Why I'm adding yet another trip report
The take-home message from this trip report is to remember that the Piedra hut is almost directly north from the summit. That bearing saved my a** on my first summit and it's something worth knowing if you want to climb this peak safely. In absence of the N-S bearing, descending from the summit in the clouds has a high probability of getting you cliffed-out. Remember this take-home message, bring a compass, and enjoy El Pico!
Also, don't be afraid to climb the mountain in the late rainy season/ early dry season (from as early as September to November). Though the weather might not be as reliable, the conditions can be excellent. It snowed heavily before my arrival, requiring crampons ~500 ft above the Piedra hut and making the labyrinth a very enjoyable french-stepping dream.
Pico on the ride up Pico on the ride up
My Background Experience
I took a winter mountaineering course with SW adventure guides (and I recommend them straight from the heart - they taught me well) and they taught me how to tackle steep snow/ice with crampons and a mountaineering axe, how to self-arrest, and how to stay warm in the cold. Afterwards, I soloed a few couloirs in Colorado (Cristo, lost rat, dead dog and south paw). I felt confident with my ability to climb, arrest and down-climb on steep snow, and wanted to test my mettle with high altitude, so I figured Orizaba would be the next logical step.
The only problem was, in planning for the trip I quickly found that my friends just couldn't come for the only available time slot that worked for me. Cautious of going alone on my first high-altitude trip, I brought with me a pulse-oximeter, read up on how to interpret its results, and used it as a way of gauging my acclimatization progress and considered it like the friend who would tell me it's time to descend. I highly recommend this, even if you're not going solo. I met one miserable guy at the Piedra hut from Cordoba who was feeling terrible and had a O-2 saturation of ~55%, had a productive cough and had vomited a few times while there. He figured he had a bug or something but I advised him and his cousins to descend immediately, having a little extra credibility thanks to my little gadget. It's good to have that objective metric around.
The climb - summit #1
I climbed the mountain twice in 72 hours - the first time was in the middle of what the other group that summited reported to be a lenticular cloud (and this report of a lenticular cloud was coming from their two highly qualified Mexican guides with them - Ricardo Pena and Hector Ponce de Leon, who holds the speed record for Orizaba - 2:20 - and for the trio Orizaba, Popo & Izta - ~17h. If they say it's a lenticular cloud then I'll believe it. All I know was that it was windy and miserable and I couldn't see a damn thing).
There was snow from the hut to the summit, and crampons were used within 30 minutes of departure from the hut (at the end of the first aqueduct). Yet another reason to gamble on a beautiful experience in the early dry season (late October/early November).
For my first summit, I was out of the hut at 1am. Having scouted the route up the labyrinth during my acclimatization hike, I had little trouble following my footsteps during the summit bid. By the time I hit the labyrinth, I was in the clouds with very limited visibility. I assumed I would top out above the clouds, and so if conditions didn't get much worse I would keep pushing on. Thinking to myself "no BS when you solo," I stopped and put my compass around my neck in case I felt like calling it quits.
In the land of the blind...
I was going at a pace that didn't feel too extreme, and made it to the summit by ~6:30, just in time for sunrise, for a total of 5 hours and 30 minutes from the Piedra hut to the summit. Unfortunately, the visibility was still shitty. The sunrise came in the form of a black-out becoming a gray-out and finally a gold-out before settling as a white-out. All the stuff at the summit was covered in deep snow, exposing only the tip of some blue rod. On my way out, the clouds cleared briefly to show me the crater rim.
a moment's respite
I started heading down, figuring I could trust my sense of direction in the clouds and find my way to a specific spot at the bottom of the 2000' near-featureless-cone that is Pico's summit (rookie mistake... makes me red in the face just reading that). Having been cautioned by Ricardo about the possibility of getting cliffed out on the W side of the mountain, I tried to bear E and hope to hit a recognizable spot, but I started to see some unfamiliar rock features and when I took out my compass realized I had been heading NW the entire time. I compensated, headed NE, and ran into the other group pushing for the summit at the base of the glacier.
Take it from the rookie who made the mistake - gravity pulls you the wrong way down Orizaba and you can easily be led off the W or E sides of the mountain where there are really nasty cliffs. Don't be that guy. Heading north, I eventually got below the clouds, ran into the guided group at the foot of the Jamapa glacier, and cruised down to the hut for a hot meal.
On my way down the mountain the next day, I turned around to see that the clouds cleared and the peak was covered in a new layer of snow.
I heard the good weather was expected to stick around for a few days, and so I got a ride back up the mountain.
This time, visibility was perfect the whole way up and down. I started at 12 am, determined to go luxuriously slow and make it to the top just in time for sunrise... I ended up making it to the top by 4:45am, an hour and 45 minutes before sunrise... FML. I froze my a** off for a while, curled up in my bivy sack on the summit watching shooting stars from 18,500 ft. After the misery, the sunrise came like angel Joy and gave me the view I was waiting for.
Sunrise! Popo, Izta, La Malinche & shadow of Pico
I'm always told that "in conclusion..." is the speaker's way of waking up the audience. I'm sorry for being too long-winded here, but I just wanted to wrap it up with a few bullet-points:
1) Bring a compass and know that heading N on the Jamapa glacier will bring you back to the piedra hut.
2) Hiking in the early dry season can be the ill s***. I had >4,000 ft of kicking-steps, and the labyrinth was gorgeous. Give yourself a few more days and be willing to wait out bad weather - it can make for a wonderful trip.
3) Stay safe. Don't think just because some chump from NJ (NM originally) soloed the peak doesn't mean that it's a walk in the park. In fact, I'd recommend bringing company just for the sake of having somebody to share the experiences with. I tell my friends about this trip and they quickly change the discussion to the latest Harry Potter...
4) Make friends at the Piedra hut and give plenty of little kids the opportunity to hold your ice axe for a picture or two - "Se puede tocar el cielo con el rompe hielo!" I met a lot of amazing people there, from a guided group hailing from Denver (plus one guy from Seattle), a guy who co-owns a rock gym in Mexico city with Carlos Carsolio or a group of skiers who had just skied Denali and included the youngest person to ski all of Colorado's 14ers, to enthusiastic families from all over Mexico just dying to hear what it's like high up on the mountain. Live it up!
5) Have a long and fruitful mountaineering career!