Orizaba FAQ
18,880 feet 5,754 meters
Orizaba is a popular climb for those wanting to test themselves at higher altitude. It is often a step before attempting higher and more difficult climbs such as Denali or Aconcagua. I summited it on January 26, 2008 one of my Memories are Everything®: The Road Back to Mt. Everest expeditions. I am asked many questions especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.

About Orizaba Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Orizaba

Q: Where is Orizaba?
A: Orizaba is located in Mexico near the small town of Tlachichuca. It is the highest mountain in Mexico at 18,880 but the exact altitude is an ongoing debate ranging from 18,400' to 18,900'. However it is the 3rd highest mountain in North America after Denali and Mt. Logan in Canada. Most climbers fly into Mexico CIty but some use the airports at Puebla or Veracruz. Almost everyone then takes a bus or a cab to Tlachichuca.

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: The climbing season is best from November through March. However, the weather can be cold and extremely windy anytime.

Camp 1 Q: I read that Orizaba is an easy climb, really just a high-altitude trek. How hard is it?
A: If you are in good shape, it can be "easy" on a good weather day and on the normal route. It does stress you as you near the summit due to the altitude and anyone is susceptible to Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). I would emphasize that you get in good shape before attempting Orizaba since it can be a long physical summit day.

Q: How does Orizaba compare with Denali or Aconcagua?
A: Orizaba is a quick climb - maybe a week at most with some people completing it in 3 or 4 days. There is usually only one tent camp at 15,300' above the Piedra Grande Hut at 13,972’ so you are not carrying heavy loads for days or weeks on end The summit push is a 12 hour day - not too long by big mountain standards.

Q: Is an Orizaba climb dangerous?
A: Orizaba is a relatively safe climb by the Jampa Glacier normal route. Usually, but not always, there are a few small crevasses and the avalanche danger is minimal. There is ice on the summit climb making the steep summit slopes slippery thus requires crampons, ice axe and experience with self arresting a fall. Three people died in a rope fall in 2000, another four in 2007 and two in 2012. There is no organized rescue process and no helicopters so if you get in trouble you are pretty much on your own. Sr. Reyes in Tlachichuca in trying to provide some kind of medical and/or rescue service but it was not available as of 2008 to my knowledge.

Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: There are no central statistics but local guides estimate about 2,000 climbers make a summit attempt each year with an estimated 50% success rate. It is estimated at around 60 people have died climbing Orizaba. Since it is only 60 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Orizaba gets hits with high winds and storms.

Training, Gear & Communication

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I mostly ran for aerobic conditioning and lifted weights. Also I climbed my local 14,000 mountains to get "real-world" miles underneath me with a 30lb pack. As a note, I did not train quite as hard for Orizaba since I had summited Aconcagua a few weeks earlier.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes! Anytime you are above 8,000' you can experience problems. Orizaba is a serious high altitude mountain. Even though the normal Jamapa Glacier route is not technically difficult, the altitude takes it toll on climbers each year thus the 50% success rate. We had one member who had severe headaches from 14,000' up that stopped his summit attempt.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

Time and a measured rate of ascent. The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. A friend used this system prior to an Aconcagua and Lhotse climb with great success. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Aconcagua. Lot's of layers. Since I was climbing on a glacier in a rope team, my personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. I use a 3 layer system: base, warmth and wind/cold. See my gear page for a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2013. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Orizaba?
A: Since we took a 4WD to the Hut at 14,000' I was not worried about weight. I went in January, mid season, so it was warm. I brought my 0F degree sleeping bag and was just fine, especially with three people in a tent at High camp or in the hut. I used a layering approach of my wool long underwear and fleece mid layer. I used my Feathered Friends Down Jacket and was glad I had it on the very cold and windy summit. I used my Koflach Artic Expe' double plastic boots with two pairs of wool socks.

Q: Was there web site coverage?
A: I posted dispatches on this site at Orizaba Dispatches using a satellite phone.

Q: How did the Sat Phones work?
A: I used an Iridium model in 2008. It had mixed performances but was able to post voice dispatches. Some of the route is in deep valleys. Sat phones require line of site so it is difficult to get a strong signal that lasts. Also Iridium uses satellites that are in constant motion so as you gain a signal then lose it the signal is supposed to be transferred automatically to the next satellite. The system works great at the High Camp or on the summit since you have a clear view of the sky but not in low valleys. In 2008 cell phones did not work. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.

Expedition Basics:

Q: Which routes are most popular?
A: The normal route is up the Jamapa Glacier. A more technical route is the Serpents Head on the west side. It has several pitches of ice climbing and is not well known. Two shorter but steeper routes are on the south side: Ruta Sur and the Ruta Directa-Espinazo. These avoid glacier climbing but can have snow on them thus still requiring crampons, etc. These alternative route are more difficult logistically but offer more solitude.

