Climbing the Highest Peak in Mexico
Flap, slap, flap, slap. The Kerlon fabric of my Hilleberg Nallo 2 tent was flapping and slapping in the wind making it impossible for me to get any sleep. I tried stuffing tissue paper in my ears to deaden the noise, but the high pitched sounds penetrated my head as though I had used a pair of megaphones instead of improvised earplugs. I popped a Benadryl hoping to induce sleep chemically, but even drugs failed to offset the arrhythmic cacophony of rattling nylon. As the wind waned and gained speed the lulls and highs tormented me with dashed hopes and false expectations. Just when I thought things were settling down, crash-boom-bang, it would resume in earnest. Ugh!
The moon, just one day shy of being full, shone brightly in my tent effectively eliminating any chance of falling asleep. The dancing light and chasing shadows waltzed and swooned inside my manmade shelter like a bedazzling cabaret show. Occasionally the ground shook violently, causing me to wonder if the mountain was erupting. Of course, it was only a particularly strong gust threatening to unearth my terrestrial purchase. So, there I lay, twisting and turning in a cocoon of goose feathers, hunkered down at 14,000 feet on a supposedly dormant Mexican volcano, waiting for Chris to stop by and wake me up so we could start climbing Orizaba.
Pico de Orizaba, at 18,500 feet, is Mexico’s highest peak. It’s also the third highest peak in North America. Alaska’s Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest, and Canada’s Mount Logan, at 19,541 feet, is the second highest. The precise altitude of a mountain is difficult to ascertain, which accounts for why the “official” height of any given peak can vary as much as 500 feet. A cursory search of the web makes it clear that Orizaba’s posted elevation fluctuates more than most. Everyone agrees, however, that Orizaba is more than 18,000 feet but less than 19,000 feet. So, that’s why I opt to call it 18,500 feet, even though my tee shirt lists it at 18,700 feet.
Neither Mark nor Michael were able to accompany me on this climb, so, on 12 January 2006, I boarded America West flight 173 in Phoenix, Arizona, a 3 hour, 1200 mile flight that marked the beginning of a solo journey that would land me on a glaciated volcano, a caldron of fire and ice. I sat next to a Cuban refugee, named Augusto, who was making a killing in Las Vegas as a bartender. He’s an aeronautical engineer by trade. “Uh-mare-ree-ka, she is one-dare-fool,” he gesticulated in accented English. In the middle of the night, to escape persecution, he hazarded swimming across Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. Naval Base, the oldest foreign base, and the only one located on Communist soil. He left behind a son, which, after 11 years, he is still hoping can join him “soon”.
Mexico City, where we touched down without a glitch, is a culture of contrasts and extremes. Its metropolitan population of 20 million mestizos, the Aztec-Spanish descendants of native and foreign parentage, is composed of the very rich and the very poor. The land, once a prolific farm, is now covered with colorful shanty shacks, magnificent mansions, commercial high rise buildings, and catholic and federal centers of power. Though surrounded by an infrastructure of steel and concrete, and suffocating in an atmosphere of toxic fumes, the virulent valley still manages to nourish a host of indigenous trees, shrubs, and flowering plants. In spite of the endemic evils inherent in all megalopolises, the Mexican people themselves are friendly and helpful. Nevertheless, tourists would do well to stay inside after darkness overtakes the streets and narrow alleys.
No sooner than had I cleared customs and exchanged dollars for pesos, at a rate of 10:1, I was on a bus bound for Puebla, a sprawling city 2 hours south-east of Mexico City. From there I took another 2 hour bus ride to Tlachichuca, a quaint little agricultural village cradled at the base of Orizaba. After repeatedly asking for directions to Joaquin Canchola Limon’s hotel and guide service, a store owner finally led me down several dark corridors and deposited me at the right location. Maribel, the ubiquitous and boundless daughter of Senor Limon, met me at the locked and gated entrance and who, fortunately for me, speaks passable English,
Even though I had not made reservations, and though I had just showed up on their doorstep in the middle of the night, I was warmly welcomed and treated with such dignity and deference that I felt like royalty. Maribel, the sweetest of maidens, hurriedly prepared me a meal and saw to my every want and need. When she learned that I am a Coloradoan, she fairly flushed and bubbled over with joy. Turns out she spent 8 months in the Denver area, and has nothing but fond memories of the time she spent there working at a restaurant and getting acquainted with Americans. Besides my own wife, a more kind and caring person I have yet to meet.
During breakfast I met Dave and Susan, a lovely couple from Evergreen, Colorado. Retired, and now in their mid to late 50’s, they didn’t begin peak bagging until just a few years ago. Already they have an impressive resume to their credit. Dave says, “We’re making up for lost time.” Maribel, and her father, Joaquin, made sure I had water and fuel for the climb. Both white gas and canisters are available. Dave and Susan hired Roberto to serve as their guide and cook. We tossed ourselves and our gear into a ford truck and began the 2 hour approach to base camp. Cows and corn, pines and lupines, goats and burros dominate the landscape, while Orizaba, towering overhead, dominates the sky. The nearer we leaned, the larger it loomed.
I elected not to stay in the sturdy, roomy hut at base camp, fearing I might not be able to sleep on account of the inevitable snoring and noisy late comers or early rising would-be summiteers. Instead, I set up my brand new, ultra-light tent on one of several good sites. Since the material is so thin and flimsy I wanted to test it first under conditions where retreat was possible. I intend to do more testing, but the one night I stayed in it on windy Orizaba did not convince me to retire my heavier, Mountain Hardware, Trango 2 tent; at least not on meaner, more challenging mountains like Denali or any of the Himalayan peaks. All tents rattle in the wind, but the Nallo 2 makes an ear piercing sound, whereas, the Trango 2 makes a more muffled noise.
