Orizaba successful climbThe Journey Begins.
Our journey started in late August with an email from my best friend asking if I wanted to go climb Pico de Orizaba. After a little amount of research we realized we could do this for under $500 if we used mileage points for the airfare. We are both experienced climbers and decided not to go with a guide service but highly recommend you use one due to the Labyrinth. Having met Jim Whittaker early this year, at the Mountain Rescue Association event, I was eager to climb something higher than the west coast 14ers. We did most of our training on Mt. Baldy which is 2-3 hour 4000’ ascent. I also did the Skyline trail from Palm Springs which is 8000’ over 10 miles. We were ready to go! As you read this keep two things in mind 1) I’m a volunteer member on a Mtn. rescue team so I place Safety over Summit and 2) I’ve had over 12 knee surgeries over the past 40+ years.
We decided to spend a total of 7 days starting December 27, 2009 and include an acclimatization hike, a high camp and one extra summit day for bad weather. Our challenges were my bad knees and any altitude sickness.
We flew from LAX to Mexico City and then to Puebla. We had 3 large duffle bags each at 50 lbs along with a carry-on.
We decided to bring as much food as possible to reduce the chances of getting sick. This added a lot of weight and size to our bulging duffle bags. We soon learned to ask for a large taxi because our stuff did not fit and they wanted to charge more and ended up paying a total of 75 Pesos each, from the Airport to the bus station. The 1st class bus ride to Puebla was 144 Pesos each. Another taxi from the bus station to the Marriot was 35 Pesos each. We splurged on the hotel which was about $80 for a room for 2.
Day 2Base Camp
We hired Sr. Reyes (Servimont) to pick us up at the Marriott in Puebla and drive us to his place in Tlachichuca and then to the Piedra Grande Hut base camp at 13,900’. Joel was our driver throughout the week. Although he did not speak much English my little amount of Spanish helped a lot. Joel was extremely friendly as was everyone else from Servimont. They provided anything and everything we requested like 20 liters of bottled water and white gas. At Servimont we met a young married couple Thad and Jen and Matt from Texas. The five of us kind of stayed together and socialized.
It was cold, windy and very crowded at the hut. It was a good thing that we brought the tent and 0’ and below sleeping bags.
We woke up with frozen water bottles and Ice covering most of the tent, then prepared for an acclimatization hike. Being a couple of ‘old guys’ we decided to rest step the whole way. Shortly after we started the other 3 were on our heels but then they rested. We continued our slow pace. Soon they were on our heels and again rested. Our snail’s pace worked out well as we never got sweaty and never breathed hard. We had passed Mt Whitney’s 14,496’ and I now had my personnel highest altitude! It was really awesome being that high, feeling physically great and not a single hint of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The trail up to the lower of the ‘high camps’ was well marked. Most of the hike was filled with scree which is probably the worst trail for me with bad knees. It’s like walking on ball bearings, marbles and golf balls and having ‘plastic boots’ with little rubber tread made it worse. The scree later turned out to be my worst enemy from which I’m still healing from several days later. An ideal scenario would have been to take sturdy back packing boots, with good rubber tread, to the glacier and then put on the ‘plastics’. By mid day back at the hut, Dave had a major head ache. We now had another thing to factor into the trip, AMS. The 3 things, my knees, the scree and AMS made us change plans. What was the safest change for success? The combination of scree and steepness led us not to attempt a high camp due to the increase of falling danger coming back down with heavy packs. Since we both were feeling great physically and no fatigue we decided to attempt the summit in the morning but check on the AMS at midnight.
Day 4Summit Attempt
We awoke at 12:15 am to an almost full moon and no wind, which made for perfect climbing weather. The mountain was shining in the moon light! On top of that, Dave’s head ache was gone. Could we ask for anything better? We were in great shape physically, no AMS and great weather! Almost gives you goose bumps, well it does for me. We put on our layers and heading up just after 1am. We could almost have climbed without headlamps since the Moon was so large and bright. I was also amazed at how many satellites were crisscrossing the sky. Matt, Jen and Thad joined us shortly and we all started the ascent together. The 5 of us soon passed the previous day’s altitude max and we were moving at a slightly faster pace.
