Malinche, Izta, and Orizaba (5 days total)
First, before the trip report, I'd like to get three questions out of the way:
Q1. Is it possible to do Malinche, Izta, and Orizaba in under a week? A1: Yes, comfortably if ...
Many commercial operators seem to offer a combination of any two of the following three: La Malinche, Izta, and Pico de Orizaba as a package deal of sorts with the lower of any given pair offered as an 'acclimatization hike.' Let me state unequivocally: if the weather is good (as it was for us in November 2014) and if you have your own transport (rental car) or are willing to convince one of the guiding operators to do all three in a short time frame and if you're a reasonably competent and experienced individual or team, then in my experience you should have no problem doing all three in under a week. In fact, my group did (the standard routes) on all three in five days (we did not use a spare sixth and emergency spare seventh) comfortably. I thought i'd get this out of the way first, since this was a bit of a question mark that we had in the planning stages and did not find any definitive answers on summitpost or elsewhere prior to setting off.
Q2. Do you need a guide? A2: No, but ...
We didn't use a guide and don't regret the decision at all. If you are an experienced hiker/mountaineer, you do not need a guide for any of these three. Assuming you do your homework beforehand and know basic crampon and piolet technique AND have a good sense of the routes from a combination of SummitPost and the "Mexican Volcanoes" book, then you will be fine. That said, we ran into commercial operators leading small groups of mountaineers in the hut on our way down from Orizaba. The professional guides we met (from the two leading companies) were enthusiastic, professional, and competent. If you want a guide, then by all means get one. I'm just saying that they're not necessary, especially if you are 'resourceful' enough to know what you will need and get it from Wal*mart or a similar establishment in advance.
Q3: Can you get your rental car up to the Orizaba hut? A3: No. You'd be really foolish to even try.
Even if you are going 'solo', you will need to avail yourself of serious 4x4 transport to get yourself up to the orizaba hut. We had excellent results in contracting with Servimont for a ride up and down. If you have a 4x4 rental car with high ground clearance you *might* be able to get it up there, but why would you risk it? For the extra price you will have paid to rent the big 4x4 necessary, you could have hired Servimont or somebody similar to get you up there and back. Don't even think about thinking of driving up there with a regular car. Yes, there are worse roads in the world than the road to the Orizaba hut, but chances are very high that you won't make it. Really. Don't even try.
Now the trip reports:
La Malinche is a great place to help get acclimatized and getting your legs moving. When we went there, there were a lot of people and extra trail markers due to a 'climb the mountain' running race happening simultaneously, so I am not 100% sure of what the markings are on 'regular' days, but I think the trail is pretty straightforward. There are 4 parts to the trail:
1. walk along a pretty fixed path as it criss-crosses a road gently uphill.
2. walk uphill through thinning forest on a series of dirt paths. sometimes the paths split slightly but it's clear that they go up and up. Part of this is along a dried up creek of sorts.
3. trudge uphill on a sandy/volcanic slope to a stable ridge. this is the hardest part of the climb.
4. walk up the ridge to a light scramble to the summit. this is the most enjoyable part of the time.
the summit is unfortunately pretty junked and graffiti'd up, but it's still a nice view and well worth it. if you're acclimatizing, consider spending 30 minutes or so at the summit just to take it all in, relax, and breathe.
if you leave mexico city early in morning, you can make a stop to get supplies and if you're quick and efficient be at the la malinche campground by 1030 or 1100. this should give you enough time to climb and be back before it gets dark. take a head torch anyway just in case. the government run campsite there has wonderful little lodges that you can rent for around $100 US per night that sleep 4-8 people or so. If you're solo this may be too much, but they really are nice. The restaurant there is fine. No technical equipment whatsoever is required for the route, but I always take my hiking poles. Time to hike: the mountain can be RUN up and down in under 2 hours by top athletes. hiking up and down in under 4 is impressive, 5-6 is probably closer to normal, and 7+ if you are slow.
