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.


Ice Age in the Gorge: Climbers Recount Winter Glory

Topher Dabrowski on the first ascent of Jet Stream, WI4 50m. Photo: Sam Wilson.

Intro by Kevin Machtelinckx

It’s said that the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago. Since then, the masochistic beast known as the ice climber has had to content him or herself with traveling to far off places to find good quality water ice to sink their tools into. Every once in a while, however, the climbing gods grace our local spots with a frigid breath, freezing gushing waterfalls into suspended sculptures of solid, transparent goodness. The week of January 12th, 2017 saw one of these events unfold in our local Columbia River Gorge. While many of us sought refuge from the sub-freezing temperatures, others went for all-out glory. Whether it was first ascents by experienced climbers or first attempts by novices getting their feet wet (or frozen), the week-long ice-fest provided a rare opportunity to get on ice in one of the most scenic areas of the Pacific Northwest. Topher Dabrowski, Brad Farra and Jonathan Barrett give us a glimpse into what the experience was like.

Jet Stream on Cape Horn
by Topher Dabrowski
The 2016–2017 Columbia River Gorge ice climbing season is basically a wrap at this point since, after February, it is quite rare to see temperatures consistently low enough for any ice to form near Portland. However, this season was very conducive to ice formation in the Gorge and surrounding areas, as there were three distinct cold snaps with just very moderate warming in between. This season, I concentrated my efforts on Cape Horn, since it offers a good variety of route options and a high density of ice climbs in a relatively compact area. I could easily make trips to the Cape as I work and live in fairly close proximity and, fortunately, Highway 14 was open for most of the bad weather spells. This was a real luxury when compared to making the 12+ hour drive to Hyalite Canyon in Bozeman, one of my usual ice climbing venues.

Since I have lived in the region, I have made it a point to watch Cape Horn's ice formations during the Gorge ice season. This year, by far, offered more routes in thicker conditions than previous years. Many lines formed which, in previous years, had little to no ice. It was impressive how quickly the ice formed at Cape Horn and, over a period of three to four days, I watched a route turn from a major mixed line into an almost complete ice route. It’s a shame that particular line didn't have a few more climbable days, otherwise it would have surely seen an ascent. For now it goes unnamed and unclimbed (to the best of my knowledge).

My first day out to the Cape, I hit Salmon Run on the upper tier with Tim Holscher. We extended that route another pitch and a half past the typical finish to continue up a thin, frozen stream and then ended with a short steep step. The next trip was with Jeff Waskowiak, where I lead Junk Yard, a moderate WI3 route on the middle tier, which I believe is a first ascent. Junk Yard gets its name from an old tire, car seat and driver’s-side door found on the top out. A subsequent trip with a group of five provided some exploration of the lower tier, which sits adjacent to the river. On this outing, Peter Way led the first ascent of Wind Walker, which lays just above the railroad tracks. Although we found many of the other routes in good condition, the wind was too ferocious to allow us to get close, lapping the river’s waves against the walls.

Jeff and I also ascended an unrecorded line just left of Nancy’s Run. We called it Sid’s Slot in keeping with the Sid & Nancy theme. The final day out at Cape Horn was on a blue bird, albeit windy, day. A different group came out this time, and just by chance, one of the members was a photographer. I had my eye on one particular line that was teasing its way into shape and, after we made the approach up the icy gully, I decided it looked good for a go. Luckily, we were somewhat protected from the winds blowing into our little alcove. Although the ice provided for great 'sticks' with the ice tools, the protection was tricky and fickle. As I neared the top, gale force winds roared overhead. I paused to look back over my shoulder taking in the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge and the splendor of my position. In that moment, Jet Stream became the route’s name.

Ainsworth Left
by Jonathan Barrett
Peter and Topher battling gale force winds along the shores
of the Columbia River. Photo: Ye Zhuang.
If there is one iconic ice line in the Gorge, it is Ainsworth Left. It seemed certain that our cold snap of historic proportions would put the route into rare condition. Teams often report that the final pitch is very wet, and I was hoping that we would be able to climb every pitch, but I was disappointed. Saturday, January 7th was cold indeed, but the real problem was the wind. Driving east in the predawn darkness with my partner, Chris Hulette, I found it difficult to keep my car between the lines.

The route’s several tiers of ice drop down a deep cleft, each plane turned slightly askew either right or left of the previous one. The effect is dramatic but also heartening. Pitches could be clearly defined. While we eyed the line from the base, gusts whipped the cliff face and tossed all manner of debris down on us: ground up ice, puffs of light snow, ragged pine branches. The wind, violent as it was at the base, seemed positively vicious up high.

For as long as I have been ice climbing, close to twenty years now, I have never lost my respect for the danger inherent in the medium. Looking up at the first pitch, I must admit I was nervous. It was not a gimme. Left and right were overhanging curtains and chandeliered ice. There was a weird, supernatural tilt to the forms, like something out of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Little was plumb. The center was the obvious line, so I headed up tapping gently into the curtain, trying to feel the pulse of the ice beneath the steel of pick and crampon. At one point, the curtain that I was on fractured at eye level, and I called down to my belay, “I have to admit... I’m scared right now!” But he encouraged me to stay focused.

We sent that pitch and the following one as well, a mellow ramp to the base of a face of frozen blobs. While on lead, I had been regularly pelted by falling debris. Some was small, but much of it was too large to not take seriously. My partner was struck too; when he arrived at the second belay, his helmet had taken a blow from a falling object that had punched through the skin into the foam core. It was obvious, that we were pressing our luck. With a v-thread and double ropes, we reached the ground and scurried for cover. It was not to be that day. We were defeated not by the route but by the Gorge’s violent winds. It was small consolation to later hear from other parties that the top pitch was too wet to climb.

Nancy's Run
by Brad Farra
The two weeks of the January ice event saw us get out on three different days. The idea wasn’t necessarily to bag any first ascents, but rather just get out and get some climbing in. We hit Cape Horn in some nasty winds on one day, then climbed just east and west of Multnomah Falls during the other two. 

Cape Horn was extremely windy when we got to the lower level. We wanted to get on some of the WI5 that we found down there but could barely walk, let alone lead steep ice. The trek to the base of those routes was really beautiful in any case, with all the ice on the beach. In the end, we climbed a really fun, long route called Nancy’s Run, rated at WI4.

Brad on Thick Enough to Screw run.
When we explored around the Multnomah Falls area, we found some nice formations in an adjacent bowl, just to the west. Multnomah Falls itself, as well as Horsetail Falls, to have too high of a flow to ice-over enough for climbing, though we did get on a route called Thick Enough to Screw just east of Multnomah Falls. 

The conditions during all three days were indeed the fattest I have ever seen them in the Gorge. With that said, they weren’t anywhere near what you’d find in places like Cody, Wyoming, Hyalite Canyon in Montana or the Canadian Rockies. The top-outs in the Gorge were always a mystery and many of the routes were runout on frozen mud or moss. It’s still a rare experience to have this kind of climbing only an hour’s drive from Portland. The Gorge is such a unique environment for climbing. There aren’t a lot of ice climbs out there where your approach includes romping through ferns and dense forest. 


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