“Aye culeros, one of these days I am going to escape from this fucking prison, climb up that mountain, whip out my cock, and PISS on all you fucking beaner assholes!” I pointed to the smoggy outline of Mount Popocatepetl far in the eastern horizon while I barked at them in gutter Mexico City street Spanish. Then I flipped them the bird to show them my abiding friendship and solidarity with them.
“Oh go fuck your momma, gringo — fuckin’ pinche gringo! TU MADRE – QUE CULERO — Mierde de toro! Tu vas a salir de esta pinche carcel unicamente en una caja de madero – QUE PENDEJO!”
We traded insults for a while more. Every day the Mexican prisoners insulted me, and I insulted them back. For years the guards and prisoners here had attacked me with gang beatings, extortion, cattle prods, and forced slave labor. I was no longer the ‘nice’ person that I thought I had been when they arrested me in Mexico.
But now, they no longer attacked me, at least not individually. I had beaten up enough of them badly in violent one-on-one fights so that they finally left me alone. To me, I had beaten them up goodly. Torn ears, smashed faces, dripping blood. It was like that in a Mexican prison.
Oh these were scummy run-of-the-mill prisoners. I was better than them. Just ask me. In Lecumberri, the worst shit-hole prison in North America, prisoners still sought status. Just as people did in garbage dumps, hospices, death row, concentration camps. Everyone had something to prove. I just figured that status – dominance – whatever you call it. It was just a part of the human instincts written in our DNA, like hunger, thirst, and pussy-love. Life was just like that.
On a rare clear-ish day in Mexico City, from the exercise field, I could see Popocatepetl ninety miles to the east. I had a long time to go on my prison sentence, but I couldn’t be sure of exactly how much time. I just knew that I would not make it, physically or psychologically. They would kill me. Or worse yet, I would come out of this prison so fucked up in the head that life wouldn’t be worth living anyhow. But on the exercise field, I could occasionally see that snow-covered peak and dream of climbing to freedom. Only Poncho Villa had ever escaped from Lecumberri, in 1912. No one else was getting out of Lecumberri – unless they did their time, or in a wooden box.
So I escaped from Lecumberri Prison on December 17th, 1975. But that is another story.
What I want to talk about for a bit is dreams. Now, I don’t understand dreams at all. And I don’t think anyone else really does either. I think that we all may have a little part of us that tells us that we are crazy, and that only we have these thoughts. Then along comes a dream to prove to you without a doubt that part of you is truly nuts. How many times have you woken up with a ‘just where the fuck did that dream ever come from anyhow?’ You say you haven’t? Oh come on. Admit it. You have had dreams that just make no sense and do NOT express how you really feel.
Well, when I was a young man in Lecumberri Prison, I had one consistent, recurring dream. That I was free. Surprise surprise. I had somehow magically walked out of the prison and was living quite well back home. My dreams never told me exactly how I had gotten out of the prison, but they sure told me with what my life was outside of it. I was with my family—fishing—camping—hiking—traveling the world. Neat things. I don’t recall ever having a dream in prison about me getting up at six in the morning to work slave labor every day.
And oh yes, there was something else my dreams had in prison. Women. Lots of women. A new one every dream. My my, but I was really a lady’s man in my dreams. They really loved me and found me most attractive. These lovely women seduced me, loved me up, and were always there for me. Anyone with any knowledge of women would have known that this could only happen in dreams.
But in prison you do not have any anchor. Everything is upside down inside-out. Abandon all reference points, all ye that enter here. So I would be in the loving embrace of a woman in Lecumberri when…
“VAMINOS MUCHACHAS A LA LISTA – LA LISTA LA LISTA!!!” The prison guards were running down the cell block at 5:30 am with their billy clubs banging onto the bars, shrieking for everyone to get up NOW, get dressed, and run outside onto the frozen plaza under harsh blue mercury vapor lights in the darkness in be counted. One guy was late stumbling out, and the billy clubs rained down on him. Thuds and screams. LA LISTA LA LISTA LA LISTA!!! Prisoners crashed into each other as they ran from the guards. LA LISTA LA LISTA LA LISTA!!!
