Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mexico - Pico de Orizaba

Over the Christmas break, 4 of us traveled to Mexico to climb Pico de Orizaba, the 3rd highest mountain in North America. The mountain stands at 18,491 feet (5636 meters), and for all of us was our first real experience at high altitude (i.e. above 15,000')

Please bear with me, this was a big trip. I learned a lot so this is going to be a long blog post! If its boring for you, just look at the pictures :)

Dec 26-27th - Travel

Pico de Orizaba, Western aspect. Viewed from a acclimatization hike
We drove up to LA the night before and caught a rather painless flight to Mexico city the next morning.

Easy travel. What else could we ask for?
 We arrived in Mexico city late in the afternoon. A driver from Servimont was waiting for us outside of customs, and off we went for a 4 hour drive to the village of Tlachichuca. The drive through Mexico city was a bit crazy, its hard to imagine a city that has a population nearly as big as my home country!

Driving through Mexico city.

 We arrived fairly late at the Servimont climbers hostel, and I was immediately impressed with our choice of outfitter. The facility was over 200 years old, and the owners have been serving climbers for three generations. The hostel was originally a soap factory that had been converted into climber accommodations. They had hot, delicious food waiting for us when we arrived. Talk about service!

In the dining hall on our first night

Servimont climber's hostel
Dec 28-30 - Acclimation

The next few days were acclimatization days, getting our bodies ready for high altitude. You can't rush acclimation, and I am really glad we followed the plan laid out by the owner of Servimont, Dr. Rheys. 

We got to sleep in, then proceeded to our first acclimatization hike. 
On the way we passed through the Mexican country side and a very tiny village. It was a bit surreal. There were chickens and stray dogs everywhere, farm animals tethered to the front of people's houses. We even saw a horse drawn plough working the fields. 
The poverty was a bit staggering

Typical scene in the Mexican country side.

We were drive to about 11,000' where we met our local guide, Horhay who brought us up to about 13,500' below the west glacier of the mountain. The guide had 2 very friendly dogs (named cappuccino and coffee) who's company we really enjoyed. Two other Californians joined us (Andrew and Sean), both affable, friendly guys. For me one of the great parts of this trip was all the interesting and friendly climbers we met along the way. 

Admiring the view

Coffee takes a break!

Acclimatization hike
On the way down, Jorge brought us to some lovely waterfalls hidden in a gorge. Weird to see flowing water in such an arid environment!

Our guide, Jorge, takes a moment to himself.

Teresa enjoys the waterfall


After our hike, we headed back to the village of Tlachichuca and explored for the afternoon. Its a cute little village, cobblestone streets, very old buildings, and a central square and church which make up the heart of the village. The church had some very interesting decorations. There were a series of mosiacs on the outside made from corn and other seeds!

Church in the Square

Seed and corn mosaic on the Tlachichuca church

Perhaps like small villages in Europe, Tlachichuca has a very informal economy. Really small shops, no corporate influence at all. There is daily market where you can buy everything from your groceries, to shoes, to lingerie! 

Village streets
That night the hostel was pretty full, there was our group, the 2 Californians that hiked with us in the day, a Mexican expat climber (who lived in Ohio! and another group of 6 Californians from the Sierra Mountaineering Club

The following day was a bit chaotic as all the groups prepared to head out for their various objectives. It really felt like expedition climbing watching everyone sort out there gear, and plan out how the outfitter was going to transport everything. 

Unlike most of the groups who were going straight to the hut at 14,000', we were going to do another acclimation day, hiking to a camp at 12,000', then hiking again to the hut at 14,000'. The cool thing is that the outfitter was going to ferry our loads, so we did not have to carry all our gear. How lazy! 
Everyone loaded up the 4x4 truck, and off we went.

Climbers getting ready to go.

Temporary road block
The truck dropped us off, we hiked to our camp and pretty much just lounged around in the sun all afternoon. One thing that I did not really appreciate about expedition climbing, is how much down time there is. Huge stretches of low activity punctuated by short bursts of intense activity when the mountain is climbed. On the plus side, I really got caught up with my sleep!

Michael - like a sleeping baby

Who said mountain climbing was hard?
The main excitement of the day was cooking diner for the evening.

Troy - camp chef extraordinaire!
Tent glow
When we woke up the weather had taken a turn for the worst. Really heavy winds, and rain. Pretty miserable. We packed up, left our gear for the trucks, and hiked up in the rain to the hut and our basecamp at ~14,000'. It was a wet cold hike. We arrived at basecamp to a fairly foreboding scene. The mountain was shrouded in cloud, and all the other climbers at the basecamp were not looking to happy. Apparently of the 40 or so people who went up the mountain, only a handful made it to the top. Also, those who camped up there had a miserable cold night before. I'm glad we had stayed lower on the mountain.

As the day went on, the weather improved, so my optimism slowly grew throughout the afternoon. 

The hut at 14,000'
Michael is happy at camp with his huge mitts
Basecamp food!
We settled in for even more rest, in anticipation of our alpine start to the climb the next day.

