Review: Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow : The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure

Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow : The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure

by Maria Coffey

As you get deeper and deeper into the Seven Summits Quest, eventually it will hit you. People die doing this. People with spouses, children, parents, siblings. They leave behind families and friends, some of whom never ever recover from the loss. Death in the mountains just is.

And we know it. In the group adventures I’ve been on so far it’s typical for us to sit around the first dinner on the mountain, eating by headlamp, when the discussion turns to “if I die out here, just push me into a crevasse and kick my stuff in after me.” Really. Quite common.

Practically though, it would cost a huge fortune to haul a body and gear out of any of these remote corners of the world, and speaking as a mountaineer who’s been there, I know I’d much rather have any insurance money spent on helping my family get set up in a new life, not on hauling a corpse back – even if it does equal closure for the left-behind.

And I do speak from experience, having nearly died in a storm on Rainier. All but one of my team were pinned down by the wind, unable to move. As I laid there in the hollow the wind carved out around my supine body, my eventual coffin, staring into the white abyss, the thought flickered through my mind “this is it then”.

This book is a series of stories glued loosely together based on the author’s long association with the mountaineering world (she was the girlfriend of Joe Tasker, who died on Everest, and for whom her torch obviously flickers however strongly throughout the book). She has stories of death and disaster, and the permanent scars on the climbers and their loved ones.

It’s painful to read at times, and if there isn’t a single second in which you question your own desire to climb, your own motivation, your own goals, you’re in total denial. She does explore a few stories as examples of that too ūüėČ

Her own obviously unresolved issues with all climbing in general litter nearly every page, so I’m not sure if I recommend this book to the spouses of climbers – I’d hate to be responsible for any possible marital discord.

Because of my experience, I read this book with a special, perhaps warped insight.¬†I do highly recommend it for anyone who embarks on this quest. Please, read this, ponder, and decide for yourself, before you get so far into it that it’s impossible to back out. “This is my final summit” are literally famous last words.

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Orizaba or Bust

Nearly four years ago I did a test of my solo big mountain skills by attempting Orizaba. At the time I thought I was in much better shape than I actually was, and after a rushed, poorly executed acclimatization plan, I ended up unable to breath at 17,300′ (my high point at the time), and added up the minutes left to me as I rushed back to the pickup at the Piedra Grande Hut, and the bus rides back to the Mexico City airport, and bailed.

If you want to go back and read my tales about the trip, here you go: Orizaba March 2008 Trip Report (sadly, in reverse chronological order)

At the time, I ended up a little dissatisfied with the logistics company I had used, for various reasons, not that they didn’t do what they basically promised, mind you. They were slow to answer emails, the food was decent enough, and the¬†accommodations¬†were “adequate enough”.

This time I opted for the other option (there are only two options for general logistics support for Orizaba). They answered the first handful of emails fairly quickly, and ended with “let us know your dates and times so we can make the reservation”. I had originally planned on going November 13-19, but Angie had a USFS test on the 13th, so I just dropped it – since with the holidays and travel, most of November and December are booked up with no really open 8-day blocks.

That changed a bit, leaving an opening for November 15-22, providing I depart and arrive in two different cities to catch up on the travel scheduled for Thanksgiving. I got the flights and sent the email with my dates and times to make the reservation. No response. For several days. I resent the email, and got a response of “who are you and what do you want? we only provide services for our climbers. do you have a reservation?”

I copied/pasted the series of conversations we’d emailed, and said “I’m sending you the dates and times as requested so I can make the reservation – there is only one day to go before I get on the plane.” No response. At. All…

I weighed the options. I was pretty much packed, and had a plan. Tent outside the basecamp area. 30 liters of water (plenty!) and stove fuel from the logistics company. Drop off at basecamp with duffels.

Assuming no logistics support, there is a way to do it. It would require an extra day on either end, cutting into my acclimatization and extra summit days. I’d have to take a taxi to Walmart (stove fuel) in either Puebla or Mexico City (depending on flight arrival time), and stay at a hotel near the Capu (bus station) in Puebla. I’d have to take a taxi to Hidalgo (about 4 miles from Piedra Grande Hut, 11,300′) and hike up carrying all my stuff (precludes the 30 liters of water and the duffels).

This is fine, and some major US Guide services do something similar for their acclimatization, but it would require two extra days, carrying 80 lb in a large backpack (it’s not really that far or tough – it’s a low-level 4×4 road by US standards), and my flight times would need to be adjusted slightly. Also, that would not be a fair test of the system I intend to use on Aconcagua, which is what this shakedown cruise was supposed to be.

I waited all day, still no answer, so I cancelled the flight and got a voucher. Now, 4 days later, still no answer. I think I’ll follow the self-supported option if I attempt this again, and plan accordingly. Alas…

Self Portrait on Orizaba 2008 - 15,600'

Orizaba 2008 - 15,600' - First High Point - acclimatization hike

Friends tell me I made the right decision to bail. What do you think?

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