Pico de Orizaba

10 Jan 2001 - by Nels Johnson


On January 10, 2001 the Gruppo Alpino de Tres Amigos consisting of Chris Keller, Shawn Boom and myself, Nels Johnson, gathered in Mexico City to climb the 3rd (El Pico de Orizaba, 18,408 ft.) and 7th (Iztaccihuatl, 17,159 ft.) highest peaks in North America.

We utilized the modern, clean, efficient and unbelievably cheap public bus system to move ourselves and our incredibly huge mound of gear around to the various cities that would serve as our base stations for the climbs.

On the morning of Sunday, January 11th, we headed south to the city of Amecameca to launch our summit bid on Iztaccihuatl. Since Popocatepetl, the 5th highest peak in North America and very close neighbor to Izta, has been making international news by threatening to erupt, the standard route up Izta (via La Joya and La Arista de Luz) was closed. As our alternate route we chose the Directa el Pecho up the northwest side of the mountain. This route requires access on 4wd roads leading up from the city of San Rafael. We immediately set about finding someone who could provide this service. In the town of Amecameca there is a well known mountain guide and member of the local rescue service nicknamed Tlaxquicha. We arranged to meet him next morning at the Zocalo to drive us up to the trail and back for a days acclimatization hike. The following day after the acclimatization hike he would drive us up early in the morning and pick us up late in the day as we made our summit bid.

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. While waiting in the square we met another American couple, Kristin and Rolf, who were planning on climbing Izta via the Ayoloco Glacier route. They had contracted with Senor Cortez for their 4wd shuttle service up the same roads we planned to use. Both shuttle services arrived at the same time. Somehow, both groups ended going up with Senor Cortez. Why, I am not sure as my Espanol is not exactly in the fluent category. However, Senor Cortez provided an excellent service to us all and was very dependable and hospitable. So, off we all went up the bumpy and very dusty roads towards the trails leading up to the summit of Izta. Kristin and Rolf planned on overnighting in the area of the Ayoloco hut and then summiting early the next morning. Our days acclimatization hike headed up Loma Larga, past the Laminas Hut and an hour shy of the Chalchoapan Hut.

The next morning Senor Cortez showed up exactly at 4am, the agreed upon hour. We headed up the bumpy and dusty roads in the dark and we were on the trail before sunrise. However, within 15 mins. of the start, it became very obvious to me that my legs did not have what was necessary to carry me to the summit. I decided to bail then and there and save what remained in the legs for the climb on El Pico de Orizaba. Chris and Shawn headed on and I headed back. I spent the rest of the day waiting with Senor Cortez who showed me a very beautiful hidden ice fall and cooked me a delicious Desayuno (breakfast). I also spent endless hours scanning the route with binoculars looking for my friends. Both Chris and Shawn moved upward quickly and strongly. They passed the Chalchoapan hut and headed for the Routa Directa al Pecho. As they started up this route it became a bit dicey and they traversed left to the route La Arista del Luz. When Shawn reached the saddle between the La Cabeza and El Pecho he was having intimate knowledge of high altitude sickness. Shawn settled in while Chris went for the summit. 200 meters from the summit Chris came across hard and slick ice. Not being fully familiar with the abilities of crampons and realizing there would be no self rescue being by himself if he slipped, he wisely decided to turn around and climb another day. So ended our summit bid on Izta. Score - Mexico's volcanos 1, Tres Amigos 0.

Next morning, January 17th, we boarded the bus and headed for the town of Tlachichuca, which serves as the launching point for El Pico de Orizaba. We stayed at Hotel Gerrer and contracted with Senor Gerrera for 4wd services to Piedra Grande, the climbers hut up high on El Pico de Orizaba. Mr. Gerrera's hotel and 4wd services were very friendly, spotlessly clean and dependable. On January 18th we moved up to Piedra Grande and decided on a 1:30am awakening to start our summit bid. The hut was abuzz with activity, groups leaving and groups arriving. Much beta about the route was passed along. The glacier has been receding significantly and has left a headwall to surmount which has a dangerous combination of ice and rock. There evidently is no good route through this area, only some which are worse than others. Supper was eaten, beds laid out and entered and the lights turned out for a few hours sleep before the early morning start. Well, so much for sleep. Piedra Grande is infested with mice and we spent long dark hours listening to them rustle through food sacks and chewing on expensive packs and gear instead of enjoying sweet dreams of climbing glaciers.

