Pico de Orizaba- 18,490 ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: January 3, 2012
Pico de Orizaba (18,490ft) – Highest Mountain in Mexico
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
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Day 1: Flight to Mexico City, bus to Tlachichuca (8,500ft)
Day 2: 4WD to Piedra Grande Hut (13,800ft), acclimation hike to 15,600ft
Day 3: Rest/bad weather day at Piedra Grande Hut
Day 4: Summit (18,490ft) and 4WD back to Tlachichuca
“You guys are crazy to climb this mountain unguided!” the climber exclaimed to me as he staggered into Piedra Grande Hut, shaking off the layer of ice that coated his entire body. The storm outside had been relentless for the past 16 hours, oscillating between snow, sleet, rain, and most recently the freezing rain that now coated him head to toe.
“We made it halfway up the mountain, but could only see 10 feet and our guides told us we had to turn back,” he finished.
I looked outside at the storm and hoped Matthew and I would have better luck on our summit day.
We had flown in to Mexico City on Saturday afternoon and hit the ground running. After a brief delay at customs explaining that the suspicious bags of white powder we had brought were in fact leche en polvo (powdered milk) and not cocaine, we made it to the Estrella Roja bus terminal to buy two tickets to Puebla.
Public transportation around Mexico City is amazing – there’s a bus leaving every 20 minutes to any destination you can imagine, and most cost only a couple dollars. Matthew and I splurged on the 1st class, direct bus to Puebla (still a good deal at $15 for a 2-hour journey). They gave us complimentary snacks, a drink, had a movie on board, and the seats were more spacious than a standard American Greyhound bus. On the way we were treated to great views of the 17,000ft mountains Popo and Izta, the second and third tallest mountains in Mexico.
We pulled into Puebla at 6:45pm and needed to catch one more bus to the town of Tlachichuca at the base of Pico de Orizaba. The only problem was, there were over 70 bus gates, each serving at least 5 cities, but we couldn’t find any that said Tlachichuca. I started asking random people if they knew “donde esta el autobus a Tlachichuca?” (where’s the bus to Tlachicuca?), but nobody had any idea. It was as if I started asking people in South Station in Boston how to get to North Groton, New Hampshire.
Even the official ticket-selling people gave conflicting answers on which gate but finally we stumbled across the one (gate 5, for future reference). It was 7:30pm, and the bus was supposed to have left at 7:15pm but was luckily still delayed for some reason. Unfortunately, though, there were over 50 people in line already and we’d heard the bus only had seats for about 40 people.
“There’s no way we’ll make this bus,” Matthew lamented. It was New Year’s Eve, and everyone must have been on their way home to celebrate. Gradually the line started creeping forward as people got on the bus, and one official-looking person outside waved over to us to throw our huge backpacks underneath. We were going to make it after all!
Matthew got on first, and when it was my turn I claimed the second-to-last remaining seat. But more and more people kept piling on. It would be standing-room only for them for the two-hour ride. Matthew was near the front and gave up his seat for an older person, but in the back where I was everyone standing was about my age, so I saw no need to relinquish my seat. We pulled out at 7:45pm and made it to the small town of Tlachichuca about two hours later.
A nice girl on the bus showed us how to get to our hostel, and we arrived at the Canchola hostel by 10pm. Even though it was New Year’s Eve we were way too tired to stay up until the official stroke of midnight. We figured 10pm Central Time meant midnight Atlantic Time, so we celebrated the new year with all the people of Eastern Canada and then went promptly to bed.
We slept in the next morning and then one of the hostel owners – Maribel – treated us to an authentic Mexican breakfast of tortillas, frijoles, and huevos (eggs). That was just what we needed before attacking Orizaba. With full stomachs we were prepared for the last assisted leg of the journey – the ride up to the Piedra Grande Hut. Tlachichuca was at an elevation of around 8000ft, and the standard route up Orizaba started at the end of a rough 4WD road, 6000ft higher up at the Piedra Grande hut.
The Canchola hostel was equipped with at least seven impressive off-road vehicles that looked capable of handling the worst roads Mexico could offer, and at 11am we loaded up into a tough-looking red truck with our driver Jose. Jose didn’t speak any English, but I knew enough Spanish to converse with him a little bit. He estimated he’d driven climbers up to Piedra Grande at least 50 times! But he hadn’t made it to the summit himself yet.
