A Trip to Mexico to climb El Pico de Orizaba (18,490 feet)
15 – 23 January 2005
Planning a climbing trip to an international destination is an intense experience beyond the normal challenge of climbing a mountain. Having visited Mexico in 2004 as a member on a great commercial trip I had an idea of where to go and how to accomplish planning a trip of my own. The benefits of going with a commercial guide are nothing to pass up without serious consideration. Since travel logistics don’t intimidate me and realizing the benefits of a commercial trip do come with an increase in cost I planned a trip to return to Mexico for another attempt at climbing Orizaba.
The group commitment quickly went from six climbers to four once the schedule and details were finalized. The week before we left one member lost a fight with his garage door as he attempted to return it to the track it jumped from injuring his shoulder. So days before departure the trip became a family event with brother Axe
and our father Old Guide
committed to joining me on another climb.
Since the main climbing objective was Orizaba we had decided to fly into Puebla instead of Mexico City. The benefits of going to Puebla were the convenient location in relation to La Malinche and Orizaba and the size of the city. Puebla is only 1.3 million in population compared to Mexico City’s 17 + million. The limited number of flights into Puebla is my only complaint about using it as an entry city.
The key to enjoying Puebla is location. Most of the historical attractions, museums and better restaurants are located in the blocks around the main square. Our hotel
was also close to the square or zocolo. We spent our first day in Puebla touring the local fortress and two quality museums all the while acclimating at 7200 feet. If you have time the Museo Amparo should not be missed.
Arrangements were made for a driver and van while we were in Mexico. The amount of equipment needed on a climbing trip for each climber makes it hard to travel around in a taxi or minibus. Each climber’s cost for transportation was very reasonable for the entire trip.
Our third day of the trip was a climb of La Malinche, north of Puebla, to continue our acclimation. The drive time from our hotel to the trailhead was two hours. Getting this far on public transportation would be difficult and take longer to arrive at your destination. I suggest trying to hire a driver for the day if possible.
The hike up La Malinche is similar to hiking a Colorado 14er. The first three mile of the trail are actually a switch backed paved road which ends at a radio tower. This tower was recently built on top of some older foundations that are mentioned in Secor’s book. From the road the trail is straight uphill to treeline on a well defined trail through pine forest. Once the view opens up consider going up the right side of the mountain to the ridgeline to the summit. This trail is steep but in good solid condition. If you go up the center to the ridge you will be hiking up in sand and scree both of which cause you to slide down for every step you take up. Once on the ridge at the base of the summit the trail is solid or talus all the way to the summit. On our trip we had 10 dogs that joined us at the trailhead and guided us up the mountain. Several of they even summited with us!
The following day we traveled to Tlachichuca, the next step on the way to Orizaba. We stayed at the Limon’s hostel. The family has ten rooms, hot showers, and a large new dining area just a few blocks from the main square. They provide meals and transportation up the Piedra Grande hut. And if your group needs a guide this service can also be arranged. Maribel coordinates the operation effectively. She also speaks English. The Limon’s realized we were on holiday and were very helpful in making sure we didn’t have any worries.
The town of Tlachichuca isn’t very large. After walking around the main plaza and the church we went up the street towards Orizaba and discovered the cemetery on the edge of town. Otherwise there isn’t much to do or see in town. We spent the remainder of the day resting and organizing gear for our climb.
Since the winter has been dry the hut’s normal water source wasn’t reliable. To cover the two days we’d be at the hut we took 2 20 liter bottles of water. This is another item Maribel can sell you or for 50-60 pesos bottles can be picked up in one of the stores in town.
We loaded up the truck and then climbed in the cab for 2 hours of dusty road to the hut. The road winds through farmland and open pine forest until just below the hut at 14,000 feet. The hut is a rectangular stone building with a central division that supports three wooden floors as sleeping platforms along one wall. The remainder of the space is open for passage or two small tables for cooking. Overall the hut is serviceable and in good condition. Calling it spotless is a stretch but the climbers and the locals outfitters all seem to keep the hut picked up and the trash contained.
