Getting there is half the fun
It all started about Thanksgiving when my buddy Isaac and I started talking about taking a trip down to Mexico to climb El Pico de Orizaba, the highest volcano in Mexico at 18,500 feet and the third highest mountain in North American behind Denali (Alaska) and Logan (Canada). He and another Chris had attempted it 3 years ago without success. The highest I have been at the time was hiking the 14ers in Colorado. So we started planning.
Anyways, we left for mexico on sunday 18th. From Denver (American,7:20am, $485), I had to make a connection in Dallas before flying into Mexico City (arriving at 2:00pm). As you are flying in you can see the 3 volanoes, Pico off to the southeast, and Popo (and some smoke as it is still active) and Izta next to each other. And you can also see the smog.
After claiming our luggage at baggage claim, an attendant asked us to show him our baggage claim tickets on the way out. That made me feel a bit safer with my luggage in Mexico. At the airport, we used the ATM ($1 US dollar = 11 pesos) and walked to the bus terminal.
From the airport, you can take a bus (estrella roja) directly to the town of Puebla. It was a 2 hour bus ride(170 pesos) and they checked our luggage onto the bus so once again I left safe with my luggage and when we got off, we had to show our baggage tickets to retrieve them from underneath the bus. In some countries, (especially Costa Rica, luggage thefts are very commo)when a bus makes an intermediate stop to let some people off, they steal your luggage from underneath).
They have a website, estrellaroja.com.mx You can click on the english version and they will tell you their times. You want to go to the puebla CAPU station, not 4 poniente. I don't know why other people have taken a taxi from the airport to the mexico city's TAPO station first and taken a bus from there to puebla, maybe this bus service is new or maybe they didn't know.
In Puebla, we caught another 2 hour bus ride to the town of Tlachichuca (37 pesos, leaves every 45 minutes?). I don't know how late the buses run but we left at 6:30pm. Chris and Isaac (and other trip reports)missed the last bus last time from Puebla and bartered a taxi to Tlachichuca for $30 US/person. We paid 3 bucks for the bus this time. After 2 bus rides we arrived at Tlachichuca around 8:30pm in the evening. While Isaac and I speak moderate Spanish, its probably not completely necessary to make your way to Tlachichuca. We had pizza (US prices) at Pizza Angelotti in the main square (from what we saw it was our only option this late at night) and went to bed.
We were staying at Hotel Gerar. We made a reservation via email a few weeks in advance but we were the only ones there that night (out of about 12 rooms). From what I know there are two places to stay in town (that cater to climbers). Gerar and Servimont (run by Senor Reyes). It seemed like when we were later on the mountain, most people came up from there. There was a sign for a hotel next to the pizza shop but I don't know much about that place.
The rooms at Hotel Gerar are simple but clean and have a private bathroom with hot water. There is no heat in the hotel and it did get a bit chilly at night (maybe mid 40's) so I was huddled under the covers. We paid $17 US per night/person.
Acclimatizing in Tlachichuca
Next day, we went for a quick acclimatization hike on the nearby bluffs you can see from town. The town sits at 8,500 feet and we peaked at about 9,500 on the bluffs. It was about a 2 hour hike and while it was pretty distinct trail most of the way, you had to much out for the cactus.
We ate the rest of our meals at Casa Blanca which is right on the main square. Meals were pretty good and cost about 50 pesos each. During our 2 days in Tlachichuca, we didn't see any other tourists other then 2 Canadians that showed up at our hotel on our 2nd night. There was however a couple internet cafes (10 pesos/hour) and it was very easy to buy a phone card to call home using the payphone.
On our third day (Tuesday 2/20), we bought 3, 5-gallon jugs of water from the convenience store (45 pesos, well worth the cost) and some white gas from the hardwear store. After packing up the Jeep Wrangler (from the 80's?), Erik, who is the son of Gerardo the hotel owner, drove us up to the mountain.
It took about 1.5 hours. When we dropped us off, we agreed that he would be back on Friday afternoon at 3pm to pick us up. He gave us a cell phone but there was no signal at basecamp. Later on, I would try it on the summit with no signal either.