After eons of laying awake in the dark hut listening to the strong winds slam the loose tin roof around, the alarms finally went off and we dutifully rolled out of our sleeping bags along with the Italian climbers which would be the only other climbing group on the mountain that day. We quickly ate our breakfast of cheese and avocado sandwiches, bananas and snickers bars, pulled on our finest and heaviest cold weather gear and headed out the door intently focused on reaching the summit this time, by God or else! After fifteen minutes into our hike we realized we were WAY over dressed and started stripping down and stashing clothing to be retrieved on the way down. Okay, now we're set. "Onward" we yelled, bugles blowing in the wind for us we were sure. Following the well worn dirt path upwards in the dark was an easy task and soon enough we reached the dreaded and fearsome headwall. No exaggerations had been told about it. It was nasty and treacherous, indeed. After some belaying each other over icy spots and chopping steps across a few slippery spots we reached the glacier just as the sun was coming up and we were clamping on our crampons and tying onto our rope. The summit looked very near and we were sure we would reach it in short time. As we climbed towards it we watched the sun rise above the clouds below and cast its' warm and rose colored glow on all things in its' domain, including us. We felt blessed, fully charged and now KNEW the summit would be ours. Just not as quickly as what we had first assumed. After a couple of false summits and tiring 54 year old legs which caused me to spent more time traversing sideways than upwards, my young 20 something climbing partners took over and lead a beeline for the summit. We finally stepped onto the dirt summit of the 3rd highest peak in North America! Ta Da!

A couple of quick pictures, some looking out over the horizon at the peaks of Izta, Popo and La Malinche sticking up above the clouds and we headed back down the steep and slippery glacier. My thoughts started turning from the job at hand and instead towards various video clips of the climb that kept sliding through my eyes. Tired legs kept churning out plunge steps towards the valley far, far below. And then - - - tired legs allowed crampons to interlock and I was down in a flash and in an unbelievably fast slide down the glacier. I was desperately trying to self arrest but could not get on top of the mountain axe! Ice chips merely flew off the end of the pick instead of it grasping deeply into the ice. I must have jammed the points of my crampons into the ice as I was soon doing back flips down the glacier. Then back onto my stomach and still struggling to self arrest but to no avail as I very rapidly continued to slide towards the rocks waiting below. Then - - the rope snapped taught and I stopped. My friends had seen my dangerous situation and had reacted perfectly. They fell face first onto the glacier, dug in the pick of their mountain axe and points of their crampons and when the rope ran out my friends stayed stuck to the glacier. Distant voices yelled to me to "assume the self rescue position". I crawled on top of my mountain axe, buried my crampon points and was content to lay there breathing heavily into the glacier. The rope went slack, this time I stayed stuck and soon enough concerned friends were at my side willing to administer to my needs. A bruised arm and ribs, although bothersome, did not prevent me from arising and continuing unaided the descent to Piedra Grande. The headwall was again a challenge to surmount but proved doable. After a long, long hike down my tired legs gratefully stepped onto the concrete aquaduct that lead the final few steps back to the hut. Right on time Senor Gerrera appeared and we headed back to Tlachichua.

The last couple of days were spent in the charming and beautiful town of Tlaxcala. We shopped the artisan markets, ate delicious Mexican foods and drank copious amounts of cerveza to celebrate our trip. We found Mexico to be filled with friendly and gracious people, a very rich and interesting culture and prices unbelievably cheap.

The final score - Mexico's volcanos 1, Tres Amigos 1. Fair enough!

Michael Gordon adds:

You don't say (or I missed it), but roping up to your partners *without* a running belay is disastrous at best. It's been discussed at length in this forum (in the past), I believe. Just last year on Orizaba three (?) Russians were killed as one's fall dragged the others to their deaths. One injured or dead is better than two or three. If you feel like you need the rope, best at least place pro between yourselves.

Rick Booth adds:

There is a write up in the AAC Accidents in NA for 2000 that describes a similar problem on Rainier. Three members of a *rescue team* were roped up, one slipped and they pitched themselves off a 600 foot 45 degree sheet of ice. They survived...but holy, moly...

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