As we left Tlachichuca we got our first good look at Orizaba and it was pretty impressive. The top was covered in a smooth dome of snow, ending in some steep cliffs and waterfall ice on the Northwest side. It was hard to believe we were seeing all that snow way down in Mexico, when it still wasn’t even jacket weather down in the valley.
The road got worse and worse as we climbed out of the valley, passing by cornfields and through the small village of Hidalgo. At Hidalgo we turned into what looked like a random back alley, but it continued up the mountain as the road changed to dirt. Eventually we caught up to two pickup trucks each with about 10 teenagers sitting in the back. I guess this is where the road started getting rough, because Jose got out and flipped some 4WD switch on the front wheels, and we soon saw all the teenagers jump off the back of their truck and start running alongside it. Apparently it couldn’t make it up the steep, slippery road with all that extra weight.
Jose had no problem, though, and we soon passed the other trucks when they got as far as they could make it. By about 13,000ft we popped out above treeline, and after a sketchy rocky section requiring every foot of clearance the truck had we pulled up to the famous Piedra Grande Hut.
This wasn’t your typical little Appalachian Trail shelter – it was a tough rock building capable of sleeping 60 people, with big glass windows and a solid door that protected it from the elements. It was empty when we arrived, though, so we found a nice quiet-looking corner on the third floor of bunks and deposited our packs. It was completely clear outside and we could even see the summit of Orizaba. We milled around outside for a while and eventually some climbers started making their way down in the early afternoon. We first met a guy from the US that was disappointed he’d had to turn back early because his friends had altitude sickness. Then we met a couple from Australia happy to have reached the summit and eager to give us beta about the infamous Labyrinth section. (“Whatever you do don’t go right at the labyrinth like we did,” they warned). Another climber was hobbling down with a bandaged knee and said he came from Cancun only yesterday (at sea level!) and made it within a few hundred feet of the summit before succumbing to altitude sickness and turning back.
More climbers came down and they almost all warned us to stay left at the labyrinth (a maze of rock, ice, and snow chutes going up the mountain between 15,500ft and 16,000ft). In all we talked to about 15 or so climbers and probably half of them successfully summitted, with the rest just turning around early because they hadn’t acclimated. This wasn’t too much concern for us though: we had given ourselves six full days on the mountain to bag Orizaba, and most people that had failed had tried to acclimate in only one or two days.
By mid afternoon a couple more trucks pulled up to the hut, one with some tourists looking for snow. They started hiking up the mountain, and we decided to hike up a little ways too to help acclimate (following the climb-high-sleep-lower mantra). The route started following an old aqueduct, and then started ascending some scree and boulders up to the base of the labyrinth. We weren’t really planning to go very far, but kept walking higher and higher until we found ourselves at 15,600ft at the base of the labyrinth. And neither of us even had a headache! We joked about just continuing up to bag the summit right then, but we were still in tennis shoes, and with no ice axes or crampons we probably couldn’t make it up the steep glacier.
We scouted out a good route on the *left* side of the labyrinth, and noted a few good campsites too if we decided to make a high camp the next day. We then hiked back down to the hut, which by now was packed full of climbers! A group of 17 climbers from Duke University Business School (in North Carolina) had just arrived and were planning to summit the next day. They were really friendly and told us they’d climbed La Malinche (14,600ft) a few days ago to acclimate and were confident their five guides could get them up Orizaba the next day. Matthew and I were skeptical that they would be properly acclimated, but apparently the guides must have approved of their plan.
All the trucks and tourists left by late afternoon, and by about 7pm all the climbers had eaten and were starting to go to sleep. A mountaineer’s schedule is almost the opposite of a normal undergrad’s schedule – you go to sleep around sunset, and get up around midnight to get an alpine start on the mountain. This helps so you can summit and get back down before the afternoon when bad weather tends to come in, and when the sun heats up the snow and ice making climbing conditions more dangerous.
Matthew and I were planning to take another acclimation day the next day anyways, but we still went to bed around 7pm to start shifting our internal clocks to Mountain Time.
I had to get up around midnight to go to the bathroom (being well-hydrated helps with acclimation) and I noticed a new dusting of snow on the ground and some snow showers in the air.
“This can’t be right,” I thought, “it’s the dry season November to March and, based on everything I’ve read about Orizaba, it never rains or snows in the dry season.”
