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The Importance of Being Strong-Headed: A Pico de Orizaba Expedition

The Importance of Being Strong-Headed: A Pico de Orizaba Expedition

- by Vanessa Chavarriaga


My parents have always called me stubborn, and rightfully so. In Spanish the word for stubborn is cabecidura, which literally translated means strong-headed. I love this translation much more than stubborn. I’m cabecidura because I’m strong; I carry myself up mountains with force and power. I’m cabecidura because I have big dreams and I have to work hard to make them happen. Being cabecidura brought this expedition to life. It gave me the power to create a trip in which I can celebrate two parts of myself that have always been polarized: sport and culture.

Vanessa poses for photo after summiting volcano

In late October, my two worlds came together as a result of some strong-headed planning. With the help of some friends, I successfully planned and executed a trip to Mexico to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, spend quality time with my family and friends, and ski the tallest volcano in Mexico: Pico de Orizaba.

Photo of parade during Dia de los Muertos

This was no small feat for me. Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,491′, significantly higher in elevation than any other place I had ever visited. Not only was I climbing it, but also putting my semi-novice ski mountaineer skills to the test.

The challenge didn’t end there; I planned to bring my community with me. My parents had never done anything like this. They have certainly spent time outside, but it was the first time they had ever been at such high elevations, experienced the feel of a mountain expedition and its logistics, or seen that much gear. Most of my adventures are based in the US and my parents can't come visit because of immigration issues, so they have never seen this part of my life. A large part of this trip to Mexico was being able to include them. Our team consisted of: Sophia, one of my best friends, my mom and dad, Diana and Marypaz, close family friends from Cancún, Estéban, a friend of a friend, and Juliana, a future friend from Ecuador. There were 8 of us total, ages ranging from 25 to 60, abilities ranging from IFMGA Guide to beginner.

Vanessa poses with her parents for a photo

When we arrived in Mexico City, my nerves and lack of sleep were starting to wear me thin. But as soon as I was surrounded with my community, something shifted. I felt a large weight lifted from my shoulders as I realized that I didn’t have to carry everyone and everything. We were a team of 8 wonderful and diversely skilled people. My dad was really good at parking the cars into very tight garages. My mom always made sure to befriend strangers and get local tips for travel. Sophia was uniquely skilled at packing ski bags and oversized luggage into the trunk of the car. These gentle reminders taught me that individualizing an expedition is not only lonely but unsustainable -- we can lead from a community oriented space for a richer experience.

Photo of Vanessa hugging her father

The approach to Pico de Orizaba was a well-rounded adventure. We began this by staying at a beautiful and locally owned hostel run by Orizaba Mountain Guides (OMG). The first time we set our eyes on the volcano was at sunrise on the roof of the hostel. It was a chilly and clear morning, and the pre-trip jitters were high. That sunrise reminded us why we were there. All 8 of us made it up to the roof to share our excitement for what was to come. After a delicious breakfast and large logistics/packing job, we set out for base camp.

Photo of Pico de Orizaba at sunrise

Our shuttle car crawled up a very rugged road to basecamp at 14,000 feet. Once there, we set up our tents and camp. Watching my dad help us set up was one of the highlights of the trip; I could see his childlike joy come out in ways I had not seen in decades. My mom and dad’s time at basecamp ended after a short walk and some snacks. At the last minute, my mom decided to spend the night with us. Sharing a tent with her and being able to go on an acclimatization hike the next day was another special moment. Watching her scramble up a steep and rocky slope at 15,000 feet reminded me of her strength and her ability to try new things with a smile on her face. After these wonderful two days with family and friends, we began to prep for our climb.

Me, Juliana, and Sophia planned to ascend as an independent group. My nerves and insecurities were starting to come out. “What if I’m too slow? What if I have to turn around? What if I’m not strong enough?” These were some of the thoughts racing through my head. This weight was taken off my shoulders by my partners, who responded to these doubts with unwavering support.

Photo of Vanessa and Sofia climbing Pico de Orizaba

The next 12 hours still feel like a dream. Midnight: making coffee. 1am onward: walking, walking, walking. The skis and ski boots on our backs made for a particularly heavy load, and we joined the ant line of climbers ascending at a slow but steady pace. We hit 16,000 feet, and every step from then on was the highest elevation I had ever climbed. Next we hit the glacier: helmets, harnesses, ski boots, and crampons came on. A wave of emotion washed over me as I started climbing the glacier. For the first time, the doubts in my head were replaced by strength. I knew I was going to make it. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was going to make it.

We reached the volcano crater rim minutes before 7am. The next few hours would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. It’s hard to find the words for that sunrise: a mix of deep reds and blues and purples burning a hole through the sky. The golden rays of morning light hit my cheeks as tears of joy were rolling down them. The colors were so intense it almost felt like everything was on fire.

Photo of Vanessa after summiting Pico de Orizaba

We enjoyed the sunshine and stillness on the summit for a while before beginning our descent. After some risk assessment, we decided to descend on foot to a less consequential ski zone. The snow was quite firm for most of the way down. We got on our skis and descended the rest of the glacier with ear-to-ear smiles and joyful cheers. Aside from pure joy, I remember feeling quite out of breath, as I was skiing at 17,000 feet! The rest of the descent on foot was filled with happy exhaustion. I had worked myself about as hard as I could that day.

Photo of Sophia skiing down Pico de Orizaba

Although Pico de Orizaba was a major expedition objective, our trip did not end there. The volcano creates a border between two states in Mexico: Puebla and Veracruz. Over what felt like a lifetime, we developed an intimate relationship with these two beautiful states: swimming in their waters, eating food that tasted exactly like where we were, being invited into many different homes. We were able to partake in Dia de Muertos celebrations and share this joy with entire communities. One of the resounding takeaways was my ability to channel my strength and remember why I do hard things.

Close up photo of a hand holding a skull for Dia de los Muertos

For many of us, being strong-headed is a survival skill. How else would we get by in a world that wasn’t made for us? The most challenging and beautiful part of being strong-headed is not letting it harden you completely. You have to retain softness somewhere, maybe in your heart or your laughter. Maybe in the way you hug your loved ones or the way your calloused hands wrap around masa when making tortillas. And then there are moments that break you wide open. Seeing my best friend share a meal with my parents and carry conversations in Spanish. Watching the sun burn through the sky as it rose at 18,491 feet. Feeling my dad’s excitement and pride as he got a glimpse of my world. Those are the moments we work hard for, and the ones we carry with us through the difficulties.

Photo of Vanessa sitting in tent opening with her parents

Check out this video clip of Vanessa at the top of Pico de Orizaba, and follow her on Instagram @vanessa_chav