Saturday, December 3, 2011

South of the Border to Conquer Mexico's Tallest Mountain

Date Climbed: 11/12/2011
Peak: El Pico de Orizaba (18491')
Route: Jamapa Glacier- Class 2 Moderate Snow
Gear- headlamp, helmet, crampons, ice axe, warm clothing

My adventure down south to conquer Aconcagua in Argentina began with a test of the High Altitude waters in Mexico. Pico de Orizaba sits about 2 hours east of Mexico City on the border of the states of Veracruz and Puebla. Normal climbing season is November to March, out of hurricane season. Its elevation is heavily disputed. The Mexican Government has set it at 18491', but some guiding organizations pin it as high as 18701'. My altimeter gave me a reading of 18599'. I think its save to say that the mountain is 18500' plus or minus 100'. Pico de Orizaba has the honor of being the third highest peak in North America behind Denali in Alaska and Mt. Logan in Canada. Unlike those mountains it is a volcano so its prominence in the landscape is a bit more obvious.
I set out from LAX on a red eye into Mexico City on the 8th of November. The plane was pretty awful. It was jam packed and super noisy so catching a few hours of sleep before my day of bus travel was out of the question. I arrived in Mexico at 5 am and proceeded through customs, which is a much more lax affair in Mexico than it is in the United States. Then I headed for the bus. "wait where is the bus?" I walked all over the airport looking for the Estrella Roja bus that would take me to Puebla. I final found a sign leading me there. My chat with the Estrella Roja sales person was interesting. He spoke no English. He kept asking me questions and I just kept smiling and nodding, occasionally understanding. Once on the bus I could relax. I listened to some music and watched Mexico pass by my window. It was an eye opening experience to see the poverty. The cookie cutter cinderblock houses, with gravity fed water, innumerable dogs of no particular species. Then we entered the mountains and everything changed. The forests were beautiful. The trees looked ancient and almost wise, with their wispy grey-green moss beards swaying in the wind. The mountains up high hid in the clouds.

Izta from the bus

And before I knew it we were back in another city at the bus terminal where is had to catch another bus. This was the most difficult portion of the trip. I had a hard time finding the ticket window for the particular bus company I needed, I was carrying 90 pounds of stuff on my back and in my hands, and no one spoke english. Finally I found the window and bought the ticket, but of course the first time arounds I did not understand the direction and ended up wandering around for 10 min until I finally went back to the window and asked again. "Hablas más lento, por favor". That did the trick and I found my bus just in time. This second bus was not as nice as the first, but it was much better than I was led to believe by other trip reports, it was in no way what we in the United States would consider a local bus. This ride was my first taste of Mexican culture. At every stop someone different would come on selling something, playing and instrument, or singing. It was interested to say the least.

After 3 hours on the bus it finally arrived in Tlachichuca. Tlachichuca is a small rural town just below Pico de Orizaba.
Streets of Tlachichuca
The people were very friendly and helpful. I had to ask for directions a few times, but no one seemed to have a clue where I was trying to go. The all kept pointing me in the direction of the other climbers hostel in town. Finally I asked some ladies where the old "factoria de jábon" was, which means soap factory. That got me where I needed to go.
I arrived at Servimont and was greeted by some the the staff and Sr. Reyes. Sr. Reyes gave me a tour and a history lesson on his compound. Apparently his relatives built it a few hundred years ago as a soap factory and it still had all of the original equipment inside. It also was full of climbing paraphernalia from his father who started climbing the mountain in the mid 1930s. The factory itself had been converted into the hostel for the climbers, withe lounge and equipment room down stairs and dorm upstairs.
Inside the factory 
Old boiler
Crampons circa 1930, not much has changed
Gears of the 1 piston engine that ran the factory
Una puerta 
Un caballo
One of the few old trucks on the compound
The heater in the hostel 
Un perro
It was a few hours before more climbers showed up. A group of Americans, mostly from California showed up, they had 3 guides and 4 clients, all good people. I enjoyed their company most the trip. Dinner was delicious. As was breakfast. The ladies their really know how to cook. The food isn't what you would normal think of when you think Mexican food, but it was good nonetheless. the next morning I sorted gear and got ready to get in the truck and head up the mountain. I shared my ride with the guided group.
In the truck on the way to the mountain
A few of the other climbers and our transportation
Misty foothills, this s at like 12000' surprisingly
We talked about climbing adventures the whole way to the Piedra Grand Hut at 14000'.
Piedra Grand Hut 
My tent the first night 
Auxillary Hut
Awesome fog/clouds

The path is actually an old aqueduct
Me and one of the guys in the guided group decided to stretch our legs and do a bit of acclimatization. One the way up I noted the summit of Mt. Whitney.
18ft above Whitney
After about an hour we ended up at the low camp at 15300' which was higher than I had ever been. I felt really good considering that in about a 24 hour period I went from sea level to 15k. We headed back down set in for the night.
When we arrived at the hut there were 2 other guided groups already there so the the hut, which fit 36 maximum was a bit full. I opted to sleep in my tent to avoid the snoring and possibly being exposed to some virus that would hurt the rest of my trip. That decision could have been bad. The weather that night was very misty. That combined with the condensation from my breath created a rain storm inside my tent by morning. All three of the guided groups left early that morning for their summit bids, as they had already been acclimatized from a trip to Mexico's third highest peak, Itza. I decided to sleep in. It turned out to be a good decision. After a small breakfast I set off for another acclimatization hike. I passed my previous high point, this time in 50 min. And continued on to the base of the Jamapa Glacier at 16300'. I took a little rest there and continued down with 2 climbers that were returning from the summit. They said that it was extremely windy up high.
Toward summit from low camp
El Sarcafago from low camp 
Toward the summit from base of glacier 
El Sarcafago from base of glacier
Elevation at base of Jamapa Glacier
Back down near the hut I decided to pack up my tent and move to the hut since all the guided climbers were heading out that day. Once they all returned I congratulated the friends I had made and they set off down the mountain. They it was me all alone in the hut and all alone on the mountain.
Summit from inside hut 
My bed
Standard mountain hut
 I made some food and read a bit before I decided to go to bed a bit early since summit day would start at 1:30 am. I didn't sleep at all. I woke up at 1 am, ate a bar, and set off up the mountain, all alone, in the pitch dark.
The start
My world was a 30' diameter circle of pale light. The upper mountain was illuminated by the moon a bit but it was still very erie and dark. I continued up passed my highpoint again and continued the blistering pace. The glacier was easy going climbing.
On the glacier
The snow was in great condition, not to soft, not to hard, and no ice to speak of. This allowed me to head straight up the thing. I would take about 20 steps then take a few breathers to lower my heart rate and continue all over again. I reached the crater rim after about 4 hrs and 15 min and 15 min later I was on the summit, alone and before the sun had risen. I stayed up there for the sunrise and tried to take a picture of myself on the summit.
Glow of the sun toward the ocean
My best summit shot
I dont know Mexico, I think its higher than 18491'
At that point I was truly probably the highest person in North America, since the climbing on the other two mountains was out of season. After enduring the freezing temps as long as I could, I set off back down the mountain. It warmed up a lot once the sun rose. I tried to glissade down the glacier to speed up my decent but the snow was too soft. I ended up just jogging down.
Halfway down the glacier
Toward the ocean
My first pyramid shadow 
El Sarcafago and the moon
Two hrs after I left the summit I was back at the hut. I was really tired so I decided to crawl back in my sleeping bag and take a nap. I was awoken by two older gentlemen who were coming to check out the hut. We talked a bit and I told them about my summit. They congratulated me, and I learned that one of them was a very accomplished climber. He had a couple hundred summits on Orizaba and had summited 6 of the 14 8000m peaks, which are the highest peaks in the world. His friend was a ultra marathon runner. These guys were very impressive. I spent the rest of that day and the next hiking around the base exploring and taking pictures.
Me and Orizaba
The only flowers at 14k
The wonderful toilet facilites


West face from the drive out 
Orizaba 10k above Tlachichuca
The driver picked me up at 2pm after summit day. I spent one more night at Servimont, and headed out the next morning. The bus was much more full this time, and I was lucky I got on so early. Travel went more smoothly this time and by 7 pm I was on the plane down to Argentina.
Mexico was a great trip. I would like to go back and climb some of the other peaks, and maybe do another route on Orizaba, hopefully next time with some good friends.

1 comment:

  1. Great read, awesome pictures. Well done, sir. Looking forward to the Aconcagua post!