The urge to climb this mountain was cemented in my brain from the second I saw it on a bus ride from Mexico City to Merida, the white city and jewel of the Yucatan. I had been staring through the window eastwards pretty much freaking out the two native Mexicans who occupied the seats across the aisle from my girlfriend Rachel and me. I had only a vague notion of where Orizaba would be, but I knew with the crystal clear skies that there was a strong chance it would be visible from the highway. So after we passed La Malinche, and Cofre Del Perote had faded into the distance, I was sitting perched knowing that if it was visible it would be coming into sight soon.
This childlike excitement should have warned me of the severity of my addiction, but like all addicts I was oblivious to the signs. Not long after the edge of my excitement had been dulled by the interminable wait, there it was towering over the low, scrubby hills that ran parallel to the Mexican highway. More so than Popo or Izta this was in every sense of the word a mountain. It was like the first time I saw Iztaccihautl from the school where I taught or the first time I beheld Rainier from the campus of the University of Washington. It outright demanded your attention, as even from such a distance it dominated the landscape like no other... this singular peak dwarfing its neighbours, rocky rampart upon rocky rampart towering up into the blue.
Citlatepetl's perfectly symmetrical volcanic silhouette had captured me, I was throughly transfixed. Much like Iztaccihuatl, those heights weren't meant for a wanna-be hack like me, they were the realm of experienced mountaineer's only.. so the desire to climb Orizaba faded... or so I thought.
After I summited Iztaccihuatl, I thought that this was enough for me that it would satisfy or temporarily satiate this newly returned desire to climb everything in sight. I tried talking to others to get a feel for El Pico, but Orizaba was more technically demanding than Izta, so much of what I heard came to me in the form of cautionary tales or in outright discouragement. It was considered to be a dangerous mountain, not 'gentle' like Izta. It was the providence of real mountaineers.
Once again it was Gustavo whose steadfast faith in me, and boundless encouragement tipped the decision to climb in favour of the yea side. No matter what problem I posed to him he was able to counter with the knowledge that I was more than prepared to meet any challenge the mountain might pose (within reason of course). Buoyed by his faith and my relentless passion the decision to climb Orizaba was made.
About three weeks out we made a scouting trip to Tlachichuca, to see about hiring a guide. I made contact with a guide who spoke fluent English and two of us struck up a great conversation. He was leaving for Nepal where he was on an expedition to climb Cho Oyu. He had summited, Aconcagua and Denali and was now ready for bigger challenges. He told me about the guide that would more than likely take me, a very experienced mountaineer who had summited El Pico over 130 times.
This trip infused me with even greater levels of enthusiasm, so I left my email with him and got in contact with his friend. His price was about $60 Cdn higher than what my previous guide Juan had suggested so I went back with Juan, which turned out to be the right decision.
The morning we left to climb Orizaba we were caught in a huge traffic jam that stretched all the way from the center of Mexico to Puebla... so this of course got on my nerves in a big way. My adrenaline was at a fever pitch I longed to see El Pico again. It had been six and a half long months since the first and only time I had seen Orizaba. On the previous trip to Tlachichuca it had been wreathed in clouds from about 3500m up.
What had been decided was that we would climb Ruta Sur, which left me a little disappointed until my guide explained that if I wanted to summit Sierra Negra as well this was the only way. Sierra Negra shares the saddle with Orizaba and rises 4700m or so itself. A beautiful peak in its own right. So with weather permitting I was in line for a 2 for 1 and that tempered any disappointment I had over not climbing the north route.
The trip from El Ciudad Serdan to about 4100m was a blast, this was where my friend Javier's little green Tracker and his prodigious driving skills came into play. My guide Juan felt that there was no way Javier could get us that close to the hut. Yet sure enough with some coaxing we made it. On the way up the clouds temporarily parted and the hazy summit of Orizaba was visible throught the clouds... YEE HAW! The hike up to the summit took my altitudinally challenged lungs a bit to adjust to. I had been above 4000m over eight times for hours on end over the previous four months, but I had just come from Barra de Navidad on the Pacific coast (and at sea level) 36 hours earlier so it took some adjusting...
After we settled in at the hut and spoke with a group of climbers out of Oaxaca, including a scot, 2 welshmen/women and a fellow Canadian I went out explring on some of the rocky pinnacle that rise up south of the hut. I was feeling a little anxious just sitting around the hut, so climbing around and putting my lungs through their paces made a lot of sense. Juan was his usual gregarious self, his relaxed manner and obvious experience lent itself to all of the climbers who were hoping to summit the following morning.
