Pico de Orizaba

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 19.01640°N / 97.2667°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Nov 28, 2003
Trip Report

Pico de Orizaba -- Trip Report

November 26-28, 2003

Our climbing team was composed of 3 people--Nate, Scott and I--all of Boulder, CO. Each of us was in good shape, experienced at camping, and had some experience in crampons. However, none of us had been above 15,000 feet, before our climbs on Iztaccihuatl earlier that week. We arrived at Piedra Grande around 3:00 pm on Wednesday, November 26th 2003. The weather was cool, breezy and misty. As the evening wore on the weather improved and we were able to get our first good look at the Jamapa glacier, hanging far above us. We set up our tent just above the main hut, close to the location of the older, smaller hut. After our camp was secure we moved into the Piedra Grande to cook our dinner and chat with the other climbers. There were probably about 20 or so climbers staying there our first night. Having already acclimated on Iztaccihuatl, we all slept well.

We awoke on the 27th to perfect weather. The sun was strong, the sky clear and the air crisp. As we looked longingly at the glacier above, we notice a group of three climbers moving slowly across its crest towards the summit cone. We borrowed a fellow climber’s binocular, and watched with anticipation as the three disappeared over the ridge and onto the top of the mountain. What a wonderful moment, all the climbers at Piedra Grande celebrated for the unknown group moving 4,000 feet above us. After a relaxing morning, we packed up our camp and began our heavy carry. It was close to noon, and we were moving slowly. We had been told that there would be no water and little snow at the high camps. So we carried 6 liters of water each (for that night and the next day). We moved casually; the following day would be our summit attempt, and we didn’t want to waste any extra energy.

We passed several groups of climbers on their way down. Each of them had summited earlier in the day, and we eagerly gathered what beta we could from the tired troupes. As we continued, we found that taking breaks every half hour made our 50+ pound packs seem a little easier to manage. We made it to our high camp by 2:00 pm, having passed several good camping areas (15,000 feet and 15,300 feet), we chose to continue moving to the sites at 15,700 feet. There were three good tent spots at this location and we took the largest of these, since we had the entire location to ourselves. No sooner than we had placed the last tent stake, it began to snow. The weather deteriorated to a hard blowing snow for about an hour. We recorded about three inches of snow. Then, at around 4:00 pm, it cleared again just as it had the day before. We celebrated in anticipation of the day that lay ahead.

We lay down at 7:30 pm to rest. Even at this altitude, we all fell asleep quickly and slept well. I credit our good sleep to the two nights we spent at 14,400 feet on Iztaccihuatl, followed by one at 14,000 feet on Orizaba. We slept well, until around 10:30 pm, when we were suddenly awakened by a lightning storm. While the storm was far enough away to not be heard, it was nevertheless an awe inspiring sight. Lightning danced continuously across the Northern sky. We took barometric pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, and estimated the storm distance readings as best we could. We recorded the information in our journals as a comparison with the readings we planned to take in the morning. Nervously we fell back to sleep. Our alarms blared at 2:00 am waking us for our summit bid. We continued to observe lightning strikes, but the frequency had dropped to once every minute or so. Taking this, and our other weather information into account, we decided we were still “go” for the summit.

We suited up in our warmest clothes, as the temperature outside was 20 degrees F and the wind was blowing at about 10 mph. After a quick bite to eat we were off by 3:15 am. We were immediately presented with the challenges of the “Labyrinth”. This is an area which was probably recently covered by the “Tongue” of the glacier. Since then the snow has receded leaving a series of rock and ice gullies. Nate led us through the first several gullies with little aplomb. He had scouted most of the route the previous evening. However, once we passed the point where he had been already, the route finding, through the predawn darkness, became a bit more challenging. We found ourselves in a class 4 gully that was a mix of rock, water ice, and snow. Feeling strong we all made the 60 degree, 30 foot ascent. This would prove to be the technical crux of our climb. We broke out onto the glacier at 16,600 feet, just after 6:00 am as the sun was just beginning to rise.

The looming mass of the previous evening’s storm was beginning to make itself visible. At 7:00 am we stopped for an hour to evaluate the weather. Deciding if it was safe to continue proved to be a difficult call. The top of the storm lay even with our current elevation. None of us were interested in getting disoriented in a whiteout, as we had heard was common on this mountain. Also, it also had the potential of making an already difficult descent through the “Labyrinth” much more dangerous. After much deliberation, we decided the weather was not continuing to deteriorate. We figured that at the very least we had a “window” of opportunity.

Moving quickly at 17,000 feet was not something we could muster, so we moved slowly, but with high spirits. Our route took us high and “climber left” on the Jamapa glacier. The technical difficulty was not great and the slope angle was mostly in the 35-40 degree range. The crux of the glacier was a section that was near 45 degrees. We took breaks often, and watched the storm slowly slide past, below us. After one particularly long rest above the steepest section of the glacier, we began moving again and very abruptly found ourselves on the crater rim. For several hours all we had seen was the sweeping curves of the Jamapa glacier. The sudden contrast of the sharp, vertical rock in the summit crater was psychologically jarring. We dropped our packs in an alcove and stepped onto the true summit together. The wind had ebbed almost entirely and the temperature had risen to a pleasant 36 degrees F. We celebrated, and enjoyed one very wonderful hour in that very special place.

During our stay on the summit, the wind and the sun had helped to form a thin coating of ice on the glacier. This made the descent a bit more interesting; however with careful down-climbing we all arrived back at the high camp unscathed. We packed up our campsite and continued our descent. We began passing climbers heading up to the high camps. They eagerly gathered what beta they could from us, before moving on. The circle was complete. We arrived back at Piedra Grande by 4:00 pm.

This was a great trip and one I would recommend to anyone. With adequate acclimatization, I definitely recommend the high camp. At 2:30 am on the morning of our summit bid more than a one envious climber walked through our campsite having left Piedra Grande at midnight.

--Mark, Scott, Nate

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings: Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine into flowers, the winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms, their energy and cares will drop off like autumn leaves. -- John Muir


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