Trip to Mexican highest mountain El Pico de OrizabaFor many folks El Pico de Orizaba is the next target after climbing various US 14-ers in Colorado, California (Whitney, Shasta) and Washington (Rainier). However many people will find El Pico a very different mountain not only because of a higher altitude, but because it is situated in a very different country with many consequences. As an acclimatization climb I picked La Malinche (14,636 ft), which is high enough but not too high and which is on the way from Mexico city to Tlachichuca (town next to El Pico de Orizaba). This plan worked perfectly.
I had many questions prior to the trip, which I had to get answered from many different sources: talking to climbers, American and Mexican guides, and locals. So I want to make this report in a form of a Q&A, where all questions and answers are conveniently gathered in one place, where I share all of my experience after the trip. Just the meat and potatoes with no filler and flowery phrases.
1) What would be a good acclimatization schedule for an average person?
Here is the schedule that worked well for us, which included the climb as well as tourist attractions:
Day 1 --> Saturday: Fly early in the morning from the US to Mexico City. Take a bus to Puebla (7200 feet) and check in a hotel.
Day 2 Tour Puebla; acclimatize; buy supplies, organize gear.
Day 3 Climb La Malinche (14,636 feet), drive to Tlachichuca (9000 ft) and check in to the Conchola Limon's or Sr. Reyes’ house (hostel).
Day 4 Spend the day in the hostel at Tlachichuca, organize gear.
Day 5 Get to the hut (14,000 ft.) in the morning; hike or rest.
Day 6 Summit attempt or hike to 16,000 ft and back to the hut.
Day 7 Alternate summit day; return to Tlachichuca-Puebla-Mexico City, good late dinner.
Day 8 Visit Teotihuacan pyramids (1-1.5 hour from Mexico City center), Chapultepec Park and Museum of Anthropology (historic Center of Mexico City).
Day 9 --> Sunday: Depart early in the morning for the US.
2) What is the elevation of El Pico de Orizaba? I have heard conflicting numbers.
Here is the elevation from different sources:
18,701 ft (5,700 meters) -- http://www.rmiguides.com/mexico/itinerary.html
18,490 ft (5,636 meters) -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pico_de_Orizaba
18,491 ft (5,636 meters) -- http://www.peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=8049
18,405 ft (5,610 meters) -- http://www.peakware.com/peaks.html?pk=46
18,491 ft (5,636 meters) -- http://www.peaklist.org/WWlists/WorldTop50.html
3) Do we need to contact and make a reservation with Reyes or Conchola Limons family in advance?
Yes, the two most popular options:
- Reyes (family) in Tlachichuca: 011-52-5-595-1203 (http://servimont.com.mx/)
- Joachim Canchola (family) in Tlachichuca: 011-52-245-15082 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
4) Do we need a guide, e.g. on the summit day?
The decision should depend on the number of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers to the following questions:
1. Do you have at least one experienced climber in your group who has: a mountaineering experience, good sense of direction, familiar with the navigation, rescue and safety technique, who can take a leadership role without being too bossy?
2. Is your group even in terms of physical fitness, climbing and altitude experience?
3. Have you all climbed together before at least once?
4. Can you afford and are you willing to pay for the guide services (varies $300-2000)?
5. Are you planning to climb during the popular season when it is usually crowded and you most likely climb next to other groups on the mountain (which makes it easier to navigate and to get help)?
5) Is the Jamapa Glacier route straightforward? Is the trail well marked? Is it easy to get lost?
The route is straightforward for the most part. The labyrinth section (from about 14,500 to 16,000 ft) is the only part which will require some "multiple choice" decisions in terms of turning left or right, a couple of times. The good option is to explore this portion during the day light prior to the climb, which is good for acclimatization as well. The trail is well marked for the most part, watch for white-painted marks on rocks, and for bamboo sticks with red flags. When you get on the glacier, look for footsteps forming staircase. Also do not climb straight up to the crater, but rather do it in switchbacks (zigzags), as it is rather steep (up to 45-grade slope).
6) Does Conchola Limon's (or Reyes') family provide purified water, gas, gas stove; transportation to and from the hut (at 14,000ft.)?
7) How long does it take to climb La Malinche and back?
The La Malinche climb should take approx 8 hours from the parking lot: 5 hours up and 3 down (e.g. 9AM+5+3=5PM).
8) How long does it take to get to Tlachichuca from La Malinche?
Approx 2-3 hours from the parking lot (or from a nearby town). We drove from Apizaca (taxi).
9) Is there a way to get a taxi from the trailhead of La Malinche?
No! A taxi or a car ride has to be arranged prior to climbing, otherwise you can end up spending a night at the trailhead.
Important: arrange transportation from trailhead of La Malinche in advance, as the chances are there is nobody at the trailhead and the cell phone coverage is not reliable.
10) What is the cost for buses from Mexico City to Tlachichuca?
