| Espolon de Oro (The Ridge of Gold)
OK, looks easy enough.
The private messages I spewed after summiting Mt. Rainier last July could amicably be referred to as “ambitious,” though a realist who lacks my southern sensibilities might have rather said “the rantings and ravings of an overzealous idiot.” The world was my oyster, and at 26 I figured I wasn’t getting any younger. Strike while the iron is hot. Carpe Diem. So many mountains, so little time. Other tripe clichés.
Luckily, I surround myself with great people like Fletch, who didn’t waste much time slapping me back into the slow lane. The path to any significant goal requires a series of small steps. He pointed me in the direction of more suitable targets, and before long Mexico’s 18,491-foot Orizaba sifted to the forefront. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cheaper way to test how your body responds to altitude.
One good thing came of those initial PMs: I discovered the long-term goals and ambitions of my regular Colorado climbing partners. It seemed Rob Jansen and I would be continuing to follow a similar path. We’d discussed Orizaba intently (not to mention Ecuador or the Alps as a subsequent trip), and we were close to buying plane tickets for February/March at the time of his death. Orizaba fell to the wayside while more important matters were considered.
The idea was picked back up a few weeks later when Emily, fresh off her own Rainier summit in September, started putting on the full-court press for a next adventure. The only change to me and Rob's original plan would be an earlier attempt, over Thanksgiving. Wanting a bigger team, we put out feelers and immediately hooked Matt (I Man), who wanted to try himself up high before heading to Peru this summer. Keegan (AlpineDude) joined shortly thereafter, with Bill (wildlobo71) rounding out the party at the last minute.
Emily is fluent in Spanish. The rest of us aren't. Almost all of my prior international travel was in Europe, and I was completely unprepared for the lack of English-speakers south of the border. Know Spanish or go with someone who does. It's almost a requirement.
I packed my summit Dale’s Pale Ale and we took off for Mexico on Thanksgiving Day. We had the following itinerary in mind, thanks to beta provided by numerous former Orizaba climbers:
Day 1: Travel from Denver to Mexico City to Tlachichuca, the town at the base of the mountain
Day 2: Travel from Tlachichuca to the Piedra Grande Hut basecamp at 13,900’ and complete a short acclimatization hike
Day 3: Another acclimatization hike, or depending on how we felt, a summit attempt
Day 4: Summit attempt or a rest day if we were successful on Day 3
Day 5: Built-in extra day for use in case of a failed summit, with nearby 17er Iztaccihuatl (Ixta) or cultural sightseeing also as possibilities
Day 6: Return to Denver
Day 7: Hate work
When arriving in Mexico City with Orizaba on the agenda, you have two options. You can either hire an expensive private driver (roughly $150-200/person) to take you directly to Tlachichuca, or you can take a bus from the airport to Puebla ($20) and a second bus from Puebla to Tlachichuca ($5). Since I was climbing Orizaba three months earlier than planned and hadn’t had time to save much dough, I was the constant advocate of cutting corners. Side tip: convert your money beyond customs, not at the first place you see upon arrival or in the U.S. The rate is much better. Anyway, the bus it was.
We had zero problems, and at the risk of offending several friends who staunchly advised a private driver, I consider it a waste of $150. The bus from Mexico City to Puebla is so fancy you get checked-luggage tags (no one but you can claim your bags), a movie, a clean bathroom, snacks and bottled water. It felt comparable to riding the Bolt Bus for anyone familiar with the Northeast. The ride from Puebla to Tlachichuca was slightly sketchier and lacked checked-luggage tags, but we sat over the baggage compartment and watched intently at every stop. Our caution was superfluous. We were never given cause to be uncomfortable.
Our fivesome arrived in Tlachichuca after 12 hours of travel at about 7 p.m. If you take nothing else away from this report, listen up: STAY AT THE CANCHOLA’S CLIMBER HOSTEL. The website is www.summitorizaba.com. For $185 apiece, we received transportation to/from basecamp (a two-hour ride each way on a rough jeep road), two nights lodging, four delicious home-cooked meals, half-priced and abundant beer, hot showers, a secure place to leave our belongings (including passports) while on the mountain, four 19L jugs of water, two bottles of white gas and the limitless hospitality of the wonderful Maribel Canchola.
Thanksgiving dinner in Tlachichuca.
We settled into our rooms, chased down a multi-course feast with muchos Coronas and spent an hour or two exploring Tlachichuca. It was the annual festival of St. Cecilia, so we were treated to live street music and a carnival atmosphere. We were there to do business, however, and before long we retired to our beds with a 10 a.m. jeep ride scheduled to the Piedra Grande Hut.
