Mountain 1: Pico d’Orizaba (18,491’)
Day 1 (11/23/13): Drove up to the Piedra Grande hut (13980’). Acclimatization hike to 15600’ from the hut with moderate packs on Saturday afternoon. Returned to the hut to sleep.
Day 2 (11/24/13): Acclimatization hike to 16200’ from the hut with light packs on Sunday morning. Cairned out confusing paths within the labyrinth to aid route finding under headlamps on summit day. Returned to the hut to sleep.
Day 3 (11/25/13): Summit via the labyrinth / Jampa Glacier, returned to the hut and back to Tlachichuca the same afternoon.
Distance / Elevation Gain: ~10 miles and ~4500’ from the hut (approx)
Mountain 2: Iztaccihuatl (17,159’)
Day 1 (11/27/13): Summit via Le Arista del Sol from La Joya (~12700’). Returned to La Joya and back to Amecameca that evening.
Distance / Elevation Gain: ~12 miles and ~5200’ from La Joya
Crew: Nirmal Krishnamoorthy and Prakash Manley
This trip being completed over thanksgiving it is appropriate to begin with a few words of thanks. 2013 brought my first baby steps in climbing peaks outside CO and the US. Lately in my climbing life I’ve started enjoying the venues, the partners, cuisine and culture on par with or more than the mountains themselves. This year’s diverse experiences have therefore been special and I am thankful for them. This year also brought far bigger gift than climbing success… I met a very special girl who is willing to put up with my patterned behavior, programmed by 7 years of climbing to execute on bare essential actions that support the acquisition of a few hundred feet of elevation gain and roundtrip mileage at altitude. While hard-to-change patterns may form for many in the late 20s-30s, climbing at a level of moderate intensity has possibly made me more resistant than some people to deviation from a vicious training-carb-loading/replenishing-bowel voiding-sleeping cycle. While I wait for the wizard to restore heart to my robotic innards, I am thankful to Divi for being patient with and even appreciative of my bizarre practice although it is poorly understood in our families or circles of friends. To peer into someone’s true nature past their obsessions takes special skill that I do not have. She appears to do this naturally and I admire her for it.
I am thankful for the near-normalcy that has returned to my family after a car crash took my father and hero two years ago. I am thankful that my oldest brother stepped up and relocated his whole family and business at great expense to be with our mother in such a short period. I now have a second hero and role model. While we still have a lot of recovery left to do as a family I am thankful for having the opportunity to learn that we can stick together through serious duress.
I’m thankful for having a great job in a time of misfortune that I am motivated about and allows me to pay for life. I am thankful for the friends I have and the successes they enjoy in life.
Spoiled by success on Shasta in June, the Grand Teton in July, and Rainier in August I was itching for the next adventure outside CO. I wanted to climb above 14,000’ this time. Despite all the years of climbing in CO and drooling endlessly at big lines on 20,000’+ peaks I had never tested whether my physiology could handle ascent above 14,000’. The relationship and work took their rightful precedence over the planning surrounding this next adventure and I ended up picking an obvious choice – Orizaba… because it appeared easier to plan a trip there with all the information available from local CO friends who had climbed it. Many thanks to Shawn Donnelly, Ryan Kushner, Ryan Marsters, Jeff Golden and Joe Brannan for all the info they shared about their trips both in person and via e-mail. Orizaba also made a lot of sense since it was a relatively inexpensive way to test altitude-resistance before making more significant investment on higher peaks in Asia and South America.
Arriving in Mexico:
I happened to trade IMs with an old college friend one day when I was contemplating Orizaba. He talked about his ascent of high points in Iran and Turkey (18,000’+). I mentioned the idea of Orizaba around thanksgiving week and he was interested. With literally no training or planning aside from a few October hikes up Elbert, Pacific / Atlantic and the Gore I found myself sitting in a bus to Puebla, discussing details of this peak with a college buddy that I’d never climbed with before. He was in a precarious situation, saddled with an overambitious clown that had never been above 14000’. We caught up on what had happened since college days as we rode the extremely comfortable 1st class bus (220 pesos one way) out of Mexico City. At Puebla we traded for another bus, just as comfortable, to Tlachichuca (65 pesos one way).
We were a source of great amusement to Mexicans, being brown and not speaking a word of Spanish… they must have thought we were either retarded, or foreign. Those that realized the latter were really kind hearted. One person at Puebla saw our befuddled looks at the back of the line to get in the bus. He came over and helped us load our giant backpacks / duffels, ushered us in and told the driver where we were going. We were catching one of the last buses to Tlachichuca and were therefore concerned about knowing landmarks to identify how to get off at the Cancholas’ residence in Tlachichuca… fellow patrons on the bus were really helpful with that and were able to usher us off right in front of the Cancholas’ residence at 9:30PM.
