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Ascent of Pico de Orizaba on 2012-01-11

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Duane Gilliland
Rob Woodall
Date:Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Pico de Orizaba
    Location:Mexico
    Elevation:5636 m / 18491 ft

Ascent Trip Report

Tuesday, January 10:

The six of us left our comfortable rented cabin at the IMSS Malinche resort at 7 AM—when I turned in our key at the main desk, they kept us until someone went into our cabin to make sure everything was OK and nothing was stolen, I guess. I then led our two-car caravan down the main road a short ways and then took an unsigned right turn toward Huamantla on a road I had seen on a map yesterday. We needed to buy food and water, and get some pesos at an ATM.

This road indeed took us to Huamantla, where I quickly proceeded to get completely lost in the crowded and labyrinthine one-way streets that seem to be found in even small Mexican towns. I had gotten directions to a supermarket from the IMSS resort, but they made no sense once I was in town. Utterly disoriented and lost, I just plowed through town when suddenly a Bodega Aurrera supermarket magically appeared on our minor side street, and I quickly pulled in, jokingly telling everyone this was my plan all along.

There was even an ATM next to the supermarket, so we got some needed cash as well as more food and bottled water from the huge store. All stocked up, I then followed Duane’s car (navigated by Rob) as he found his way out of town to the eastbound highway, heading across a desert-like landscape towards the massive snowy cone of Orizaba looming ahead.

It was a relatively short and easy drive, only an hour or so, and by 10 AM we were driving into the town of Tlachichuca at about 10 AM on the main road. We had reservations for a jeep ride that morning with Sr. Reyes at his Servimont company, but we had no idea where to find his place. We drove into the town’s Pemex station to ask for directions, and a guy hanging out there coincidentally worked for Sr. Reyes, and he pointed us to the right, down Calle Ortega a half-block, and through a narrow gateway into the Servimont compound.

This was a nice complex, where the legendary Reyes family maintained their hostel, guide service, and jeep transport operations, all for Orizaba-bound climbers. We parked our 2 Dodge Avengers on some grass at the far end of the compound (a nice, safe location), and then we started getting our gear ready for the jeep ride to the Piedra Grande hut. Rob, Duane, Ryan, and I were headed up there, at a cost of US$70 each round trip, while Adam (who already had climbed the peak) and Collin (still suffering from altitude sickness) would stay behind at the hostel. There were no fees to climb the peak or use the hut, but bad roads gave the local operators a business ferrying climbers up and down.

We paid Sr. Reyes his money in dollars, and his driver soon loaded our packs on to the roof on a modified pickup truck. The four of us clambered into the back compartment of the truck, a rather claustrophobic space with not many windows and bench seats facing each other. Joining us for the trip were two climbers from San Diego, Blair (who sat up front with the driver, since he could speak Spanish), and Vlad, who sat back with us. We left a little after 11 AM, pretty much on schedule.

The jeep ride to Piedra Grande took about an hour and a half, the last part of it on a very rough, rutted, rocky road. I think most of us in back were a bit motion sick from the jostling and lack of windows—I was glad I had popped a Dramamine pill. We stopped a couple times to get out and take photos of the imposing form of Orizaba ahead, its summit area impossibly white with fresh snowfall.

By 1 PM we arrived at Piedra Grande—I tipped the driver and he told us he’d be back at 4 PM tomorrow for us. A large group was leaving as we arrived, so we had almost the entire large hut to ourselves at first. A smaller hut uphill was also empty, and Blair and Vlad took space there, but we thought it was too cramped for us. The big hut had nice windows and was relatively clean and well kept. The outhouses, though, were quite grim, practically overflowing and therefore barely usable.

After the 4 of us claimed bunk space on the second of three levels of plywood planks, hung out for a bit, and then Rob and Duane decided to do a reconnaissance hike uphill bit, hoping to avoid any route-finding errors in the dark tomorrow morning. Ryan and I hung out inside the hut, trying to nap unsuccessfully and chatting with the other groups there. A young Polish couple was there with 2 Mexican guides, and a party with some Spaniards I chatted with for a while, and another group. Overall the hut was not super crowded, though—I could picture it with far more people.

Duane and Rob returned after a couple hours, having climbed about 500 meters up the trail—I was glad I had rested instead, saving myself for tomorrow’s effort. We cooked our meals, tried on our crampons, and relaxed until it got dark.

