Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltépetl (from Nahuatl citlal(in) = star, and tepētl = mountain), is a stratovolcano, the highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North America, after Denali of Alaska in the United States and Mount Logan of Canada. It rises 5,636 meters (18,491 ft) above sea level in the eastern end of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, on the border between the states of Veracruz and Puebla. The volcano is currently dormant but not extinct, with the last eruption taking place during the 19th century. It is the second most prominent volcanic peak in the world after Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
Original Party: Jack Ryan & Letici Herrera, Silvina Cazón & Diego Heinz (the Argentinians), Oscar Tinoco, Silvia Córdova, Miguel Gutiérrez, Jorge Chiñas, Kriztos Luz, Felix Ossig-Bonanno, and Loki (the dog).
It soon became apparent that Atzin was too busy to climb Orizaba with me as originally planned. After getting back from Teotihuacán, I remembered that Jack (from Xtream Adventure México, who I’d met canyoning in Mineral de Chico) said he would be visiting the mountain… I sent he a message… they were climbing it tomorrow! Crikies! “You want to come?”, he said. “Come around!”. I double checked with Atzin; it’d mean forgoing Nevado de Toluca – at least for this week – but Atzin was supportive of the idea: “Go for it! I have family business tomorrow anyway”.
I packed quickly, borrowing some pants and hiking poles and jumped on the train. Jack picked me up at the other end, and soon I had my gear spread over his floor. I borrowed some boots, ice tool, crampons and another jacket; completing all the gear I’d need.
It was hard to believe that México City was already higher that Australia’s highest point, Mt Kosciuszko (2,228m). I was worried about the increase in elevation, having acclimated slower than the rest of my team on Denali several years ago. I hadn’t climbed a big mountain since…
In the morning we rose early (but not as early as they said – lucky I didn’t set an alarm!), more people trickled in and to be honest I couldn’t keep track of everyone. We had a communal breakfast in the kitchen and it was still dark when we had our packs and other gear loaded into the vehicles. I shared a car with Jack, Letici and the two Argentinians but wasn’t overly sociable, dozing off as we made our way to rendezvous with the other part of our team.
A few/couple? of hours later we stopped in Ciudad Serdán for some breakfast. I got beans, eggs, avocado, and some cheese (and got to eat the rest of Letici’s). I held out on buying orange juice (trying to save as much money as possible), but was bitten when we split the bill. Oh well.
We soon continued though some small communities (and herds of sheep) driving up the steep winding mountain road that leads to the saddle between Pico de Orizaba and Sierra Negra. There were some amusing signs of sheep and I wish I’d stopped to get a photo. “On the way back” I said, but as it turned out there wouldn’t be a ‘this way back’…
We soon entered the National Park and registered with the guards at the gate. I found it interesting that they took photos of us and the vehicles. Soon the gate was lifted and we filed through, the vehicles shifting into 4WD to combat the rough road. Other people, with less capable vehicles were walking from the gate, but luckily we had room for their packs!
The orange hut was soon visible nestled in a saddle on the mountain. Refugio Fausto González Gomar is located at 4460m (it is signed as this in the hut, but my Gaia map had it located at 4725m…) but needless to say, I started to feel the effects of the elevation well before we reached the hut.
One of the cars started to overheat, so we paused for a while. Its funny how the atmospheric pressure should be decreasing, yet it felt like someone was pressing in upon my head! We used the Jeep’s winch in one spot to pull one of the cars out of some gravel – it seemed like the 4WD wasn’t functioning as one wheel was spinning – maybe it didn’t have a locked diff? I jogged a bit to catch my car, and despite the short distance, was panting as if I’d sprinted 100m.
The steep, winding road got relatively close to the hut, and soon everyone was plodding up the hill with overfilled packs, as well as front packs, and plastic tubs. I soon fell behind. My head was starting to hurt. Would I have to sleep in my tent below the hut? I was so close! I found if I rested several minutes, the pain would dull and I could plod on a little further to repeat the process. It started to snow. I smiled, trying to catch snow flakes in my mouth. I was enjoying the inclement weather. I hadn’t seen snow in a while, and was glad to escape the heat.
