EL PICO DE ORIZABA
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EL PICO DE ORIZABA
Contrary to what many people did on this night, I went to bed early on December 31st . The reason was my 6 am flight on January 1st, destination Mexico City. It was my next objective to climb solo North America's third highest mountain, El Pico de Orizaba or Citlaltépetl (from Nahuatl citlalli = star, and tepetl = mountain) which at 18,875 feet, stands above anything else south of Yukon and Alaska.
I had eyed this mountain for a while and I was looking forward to giving it a try. This was my first time above 16,500 feet, the highest elevation I had reached in the past while climbing in the South American Andes. I got interested in El Pico de Orizaba after talking to a fellow climber on my way down from Mt. Shasta. Mexico is home to three high-elevation volcanoes, El Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccíhuatl (17,423 feet) and Popocatepetl (17,925 feet). Climbers from around the world challenge themselves on these volcanoes as their first high-altitude climb.
Since 1996 Popocatepetl has been erupting, and is therefore closed to all climbing. While Orizaba and Popocatepetl are shaped like the traditional cone-shaped volcano, Iztaccíhuatl resembles our local Mummy Mountain. The locals have renamed it "the sleeping beauty" or "the sleeping lady" because of its shape. Seen in profile, Izta resembles a sleeping woman, and Aztec legend has it that Popo stands eternal guard over Izta who died of grief after Popo’s rivals told Izta that Popo had been killed in battle. While driving to Orizaba, both Popo and Itza are clearly visible, especially Popo which continues to erupt every day.
When in Mexico City, I stayed at the Hotel Catedral, a very nice and clean hotel conveniently located in the heart of downtown Mexico City, also known as "El Zocalo". I spent the rest of January 1st walking around the city and mixing with the locals for a military parade in front of the main Cathedral. The next morning, I met my friend Paul Kuroda at the hotel who had just returned the night before from successfully climbing Itza and Orizaba. Because of dates and logistics we were unable to climb together, but we exchanged valuable information about the climbs.
After saying goodbye to Paul, I headed to the main bus station and boarded a very comfortable luxury bus to Puebla. Contrary to what the name might suggest, El Pico de Orizaba is not that close to the city of Orizaba from which it gets its name. My destination was a little town called Tlachichuca that sits on the northwest flank of El Pico at approximately 9,000 feet. As there are no direct buses from Mexico City to Tlachichuca, I had to change buses in Puebla. After changing buses, I took an old bus from the 60's that had seen better days to Tlachichuca . This bus was what they call a local bus, which translates into "it stops every five minutes to load more people." I stopped counting people when I reached 75 as I was probably afraid to really know how many people were on the bus.
Four hours later I arrived in Tlachichuca and immediately asked for the house of Mr. Reyes or Senor Reyes as he is better known in Tlachichuca. I almost forgot to tell you that being fluent in Spanish made things very easy for me, although many locals are fluent in English. Senor Reyes is a retired surgeon, who upon retirement from his practice, decided that his passion for climbing could be also transformed into a business. He owns a compound in downtown Tlahichuca that literally occupies a couple of blocks. The compound was inherited from his father and from his grandfather; it was originally a soap factory and it was completely restored to its original state. In the main building there are two floors, with the bottom floor a kind of a recreation area with couches, memorabilia, books, magazines etc. and a lot of the original machinery used by the Reyes family. The second floor is accessed by a wooden staircase and it has 15 bunk beds amidst other machinery. The conditions are spartan, but clean and charming.
Mrs. Reyes is an excellent cook and a very nice lady, and she was constantly checking on me to make sure that I was eating well and drinking plenty of fluids in preparation for my climb. During my initial stay, I met four other American climbers, Dave, Sarah, James, and Richard. Dave and Sarah are from the L.A. area and James and Richard from New Mexico. It was good to share stories with them and they gave me a chance to kill some down time. The next day we departed Tlachichuca on some WWII Jeeps which have been restored by Mr. Reyes to new condition. I also met Roberto "Oso" Flores, a Mexican guide who would help me for the next couple of days.
