Mexico + Pico De Orizaba 
Sunday, April 1, 2018, 02:00 AM - Trips
Posted by Administrator
Mike and Ximena were getting hitched in Oaxaca, so I decided to add a little mountaineering to the trip. I wanted to climb Pico de Orizaba for years because of the high altitude challenge, so here was my chance. I asked a few friends to see if anyone was game and my old buddy Nick from my soccer team said he'd be up for the challenge. I had a few doubts about his fitness, but when he started doing La Luz laps, I booked the trip.

March 25th we flew into Mexico City, and eventually found the bus to Puebla. The coach bus had A/C and was very comfortable, but it didn't drop us off at the correct station in Puebla and we had to grab an Uber to CAPU before locating our connection to Tlachichuca. We spent an embarrassingly long time lugging double backpacks around the bus station before finding the Valles bus company - but we were on our way. It felt like the bus driver dropped us off on a cobblestone road at middle-of-nowhere Mexico in the dark. We rang the buzzer, and Maribel and the wonderful Cancholas family welcomed us into the Summit Orizaba fortress. We were treated to dinner and a beer and then shown to our room.

In the morning, we took a nice walk around town to the plaza and church and then arranged our 4x4 lift up to Piedra Grande Hut. Overall the place wasn't that busy and the only other climbers heading up were a couple guys from Oklahoma. Joaquin Canchola, who's a bit of a legend in his own right, deftly piloted us up the road toward the hut. He greeted everyone in town like a grandfather would. I spoke broken Spanish and he spoke OK English. We managed to hold a number of conversations about the poor farming practices of the area (i.e., vegetation burning), the weather, the forests, his family business, and our planned pick up time tomorrow. He had been bringing climbers up to the hut for three decades and had climbed Citlaltépetl a couple dozen times. Now in his 60s, he complained that his back was taking too much abuse from the rough road and he needed his sons to take over the driving. As we climbed, the flora shrank until it vanished. We could catch tasty glimpses of the Jamapa Glacier; then, after a couple hours, we made a scary turn to the homestretch where the hut sat miniscule under a looming giant. Piedra Grande sits at about 14,000' so just moving your gear into the shelter gets you breathing.

After checking out the facilities, we decided to do an acclimatization hike. I had gotten some beta from my buddy Pete that it was worth going through the labyrinth the first time in the daytime to get your bearings, so I wanted to check that out. Nick and I started up and I was feeling good. I had taken a little Diamox (acetazolamide) and it was doing it's job. Nick on the other hand was slow to start and was complaining of AMS symptoms within 500'. I told him that he needed to head back to the hut recover. I carried on and slowly got to the labyrinth--a massive boulderfield with mud, waterfalls, and lots of seemingly good route options. The trail was flagged many places, but not enough to keep me from getting lost a couple times. I finished the 2000' climb well to the right of the actual trail. Clouds had moved in so I couldn't see the glacier, but I had enough of the route memorized that I had the navigational crux figured out. I stashed a water bottle at the top to save a little weight in the morning, and then headed back to the hut. The Oklahoma team made it to within sight of the labyrinth but headed back when the weather started rolling in.

Back in camp, I talked with Nick about options. He was feeling sick and had already vomited. Ultimately, we decided that I would go in the morning at 2am and he'd start up later to acclimatize more. If things went well, we'd stay an extra day to give him a shot at the top. I would be going solo, but had the OK team around to lend a hand if needed help. (Although, something told me it might be the other way around.) They were going roped up because of the crevasses, but when I asked if they knew how to ascend a rope, they said they had practiced in the barn a few times after watching YouTube videos. I asked them to demonstrate and I gave them a few pointers. It was dumb luck that the hut that sleeps ~50 only had 4 Americans staying that night. (The next evening at least 7 different groups would be there.)