Jack & Letici came to check up on me, but I didn’t need any help. Just time. Singing while I waited I eventually reached the hut. About 20 people had already settled in. Some lying in the bunks, some in the kitchen area. I dropped my pack and soon had my sleeping gear spread out on the top of one side (it was nearly vacant up there! Lots of room in this hut!).
The plan was to have an alpine start of about 2am. I already knew I wasn’t going to make the summit. I had struggled to reach the hut! And didn’t bother to rise at the appointed time.
I slept poorly waking up several times as people left, and, as it turns out arrived… In the morning,I discovered boots and crampons still wet with snow. Many people had to turn around when they too developed AMS. Part of me was happy I wasn’t the only one (weak body!), but the other part was sad as I knew they only had the weekend. I was already scheming to stay a couple more days…
The mood didn’t feel the greatest. It was tinged with defeat, but I think everyone still appreciated the beauty around them.
In the afternoon somehow the summit party (actually parties) where spotted just below the pulpit. It took me a while to locate them, but eventually I noted a few small black dots that where slowly moving across the vast face of the mountain. “4hrs minimum”, ?? said. It didn’t look that far to me, but once you start climbing you find that your senses deceive and it is actually a lot further that you’d guess.
Soon people were getting ready to descend. I had made up my mind to stay and gladly accepted food and water donations (I already had next to nothing, since I had relied on Jack/Letici for rations the night before). I carried a pack down and retrieved a key from my bag, leaving the rest next to Jack’s car. I headed back up to the hut, and then climbed further until my head again began to ache and awaited the others. I hadn’t gone far. How had the others made the summit in two days!?
They soon dropped down though the clouds. A group of three came first followed by the four familiar faces I knew. Everyone had made it!
They left me an ice axe and pair of crampons at the hut and I then continued down to the cars with them, helping carry another pack.
We said farewell and soon I was on my own… well not quite yet. There were still a some people up at the hut. I returned, accepted some more food and then they were gone. Left to myself and my mild headache I was again reminded of Denali, my first serious mountain. My team had summitted without me on that mountain and some had received some serious frostbite. I had traveled somewhat alone on that mountain too. I knew this mountain would be easier, but I didn’t want to underestimate it. I had to be careful and make the right decisions. It was an inner battle, a mind game. I had to be patient and not feel defeated. I soon headed to bed.
Like clockwork I woke around 2am… my headache was still present. A dull pain in the temples. I massaged them and drifted back to sleep. Not today I thought.
I woke later… as late as possible. I was trying to stay in a state of hibernation to extend my rations. Skip at least one meal – not really ideal for my energy demanding endeavour.
It was a lazy day. I did a Spanish lesson, watched a movie, and when finally I had to get out, I made it 500m on the map to about 4950m (Gaia map). There was a great sheltered spot for camping here. I kept it in mind. It looked like a good place to exit the scree slope and climb the boulders.
Time seemed to warp, the movement of Sierra Negra’s radio telescope the only proof time was still moving.
My original plan had been to traverse the peak rather than heading up and down one side. With transport gone, I decided to revert to this original plan. The route on the south side is called Ruta Sur or Ruta Directa. This seems to be the most common route for locals – probably since it is faster. On the other side of the mountain (the north side) is the Jamapa Glacier and seems to be the preferred way among international climbers. I planned to drop down that side. No matter what I did, I had a long walk to the nearest town!
Mostly packed from the day before I rose woke before two and made ready to leave. My pack was heavy. I was planning to go down the other side… and packing extra water for the ~10km walk to the nearest town on the other side (Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla).
The night was clear with lots of stars. Time to head off. I felt strong and made good time up the slope. My battery in my Zebra Light was nearly dead so I was glad I had explored a little the day before and picked an even more optimal route to the spot I’d reached the day before. Here the wind bit into me and I soon put more layers on. I was drinking a lot of water. My rapid breathing combined with the dry wind was leaving me parched. I tried to keep moving, munching on sugary lollies, but this left me oxygen deprived, so the best was to aim for the next boulder and seek shelter in its wind shadow.