As I suspected, climbing solo was possible and easily doable but the risks in case of an accident were too high to take a chance. After a three-hour stomach-turning ride in the Jeeps, we arrived at the hut which is located on the northern flank at an elevation of 14,000 feet. The weather was good although cold. I set up my sleeping quarter in the five-star world class hut (I actually counted the five stars through the window...). It was filthy inside, but what the heck, it had a roof.
After "checking in" I took an initial hike to start the acclimatization process. I slowly reached 14,500 feet where I spent an hour exploring the area. Dave, James, Richard and Sarah were coming to Orizaba from Izta so they didn't need an extra day for acclimatization. They decided that they would begin the climb that night. After dinner I tried to get some sleep but I didn't get any. Mice in the hut were noisy and so were other people. The next day I started hiking up along the old aqueduct and I reached 15,700 feet, where camp II is located. This camp is usually utilized by those who want to cut the summit day in half, but carrying all the gear and water up to this elevation is painful. I stashed some of my gear (crampons, ice axe, etc.) that I would need for my summit attempt the following day. I spent a good two hours at camp II and then descended to the hut. Camp II is located just below "the labyrinth," a maze of rock and ice that sits in between Camp II and the Jamapa glacier. It is called the labyrinth because finding the right passage in the middle of the night is not an easy task.
After returning to the hut, I spent a few hours with some local Mexican guides exchanging some of the funniest stories I have ever heard on any mountain. Dave, James and Sarah returned from the summit at approximately 2:00 pm. Richard had abandoned his summit bid at 16,500 feet because of poor boot selection on his part and his desire to keep all of his toes attached to his feet. After an early dinner, I again tried to get some sleep to no avail. I finally got up at midnight, had a small breakfast, plenty of coffee and tea and started climbing with Oso. We arrived at Camp II, collected our gear, donned another layer, and started the ice-climb portion within the labyrinth. As Oso had climbed Orizaba 190 times, it took us no time to get through. I have heard that some climbers have failed to summit because they could not find the right passage until daylight when it was too late in the day to safely summit and return to the hut.
We arrived at the Jamapa glacier an hour later and despite the darkness, I realized that the easy part was behind us, the real climb had yet to start. We were at 16,000 feet and every step was in slow motion, just one foot after the other trying to match steps with the breathing. It was cold, and when I say it was cold, it was REALLY cold!! The wind was probably blowing in our face at about 20-25 mph which, believe me, did not make things very easy. We roped up and put the poles away, it was time for the ice axes. The glacier starts at an easy angle of 20-25°, but a slip on the hard ice would leave a mark on you. Just to give you an idea of the hardness of the ice, my body weight alone was not enough to get the crampons to bite into the ice, I had to stomp my feet to get some grip!
Slowly, very slooooooowly we continued the climb towards the summit. We stopped a couple of times on the slope where we set up pickets to anchor ourselves for safety. The sun was rising and I was starting to get a good view of the Atlantic ocean and the Mexican valleys to the west. Halfway up the glacier the steepness increases to 35-45°, and up to 50° just below the crater rim. The steep climb definitely catches your attention even if fatigue, high altitude and cold are pushing hard to reduce your concentration. We were the first climbers on the mountain that morning, but we were closely followed by two Czechoslovakian climbers who passed us not too far from the summit and by 12 Guatemalan climbers (three rope teams of four each) who were a little further down. The Guatemalan climbers had spent the night at Camp III at 16,000 feet.
I decided with Oso to choose a direct route to the summit instead of a typical zigzag up the slope. The high altitude had probably impaired my good judgment and clouded my mind as I thought that a straight-up climb was quicker and easier (yeah, right). Well, we finally made the crater rim and as I was going to celebrate my summit success, I looked to the right and saw that the high point was nowhere near. At that point, Oso started laughing at me and said "amigo, the summit is another 45 minutes from here, keep on climbing, gringo!!" I almost pushed him down the glacier. After eight and half hours of continuous climbing, we reached the summit at the same time as the Guatemalan team who had chosen a different route on the western slope of the glacier. We spent a good couple of hours on the summit, and the Guatemalan team asked me to pose with them for their summit shot, and I proudly complied with their request. Ok, you might have heard this, it's true, we took turns doing the chicken dance and shaking our rear ends for the cameras......what a disgrace.
