| Mexican Volcanoes
Day 0 – Last Minute Training
Collin and I went up to Loveland Pass in Colorado (elevation 11,990) and walked up to Sniktau, at an elevation of 13,234. The wind was gusty and stiff, which would turn out to be good training for later in the week. After Sniktau, we descended back to the pass and went up the west side to Point 12,600 where we relaxed for a while to breathe some relatively thin air.
Day 1 – Travel
My flight somehow ended up being routed through Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This decision was made by a computer that told me it was the most economical alternative. This turned out not to be true.
I drove through a spring blizzard to Denver International Airport, somehow made my flight which only left about 30 minutes late. My connecting flight in Cabo was scheduled to leave on time, which made some people nervous. As the plane doors opened, the loudspeaker came on and called out "Mr. Burger, you have a very tight connecting flight, please make your way to the front of the plane. Attention all passengers, please clear the aisle for Mr. Burger."
This was quite a treat for me and I made my way through the aisle greeting and thanking people with some typical Spanish phrases. Most of the tourists on the plane didn't seem to understand me, but it didn't diminish my enthusiasm at my excellent treatment. An employee of Mexicana Airlines greeted me at the airplane door and wisked me away, past the long lines at the immigration station and to the entrance to the terminal, assuring me that my checked baggage was taken care of. It turns out that national and international flights leave from different terminals at Cabo and it was a good thing I had my escort! I have no idea how long it would have taken if I was left to my own resources, but my escort put me in a van that drove me about a ˝ mile to the other terminal. I rushed through security with my carry on bag. Then I waited about a half hour until the plane boarded for Mexico City.
I arrived in Mexico City and waited in vain for my checked bag. It turns out it did not make the connection. I filled out the lost baggage form and went to find Collin. The upside of all this was I did get some excellent opportunities to practice my Spanish, although all of the costumer service representatives made me revert to English fairly rapidly after they figured out my Spanish was somewhat lacking.
Collin and I rented the car and headed straight out of Mexico City. We managed not to get lost until the town of Texcala, where the signage of the roads baffled us. Eventually we found the main road again, but that is another story.
By this time it was getting quite late, so we ate dinner, wandered the zocola of some small town, and slept in a hotel for the night.
Day 2 – La Malinche (14,640 feet)
Finally some talk about climbing mountains!
But climbing is only a small portion of the adventure and enjoyment of a Mexican Volcano trip!
For those who get bored and read no further, and assume climbing volcanoes in Mexico is pretty routine, please read this short discourse. Acclimatization, I strongly believe, is the key to success on these mountains. My impression is that acclimatization problems stop summit attempts on Pico de Orizaba much more frequently than potential problems with food, water, weather, Montezuma's revenge, and logistics.
After a brief and unintentional driving tour through some small town near the La Malinche national park, we eventually ascertained directions from the helpful locals and found the correct road, which seemed to be completely unmarked. After finding the proper road, the route up La Malinche was pleasant, although somewhat dusty.
La Malinche is an excellent mountain. The standard route ascends the northern side of the mountain and is a well beaten trail most of the way. Once on the summit, the views are spectacular. The eastern, southern, and western sides of the mountain are steep. Enormous gendarmes and deep canyons make for spectacular scenery. We noticed a significant difference in visibility between the early morning and afternoon. Thick haze forms during the day and lessens the views of Pico, Popo and Izta.
It seems that some climbers have slightly different views on littering and preservation of scenery. La Malinche, and the other volcanoes in Mexico, have been subjected to some graffiti and there is litter. We collected a bag of litter on the way down and there is still some for you to collect if you go to these wonderful places.
After the climb we ate at the little restaurant (Restaurant Julio Cesar) at the trailhead. It was the best meal we had on the trip from caloric quantity, taste, economic, and aesthetic standpoints.
Day 2 then threw us a curve ball, as after several stops at phone booths, several failed attempts at making phone calls, and finally success, I ascertained that my bag had arrived in Mexico City but they had no interest in shipping it to anywhere where I was going. This bag contained my pack, sleeping bag, tent, food, stove, crampons, ice axe, …
So we drove into Mexico City to the airport. As would be expected, this was not the most pleasant thing to do for an evening. Stories of driving in Mexico City probably are better never told. I'll cut it down to this – we eventually drove to about 11,300 feet and camped on Ixta after retrieving the bag and several stops to ask directions in Amecimaca.
