Expedition to the Pico de Orizaba - Part I
Where in North America can you find the best training grounds to prepare for an attempt on the most fearsome, high altitude summits such as the Mt. McKinley? In Mexico of course! Beyond its fabled beaches, Mexico offers many fine climbing expeditions, the Pico de Orizaba topping them all with its 5700 meters altitude.
As with the majority of Mexico’s highest peaks, Pico de Orizaba is a volcano, though not an active one, hence don’t dream of warming up camping next to hot lava flows. It is also the third highest summit of North America, and probably the only one reachable without a technical climb requiring months of training.
I figured that while living in Mexico it would be silly not to take advantage of the available mountains to enjoy the delight of breathlessness, sore muscles, blistering cold weather, and mice titillating your feet (the latter being a special treat of the Refugio Piedra Grande on the Pico de Orizaba).
Since I’m not foolish enough to believe that I wouldn’t end up visiting the depth of a crevasse if setting off on my own, I decided to contact a Mexican agency specialized in adventure trips: Rio y Montana. For only Pesos $2990 (plus tax) per person, for a minimum of 4 people, they will kindly organize your expedition to the Pico de Orizaba and make sure you come back alive to tell your friends and family.
Your next challenge once you have taken the plunge and signed with the agency is to train like there was no tomorrow. Being stuck in a sedentary lifestyle, I felt I needed to apply an exciting physical preparation regime consisting in: running more than 50 laps around the tennis court of my condominium and climbing 100 times the staircase of my house with a 15 kg backpack. I figure I will be fit enough to reach the mouth of the Orizaba crater without being carried on a stretcher for the last few hundred meters of the ascension.
Another problem relates to the fact that it’s easier to buy a fashionable swimsuit in Mexico City than a sturdy Gore-Tex jacket and high mountain boots. Thankfully, there are a few shops specializing in climbing gear in the capital of the Mecca of beach tourism, most notably Deportes Rubens where you’ll find everything to look like a modern Sir Edmund Hillary without having to empty your bank account.
The clock is ticking and on March 6th, if everything goes well, I should be contemplating the rugged scenery of Mexico at my feet, together with a group of three of my workmates with whom I will share what I hope will be an amazing and unforgettable experience. More about the Pico de Orizaba expedition will appear shortly in this blog – stay tuned!
Expedition to the Pico de Orizaba - Part II
It all started at 10:00 on a sunny Friday morning inside Mexico City’s ring-shaped TAPO bus station. Four of us loaded with backpacks, ready to depart to the Pico de Orizaba. To get to the famous volcano you first need to travel to Puebla, which is easy enough with plenty of bus companies, like ADO for example, providing services to that city. Once in Puebla, after an eventless 2 hours watching a typical dumb Hollywood movie, we found the Autobuses Valles ticket counter and bought our 2-hour ride to Tlachichuca, the village from which most Orizaba expeditions depart.
Our arrival to this place showed us a stark contrast with Mexico City: no payphones in the streets, donkeys hauling carts, farm animals in most of the backyards – only the Banda music pouring out loud from stalls in the Zocalo was reminiscent of the hectic atmosphere in the capital. We had little time for musing about, soon our guides – Israel and Luis – greeted us and helped us load our gear on the prehistoric 4WD vehicle from Sr. Joaquin, our host in Tlachichuca and chauffeur to the refuge of Piedra Grande.
We were taken to the guest house where Sr. Joaquin operates his Orizaba business, competing with the notorious Reyes family. There we signed the typical papers involved in adventurous undertakings: “I Serge promise to hold Rio y Montana harmless if my dismembered body is found at the bottom of a dark crevasse during the course of this expedition”. In the meantime, our guides loaded up what seemed to be tons of gear, food, water, cooking material on the vehicle of Sr.Joaquin, and soon we were on our way to Piedra Grande.
After a few kilometers, the paved road gave way to a picturesque dirt track lined with pine trees and beautiful yellow flower bushes. Our morale was high and the Pico de Orizaba a fantastic sight against the blue background of the sky. The 90 minutes bumpy ride was our first indication that for the next 48 hours we should forget about the soft comfort of our techno-lives. Finally, we stopped in front of the refuge, a fairly large stone and wood building designed to accommodate 30-40 climbers, and packed with up to 80 people in the high season of climbing.
Facilities in Piedra Grande are non-existent – and yet luxurious compared to what was to come – three long shelves made of planks on top of each other where you can set your pad and sleeping bag, two tables to cook, and all the vastness of Nature around you to relieve your bladder (which you try to do fast, before some useful body part freezes over). At the refuge we learned that all the attempts for the summit in the last week had failed because of gusty winds topping 100 km/h. We were in the shadow of the giant and night fell promptly, bringing up a mesmerizing sky dotted with countless stars.