I also experimented with the Big Agnes sleeping system, and I was perfectly impressed and satisfied. They insert an inflatable, insulated air mattress inside a floorless, down filled sleeping bag that is incredibly light weight and warm. The system I have is rated at 15 degrees Fahrenheit and, though the wind chill factor was near 9, I felt “snug as a bug in a rug”. The other thing I tested on Orizaba was the Jet Boil, a compact, integrated canister stove that performed wonderfully well. It brought two cups of water to a boil, the amount needed for my freeze dried meals, in less than three minutes. It was way less hassle than my XGK white gas stove, but I’m not too sure I would replace it with the Jet Boil on expeditions that involve boiling copious amounts of snow and ice for water.
The transient population at base camp included 3 Koreans, 6 Mexicans, and 7 Americans. Chris, a 47 year old soloist from Montana, and I hooked up and hit it off right away. We did a practice hike to 15,000 feet and surmised we were well matched. We made tentative plans to strike out at 2 am for a summit bid, intending to turn back if we were accumulating too much altitude too soon. Both of us endured sleepless rest, mine due to wind and his due to snoring and stirring in the hut. Chris woke me up at the prescribed time and, according to the plan, proceeded climbing without me. I got dressed, donned my pack, and caught up to him and two Mexicans at 16,000 feet, the point where the glacier begins and crampons become necessary.
The conditions on Orizaba that morning were relatively mild. Ambient temperatures ranged from 29 degrees at base camp to 16 degrees just below the summit. The wind stopped blowing after we left base camp. I wore insulated leather ice climbing boots, gortex mittens, gortex pants over a base layer of polypro, and a gortex jacket over fleece and capilene. I chose not to wear a cap, nor did I bring a down over coat or pants. I carried a 3 liter hydration pack between layers against my stomach, and a summit pack with minimal gear – ice axe, crampons, snacks, sun block, zinc oxide, glacier glasses with nose guard, and a first aid kit. Chris wore regular hiking boots and fleece gloves. I used trekking poles below the glacier.
Part way up a labyrinth of rocks, just before the ice, I overtook one of the Koreans. Apparently, the other two Koreans, suffering from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), abandoned the climb at base camp. Dave and Susan, acting on the advice of Roberto, chose to acclimatize by spending the night at base camp, hiking to the glacier, and making a summit bid from base camp the following night. The two Mexicans I ran into with Chris had spent the night in camps just below the glacier. For one of them, an accomplished bicyclist, it was his first attempt at mountain climbing. He gave it his best, but they aborted the climb at 17,000 feet. His water bottles froze, and dehydration forced them to forfeit the summit. He is already making plans to return next year.
The trail from base camp to the glacier is straight forward and well marked. Rock cairns and painted circles indicate the best path. A concrete aqueduct, that resembles a sidewalk, runs from the hut to the first of two rocky slopes, each one gaining about a thousand feet of elevation. The first labyrinth is dry and dusty, and switchbacks through a steep incline of boulders littered with small stones that require finesse to avoid the proverbial “two steps forward, one step back”. Next, the trail follows a relatively flat traverse for about half a mile to the second labyrinth. From here to the main glacier crampons are required to navigate the snow and ice. Neither Chris nor I felt roping up was necessary to ensure our safety.
Once on the main body of the glacier we marched straight uphill for several hundred yards until the slope steepened. Then we started switching back and forth slicing the slope a little at a time. There were no established trails on the hard packed snow and ice so the going was somewhat difficult in that we spent a lot of time walking on the edges of our crampons. We wrapped around to the right of the mountain to avoid large sheets of ice. About 400 feet below the rim of the crater the pitch increased markedly and we alternated between duck walking (straight up, feet flared out) and back stepping (straight up, feet side ways, one foot behind the other without crossing them over). The rim to the summit was gradual and easy going. From where we broached the rim, it was about two hundred yards to the summit.
After 5 hours of hard hiking, we summited at 7:15 am. Not bad for two middle-aged guys, eh? The summit is a slender piece of sandy real estate not more than 5 yards wide and 20 yards long. A tangle of collapsed iron crosses, bearing plaques and prayers, adorns the peak. The flickering lights of Puebla shimmered like diamonds dancing on a crystal sea. The rising sun created a mosaic of changing shapes and hues as it engulfed the new day with warmth and light. We rested, posed for pictures, and enjoyed the stunning 360 degree views of south central Mexico. A sea of clouds obstructed our view of the Gulf of Mexico, but Popo and Ixta, two large mountains, were plainly visible. Popo is an active volcano, and the mushroom-shaped plume hovering several hundred feet above its pointed peak was an ominous omen.
We considered glissading down the glacier, but mixed conditions and other uncertainties, namely fear and fatigue, forced us to walk down. Blisters gradually formed on the tops of two toes, one on each foot, as I hiked down the steep slope. I stopped and taped them up and continued down without further pain. The first step, however, after removing my crampons sent me flying in the air and landing on my back like Charlie Brown. Yikes! You know those little pebbles? Well, they act like ball bearings. One of my trekking poles slid down an icy ravine. Retrieving it without crampons was a bit tricky.
It took about 2 hours to descend from the summit to base camp. From base camp we caught a ride to Tlachichuca, and enjoyed a hot shower and good food. The following day we bused back to Mexico City, and the day after we changed our return tickets and flew home. That’s it. After two months of intensive training and anticipation, I was standing on top of Mexico’s highest peak. And it was all over in 5 hours. Was it worth it? You betcha! Now I’m looking forward to spending part of the summer bagging glaciers in the Cascades. If you happen to see me, please take a minute to say, Hello. Or, better yet, let’s hook up and summit the peak together. God bless, and happy hiking.
Check out the following site to see pictures of people climbing Orizaba: