Pico de Orizaba: Climbing Mexico’s Bright Star Mountain

Krista on top of Pico de Orizaba. Photo by Aaron Nelson

by Krista Curtis and Aaron Nelson
At 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon Apizaco was intense—Mexico was intense. We had been up since 2 a.m. and in constant, frantic, motion ever since. Outside the hotel window horns blared, dogs barked, loudspeakers boomed and a thick mass of bodies and vehicles moved. The smells of fresh tortillas and grilled meat wafted in.

A friend’s brother is a taxista in Mexico City, and we opted to hire him to drive us all the way to Apizaco. We piled our small mountain of luggage on the floor and our wads of colored pesos on the bed, and marveled at the value of our 200 peso per night accommodations. These included a hot shower and a TV with a channel that played, almost exclusively, David Bowie music videos (perfect!). We lay down on the bed and stared at each other, listening to the street sounds. Somehow we were actually here!

A few months after our 2014 BCEP class, we heard of the Mexican volcano Pico de Orizaba (18,490 feet) when a group of Chemeketans presented their expedition slide show at a Wednesday night program at the MMC. That very night we both knew this was the trip for us. It had that intriguing balance of a challenge big enough to cause significant doubts, while at the same time overlapping with the realm of possibility. Neither of us has an interest in guided climbs, and this was something we thought we could soon do on our own. Also, we were yearning to practice Spanish and experience culture anywhere south of the border. Other than a few escapades in border towns, this was our first international self-supported adventure.

In the beginning, the travel intimidated us more than the climb. We put the most time into researching and planning travel logistics since the climb wasn’t overly complicated. We got passports and visited a travel clinic for vaccinations. We braced ourselves for a flood of new information: language, money, navigating public transit with luggage, finding clean drinking water and food, and simply existing as a stranger in a strange land.

For this climb, we needed to focus on our cardiovascular fitness. About three months before, we increased our training. We hiked Mount Defiance, did laps on the Mount Tabor stairs, cardio machines at the gym, and bike rollers at home. We gave ourselves a B+ on training. We were especially careful to avoid getting sick or injured. In the weeks just prior to our trip, very cold conditions dominated Hood and we took the opportunity to test our gear and spend some time at elevation.

Krista on the slow and steady trail up
La Malinche. Photo: Aaron Nelson. 
The morning of our second day in Mexico, we took a colectivo up the foothills to the trailhead of La Malinche (14,636 feet). Fresh from sea level, we expected oxygen-deprivation symptoms. Many locals in jeans and street shoes passed us on the wide trail. Slow and steady took on new meaning. We surpassed the elevation of Mt. Adams and reached our new high point. Early afternoon clouds gave way enough for us to see the irregular lines of fields and roads far below, and we caught brief, ghostly views of a snow capped giant far off in the east—our first views of Pico de Orizaba. Nearing the top, we both experienced strong headaches and Krista felt some nausea. Interestingly, on the way down, these symptoms got worse before they got better.

We’d been guzzling water ever since we left the States. To stay hydrated, we wistfully passed up cervezas and even—somewhat ruefully—coffee. We had also planned to avoid street food and potential intestinal issues until after the climb. However, this ended up taking more willpower than we could sustain. Out of the trail dust of La Malinche appeared a covered table and chairs and a family cooking tacos from their truck bed. Tender, seared carnitas with fresh tortillas and tamarindo sodas soon filled our bellies. “And yes please, cilantro and onion would be perfect!”

As we heaved our bags from under the bus in Tlachichuca—the small town which would be our jumping off point for Orizaba—a boy of about ten grabbed the two biggest and heaviest and called out, “Escaladores? Servimont?” He launched away before the word “Sí” had left our mouths. His arms were ripped and even with the big roller suitcase and 70 liter duffel he was fast! Within a couple minutes we were ringing the bell at the 200-year-old soap factory turned climber’s hostel. We tipped the superhuman kid well and entered a different world.

Hearing other people speak English was strange. Gringos wandered about within the walls of the beautiful old factory, examining their yard-sales of clothes, food, and gear. Soon, Dr. Reyes, a third generation climber, and grandson of the factory’s builder, welcomed us warmly and proudly showed us around his hostel. We organized our own gear, ate a fantastic meal, got to know our fellow climbers, and hit the sack early. Meanwhile, the infamous local rooster did his best to make sure none of us had an excess of sleep.

Packed into Servimont’s trusty 4x4, rocking and lurching, we all laughed and shared the growing anticipation. Each time we glimpsed the looming volcano, it was bigger and more breathtaking. It was also quite steep and shiny! It looked like there was a lot of ice up there. We could now see the north side and our route. Now it was the climb, rather than the travel, that had become our source of intimidation. At the end of the road we came to the Piedra Grande refuge at 13,900 feet. Setting up camp was slow, punctuated by head rushes and breathlessness. We managed to do a small stroll up 700 feet or so. A borrowed pulse oximeter showed readings of 79-84% oxygen saturation. As an RN, Krista exclaimed her professional opinion: “Gross!” The shadows fell and the temperature dropped, and we settled into our new home for the next four nights.