At 2am, the alarm went off. I ate some oatmeal and completed the final packing arrangements. I made a nontraditional choice to hike in running shoes to the glacier and carrying my mountaineering boots in my backpack. This would keep me faster down low and not tear my feet up as bad. It was a good decision because I moved very quickly through the steep loose terrain. I retraced my steps through the labyrinth from the day before and found my water bottle at 4am. I worked up to the glacier and made the transition to my glacier gear. Poles and shoes stayed, and the ax and crampons came out. I was extremely nervous that my toes would freeze up high, so I brought boot warmers for my La Sportiva Baruntses. It turned out that the Cascadias had lost their warmth by the transition, and I was super happy to turn on the heaters to begin the next stage of the climb.

The glacier ice was super hard and difficult to crampon at first. This was the section of the mountain that refreezes everyday and it was the cold period. I looked up and could only see blackness and white glacier. Aside from the towns lit up on the horizon, there was nothing to navigate to naturally so I headed up the fall line. I thought there's got to be a summit up there somewhere! After a half hour of painful climbing on steep ice, I doubled checked the GPS route from Pete and could see that I was a little to climber's left of where I wanted to be. I shifted right to avoid any crevasses and make sure to make the summit where I didn't have to traverse the crater rim. I continued but could tell I was slowing. The climb was very steep and the snow was so hard. The ice would often make awful cracking sounds, but I told myself that this was just the refrozen surface layer. I side-cramponed on one side, then shifted to the other - zigzagging up the mountain. It was too difficult to use the toespikes. I had to break every 20 minutes or so to catch my breath and look around at nothing. I didn't seem to be going anywhere and the altimeter seemed to be incrementing so slowly! I came upon a 6-foot deep, 2-foot across crevasse that gave me a pause. I decided it was harmless and I stepped over it and carried on.

By this point, sun started to lighten the sky and I could start to get my bearings. The glacier seemed to stretch indefinitely, but I knew where I was going: up there somewhere. I stopped for some tea and to snap photos of the black cone shadow on the flat farmland. The sight was incredible. I checked my altimeter: 17,900'. Time to give this another push and finish it off. I hiked about 100' and found strange ice formations. They were columnar ice fins about 2 feet high and very hard to traverse. I made a push through and I was standing on the rim of the volcano. What?! I checked my altimeter again: 18,100'. Huh, guess I should have calibrated it this morning! I walked the 100 feet over to the summit and happily dropped my pack. 6:30am - not bad at all. 4500' of climbing in 4.5 hours is mighty respectable when your going to 18.5k I figure.

It was my Dad's birthday, so I bought up a special flag to commemorate his 60th. I sipped warm tea and cracked a cold Modelo summit beer to take in the sunrise from the top of Mexico. I don't know if it was perfect combination of beer and altitude, but I had a smile ear-to-ear. I had the beautiful summit to myself. After all the hero shots, I headed back toward the heat.

The descent was fast, but it was surprisingly long. The glacier is 2000' high but certainly felt even more expansive. I could barely make out the Oklahoma team from up top. And by the time I got to them, they were about 500' up the glacier and moving slow. Apparently, they were lost in the labyrinth for an hour in the twilight. Yep, sounds about right. I snapped some photos for them and carried on down the mountain. I switched over to the trailrunners at the base of the glacier and carefully worked through the lower mountain. I rolled into camp at about 10am to find Nick still in bed guarding the gear. He had gone up to the labyrinth, but still wasn't feeling well. About an hour later, a crew of 18 locals arrived at Piedra Grande. The crowd cornered Nick and I in the hut and explained that they were a family that wanted to BBQ. We said we didn't have much aside from an assortment of dehydrated foods and bars to contribute, but they took the gesture well. One of the younger guys started pouring tequila shots for the alpinistas locas. They loved snapping photos of us and couldn't believe I climbed to the top. The BBQ was great, tequila spot on, and when Joaquin showed up at 2pm my heart was full from a successful expedition and gracious hospitality of the locals. After a bit, we finally spotted the others slowly working their way back to camp. Sadly they had to turn back at 17,200' because they weren't feeling well.

