Pico de Orizaba/CitlatepetlFirst off this was to be a late 40th birthday celebration for me. My trusty brother in law signed on to come along as he has some experience on Ranier etc. I made plans through Servimont in Tlachichuca, MX. First problem was i made them for the week my mother in law was on vacation, stranding my wife with 3 kids to shuttle to 3 different schools. That was not going to work so my brother in law rebooked the flights for the last week of February 2014 and we were ready to go. Well not really ready as the requisite orgy of new gear buying, sorting and resorting would come first. Plus us wondering how to get our powdered drink mixes in the the country without getting arrested. I put my Cytomax in a gatorade container. My BIL thought they were not worried about strange powders coming into MX with Americans. He was right, we looked like a couple of techy, desk jockey guys and they waved us through customs with not bag check.
Servimont did all the logistics for us. With jobs and kids and ADD etc. all the planning was never going to happen. We also had some concerns with renting a car and driving ourselves around. We might have been subject to the gringo tax. That said Regulio picked us up in a brand new Econoline van at the Mexico City airport and we were off. Driving out of the City is a bit chaotic. As you exit the City you go by the giant landfill, which smells like the rotting refuse from 20MM people, which it is. At this point I should outline our intinerary, as worked out with Servimont:
1. Airport to Malinche Park (10K ft.
2. Hike to 12K ft. on Malinche
3. Summit Malinche, 14.5K ft.
4. Driven to Tlachichuca at about 9K ft.
5. Acclimatization hike on West side of Orizaba 10K-13K
6. Travel to refugio (Piedre Grande) at about 13.9K
7. Get up at midnight and head for Summit
8.Visit Cantona ruins and head to Puebla
9. Tour Peubla and head to Mexico City
10. Fly home from Mexico City
The plan mostly worked out. The first thing you notice is that central Mexico is extremely dry and despite that all the land is intensively farmed. At this time of year the fields of being cleared of all the slash and burned. Everything is always burning, thats how they get rid of stuff. And more importantly, and a recurring theme: the dust. Oh the dust. We would learn to live with the dust. More on that later.
The drive to Malinche was pleasant and the cabins really superb. There is an onsite restaurant that is great. Knowing a little spanish helps, and I mean a little, un poco or pocotito. But the people were all so damn helpful and pleasant that the lack of language is no big deal. We chilled out the first afternoon as we came from sea level (Boston). the next day we ate breakfast and left at a leisurely pace about 9am. Weather was about 60 degress, sunny and dry. The trail starts up a paved road but take the dirt paths, they are far more direct and faster and more pleasant than the road. The trail is pretty direct, when you get off the road for good the trail gets steeper and heads up through pine forest. The trail is dusty, fine old volcanic dust. This was a Sunday so there were lots of families, cub scouts etc. enjoying the park and trails. There were people running the trail, older people walking, kids carrying all manner of stuff. As you reach the plateau of about 12K feet there is a pretty area to camp and there were several families set up there. The only issue is you would have to carry in your water as i didnt see a source there but it would be a great place to camp. We continued up to 13K ft, just before the scree slope that heads to the summit. At this point we ate lunch and then headed back down through the dust. If you dont have a bandana or buff get one before you go. Trust me, you will need it or you will choke on that super fine dust.
We intended to start our summit hike around 8. However our driver suggested starting around 6, as it would take 6 hours round trip and that way we could get down and shower before we had to check out at 1pm. Those type of simple suggestions were great. It was great to take a hot shower and clean up before our ride to Tlachichuca. Anyhow we decided to head out at 5:30am, headlamps ablaze, up the trail we followed the day before. As we progressed closer to 12K ft. there was a very small amount of frost on the ground but the air was already warming. It was light as we pulled onto the plateau about 12K feet and headed to our stopping point of the day before. We drank some water, had cliff bars and started up the scree. The scree really sucks, if you go left or right of the main trail you can stay more on rock and save yourself the sapping effort of the scree. We reached the ridge not long after and headed hikers left toward the summit. The trail is well marked, there are one or two places to scramble but its mostly a hike. The summit is small flat spot with great views. We saw Popo smoking next to Izta off in the distance. We looked for Orizaba in the distance but figured it was obscured by clouds. As we looked back over we saw it protruding above the clouds, we just weren't looking high enough! The summit was great, we ran into another hiker who we would also see on Orizaba. After 30 minutes or so up top we headed down and ran into a group of 5 heading up. We would see them as well, at the Servimont hostel in Tlachichuca and at Piedra Grande.