El Pico de Orizaba
After claiming a section of one of the platforms and setting up the kitchen Axe and I decided to hike up the valley to scout and cache the rope for the following day’s summit attempt. The trail up the valley starts out nicely on the concrete cover of an old aqueduct. Once the aqueduct ends there are several trails that continue up the valley. In daylight it is easy to pick up a direct trail to the upper valley. During an alpine start the trail is harder to follow directly. This isn’t anything to worry about since all the trails end in the upper valley.
The upper valley starts about 15,000 feet and is the first place you can easily set up a high camp. Water in this location is minimal at best so plan to haul enough water with you. All the trails merge into one trail that follows the left side wall of the valley. The first major break in the wall is at 15,600 and is the entry point into the labyrinth of bedrock and boulders from the recent glacial retreat that must be navigated to reach the glacier. I would call this the crux of the climb as a lot of energy can be used trying to find a direct path through the numerous dead end chutes. The best route I could determine was to follow the right most ridge of bedrock. Either climb on the top of it or stay to the left side of it. This allowed for a pretty direct path to the small moraines at the foot of the glacier around 16,100 feet. This is the second camp area we saw.
After hiding the rope, and taking a GPS waypoint for good measure around 15,600, we returned to the hut for dinner and early bedtime. While we were gone one of our team negotiated with Juan to watch our equipment the following day. His daily rate is 200 pesos. This was a good investment as several locals arrived at the hut shortly after we did and seemed very interested in what was inside the hut. Juan and Oscar (our driver) kept an eye on them while we were hiking around. Maribel had mentioned that items left in the hut could be stolen. She suggested we hide our equipment away from the hut before we climbed. With Juan around we didn’t have to worry. He is known by the local outfitters and guides. He appeared to have plenty of business while we were at the hut.
The alarm went off and we were soon up getting ready and excited about the summit. Everyone had left the hut while we were out hiking leaving it all to us. We didn’t have to be quiet while making breakfast and getting ready. After an hour we were ready to head out. All the hours of training and trip planning were now being put on the line. Would we summit? Would everyone stay strong? Did I train enough? All the anxiety questions leapt into my mind. This barrage didn’t last long as we go into the rhythm of the climb.
Finding the rope cache in the dark by headlamp wasn’t easy. After scanning several rock piles I found it. I guess I buried the rope bag with more rock than I needed to. The GPS was a comfortable backup that wasn’t needed. After packing the rope we left known territory and entered the labyrinth. As I mentioned earlier this is a confusing area. It is even more confusing by headlamp. We somehow angled too far to the right entering a small valley (of note was the red rocks) with a snow field and buried glacier. In the dark it didn’t look to bad. It wasn’t the easiest way through the labyrinth. Once over the headwall of the valley we reconnected on the primary ridge in the labyrinth. Following the moraine to the glacier edge was an easy walk on frozen dirt and rock. The worst was over and the summit seemed so close! We snacked and put on sun screen, as dawn was approaching, before roping up and starting the long climb up the 30-40 degree slope to the summit.
Exiting the labyrinth at sunrise.
The climb up the actual glacier was fairly simple. The glacier looked more like a snowfield than a glacier. No evidence of crevasses or any other problems were noticeable. The slope was steepest to the left. As we switch backed our way up the glacier we ended up on the right side of the glacier. The view of Popo smoking away and Izta was excellent. Several flags and well kicked steps also followed the right side of the glacier. Why work harder than you have to at 17,000 feet? We gladly used the staircase in front of us which soon brought us to the northwest side of the crater rim. The crater was huge! Lined with jagged rocks and venting sulfur steam it made me realize while the glacier might be dying the mountain was still alive. We took photos of each other and had a snack break before continuing higher. We were tired but feeling ok with only slight headaches. Moving too fast was out of the question but slow and steady worked fine.
Being we were so high the views were amazing even with all the smog and clouds. We could clearly see all the other mountains around central Mexico. Popo was busy smoking away thus ensuring climbers will still be banned from his slopes. Last year our group retreated from the hut after a blizzard. The clear views and blue sky was amazing since all the pollution was washed away from the snow and rain. This year the sky looked as dusty as everything else.
