Mexican Vacation, March 2008
Finding the time to get away for 2 weeks was almost impossible, but early March provided a window of 13 days, so I headed down south Mexico way. The plan was to climb for 6 or 7 days with my friend Craig, then see the central Mexican cities for a day or two, and finally head off to the low key pacific village of Zihuatanejo for 5 days where I would meet up with my girlfriend. The day before I left proved to be quite hectic. That morning Craig and I tromped up Mt. Sniktau (13,234 feet) and then relaxed at Loveland Pass drinking beers for some last minute acclimatization. We didn't want to push it too hard because we had a rather demanding week ahead of us. After the morning stroll in the Colorado Rockies I headed down to Denver and went off to play a show with my band that evening. Craig strolled into the club and in between sets we eagerly discussed the next week’s adventure over tequila shots. I got home around 3am, unpacked my music gear, loaded my climbing gear, and was at the airport by 4:30am.
Twelve hours later I met up with Craig in the Mexico City airport, and of course the airlines lost his baggage during his flight. Luckily he packed the essentials in his carry-on bag, so he had enough gear (boots, gloves, etc.) to get by for a few days. We rented a car and set off on the dirty streets of Mexico City with the intention of reaching the campsite at the base of La Malinche that night. Craig was the driver, and I was the navigator. Like so many things in Mexico, driving is just comical. I had studied our routes, possessed detailed maps, and speak decent Spanish. This wasn't enough. We succeeded in escaping Mexico City, but 20 miles east of the city we found ourselves utterly lost. The toll road had mysteriously ended, and we were driving past donkeys on cobblestone roads in a remote village. Frustrated, we stopped for directions and a six pack for the road. Directions proved to be futile, so after finding ourselves in a similar situation in a similar village, we hired a cab to follow to the main road. That night we made it as far as the town of Apizoco. We got a hotel room, found the zocolo, ate some tacos, and went to bed exhausted from no sleep and travelling all day. Alarms weren’t set; we figured it couldn't be too hard to find a 14,500 volcano in the daylight.
We awoke at 8:30am, got some coffee, and headed off towards La Malinche with minimal difficulty. By minimal, I mean we only got lost once. Why bother providing a sign for the turnoff for a National Park? After a shy old Mexican woman gave us directions we found the park. We started hiking at 10:30 at approximately 10,000 feet. It was so refreshing to be in a lush warm forest without snow.
La Malinche is a great mountain. The flora is one of a kind, and once above tree line the views are incredible.
The hike up La Malinche was extremely easy, fulfilling its purpose as an acclimatization day perfectly. Below tree line, we stayed on the more direct trail as opposed to the windy 4 wheel drive road. Once above tree line, we simply followed the well defined path and gained the summit ridge, and then followed the ridge to the summit. There was some fun scrambling on strange volcanic rock towards the summit. We arrived at the summit at 1, and sat up there for an hour relaxing in the warm sun.
After taking a plethora of pictures we hightailed it back down eager for some hot Mexican food and cold Mexican beer. Along the way we picked up two bags of trash. There sure is a lot of crap on Mexican mountains.
The best meal of the trip came at this little place at the base of La Malinche.
My mouth is watering just thinking about it. The cook charged us practically nothing for this feast. With our bellies full we headed off towards Iztaccihuatl (Ixta for short...aka the sleeping lady). We stopped every hour or so and Craig attempted to call the airline to get the status of his baggage. Of course something this simple isn't so simple in Mexico, and he couldn't get through until we were at the village right below Ixta. The good news was they did indeed have his bags. It was 9 at night, and we turned around and headed off to Mexico City. It's always an adventure driving in Mexico City. We were back in Amecameca several hours later. We found a taco stand and gourded ourselves. Tasty as it was, it didn't help me over the course of the next few days. Late that night we drove up the windy road towards Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl National Park and set up camp at 11,300 feet on the side of the road. We slept in and the next morning spent 2 hours getting ready and organizing our gear. After one and a half days the rental car was a mess. Strange Mexican potato chip bags, beer cans, cigarette butts, and useless maps littered the floor. After tidying up we drove to the parking lot at 13,300 feet and got ready for the days acclimatization hike on Ixta. Before we left we made camp since we figured we wouldn't be in the mood to do so later on.
Initially we started hiking with two guys from San Francisco. One guy asked us what we were training for down in Mexico. We didn't know Mexico was only used a training ground, but I guess that’s how some people view it. Apparently he was training for a technical route on Denali. After a couple hundred yards they were well behind us and we pressed on to the first pass at 14,000 feet.
The views on Ixta were incredible. Popo was just a few miles away smoking away like a strangled chimney.
The weather was pleasant and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. The rock formations juxtaposed with the lazy clouds combined to be quite surrealistic. At times I felt as if I were climbing into a Dali painting.
I couldn't help but to think of Aleister Crowly, the eccentric magic/drug fiend obsessed with climbing and far eastern philosophy. He took an affection to the sleeping lady, calling it the most beautiful mountain in Mexico. With his partner they climbed Ixta several times in 1901 in preparation for a 1902 expedition to K2 in the Karakoram. 'Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law.'
