| Reaching for a Mexican star
No matter how well you plan, how hard you train or how smart you acclimate for a climb, there will always be factors beyond your control. It can be frustrating, but as I've come to accept, it's par for the course on big mountains.
Near the end of 2009, Jen decided she wanted to climb Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's highest mountain and North America's third-highest mountain. It's also known by its Aztec name of Citlaltépetl, which means Star Mountain.
At first I wasn't entirely keen on the idea. Cartel violence seemed to be at an all-time high and I worried about our safety while traveling in and out of Mexico City. When I read about one state's director of tourism being gunned down along with his bodyguard, I guess I just didn't feel like being a tourist.
But then I realized America wasn't so different. At the time, cops were being murdered – point blank – for no reason. Innocent people were being killed in the name of twisted religions. Parents were murdering their children. And disgruntled employees were blowing away innocent co-workers. I needed a good climb to escape the insanity, and I figured central Mexico was as good as anywhere.
After deciding to climb Orizaba, we immediately thought to invite Jeff (Jeffro) and Deb, who both attempted the mountain in 2002 in less-than-stellar conditions (they were stopped at about 17,000 feet by glass ice on the glacier). Some of you may recall, this was the same time three people died on Orizaba.
Jeff's trip report here:
Gladly, they accepted our invite, and our team of four immediately began training by hitting high peaks in Colorado.
With just a month of training under our belts, we arrived in Mexico City on a rare, smogless day, making it possible to see Izta and Popo – which isn't a common sight, from what I've been told.
Top: Izta and Popo from the Mexico City airport; Bottom: a couple of the many vendors we passed who risk their lives on the road to sell everything from nuts to dolls:
One of the cool things about climbing Orizaba is that you can be driven to the Piedra Grande base camp hut at 13,900'. This allows you to bring a lot of "luxury" items that you wouldn't normally bring for most climbs, as most climbs at this elevation require long approach hikes.
But when we arrived at Servimont we received the bad news. Because of all the recent snowfall, trucks weren't able to make it up to the hut. The group before us had to schlep up all their gear more than 3 miles and a couple thousand feet. Our hut mates from Vermont, who we'd meet later, had it even rougher, as they had to make multiple gear hauls from the park's entrance (the empty cinder block building way down the road). So we had to go through all our gear and pare everything down to what we could carry on our backs.
Fortunately, that evening at dinner, we met a really friendly Mexican family (photo of them toward the end of this report), and they agreed to take some of our gear up to the hut on their ATVs. So even if the truck couldn't make it to the end of the road, maybe our gear would.
Citlaltépetl from Tlachichuca:
Top: Deb and Jen in front of Servimont in Tlachichuca; Bottom: Sunset from the Servimont compound:
Sunday morning we awoke to church bells and chickens. Oh, and the tortilla trucks that drive around town blasting pre-recorded marketing messages from their roof-mounted bullhorns.
Our ride to base camp (from Tlachichuca to Piedra Grande) was rather entertaining. Our driver, Joel, was quite the character, and the friends he picked up along the way were even more entertaining. I wish I got a clip of the one guy riding on the hood ... this'll have to do, though:
Top: One of Joel's friends hopping on for a ride; Bottom: Taking a break near Hidalgo:
As it turned out, Joel was able to drive us all the way to the hut (though the 4x4 drive did get a little dicey in some spots), so we gave him a great tip. And even though we didn't need the services of the ATVing Mexican family, they still had a lot of fun in the snow. I saw both daughters pepper their father with snowballs, probably for the first time in their lives.
Top: Near Hidalgo, with a view of Izta, Popo and La Malinche; Bottom: Shepherd from Hidalgo:
Piedra Grande hut:
Overall, the hut wasn't as bad as I expected. We were lucky to have good hut mates, plus it wasn't very crowded at the time. And while I did see a mouse scamper across the floor one evening, mice weren't much of a problem. Although they did eat some of the food I accidentally left out one day.
View of Orizaba from the hut (most of the route is out of view):
We spent most of our time that first day just melting snow for drinking water. We also hosted many visitors to the hut – mostly Mexicans being driven up by outfitters to check out the abnormal snow. It was kind of fun, even though they looked at us incredulously, as if we were strange zoo animals. And they all thought we were loco for attempting to climb the mountain. But they were all extremely friendly, and they were quick to share whatever they had, everything from food to tequila and wine. In turn, we shared candy and freeze-dried food.
That evening we met our hut mates from Vermont, who had been "hammering away at the mountain" for almost a week. They never made it to the top – but not due to a lack of effort. That was one tough group.
Even though we had less than a day of acclimating at the hut, we decided to make an attempt on the summit the following morning (starting at 1 a.m.) because of the better weather forecast. And if we weren't feeling it, we would just call it our "acclimation hike."