I was more prepared for this climb than I had been for Izta. I had purchased crampons, and a head lamp as well as picked up some of my winter gear from home. So in some ways I was more confident, especially after talking with the group from Oaxaca. They were having considerable difficulty acclimatising. This was to be there second night there, and their group was plagued by a bevvy of headaches, nausea and the other maladies associated with altitude sickness. I felt none of that and for this reason I was very thankful for all of the experience I had gained climbing above 4000m.
Gustavo had been thrilled to simply accomapny us on the drive up to the hut. Simply getting that close to Orizaba was more than he'd ever expected to get. I was happy that he got to share in some of my adventure. He was after all responsible for my reintorduction to the mountains... it was the very least I could do for him.
That night was relatively peaceful until around midnight when a group of ten Mexicans stormed the hut with gear coming out there wazoo, including more than a few hogsheads of beer. It was over the course of the conversations we shared as they settled in that I learned that several of their fondest dreams were to swim in Lake Ontario... (a dream not shared by many Canadians or Americans for sure!). Juan played the peacemaker and was able to dissuade them from partying the night away. I couldn't fathom why anyone would want to trudge up to 15000 feet, weighed down with all of their supplies to party in a cold, dingy cabin. Then again though that encapsulates the spirit of the Mexican people, and their incredible ability to find enjoyment anywhere or doing anything. A lesson I have taken home with me...
The following morning after less than 90 minutes sleep we awoke and stumbled through the routine of readying our gear. The group frpm Oaxaca (eight in all) was up with us and left the hut a good 25 minutes before us. Nonetheless by 2:40 or so Juan and I were on our way up up and up.
This was the major difference I noticed between Izta and Orizaba. On Izta the ups were broken up by plateaus and thin ridgelines... on Orizaba it was unrelenting verticality. The grade wasn't too bad, but when it steepend to 50 degrees or so as we approached the 'pulpito' and I looked back down to see a 1050m (3500ft +) slide to my death it looked pleny steep.
We plodded on through the endless night for four and a half hours. The lights from the towns beneath us twinkled benignly and the stars above were surreal in their unearthly brilliance. What stood out most about his peak as we worked our way up through the unending night was the silence. It was like we were the only people on earth. We had passed the group from Oaxaca early on and at times their lights were lost to our eyes.
At around 5000m we stopped to put on our crampons. There is no glacier on the south side, but he snow was hard packed corn snow and crampons were very necessary. Regular boots would have been far too dangerous. So we continued the numbing task of planting our feet one after the other as we worked our way in a zig zag pattern up Citlatepeptl.
As the sun rose I looked behind us and noticed how tiny Sierra Negra looked from my vantage point... that was very humbling as it is a very 'Real' mountain in its own right.
I noticed that we had been making no real (apparent) progress towards the 'pulpito' for the past 40 minutes or so, it seemed to be moving away from us at the same pace we approached it with. The altitude was slowing us both marginally, but we continued on stoically. At long last the pulpito drew near and we cirlcled it to the east as it turned out to be a 15m high magma plug. I was a bit nervous here as the snow was a little dicey and the grade was at its steepest but that didn't last for long...
After ten minutes we were past the pulpit and as promised the summit was right there only minutes away. It was all I could do not to run to the summit. Surprisingly I held off and maintained a degree of decorum and achieved the summit at the same time as my guide.
I was exultant... but unfortunately the clouds were rolling in so I was unable to take a panoramic look around and peer into the depths of Orizaba's crater. THe weather was worsening, the temperature had dropped to around -10 celsius with a windchill around -20... and this was unlike the cold of Canada, this was a moist cold that enshrouded me and slowly sunk into my bones.
What struck me about Orizaba's summit was how small it was in comparison with Izta. We spent a full forty minutes on the roof of the third highest peak in North America, and perhaps for a few minutes that 'morn we may have been the highest climbers on the continent as we were the first to achieve Orizaba's summit on this day.
It took us about 5hrs to reach the summit and maybe 90 minutes to descend to the hut. Wet snow was falling thickly the whole way down and it wasn't long before I was chiiled and soaked through to the bone. At the hut, the girl from Canada made me a warm cup of soup... only four members from their group had summitted and they were about an hour behind us. She had turned back after her headache worsened around 5000m.
The weather had made any attempt on Sierra Negra all but impossible. So after changing clothes, catching our breath and eating we made our way down to where Javier and Gustavo was waiting. My Mexican climbing Odyssey had come to a successful close and though exhausted it was easy to see the elation I felt at summiting such an enfabled peak.