Not long after we finally settled into our sleeping bags for the night, we heard Duane muttering about some liquid dripping down on him from above, where the Polish couple was sleeping on the third sleeping level. He started mopping it up, but something seemed odd to him. Then the Polish woman came down the ladder, apologizing, saying her husband has just thrown up—she handed Duane a pile of napkins to help with the cleanup. What a mess—the vomit had leaked through the seam in the plywood sheets. The Poles had come to this hut (4200 m) after only one night in Mexico City, definitely too fast.

Once that all got cleaned up we all settled in for some very fitful sleep.

Wednesday, January 11:

Rob’s alarm beeped us up at 2 AM, and Ryan, Duane, Rob, and I got ourselves up, put on all our warm clothes, and ate some breakfast. It was a bit windy out, but not terribly cold, and the lenticular cloud we had seen yesterday was gone, so we decided to go for it. My intestines were not happy, and I was forced to use the foul outhouse in the frigid darkness. Ugh.

Ryan started first, planning a slower pace, and Rob, Duane, and I set off at 2:40 AM, about 15 minutes later. There was some moon, but I was very fortunate to be following Rob and Duane, who had scouted the trail yesterday and had a GPS track. The path started out atop an old concrete aqueduct, partially collapsed with booby trap holes, then it turned left uphill on a muddy gravel path that wound up a steep, bouldery slope for a while. There were pockets of snow on the trail right away, but the treadway was pretty good as it switchbacked uphill. Rob and Duane tried to match the dark landscape with their memories of yesterday, and successfully guided us uphill. We passed Ryan fairly low down, and hoped he could follow our headlamps for a while to help his route-finding.

The path seemed to crest a slope, then enter a ravine of sorts, and then slab up the side of the rocky valley to gain a flat, rocky area. Somewhere up here was where Rob and Duane had turned back, so above this area I led, since I had the strongest headlamp. The path passed some huge rocks and soon came to a slope of steep, icy snow. It looked like the remainder of our route would be like this—climbers had compacted the snowy route up through the talus into ice, so we stopped to put on our crampons.

The party with the Spaniards passed us while we were doing this—it was a bit of an awkward spot. Duane discovered, to his horror, that one of his crampons was missing the screw that attached the front and rear halves. He tried going without it, but it came right off. So he and I rigged up some safety pins and duct tape to hold it together, and we were amazed that this field repair, done in the frigid pre-dawn darkness, actually held up all day.

We continued uphill for a few hundred meters, cramponing up the ice between the rocks and following a crampon print path, until there were no more rocks and we were on the huge glacial snowfield covering the top of Orizaba. We could see a snowy ridge connecting the Sarcofago sub-peak to the main peak, and the route appeared to scale the side of this ridge for 1000 meters or so towards the distant summit. The snow was hard and icy, but with crampons the footing was good, and a climber’s path led upwards, straight up at first and then switchbacking a bit.

It was now very cold as we trudged up this crevasse-free glacier. The wind was strong, and even though it was now sunrise, the sun was appearing directly on the other side of the peak from us, leaving us in cold shade for our entire ascent. There were 2 parties ahead of us, one of about 7 that had camped out at about 16000’, and the group with the Spaniards. We kept them in sight as we plugged up the endless Sisyphus slope.

Rob went on ahead, needing to move at this normal rate to keep warm, and I followed the best I could, losing ground. I was still troubled by my intestinal bug and I had to stop a couple of times for emergency pants-drops, and the altitude was definitely palpable, so I was not performing at my peak. I was also very cold—Duane had loaned me a light down jacket I used as a fourth clothing layer, and once I stopped and tried to put on my snow pants, but gave up when I dropped my water bottle and realized it was too awkward and too cold to try a major clothes change on a steep, icy slope.

Towards the top I was a few minutes ahead of Duane on the final switchbacks up the immense snow dome, glad he and I were traveling at about the same pace. The two parties ahead of us had disappeared, and finally Rob came bounding downhill, with the good news that he had made the top and that it was not far for us. Excited, I rest-stepped my way up for another twenty minutes or so and soon saw the rocks of the crater rim. Our route took us to the rim at a point very close to the main summit, so a few minutes of ups and downs took me to the highest point in Mexico at about 9:30 AM.

The group of 7 or so backpackers was at the summit, and I chatted with them and we took each other’s photos as I sat down and rested. The far end of the summit was out of the wind, and now that I was on top we finally had some sun, warming me rapidly. I had been on top for 10 minutes when I saw Duane hiking the crater rim, so I went over to enthusiastically congratulate him as he arrived—we bear hugged and got our pictures taken by the other group before sitting down in the sheltered spot to eat and savor our success.