The weather improved dramatically and it was now warm considering the altitude. The wind had almost died completely making our stay very enjoyable. On the descent, things got a little hairy as the first portion of the glacier just below the summit is very steep and slipping would have had serious consequences. As I was a little tired, I was extremely careful with every step, and I took extra time just to make sure that I came back home safely. We arrived back at the hut at 2:30 pm where there the driver from Senor Reyes was waiting for us. After packing up, he drove us back to the compound in Tlachichuca, where I spent another night. The next morning I said goodbye to the wonderful Reyes family and drove back to Mexico City with Oso who was on his way to Mendoza, Argentina to guide a trip on Aconcagua.
In my original schedule I had added two additional days in case of
bad weather, so I returned to the Hotel Catedral and checked in again.
As I hadn't had enough of a workout the day before, I went on a 15-20
mile walk throughout the whole downtown Mexico City. Upon returning
to the Hotel, I met up with Dave, Sarah, James, and Richard who were
staying there as well. Needless to say, we had to celebrate our success
with countless Dos Equis beers and tequilas....... Oh yes, we had plenty
In a very prepared fashion, a group of us from the Las Vegas Mountaineers Club set out to do some winter backpacking on the weekend of 3/9-3/11. A pre-meeting settled the business of major gear, supply sharing, tent arrangements, and carpooling (and allowed Steve to eat his hamburger).
In the early efternoon on Friday, March 9th, we all gathered at Jim's house and were good to go by the appointed 1:00 pm departure time...everyone except Steve and those riding in Steve's truck, that is. Steve officially wins the pre-trip "Nathan Junior" (needs Huggies!) award, after getting out of work a bit late and setting our departure back to 1:19 pm. However, the disaster was averted with a peaceful drive to Beatty, a stop at Eddie World for gas and gummy peaches, and then a rip-roar through Death Valley to put us in Lone Pine just after 5:00 pm. I though it'd be funny to sit in an unoccupied handicapped parking space and have someone take my photo. The unfunny part of that is that I cut my hand with a rock getting UP from the handicapped space and it was infected by morning. It was no longer funny.
"Bob" (as he is to be called henceforth) is a friend of Steve's from the L.A. region...they apparently have this rendezvous in Lone Pine so dialed-in that they repeatedly arrange to meet there and are generally within ten minutes of one another. Frankly, it's a bit spooky. However, Bob is a genial fellow and father of two, and his sense of humor (and sled) were a blast to have along on the trip.
We grubbed at the Lone Pine Cafe (we recommend the onion rings), and then set out for the campground. Yeah...the campground. (cough...after a stop at the market for "supplies").
Once we'd procured the necessary supplies, we headed up to Independence, CA to secure our campsite for the evening to prepare for the 12+ mile drive in to Onion Valley the next morning. It was extraordinarily warm that evening, so we all slept out under the stars after consuming "supplies" bought earlier in the evening. Ted went through a vast amount of the group's supplies and had to re-supply when Nathan arrived around 9:00 pm. Fortunately, Nathan brought more "supplies."
One side note is that we were able to build the world's smallest campfire, thanks to one of Ted's firestarters that he brought along. We're submitting it to Outside Magazine in case they ever have a "Most Laughable" issue. After sleeping under a full moon that turned the valley into an ampitheater for a late-night football game, we awoke well-rested and headed up to Onion Valley.
Onion Valley is appoximately 13 miles from the turnoff from 395, and there was quite a bit of rockfall on the road that led to our vehicles' final destination...kinda like on-road off-roading. On the way in, we spotted a herd of deer roadside, and the views just got better the higher we got. As someone who's relatively new to mountaineering and winter camping, my horizons are broadened by every trip I take. The views from the road leading up to Onion Valley are simply breathtaking, and it becomes more and more difficult for me to go home each time I head out after seeing views like these.
