Retracing Dad’s Steps 40 Years Later
This story comes from BioLite beta tester, Michael Weybret, a documentarian and van-lifer who set off to find his frontier with his Dad. The frontier? Summiting 3 peaks in 10 days (with no prior mountaineering experience).
This frontier trip all started when I got an invite from my Dad to come to Mexico to retrace a trip he’d taken in 1978 when he was my age. He and two friends were going to climb La Malinche, Mt Itza, and Mt Orizaba (the 3rd tallest mountain in North America), nearly 40 years after his first trip to those summits. I gladly accepted the invite. For me, this was an opportunity to connect with my Dad in a way I hadn’t before and challenge myself to a new adventure. I’m an experienced hiker but mountain climbing - having to put on crampons and use an ice axe - was a completely different story. It takes outdoorsmanship to a whole new level when you’re doing it in a more extreme climate and conditions. The reassuring thing about these mountains, as I was told, is that they’re a good introduction into mountaineering. At 18,000 feet Orizaba is a hefty peak to climb but it is relatively accessible and the climate isn’t too extreme.
La Malinche: The First Ascent
We flew into Mexico City and spent a little bit of time acclimating to the altitude. Everyone on the trip lives more or less at sea level so getting used to the elevation was our top priority.
Once acclimated, we went after it. The first hike we did was La Malinche (14,600 feet) which at the time was the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed so it served as a pretty good warm up, to say the least. This hike was really special, to finally be on the trail with my old man and the guys was almost euphoric. How many times had I day dreamed about being in these mountains?
I don’t know what I would do without The Old Goats (the adopted nickname for my dad, Marty, and his friends Phil and Tony, all in their 60s). They offered me a lot of help with their experience and knowledge, not to mention plenty of “back in my day” stories to pass the time.
Riding adrenaline and the nopales tacos from the night before, we summited La Malinche in a flash. Any outdoorsman knows the feeling of a new summit, especially a personal highest, but I have always struggled to describe it. You’re on top of the world, invincible! What would dare try and stop you? But off in the distance we could see our next challenge on the horizon, the 17,192 ft peak of Mt. Izta.
Mt. Itza: Approaching Our Second Summit
The next day was another warm up hike scouting the approach of Mt. Itza. We went up to about 15,000 feet before turning back, wanting to rest before the summit push the next day. We stayed on a mountain lodge on the side of the mountain. I should clarify that this ‘lodge’ wasn’t even much of a shack, just an empty structure with no plumbing or power, just rickety bunk beds to lay in for the short night.
It was nice to end each day with my Dad and his friends in an unfamiliar atmosphere. People reveal a different side of themselves when they’re outdoors. When you're talking to someone at a coffee shop in the city it’s a little bit like being in a zoo. When you get them near a campfire, a different side comes out. I’m really happy I got to see that side of my dad and his friends. I spent a lot of time just closing my mouth and listening and learning from some people I really look up to.
After resting for a few hours ahead of our 1am wake up call, we packed our bags, ate a quick meal, filled up our thermoses with some hot tea and headed up the mountain. For me this next day was 11 hours of climbing. I was able to make it to the summit whereas my Dad and his friends decided to take it easier to give them a better chance on making the summit at Orizaba in two days time.
Mt. Orizaba: Our Final Frontier Climb
After Izta, we spent the next two days resting in Puebla before we attempted to summit Orizaba. Prior to our ascent of Orizaba, we stayed at another mountain lodge and had a 2:30am wakeup call to begin our summit push. The 18,491 ft Pico De Orizaba would be by far the highest I have ever climbed. We were expecting some wind and a pretty cold morning, so there were some nerves around the camp. I barely slept at all that night.
We started a little late that morning, and despite the cold everyone felt quite strong. We were making really good time as we marched up the rocky slope by the light of our headlamps. Though I was focused on my own progress, I couldn’t help but check in on my Dad. He was, it seems more to his surprise than mine, very strong that morning. On a short rest to eat a frozen snickers bar, I remember smiling to myself while watching the sun peek out over the horizon to the east. It was cold, we were tired, and there was no place I would rather be.
Unfortunately at about 16,700 feet (about 1,800 vertical feet short of the summit) my Dad began to get disoriented, short of breath and dizzy. I’d never seen someone get altitude sickness like that before and seeing it happen to my Dad so suddenly was scary so we turned back. I went with him (I’d promised my Mom) to make sure he was okay, and after we descended back down a few hundred feet of elevation his head was clear, he could catch his breath and he was already planning our next big trip.
Though it was disappointing that we didn’t make it to the final summit, I’m glad we all stayed safe. I’ve always really looked up to my dad and having the opportunity to learn how to mountaineer from him then retrace his footsteps and watch him charge up these mountains at 64 was amazing.
This may have been a last big hurrah, but certainly no swan song for The Old Goats. Their knees still have a few miles in them, as do their hearts, and it will take a lot more than a little cold and altitude sickness to slow my Dad down. I hope this trip was as special for the Goats as it was for me, spending this time with them was a genuine inspiration of how to live a happy, purposed life. If I stay safe on the mountain, and keep looking both ways when I cross the street, maybe I can share some stories on the trail with some younger goats one day.
Takeaway: Aging is mandatory, getting old is optional.
I was the young gun with a bunch of borderline -- they’ll get mad at me for saying this -- senior citizens on this trip. I was pushing my comfort zone every day and so were these guys. This frontier wasn’t a normal stroll through the woods -- we were to climbing about 6,000 feet in 14 hour days. This was definitely a push for me at 27 and for my dad to be attempting it at 64 was really impressive. We both agreed that we could’ve and should’ve trained a little harder but to see them at their age still pushing themselves to the limit was inspiring. I was reminded that as I grow older, just because my back is a little sore or my knees creak doesn’t mean I can’t pull myself up the mountain.
Michael's Frontier Gear
Clothing: The most important thing was bringing layers. When you’re hiking up it's really easy to generate body heat but when you stop to rest you start to get cold fast. We each wore lighter, breathable attire for descending the mountain at noon and heavier parkas for early morning climbs.
Mountaineering Gear: Mountain boots, crampons, ice axes, and helmets.
Light: We packed a few PowerLight Minis & SiteLight Minis. We didn’t have access to outlets so having rechargeable lighting was crucial. We used these lights to illuminate our mountain huts and for early morning hikes.
Power: As a traveling photographer, it’s really hard to plan on being able to charge your phone or camera. Being able to charge my stuff using BioLite solar panels and charges was clutch. Everyday I had a solar panel on my back so that I could guarantee when we were done, I’d have plenty of power to charge my camera to keep shooting the trip and light up the huts at night.
Follow Michael’s travels via instagram @dosomethingcool.