So my prison nightmares — with the betrayals, fights, beatings, stabs to my guts, the sordid visions of depravity and disgust, and yes, the murders—the sense that something terrible could happen to me at any moment — my true prison nightmares began the very moment I woke up in prison. “VAMINOS MUCHACHAS A LA LISTA – LA LISTA LA LISTA!!!”
But a funny thing happened to my nightmares after I escaped from Lecumberri. Now, in freedom, a new nightmare began. These were always the same too. In my nightmare, for whatever reason, I had decided to go back to prison and visit some of the other prisoners. I would go to Lecumberri, get a visitors pass, and visit them. But just when I was leaving, a prison guard recognized me. He grabbed me just as I was walking past the final inspection point. GRINGITA! he crooned. I began fighting, but now all of the guards held me and dragged me to the torture chamber — again.
“Dwight Dwight! Wake up! You’re doing it again!” My wife was shaking me in bed. Where am I? Oh, I am here – I am free. I had been shrieking and kicking in bed, waking her up again. It was not fair for her. But no matter what I thought or did, this nightmare came back again, and again, and again. I had difficulty falling asleep after after this dream. Ten years into my freedom and this nightmare haunted me. I did not want to ever acknowledge publicly that ‘something was wrong with me’. I’m a guy. I can deal with it, right? But it did not go away. In my dreams, I was still in prison. And while I was dreaming, it was so real. Something was wrong with me. Oh that is a hard thing to admit. I had to do something about it.
Go face your demons head on, a friend said. Go straight at them. Go back to Mexico, back to Lecumberri Prison. You can’t go back in, because they shut Lecumberri down right after you escaped. But you can at least look at it.
I arrived at the hotel in Mexico City on December 17th, 1986. I had joined a mountain climbing tour with Adventure Travels. We were to climb Iztaccihuatl, Popocatepetl, and Orizaba, the three highest mountains in Mexico. All of them were at least 3000 feet higher than the highest mountains in the continental USA.
I was now Spiro. Spiro Stratigos. It was my nom de guerre for this trip. I had asked my good friend, the real Spiro Stratigos, if I could borrow his ID’s for a few weeks to return to Mexico. He quickly consented. He had just returned from Mexico, and all they had required for entry was a birth certificate or driver’s license. Spiro asked me if I were sure I wanted to go? I told him that, after I escaped, I was still doing my sentence in Mexico. It was just that I was on my own ‘early release’ program. In Mexico, to escape from prison is not in itself a crime, IF you do not damage state property or violate any other laws, such as by using violence against the guards. I had not done any of that, so my escape was, in one sense, a clean and legal escape. My sentence was officially, seven years. I had done over two years of it, and it had been eleven years since I had escaped. So, by Mexican law, I had actually completed my sentence.
But I was ignoring the fact that I had entered Mexico with false identification, and the reality that, in Mexico, they could do whatever they fucking wanted with the law. That meant they could arrest and screw me over, if they felt like it.
Mountain Adventures required that I have a medical certificate stating that I was in vigorous physical condition, able to climb mountains. Spiro got this for me, but I could sense his increasing reluctance. ‘Dwight, what if you get caught? Am I now an accomplice? Have you thought about that?’ No I had not. You know that the DEA is giving Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars for the drug war. What if they have a new, efficient computer system at the border and catch you?’
No way. Now look, if I know anything about Mexico, I know about their cops, their drugs, their laws, and how they do things there. I especially know what they think of Yankees telling them what to do in their own country. And this is what Mexico will actually do: They will have a few show busts, probably against political enemies. The press and the DEA will be there before the busts with their cameras. They will see two immense piles. One pile is of straw that is covered with some marijuana. The other pile is of sugar, covered with some cocaine on the top. The Federales will burn both piles. The press and DEA will take pictures and write their stories, and everyone will go home happy. Then the Federales will take the DEA money, sell the rest of the marijuana and cocaine, buy fast cars, villas, lots of whores, and laugh their asses off all the way to the Panama City banks at those arrogant stupid fucking gringos. They will use the DEA money as seed capital to start their own drug businesses. Count on it. But they will NOT use that money to build an information system to catch me coming back to Mexico.