Since we’d arrived after dark, we were treated to our first up-close-and-personal views of the mountain the next morning. Wow. It rises 10,000’ in a sheer cone only a few dozen miles from Tlachichuca. Our bellies full of another home-cooked meal and our gear repacked for basecamp, we once again hit the road. The trip to 13,900' goes quickly. It’s tedious and jarring, but you’re treated to stunning views almost the entire ride.
Bill, Keegan and Matt talking logistics with Maribel.
Hola, mi amor.
Arriving at the Piedra Grande Hut.
We were dropped at the Piedra Grande Hut at about 12 p.m., where we were shocked by something other than the mountain. Basecamp was a ghost town. On a gorgeous Friday during the peak climbing season and a long American holiday, we were the only people in sight. What gives? A quick tour of the hut turned up only two bedrolls, which ended up belonging to a guide and his wife/girlfriend. All our worrying about keeping gear secure at basecamp was thrown out the window.
We established residency in the smaller yellow hut and pitched two tents around it. The guide came back down from an acclimatization hike not long after. After trading a few courtesies, we felt comfortable he wasn’t a bandito intent on robbing our camp and set off on an acclimatization excursion of our own.
Inside the Piedra Grande Hut.
The smaller structure we took over. We placed two tents outside.
Route: Espolon de Oro / Ridge of Gold
RT Distance: 6.5 miles
RT Gain: 4,500'
RT Time: 12 hours (1.5 on summit)
Climbers: Emily (Emily), Keegan (AlpineDude), Matt (I Man), Bill (wildlobo71)
The altitude had immediately made itself known. Just carrying the 19L jugs of water a few hundred feet to camp set the lungs to heaving. It felt like we were, well, standing on top of a Colorado Centennial. Because we were.
We carried heavy packs for our acclimatization hike because we considered a trip into the snow-and-ice covered Labyrinth a possibility. Crampons and ice axes were needed. Despite the altitude, once we got moving we hardly noticed it. We paused shortly to commemorate our new personal high-points at 14,500’ and made it to the first of many high camps around 15,200’ in about an hour and a half. The trail up to this point was mostly miserable scree, but it was easy enough to follow. It was decided to make a summit attempt the next day. Thoughts turning to sleep and food, most of our party called it good there, but I hiked up another few hundred feet to take a closer look at the Labyrinth.
Scouting the Labyrinth during an acclimatization hike.
Like similar areas in Colorado, the Labyrinth is cairned to death. The problem is the cairns don’t necessarily lead to the correct route, or anywhere at all. I spent some time studying a couloir that looked like it would go, but 40-degree ice convinced me to search for an alternative. Further to climber’s left I discovered a trail of wands that looked like it led up a section of easy rock bands that required minimal time on steep ice. The way found, I returned to the group and we descended to camp for a 7 p.m. bedtime.
I’m not convinced I slept at all, and if I did it was for an hour or less. Most others reported the same, though Matt said he slept well. For me at least, the 1:15 a.m. alarm came as a welcome, merciful end to a high-altitude vigil.
As it always does, getting geared up in the pre-dawn dark took longer than planned. We finally set off up the trail at 2:20 a.m. We encountered minimal difficulties retracing our steps of the day before, and two hours later we were strapping on crampons at the base of the aptly named Labyrinth.
Following the wanded route proved much more difficult than anticipated. Class 3/4 rock alternatives did exist, but most of our time was spent on bulletproof snow. Our pace slowed to a crawl as we battled from wand to wand. Some of the sections we found ourselves on required front-pointing on ice at or above 40 degrees, with rocks and cliffs yawning below. The scariest moment was when Emily watched her headlamp skitter down the ice while traversing a steep section to reach a rock band. Working as a team, we got her up to Keegan, who was carrying a spare. The fight continued.
We topped out on our harrowing route just as dawn was starting to tease. We switched off our headlamps as we picked the easiest way across soft volcanic dust and loose talus to the base of the glacier, where we took another long break to throw on puffys.
Buenas Dias from Keegan and I, at the base of the Jamapa Glacier.
From guiding company blogs and first-hand beta from Ryan Marsters and Andrew Reed, who summited Orizaba the previous Monday, we knew the snow was in appalling condition. The standard Jamapa Glacier route wasn’t even “in” because of bulletproof ice. The wanded route instead went around way to the right, following a slight variation called the Espolon de Oro (Ridge of Gold). Emily shot like a bullet straight up the glacier because she’s Wonder Woman or something, while the rest of us began switchbacking up the hard snow from wand to wand. The Ridge of Gold was a sustained 35 to 40 degrees, reaching 45 near the top. The snow barely accepted our crampon points. A slip without an immediate self-arrest would have resulted in a long, painful ride. We stepped carefully.
