Even before we tugged up our harnesses beside Orizaba’s lower glacier, I’d been given hints the world was askew. The mice that infested the Quertano Hut pooled by the door as we readied to leave, their demonic eyes reflecting our headlamps. As we approached the lower glacier of Orizaba, a climber we had nicknamed the Swiss, though in truth since he spoke no English his nationality was undetermined, trailed us. Clad in a red down jacket and sporting an unkempt white beard, the Swiss carried a lunch-pail sized backpack and no other visible equipment. Now he stalked us, unshakeable, a combination of ninja assassin and Santa Claus.
The Swiss’s intentions became obvious at the glacier. Our team of five included one novice climber, and we had coached him that the ice marked the point of no return. At his first view of it, floating like violet mist in the moonlight, our friend opted for retreat, only to find the Swiss barring his way. An exchange of gestures and guttural Germanic grunts showed us the negotiation concerned an ice axe. Now, commandeered axe in hand, the Swiss bobbed his head and strode past.
We four huddled on boulders, waiting for first light. This section of the route had developed a fearsome reputation, killing one climber and injuring another just before our summit push. Tight on my right was Mitch, a genetic freak who one weekend rose from his couch and ran a marathon, defeating most of the field. To my left were the Mackersie brothers: Chris, an ex-Army Ranger with an iron will, and Todd, who, well, lacked that characteristic. Todd had only tried one other peak with us, Mount Olympus in Washington State, but he was our social glue, monitoring our feelings and just happy as hell to be on an international adventure.
I had put this climb together. What I didn’t know was that I was about to watch my well-made plans crumble under the weight of the personalities involved, turning a technically easy climb into a life-or-death endeavor.
In retrospect, maybe I should have paid more attention to the memory of Todd’s abysmal performance on Olympus. He had tweaked his knee early, and sat the adventure out at the ranger station while our remaining trio staggered boldly into a weather Armageddon, roughly 1,000 inches of rain that became a blizzard by high camp. That night I was shivering in my bag, every layer soaked through and my food too sodden to eat, when a nearby climber yelled that a bear had crept beside my tent. I shouted back, Send him in. I’ll feel better if he kills me.
The next morning Mitch led our defeated tromp back through the rain. When Chris and I caught up to him at the ranger station, he informed us with a touch of bitterness that Todd had endured his trial by sharing the WPA shelter, smoked salmon and a bottle of wine with a female hiker. Hearing of his brother’s good fortune, Chris immediately slammed Mitch face-first in the mud.
And maybe that response should have provided another hint of our team’s dynamics on Orizaba, at 18,800 feet the highest of the Mexican volcanoes.
Sunrise revealed a glacier far from ferocious: Filling a box canyon was a low-angled doily crust that barely covered the frozen mud. Until we neared the far, closed end of the canyon, we couldn’t imagine how anyone had come to disaster here. Then we crested a bulge, and between us and the saddle where the moraines converged lay a tsunami of water ice, a sea-green Dale Chihuly fountain overflowing from the upper mountain, frozen so hard our crampon points left only pin-pricks as we ascended.
That, Chris said as he belayed me up, is gonna be a bitch going down.
The sandy divide we’d reached was like Malibu Beach dropped into the Ice Age. The snow dome heading up above it was a surface so featureless, and the sun reflected so brightly on it, that I was hallucinating immediately, seeing ponds cradled in hollows and waterfalls trickling toward us on the moraine.
We can do this without a rope, Mitch said. No holes to drop in.
Sure, I said. But remember, we’re a team.
In no time, we were scattered all over the mountain. The mist that drifted in every afternoon built over the mountain’s upper reaches while I followed Mitch on his rising traverse toward the crater rim, and Chris assisted a flagging Todd, still ascending but an impossible distance below. My standard mountain emotions arose: guilt (shouldn’t I be helping Chris?) and anxiety (the summit’s gone in a whiteout!). To this I added acute philosophical musing: how powerful those ties of blood must be! Eager and competitive as Chris might be, here he was, obviously sacrificing this climb for his brother.
Finally, after climbing for another hour, isolated in the thickening fog, I touched the scrap-metal heap that marked the summit. Mitch was already preparing to descend.
That guy’s nuts, he said.
The Swiss. He wanted his picture taken, but when I tried getting the rim in the background, he kept doing this. Mitch held both palms up, fingers framing his face. You know what he wanted? Just his face against the sky.