We completed the hike down, round trip was right on 6 hours. We met a preacher and his family on the way down. They were from Georgia (US) but had been in MX 20 years. They told us to have fun, enjoy the culture and eat the food. That said we were not eating any street food until after our ascent on Orizaba, and we were using alcohol gel before meals. That said we had no issues and most places seemed pretty clean. More so than in Ecuador.
The ride to Tlachichuca was pleasant and we watched the giant dust tornadoes (dirt devils) move across the plains. You get a real sense for how dry Central Mexico is in the winter and just how much agriculture there is. As you move to the smaller towns you realize nearly all the work is done by hand or with animals. Tractors are, for the most part, not used. We arrrived in Tlachichuca in the early afternoon, as school kids in uniforms were walking home. The town is very small, with few restaurants and not many services. It may be tough to wing it and come to town. Servimont is behind a nondescript metal door and opens into a courtyard with several buildings. The lodging is not luxurious but is very clean and comfortable and we ate all our meals on site. The service and food was quite good. All the ingredients were fresh, fresh squeezed orange juice, fruit and avocados etc. No problems there. We had sworn off of street food until after our summit bid. That seemed to work pretty well as we felt great the entire time and the people at Servimont fed us very well.
The next day we headed out for an acclimatization hike on the West side of Orizaba. Carlos,a local guide from Hidalgo, came along with us. Servimont's dog came as well. She was super excited to be out hiking and must have hiked 3X the distance we did. The scenery was great although it was very dry again. We took it slow as it was the day after Malinche and hiked from 10K to about 13K and stopped for lunch. We then descended a different route through some large evergreens and down to the first stream we had seen and a 25' cataract with some ice next to it. Once we descended off the trail to the road we had to walk down a bit to meet our driver. The dust was epic. You could not walk behind one another due to the dust. I am complaining here a bit, we loved every minute but the dust was a pain, again the buff was key.
We headed back to Tlachichuca and another great meal. Another group of 5 climbers had arrived. We both were concerned with the weather report for 30+ mph winds the next day but Dr. Reyes was not concerned and we figured that at any rate it would be a hell of a lot warmer than the White Mountains of NH in winter. The other group decided to wait a day and do the acclimatization hike and summit the next day, hoping the wind would abate. We decided to stay on our schedule. So we sorted gear, ate dinner and went to sleep.
The next day after breakfast we resorted our gear. The big question was do we bring our goretex shells? We both ditched the shell pants. But we both brought our big down puffies and expedition mitts as insurance. We really did a lot of hand wringing over this. In the end a base layer, plus mid layer plus softshell with a puffer in the bag was the consensus. We packed and left at 11am. Our guide Alfredo was with us and was not concerned at all about the wind. He had just returned from Aconcagua with -20F and 80mph wind, so this would be much more pleasant. Carlos, our hiking guide also came as our cook. This was pretty luxurious after all, but the cost compared to trips in the USA or Europe was very affordable. The trip is about 2 hours, although the distance is not all that far. The roads are very rough. You need a lifted 4WD and probably one that has a transmission cooler. If someone in town offers you a ride, forget about it, you need a serious rig to get there. Once again the ride is super dusty. They use compressed air to clean out the vehicles every day. You will be covered, comfortable but covered.
We arrived at 1pm and moved into the hut. The hut was great, not crowded, no mice to be seen. I know a lot of people have complained about it but we were thrilled. Carlos set to work making dinner as we set up our bags and hiked around a bit, watching for a German we had met to come down off the mountain. Clouds moved in and out obscuring views of the glacier but we had glimpses of the summit. It looked a fair bit off but I was confident and enthusiastic. There was no way we were going to quit on this thing. We were here now, it was cool and windy but what a great spot! We ate a great meal at about 5:30, took a melatonin, put in ear plugs and went to sleep.
