18,880 feet 5,754 meters
Orizaba is the highest in Mexico and 3rd highest peak in North America at 18,880 foot, 5754 meter. But various sources quote the altitude somewhere between 18,400 and 18,900. The one week expedition was my first climb in Mexico.
I have never looked past a current climb towards the next one since I focus all my energy on the task at hand. However, Orizaba was the last climb in my Memories are Everything®: The Road Back to Mt. Everest journey before Everest and the temptation was great!
My Colorado 14er climbing partners Patrick and Robert plus another friend Scott started planning the climb almost a year ago. It was to be a follow on to our successful Rainier 9 climb of 2004 and a training opportunity for me and a personal altitude record for the others.
We all arrived in Mexico City in late January 2008 and met Pete, a UK climber, and Dave Elmore and Cathy from Mountain Professionals (note: They are no longer operating as the same company as of 2009, so my comments no longer apply and I cannot endorse them in any manner) . Another team from Australia and South Africa were leveraging our logistics. Soon our group of 15 climbers was on a large bus for the rural town of Tlachichuca.
The 3 hour ride went quick with nice views of Popocatepel (17,887’) and Iztaccihuatl (17,342’) – two other Mexican volcanoes. We had a better view on the return including seeing the steam rising from the active Popo!
Senior Reyes is a local surgeon and also runs a climber hostel in town. He was our host for several nights during the trip. His neat compound is an old soap factory run by his Father and Grandfathers. His staff served us tasty meals and the bunk house was clean and comfortable.
The town of Tlachichuca is small. We were amazed at how noisy it was into the early hours of the morning. The local “Artisan’s Market” was disappointing at best. We also found the locals wary and not very open to foreigners. With all the tension between Mexico and the US these days, I guess I understand.Reye’s friendly team provided transportation of climbers and gear to the Piedra Grande Hut at 13,972’. We took 1950 vintage Dodge 4x4s for several hours on incredibly dusty roads. Sharing the dirt roads with sheep and goats we could see Orizaba for long time.
I had read the hut was filthy and quite uncomfortable. However, I found it better than the RMI hut on Rainier. Yes it was made of stone walls and had nothing more than plywood for the platform style beds but the hut was clean It could sleep about 60 people on three levels. Like all huts, it was noisy at night. The outside area was a problem especially the toilet. It was placed on a raised platform with three sparse walls and no door. The issue was more sanitation than privacy.
We all settled in for two nights of acclimatization. This was important given we had experienced an altitude gain of over 6,000’ in a few hours. Everyone felt good except for Patrick who had a raging headache. This was not all that unusual given the altitude jump and a member of the South African team also felt bad and in fact vomited throughout the night.The next day we made a carry of tents and gear to the High camp at 15,200’. This was a 1,000’ gain from the hut and took about an hour. The trail was well worn and obvious. We did dodge a small rock fall near the camp! The views were impressive from this camp. We took advantage of some tent spots already built within rock walls. But we still made sure the guy lines were strongly secured to large rocks in case of high winds. That night the winds emerged after several calm days. We were back in the hut but the night was long and nosy with the strong winds buffeting the rock hut. I wondered what the climb would be like if this continued.
The following day we moved to High camp with the plan to go for the summit early the next morning. Now three to a tent, we had an early dinner of roman noodles and tried to get some rest at an early 7:00 PM.
Rising at 1:00AM we quickly got ready with our layers, crampons, ice axes and a little food and water. We hoped to reach the glacier about dawn and summit a couple of hours later. Thankfully the strong winds had calmed down a bit however they were still blowing steadily around 10 m.p.h.Patrick told me his headache had returned and he had a fitful night so he was not going to go higher. I was deeply disappointed for my best climbing friend. He was the driving force behind this climb and I had hoped to celebrate the summit together. I tried to talk him into trying but his mind was made up. I have been in his situation before and had to pause to let it sink in that he was not going to go higher. While disappointed, I respected his decision and left him at High camp.
The route rises from High camp through a rocky section named the Labyrinth. This area is somewhat famous on Orizaba climbs for being challenging to navigate with many trails, rocky sections and snow troughs. We experienced one short section of steep class four scrambling but nothing serious at all. We had our crampons on at this altitude of 16,300’.We arrived at the glacier’s edge and roped up. I think this was good given the experience of our team but overall it was not necessary. I never saw any crevasses. Entering hour three of our climb, it was dark at 4:00 AM. We steadily climbed the ever steeping slopes of Pico de Orizaba. The angle went from a gentle 10 degrees to 45 to near 50 as we approached the caldera rim. The winds also picked up as we got higher and sunrise approached. Finally the air temperature hovered just below 20F thus the wind chill was below 0F.
After three hours on the Jampa Glacier and five since we left High camp we reached the crater edge. Just in time to see the sun peek above the eastern horizon. It was a spectacular site! We took some pictures and enjoyed watching the shadow of Orizaba develop on the western plains of the Mexican plains. Also an amazing site!
The true summit was just a few minutes higher so we made the short trek higher only to be belted by high winds. The summit metal cross had been crushed by the winds and was in a heap. The caldera of the volcano was one for the most impressive site I have ever seen on a mountain summit. It was deep with tall jagged walls. There was a small emerald lake on the floor. With the soft light of the morning light, it was an inspirational sight.I posted an audio dispatch via the Iridium satellite phone for the website and called Cathy. It was cold. We left soon and made the descent quickly in the hard packed snow. We arrived back at High camp, packed up and arrived at the hut a few hours after the summit. Sr. Reyes’ drivers met us that afternoon and we spent the night back in Tlachichuca. A quick end!
Click here for videos of the climb.