“Yeah, but just dont get caught in Mexico.” Spiro growled.
I flew first to Cancun, Mexico. The Customs Officers were indifferent to me in my beach tourist gear. Then I took a local flight to the Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City. It was December 17th, 1986, eleven years to the day that I escaped from Mexico. Thirteen years before, I was arrested in this very airport. When I got off the plane, I had a complete panic attack. Somehow the Mexican customs agents knew that I was actually Dwight Worker and they were going to nail my ass for good this time. The very same ones who had arrested me the first time would be waiting. I got off the plane trembling. What the fuck am I doing here? But as I followed the cattle run into the airport, there was no one waiting. I mean, it was a local flight, without customs. I stared all about me. I recognized nothing of the airport from thirteen years ago. Nothing at all.
I took a cab to the hotel where we were all to rendezvous. We mountain climbers sort of all recognized each other quickly in the hotel lobby. For us, it was easy. Rough functional clothes, nothing touristy. So off to the restaurant for beers, intros and stories. I met a serious climber from South Africa, with some good climbs under his belt, a father-son team from Michigan, attorneys, a PhD in radiology, several first time climbers, and Kelly Jones, a woman in her mid 30′s who introduced herself as an actress from Hollywood.
Kelly sure looked the part. Long to the point of gaunt, and fine-looking. A delicately featured face with a perky Katherine Hepburn nose, and bit of an eastern accent, maybe British, but most likely, theatrical. Later, through her cigarette smoke, I saw the makeup covering the wrinkles on the corners of her eyes. My first thought was, how can a smoker be serious about climbing peaks over 17,000 feet? But my second thought, which soon became my first, was wow she was hot. Kelly spoke like an actress as well. At the dining table, the women in the group quickly gathered around Kelly. She told them of roles she had had in the soaps, sit coms, and other TV and Hollywood movies. I had heard of none of these programs, but apparently some of the other women in the group had. I was sitting to the edge of Kelly’s circle, so I could not help but hear. I said nothing. Kelly was holding court.
Kelly caught my eye. She asked me if I had seen that episode? No, I didn’t. I couldn’t have seen it, because I have never had a television in my adult life. I haven’t lived in a home with one either. More stares and silence. I had just shit in the punchbowl.
So for the rest of the evening I talked with the guys about mountains, outdoor adventures, and the beautiful wild planet, what’s left of it anyhow. I listened to their stories of climbs in the Himalayas and Andes, successes and failures. I was getting excited.
Next morning early we set out to climb Iztaccihuatl. At 17,500 feet it is a strenuous, but not a technical climb. On day one we climbed from 9,000 feet to 14, 000 feet. I slept fitfully in a tent. And then we roped together for the summit. There was one difficult ice ridge we had rope up for before we crossed it. One man on the line kept falling, slowing our pace. At the next solid footing, he unhooked from us and said he would wait for us on the way down.
At the summit, we found ourselves in a blizzard. Zero visibility. We were standing in a rapidly moving cloud of ice and sleet. It was a complete whiteout. We had to take the word of our guides that this was as far as we could climb. Our world was reduced to 50 feet of visibility. On the descent, it would be very easy to take the wrong turn and walk straight off a ledge. This was one reason why we had good guides.
The head mountain guide was Ricardo Torres Nava. He was really good. Patient, smart, soft spoken, and a very strong climber. He led us through the snow and ice climbing class. Roping, ice wall techniques, and proper arrest moves with the ice pick and crampons. Years later, Ricardo would become the first Latin American to climb Mt. Everest, Then he would climb the seven summits, the seven highest mountains on the seven continents. I was not surprised when I heard that Ricardo had done it.
We had planned to party that night, but most of us were simply too tired for anything but crash out. We needed our rest for the next climbs.