We wormed into our sleeping bags, one of my colleagues already suffering from a serious altitude-induced headache. Starting at 4200 meters your challenge to the Orizaba is better executed in perfect fitness and health. His flu would make the next 2 days into a continuous ordeal for my unfortunate colleague. In the middle of the night I felt an insistent scratching against my leg and kicked it away, listening to the tiny footsteps of a mouse running for his (or her) life. 2:00AM and I was awaken once more, this time by a group of climbers preparing their bid for the summit under the blue light of their headlamps.
It wasn’t until late morning that we finally emerged from our sleeping bags, already looking like complete rags, faces puffy with lack of sleep. A solid breakfast made us feel better. The weather was magnificent and we could see the tiny black dots of our fellow alpinists against the shining white armor of the Orizaba. Eight hours toiling against the mountain and still they were far from the ridge of the crater, moving at snail’s pace. Soon it was time for us to pack up and start the serious business of getting to our base camp at 4800 meters of altitude.
Immediately my calves were aching as we attacked the steep gradient of the aqueduct that ran from a river down to Piedra Grande. Nevertheless, I eased behind Israel, our lead guide, my weeks of training paying off. Leaving the solid ground of the aqueduct we started clambering on an awful mix of boulders and volcanic dust. Quickly two of my colleagues dropped behind us, accompanied by our second guide, Luis. We caught up with a family from Montana in process of acclimatization, and pressed on past them. For some reason, mountaineering enjoys precious little popularity in Mexico – until the last day we met alpinists from the United States, Israel, Australia and Germany, but no Mexican (except our guides, of course).
Our backpacks were heavy (15-20 kg for mine) with our own gear, supplemented with crampons, ice axe, tents and water generously provided by our guides that were probably observing our short breath and abundant sweat with mocking eyes as they effortlessly heaved their 30 kg packs along the trail. Finally, after four hours of ascending the Orizaba, we found the place for our base camp, a small plateau with appealing flat surfaces and surrounded by stones. We camped there, a new experience for me who hadn’t seen or much less been into a tent. Another of my colleagues begun feeling the effect of altitude – and doubtless of his constant chain-smoking – and discretely went to throw up before nursing his pounding headache. Our expedition didn’t look that proud anymore.
At 7:00PM we were all enjoying the delightful warmth of our sleeping bags, and the soft contact of sharp rocks under our pads. Sleep wasn’t easy to come with our tents shaken by wind and the stress of the impending attempt on the summit creeping in. The alarm of my wristwatch mercilessly rang at 1:30AM and I rushed out of the tent in the total darkness of a moonless night… to purge my digestive tube of the diner we had a few hours earlier. I can’t help marveling at how high mountains can get us back to the basics, food, pain, friendship, so far from the trivialities of our daily lives.
With a contented smile on my face I came back to my tent and begun dressing for the extreme conditions of the summit: thermal underwear, intermediate Polar Tec layer, outer shell made of Gore Tex clothes, gloves, hats, headlamp, etc. Meanwhile, my two colleagues suffering from altitude sickness wisely decided to stay at the camp while we made our bid to the crest of the Orizaba. At 2:40AM we were gone with Luis, who maintained a steady pace, scaling rock walls like a cat while we were spitting out our lungs behind him. Luis had climbed the Everest in 2004 and both he and Israel were made from a different stuff than us, mere mortals.
40 minutes later, we came out of the moraine and on to the edge of the Jamapa glacier (5000 meters altitude). We stopped, donned our crampons, strapped ourselves in our harness, roped up with Luis, and listened to his last instructions before marching to the ice field. What was to follow is one of my life’s most surreal experiences. Totally isolated, in complete darkness except for the artificial light of our headlamps, with the thermometer plunging rapidly, wind howling around us, eyes fixed on the rope, crampons crushing into the ice, we climbed, and climbed…
Scaling the Jamapa at night offers the invaluable benefit of not seeing the demoralizing endless icy slope in front of you, giving you the impression that you are not making any progress. I concentrated on each of my steps, trying to follow the footsteps of Luis, saving energy, sometimes looking back at my colleague enduring the same trial as I did. I was turning into a climbing robot: left foot, right foot, ice axe, stop, breath, watch the rope straightening, left foot… The ice was changing, from weird crested formations called “Penitentes” to a fine cover on top of the mountain rock, and dozens of other intermediate forms.