The Cancholas were a really warm bunch ensuring that we understood that we were their responsibility. Maribel bustled about getting some food ready while Joaquin assured us that he was “mucho gusto” to make the acquaintance of Indians, his brown amigos… whether his statements were genuine or marketing ploy, he managed to butter us turkeys up nicely enough to go directly in the oven without protest. Once we were showered and shamefully clean, we entered the dining room where we shared space with four French and two British climbers. We overheard them discuss Orizaba as we chowed down on some pasta soup and roasted red salsa.
It appeared as if the six all resided in Mexico City (~8000’ above msl) and some of them had summited Orizaba a couple times. Three of them planned to snowboard down and were talking about unprecedented snow conditions for this time of year which with benefit of hindsight I would attest to. I would have brought skis if I’d known what the conditions were like. The group was easy to make friends with and they shared a lot of info on the mountain and made us feel at ease. For the main course aunt Maribel brought us some chicken and the most divine black beans I’d ever tasted along with some Arroz Mexicana, warm flour tortillas and milk.
Driving to the Piedra Grande Hut (13,980’):
The next morning we woke up and were informed that we would leave Tlachichuca at around 11:30 AM with a Japanese gentleman settled in Mexico City. He would be guided by Juan who appeared to operate both with the Cancholas for Orizaba and independently for Izta, etc. We watched the European group leave at 9AM in a beefy looking vintage Wagoneer. I was a hydration-Nazi to myself and Nirmal and we managed to quaff roughly 4-5 liters of water that day following ceaseless nagging (and gagging).
Nirmal and I walked around and explored the wide, well planned cobbled streets of Tlachichuca which present a breathtaking picture of Orizaba on a clear day…
We stopped at the only grocery store of substance which actually had a fairly substantial stock of food and essentials. Nirmal bought his hiking food here – potato chips, nuts, etc.
Promptly at 11:30 we began driving up to the hut along with the Japanese gentleman, Juan, a driver and a third who appeared to be a basecamp manager. It was roughly a 3 hour drive to get up to the hut and we found surprisingly lush foliage and really tall pines as high as 13500’. This picture was taken at roughly 13500’.
We reached the hut at around 2:30 that afternoon in a mild drizzle. The hut was huge with three large platforms on which climbers could pitch their sleeping bags. There were two large tables on top of which large gas stoves were placed by Canchola’s or OMG (Orizaba Mountain Guides). These stoves were fantastic and we were able to use these throughout our stay to boil water rapidly.
Acclimatization Hike #1:
The Cancholas let us have two giant “3 gallon jugs” (which actually turned out to be 20 liters) for the two nights we planned to stay. Knowing how little we’d planned and trained I was eager to at least maximize the fluid intake, acclimatization, diet, etc. to try and make a successful summit push. We had brought plenty of dehydrated food and I’d also brought a couple large cans of green beans and a couple tins of pineapple to add fiber to the diet. I’ve found no good substitute for a good performance-enhancing poo in the morning before a hike and both of those items did the job on this trip. I was also doping myself with Ginkgo Bilboa and Nirmal also took some. About 3:30PM, we left our packs on the gradually emptying bunks, got into shells and went for an acclimatization hike in the drizzle with moderate (~25 lbs) packs. We set out at a brisk pace and found our hearts in our mouths within 100 yards up the aqueduct. Slowing down and pressure breathing we were able to get into a decent rhythm but it still took us roughly 2.5 hours to our high point for the day at 15600’. We ran into the Europeans who were returning from the top of the labyrinth to where they’d made it on their acclimatization hike. They planned to go for the summit that same night since they had to get back to work on Monday.
We ran into several other hikers who were all surprised to learn that we were planning to spend two nights acclimatizing. There were several groups at the hut that night and I cursed myself for forgetting ear plugs. I slept about 45 minutes in what sounded like a large cattle pen full of ravenous Aurochs infested with intestinal parasites being attacked by irate Kodiak bears and tusk-less walruses that had missed thrice nine suppers. Other than the snoring I didn’t feel like I was breathing heavy or otherwise affected by the altitude.
Acclimatization Hike #2:
We set no alarm and got out of our sleeping bags at around 8:30 the next morning, ate dehydrated meals, drank a lot of water / tea and began acclimatization hike #2 with a lighter (~10-15 lbs) pack. On this day we got up to 15600’ in roughly 2 hours without breathing as heavily. At 15600’ I dropped my pack and headed up the labyrinth with just an axe to scope out the shortest route and possibly build a cairn or two.
I turned back a hundred feet below the labyrinth exit since the snow was starting to get hard-packed and I hadn’t brought crampons on my jaunt. I returned to Nirmal dropping a couple cairns along the way back to him and we descended to the hut.