Q: How long does a climb usually take?
A: My entire trips took about 7 days but could have easily been 5 or 6. 1 day to travel to Mexico from the US including a day or so in Mexico City. Then 2 days in Tlachichuca at Sr. Reyes' compound. We then drove to the Piedra Grande Hut at 13,972’. After an acclimatizion night, we carried a load to the High camp at 15,200 and returned to the hut for the night. Finally we moved back to High camp and made our summit bid at 2:00AM that night. We were back in Mexico City the next day.

How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?

A: The costs can range from $1500 to $2500 depending on who you use. If you do everything yourself cut the highest cost in half or significantly more down to several hundred. See my Guide page for more details.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: There is no permit or fees required as of 2008.

Aconcagua Q: Do I really need a guide for Orizaba?
A: It all depends on your skills, money and time available. Orizaba is a high-altitude climb. Many people climb without a formal guide and contract with local agencies for logistics and transportation to the Piedra Grande Hut. There are usually a lot of climbers on Orizaba so you would probably not be alone but could be. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully.

Q: Are there local guides for Orizaba?
A: Yes, there are many quality choices based out of Tlachichuca and Puebla. Some are less expensive than traditional Western companies but most charge around the same price. My usual advice is to get recent references from a climber with a similar background and skill level as yourself. Get everything in writing. Especially understand the acclimatization schedule since local guides have been known to rush people up and down. Finally ask about food, group gear and language skills.

Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Orizaba?
A: Most reputable guides ask for your climbing resume and require some climbing experience. Ideally they want to see climbs of 14,000' mountains - Rainier or Mont Blanc is a big plus. Guides emphasize conditioning since it can be taxing. I think it is very, very helpful to had been on a few 14ers or Mount Rainier before you attempt Orizaba.

Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are local companies in Tlachichuca who can provide some services such as getting you and your gear the Hut. Servimont (run by Sr. Reyes) is a good choice but there are others.You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are real possibilities on Orizaba - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide page for more

My 2008 Experience

Q: Did you summit?
A: Yes, January 26,2008 via the Jampa Glacier route.

Q: Why did you choose Mountain Professionals as a guide service for 2008?
A: I was climbing Everest with them later in 2008 so I wanted to build the bonds. Plus we had three other climbers who had Rainier as their only snow climb experience and I wanted a guide who had been to Orizaba before to lead them.

Q: How did they perform?
A: Excellent. We had no surprises. Dave Elmore was very competent and professional.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The normal Jamapa Glacier route from the Piedra Grande Hut at 13,972’.

Q: How was the overall climb?
A: It was a lot of fun. Once you get to the hut, you spend a day to acclimatize, we then carried a load to the High camp at 15,200 and returned to the hut for the night. Next we moved back to High camp and made our summit bid starting at 2:00AM in cold nd windy conditions. The only real challenge is finding the route in the lower section below the Jampa Glacier known as the labyrinth. This section undulates quite a bit and is rocky. It can be challenging in the dark if you have never been there. I would suggest taking a day climb part way through the area before you summit night if you are not with an experienced party. Once on the glacier at 16,300', it starts off at a low angle then gets steeper as you gain altitude. We were roped up and made steady progress with few stops along the way.

Oriaba Summit Crater Q: And the summit?
A: I was very impressed with the caldera of the volcano. It was one for the most impressive sites 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.

Q: How long did the summit push take?
A: From the High camp at 15,500', we took about 7.5 hours to reach the summit arriving around 10:00AM. We spent an hour on the summit and took about 4 hours back to the High camp.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: My late January climb was warm but became gradually got colder we gained altitude. It was always windy. Some nights the wind was relentless.

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No, supplemental oxygen is usually only used above 26,500'.

Q: Would you climb Orizaba again?
A: Yes but I would minimize our time in Tlachichuca and stay in tents rather than the Piedra Grande Hut. It would be fun to return with my friends anytime.

Bottom Line

Orizaba is a great climb for someone looking to see how their body performs at high altitude or the next step from a 14er. The normal routes are pretty safe but do require technical skills with ropes and crampons. The Piedra Grande Hut can be very noisy and crowded with climbers partying all night long with heavy drinking. The climb can be crowded since it is low cost, easy to get to and has a reputation as a walk-up. Even with this reputation, it is dangerous and climbers die even on the normal route. I liked Orizaba as a warm-up for higher peaks or a climb with friends. The climbing is fun and the views simply amazing!