Then we were off to Popocatepetl. This was the mountain I had stared at from Lecumberri Prison for years. At 17,900 feet, Popo was the second highest mountain in Mexico, and the 4th highest one in North America. We stayed in an unheated mountain lodge that night on Popo at about 12,500 feet altitude. We were to leave at 1 am to make a 5400 foot climb. The slopes would be frozen at that time, with much less chance for slippage and avalanche.
But when they woke me up, I was dog sick. A head-throbbing, see-the world through a tunnel, miserable virus with chills and fever. I was pissed at myself. I hardly ever got sick. I force-fed myself hot soup and tea, packed up with the group, and we set off in darkness up the trail. For the first 1500 feet, we hiked a trail and climbed thru rocks. No need for crampons or ropes yet. With our headlamps on, we followed the black volcanic cinder trail to its end. Then we picked our way individually over large volcanic rocks to the edge of the glacier. I vomited a few times along the way. I forced myself to drink more liquids, but holding them down was another thing.
I sat down at the edge of the glacier and attached the crampons onto my climbing boots. Our guide Enrique came to rope us together in groups of five. As he was doing it, I vomited again. Altitude sickness? He asked. We are just at 4,500 meters. No. Tengo grippe. I am sick. He conferred with Ricardo. Ricardo asked me if I thought I could keep up the group. If I could not, that would not be fair to the group. I surely did not want to be the weak man on the line, with them waiting for me, and me being the cause for their not summiting. I unhooked myself and began hiking back to the lodge.
In the east, I could see the beginnings of sunrise. I thought of my promise that I had made to the Mexican prisoners in Lecumberri and I felt major disappointment. Then I hiked down 1500 feet. When I entered the lodge, I saw a group of four young Mexican climbers preparing to leave for the climb. They were clearly leaving late. One look at them told me that they were amateurs. Their gear was improvised. I saw no rope. Only two had ice picks. Their jackets were just windbreakers. One of them came up to me and pointed at the crampons I was carrying.
Prestame los. (Loan me your crampons)
What? He wanted me to loan him—a complete stranger—my crampons. If I didn’t get them back, that would be the end of my climbing in Mexico.
“Si. Lo necessito (I need them). I promise I will return them when I come down.” His voice was loud and insistent. Aggressive to the point of rude. He reminded me of all too many Mexican prisoners I had done time with in Lecumberri. .
“NO!” I shouted. There was no fucking way I was going to loan them to him. Even if he meant to return them, I had no idea when we would leave, or when he would come down from the mountain. Crampons in Mexico were worth a lot of money to the right person, and what were these guys doing trying to climb a mountain that has 4000 feet of ice at the top without crampons and ice picks?
He stepped one pace closer to me. “PRESTAME LOS!” (LOAN THEM TO ME!).
This asshole wouldn’t let up. So I stepped into his face and burst into a loud string of my foulest Mexico City street Spanish, learned straight from Lecumberri Prison, telling him to get the fuck out of my face right now and beat it. Everyone in the lodge turned to stare at me. The four guys were clearly shocked at not just the words I had said, but my accent. I sounded like a street tough, one of them. The others told him to forget it, and they left.
I grabbed my gear, and went to my lodge room. I crawled into my sleeping bag, and passed out into a deep, shivering sleep. I would not be pissing on the Mexicans in Lecumberri from the top of Popocatepetl today. I was deeply disappointed at myself. Another promise left undone. No triumphant return to Mexico for me.
In the afternoon our group returned from Popocatepetl. From my sickness, I got up and greeted them. They had made it to the top. I felt even worse. That’s where I wanted to be, at the top of Popo. I listened to them describe the climb. Several others had dropped out on the way and waited to come down. But Kelly Jones, the cigarette-smoking actress, had led them straight to the top. I did not expect that. So much for driving with your emergency brakes on.
The group decided to rest for the afternoon, and then go to dinner and party. I crashed out again, in the early afternoon. Something I could never do unless I was sick. Much later there was a pounding on my door. “Hey Spiro, we’re going to dinner now. You coming?”