Day 3 – Vamos a Iztaccihautl
We drove the remaining road, checked in at the National Park and paid our 20 peso park fee. We set up the tents at La Joya and walked up to about 16,000 feet on Ixta. Finally a day comprised mostly of mountains! Popo is impressive from the trail up to Ixta.
We met two guys from the US who were up acclimatizing for Pico de Orizaba. We also met a Mexican who was sleeping at the hut?? Which is at about 15,500 feet. He was very friendly and told us what he knew of the route. There was a large group that we could see on a high ridge which turned out to be the Mexican army doing some training. These guys came down from up very high after dark, with headlamps and ice axes! Now that is some serious army training.
Sunset is very nice from La Joya.
Day 4 – Iztacihautl (17,159 feet)
The two guys from the US that we met the day before had asked us, "What are you training for?" When we said we were going to climb Ixta the next day and then Pico, they said "Oh. Most people who come here are training for something else."
They were nice guys, but they may have been missing the point. Our climb of Iztacihautl was the highlight of the trip for me. Ixta is a huge mountain. We started at 3:15 am which turned out to be a great time to start. Since there were a couple of bathroom breaks, maybe due to the street vendor food in Amecameca the night before, we ended up near the Grupo de los Cien hut (about 15,500 feet) at sunrise. It is a spectacular place to watch a sunrise, as Pico de Orizaba and La Malenche are to the east and the lights of Mexico City are to the west. Amazing.
We spent over 3 hours over 16,500 feet, wandering along the massive mountain from Los Rodillas (the knees), across La Estomaga (the stomach), and finally to the gigantic area of Las Pechas (the breasts) which consists of three summits with a beaughtiful glacier in the middle. Without a level, it was impossible to tell by eye which of the three summits was highest.
The glaciers maybe aren't what they were in the past, and it did seem that some of the glacier routes that Secor describes have deteriorated. The "Directa a la Pecha" route still has a glacier, but melting has left the ice covered with cobbles and gravel. Ice still exists underneath these materials, but it looked unpleasant. It did appear that a track had been laid across it, probably earlier in the season when snow was present.
We carried ice axes and crampons, but never put on the crampons. We used the ice axes across the high glacier ice fields. There are crevasess, but they are shallow and not significant. We had excellent clear weather, but the trip from Las Rodillas to the Las Pechas, or back, would make for some very tricky route finding if a cloud moved in! The descent is dependant on finding the large iron cross below Las Rodillas as being off route would result in some tricky down climbing of rock.
After the climb of Ixta, we drove over to Tlachichuca. This wasn't quite as simple as it sounded, due to the issues gringos sometimes have driving in Mexico. After a minor detour part way to Veracruz, we found our way.
Supposedly we had made arrangement with an outfit to take us up to Pico. However, Collin had been making inquiries for some months and finally received a response the week before our trip. His response detailing our anticipated itinerary was not answered and we did not have an address to go to. We arrived in Tlachichuca and drove straight to the Zocolo. A brief conversation with some friendly local police resulted in a police escort to a guide outfit/hotel named, appropriately, Citlapetl (the old Aztec name for Pico de Orizaba).
We arranged for the transportation for the next day. Tlachichuca is a charming little town. I highly recommend the fresh squeezed orange juice. We took ours as half orange and half carrot, which was too good to describe.
Day 5 – Piedra Grande
So we were up early in the morning, but not as early as the next day. After packing, breakfasting, purchasing last minute supplies (batteries and toilet paper) we loaded into a Jeep Wagoneer ably driven by Joaquim (the owner of Citlapetl). Also in the jeep were El Oso (Roberto Flores Rodriguez) and his other guide. They were going up to meet their guided clients who were already at Piedra Grande (just under 14,000 feet) acclimatizing (or trying to!).
The road to Piedra Grande is an impressive drive. The mountain looms spectacularly over the road that winds through farmland, then forest is comprised of tall, straight and elegant trees with intermittent glimpses of the mountain. Then the landscape transitions to high alpine shrublands and meadows.