The only issue with the hut is the bathrooms are outside and you might have to climb down from the second or third level. Now you should be pounding water, so you will have to take a leak. If you don't you are dehydrated. Anyhow my advice is bring a big pee bottle. Problem solved. We both woke around 10:30 and couldnt really get back to sleep, too much excitement for me. Carlos started cooking for us around 1am as we puttered around, got dressed, packed bags and adjusted our boots. That was really the best, hot cups of tea, fruit, oatmeal etc. and we didn't have to lift a finger and could spend the time adjusting gear, headlamps etc. To me that was a great investment.
After eating everything in sight I pounded a liter of water and off we went. We were advised to bring 2 liters with us, I brought 3 although I didn't need all three. Alfredo started us off very slowly. With headlamps on we started up following to the right of the aqueduct. There are nasty open holes in the aqueduct so dont walk up it in the dark. The trail goes up to the right and we made a quick stop at about 15K for water and adjustments and then headed into the labyrinth. I would be hard pressed to tell you the right trail as it was dark but the first half is well worn and marked and you should have no troubles. Halfway through you reach the snow/ice couloirs. There were a few pitches of hard water ice, maybe 30-35 degrees. We put on crampons and roped up to travel up through the labyrinth. This section is not marked and you could waste a lot of time if you didn't know the route or have a guide. Alfredo has been up about 15x per year over the last 16 years, he knows the trail cold. What a great help. This section is not all that long and you come out to a flat section at the base of the glacier.
This is where the wind really started to howl. It was not all the cold yet, maybe 25F but the wind must have been about 30mph. It was still dark as we were making good time. We took another quick break to refuel and headed up the glacier, which starts at a pretty mild angle and slowly gets a bit steeper but not bad at all. The snow was firm and crunchy, not icy and great for crampons. There were boot tracks zig zagging up which we partly followed. As you work your way up keep heading to the right or you will have to traverse around the rim to the true summit.
We kept pushing along making only one quick stop on the glacier. I think we did the glacier in just over two hours. The wind, when heading right was just brutal, blowing snot out of our noses. But still we were only in soft shells as it wasn't all that cold. I suspect around 20F or maybe 18F at the summit.
The sky started to slowly lighten and we could see a sliver of moon below us. Soon we could see the pyramidal shadow cast by the mountain off to our right, just an awesome sight, spectacular. The last 500' of vert were tough, no other way to put it. My legs were fine but I could feel the altitude. We kept up a slow, steady pace and finally hit the ridge and into the sunlight. I was thrilled to see the summit cross and that we did not have to traverse the ridge. We were right there!
We walked over to the summit and unclipped. I took some pictures but my fingers started to freeze. Then I realized Alfredo was sitting down. I did the same. Wow, the wind goes right over the top. So there we sat in the sun, with no wind looking into the crater. We could have taken a nap. We could not see the ocean as there was a lower cloud cover but the views were tremendous nonetheless. After about 20 minutes we roped up and headed down the glacier, which was a nice walk down. We stayed roped through the labyrinth and belayed that one icy section as it was quicker and easier. We then took a long rest after unroping as there were a few people from a film crew hanging out and it was a good stop to refuel, put away the crampons etc. I would suggest trekking poles for the hike down as it seems to take twice as long and by this point your legs and knees might be a bit tired.
Another hour or so later we were back to the hut and congratulating ourselves. We met the group of five as they were shuttled up by Servimont (our ride back as well) and gave them some beta on the route. We were to learn later they all successfully summited as well.
All in all a great first high altitude trip, not technical, just enough to make it fun and high enough to make you work for it a bit. The people, food, weather and the whole experience in Mexico were fantastic. Servimont is Highly recommended as the logistics were impeccable. They made life a lot easier on us.
Just go and do it. Cheers