Views from the tent

Things start to clear as the sun sets

Dec 31 - Summit Day

Of course on the most important day, I did not really take many pictures. This is mostly because for the summit we climbed through the night. Teresa was not up to climbing the mountain, so it was the 3 boys. We woke up at midnight, and were heading up with all the other summit hopefuls by about 1am. 
It was not very long before we were at the ahead of all the other climbers.

Michael and Troy are a lot faster than me, they are 10 years younger and much fitter than me after all! Because they were faster, I pretty much ended up soloing the entire mountain. 

The first part of the climb went fairly quick, we passed through an old glacier moraine, including a steeper part of it called the "labyrinth". Despite the name, route finding was easy, even in the dark. There were clear skies, and the many city lights of the Central Mexican plateau were sparkling. 

After a couple of hours we starting climbing the glacier itself, at first it was mellow, and then became quite steep, as much as 35-40 degrees. It was fairly icy, a slip probably would be fatal on that slope, but there is not much point roping up, as there is not really any good pro, for either pickets or screws. 

Then at about 17,000' I (and the others) hit what runner call "the wall". Although we were well acclimated, at that altitude it is physically not possible to move very fast. I could only take a few steps, then I would have to rest. Repeat. 

At this point I am going to admit that I was very frustrated, and was ready to quit and turn around at several points. The temperatures were cold, maybe -15C, my toes were frozen. I could see the headlamps of Troy, Michael and a German climber up maybe 200 feet above me, but no matter how hard I tried, the lights never seemed to get closer! Also you cannot see the summit because of the angle so it seemed like the mountain never ended. 

I was nauseous once, but was ok. I was feeling the altitude, but was not horribly sick. I am really glad that we took those days to acclimate!

I kept going though, telling myself to just take a few more steps. It was cold, lonely and strange climbing in the dark all alone on that steep icy glacier.

Eventually, the angle changes, there were some cut steps in the ice (from a guided party perhaps), and I crested the rim of the volcanoes crater. The sun was just starting to rise, I was so close to the summit, and the worst of the climbing was over!

Cresting the crater rim at dawn.
 I threw down my pack and rested for a few moments. I was still all alone. Eventually Troy and the German climber came by, heading down. Troy and vomited, and was feeling sick, so rushed down. Michael came as well, and waited for me on the rim, while I trekked over to the summit. 

On the way over to the summit, I actually had a mini break down and cried a bit. I think the mental strain of having to try so hard, and actually not giving up caused some emotional strain on me!

Heading towards a false summit
Shadow of the mountain

Summit at dawn

Other climbers approaching the rim at dawn
I did not linger long on the summit, Michael and I headed down with German climber. The sun was shining, and we could finally see what we had climbed. Troy was waiting for us at the base of the glacier, and we headed back off base camp.

Descending the glacier

Into the labyrinth
Looking down at base camp and the hut from the Moraine
 We collapsed at camp, and waited for our ride to pick us up. It took me 9 hours hut-to-hut, a slightly below average climb - pretty good for an out of shape professor in his late thirties. 

I am really happy I got to experience high altitude climbing, and I know that my body can handle it. Now I just need to get into better shape, so I can move quicker next time I go above 15,000'.

The end of 2016, I climbed 28 mountains this year, ending the year with Pico was a terrific way to go.

Tired climbers waiting for their ride
Jan 1 - Jan 5 - Rest, Ruins, Izta and home

The Mexicans certainly love New Year's eve. The entire village was one big party all night. We were exhausted, so were in bed by 8pm. At one point in the night I heard 2 types of music, roosters, dogs, church bells, and fireworks all at the same time!

For New Year's we headed out to Cantona, one of the largest archealogical sites in Mexico, the ruins of a Mesoamerican city that once hosed over 90,000 people. The site was abandoned in 1000 AD, and was a fascinating tour. Monumental architecture, all without the use of mortar. 

Entrance to the site


Mountain god? Tribute to Titanic? Troy? Who knows
Ancient city

We spend one last night at Servimont, then packed up and headed towards Mexico City to the Izta trailhead, a 17,000' mountain and the last thing we were going to climb.

Unlike Pico, the plan was to carry packs (VERY heavy, because we needed to carry water) up to a camp at 15,000'

Izta. Big, dry and sandy.
Unlike Pico, the glaciers on this mountain are pretty much dead. So the mountain was dry, sandy and actually fairly hot. After getting dropped off, we ate some lunch, then started trudging up the sandy slopes. 


Popo -active volcano. 2nd largest in Mexico after Pico

It was a grueling hike, and we set a camp at a saddle around 15,000'. We settled in for the night. 


Camp life
We woke up at 5:30 to head up. After about 20 minutes, Teresa did want to continue, the altitude was really not doing it for her. I headed back with her to keep her company, while Michael and Troy continued on to the summit. 

I am really glad that Teresa came along, she was so helpful especially acting as our Spanish translator. I feel really lucky to have a wife who was willing to come along on this adventure, even though mountain climbing is my dream and not hers. I am a lucky man to have such a supportive wife!

Teresa and I enjoyed sleeping in and we headed back down, evetually meeting up with Troy and Michael. We were picked up, then a night in Mexico city and home. 

Amazing trip!

Best wife

Sunrise 2017 - Hopefully another good year for me!

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