Basecamp, Piedra Grande
Piedra Grande means big rock. At 14,000 feet, we could feel the altitude right away as this is about as high as I have been. I didn't have a headache but it took a bit of time to set up camp and get settled in. My resting heartrate was 100 bpm, normally in Denver its around 60 bpm.
We decided to bring tents instead of using the hut (there is 2). On their last trip, Chris and Isaac used the main hut but never got good sleep because summit parties wake you up at night and all the groups cook in there as well. We set up our camp near the smaller hut, which wasn't being used and used this hut during our stay as our cooking hut. It would probably fit about 6 people in there but the roof has some holes in it even though some people did a poor job trying to fix it with scraps. It wouldn't take much for one of the hotels to get some scraps and spend an hour fixing it.
After setting up camp, we did a quick hike to the top of the acquducts (14,800). It took us about an hour roundtrip. We were all feeling great and not feeling the altitude much. After the hike we talked with some people staying in the big hut. It is probably big enough for about 20 people and there were about 8 people there our 1st night.
We talked to a few climbers who just came down that day, including 1 guy who soloed it.
I didn't get much sleep that first night. I didn't have any affects from altitude (before I left, I try spent a few Sundays snowshoeing at 12,000 feet which probably helped) but every time I rolled in my sleeping bag I did feel my heartrate go up a bit. I couldn't sleep because my sleeping bag was too warm. I brought my 0 degree bag when a 15-20 (or maybe even a 30) would have been plenty. The coldest it got on my watch was 40 degrees in the middle of the night (inside our tent).
Our plan was to hike up to the glacier the next day but Chris did not sleep well and neither did I. So we just spent the day resting at basecamp playing cards.
On the morning of the 22nd at 12:20am, we woke up, packed up our gear and left the tent at 1:20am for the summit. Hiking in the dark with headlamps, we were luckcy that there was another group in front of us, 2 clients and 2 guides.
On the morning of the 22nd at 12:20am, we woke up, packed up our gear and left the tent at 1:20am for the summit. Hiking in the dark with headlamps, we were luckcy that there was another group in front of us, 2 clients and 2 guides (one being a local guide "Oso" who was very helpful to us for free).
We followed them up for about 5 hours to the glacier. It was mostly a hike to this point but we did rope up (and crampons) at the last section of the labrynth up 30 degree snow gullys. At this point the sun came up to the east and it was one of the most magical moments of my life, being at 16,000 feet watching the sunrise with the clouds thousands of feet below us.
Feeling good, we could see the summit at this point but it was still 2500 feet to go, which turned out to be the toughtest 2500 feet of my life.
The slope was moderate at first, 25 degrees or so but halfway it got steeper to 35-40 degrees (double black diamond ski run). We were really sucking air now (around 17,500) and got ourselves into a painful routine of taking 10 steps and resting for 10 breaths. We continued this for what seemed like about 2 hours before we reached the summit at 11:21am, 10 hours after we started.
We took a few photos, probably being the highest people in North America on that day since Denali and Logan aren't climbed in the winter, and started heading down. We spent maybe 5 minutes on the summit since we were tired and it was already getting late. It wasn't that cold on the summit, maybe 15-20 degrees but it was windy.
The hike down was harder then I ever imagined as we were all tired, dehydrated and sunburnt. We had neglected to put on sunscreen earlier as we started hiking in the dark and never stopped to put it on while we were on the glacier. We would pay for this later. Even though we took a lot of water breaks on the glacier, we didn't eat which was also a mistake. I was so focused on climbing (and I didn't feel like I could handle food at this altitude) that I really bonked at the top.
We passed the guided group earlier going up on the glacier so we were also ahead of them hiking down. Well we got lost in the labrynth for about an hour and had to wait for them to catch up so we could get down. It didn't look like anything we climbed earlier that morning. The sun was also melting the snow and there were literally some waterfalls down some gullys. Once again, "Oso" helped us find our way out.