I'm not sure as to the merit of using a rope on this glacier. There were no signs of crevasses and if you fell you wouldn't slide much. This is a call each climber will have to make.
The trip down the glacier was harder than the trip up. Once the staircase ended we still had plenty of glacier to descend. The ice and snow was very firm so our knees took a beating on the way down. I kept wishing for the right equipment to try and glissade. Since I had neither shell pants nor a heavy duty garbage bag I was out of luck. The sun was very strong. It is strange to sweat because of the sun at 17,000 feet. The weather was actually too nice during our climb. For the climb I was just in my base layer and windshirt with softshell pants. While we took our puffy jackets they weren’t really needed during our breaks.
Once we returned to the glacier edge we repacked our gear and headed into the labyrinth, this time in the daylight. We studied the route while we were higher which helped determine a direct route with minimal dead ends. Once again the labyrinth section took the most time to navigate.
When we left the hut it was empty except for Juan and our gear. We returned to find a large group of Mexican climbers and smaller groups of Canadian and American climbers. Everyone was in the middle of getting unpacked and starting dinner. The hut was bustling. As I talked to the various groups I was happy to hear there were no summit attempts planned for that night except the two Canadians. Everyone else was either getting used to the altitude or going to be heading up to high camp the next day. Dinner was quickly eaten with bedtime soon following ending a great day of climbing.
Our pickup the next day was set for noon in case we had needed another day to attempt the summit. This allowed for us to sleep in. After breakfast and packing up we had several hours to read, sunbathe, take pictures and walk around before Oscar returned for us. Right before we left a school group of 30 students and their teachers arrived on a field trip. Their truck broke down in the valley below the hut so everyone walked the rest of the way. Our lack of Spanish was equally matched by their lack of English. This kept the conversations very brief. Seeing a group of school children in uniforms running around the hut seemed a little out of place. First off they were running at 14,000! They seemed to be having a good time since the sun was shining and the weather was warm.
Once back in Tlachichuca we repacked gear and enjoyed an ice cold beer. It really hit the spot after the long dusty drive down the mountain. Since dinner was several hours away we wandered into town looking for food. A couple of taco stands were open around the square. We each ordered up a couple of pork, onion and cheese tacos with an orange soda. Delicious! It was one of the best meals we had in Mexico and only cost 40 pesos.
After breakfast we settled up the bill with Maribel. Transportation, four meals, two nights lodging, white gas and beer cost us $100 USD including tip each. Considering the quality of service and food we received this was a great price.
Jesus was on time to pick us up. We left Tlachichuca and headed west to the Teotihuacán pyramids north of Mexico City. This wasn’t part of the original plan when I set up the trip. Since we had extra time and Jesus was able and willing to drive us we decided on the road trip instead of another day in Puebla. There are very few highways in central Mexico and the ones that do exist are toll roads. Thus everyone uses a one lane road as the primary road, this includes all the trucks. Our travel time was much longer than the distance would indicate it would take. We passed the vehicles ahead of us whenever a gap opened up in the opposite lane which just got us behind a different truck. This was a game everyone was playing.
The pyramids are amazing. The city was occupied and expanded between 200 AD and 750 AD before it fell into disuse. It was so impressive that the Aztecs 700 years later deemed the city as the birthplace of their gods. Two of the major attractions are the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon which are positioned along a 2 kilometer road called the Avenue of the Dead. Both temples are climbable up steep irregular steps. Plenty of interpretative signs in English allow a visitor an understanding of what they are seeing. The museum located half way down the avenue is top quality with excellent artifacts and timelines that fully explain the site. If you have extra time before or after a climb when in central Mexico a visit to the pyramids of Teotihuacán is a great day trip.
We made it back to Puebla with plenty of time to clean up and go out for our final dinner. We had packed a lot into the seven full days we visited Mexico. We considered it a successful trip in all regards.