Maps: GPX and KMZ.

Back in town, we picked up a bottle of Tequila Corralejo Reposado and drank with Joaquin. He started pulling out all these log books of famous and no-so-famous climbers who had come through his hostel. He was particularly proud of his Fred Beckey notes and photos. He also is featured in a number books on the mountain and Mexican climbing. It was really cool to hear the stories from a man that was there all those years ago. One of his poetic quotes from one of the books read:

"Esta montaña
siempre va a estar
aquí presente,
pero tu vida
es única
y solo se vive
una vez,
tenle respeto
a la montaña"

The next day we headed back to Mexico City and got some good tacos, bought wrestling masks, and tried out a nice mescaleria. The following day, Nick and I toured Teotihuacán. Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun was actually a little tough with how sore my calves were. We did a big tour of the place but around noon things were getting a little too hot and we went for tacos. Along the way we ran into a few guys doing the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) which was supremely entertaining. We bused back into the city and did one of the ride-on-top bus loops. Because many people had time off for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, it was fairly crowded, but we eventually worked our way to the upper deck. Riding around the town was super pleasant in the warm weather. Although it took forever to go only a few block we were happy to people watch from our mobile perch. It was a nice way to see the Plaza, Zocolo, Av. Reforma, Monumento a la Independencia, etc., but my favorite spot was in the south near Tamaulipas Michoacan where there are a bunch of nice eateries with dense tree-lined streets. Since it was a hop-on-hop-off setup, we stopped a few places to nab food and drinks.

The following day, Nick headed out to Peru in the morning and Jess landed a couple hours later. Jess and I grabbed a simple lunch near the airport on Easter, dodging a number of parades and demonstrations. Then we hopped on a flight for Oaxaca.

Oaxaca was a very walkable city. We could easily get to nearly everything from our AirBnB. We started by exploring the markets, sampling chapulines (crickets), and buying plenty of pastries. The entire town was quite touristy, but it still retained it's authenticity and charm. There were many walking streets, quaint bars and restaurants, and lots of nearby archaeological sites. After a fun 1/2 day exploring the town, we caught a bus up to Mike and Ximena's wedding. They insisted everyone have mezcal mixed drinks to toast to their future throughout the proceedings which would make sense if you knew them. The ceremony was short and heartfelt. Then it was on to a lovely dinner, dancing, and socializing. I was happy to present the married couple a gift - a beat up warm can of Tahoe Beer. (Long story but it was a running joke from our Tahoe ski trip in which these awful beers would show up randomly in our gear bags, cars, etc. Mike slipped it into my bathroom mirror cabinet 6 months ago, so it seemed fitting to give it to him on his wedding.)

The following couple days, M&X had tours arranged for the wedding guests. We visited Monte Albán ruins which was a lot of fun to explore with Jess, though the sun was vicious. We climbed up and down all the platforms and tried to hide in the shade where possible. That evening, Jess and I got adventurous and went to a Lucha Libre Mexican wrestling match down in the southern barrio at Arena Mastin III. It was a shockingly stressful event because it was a tiny venue of 3 rows of chairs (everything was the splash zone), we were regularly called out by the locals, and bodies were tossed off the ring into the audience all the time. You had to know when to get up and out of the way, which at first we didn't, but then we worked it out. There was tons of audience participation. After the rounds the kids would get in the ring and play fight or get signatures from their favorite wrestlers. We also had no idea what was going on and almost left before the pros came out for the finale rounds. In the end it was nice to have survived the evening with a lot of stories.

The next day we journeyed to the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua. Jess and I did the hike down to see the falls from below and then took a swim. The water color was unreal and being able to walk and swim in the pools was stunning. It was like being able to swim in Yellowstone's pools if they were nice and refreshing. On the way home, we toured a mezcaleria where they showed us the labor-intensive process. We finished off our Oaxaca trip with a few bar stops and a lovely rooftop dinner with Jeff, Nicki, and other wedding-goers.

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