At the hut we decided a plan of attack for the following morning which involved (1) forcing down plenty of salty food, (2) packing a thermos of hot chocolate to drink at the crampon point and (3) drinking a couple flasks of hot chocolate so that we could begin hiking without bundling up (and having to stop within 20 minutes to take layers off). We decided to keep a steady pace and pressure-breathe no matter how uncomfortable it turned out to be. We woke up at 12:30AM and were on the trail by around 2 AM alongside another group (guided). We stuck to the plan from the night before and marched up the scree / talus at a steady pace. We reached 15600’ in about 1.75 hours this time despite following a winding trail under headlamps. We took an hour long break in a small wind-shelter above that point to crampon up and have our hot chocolate. Both of us put on down jackets and mittens for the trek up the glacier which we began at roughly 4:50AM.
We pressure breathed our way up the Jampa glacier following boot tracks and wands switchbacking upwards. We had a good hour and a half of hiking in darkness before the sun began peeking out and made a nice shadow on the cloud ceiling below.
At about 17500’ or so the breathing became harder and I had to exhale quite hard to flush out the CO2. It was still not bad going since we maintained a good pace and stayed disciplined about not stopping. We saw another group of skiers climbing below us.
At about 7 AM at roughly ~17500’ I chopped out a small rest platform in the icy crust for us to stop, hydrate and ingest gel blocks and / or candy for the final ~1000’ push to the summit. Nirmal pulled up alongside and we ate, hydrated and resolved to keep pushing at our own paces so we could keep warm until sun-hit. We noticed that the guided “group” (1 client, a lady from California) that started alongside us had pulled ahead… it turned out that they took a nice filled-in couloir, by-passing the entire labyrinth.
After a 10 minute break we began heading up again one foot after the other until at 7:55AM I was at the crater rim.
The guide and his client had skirted the rim and headed diagonally for the true summit. That probably saved them a good deal of time but I enjoyed the view from the rim and also the nice ridge to the summit.
I stepped on the summit at 8AM. It was freezing cold despite the sun-hit and down jacket. The views were amazing. Clouds look so amazing from a peak that stands so tall.
Nirmal made it up at around 8:30. It turned out he’d spent a few minutes on a false summit before the final push.
We stayed for 15 minutes or so longer while the group of skiers summited. They turned out to be from Colorado as well. We ate, drank, took pictures and generally BS-ed around until the cold was too much to bear. Nirmal and I took off shortly afterward…
An hour later we took a long break at the top of the labyrinth to remove layers and gloves since we were now totally baking in the heat and dehydrated. It felt good to be done. We were truly lucky to be able to summit and get back down so early. We ate some more food and drank a ton of water and continued our descent…
The following picture shows the start of the Labyrinth with the alternate couloir route on the right…
We took it easy the rest of the way down taking several short breaks and continuously hydrating. We finally saw a sight for sore eyes at around 11:30AM…
We got back into the hut at about 11:45AM for about 9:45 round trip with a few long breaks without too many signs of altitude issues. We were lucky with the weather and the acclimatization program seemed to work. That said we were glad to be done and couldn’t wait to get back to Tlachichuca.
Back to Tlachichuca:
Back in Tlachichuca we jumped in the shower and ate a lot of really good food.
We pottered around trying to figure out a good strategy for Izta. I then remembered the posts I had traded with Jason Blyth on the Colorado climbing forum (14ers.com) where he’d described a reverse itinerary from what we’d planned and also mentioned he’d be at Tlachichuca on the night of the 25th. I figured he could give us info on Izta and decided to go to bed and find him at breakfast. Before going to bed we looked at this handy map at the Cancholas’ which gave us some ideas on what buses to take.
The next morning we met Jason’s group at a fantastic breakfast of ham and eggs, black beans, chips, salsas, tortillas and milk. Jason recommended we stay at the hotel San Carlos in Amecameca. We quickly packed gear and hopped on the next bus to Puebla that conveniently picked us up right in front of the Cancholas. From Puebla we bought tickets to the TAPO bus stand (~150 pesos). From there we got tickets to Amecameca (~45 pesos).
During the bus ride I called Alex, a cab driver whose number Juan had given me a couple days ago at Piedra Grande. Communicating that we wanted to attempt Izta in a day from La Joya and negotiating the fare over the phone with no knowledge of Spanish was painful and possibly hilarious for our co-passengers on the bus. We reached Amecameca that night at about 6PM and walked to the hotel San Carlos and booked a room with two double beds for 200 pesos a night. We then headed out to eat dinner and buy groceries and a large jug of water. We’d arranged for Alex to pick us up at 6AM so we would get 6-7 hours of good sleep.
