The moon is nearly full tonight. There are many climbers preparing for their early morning alpine ascent. Far below us we can see the lights of many cities and Orizaba is shining high above us from the glow of the moon.
Ken and I arrived at 4200 m this afternoon from the nearby town of Tlachichuca. It did not take long before our temples began to pound with the pressure of higher altitude. Our acclimatization process began on the first day by hiking down 200 m from the Piedra Grande hut at the base of Orizaba and then climbing back up to a height of 4300 m.
Sleep did not come easy that first night. The hut is a basic stone building with three levels of wood plank bunks to sleep on. It was filled with people. Always expect snoring in mountain huts and I forgot my ear plugs. The snores seemed to echo off the stone walls. Another guy farted constantly and so loud that it rumbled the wooden planks we slept on. The climber above me rolled incessantly, sprinkling dirt in my face through the cracks. A group of Mexican kids had a blazing bonfire just outside the windows and laughed and partied loudly late into the night. The first climbing team got up at 12:30 am and this continued for the next two hours. Finally I fell asleep, only to wake once and see the sun rising outside the window. Beautiful, I thought. I rolled over, pulled the hood of my sleeping bag back over my head and fell to sleep.
Day 2 and Ken and I climbed to 4700 m. I felt pretty good. Ken experienced some dizziness. Our temples ached. We took it slow, climbing only 100 m every half hour. After talking with other climbers and seeing the first 500 m, we decided against setting up a high camp. Our summit bid would start at the hut. It would be a longer push but we could save some energy by not having to lug all of our equipment higher up the mountain. The first section was straight forward. The technical difficulty was low but we were reminded that even easy climbs can be dangerous when you are on a big mountain. During our descent, a boulder the size of a car tire fell off the side of the cliff almost 1000 feet above us. It tumbled with increasing speed, crashing towards me and only stopping when it collided with two much larger rocks 50 m away from where I stood keeping an eye on its path.
Orizaba is beautiful at night. My toes are cold even in my down booties but I am toasty warm in my down jacket. I am drinking wild berry tea and making another pot of soup. There is a water spigot down in a gully a short distance from the hut. Our supply of water would not have lasted long without it as we are going through 6 liters each per day.
It was quieter in the hut tonight with only five of us and we got a good night's rest. When Ken and I awoke in the morning the other three had left for the summit many hours before. One of the climbers in their party is quite impressive, climbing Orizaba with no fingers on either hand. My headache has nearly subsided but I had many crazy dreams last night. We took it easy today and made our way up to the first camp at 4550 m. Our pace was 100 m every 20 minutes, much faster than yesterday and we both felt great. The weather was stable. A thick line of smog from Mexico City hung ominously behind us. Ken and I decided to leave for the summit early the next morning at 1 AM.
I am pretty sure that neither of us got more than half hour of sleep that night. By 6 pm, almost 20 people had made their way to the hut. Our gear was packed and we were tucked in our sleeping bags when the fumes from the cooking stoves began to overpower the hut and cause our heads to spin. We only debated for a couple of seconds and then jumped out our bags, picked up all our gear and set up my North Face Tadpole tent outside. There was peace and quite and a million stars but we did not sleep. Before long we stopped asking if each other were asleep because by now we should just be pretending. We could only think of the climb ahead of us. When my alarm on my High Gear watch jolted me awake I thought of resetting it but somehow I forced myself to get up. I unzipped the tent fly to see the moon shining brightly on Orizaba. It looked big this morning. It was cold. I decided to climb in 3 layers and bring my down jacket in my pack.
The hut was dark and everyone lay sleeping below us. We did not say much to each other at first. We were tired and we were just starting. Our pace felt too slow as we zigzagged our way up the rocky trail to the glacier above us. At 4500 m Ken talked about turning around. The lack of sleep had taken all the energy out of him but he pushed on. I felt good, tired but good. We stopped for a quick snack of chocolate chip cookies. My water bottle was already frozen. Chunks of ice would fall into my mouth as I tried to drink and freeze my tongue. Ken's hose on his bladder also froze. I had brought 3 ½ liters of water with me. I planned to be out for 10-12 hours but doubted that I would drink it all.
We reached high camp at just over 4700 m. The lights of cities burst into the sky like explosions of light. I took my boots off to rub my toes. They were freezing. It did not seem to help much. We put on crampons and I worried that they would not warm up. We left our poles against a rock cairn and stepped onto the snow.
I led us up the second gully. It was steep. The slope became near vertical for a short while. Ken was slowing. I would stop and look back and see that every rest was longer than the last. I wanted him to make it. He kept pushing on. Then I heard him say, "That's it for me, I'm heading back." I was disappointed. I came down a few meters and asked, "Are you okay to get down by yourself?" I knew that I would only have to ask Ken once and when he said, "of course", I prepared my head to continue on alone. I wondered if part of his decision to turn back at this point was so that I would have the chance to keep climbing today. He knew the route down. We had climbed it twice already. If Ken pushed higher, he may not have felt as confident to get down by himself. We had briefly discussed this during our sleepless night. I would have turned back with him and tried again another day.
Our parting only lasted a minute. This gully was steeper than I had expected. The goal I was working for was a ridge about 100 m above me. I tried not to look back now. After awhile I saw Ken's headlamp meet up with those of a group of three Spanish climbers. I kept climbing.
I crested the ridge sometime after 4 AM. It was incredible. The lights of Mexico City filled the sky. I could see the summit far above me disappearing into darkness as the full moon set. I was on a plateau just below the cone and my crampons hit a mixture of ice and rock. I was careful not to twist an ankle. A small gully led me up a large moraine that ended in a massive snowfield that swept up to the crater rim. The route was supposed to be marked with wands and flags but they were invisible in the darkness. Why would they not use reflective flags? The moon began to set and I could not see anything. I felt like I was climbing blind. I picked a route that felt the best and headed up.
The lack of sleep began to wear on me. Darkness ate away my confidence. I felt alone on the mountain despite the slow moving lights of the Spaniards coming up far below me. There were only two lights now. I felt like turning back too. I was falling asleep on my feet and the warmth of my sleeping bag was tempting me. But I had come this far and besides the cobwebs, my head felt fine. Can stubbornness be a virtue?
The route was sustained and long. Just when I felt like the day would never come - the sun began to poke itself around the side of the steep slope I was on. An alpine sunrise is absolute beauty. A perfect triangular shadow was cast on the valley to the west of the waking mountain that I was clinging to. The people were waking for a new day far below in the valley beneath me but my day had already been going for nearly 7 hours. I expected the light to boost my energy but instead it seemed to diminish with every step. My head felt fine, no headache but my body felt sluggish, as if it could not keep up to my mind. After hours of climbing I finally reached a safe spot to stop for a quick rest. I drank some of the ice crystals from my water bottle and shoved a snickers bar into my mouth.
In the pitch blackness, I had climbed farther to the left than I had planned. I was closer to the crater rim than I had expected to be once the darkness lifted. The snow was feeling softer and I crossed some fracture lines that made me feel uneasy. I traversed my way slowly to the right and away from the cracks. My mind believed I could make it, then no, then yes - then I kept putting one foot in front of the other. An eternity passed before I made it to the rocky rim of the crater. The crater was huge and so deep I could not even see the bottom.
It was a bitter sweet moment as I looked up and still saw another 30 meters to go. I almost turned back. One of the Spaniards had caught up to me now. I motioned for him to pass me but he would not hear of it. He wanted me to take the summit first today. We walked carefully around the rim and as we reached the summit I brought my climbing partner up beside me. I do not know him but we would enjoy the incredible view together. I just met him but we laughed and hugged and shared an incredible moment of friendship. We were strangers but we felt like brothers.
Transportation: Fly to Mexico City and take a bus from Oriente bus station to Puebla. Transfer to Tlachichuca (local bus). Why bother renting a car and enduring the hassle of navigating Mexico City. The bus was quick, efficient and incredibly cheap. Many of the hotel operators can arrange 4x4 transport to the Piedra Grande hut at the base of the mountain.
Orizaba Height: 5610 m (18, 405 ft)
Prepare Yourself: Orizaba is a high altitude experience, especially coming from the flat lands. Be sure to spend an appropriate amount of time acclimatizing your body. Drink lots of water. It's not a bad idea to climb one of the shorter volcanoes like Ixta to help acclimatize. Orizaba is North America's 3rd tallest mountain. While less technical than the other two, climbers wishing to explore a high altitude mountain should realize that Orizaba's slopes can be steep and dangerous due to long inclines and icy conditions.
Useful Guidebook: Mexico's Volcanoes by RJ Secor
Climb Pico de Orizaba!