Ascent of El Pico de Orizaba

27 Dec 1995 - by Tony Cruz

Steve Shields, Doug Vickerman and I left for Mexico on Dec. 27, 1995 with hopes of climbing the three great volcanoes of Mexico: Popo, Ixta and above all Orizaba. Each is much higher than he highest peak in the Alps at about 17,900, 17,300 and 18,400 feet, respectively.

Upon arrival in Mexico City we grabbed our massive, equipment- filled bags and dragged them just outside the terminal into a first-class bus. For 40 pesos (a little over five bucks), we were shuttled direct to Puebla. Between the clouds we got glimpses of Popo and Ixta. The trip lasted two hours and ended at the giant station at Puebla, a large city roughly half way between the capital and the Gulf Coast. Puebla is the site of the famous Mexican victory over the French which is commemorated every "Cinco de Mayo." For another 18 pesos we hopped on a second-class bus. Two hours later we arrived at Tlachichuca (8,500 feet) in the early evening.

Tlachichuca is a remote village just below the foothills of Orizaba. It has over 12,000 inhabitants which I found difficult to believe, since I would have guessed a few hundred. It has the traditional plaza (or zocalo) and the typical oversized Catholic church so often found in Mexican towns.

A couple of blocks from the bus stop is a complex owned by the well-known Reyes family, well known to the locals and also to us climbers who read about Sr. Reyes in Secor's excellent guide to the Mexican volcanoes. The Reyes' complex includes the only gas station in town (a PeMex), a market, dwellings for the Reyes and some of their employees, a barn and an ancient cheese-making factory that has been converted into a hut for alpinists. Sr. Reyes and his family are excellent hosts who are knowledgeable about the mountains and very friendly and helpful to their guests. They have done an excellent job creating an atmosphere very much like that at an alpine hut. We slept upstairs that night in bunks similar to those I have found in the Alps. In my opinion, a stay with the Reyes is a must if you climb Orizaba.

We packed for the climb, rested and talked to other climbers, asking them about conditions on the mountain. Eventually we met people from California, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, Wyoming, Canada, Switzerland, France and Germany along with some Mexican climbers, although none of the latter slept at the Reyes' complex.

About three days prior to our arrival a climber perished on the normal route. Later I heard from a villager in Hidalgo that this unfortunate man, not very experienced in mountaineering, was the first in his party to reach the crater rim. He decided to bolt ahead to become the first on the summit. In so doing, he lost his balance and dropped his ax, preventing any possibility of arrest. He slid thousands of feet. His body as not found until a couple of days later.

This sad tale reminded me of the many similar events recorded in the journals inside the Reyes' compound. Most accidents were due to slips by inexperienced mountaineers high on the mountain. The lucky victims of such falls came out unscathed but several were injured and a few died. The slope on Orizaba is generally so icy that if you don't arrest immediately, you will fall a long way. I've never been on another mountain where one could fall for such a long distance -- one can slide three to six thousand vertical feet.

People have also died in avalanches. For example, in November 1992, some days after a storm that dumped wet snow on the mountain, four climbers were killed by an avalanche on the normal route (one Mexican guide and three Americans). Prior to the avalanche, climbers reported excellent snow conditions.

I believe that falls and avalanches are the greatest danger on the mountain. Other things to watch out for include crevasses, which exist on the normal route but are few in number and can be easily avoided. Most people climb the mountain unroped. Given that the peak is just under 18,500 feet, altitude sickness is the biggest concern for those desiring the summit. I carried Diamox but decided not to use it.

About ten of us piled into one of the ancient Dodge trucks the Reyes use to transport climbers from Tlachichuca up to the refugios at Piedra Grande, at just under 14,000 feet. Sr. Reyes charges about $50 U.S. for the round trip (which must be at least 15 miles). This was our biggest expense on the trip, not counting airfare. Sr. Reyes gave us a discount because I speak Spanish and helped him with translation. He charged us $10 per night to stay at his "hut" in Tlachichuca.

There is no fee to stay at the Refugios at Piedra Grande. We picked the small one which sheltered eight of us, packed like sardines. The other one is much larger and is said to accommodate up to 60. We used bottled water purchased in Tlachichuca but other climbers relied on a convenient nearby spring.

There were a couple dozen or so other climbers already on the mountain when we reached the huts. The most interesting pair we saw were a couple of poorly outfitted Mexican men who claimed to have climbed nearby Sierra Negra, a 15,000 foot mountain, bivouacked and then climbed Orizaba from the other side.

Most people climb the mountain in one day from the huts, which requires 4,500 feet of elevation gain. This is a lot, considering that you start at 14,000 feet, so our plan was to split the climb into two days, bivouacking at the foot of the Jamapa Glacier (my spelling may be incorrect) at 16,000 feet. The majority of the climbers got up early in the morning-about 2 a.m. or so. We got a very late start and climbed the class 1 - 2 snow slope.

By late afternoon we were well above 15,000 feet with plenty of time to reach a good bivy site. However it started to snow and continued without letup. We finally decided that so much snow had fallen that a summit attempt would not be advisable due to the danger of avalanche. Furthermore, we would have to wait for several sunny days for the snow to consolidate enough to allow a safe attempt. Reluctantly we slogged back to the hut, making it back around dusk.