We arrived back at our tents at 6:30pm, 17 hours after we left. We didn't do much but go to head. Chris threw up water, Isaac just went to bed, I managed to make a bowl of instant mashed potatoes and went to bed also.
Our ride wasn't scheduled to come till 3pm the next day but once again, we counted on "oso" for a favor. He was heading down that night and told us he would gladly call our hotel for us that night and ask them to pick us up the next morning at 9am, which they did.
After getting back to Tlachichuca on Friday morning, the hotel let us shower up before we left. Before we left town we went to the internet cafe and ran into the "oso". He suggested hotel Maria Cristina for us in Mexico City.
Catching the 2 buses to Mexico City, we took a taxi to the hotel from the bus station. It turned out to be a 3-4 star boutique hotel. It was beautiful and in a good neighborhood near Rio Reforma (a major commercial and business street). We paid 1100 pesos for a 2-double room.
After checking in, we walked around the neighborhood and ended up in zona rosa. This was a semi-red light, but there were plenty of bars and restaurants that were patronized by people of all ages. We sat at a bar and watched a band play spanish and english cover songs. It was actually a pretty good time. At this bar, they advertised that there were 80 appertizers on the menu and that they were free as long as we ordered drinks. Well the margaritas were 80 pesos a piece.
The next day, Chris and Isaac were able to catch a flight a day earlier for back home while I couldn't. So I took a day trip to Teotihuacan about 1 hour north of mexico city to see the pyramids. It was a fun day trip and definitely worth the trip. I took a cab to the north bus station and took a bus from there.
Now back in Colorado, I am very proud of my accomplishment and I have a peeling face to prove it. This was definitely the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life but I have become a stronger person for it. Here are some pics as well.
P.S. The guide I keep referring to is Roberto "oso" Flores, which means bear in spanish as he has summited over 400 times and the guy is a bear. He is not a little guy to say the least but he was a very strong climber. Without his help we would not have made it as we would have been lost for hours. Even though we weren't his clients he was very kind of us and basically guided us up there. I would highly suggest him, not that the route is technically hard but routefinding up (and down) was challenging. He only charges $250 US/day. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggestions/Things I would do differently
Here are some (possible) suggestions. I didn't do all of these but heard other people doing them.
1. Instead of going directly from Tlachichuca, hire a taxi to take you to Hidalgo (11,500 feet or so) and spend a night there. Its a small town so I think people camp there. I don't know where but there seems to be plenty of open, shaded land on the dirt road from here to basecamp. They you could hike the rest of the way to basecamp or hire mules (according to other trip reports) from town to carry your bags up to basecamp.
2. We used tents and we were glad we did. Sleeping in the hut, you would smell the cooking fumes and the summit groups would wake you up at night. We took a jeep from our hotel up there so the extra weight of the tent was not an issue.
3. I brought a 0 degree bag. I was way too warm (2/22/07). The coldest it got inside my tent was 40 degrees or so. 15-20 degree bag would have been plenty.
4. Since weight is not an issue (if you are taking a jeep), you could bring a nice, inflatable mattress w/battery pump, the kind you use for car camping.
5. There are plenty of higher camping spots above basecamp starting at about 15,000 feet to 16,000 feet (right before the labrynth). Some people spent a night at basecamp and spent a night at high camp. For us, we brought way too much stuff and didn't want to carry it up or leave gear behind.
6. I read some studies that taking gingko biloba pills (2x day for 5 days) prior to the climb have lowered altitude sickness symptoms in some people. I did it. I didn't have any altitude sickness. I don't know if the gingko helped or not but I figured it didn't hurt to take them since they are a natural supplement anyways.
7. We didn't bring diamox but that could be a possibility.
8. some people fly into puebla or veracruz but I don't know if that is worth it (the extra cost). I'm assuming that there are no direct buses from the puebla airport to tlachichuca.
9. definitely buy some 5 gallon jugs of water from tlachichuca and bring it up with you (assuming you are taking a jeep). There is running water at basecamp but do you really want to filter/boil it?
10. Taking the extra day in mexico city to see the pyramids of teotihoucan was definitely worth it.