As a preface, we traveled with my brother-in-law who is Columbian and fluent in Spanish. This made logistics a non-issue for us gringos. Whenever anyone asked us anything, we would just point to him and smile. So, if you don't have the luxury of being able to communicate effortlessly with the locals, you may want to choose some other options (e.g. hiring a dedicated driver instead of negotiating travel via city buses, or lodging in places where English is spoken).
Wednesday, March 26
We flew into Mexico City. From there we purchased bus tickets to Puebla for $17 USD each. It was the most expensive bus fare of the trip, but the bus was very nice and clean. Each passenger got a small bag of snacks and a beverage, and they played a movie as well (American movie with Spanish audio). The bus ride was about 2 hours.
From Puebla, we took another bus to Tlachichuca (about 2 more hours). This one was cheaper but stopped continuously through various small towns.
Almost immediately after entering Tlachichuca, the bus passed the bright orange colored home of Joachin Canchola, where we intended to stay. We ran up to the front and asked the bus driver to stop... he kindly obliged.
We quickly wandered out into the street to snap some first shots of Orizaba.
We were happy to be in the presence of such gracious hosts as the Cancholas. We truly felt like family in their home. The food was great, and their rates were very reasonable. I highly recommend them if you're planning to climb Orizaba.
Thursday, March 27
We woke up after a good night's sleep and had a wonderful meal with eggs, fresh tortillas, black beans, delicious green & red sauces, pastries, and teas. We started preparing for the journey up the *dusty* 4wd road to the Orizaba base. This is a long, bumpy, (did I mention dusty?) 2.5-hour ride, so be prepared.
We took a short break on the way up for some photo ops and some lively discussion from Joachin about the forest fires wreaking havoc on the landscape.
Once we were dropped off at the Piedra Grande hut, we began to establish our camp nearby. We decided to camp nearby instead of staying in the hut because we heard that the hut can be too loud to get a good night's sleep. Also, we planned to establish a high camp, so we were fully prepared with the appropriate gear. Altitude at this point was about 13,900'
Friday, March 28
After a night at our base camp, we geared up and began the trek up to high camp. Our target camping zone was just beyond the labrynth.
The labrynth turned out to be steeper and a bit more difficult than we had anticipated. This was probably amplified by the fact that we had extremely heavy packs full of our high camp and ice climbing gear. There was a lot of slick ice intermingled with steep and narrow rock faces. We ended up having to scramble and climb a bit to navigate through, and towards the end it became difficult to find a good route. Eventually, we decided to get on crampons and ascend directly up a couloir. This turned out to be a good decision and got us out quickly.
After about 4 hours of trekking, scrambling, and climbing, we made it to our high camp at about 16,000'. We chose the area immediately to the left after exiting the labrynth, where there is a large area of flat volcanic ash and two crosses attached to a big rock. This was because we knew there was another party camping higher up at the very tip of the glacier.
Saturday, March 29
We spent the better part of an entire day (and almost all of our fuel) melting ice to then filter for drinking water. This was a real pain, but we saw no other viable option. Our packs were already extremely heavy and the labrynth was a serious feat, so carrying any more than a minimal supply of water up to high camp was not practical.
We were definitely feeling the altitude at this point, so we decided to do a short acclimitization hike to the tip of the glacier from the high camp. This turned out to be quite a bit of effort.
Sunday, March 30
We woke up at 2:30am and began gearing up for our summit bid. We began moving towards the glacier at 3:15am. It was dark and cold. Travel up the lower part of the glacier was fairly straightforward. However, even by 5am we began to see a large mass of clouds moving towards the mountain and hear occasional thunder. After about another hour, the clouds were getting closer and thicker, and thunder was occurring more frequently. The glacier was also getting steeper and the ice was thinning and slickening as we approached the crater rim.
7am... We made the decision to turn back from the summit. This occurred near the crater rim (probably no more than 500 vertical feet from the summit). What appeared to be a potentially huge storm was rolling in quickly, and we did not want to get stuck in lightning or whiteout conditions near the summit. We waivered a bit on the decision, but once it was made we were committed. This is one of those moments that I will undoubtedly relive many times. Within an hour or two of heading down, the incoming storm seemed to lessen a bit and I began to think that we probably could have successfully pushed for the summit. But like I said, once the decision was made to head down, we were committed. I was glad to have Eduar and his 28+ years of mountaineering experience to reassure me that we made the right decision. As he said, this is just the nature of the sport. You have to continually make the best decisions that you can based on the conditions and the data available in front of you. Second-guessing the decision once conditions become more favorable is pointless. The mountain decides whether or not you can make the summit, and that day in that moment, the mountain decided against us. We will continue with respect for the mountain and push for other summits on other days... grateful that we are alive and safe to try.
We arrived at our high camp at about 9am and began to pack up for the trek back down to base camp. We were trying to move as quickly as possible to beat the incoming storm. Also, we began to have visions of tequilas, beers, and food at the Canchola house. These things are quite strong motivators. :-)
Descending the labrynth with our full packs was no trivial task. It took quite a bit of careful downclimbing, sliding on patches of ice, and navigating loose rocks and scree. By the end, our knees were pretty shot. But keep thinking about fresh food and beer, and it's no problem.
We finally arrived at base camp, slightly disappointed in the day's outcome, but happy to be safe and eager to eat, drink, and shower.
Back in Tlachichuca, the town was electric, and people were celebrating the first major rainstorm of the season. Canchola's family told us that it had been unusually dry, so the farmers were elated that a good rainfall had finally come. This made us feel better about the outcome of the day. What was disappointment for us was a triumph for the locals. ... After the storm subsided, we walked out to take the same shot of Orizaba that we took at the beginning of the trip. Compare this pic with the previous one to see how much snow fell on the mountain that day.
Touristic day in Puebla
Monday, March 31
We bid the Canchola family farewell and took the bus back to Puebla for a day of touristic activities. Taking a cab ride from the Puebla bus station to the hotel Arristo downtown, we were quickly thrust back into a hustling & bustling society.