Bus from Mexico City to Puebla is US $15. Very comfortable ride and a nice bus. Bus from Puebla to Tlachichuca is US $5 or even less. Good ride as well. I would estimate that the taxi from Mexico City to Puebla would be $100-150. It would be hard to find a taxi going straight to Tlachichuca from Mexico City, because Tlachichuca is a remote and a very small town.
11) How much is a taxi from La Malinche to Tlachichuca?
First, we paid $20 from La Malinche trailhead to the town of Apizaca, where we left our luggage in a hotel. Second, we paid $110 from Apizaca to Tlachichuca (taxi).
12) Where do we leave the luggage while we climb La Malinche?
Some people hire a driver with a van for the whole day when they climb La Malinche ($200-250/day in 2007), so they can leave all their stuff in the van before the climb without any headache about arranging a transportation as the van will wait for you at the trailhead. We could not find a driver (or did not put enough effort to search for one), so we ended up doing the following:
- got up early and took a taxi ($30) from Puebla to the small town of Apizaka, which is one of the closest to La Malinche.
- Got a room in a cheaper hotel ($15/day) just to leave our stuff while we are climbing.
- Took a taxi from Apizaka to La Malinche ($30).
- Arranged the taxi (same guy) to pick us up at a certain time, the same day.
- Picked up our stuff from the hotel in Apizaka and took a taxi from Apizaka to Tlachichuca ($110), which took approximately 2 hours.
- Got to Tlachichuca the same day late at night, where Limons (Maribel) was waiting for us (I got to get her a credit for that, we arrived at 2 AM and she was up and waiting for us with dinner ready).
13) Do they offer public access to the internet in Mexico?
Lots of internet cafés, even in Tlachichuca (cheap, like 20 pesos per hour or so).
14) Do they have cell phone coverage?
My US provider is Verizon Wireless, with roaming service in Mexico. I could not call from Tlachichuca and anywhere from the mountain including the hut and even from the summit: no connection. From Puebla my phone worked though. I saw people talking on their cell phones from the summit, most likely using Mexican providers.
15) What is the minimum level of Spanish is required for the trip?
Very basic. Learn a few phrases as to asking how to get to places, about time, prices, etc. Any phrase book or website would help. Do not forget the understanding part when you hear the answer to your question. Most hotel personnel and taxi drivers speak at least some English. Almost all climbers speak English there.
16) Which hotels should I stay in?
We tried to find a more decent hotel in Puebla and Mexico City so that it was very nice, safe, and since we were splitting the cost three ways, it turned out not to be too expensive. In Puebla we stayed at Camino Real hotel (about USD150), without a previous reservation, where there was the best continental breakfast I had ever had (just a small example: all 6 juices were squeezed fresh fruits and even the squeezed carrot). It was also conveniently located close to the Historical Center. In Mexico City we stayed in Sheraton also located in the Historical Center with great views to city lights and in a walking distance to various historical destinations.
17) How do I check the current snow/ice conditions prior to my trip?
Check forums, e.g. at summitpost.org. Call Maribel Conchola, or Sr. Reyes, or your guide (if you hire one).
18) What is the best: stay in Piedra Grande hut or setup a tent nearby?
Piedra Grande hut is convenient as you do not have to carry a tent and spend time to set it up. The hut is not too dirty, it actually in a decent condition, has wooden benches for sleeping, tables for cooking and it is protected from winds making it warmer inside, it has a door and windows. However if it gets too crowdy and you feel very comfortable getting around with the tent, you may want to consider setting one up. Some people are very sensitive to noises when sleeping, however the lack of sleep at night is very common at high altitude and is directly caused by it. Consider ear plugs.
19) What is better: stay at Piedra Grande before the final push to the summit or go higher setting up a tent.
In my personal opinion the vertical distance from Piedra Grande to the summit is adequate for going straight from Piedra Grande to the summit. However to increase the chances of summiting some people spend the final night higher, at about 15-15.5K. That gives one extra acclimatization step and more time to sleep on the summit morning.
20) I have a stove which screws to a MSR gas container, where do I buy a gas container for it?
In Puebla store. But the best is just rent a stove and gas for a few bucks from the Limons (Joaquin Canchola). It it a heavier one but we should not care since we drive to the hut. Do not take your own stove, you will not use it, unless you sleep in the tent.
21) What is the best season to climb Orizaba?
Statistically - from late November (Thanksgiving) to March, because of a less chance of rain/snow/storm.
22) Is there a risk of avalanches?
Practically no risk.
23) Are there crevasses on the glacier?
Practically no crevasses. Could be a couple small ones, 0.5-1 ft wide (15-30 centimeters).
24) What are biggest risks climbing Orizaba?
- The ice surface can become so extremely hard (in the labyrinth and/or on the glacier) that the crampons do not bite into it efficiently. If that is the case climbers should turn around and go down. Normally the climbers who is coming down from the mountain will tell people in the hut about the ice conditions.
- Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Loss of orientation, balance and judgment as the result of it.
25) Do we need to use the ropes and harnesses?
