At 3 p.m. October 19, Roberto David Barrios Alamillo and his wife Rut Castro Medina arrived to get a few hours sleep at a shelter that, at 4,300 meters (14,107 feet) altitude, is the staging ground for those hardy souls preparing to climb the northwest slope of Pico de Orizaba, which towers at 5,636 meters.
The couple, both medical doctors who live and work in the small city of Orizaba, Veracruz, only about 30 kilometers from Citlaltépetl or Iztactépetl, as the mountain is called in current and classical Nahuatl, have rarely been far from the shadow of the peak named after their hometown. Pico de Orizaba is even clearly visible from ships arriving at the port of Veracruz, about 100 kilometers east, as the crow flies, of the mountain.
And even though Beto Barrios and Rut Castro are avid runners, they had never taken on Pico de Orizaba until that weekend. Their valley city of Orizaba sits at 1,200 meters (a bit lower than Guadalajara at 1,566), but Barrios said he was still surprised that he began having symptoms of altitude sickness when he arrived at the camp. And they only got worse when, after six hours of sleep, he and Castro and two other friends, one of whom functioned as the guide for their group, awakened at midnight and set off for the peak at 1 a.m. They chose this hour because their guide knew that the ascent takes 10 hours, and that at noon, the weather at the peak was sure to turn ugly, with rain and fog.