“Stop, I lost my crampons”, the sound of my colleague’s voice cut through the night. I asked Luis to give me more rope to climb down and see what happened. The crampons had gotten loose. I kneeled on the slope and proceeded to reattach them. We were both shivering under the increasing cold. Wind was blasting icy particles on us. Maybe more than anywhere else I understood there the meaning of solidarity, how important it was to be able to count on someone else, to help each other. The climb resumed: left foot, right foot…
My wristwatch indicated 5300 meters altitude. Fatigue was sneaking into my worn muscles, the short stops granted to us by Luis hardly making me feel any better, my body unable to recover as fast as it was spending energy. Was there no ending to this? We carried on, the sky turning into whitewashed haze as the sun was getting ready to appear on the horizon. Looking up, I could finally see the crater’s ridge, far away but finally within our reach. I felt my heart beating with renewed energy, Luis surged forward and we followed him as we could. I got to the lower edge of the crater just after our guide and from there we urged my colleague to make one last effort and he joined us – both of us were thoroughly worn out.
Luis pointed to the summit on our right and we ambled along the crest of the Orizaba, climbing gently, a real treat compared to the hours of fight against the Jamapa glacier. At 6:40AM on Sunday March 6th we reached the summit of the Pico de Orizaba, 4 hours after setting off from our base camp. I felt my heart filling with a quiet joy of having achieved an unbelievable feat of determination. I couldn’t care less that there was no visibility, that we couldn’t even make up the other side of the crater – I was simply happy. We relaxed a few minutes before taking the necessary pictures that will accompany our memories. Our fingers were freezing on the camera seconds after removing our gloves. The cold was extreme and Luis indicated that we should go down. At 7:00AM we bid farewell to the summit and began our descent.
God I hate climbing down mountains! That’s when the risk factor is the highest, your exhausted legs ready to give way into a fatal slide down the glacier. Luis was behind us, steadily holding the rope with me in the middle and my colleague in front, looking like bait for the crevasses. Suddenly, two shapes appear on our right: the German climbers who left Piedra Grande during the night are already well advanced scaling the slopes of the Orizaba. For a moment I admire their courage, they must have 6 to 7 hours of continuous clambering and are still going strong. Luis tells them that the summit is two and a half hours away, and we proceed further down on the never-ending ice field.
My colleague trips over and falls in the snow-covered ice. Respite! We are nearing the limits of our stamina. I lift my eyes and see in a movie-like opening the clouds parting in front of me, revealing the majestic scenery of red-grey rocks and tree covered mountains emerging from a sea of low-clouds. I take this opportunity to check my water bottle and find it deep frozen. No water for me right now, just more walking. At last we can sense the edge of the Jamapa glacier, just to see our route barred by hundreds of rows of “Penitentes” aggressively pointing their icy needles in our direction. Relentless, Luis advises us to move on and my colleague kicks, crashes, falls, through the last stretches of the ice field until finally we are clear of the Jamapa.
The return to the base camp is one long series of slides in the rocks and dust of the Orizaba trail. My legs are setting up a vehement strike after 7 hours of inhuman efforts. Following a turn of the trail we encounter Israel and my chain-smoking colleage (who is living his longest smoke-break in decades) waiting for us. We go on as a group and reach the base camp at 9:40AM. Shattered, we beg the guides for a brief rest and lay on our sleeping bags. Minutes later my colleague is fast asleep and I can only envy his ability to doze off in bliss.
Half an hour later the wind picks up and we force ourselves to pack up everything and leave for Piedra Grande. My 15 kg backpack weighs a ton on my shoulders and every little rock is a treacherous trap set on the trail. I slip dozens of times in a cloud of dust, get up and carry on the descent. We come across our fellow climbers from Montana who smile at us. There must be some invisible bond uniting all living being in the hostile environment of high mountains. The track we follow is different than the one we took on our way up. Luis powers away and I find myself unable to stick to his heels. I will arrive at the refuge 30 minutes after him, utterly spent, or as the guides said “with the sparkle in my eyes gone”.
The weather is fast turning sour and the first drops of rain are falling. A group of mountaineers from Alaska disembark from a 4WD truck. We start chatting with them and they tell us of their Denali experiences: 15 to 21 days to climb the Mt.McKinley. Meters of snow, extreme cold weather, etc. Our adventure to the Orizaba pales in comparison. We are just novices who went beyond our limits, but in no way are we alpinists yet.
It’s time to leave Piedra Grande and return to Tlachichuca. I stay quiet during the whole ride. Israel and Joaquin talk about other guides, foolish clients, expeditions on other continents – I just crave for a warm bed and something to eat. The guest house shows its friendly courtyard where we unload crampons and ice axes, tools now useless for the modern citizen’s life we are coming back to. One last handshake with Israel and with slow, determined steps so characteristic of alpinists, we go back to the bus station, our minds full of memories of the Orizaba. Five hours later, the megalopolis of Mexico City greets us with its sprawling poor neighborhoods and pollution. Goodbye Pico de Orizaba, you were a dream I will never forget and an experience I will forever relish living again.