I went back to sleep not too worried, since Matthew and I had enough time to ride out some weather, but I knew the Duke climbers might be in for trouble. They said they’d only given themselves one summit day before they had to fly home.
I heard them get up at 1am and they were all out climbing by 2:30am. Matthew and I rolled out of our sleeping bags at the sane hour of 8am with an honest 13 hours of sleep in the bank for future usage. By now the ground was all white, but the precipitation had changed to freezing rain at our elevation! Not my idea of a fun summit day. We had planned to move camp up to 15,600ft that day, but were certainly content to stay in the hut while it rained outside.
The hut was once again deserted, with only two other climbers (Mark and Joel from the Tennessee/Alabama area), and a local Mexican, Carlos. We mostly just hung out talking and reading, killing time in the hut all day but justifying to each other that we were working hard acclimating.
Around 2pm Carlos noticed some climbers coming down through the clouds and we all jumped up to see the action. It was still freezing rain outside and the climbers looked miserable. They came inside and were two Duke climbers and one guide. They had gotten half way up the mountain but turned back because of bad weather. I didn’t blame them for turning back, but I probably wouldn’t have even started in that weather.
Gradually more Duke climbers came trickling back. Some said they’d even made it within 400 vertical feet of the summit, but the guides had made the call that it was unsafe to continue. Most of the climbers looked so happy to be back in shelter that they didn’t really care that they’d missed the summit. That’s definitely understandable seeing that they were all completely covered in ice.
Later in the afternoon we saw a Japanese team stagger into the hut, and they had actually summitted! They still looked just as miserable as the Duke climbers though. In all we calculated over the past two days roughly 45 climbers had attempted Orizaba and only a third had been successful. That’s a pretty low ratio, and probably speaks more to climbers underestimating the mountain than the mountain actually being that difficult.
Matthew and I had meticulously packed our packs ready to head out to high camp at a moment’s notice if the storm abated, but by 5pm we accepted the fact that we’d be spending another night in the hut. Carlos said the wind usually came from the south and this was unusual that it was coming in from the east. He couldn’t remember a storm like this during the dry season for the past two or three years. Other guides said they thought the storm could last two or three days. That might be painful waiting around, but we still had the time to ride out this storm.
Nevertheless, I planned to go outside every hour starting at midnight to check on the conditions and potentially give the summit a shot that night. None of the Duke people had complained of altitude issues, even though they were at best acclimated to 14,000ft. Matthew and I had spent a few days at 14,000ft now so figured we should be ok too.
Somehow a few trucks made it up the icy road and gave all the Duke climbers rides back to town. Yet again the hut oscillated back to a deserted state, with only me, Matthew, Mark, Joel, and Carlos still around. We all went to bed around 7pm again that night – not because we were tired as much as we knew there wasn’t a whole lot more to do when it was dark, and we didn’t want to waste our headlamp batteries reading more books.
That night the mice came out in full force. Maybe they had harassed the Duke climbers down on the first floor the previous night, but now they’d graduated to the third floor. I’d stored my food bag right next to me and kept hearing a chewing sound around 8 or 9pm. I finally rolled out of my sleeping bag and hung the bag up from a stray nail in the ceiling and went back to bed. Then at 10pm I was woken again as I felt a small creature actually run right across my forehead! This time I got up and went outside for a bathroom break. On the way I saw all kinds of mice running around the floor, trying to get out of my headlamp’s light.
Somehow I managed to sleep til around 12:30am, when my alarm went off to check the weather. I didn’t have high hopes (since it was still snowing at 10pm), but amazingly when I got outside I could kind of see the summit! Of course it looked more like a brief break in the clouds but was possibly a good sign. I told Matthew, Mark, and Joel and we all decided to check again at 2am and see if it improved at all.
At 2am it was completely clear outside above the hut. The cloud line had dropped to below the hut and it was actually undercast. It was kind of windy, but at least not snowing and Matthew and I decided to go for it. Mark and Joel decided to give themselves one more acclimation day and went back to sleep as Matthew and I packed up.