I stumbled down to the restaurant. I sat with a happy group of, for the most part, successful climbers. But I could not check off ‘climb Popocatepetl’ from my list of ‘things to do before I die’. I forced myself to eat a Mexican dinner. I needed the strength for our next climb, Orizaba. I listened to their stories of the climb.
Kelly turned to me. Did you hear what happened on the way down? No. A Mexican guy slipped on the ice and fell to his death. I didn’t see it myself, but others did. It was really late, and they were still coming up while we were coming down.
Allen, the tall South African, said he saw the fall. It was a slide, not a fall. The man hit the ice on his back and just took off sliding and bouncing down the 40 degree ice slope. He slid faster and faster, doing cartwheels too. There was nothing on the ice slope to stop him. The guy must have slid 400 meters before he smacked hard against a rock outcrop. He was probably unconscious before he hit the rocks. They brought his body down this afternoon. They said he was climbing without ropes, icepick, crampons, nothing.
I sat there staring into my hot menudo soup. Large pitchers of of Corona beer arrived at the table. Everyone else was hitting it hard. I excused myself as sick, mumbling something about having to rest up for the next and last climb, Orizaba. I climbed up to my lodge room, locked it, and crawled into the protective warmth of my sleeping bag. Well, I wondered if the dead guy was the same one who had demanded my crampons. I thought about it. I was rich enough to afford crampons, and he was not. Life is like that. I still wouldn’t have loaned my crampons to him. I did not feel complicit. You don’t show up for climbs completely unequipped and then expect to scrounge for what you need. Some people survive, and others don’t. I should know something about that.
Much later that night I heard shouting in the hallway. It was a woman’s voice, loud and drunk. Very very drunk. “WHAT THE FUCKS WRONG WITH YOU GUYS? I COME DOWN HERE AND CLIMB TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAINS WITH YOU AND I DONT GET LAID! WHATSAMATTER NO ONE MAN ENOUGH? FUCKING WIMPS. WHAT THE FUCKS A MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? FUCK YOU!” She went on and on, repetitive and slurred. It was one of the women in our climbing group. I wasn’t sure which one. I heard a door open, some hurried conversation, and the door slam shut.
The next day was the December 23, the day before Christmas Eve. We had a day off for rest and recovery, visiting, shopping, whatever. I went with a few others visiting the city of Pueblo. That evening we all got together for dinner. Someone suggested that we all draw names from a hat, for Christmas gifts. Now me, I couldn’t give a shit about Christmas. Except for the kids, I have always felt Fuck Christmas. Still I’d have to go along with present stuff, no matter how gift-impaired I was. So I interrupted my beer-drinking, wrote my name down on a slip of paper and threw it into the hat. Kelly, our newly self-appointed social co-ordinator, gathered the names up. Then we drew names from the hat. You know the drill.
Another beer later and Kelly announced that we had a problem. Someone drew a name of someone who is clearly not in our group. So who is this ‘Dwight Worker’ anyhow?
I felt the cold terror of my world folding in on me. My nightmare becoming a day-mare again. I sat there still, awaiting discovery. You asshole Dwight. You wrote your REAL fucking name on the slip. Your real fucking name. You dumbfuck. You DUMB-DUMB FUCK!
“Dwight Worker?” Enrique, the assistant guide, spoke up. “Hey, wasn’t he that guy who escaped from Lecumberri way back? I remember seeing a movie about it. Yeah, that was his name.”
My heart was pounding. In Enrique’s hand was my red Swiss army knife. He had asked to borrow it to cut some cheese. I had long ago engraved my name, Dwight Worker, onto that knife, in case someone ever took it and said it was theirs. You can bet your sweet ass I hadn’t engraved Spiro Stratigos on it. If Enrique saw my name, oh fuck, I would have to leave for the border right now. End of fucking issue. You dumb fuck Dwight. I mean, you dumb fuck Spiro. You dumb dumb fuck.
I put down my beer. Look, I said, let’s just all put our names in the hat again, and no one put in a false name. Come on, let’s just do it again. There were a few grumbles, and we repeated ourselves. I distinctly printed out SPIRO STRATIGOS and tossed it in. I awaited the second draw. Now everyone had a ‘real’ name. But would anyone notice that someone had substituted ‘Spiro Stratigos’ for ‘Dwight Worker’? No one said anything. My heart was still pounding.