Anyways, at 15,500 feet we came upon the climbers hut. I was feeling pretty good and we decided to go a bit higher. We started scrambling up some rocks, and I quickly found myself climbing on an exposed ledge with minimal holds. I yelled to Craig below me to go a different way. We made our way up a not-too-annoying loose gulley and topped out at 16,000 feet. We decided that was high enough for an acclimatization hike and turned around. Almost immediately I started experiencing a headache with a bit of nausea. This crappy feeling persisted all the way down the mountain to our campsite at 13,300 feet. At camp I slugged around in a pathetic state while Craig got the stove ready and made dinner. Aspirin didn't help much, so finally I gave in to Craig's advice of a cold Tecate. Surprisingly, this did the trick and I started feeling better immediately. We were treated to a gorgeous sunset and soon there after retired to our tents. I put on my headphones and fell asleep to the Dark Side of the Moon ringing through my ears, eager to climb the sleeping lady the next morning.
We awoke at 3am and made our way up the beaten path in the dark under the enormous Mexican sky. It was strange feeling so alone yet to look over my shoulder and see the illuminating lights of the planet's largest city. After an hour or so things got squishy. There in the middle of the night at 15,000 feet the taco stands took their revenge on my week gringo stomach. I figure we probably wasted an hour that morning with my issues, stopping every quarter mile. Craig is a very patient guy, and he didn't complain once; not when they lost his bags, or when I was sissying around the camp site with mild AMS, or when I was causing such a slow pace on Ixta. It’s nice to climb with someone like that. We got off route in the dark at about 15,300 searching for the pass that lead over to the hut. Traipsing through loose sand in the dark was pretty annoying, but eventually we found our way and welcomed an inspiring sunrise. We quickly made our way up to the prior day’s highpoint and started scrambling up the 800 foot ridge to reach the "feet". The scrambling was enjoyable and I couldn't stop myself from taking pictures of the smoking Popo every now and then.
We arrived at the 16,800 foot "feet" and took a long break. I was eager to press on and to experience climbing on a glacier for the first time. Some Mexican climbers said we would definitely need to put crampons on for the glacier, as one short traverse had consequences if you fell, but we never felt uncomfortable, so we never put them on. Once on the glacier, it is a long ways to reach the actual summit.
We gained the "knees", crossed the "belly", and finally surmounted the gigantic summit "breasts".
Great weather, long glaciers, and views in every direction made Ixta the highlight of the climbing trip for me.
That morning we spent 3 hours above 16,500 feet, which really helped us acclimate for Orizaba. We descended Ixta without any issues and got back to camp a little after 12. We rapidly tore down camp with the thought of a hot meal and a cold beer on our minds. We got back to Amecameca and had some tacos and restocked our supplies. After being stalked by 3 giggling teenage school girls we quickly departed and made our way towards Tlachichuca, the staging town for El Pico de Orizaba.
Once on the main toll road, we were looking for highway 145 north. There was not one sign for this major highway, and missing the exit, we were forced to stay on the toll road for an additional 20 miles and pay the exuberant toll. There was no way to turn around, and I was seriously frustrated. But what could I do? I cracked a cold one, lit a smoke, and enjoyed the Mexican countryside as we drove on towards the gulf city of Vericruse. Suddenly Craig crossed 2 lanes and exited on some unmarked little dirt path. We followed it for a few miles, passed some primitive villages, and wouldn't you know it, we found an illegal way to get back on the highway going the right direction. Eventually I guessed the right exit and luckily we arrived in Tlachichuca.
I asked a Federale where the climbing compound was. He was extremely eager to help and had one of his minions escort us to the front door of a lodge. After a much desired hot shower we shared a meal with some friendly Czeck girls who were in Mexico for a month touring the beaches and backpacking. After dinner we searched out the local cantina, but after speaking with 4 men who were fixing a bicycle we learned that Tlachuchica was more or less dry, so we just went to bed and concluded that it was probably for the best since our jeep ride left at 10am the next morning.
The following morning we had a delicious breakfast at the climbing compound. We met the gregarious jeep driver, Joquin. The local guide Oso gave us some tips on the conditions of the mountain. We packed up our gear and started off on the dusty road to the base camp of Pico de Orizaba, Piede Grandes at 14,000 feet. The views of Orizaba were mesmerizing along the road.
We arrived at the hut in the early afternoon and claimed two sleeping spots and unpacked our gear. The Mexican guides started cooking a stew that stirred my olfactory senses. We met two other friendly Americans on their way back down who seemed pretty worn out. They hadn't made it up above 15,000 feet in 4 days, and were obviously struggling with the altitude. They gave us some good tips on the route. Craig and I set off at 2pm with light packs and about a dozen wands that we placed at strategic locations so we could find our way early the next morning in total darkness. We spent most of our time in the labyrinth, which is a complicated mix of rock and ice that can be tricky to navigate. After intently studying its features, we turned around and headed back to the hut.