We slept in at la malinche then drove to the Izta/Popo park. This took about 3 hours, if I recall. We paid the ranger there for a night at the altzimoni hut at I think around $11US equivalent per person. He gave us the keys. The hut was empty except for us. We checked out the hut and then drove back down to the La Joya trailhead and began what was going to be an acclimatization hike to the grupo de los cien hut where we planned on leaving water and food for a longer hike the next day. hiking to the los cien hut was no big deal and took maybe 2 hours for some of us (we are pretty fast) and a bit longer for our slower team member. The los cien hut was slightly warmer than we thought it might be inside. We decided to leave our slower member there overnight (he made do with the scraps of blankets that were there) which was fine with him while the rest of us backtracked down to alzimoni where we spent the night. we got up at 5 or so from altizmoni and climbed up to los cien to find the guy we left was in good shape. we carried up a stove and propane and all had a warm breakfast there. The part of the trail immediately after the hut - that is, from the hut to the ruins of the old hut, is by far the hardest part of this hike - basically one long slog uphill on semi-stable volcanic sand and rocks. Once you reach the ruins of the old hut, it's a pretty enjoyable jaunt up and down various parts of the sleeping lady. At one point, we used crampons to descend a section of ice at the panza (belly). if you didn't have crampons at this point, you might just be able to make it down if with substantial effort and a bit of clever route finding and ass-sliding, but why not make your life easier and take crampons. In November, ice axe absolutely not necessary. The glacier/ice at the belly seems pretty tame until at once point about near where you are almost through it and you cross a genuine CREVASSE about a foot wide and clearly deep enough to cause you serious problems were you to fall in. No rope is required to traverse it, but for the love of all that is good treat the edges of the thing with some respect, please as between the slippery conditions, melt, and loose ground in theory you could fall in and thus have a very very bad to say nothing of embarrassing day. various sources describe the route as a series of 'false summits' before the true summit. this is a bit misleading. For me 'false summits' are when you're climbing up thinking that you're at the real summit only to find when you get up there that there's more climbing ahead. this is not the case here. rather, in good weather you can more or less see most of your challenge ahead of you and so it's more a series of 'ups and downs.' The trail is very self evident at the top. In fact, except for that climb from the hut to the broken hut and perhaps when transiting the snow/ice areas, the trail is unmissable. once you climb the 'south summit', the true summit is the north summit which is slightly to your right. The 'west summit' is the one in view to you as you approach the south summit - this is the wrong one. That said, just eyeballing it, there's very little to differentiate the heights of the three. There are three crosses on the true summit (old sources say two). The return is straightforward - just be careful and make sure you stay to the LEFT when descending from the ruins of the old hut to the los cien hut and remember to look for cairns and markers, as they may be harder to see coming down than going up. I got lazy and went to far to the right when descending and then had to backtrack a bit when i hit a probably impassable cliff edge. While the overall path on izta is straightforward, the hand-drawn map available on another summitpost post here of itza is INVALUABLE. print it out and use it!
After desending izta, we made the annoyingly long drive to a hotel in central Puebla and had a warm shower, and a good breakfast.
we woke up in the hotel in puebla and drove to the town at the base of the north side of orizaba (sorry dont have the name - begins with T). The town is quite nice compared to other towns in the region and shows a fair bit of civic investment. we hired a 4x4 ride from servimont who drove us up there for sunset (ride took about 2 hours). the hut is clean and nice - of course you need your own sleeping mat and sleeping bag. we woke up at 5am and began our climb. i understand that professionally led guys leave at 1am or 2am. I don't understand why, unless they like the challenge of walking more in the dark and cold. for all the scary talk about labyrinths and sarcophagi, it was a straightforward hike up following cairns, signs, and flags to the 'high camp' area and then to the start of the glacier, which is perhaps 50-100m above that. crampons are required at this point and an ice axe is highly recommended though under ideal conditions not strictly necessary (i'd take one). you then go up up up to the summit where you see the crater. again, we're experienced guys. if we were not, i might be telling a different story, but given that the weather for us was great, we really experienced no significant difficulties and were down comfortably by 2oclock (including long stops for lunch and rest). While superstars can doubtlessly do it considerably faster than we did, I'm also guessing that groups of less experienced people might take 1-4 hours longer than we did, which would have them down about the time that the sun comes down. This may be why guided groups start earlier, but, again, personally, I'd rather tolerate a bit of night hiking on the way down than on the way up. At the end of the trail, you basically know where you are going. About the only advantage i can think of of doing the climbing part at night is that if there was precipitation, it might freeze which could make climbing on loose volcanic scree easier at night.