Oh, and Enrique, are you done with my knife? I need it for a moment. He handed it back to me, and I quickly put it back into its case. No one else would be borrowing it on this trip. Then I walked outside down the streets of Pueblo, looking for the nearest cantina I could find.
We hit the slopes of Orizaba on the next afternoon. At 18,850 feet, it is the highest mountain in Mexico, and the third-highest in North America. It is a dormant conical volcano crater. In the winter, the top 5000 feet is covered with snow and ice. We all rode in the back of an open flat bed truck to San Miguel, the last town on the mountain. We needed bandannas to keep the volcanic ash out of our lungs. In San Miguel, we stopped to transfer to 4-wheel drive vehicles. They would transport us to near the base camp. When we got out of the flatbed truck, several men came up to us carrying a bundle wrapped in blankets. One of the men said in Spanish that it was the body of an Austrian mountain climber who had fallen to his death on Orizaba the day before. Ohhh? I looked through the blankets and saw part of the man’s face. One side was grotesquely bashed in, blue, red and purple, with cuts and scabbing all over it. We watched them load the body. It was clearly stiff. One of the Mexicans explained that he was not roped on to anyone. A guy in the group got out his camera. One of the Mexicans pushed in camera down. “NO! Show respect for the dead.” Everyone withdrew their cameras, including me. So we weren’t playing on this mountain either.
We bounced our way along a goat path to about 13,000 feet. Then everyone got out and hiked about a mile and climbed another 1000 feet to the base camp. We had a clear, cold afternoon, well above the tree line, with some snow between the large basalt rocks. In front of our rock shelter was a large boulder. On it, Ricardo demonstrated to us various technical rock-climbing moves. I was not a rock climber, and Orizaba was not a technical or a rock climb. It was a long glacier ice walk up a steep slope. But not a walk in the ice park, as that Austrian had discovered.
Kelly and I hiked along a trail. In the distance we watched a smallish deer run past us. It was not like any deer I knew. I was feeling somewhat better, but my stomach and guts were still queasy. As we were returning to the shelter, three Mexican men rapidly approached us. As they got closer, I saw that they all had rifles. Oh fuck. Camp robbers! This happens on isolated climbs in the third world. I told Kelly we had to run for it.
“But they’ve got guns!”
“Yeah! That’s why we’re running!”
From a distance, one of them shouted to me in Spanish “Did you see a deer running by here?” Hunters, I translated to Kelly. They’re looking for that deer. Tell them we didn’t see it, Kelly says. I shouted back to them that yes, I had just seen the deer. It was running that way. I pointed down the slope. They came closer to us. They were a surly lot. With their three rifles, they were the bosses here. I started to see armed guards on prison walls. They had pressed my panic button. I spoke to them in rapid fire slang Spanish, describing the direction of the deer. Are you sure? Yes. We saw them with our own eyes. They took off following the deer in the wrong direction.
“Cool,” Kelly said. “I don’t speak Spanish, but I know what you said. I didn’t even think to give them to wrong directions. Will they be pissed off at you!”
“Yeah, but we’ll be out of here by then, and they won’t be coming up the mountain to get me.”
As Kelly and I hiked back to the shelter over some steep rocks, she held my arm for balance and did not release it when she no longer needed me. “After we do this climb, let’s hit the town together, you and I, what do you say?”
“Wow did I get drunk the other night,” she said. “Really really drunk. One of the girls had to help me to bed, and I don’t even know who. I guess I was really making a commotion, but I don’t remember. So we’re going out tomorrow night, right?”
I climbed out of my tent on Orizaba at 14,000 feet around midnight to whiz. The night wind snapped our tents as it blew crisp and cold. From our campsite on the mountain side, I saw not one man-made light, nor any reflection of them in the distance. There are not many places left like this on the planet. But from mountain tops, it is the stars that amaze me every time. Without the moon or Venus, you can fifty times as many stars. And the higher you go in the mountains at night, the more you will see. The background was so loaded with stars that I had trouble recognizing the standard constellations. There were now simply too many bright stars between the constellation stars. The constellations were lost in a sea of stars.