Until about 17,500', the altitude was somewhat irrelevant. It simply felt like being on the last few hundred feet of a high 14er. That changed for the final thousand feet. My 100 paces before a break dwindled to 70, then 60, and finally 40. My steady rest step slowed. Even Emily was held to a somewhat-human rate of ascent. Still, no one had anything resembling a headache or other symptoms of AMS, so upward we plodded.
Up we go. Emily, me and Keegan.
Emily above 17,000'.
I wonder why it's so cold...
18,000' is sort of high up.
Above 18,000’, moving too fast resulted in waves of nausea and the sensation of being choked. Maintaining a steady, slow, rhythmic rest step was key. If that was done, the altitude wasn’t much of an issue. By locking my knees for a count of “one-mississippi” between steps, I was able to keep full lungs and return to an 80-pace goal before breaks. Everyone else seemed to have figured this out as well, and Emily once again bolted off into the distance. She topped out around 8:40 a.m.
I followed at 8:50 a.m., roughly 6.5 hours after setting out. Matt and Keegan joined us a bit after 9 a.m. and Bill arrived around 9:30. Success for our whole team on a mountain more than 4,000’ higher than all our previous highpoints – on an abbreviated schedule – exceeded our wildest expectations. It was a jubilant summit.
Sun, you're such a tease.
Matt and Keegan taking their final steps to the summit crater.
Well, except for my toes. The toe box of my right boot was peeling away ever-so-slightly, just enough to let a little moisture in. My right sock had become wet much earlier and I hadn’t noticed losing feeling in my big toe, mostly because my left foot was so warm. We’d been in the shade all morning, finally reaching sunlight on the summit. I’m beyond lucky we had a clear, windless, warm day. I was able to re-warm my waxy-white big toe using a combination of massaging, body heat and toewarmers. To add to my good fortune, Keegan had a pair of dry socks. If there had been even a slight wind, or if clouds had blocked the sun, I don’t doubt my frostnip would have developed into full-blown frostbite. Lesson learned: even though I can get by on such mountains with La Sportiva Glaciers, it’s not worth the risk. That was scary. Some LS Nepals are in my near future.
Once the pain of screaming barfies in my toes subsided and I had feeling back about an hour later, I remembered I had a camera. The summit photos commenced. We shared the top with only one other fellow, the guide from the day before. He went down before 9:30 and for a glorious hour we were almost assuredly the highest people in North America. Before departing, the guide, who claimed he couldn't count how many times he'd climbed Orizaba, said the mountain was in one of the most difficult states he'd ever seen. We started down at 10:30 a.m.
Warming up my frost-nipped toe.
The summit crater, and the Gulf of Mexico hidden by clouds.
Group summit shot (L-R Emily, Jeff, Matt, Keegan, Bill).
For Rob Jansen.
Starting reluctantly down. Yes, that's the hut 4,500' below.
Keegan, Matt and Bill descending.
The sun was finally shining its warmth upon us and we could see for hundreds of miles. Far, far below, we could even pick out the Piedra Grande Hut, which now seemed to be teeming with activity. We were glad to have thrown all our stuff in the tents and bound the zippers with luggage locks. But the safety of our gear was far from our minds, with the summit of Orizaba in our pockets, the air warming, and views of distant Popo and Ixta crooning to our soaring hearts. It was a pleasurable walk down the glacier, to say the lea – OH HOLY JESUS I ALMOST FELL INTO THAT CREVASSE.
Yeah, you don't need crevasse rescue gear on the Jamapa.
We took another long break once off the glacier, none of us looking forward to descending the horrific Labyrinth. We decided to try to find a different route down, perhaps the initial couloir I’d studied the day before. Six Mexican climbers who’d turned back because the glacier was too icy were waiting for us at the top of the Labyrinth, hoping we’d show them the way down. Turns out that was a mistake for them. In the off chance they read this, uh…sorry.
We started with good intentions, with Matt and I both scouting separate-but-close routes down and checking every now and again to make sure the Mexicans were following. Eventually we became mired once again in the maze of ice and snow. Matt and Keegan did find the couloir I’d studied, but not without a valiant effort and excellent routefinding. They then made their way down 35- and 40-degree ice to relatively safety. I, with Emily and Bill following, ended up cliffed out above an icefall.
Emily and Bill "enjoying" the Labyrinth.
One of the Mexicans was with us, Carlos, but I’d long since lost track of his teammates, focusing too intently on finding a feasible route for my own friends. I hope they made it down all right.