Mitch vanished, descending, and I sank down in the volcanic ash. My head throbbed like a conga drum and my stomach recoiled at the sight of the energy bar I pulled from my pocket. Then, in an adrenalin flash, I realized I was alone in a place as alien as one of Jupiter’s moons. I batted the ash from my pants and headed down.
Everything went predictably until the low point on the rim. There the mist parted and I glimpsed a blue blob, a solitary climber charging through the sudden glare.
Hey! Hey! I yelled, making sure we wouldn’t pass if the fog closed again. You’re gonna make it!
That’s why we came, ain’t it? Chris said.
Todd’s tucked in like a baby. Don’t worry about Todd.
A few hundred feet lower, the fog dissipated for good, revealing a startling tableaux. Todd lay in a shallow oval in the sharply canted slope, his arm pulled full extension above his head on a taut leash as he gradually slid away from the ice axe left to anchor him.
Todd! Who did this terrible thing to you?
His face lolled, his eyes unfocused and his lips thin purple lines.
My brother! That bastard tied my pack off over there and threw me in this hole. He worried more about my pack than me.
It’s a nice pack. Let’s get you moving.
But standing Todd up just marked the start of our troubles. Our Malibu Beach notch seemed tantalizingly close, but Todd kept stopping, crouching with his knees bent and his back hunched.
Come here, would ya? Hand me the pack and follow the tracks.
I tied his pack off my harness with a length of webbing. My plan was simple. I would drag his pack and stay close enough to shame him off the mountain.
A hearty back clap started him moving, but almost immediately Quasimodo the hunchback returned.
Go, goddammit! I strode forward, but after 10 steps, Todd stopped again.
Why are you standing like that?
I’m too tired to stand up.
Then sit down.
I’ll fall if I sit down.
Too tired to walk but afraid of sliding to oblivion, he had adopted a compromise. This thought possessed a bizarre logic, which didn’t help a bit in getting him home. Bunching his jacket in my fist, I shoved him ahead.
By this point, the themes for our descent had been written. Todd’s core temperature hovered a degree above hypothermia. He couldn’t stand up or sit down. He possessed the IQ of a dairy cow and the petulance of a feverish toddler. At times the pack interrupted his stream of drivel by bounding off uneven patches in the ice and, snapped back by the webbing, rocketing into the backs of my knees, or, once, my temple.
The saving grace was knowing that Mitch awaited us at the notch. He had the rope, Lance Armstrong’s lungs, and experience rescuing the battered shells of mortal humans. When our boots touched the sand, I released Todd’s jacket and hustled to the ice tsunami’s edge. The ice glistened in its perpetual ocean. Mitch wasn’t here.
I sank against a boulder and spat.
Todd. I can’t get you down this thing without the rope. Your idiot brother’s lost in the whiteout, and Mitch has run ahead.
Todd lay spread-eagled on his back. I waited on a polite, collegial answer so typical of him. Something like, There, there, Doug. It’s OK you dragged me up here and killed me. No hard feelings.
But he surprised me. Look who’s here, he exclaimed. It’s Uncle Mitch, come to pay us a visit.
And indeed Mitch waded toward us through yet another hallucinatory pool. He knelt and ran a hand over his sweating face. You know this glacier? The one that’s killed everybody in Mexico? It’s no bigger than a postage stamp. I just walked around the whole thing. Let’s find your useless brother and leave this beast behind.
As if we had miraculously become efficient, all watches synchronized, Chris appeared above, attempting a glissade that he reconsidered after attaining warp speed. He shoved himself up and assumed the plodding pace that, punctuated by time-outs to haul Todd upright, eventually brought us home.
Climbers from Heinrich Harrer to Steve House have spoken in reverent tones about the brotherhood of the rope, but my advice is to stick with metaphorical brothers. Given the stressors of big mountains and altitude, avoid adding the possibility of brutal sibling payback, no matter how justified.
And on the chance this tale of man’s inhumanity has left you despairing about any sort of brotherhood at all, you might try going solo like the Swiss. No axe, no rope; no context. Just a face against the sky. Actually, I’d take the brothers over that.
Doug Emory lives in Tacoma. He has climbed nearly 200 different peaks, including the Cascade volcanoes from Hood to Baker, and half of the Colorado 14ers. He originally wrote this article using pseudonyms for the brothers, but it turned out they want full credit for their cruelty to one another.