After we entered the Labyrinth, Jen was the first to get AMS. Not feeling well she made a good decision to stop and head back down. Too many times people make the mistake to keep going and then become worse. Thad and Jen were comfortable about her heading down alone as she was experienced and we knew other teams were on their way up. I also handed her one of my radios to keep in touch, although we soon found out that due to the cold they would not work. Shortly afterwards, the 4 of us were scrambling to figure out where the real trail was. Markers here and there and literally everywhere but all were dead ends, hence the Labyrinth – a maze of boulders that only provided about 10-20 feet of visibility. Oh ya, don’t forget all the scree under our boots and it’s about 3am and in the 30’s. We noticed a large group coming up and decided to wait for them. About this time it was Matt’s turn for AMS. I told him and the others that he needed to go down and he didn’t have a choice. AMS only gets worse. We met the group coming up and found out that Jen was ok and still heading down. Thad joined Matt going back down. Later we found out that Matt bonked again and they got lost (we would also) going down so they ended up waiting for Sunrise to find the trail.
Dave and I were still feeling great and followed the larger group up the Labyrinth. Did I mention that I highly recommend going with a guide service? The trail was much more difficult as many times we had to scramble up the face of boulders with hands like climbing a ladder. Many spots were frozen which made it even more difficult. As we climbed almost a straight line up we saw small flags marking the trail which made much easier to follow up. A few hours later the horizon started turning lighter so I stopped often to take pictures of the different shades of orange.
As we climbed up and over the last ridge we saw the larger group roping up. We had reached the Glacier as the sun rose and warmed us up. What a magnificent sight it was to see the colors in the sky and the colors of all the mountaineering clothing against the white glacier. Looking up at the immense size of the glacier with little silhouettes of climbers on the face is something I will never forget.
The group leader encouraged us and complemented us on our achievement to reach over 16,600’ feet. We felt good and probably looked good too because he offered us to join them on a rope team and continue up. Oh man, how great was that? (At high altitudes looking at someone’s face says a lot about how they feel. You can sometime see the pain or enjoyment).
The sky was blue, the glacier was awesome, no AMS, no major fatigue and the weather was perfect. So far we had had a successful climb so why not continue? Safety over summit. The summit is only the half way point and the descent can be more treacherous. This is especially true for me because of my knee issues and the last part of the climb down would be the most difficult. Sure, we could have continued but I have a wonderful wife and kids to return home to and preferably uninjured. We knew that if we continued I would have been too fatigued to descend safely. Wow, did we nail that perfectly! On the way down we again became lost because at some point the trail flags disappeared and other markers were everywhere leading to dead ends in the Labyrinth. The last hour was the worst; I had taken several hard falls in the scree. One fall was like a cartwheel and another was chest plant on a boulder and others were twists and spins. My knees were giving out. Dave’s feet went out from under him and his helmet saved the back of his head as it bounced off the rock. Dave had also taken a rock on his helmet on the way up. Some spots were like ball bearings on ice. I had twisted my both of my knees and finally in some sections I scooted down on my butt, along with my pride, and painfully made it down. We had dinner back at Servimont and then had Joel drive us back to Puebla.
We made it back down without a major injury and therefore had a successful climb and are proud of our accomplishments. It’s not about the summit; it’s about the journey to get there.
In our journey to climb Pico de Orizaba we pushed our bodies to get in shape, met many interesting people while training, we visited another county, and I achieved my personal best high altitude, but most of all we strengthen our friendship and have a solid foundation of our priorities in life. Thank you to Dave for asking me to go and special thanks to my wife for supporting me.
I will answer any and all questions about our trip to Pico de Orizaba, just ask.