It was tiring and got worse as I ascended. My headache returned forcing me to move slower and take more breaks. The pulpit seemed to stay where it was, never getting closer. Another 5 mins and it was still in the same place looking down at me.
I put more clothes on and napped behind a boulder. A mouse coming to inspect several times made it hard to rest. It was a little annoying, but I found it amazing that a mouse was living up here at all!
The crescent moon rose to the east and I raised my head occasionally monitoring its progress. Soon the horizon began to brighten. I needed to keep moving. Up I’d go. And stop. Time to turn around… A little further. Up I’d go. Time to turn around… A little further… my head started pulsing with my heartbeats.
Still I continued. The pulpit seemed so close. Just a little further. My head doesn’t hurt as much as when we were digging the hole for our cache at the top of the Head Wall on Denali.
I moved slowly. Every next bit of elevation gain more tiring than the last, and every rest a little longer. I created math problems for myself to make sure my mental state wasn’t declining too far. Rationalise the denominator. Assuming √2 is about 1.4, find a value for this…
Higher I climbed the pulpit eventually drawing near. The plane wreckage at its left flank now visible. A stone’s throw away…
I sat down admiring the landscape around me. The low area to the east a sea of clouds, little towns spread out everywhere almost like a circuit schematic. Soon I knew… I just had some sort of feeling. I’d learnt to trust these feelings. Close or not, it was time to retreat. Well not retreat… recuperate. My mental state seemed reduced (see video below) and I was starting to get drowsy. Sleeping where I sat seemed like a poor choice.
I descended quickly, cached some gear and then continued on a rapid descent of the mountain. Some descent scree skiing in spots.
I quickly (though longer than expected) reached the hut. It was a little disheartening turning around and looking at how close I’d been, but I was safe and that was the important thing. Make the right choices. It was an internal battle.
My headache had augmented into a sort of migraine. I lay down for a while until the people from the car I had seen arrived.
Игорь Зиновьев and Elena Tereshonkova were two Russians from the same city who had somehow connected in Mexico and were now traveling together. We talked for a while and I lent the girl my hard shell for their jaunt up the slope. They were planning to climb the mountain in a week? or so and I think they were doing a recky.
I took some photos for them when they returned. They also gave me a drink, some biscuits and were kind enough to take my trash down. We exchanged emails.
I dozed the afternoon away. Letting my emergency contacts know I was safe (3G with Telcel at the hut!) and that my phone would be dead any moment.
As it darkened, I developed stomach pains and a lot of gas. Massaging seemed to help but I didn’t sleep well.
It was later when I rose this morning for my last attempt. A little after 2am. If I didn’t make it today I would still have to head down due to a lack of food. Based on the previous morning’s climb, I put on extra layers before leaving the hut, but as it turned out it wasn’t needed. The night was clear, but a lot warmer than the night before. Mainly because the biting wind was lacking this morning.
My headlamp was now next to useless and after missing some turns I resigned to climbing up next to the spine. Soon I was climbing by the light of the stars.
Despite lacking the energy I’d had the day before I made much better time. I think that I was getting used to the lower levels of oxygen. I paused now and then looking for patterns in the lights of the towns scattered around me. My favorite was one particular town that looked like a boy running after a soccer ball. I would monitor it as I climbed, the points of my poles sometimes striking sparks on the rocks. It appeared to move around the peak below me as I gained altitude.
The moon rose – I couldn’t tell if it had waxed or waned. But I made the time to watch it as it crested the horizon. The skyline again began to glow, the light casting a shadow of Orizaba on the opposite horizon.
Soon I reached my cache. I was glad the weather hadn’t turned. It would have been bad if I had to abandon it considering most of the gear wasn’t mine! The 2L of water I’d left was a block of ice.
The extra 5kg was a burden, but since it was still early, the steps in the snow from the previous day were firm and made climbing easier creating a kind of ladder.