Majority of people rope up together starting from the steep part in the labyrinth and to the top (3-4 people is optimal for one rope). American guides rope their clients (I climbed the same day as an RMI group of people in three ropes). However some guides are strongly against roping up, especially after the tragic accident in January 2000, when three people roped up together fell down from the glacier to their death. So this is a tough call but I would use ropes. If you have an inexperienced climber in your group you need to think twice and probably consider a guide service, which would be beneficial especially for uneven groups. My advice is take the ropes and harnesses with you but make the final decision on the summit day. Again, the majority of people rope up.
26) What is the best time of the day to start the climb?
Depending on the fitness level the climb will take from 7 to 10 hours on average. With the snow melting it gets less safe to go down the glacier, so the best to be done with the glacier not later than 10 am. So that gives you the start time from the Piedra Grande hut at 12AM to 2AM.
27) Do we need maps?
Canchola or Reyes will draw the up-to-date trail schema, because it is slightly changing month-to-month. However generally you do not really need a map.
28) Do we need a helmet there at Orizaba?
Most likely yes, because lately the rocks have been falling more frequently. I did not regret I wore the helmet.
29) What is the temperature in the hut at night?
Can be -5С...0C (23...32 F).
30) Is there a covered "restroom"?
No, the "restroom" is outside behind a rock. There is a piece of plastic as a "door" for a privacy (in 2008).
31) What is the temperature outside the hut when we leave at night on the summit day and how it may vary as we ascending before the sunrise (this is to know which clothes to prepare)?
Сan be -10C (14F), the coldest. Can be windy. Sunrise is around 7 am in winter.
32) Can we leave our stuff in the hut on the summit day?
Some people hide their stuff outside behind or under rocks. If you leave it in the hut it is better to have someone to keep an eye on it. That was a part of the deal with Canchola, and I think we gave a tip to the guy (he was friendly and helping us in the hut too).
33) Do you regret you went to Orizaba?
No, the mountain is awesome and that makes any other things insignificant. I still remember my trip almost every day.
Some personal notes (skip if you are not interested):
• For the main part we stuck to the plan (see above), which worked out pretty well for us. If we had a better discipline to get up in the morning as we planned, that would have been even better. That was the only thing I would do differently if I had to come to this trip again. E.g. we got up 3 hours later than planned the day of the La Malinche climb so we got back down to the trailhead when it was pitch dark. We brought a GPS, which helped (big time!) to find a [right] path on the way back in the darkness (it is easy to get off the right trail especially if it is dark). So we ended up getting to Tlachichuca at 2AM, which was not good. That was probably the only time when we seriously diverted from our plan.
• I have an impression (subjective though) that people and businesses in Mexico are looking at you as at a money bag. In many places people try to charge more money then it was previously agreed upon. In one hotel they charged us various extra fees, which we could not argue about too long because we needed to get to the airport in time. Those were various "service" fees, a "hospitality" fee, etc. In another hotel the breakfast, which was promised to be "included", was turned out to be paid extra for. In another hotel when we were checking out they gave us a receipt to sign with a double amount of what it should have been. I believe it was not a mistake but it was in hopes that we would not look at the numbers. We looked. Taxi drivers were negotiating many ridiculous details to increase the price (gas, tariff, convenience of a ride, class of the car, extra luggage), and when we asked to drop us off only a few feet further than the hotel entrance, one cab driver asked for 100 pesos extra (he was serious). People in the bus station aggressively offer a help carrying your luggage for 20 pesos.
• Conchola's family (Maribel and Joachim) was friendly. The very first meal when we just arrived at their house was the best I had eaten in Mexico on the entire trip: I believe there were pieces of beef and chicken stewed in a well-balanced, traditionally flavored sauce with not too hot Mexican spices. That time I did not ask for more (and I regretted about that later on), because I thought it was just the beginning. The breakfast next day was ok. And the last dinner right before the climb was the worst: a corn soup (no meat), black beans, and 2 spicy sopes (no meat), which I could not finish. We were very disappointed and I went to bed hungry, which, again, was the night right before going up to the mountain.
• Maribel (who speaks English) is very friendly and constantly asks if we need anything. However I felt that was the way for her to give us the impression how many things she provides. Maybe I am being mean and paranoiac, but that is again subjective. For example she did not give us towels when we arrived, so when we asked her she said "sure" and gave towels to us without any apologies, as if it was not meant to be provided in the beginning. Maybe we should have asked for towels and for a hot shower when we made the reservation with Conchola's? None was by default, so we had to ask.
• Be aware that if you get a hot water in the shower - you are really lucky. I am not exaggerating: my friend got all soaped up when the water (any water!) stopped running. It was late at night when everybody was asleep, so he ended up using his towel to wipe the soap off his entire body.
• Joachim kept asking (jokingly) to give him a bottle of tequila after we would return from the climb.
• The transportation was reliable and on time, no problem.
Please send me your questions about the trip so I would add them to the above Q&A.
Special thanks to:
- Luba Ivanova, an international guide, who can climb Orizaba with her eyes closed. She was nice enough talking to me on the phone about Orizaba for hours during her busy schedule.
- Haliku, who was extremely responsive and patient answering my questions prior to the trip.