Climbing back up above the icefall, I finally located a Class 3 downclimb into an overhanging cave-like area that led to Matt and Keegan’s couloir. A few more minutes of carefully negotiating moderate ice saw us in a safe area where we could remove our helmets and crampons. We finally let ourselves relax – we’d climbed Orizaba!
Keegan returning victorious to basecamp.
Shockingly, the deserted mountain we’d enjoyed for the previous 20-something hours had transformed into a swarming ant-hill. Two large guided groups were practicing self-arrest. Everywhere we looked, climbers were coming up, going down or lounging in the sun. Turns out we’d made the right call attempting the summit Saturday rather than Sunday.
We set our own paces down the mountain. Matt popped in his earbuds and motored off, still bounding with energy. Emily and I went a bit slower, enjoying the views and nursing screaming feet and legs. Keegan and Bill followed not far behind. The entire party arrived back at camp sometime between 2 and 2:30 p.m., making our very rough RT time about 12 hours, including 1-2 on the summit.
To our wonderment, the Canchola’s yellow jeep was at the hut waiting for us. We’d scheduled our pickup for Sunday, but left a note on the hut door saying we were trying the summit Saturday and if feasible would appreciate a ride down in the afternoon. The poor driver had been waiting on us since 10 a.m.! I REPEAT: STAY AT THE CANCHOLA’S HOSTEL. SummitOrizaba.com.
We packed our gear as quickly as we could, not even pausing to rest or eat. The mountain was now overflowing with people. The camp we’d shared with the guide and his girlfriend/wife and the late-arriving six Mexicans now was a full-blown village with a population pushing 50. Even so, none of our gear – which was locked in our tents – was disturbed. I left my stove set up in the Piedra Grande Hut and it, too, was exactly where I remembered it.
The jeep ride down was pure ecstasy. We aired out barking feet, gorged ourselves on junk food, enjoyed startling views of the 18,500-foot mountain we’d just climbed and had hot showers and another Maribel Canchola home-cooked meal waiting for us. Not to mention a fridge full of cold beer.
Donde esta cervezas?
With a rest day on Sunday, we could easily recover enough to try Ixta on Monday. We explored every possible avenue. That mountain, it turns out, is much more difficult to reach than Orizaba. The only easy option is hiring a private driver, and by that point we were all running low on funds. We spend nearly half a day trying to figure out a cheap way to reach the trailhead town of La Joya, but it just wasn’t happening. We retreated back to Mexico City via buses at around noon Sunday, still hoping we’d be able to hire a cheap taxi or find a bus to La Joya from there.
Our hopes were dashed. The will to climb Ixta beaten into submission, we decided instead to “settle” for sightseeing on Monday. Emily’s friend from college, Ellie, is a teacher in Mexico City, and she graciously let us crash at her swanky apartment in the very safe Condesa neighborhood. After a night of imbibing, we got a late start on Monday and headed to the Zocalo, one of the biggest city squares in the world.
View from our balcony in Mexico City. Thanks Ellie.
The Zocalo and what I'm going to go ahead and assume is the world's biggest flag.
Unfortunately, all the museums we wanted to see are closed on Mondays. No worries. We hopped on a couple of buses and headed instead to Teotihuacan, a famous Mesoamerican ruins site about an hour outside of the city. It’s home to three famous pyramids: the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Soured by not being able to try Ixta, by golly, we were going to summit those damn pyramids. I’m pretty sure the Pyramid of the Sun comes close to being ranked.
Pyramid of the Sun.
From the "summit" of the Pyramid of the Moon.
We returned to Ellie’s in the early evening and had some more tacos from a place that claims to have invented meat on a stick. She then took us to a mescal bar where we were able to snack on fried grasshoppers. Mmmm. Protein. Fiending to watch my Panthers on Monday Night Football, the night concluded at Guadalupe Reyes, a bar directly below Ellie’s apartment that specializes in football americano and $3 Negra Modelo.
All good things must come to an end. We packed our gear the next morning and headed back to the aeropuerto for our 1:20 p.m. flight back to the U.S. The experience could not have been better. We summited our intended mountain, immersed ourselves in a culture that is rife with friendly people and watched Cam Newton finally get his act together. Not to mention, the entire trip cost me less than $800, including airfare.
Thanks to Keegan, Bill, Emily and Matt for an unforgettable trip. Each of you were invaluable to the climbing party and added greatly to my enjoyment off the mountain. Let’s hammer back some more Pacificos soon.
Now, to find a way to put all these extra red blood cells to use back here in lowly Colorado this weekend…
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):