I soon reached the spot I’d reached the day before. I was so close! This last bit however was the steepest and took longer to climb than expected. Eventually (after lots of breaks) I past the plane wreckage and was on top of the pulpit. My head had started to hurt again, but I was so close! I could see the cross which had to signify the summit! I trudged up the final snow covered ridge and spun around taking in the views. I’d made it! I was on the highest point in Mexico. On the highest point off the caldera’s rim (EDIT: actually I think crater is actually the correct term… a caldera is a large crater created when the magma chamber collapses – I think).
I could see an obvious trail skirting the crater and correctly assumed it would lead to my glacier descent. As much as I would have liked to snack at the summit, I knew it would be sensible to descent quickly. I took some summit photos, donned my crampons (I hadn’t needed them on the way up) and exchanged my hiking poles for an ice axe.
I was soon at the top of the glacier. It was a lot less steep than I’d expected (maybe 30 degrees in the steepest section I encountered towards the top). Whilst longer, I think the glacier route is definitely the easier and safer way of the two.
I paused to look at the crater one last time. Jack had told me that you could abseil into the crater. About 120m down or so. I couldn’t see the bottom.
The glacier descent was quite straight forward. It wasn’t particularly steep, and I didn’t find it icy, my boots sinking in to a comfortable depth. There were some crevasses on the descent, but no more than half a dozen, and of these only one that looked wide and deep enough that you could fall into it. The most striking feature about the glacier was the sastrugi formations. I don’t remember seeing anything quite like them in Alaska, though my friend Aaron Linsdau said there are more extreme examples in Antarctica.
It started getting hot but I decided to push on to the toe of the glacier. On the small lateral moraine there seemed to be a weather station, but after the trip I couldn’t seem to find and information about it.
The last part of the glacier was thin and the melt-water made me think that the glacier didn’t have that much time. I could see it easily retreating a hundred meters over the next few yeas.
I changed into shorts, removed crampons and had some food. That was easier than expected. I quickly located a prominent trail down the mountain. It wound around the tortured rock, passing lots of flat areas that could be used for camping. In the summer, there should be reliable water at the toe of the glacier I would think. I had seen a fairly continuous stream of water.
Eventually the trail dropped into a valley to the left and wound down to the final steep section. The views were spectacular and I think would be even nicer with a little snow. I made sure to look back every now and then, sometimes being able to see the white capped peak I had been on only hours earlier.
Lots of lizards were out enjoying the sun and I too could fell myself thawing.
In the drainage to the right I spotted an old dam. Aqueducts ran from it. One down past the hut and the other branching off to contour around the mountain and out of sight. I wondered who had built them, and when and where they had lived?
In the hut I found a couple of ripe bananas which was a nice surprise. I wondered if I had just missed someone who could have given my a ride. But I knew this wasn’t the case: the hut and road from it, had been visible for most of the descent.
The road seemed 2WD friendly but after a km or so I realised this wasn’t the case. There were some rough sections that wouldn’t be passable.
I found this side of Orizaba to be more picturesque than the south, it is certainly the side you see in all the photos. There is something magical about the white that coats the peak that is not present on the other side. The hut would make a great spot for a get-together.
It was a long walk to the first small town. About 10km. It was mostly downhill but it was still tiring. I popped into Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla to check which way to continue, and not much further down the main road (just past the waterfall) got a ride into Tlachichuca. It was a bumpy ride in the back of the ute with some locals who had caught a ride at pretty much the same time as me (they had hiked up to visit the falls)!
In the background I saw clouds developing over Orizaba and was glad I had persisted with the alpine start.
The locals here seemed to dump all there rubbish into the arroyos. Peering into them was saddening. I wonder where it would all wash to once the wet season started?
In Tlachichuca I hitched a couple more times until I got into Ciudad Serdán. I thought about trying to hitch back to CDMX but without a phone, I didn’t have a map of the area so wasn’t sure where to go. I was tired so decided to pay for a bus. There was nothing direct to CDMX so I first caught a slow bus to Puebla (89 pesos) and then another to CDMX (192 pesos). It was late when I arrived. I caught a train to Atzin’s arriving a little before him.