The initial climb from the hut begins with you walking up a concreted-over aquaduct. Walk right on the thing until it ends. Then, follow the trail/cairns/flags. PLEASE BUILD MORE CAIRNS as some of them are only two rocks. Not a huge deal, as up is up, but at some sections more cairns would be nice. The ground underneath is mostly solid scree that does not present significant difficulties other than it takes effort and time. As you climb higher you will find bits of ice that are best not stepped on as they're very slippery. Scrambling up rocks is often faster and easier than walking on the trail next to it, but especially at night be sure the rocks are not icy/slippery as that could ruin your day. As you climb up towards the glacier, you will notice that the markers go from being cairns and spay painted white circle arrows to being little flags. Let's assume for a moment that the flags are not there. When you're about 200-300 vertical meters from the glacier, look up. You'll see that where you should be generally has "grey" rocks while the there will be a pointed gully and rocky area with 'brown' rocks to your right. It's very simple: STAY ON THE GREY and keep the brown to your right. Honestly, even without this advice I think you'd have to really go out of your way to mess this up, but basically as you climb towards the 'high camp,' you'll have to slightly translate a bit to the left and then once you've reached the high camp go back to the 'right' to avoid the brown area. It's easier than it sounds. That said, we met some experienced guys on izta who had just been at orizaba who told us they got slightly lost. I don't know how they could have, as the markers are clear. Put your handsomest and smartest routefinding person up front and make sure that you can see the next cairn or marker as you climb. And, again, BUILD MORE CAIRNS when you are sure you are the right route. Yes, you.
The glacier itself is just an exercise in stamina. There is a tiny crevasse or two Nothing to worry about. If crampons are new to you, this will be a challenge (and in that case I hope you have a guide). The mountain requires real crampons (aluminum are fine). I wouldn't bother with a rope unless you are a novice and your guide ropes you up. Of course, if the weather is or has been bad, different considerations will apply.
always treat all mountains seriously. any one of these could kill you. they have killed others before, including experienced climbers.
fluids help with acclimatization. drink plenty.
probably nobody will steal your stuff at any of the huts. probably. we really didn't encounter anybody until we came down off of orizaba, and those we met were not the stuff stealing types.
take a lightweight emergency blanket, whistle, head torch, and food. sunscreen and lip balm too. oh yes, and sunglasses.
mexico is a wonderful place.
Acclimatization: I did not write much about acclimatization. However, I will say that I arrived in mexico city from an area basically at zero altitude and was at the peak of malinche within 24h of my plane touching down and had no problems. However, I also engaged in a systematic pattern of preparing for altitude, including refraining from caffeine and alcohol for two weeks prior, hydrating regularly, and being in shape. in the trip that i described above, our team had no acclimatization issues - barely even a hint of a hint of a headache. however, other groups that we had met were not so lucky. "climb high sleep low", "progressively sleep higher", "hydrate much", "refrain from alcohol/caffeine/stress", and "don't let your body temperature get too low" are general acclimatization advice I can give, but this should not be construed to be medical advice. altitude related sicknesses can strike anybody and should always be treated with exceptional seriousness.
be safe and have fun on your trip!