Ride to La Joya (~12700’):
We rode to La Joya in a thick mist which made me wonder what the weather was like up high. The forecast we saw the previous night led us to expect perfect weather until about 2PM and then some cloud cover / mist – http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Iztaccihuatl/forecasts/5286. We got to La Joya sharp at 7AM which is when the ranger station was supposed to open. However we waited long outside in the cold with no signs of life. I made silly small talk in very staccato Spanglish to break the tension imposed by the language barrier – I chose to discuss the awesomeness of Alex’s Cherokee Sport and Informed him that I too have a Jeep. He agreed with a sheepish smile and honked his horn periodically… whether it was to wake the ranger or to shut me up I will never know. At 7:45AM the ranger woke up, opened the door and issued us our 5 peso wristbands that would allow us access to the park until 9PM.
The Approach to the Groupos de los Ciens Refuggio:
It wasn’t until 8:45AM that we were finally at the trailhead and ready to begin hiking. We gave Alex a pickup time of 7PM and he insisted on arriving at 6PM and waiting… this meant we would have to hustle to summit and return. We got to this great view point of Popo at around 9AM and found a couple guys from Mexico City camped there.
We then began following a series of painted orange marks on rock that marked the route to the groupos de los ciens hut and beyond.
Orizaba looked like a giant battleship out in the open ocean…
While Popo smoked like a chimney…
We ascended and descended saddle after saddle covered in yellow, sulfurous slime…
At about 11:15AM we finally got to the hut… about an hour later than we’d anticipated from looking at the trail map at La Joya.
Up on the Arista del Sol:
We began clambering up the scree and talus beyond the hut…
Popo now wanted to be part of the action and stepped up the fumes. While legend has it that Izta died of a broken heart I think it is possible that Popo suffered a particularly unfortunate HAFE accident after extra spicy Indian food which knocked her out.
There were a couple easy class 3 sections that preceded the summit of the knees…
At the knees we met a group of American climbers. I asked them how far to summit and they groaned and uttered the words long, hard, up and down, etc… We figured we wouldn’t be there in a couple minutes.
The Grind above 16000 feet:
Looking into our future beyond the knees we saw a series of undulating bumps stretching out endlessly. It was 12:50PM at this point and we had gathered from returning parties that the true summit was not yet visible.
We decided to set a turn-around point of summit or 2:45 PM (whichever came first) since we figured it would take about 4 hours for the descent given all the elevation gained on the return journey. I wanted to have light for the winding descent through scree and talus since there seemed to be the opportunity to mistakenly end up in a different drainage while navigating in the dark. Sunset was roughly 6:30PM and we didn’t want to make Alex wait too long since we didn’t see other ways to get back to Amecameca.
The ridge was an absolute grind but we kept putting one foot in front of the other… neither of us felt the altitude too badly since we were disciplined about eating and drinking whether we liked it or not.
I didn’t feel any worse than I do at 14k… actually I felt a bit better than on Colorado Winter 14er trips, possibly because I was anal about the acclimatization program on this trip.
Soon we were on the belly glacier…
We took one last break on the belly glacier to fuel up for what we thought would be the final push to the true summit.
Summit and Descent:
I slowed down the picture taking for the rest of the way since we were getting close to turn around time. We crested one final, especially heart-breaking false summit at about 2:20PM and saw a wide open snowfield with the true summit about a half a mile or more away. We both stood and looked at the true summit, picked up the pace and plunged on without a word. We soon walked the narrowish summit ridge…
When I set foot on the true summit block my watch showed 2:45PM.
Nirmal joined me soon afterwards…
We did not dally for too long on the summit. In fact we left the summit at 2:50 PM after 5 minutes to take pictures. It would be a race to get back to the trailhead by sunset. That said it was hard not to admire the view and grab a picture or two during any refueling breaks.
The rest of the way went quickly although it seemed to take long. The last 400 feet of descent were through very slick clay and it was challenging to keep from falling on my coccyx which I’d freshly broken the weekend prior. We were back at the trailhead at 6:30PM and heard a voice out of the darkness calling my name. It was Alex, and it was a huge relief to hear his voice.
We returned to Amecameca and had some awesome street tacos and salsa for dinner. We then slept and headed for Mexico City to blow our two backup summit days that we did not need to use. Some other highlights of Mexico for me are below…
It was fantastic to share new hobbies with an old friend. Nirmal is a Boston qualifying marathon runner who lives at sea-level but shows no evidence of that fact. He is currently on an altitude kick, heading off to Aconcagua next month. Both of us thoroughly enjoyed Mexico, its cuisine and people. We were lucky to encounter very kind, friendly and humble natives at every turn. I can’t wait to explore South America next.