With only a couple hours of sleep, we set off into the dark and windy night at about 1:30 a.m. Stepping outside the safety of the hut was like walking out onto a distant planet. I could hear myself breathe heavily into my jacket, as if it were a respirator. The wind whipped loose snow all around us, causing my eyes to constantly flinch, even though they were protected behind my ski goggles.
Routefinding was difficult. Even with our (Jen and I) bright Black Diamond Spot headlamps, it was difficult to see more than 100 feet at a time. Then Deb's headlamp died, making things more challenging.
After shifting our order, putting Deb in between Jen and me so that she could see, we pushed on up the cold and dark mountain.
For all those that say avalanches are never a concern on Orizaba, just know we passed some major avalanche debris. Some of it can be seen in this photo:
As if they were hung over, both Jen and Deb seemed to be dragging. At 16,200 feet, they both finally threw in the towel. It wasn't really a surprise to Jeff and me, but it was still hard to hear, especially since I was feeling so well and we were making such good time. But there was no question; in situations like that, you just go down.
"Just going down" wasn't so easy, though, as it was still dark out. Long story short, it was quite an adventure in routefinding to navigate our way back down to the hut.
As soon as we made it back, at about 5:45 a.m., we all crashed pretty hard.
In the morning, our handy hut mates from Vermont nailed down that noisy piece of loose metal on the roof (thank god, no more dreams about evil elves slamming trash cans on the roof):
Because Deb wasn't feeling so well, she rode the truck back down to Tlachichuca. Meanwhile, Jen was starting to feel much better. We figured that "acclimation hike," the good nap, and more time acclimating at 14,000' did her some good.
Because we made better-than-expected time on Monday, we decided to leave much later on Tuesday, in the hopes of making it to the Jamapa Glacier at about sunrise. I set my alarm for 1:30 a.m.
I don't know what we were thinking, but it was impossible to hear that watch's alarm over the whipping wind and rattling metal roof. But somehow I woke up on my own at 2:20 a.m., and we were out the door by 3:15 a.m.
Me starting up on Tuesday morning (BTW, because of all the snow, we were able to wear our crampons straight out of the hut):
Once again, routefinding was very difficult in the dark, especially with snowdrifts blowing everywhere.
As we ascended one section of snow, cliffs seemed to close in on us from both sides. We soon figured the correct route was down and to the right, but we didn't want to backtrack, so we continued up, hoping our route would link up with the correct route above the cliff band.
As the snow steepened, it became clear that we were in a narrowing couloir. I worried that a wall of rock would block our progress, but it kept going up, so we kept kicking steps and climbing.
As the couloir steepened above 45 degrees, requiring pick plunges, I became concerned. But, to my relief, that was as steep as it got.
Jeff and Jen, halfway up our "Hourglass" couloir:
After passing the high camp, the Labyrinth was our last obstacle before the Jamapa Glacier. From what I've read, this section is usually a real mess, with scree, rocks and boulders to contend with. But on this day it was covered in snow. So all we had to do was pick a route and head straight up.
I think we chose a nice and steady snow route a few rock ribs to the left of the Sarcófago.
Aside from a few spots where we postholed, the snow was wonderful. And we were all feeling really good – and making good time.
Jen working her way up some snow in the Labyrinth, with the Sarcófago upper-right:
Climbing up the Labyrinth:
Just above the Labyrinth, we felt the wind pick up. Though it was nothing worse than what we had experienced in Colorado in the previous weeks. So we pushed on without a second thought.
Once on the Jamapa Glacier, it was an entirely different story. Just walking – or even standing – was an exercise in futility.
The higher we got, the stronger the wind became. We hunkered down more than we moved.
Above the Labyrinth, with Orizaba's summit in our sights:
Pushing up the Jamapa Glacier:
At this point, there was little we could do beyond just hanging on and riding the earth:
The following link is a vid with a few short clips of the climb above the Labyrinth. The last clip is of Jen hanging onto the Jamapa Glacier.
Being very conservative (as most people overestimate wind speed), winds relentlessly blasted us in the 40+ mph range, and gusts reached well into the 50s. During those strong gusts, upward progress was nearly impossible. We just hung on to the spinning earth and waited for it to let up slightly, and then we would take a few quick steps before getting blasted with ice and pumice, which felt like a group of people throwing sand in our faces as hard as they could, non-stop.
Without a doubt, it was the strongest and most sustained wind I've ever experienced on any mountain in my entire climbing career.
And to make things even more difficult, the wind kept making rapid shifts in its direction.
At one point, I sat there, dug in, for many moments, waiting for a break that never came. I looked at Jen and she wasn't moving. Neither was Jeff.