We were surprised to see some familiar faces on our return; the Czeck chicks from the night before and the American guys we met on Ixta. We also met a brother and sister from France that were being guided up with the American guys the next morning. It was an interesting group of people. We had a case of beer with us at the hut, but no one else was interested in partaking in a 14,000 foot happy hour, so we sipped our beers and cooked our dinners as the sun set over the western hills. The other climbers went to bed at 7 or so, but I couldn't fall asleep until 10, and at that it could hardly be considered sleep. It was extremely windy all night, and gusts literally shook the gigantic stone hut. This would be a telling sign for the conditions the next day.
At 1am there was a tremendous amount of commotion as the whole hut (minus Craig and I) got up and prepared to leave. I couldn't sleep through this. After half an hour of this we got up and were on the trail by 2am. We reached the labyrinth at 15,500 feet and easily found our wands. At this time we caught up with the big guided group and we all put our crampons on together. Thanks to our wands, the labyrinth was extremely easy to navigate. There were some steepish icy sections, but nothing too bad. At the top of the labyrinth the terrain leveled out and we followed a gulley to the base of the glacier.
There is nothing quite like walking on a glacier under the stars; the repetitious clicking of crampons and the whizzing of exhausted lungs struggling for air. Our pace was steady, and soon enough the other people on the glacier turned to tiny specs far below us.
The higher we got, the more intense the wind became. It was relentless; there was nothing up there to shield us. At about 17,500 feet the sun rose, and this picture of Craig climbing with Orizaba ’s shadow extending towards the western plains was the only picture I took for the next several hours.
At 17,700 feet, the glacier started to steepen, and the incessant cold wind made Orizaba much more of a challenge. My toes were starting to get uncomfortably cold, but not quite numb. The only solution was to keep moving, but this was near impossible, as I needed to stop to catch my breath every few minutes at 18,000 feet. Just below the crater rim, Craig screamed something to me, but I couldn't quite understand him. He went up one way, and I saw a way that I thought looked better. I soon found myself on 45-50 degree icy slopes. Getting purchase with my crampons wasn't difficult, and this section was pretty short. Just the same, a rope might have been nice here in hindsight, but it was too cold to stop and take it out. Once on the crater rim we quickly traversed the last couple hundred feet and arrived at the summit at 7:30am. Craig was determined to get some pictures, so he changed out the frozen battery of his camera and snapped a few shots.
I don't think we spent more than 3 minutes on the summit; I took a picture of Craig and we got the hell out of there. We made good time down the glacier. Apparently we were the only two to summit that day. I think spending so many days in Colorado blizzards the month before hardened us a bit. The large group waited for our safe decent at the base of the glacier. This was an extremely nice gesture of Oso (the bear). I highly recommend him if you are contemplating a guided climb of Orizaba. We made an uneventful retreat and arrived back at the hut at 10:30 or so, giving us a round trip time of under 9 hours, of which we were pleased with. We chugged a few beers and shared the rest of our case when the other climbers returned. We packed up our gear and threw it in the back of the sweet old Dodge and waited for Jaquen to drive us down to Tlachichuca:
Back in Talachichuca, we decided we couldn't spend the night in a dry town, so after dropping the French couple off in some obscure village, we made our way to Puebla. We found a hotel in the heart of the old district of town. The summit celebration started off innocently enough at a respectable Mexican University bar, but by 10pm we found ourselves at a local cantina in a different part of town, downing tequila with 3 newfound Mexican amigos. A few bottles later, things got strange. I conversed with an elderly gentleman in a magnificent white suit about the great John Lennon that blasted over the jukebox, but he became frustrated when he found my drunken Spanish inadequate to discuss Lennon's great achievements. Never the less, he came back every 15 minutes to do a toast to something or another. Craig, on the other hand, with his superior Spanish, was hounded by our drunk amigos and the local chicas (prostitutes) and had to defend himself all alone. We stumbled back to our hotel room when things got out of hand.
The next day we drove to Mexico City. We dropped off the rental car at the airport, and surprisingly National didn’t have any issues with our treatment of the Volkswagen. We caught the subway from the airport to downtown Mexico City and toured the main zocolo in Mexico City. Strangly they were holding a communist rally that day.
Later that afternoon we located a hostel I knew about called Hostel Amigo. I highly recommend this hostel, as it is far superior to any hostel I have stayed at in Europe or the states. Just after we arrived, the party began. We met all sorts of people from all over the world. Craig showed off his dancing skills with a gal from England.
The next morning, Craig headed off to the airport to catch his flight back to the USA, and I toured the Aztec pyramids with some people I met the night before. The pyramids were fascinating and we all enjoyed their commanding presence.
That evening I took the overnight bus to Zihuatenejo, which was more comfortable than I ever expected. I slept soundly, and at 7am woke up to the warm tropical waves beating the high Pacific cliffs. I made my way to the boutique hotel I had booked, met the owner, and he immediately made me a rum and squirt, which became a tropical favorite of mine. Lindsay arrived later than afternoon, and we spent 5 days relaxing in the Mexican sun.
Our stay consisted of magnificent dining with staggering sunsets:
A seaside jungle scramble:
And of course good music: