14ers in Colorado. La Malinche allowed the group a chance to acclimate to the conditions and altitudes they would be facing in the days to come.

Rime ice and 60 mph winds on Iztacchuatal

After a successful summit of La Malinche, the group traveled from Puebla to a “microwave hut” on the Iztacchuatal volcano, the next peak on the agenda at 17,160 feet. On Jan. 6, a clatter of alarms rang through the small hut at midnight, and the team packed up their gear and began their ascent. The conditions were brutal to start off — cold, icy and dark — and would only get worse. As the team climbed higher, the conditions continued to deteriorate, with wind gusts hitting 60 mph. At 16,000 feet, the ice conditions became so extreme that the group was forced to turn around without summiting, but not before shattering their personal altitude records by 1,600 feet.

The final summit: Orizaba Volcano

After the difficult weather conditions on Izatacchuatal, the group was renewed with a strong determination to make it to the top of their last peak, the volcano Orizaba. The third highest peak in North America, Orizaba is 18,460 feet and has a glacier of 2,000 vertical feet at the top. Another midnight wake-up call on Jan. 9 got the group up and moving into the night. Ten of the 11 trip members set out on the journey, with one member making the hard decision to stay back.

The ascent was demanding, due to both the high elevation and the icy conditions of the glacier. Steps had to be kicked into the ice by the team leader, and the group took turns with this strenuous task. Five hundred feet from the summit, the icy slope and exposure forced the team to take an alternate path to the top, but they pressed on, motivating one another and supporting their team. Finally, the group found themselves standing at 18,460 feet, taking in the amazing views of the surrounding landscapes.

Trip of a lifetime

The memories made and the journey shared had a lasting effect on all the team members. Ley recorded in the trip journal during the group’s travels home: “Could we really have gone so far, climbed so high, and in such a short time? What better way to live life fully than to force it into the corner, wake up at 11 p.m., choke down oatmeal, strap on crampons and hike above and into the clouds.”