Then I started doing some math, which isn't an easy thing for me to do at sea level, let alone at 17,300 feet. With more than a thousand feet to go, I figured it would take us at least a couple hours to make it to the summit and back to where we were. But that was if we could actually move, which we couldn't. So even though I worried about nastier weather rolling in, based on the dark clouds on all sides of the mountain, time wasn't really the concern. It was being blown off the mountain. Especially near the summit, where we could've easily been blown off the mountain into the deep crater.
When Jeff basically said the exact same thing to me – that it would take far too long to get up and back down safely – I knew our climb was over. At 8:15 a.m., at about 17,300 feet, we had no choice but to turn around.
Here are some short clips of the insanely strong winds blowing over Orizaba's summit (white peak in the middle, way back), taken from base camp at Piedra Grande. Keep in mind, the summit is 4,600 vertical feet above this vantage point and many miles away, and most of the clouds you see are blowing right over the summit. The last clip was taken inside the hut, just to give you an idea of how loud the roof was (and this was after some climbers nailed down a loud piece of loose metal that flapped and banged loudly in the wind).
It was a disheartening decision to turn around, but we unanimously decided it was the smartest and safest thing to do. The mountain just didn't want us up there for some reason, and we heeded the message.
After hiking back down a ways, to where the wind was less intense, Jeff took this photo of Jen and me:
And then I took this photo of Jeff and Jen, with the Sarcófago in the background:
Coupla' photos from our descent:
More avalanche debris:
A look back on the short "Hourglass" couloir we climbed (correct route goes to the right in the foreground, then up above the cliff bands and then to the left):
Almost back down to the hut:
A look back at the hut and the mountain from farther down the road:
Top: Packing up at Piedra Grande; Bottom: Unloading at Servimont:
Driving through Tlachichuca to Mexico City:
Even though we didn't make it to the top of Orizaba, it was good to know that it wasn't because of a lack of preparation, skills, conditioning or training, but because of something beyond our control. And the remaining 1,200 feet or so was no more difficult than anything we had already encountered. In fact, the snow was ideal for cramponing.
But the way I see it, Citlaltépetl just wanted to give us a little taste, and it didn't allow us on its summit because it wanted us to return one day.
While I do plan to return for Round 2 someday, I truly enjoyed this trip, including the time we spent before and after our climb. And even though we didn't make it to the very top, it was one of the most amazing climbs I've ever experienced.
After the climb, with most of a day to kill in Tlachichuca before driving back to Mexico City, Deb came up with the great idea of bringing food to some of the poorest people of Zoapan (the small town you pass through on the way to Piedra Grande).
"In your planning for this trip," Jeff said to me, "I bet you never thought you'd be carrying 45 pounds of tortillas through Tlachichuca." It was true. And it was a surreal experience: feeling a lot of Mexican eyeballs staring at me; breathing hard and feeling my sore shoulders as I carried those heavy bags of tortillas through town.
In the market:
We gave 20 different families tortillas, rice, beans, noodles, leftover hiking food and candy. It was an amazing experience and it felt good to give back to the area, even if it was just a little.
Here are some pics of some of the families we met:
Here are some random images of Servimont (with some images of the defunct soap factory equipment):
And here are some random images of Tlachichuca:
Jen and I have been to Mexico more than a half-dozen times, but always to the coastal resort cities. Central Mexico was like a completely different place. It really gave us a taste of the "real" Mexico. The people we met were so giving and friendly. They laughed a lot and they were always quick to share whatever they had, even if it wasn't much, with no expectation of anything in return.
Some of the very friendly people we met …
Our hut mates from Vermont and Carlitos from Hidalgo:
Gear we were really glad we brought, beyond the obvious necessary equipment:
-Ear plugs (for sleeping in the Servimont bunkhouse and the Piedra Grande hut)
-Black Diamond Spot headlamps (great for routefinding in the dark)
-Plastic boots with Intuition liners (endured temps in the single digits with wind chills well below zero)
-Ski goggles (for the blasting/drifting snow and pumice)
-One market we went to in town only took Pesos. Another market took US Dollars. It's good to carry both.
-Servimont only accepted cash, and they only took bills in good condition (they claimed the banks won't accept bad-looking bills). They wouldn't take one of Jeff's $100 bills because it had a small tear in it, and they wouldn't take one of mine that was kind of rubbed off on the front. So only bring good bills, or bring extra money, just in case.
-At Servimont, the food was tasty and the service was excellent. Everyone was very friendly. Best molé sauce I've ever had … went great with the scrambled eggs and chorizo.
-We brought rope, pickets and ice screws as an insurance policy, but didn't need any of it.
-Most of the people we encountered spoke at least some English, but it was really nice being with Jeff and Deb who are fluent in Spanish.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):