Climbing Pico De Orizaba (Feb. 20-22, 2009)

Orizaba (18,500 feet) as seen from the South

Orizaba (18,500 feet) as seen from the South

Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico, is one that I’ve been wanting to climb for a long time.  With no technical routes of any interest, it’s a glaciated peak that I could easily do solo, and to be on a glacier 5700 meters above sea level next to Mexico’s capital was quite luring.  So on February 20, I departed from my friend Val in Mexico City, and took a series of rural buses to the small town of Tlachicucha, where I had my first impressive view of Orizaba.  I arrived without a clue of how to access the mountain.  Most climbers attempt Orizaba with a guide who supplies transportation to the base camp hut in a jeep, and I didn’t want to have any of that.  I figured I could locate the road that takes you to base camp, and if I could not hitch a ride, the 13-mile walk would serve as a nice acclimatization.  Luck was on my side though, and within 10 minutes I saw a jeep with Alaskan plates; surely they were in this remote town for the same reason I was.

Sean and Kelly's jeep at basecamp, 14,000 feet

Sean and Kelly's jeep at basecamp, 14,000 feet

Sean and Kelly were there names and they too were climbers on a long road trip through Central America.  Although it was a tight squeeze in the back with a dog and a cooler on my lap, they kindly took me along to base camp.  In just a few hours, we ascended past the highest town in North America, going from 7,000 to 14,000 feet, and despite all the water I was slurping, I knew my head would be aching that night.  We arrived at base camp, met up with the other climbers and guided clients, and by evening there were only five of us left on the mountain.  I had the fortune of meeting another solo traveler, Chris, a true United Statesan adventurer, who was beginning his journey around the world by motorcycle.  My initial impression was that I couldn’t believe how much shit he was carrying!  I soon learned why.  Chris wasn’t just biking around the world; he was flying around the world.  The bulk of his kit was dedicated to paragliding and his intent was to fly the most impressive heights of several continents.  Chris is truly living the life (check out his blog at http://www.thelongestfriday.com), and I look forward to having more adventures with him.

Chris and his bad-ass ride

Chris and his bad-ass ride

I was traveling in a much different way from Sean, Kelly and Chris.  Because I limited myself to a daypack for my travels, I couldn’t afford the luxury off carrying all the comforts of climbing and camping equipment.  However I located some cardboard boxes coupled with Kelly’s yoga mat to make a nice sleeping platform.  As I had no stove and very little time to purchase anything, all I brought for food was tortillas, granola bars, and strawberries for the next three days.  Furthermore, I didn’t have any hiking/mountaineering boots to climb the glacier (I hate carrying boots, and wearing them for that matter!); instead I had a more backpacker-friendly system.  Prior to my trip, I had devised a crampon-compatible salsa shoe set up.  I bought some nice $20 black shoes at Payless, waterproofed them, and attached loops that would connect to my flexible aluminum crampons.  To prevent snow from penetrating my shoes I placed newspaper plastic bags over my socks.  The other climbers got a kick out of my setup but I thought it was quite adequate to climb Pico!

My crampon setup

My crampon setup

I awoke late the next morning to the sound of Chris ascending back toward base camp.  He had just paraglided off the lower glacier and landed several thousand feet below.  Impressive.  I joined him for an acclimatization and scouting hike up to the Labrynth, a maze of boulders and cliffs that complicate access to the glacier to locate his misplaced camera.  Upon our return, we parted ways, and he descended down to the oxygen-laden countryside to refocus his travels south.  Just moments later, a furious lightning storm came through, and with it came a half-foot of ice, sleet, and snow in just a few hours.  The next day’s summit attempt would make for a nice test for my shoe set up:)

The upper snow-covered glacier of Pico, post-storm

The upper snow-covered glacier of Pico, post-storm

I awoke to my alarm at 2 a.m. only to see that the storm was lingering.  This was not the time to climb, but I set my alarm for 2 hours later, just in case the weather cleared.  It did.  At 4:30, we were blessed with a clear starry sky, so Sean and I joined forces as we ascended to the Labrynth.  Sean had stored a cache of water, food, and crampons just below the glacier but he couldn’t find it.  After searching for 20 minutes, I decided to head up solo as we were hiking at different paces anyhow.  The recent snow had masked the easiest route through the Labrynth, and in my confusion I was soloing up short sections of 5.4-5.6, not quite what I had in mind for this climb, but fun nonetheless.  Mounting the glacier I was now above the clouds, in perfect time for a sweet alpine sunrise.  The morning sun freed me and I pushed on at a speedy pace toward the summit.  Pushing to fast, I was now feeling the altitude.  Plunging through the snow was becoming a more arduous task, and I confessed to myself what I already knew, that my acclimatization journey from Mexico City was a bit rushed.  Having experienced my altitude limits before, I knew that this feeling was not yet a dangerous one, and I pushed on to the highest bit of the glacier.

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Sunrise on the glacier

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I chose the most direct route to the summit, via a steep headwall in the glacier.  It was steep enough that I was frontpointing, and unsurprisingly my flexible crampons kept popping of my dancing shoes.  I crested the headwall, with one crampon dangling, gazed above, and saw the summit all the way on the other side of the crater, still far away.  Had I looked at a route description for Pico, I would have known that the faster access was actually via the other side of the glacier, and a much gentler slope.  At 5500 meters the altitude was getting to me and all I wanted was to sleep.  Given my poor acclimatization, I knew the best thing was to get down fast, so I  quickly traversed the cloud-filled crater to the summit, and soon had the best view in Mexico all to myself.

Lonely view from the summit

Lonely view from the summit

Thanks to the fresh snow, I could glissade down the glacier and downclimb to base camp in just a few hours.  All in all, it was just a 7 hour day, but I rejoiced in the rest and the oxygen at 14,000 feet.  Sean arrived just a few hours later, with a successful summit bid himself, and together we happily cruised down to Tlachichupa in his Cherokee.  I was in the oxygen-rich metropolis of Puebla that evening, but I opted not to partake in a celebratory beer, as I was still on a high from the summit.

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