The view was similar to that from many super-prominent peaks, basically what you might see from an airplane. A thick cloud layer covered Veracruz state and the Atlantic Ocean, but to the west Malinche, Popo and Izta were visible. We ate some food and rested as the other group left, and we took pictures of ourselves and the fallen-down crosses at the top.

At about 10:15 or so we started down. At first we plunge-stepped down the icy snow with our crampons on, but after a bit Duane decided to try a sitting glissade. He had some success, since the snow had a breakable crust that made it somewhat easy to brake with one’s feet. I decided to try it, too, so I took the time to take off my crampons, put on my snowpants, and try a few slides. But I didn’t feel comfortable—the snow was rough on my butt, and it was steep and icy, and a fall would send me a long way down, despite begin safe with no cliffs or rocks below. So I tried plunge stepping, but that was squirrelly without crampons, especially down low, so in the end it seemed best to put my crampons back on and walk down that way. Duane eventually agreed and followed my gear change.

This all took time, but we got to the base of the giant snow cone without any real issues. I retrieved the water bottle I had lost on the ascent, lying on the snow where it had fallen, and after a rest at the first rocks we were cramponing downhill through the boulder landscape of the lower mountain. We probably took off our crampons too soon and had to skate down some icy sections before hitting the trail for the long, muddy descent on gravel switchbacks.

We took a couple rests as we headed downhill, and a few hundred feet above Piedra Grande we also came upon the Polish couple and their guides from the hut last night. They again apologized to Duane for barfing on him, and we asked if the guy was feeling better. He said “no” and pointed to another vomit pile at the side of the trail. Again, we were surprised professional guides had taken these people so high so fast.

By 2 PM we had the hut in sight, and I was glad the jeep driver had told us yesterday that our ride down was at 4 PM, giving us an extra 2 hours over what Sr. Reyes has initially told us. At 2:20 PM Duane and I met Ryan hanging out just above the hut—he had turned back at about 14,700 feet when he could not follow our headlamps any more, I think. He also told us that our driver was actually here already and waiting for us. I was glad we would be getting down soon and didn’t have to wait, but we did have to scramble a bit to get our stuff together and throw it all in the truck. We quickly cleared out our stuff from the hut, and we even found Duane’s missing crampon screw.

We had no issues leaving behind our sleeping bags, pads, stove, etc. at Piedra Grande during our climb, and it seemed like a pretty safe place to stash gear like that. There are a lot of climbers there pretty much all the time and theft of used climbing and camping equipment seems very unlikely.

For our ride down we had a nicer truck, with bigger windows in the back, and just the 4 of us heading down. I got to sit in the front passenger seat due to being able to speak Spanish to the driver, and Duane, Rob, and Ryan piled in the back. I had a fun time chatting with the driver on the 1.5 hour drive back down, stretching my limited but workable Spanish to the limit. I also got to see first-hand the roughness of the road out the front windshield.

Back in Tlachichuca I didn’t know we were right in front of the Servimont compound when I saw Adam on the street. As the driver eased us in to the gate Adam gestured with a thumbs up and down, and I gave him the thumbs-up, with three fingers. Once in the compound we told our stories to Adam and Collin, who had spent the day sightseeing in town.

We all agreed to spend the night at the cavernous hostel in the Servimont compound, very reasonable at M$150/person. The four of us who had been at Piedra Grande showered and got cleaned up, and then we all walked to La Casa Blanca restaurant on the nearby Zocalo for a celebration meal. It seemed we were the only tourists in Tlachichuca that night—we had the hostel and restaurant entirely to ourselves, and the after putting in our orders the cook ran out to get some needed items at a store.

The hostel was the upstairs of an old soap factory, without about 20 bunks spread around. We all hung out in the downstairs common room, organized our gear (much of mine was wet after our experiments with glissading), and several people spent time at internet cafés near the Zocalo.

Rob, Duane, and I were very happy to have Orizaba, the 7th most prominent peak in the world, under our belts. We had to fight cold, strong wind, icy conditions, and unusually low snow levels to make our climb, but the acclimatization hikes we had done over the past week allowed us to day-hike to the summit without too much trouble.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1436 m / 4711 ft
    Distance:8.9 km / 5.5 mi
    Route:Jamapa Glacier
    Trailhead:Piedra Grande Hut  4200 m / 13780 ft
    Grade/Class:Class 2 Snow
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons
    Weather:Cold, Very Windy, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:7 Hours 10 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:4 Hours 5 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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