I returned to the shelter and found Ricardo and Enrique already up. “Time to go.” Enrique handed me a tin of hot broth and some oatmeal. I forced it down. The others were getting up. I checked my clothing. Against my body, I had polypropylene. It insulated well while wicking moisture away from my body. Over the polypropylene I wore a set of thin wool pants. Like polypropylene, wool also insulated when wet. And finally, I wore a gore-tex over suit. The pants were bibs and the jacket had an insulated hood. I wore a ski mask that covered everything except my eyes, nostrils, and mouth. I put my headlight on and joined a line with four others. There were three groups of five each. Being tied together keeps you honest. No one wants to be the weak link. So you pace yourself steadily, a deep breath for each step, and do not start too fast. You will have plenty of time to get tired later.
I am not a great climber. I have never been over 21,000 feet. Years ago I gave up on my fantasies of climbing K2 or any other of the 8000 meter mountains. Maybe I just did not have it in me, but I still enjoyed mountain climbing as much as anyone else.
I long ago learned that the worst part of having to do something painful and difficult is the waiting for it to begin. This has included marathons, cross-country cycling, fights, you name it. For once it begins, you are too wrapped up in it to worry about it. For me, mountain-climbing falls into this category.
In the cold windy silence of the mountain, without your headlight on, you can see ten thousand stars. But with your headlight on, all you can see is the trail a few feet in front of you. Your life exists from step to step. You make sure not to call for a break or a rest, but you are grateful when someone else does. You force yourself to drink water. You do not think that you are thirsty while you are climbing, but you are rapidly dehydrating yourself simply by breathing the dry cold mountain air. I had three liters of water inside my gore-tex over-suit. I drank from them whenever there was a pause in the line.
We continued climbing silently, one step, then another, leaning on the ice pick and pushing off. This was the grind part of climbing. No matter what you did, it was going to take a certain amount of time and energy. Part of it was simply the physics of lifting a certain amount of mass to a certain height, plus all the resistance of snow and friction. You just did it one step at a time. You existed only for your next step.
About half way up we could see the beginnings of dawn over the Gulf of Mexico. Orizaba slowly began to reveal itself. The grays were turning to dusty browns, interrupted by green clumps of forest. I saw nothing man-made except for a road in the distance. To either side I saw the outlines of rock shoulders poking through the icecap. Ahead I just saw ice, ice and more ice. I had learned from previous climbs to never think that just beyond the next crest of ice is the summit. The summit is never there until you have just about given up on her. This is the mountain climber’s equivalent of ‘are we there yet?’ No you are not. It is always further than you think, another ridge, another crest, another slope. So don’t even think about it and just keep climbing breathing, climbing breathing climbing breathing. That is your only reality.
As soon as we had the sun shining directly on us, we got hot. I stripped off a layer and clothes, smeared sun cream over my face, and got out the sun goggles. Without the goggles, you would be sun-blinded from the reflection off the snow. I glanced behind me. We had come a good distance. Enrique said we were over half way up and on schedule. I forced the second liter of water down. I was feeling cramps in my abdomen. Real pain and discomfort. Does this happen at attitude? I was not sure.
Then back to climbing and we were going slower now. We were tired and actually getting hot. I started to pause and slow down the line. Kelly pulled on my line. That she could smoke and climb like this amazed me. Finally, at around 11 am, we got to the volcano cone of Orizaba. Nine of the fourteen of us had made it. Ricardo said that someone had fallen on the last line and was hurt. That whole line had to stop their ascent. I had just found out.
I sat on the edge of the volcano cone and looked into it. Several hundred feet down, I saw the outline of what I thought to be a man, wearing a blue outfit. I asked Ricardo about it. He said that yes, it was the body of the Canadian climber who had fallen into the crater 11 years ago. And he is still there? Yes. The sulfur dioxide fumes are so strong that anyone descending into the crater to get him would quickly die. So he stays there, like a fossil, preserved in the anaerobic fumes.
