* SUMMIT ELEVATION: 18,700 feet
* TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 4,700 feet
* DURATION: Nine days
* SNAPSHOT: A moderate glacier walk-up with serious altitude
IT'S NOW TIME to see whether you can hold it together at mind-numbing, lung-crushing altitude, and Mexico's El Pico de Orizaba, the third-highest peak in North America, is the perfect laboratory. Although the low-angle slopes of Orizaba may seem like a stroll compared with Rainier and Shasta, it's a crucial step toward reaching more ambitious goals like Mount McKinley. "Orizaba gives climbers a feel for altitude and ensures they have their skills down before going higher," says Phil Ershler, a partner in the Ashford, WashingtonÐbased International Mountain Guides who regularly ventures to the volcano during winter to prepare clients for the Northern Hemisphere's spring and summer climbing season. If you find that you thrive at altitudeyou're only mildly nauseated, and over-the-counter medication quells your headachefeel confident as you head to higher ground. If you're not as fortunate, keep chugging water, breathe five times with each step, and be sure to mutter a heartfelt "gracias" when you top out.
** The Route
A long ride from Mexico City deposits you at the Piedra Grande Hut, located at 14,000 feet and less than five grand from Orizaba's summit. Settle in for three days and nights of acclimatization, psyching up for the 12-hour round-trip summit day. From the hut, hike up through the barren moonscape of the lower mountain, past ancient aqueducts and cliff bands. At the head of the GLACIAR DE JAMAPA ROUTE (16,000 feet), you'll don crampons, rope up, and begin the forced march to the top along an icy slope marked by the occasional 35-degree step. The highest point along a wide volcano crater is marked by a weather-beaten cross. If you can ignore the blood pounding in your temples, you'll enjoy views all the way to the Pacific and the knowledge that you're within 2,000 vertical feet of your ultimate goal: the top of McKinley.
GUIDE International Mountain Guides travels to Orizaba in November and February for altitude training before the climbing season up north begins and to teach their strategies for success at high elevation: rest stepping, pressure breathing, and a gallon of liquids a day, all of which will help you avoid scourges like cerebral and pulmonary edema, acute mountain sickness, frostbite, and hypothermia. As part of the weeklong trip, you'll warm up on nearby Ixtaccihuatl (17,338 feet) before heading off to Orizaba. ($2,200, airfare to Mexico City not included; 360-569-2609, www.mountainguides.com)
Pull on OUTDOOR RESEARCH's CROCODILE GAITERS ($64) to seal out snow and prevent your crampons from snagging a pant leg. It's hard to beat OR's PRO ICE MITTS for fending off frostbite. The nylon shell with removable pile liner adapts easily to varied conditions. ($140; 888-467-4327, www.orgear.com) Worried about a section of bulletproof ice on Orizaba? Set a running belay with a BLACK DIAMOND TURBO ICE SCREW, then clip in and proceed with confidence. ($40; 801-278-5533, www.blackdiamondequipment.com)