At the Piedra Grande hut we met two guys from the US who were on there way out. They told us about the route up through the Labrynthe and told their story. Apparently they had spent about 4 days at the hut but had been fighting a cold which prevented them from making a summit attempt. It seems that they had headed straight to Piedra Grande without acclimatizing on other mountains.
We took a walk up the mountain to the Labrynthe and checked out the route. We ran into a father and son climbing team who had a high camp at about 16,000 feet, maybe higher, who had been scouting the route. We set wands in the Labrynthe, which were nice to follow the next day when we went up before daylight.
We slept in the hut, which with the dozen people that slept in it that night, was spacious enough. With more people, I imagine it could be quite a zoo. The wind howled intermittently and unmercifully after dark, when we were trying to sleep. The sleeping did not work very well, if at all. Oddly, the wind quieted down about 1 am and the guided folks headed on out. This woke us up, of course, so we decided to go as well.
Day 6 The Climb
We left at 1:45 am and I left my sleeping bag for the use of a group of three Czechoslavakian zoologists who seemed unprepared. They made use of the bag and left it smelling better than before, and even stuffed it into the stuff sack for me.
We did talk to Juan, who was El Oso's gear watcher and he agreed to watch our gear. We tipped Juan later and also had some fun practicing our Spanish with him. He is a good guy.
How to describe the climb? Of the eight who left that morning with summit ambitions (10 if you include the 2 guides) we were the only two to summit. Am I bragging? I hope it doesn't come across that way. I put our success solely on our acclimatization plan. Being able to climb to about 1,500 feet (500 meters) higher each day really does work well. As it should, because this is what the conventional wisdom of climbing recommends. This knowledge was hard earned by other climbers and I think we should use it. We ended up climbing a total of about 18,500 vertical feet during the whole trip, to get to 18,500 feet above sea level. Something about the way the numbers came out just seems right.
Well, we may have had a little luck as well. Conditions on the glacier were very good, El Oso had not seen better glacier conditions in a while. The route through the Labrynthe was pretty well established and we had set wands to guide us. Other climbers were on the mountain, so we had some comfort level that in case of accident, a rescue would not be terribly difficult.
We assessed conditions as we went. We put on crampons below the Labrynthe due to the ice in the couliour. After the Labrynthe is a bare section that resulted from the recent glacier retreat. We arrived on the glacier somewhere around 16,500 to 17,000 feet. The entire climb we did not feel the need to rope up. High winds began soon after we encountered the glacier. Thanks to the excellent advice of El Oso, we knew that the best route at the time was to stay to the west and gain the ridge along the Ruta Espinosa.
Crevasses on the Jamapa Glacier are not like I have seen before. They seem to predominantly run vertically, along the fall line of the slope. In some areas on the mountain they veared eastward but were still ascending in elevation. The glacier appears to creep eastward while the fall line is to the south. The largest crevasse we encountered was perhaps a foot wide and appeared to be no more than 10 feet deep. We felt that roping up on the glacier was not needed because of the comparatively soft and rough nature of the slope. Glissading on the descent was not an option, as when I made an attempt to glissade on the descent I found myself sitting and admiring the view.
The real difficulty of the climb was the wind. The wind was from the west at a very steady and hearty rate. Upon arriving at the glacier, we quickly donned face masks, hoods, and heavy gloves. Temperatures on my thermometer were between 10 and 15 degrees F. We managed to take a couple of summit photos!
We summitted around 9 am. If the wind had been reasonable, I could have spent hours up there. The crater is incredible, it appeared to be at least 500, maybe 1000 feet deep. The views from the summit are amazing. During sunrise the shadow of Pico de Orizaba is cast out directly towards Popocatapetl and Iztaccihautl and appears to be reaching for them.
Picture taking with digital cameras was problematic, due to their poor operation in very cold temperatures and the fact that hands (even with liner gloves) became very cold very fast!
The descent was rapid, and the guided group waited until we were safely off of the glacier before descending. The people we encountered, guides and climbers, were great folks and all gave excellent advice and friendly discussion.
The size of Pico de Orizaba should not be underestimated. If conditions on the glacier were not good and we needed to rope up or use running belays, this mountain could be dangerous and immensely more difficult. However, with the quality of people we met while on the mountain, I have no doubt that this is a safe endevour for the qualified mountaineer. The descent from Piedra Grande was fun. Joaquim gave us the special treatment and brought up the old Dodge!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):