I laid down on my back. For the first time since we had departed last night, there was level ground. I was so tired that I could have fallen to sleep. I could have frozen solid and not minded it. Kelly shouted “Get over here Spiro!” I looked over from my reverie. The other climbers were all posing for photos, ice picks in air, and they wanted me with them. I slowly stood up.
And then I felt the rumble. Deep down within my bowels, I felt a bubbling, gurgling, that got more and more intense. I actually heard it. And then the pressure became unbearable. It was Montezuma’s revenge, and a terrible case of it. With the sickness, I had not had a bowel movement in days. It was now time, and quickly too, or I was going to crap my pants. I looked around for a place to ‘go’. I was standing on about the only level place there was. Five feet to the south and I was falling into the crater. Ten feet in the other way and I was sliding down a 40 degree slope. I had no choice. Quickly I took off my gore-tex jacket, undid the shoulder straps to my bib, dropped my oversuit, pulled down my woolen pants, and then dropped my polypropylene long johns. Just in time too. And then the overwhelming pressure did the rest.
Terrible sounds came from behind me. A wet cowpie spread between my squatting legs, freezing as soon as it hit the ice. But the strong mountain gusts whipped some of it into the air, toward the crater, and onto my over-suit. The cramps were unbearable, like contractions. I had no control over them at all. It was like I was in labor, giving birth to a growing disgusting shit pie that was spreading between my feet as I squatted.
I looked up. Some climbers were looking at me. More sounds. I saw their grimaces. Spiro, couldnt you, uhhh… Another one. There seemed to be no end to my diarrhea. I cant help it! I’m sick. I struggled.
“Time to be going down now. A storm is setting in,” Ricardo announced. He looked at me. “You ready?” More splatter against my boots. My diarrhea pie was now thick, running down the slope, frozen at the edges, but steaming in the middle. Sort of like this fucking volcano I was now squatting on.
Finally, after the other climbers had left, I felt the cramping subsiding. I had handicapped my progress up the mountain by carrying the weight of all that shit up to the top.
“Spiro, we cant wait forever,” Enrique said. “We have to go before the storms come in.”
I think what Enrique was really saying was that if I had any more shitting to do, it would be with my pants up. A pleasant thought for my descent. I nodded to him and pulled up my clothes.
We descended the mountain rapidly. I was rhythmically leaving a trail of methane behind me in metronomic regularity. Sounded like I had a tuba up my ass. Enrique was gracious enough not to comment. I envisioned a rapidly melting glacier behind us, washing us down the slopes to our doom.
Enrique and I were the last to get to the bus. I sat in the very back, away from everyone. We had a long ride back to the hotel. I rushed to my room, stripped naked, and bathed for a long time in a cold shower. Then I soaked and re-soaked and re-re-soaked all of my clothes. I decided that I would not be going out with the group tonight for any celebrating. I felt totally exhausted and drained, literally. I was shivering as I crawled into my sleeping bag.
We celebrated New Years Eve in Mexico City. A few in the group got pick-pocketed. Surprise surprise. Someone had even tried to cut open my hip pack. Amazing, because I had guarded it so well. But I lost nothing. We had a few fun days, and said our goodbyes at the hotel. This had been a pretty good group of climbers.
In the months to follow, I gradually realized that my nightmares of Mexico had vanished. Realizations of non-events come slowly. The absence of things isn’t as obvious as their sudden appearance. But, in my dreams, I no longer went back to Lecumberri Prison. And I slept better because of it.
Later, many people would tell me that I was insane to have returned to Mexico. I did not argue with them. But we sometimes do risky things in life. If we succeed, it can make for a good memory or story. But if we fail, it is suddenly, obviously stupid to everyone. And occasionally, we might end up dead because of it.
I remembered my promise to the prisoners of Lecumberri. I had not pissed on them. But on the top of Orizaba, the summit of Mexico, there would be, for centuries to come, my frozen dung pile. So maybe I hadn’t pissed on all of those assholes, but I had shit on them instead.