So much snow had fallen that the trucks were not able to reach the huts. The next morning we hiked three miles down to Hidalgo, a remote mountain village to wait for a ride from the Reyes family. Steve and Doug got to the village before me and managed to get a ride, but most of the climbers including myself waited for hours. Fortunately there was cold beer for sale in the village. Reyes did not send another truck. That evening we bribed a local villager to drive us down in his truck, into which we herded ourselves in like cattle.

Back in Tlachichuca, Steve and Doug agreed with my proposal to take a few days off and visit the town of Oaxaca. The next day we took the bus to Puebla, caught another bus and headed south. We drove over a mountainous region and on the edge of a deep canyon filled with barrel cactus similar but a bit smaller than the Saguaro cactus of Arizona. We arrived in Oaxaca after dark and walked to the colorful zocolo (plaza) with its carnival atmosphere. The zocolo was packed with tourists, locals, beggars and dozens and dozens of vendors with tapestries, trinkets and food. We treated ourselves to a dinner and show at the Monte Alban Hotel, where we took a room for the night. The show consisted of Indian music and dancing by performers in traditional costumes.

The next morning we reserved a room at the local youth hostel and rented mountain bikes. We pedaled through the busy streets and up into the local hills until we reached Monte Alban, a remarkable archeological site, high above the surrounding terrain. We spent the afternoon hiking around the pyramids and other monuments. A local farmer tried to sell us what appeared to be a remarkable artifact - an ancient urn. He wanted $1,000 U.S. for it.

We drove back into town and had some excellent seafood and beer. The next morning we visited some museums and churches and took a bus back to Puebla, where we spent the night. We heard that on the day we attempted Orizaba, the road from Mexico City to Puebla had been closed due to snow! This was the first time this happened in a generation. Worse yet, the road to Popo and Ixta was still in bad condition. Many tourists had been stranded in the snow. Not only that, but Popo was still rumbling. It had been unstable for over a year and was closed to climbing. We decided that we would have time for only one peak-Orizaba.

The next morning we took the bus back to Tlachichuca and made arrangements to stay with the Reyes and go up to the huts the next morning. The weather had been clear and hot and we were optimistic about the climbing conditions

We drove up again but this time the truck was not able to get us all the way to the hut, which meant that we had to hike the last mile. It took me forever and I nearly dropped dead from fatigue when I got to the hut. We lazed around all afternoon and slept at the large hut.

Shortly after midnight, I got my pack ready and strapped on my crampons. I was the first to set off but was soon passed by others. The sky was clear and the moon shone brightly enough that I didn't need my light. Steve and Doug caught up with me about a half mile from the hut. The snow was in good shape and there were no problems getting up to the foot of the glacier. We continued straight up to the highest visible point, to the left of the normal route as described by Secor. Our route was a little steeper than the normal route maybe up to 45 or 50 degrees. I had taken Diamox for the first time in my life for this climb, just in case.

I got very sleepy after about 17,500 feet and made very slow progress, maybe 600 feet per hour, setting a personal elevation record with each step. The snow was firm but soft enough that I could occasionally sit down and take a cat nap. I was ever careful not to slip, but never felt uncomfortable. The climb is comparable to Shasta or Rainier. At about 1 p.m., Steve passed me on the way down, stopping to congratulate me and take my picture. He was the last to summit that day, except me of course. Shortly after he passed me I sat down in the only crevasse we encountered on the route. I practically crawled up to the rim, stepped over the last bit of snow and took another nap on the rim. The crater was unbelievably deep, hundreds of feet and vertical, even overhanging in places I didn't dare get close enough to the edge to peer down at the bottom. There was a trace of sulfur in the air.

The summit was visible across the crater and maybe-- 1/5 the way around the rim. Earlier I passed two German climbers a young man and his beautiful girlfriend who had reached the rim but turned back without reaching the highest point, which baffled me. The exposure was tremendous, but the snow was in excellent shape for cramponing. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, When I reached the top, there was no wind and the view was breathtaking, with clouds and forests thousands of feet below. I looked down, down, down to Sierra Negra, a 15,000 footer just beyond Orizaba. In the distance I could clearly see Ixta and Popo to the west. Wind-swept clouds seemed to emerge from the top of Popo as if it were erupting. The day was so mild that I wished I could camp on top. There was hodgepodge of metal spikes emerging from the snow near the summit. Surprisingly, the very highest spot was uncovered by snow.

About 10 minutes after reaching the summit, I started down. I was tempted to glissade, but the snow was too icy. After I got off the glacier, I encountered a group of Mexican climbers performing a rescue. Another German lady who had driven up with us broken her foot while glissadig with her crampons. Steve Shields had immobilized her leg and administered pain killers. I met Steve walking up from the hut and I asked him to fetch a ladder from the large hut. He ran down, returning with Doug and the ladder. The victim rode the ladder for the remainder of the descent. It was well after dark when we arrived and to my great surprise, there was a Reyes truck there ready to shuttle us down. Usually they stay only until about 4 p.m. before going back.

By the time we got to town it was too late to buy a beer. The compound was so crowded that Doug and I crashed in a trailer next to the hut. The next day we returned to Mexico city and I lost Steve and Doug in the Metro. We didn't get to toast our success until the next afternoon during our layover at the Houston Airport.

Thanks to Doug and Steve for joining me on this, one of my favorite trips. Someday when Popo settles down we'll have to go back and climb it and Ixta.

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