From left: Krista on La Malinche with feral
mountain dog. Photo: Aaron Nelson. 
Picking our way through the Labyrinth late the next morning, we took our time, for acclimating and finding the route through the moderately steep ice gullies was our only task for the day. Although there were patches of water ice, mostly the footing was on secure snice and not as scary as it had looked from the truck. Every step was another personal altitude record. We felt we were acclimatizing well, and it was comfortable and familiar to wear crampons and work our way slowly up. As we climbed, our confidence grew; we began allowing ourselves those little anticipatory sips of summit victory. By 16,300 feet, however, we stowed such forbidden thoughts, as Krista again had a sharp headache and neither of us felt generally “good.” We carefully made our way back down to camp, arriving just as the sun slid away.

The following day was a rest day and our summit bid would begin at midnight. We slept in, wrote in journals, drank herbal tea, and soaked in the views of Citlaltépetl, or “Star Mountain,” in Nahuatl. Aaron’s appetite had dropped off at altitude, but Krista didn’t seem to notice much of a change. Because she had experienced altitude symptoms in the past, Krista planned on taking Diamox to hasten acclimatization. Around mid-day Krista realized she was getting sick with a cold and sore throat. She felt her energy level dial way down. Dampened optimism notwithstanding, she reassured herself that she’d climbed Hood before while sick and did what she could to rest.

We awoke and arose to clear skies, electric stars, and the light of the full moon around 11 p.m. Our packs were ready with all possible clothing layers since we’d been hearing consistent reports of serious cold. We boiled water for our Nalgene bottles and, after a warm meal, we were off.
As happens on many climbs, we started out feeling ‘off’ but felt better after muscles and minds warmed up and excitement took over. We made decent time up through the Labyrinth. Once we reached the foot of the Jamapa Glacier, a frigid breeze met us from the east. The cold edged its way in quickly. We layered up as fast as we could, but hands were already cold enough to make those efforts difficult. We managed to get down a few calories, but all of our food was frozen and we tucked some chews and gels into our inner layers for later. Above all, we wanted to keep moving to generate heat.

The glacier sloped gradually upward, getting steepest just below the crater rim. Rest-stepping on firm snice, we stamped our feet often to keep sensation. The glacier seemed to go on forever. Though we anticipated the sunrise, and took notice of its beauty, we knew we were on the northwest side of the mountain and thus it would be hours before we received direct light. We fought to find a balance between moving fast enough to generate warmth and not aggravating the altitude effects of lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. In general, we failed to strike that balance.
Wearing all of our layers, including shells, we were still quite cold. Perhaps it was the altitude, certainly it was the wind chill and temperature (which froze even the food in our inner layers), but we didn’t eat nearly enough. We made a beginner’s mistake in not making it happen. We would have been warmer if we had. Instead, we half-heartedly nibbled and stubbornly moved onward. Live and learn.

Above 17,500 feet, we found ourselves following steps through sugar snow. The steps broke easily, but for the most part, we were able to securely self-belay. Our arc to the crater rim and then to the summit took us far west and we crossed above a cliff 2,000 feet below on a slope of about 40 degrees.

Orizaba Krista and Aaron Summit. Photo: Pierre Grimard.
Finally we reached a small scree and pumice band just below the summit. The views of Mexico were surreal in their scale and beauty. Pico de Orizaba is the 7th most prominent peak in the world and the 3rd highest in North America. Almost 10,000 feet below, a haphazard geometry is traced over the flatlands. La Malinche can be seen, as well as Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, with its banner of wafting smoke. Walking the last few meters up to the summit, a great crater opened before us, and the view stretched beyond to the Gulf of Mexico. We hugged, took too few pictures, and headed down out of the wind.

Two days later, in Mexico City, we feasted on street tacos that were so good that every other taco either of us has ever had, whether before or after, shall pale in comparison. Sipping fine tequila, we felt that peaceful contentment that climbers occasionally find after a trip to the mountains. We also felt gratitude to the Mexican people, for their openness and generosity, and for the many small moments of helpfulness and kindness. At a time when it would be easy to turn a cold shoulder to Americans, it was our experience that, instead, the Mexican people graced us with the benefit of the doubt. Further, people like Miguel the taxista and Dr. Reyes took the effort to respectfully push discussions to a deeper level, allowing us to start to fill in the many gaps in our understanding of Mexico and its people.

Even as we sipped our tequilas and reflected on the past week, our conversation drifted—back to the mountains. We already missed Mexico and we hadn't even left! Next time we’ll also climb Izta, Nevado Toluca, Colima… Next time we’ll spend more time in the city, and in the villages; next time we’ll eat more tacos.

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