By 3am we were out the door and climbing up Orizaba. Based on everything we’d read and heard from the guides we should have started no later than 1am to beat the afternoon clouds, but that was assuming a standard 6-10 hour ascent time which we figured we could still beat. Now we were glad we’d scouted out the way up to the labyrinth, because the trail that had been easy to follow on Sunday was now covered in snow and it was dark out. I led the way, roughly following the path until we got to the base of the Labyrinth. Here we donned the crampons and started heading up to the left. It was steep, but nothing like the 50-degree ice some climbers had said they encountered on the right side. We didn’t even take out the ice axes for our route.
We reached the top of the labyrinth at 16,000 ft around 5am and found ourselves at the base of the glacier. I guess technically it was a glacier but we’d heard the only crevasses on the route were a few inches wide, so we didn’t actually need to rope up.
We started climbing straight up with Matthew in the lead, and the wind actually died down until it was basically calm. At about 17,000ft we finally felt it was steep enough to break out the ice axes. By then it was light enough to not need headlamps anymore. We were starting to feel the altitude now, and measured that we could take between 40-60 steps up the mountain before we’d need a 30-second break to catch our breathes. Luckily we didn’t have headaches (a bad sign of altitude sickness) - we were just short of breath.
By 7:15am we popped out on the rim of the caldera at around 18,000ft and were greeted by the warm sun rising above the clouds to the east. We unfortunately just missed sunrise, but it was still a spectacular view with undercast surrounding most of the mountain.
We rested briefly before continuing around the rim of the caldera to the true summit at 18,490ft. We still felt great, and had enough energy to take our standard fare of summit ritual pictures (jumping, juggling, shirts off). It had only taken 4.5 hours to climb up and we figured probably only a couple more to go down, so why not just enjoy the summit for a few hours? It wasn’t even windy, and though our thermometer read just under 0F, we actually felt pretty warm just sitting in the sun in our down jackets.
As we were eating a snack Matthew saw something moving around and it was a mouse! How would a mouse get all the way up on that snow-covered summit!? He must have hitched a ride in somebody’s pack. Matthew felt sorry for him and offered a few granola crumbs, which the mouse gratefully accepted.
After about an hour we decided to just take a nap up there, and actually slept for about 20 minutes. Finally we got a little bored of hanging out and eventually headed down around 9:30am. Going down was much faster since we didn’t need to take those breaks every 40-60 steps, and we made pretty good time. Matthew tried to glissade halfway down, but he had waited too long and by then the snow wasn’t steep enough for him to pick up speed.
By the top of the Labyrinth we were getting really hot and took off most of our layers. We were careful to cover up with sunscreen, but I still got a nasty burn on my forehead. We followed our tracks back through the Labyrinth and were surprised to see Mark and Joel at the bottom. They were doing an acclimation hike (good idea) and were just about to turn around. They thanked us for providing a good set of tracks to follow in that section, and we hiked down mostly together to Piedra Grande.
“Muy rapido, muy rapido, felicidades!” Carlos said, congratulating us on our speedy ascent. I guess he had been able to watch us most of the way from the hut that morning. It was 11am now and we had the rest of the day to rest and relax. Matthew was starting to feel some bad effects from the altitude and tried to get some sleep in the hut, while I wandered around outside talking to Mark and Joel.
We had told our driver to pick us up Wednesday, so were expecting to spend another night in the hut since we’d finished early. The road was covered in snow and we didn’t think any vehicle could make it up anyways. Later in the afternoon our suspicions were confirmed as we saw a few Guatemalan climbers walking up the road. They said their car drove them up most of the way, but couldn’t get past the snow. Later we saw two Americans come up with a mule carrying their packs, and then a few Romanians riding horses up. We didn’t feel like hiking down so spread all our stuff back out to prepare for another night in the hut.
Then we heard an engine outside and were astounded to see a big truck carefully making its way up the road, slipping once in a while but eventually reaching the hut. The driver hopped out and asked if there were two climbers there needing a ride back to the Canchola hostel. That was us! But how did he know we’d summitted already? All we could figure out was Carlos must have radioed down to tell our hostel the news (even though we hadn’t told him where we were staying and he wasn’t even affiliated with the people at our hostel).
We gladly packed up our gear and jumped in the truck. Matthew especially felt like the lower altitude would make him feel a lot better. Joaquin Canchola expertly drove us down the treacherous road and two hours later we were safely back at the hostel enjoying another authentic Mexican meal.
You can read about the next mountain we climbed in the La Malinche report.