We hit the parking area right around 9:30 am and after gearing up, we headed up, up, up! It was, by this time, already obvious that we were in for a VERY warm backpack, and all of us had shed down to base layers, shorts, and t-shirts. The snow was 7-11 special, and all you had to do was decide if you wanted cherry or cola flavored slushies in your snowshoes. Admittedly, we camped after a 45 minute hike-in on the rationale that we would have more time for skiing, boarding, snowshoeing, and snow school if we set camp now. The snow conditions just weren't going to be very accommodating if we didn't get started.
We all set up camp, and then Steve, Nathan, and Bob headed up the Valley to find some agreeable conditions for their skis and boards. Snafu, Walter, Ted, Jim, and myself grabbed a bite and then donned our snowshoes and headed out to find a good place to have our snow school.
We had discussed at our pre-meeting if there was any interest in doing an informal snow school, and there was plenty. We planned to go over glissading, self-arrest techniques, climbing with an ice axe, and anything else that might have popped up in the right conditions. After about a 20-minute snowshoe, Snafu spotted a prime location above and we made our way to the starting spot for our self-arrest training.
Snafu's a great teacher, and if nothing else---blunt. "When you glissade, you take your crampons off. For me it's automatic, like taking a crap. Crampons come off." So, Snafu set off down the hill first...setting off what we've dubbed the "Slab-O-Lanche." A 4" deep layer broke off when he started to glissade and followed him down the hill...it was humor incarnate. We then regrouped and started to practice self-arrest. I had never really glissaded before, and shoot howdy, is that good livin'! I kinda just wanted to keep skidding down the hill, axe be damned.
Steve and Bob showed up prior to our initial self-arrest practice and then headed back to camp. Unfortunately, Snafu had his own snafu when his left leg stopped mid-arrest and his body didn't. He took a breather while we all took a few more goes at it down the hill, and then determined he needed to head back to camp. He had a fair bit of difficulty on the hike back, but Snafu ain't much of a complainer, and we made the trail comfy for him by breaking ahead of him, and got him hooked up with some ibuprofen and a bag full of ice back at camp.
Snafu was back to his happy place in no time, and we had plenty of
time to melt snow for dinner. The theme for our self-arrest was "AXE
DOWN, ASS UP!"
I'll defend my Jetboil and it's sassy orange neoprene cozy for the GCS till the day I die. However, I will say that it does need some "special" attention at colder temperatures. We found that the fuel canisters did get cold quickly, which thwarted our attempts for a "jet" speed boil, and could probably be remedied by using a chemical hand warmer to warm the canister...hmmmmm. The Jetboil now has a few new names: Bob had dubbed it the stove of sport climbers. Snafu has dubbed it the "JetSimmer." I was just annoyed. I like my JetBoil. Sooooo NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
This evening, we learned much about life, stoves, love, and...OK, not love. But here are some pearls of wisdom gleaned from the evening's exchanges:
***Everyone loves salami
***It's not backcountry ANYTHING if you still have cell phone reception.
And the quote of the trip is: "Things work until they break.
Then they don't work anymore."
We settled into our tents pretty early. Nathan was testing his new bivy, so Ted ended up with the club NF behemoth all to himself. The night was beautiful, with incredibly bright stars. After the lessons on how to find the North Star, a certain someone MacGyver'ed her sleeping system so that she was not sleeping downhill in either the vertical or horizontal direction.
The following morning, Snafu's knee was still AFU, so he packed up and headed back to the parking area at 8 am. We all agreed to divy up his stuff and either carry or sled it down. Steve and I set to packing the sled, and with Bob's assistance with a trucker's hitch, got it all tied down in a nice neat package.
Apparently, Steve and Bob's tent got cold in the middle of the night so they gave the tent their sleeping bags to use...that was touching. very thoughtful.
Walter did a bang-up job carrying extra gear back down and Steve won the lottery for belaying Snafu's sled down. I headed out first at about 8:40 am, and was down by 9 am with the group not far behind me. By 9:30, Steve and Bob were still nowhere to be seen...they were descending on skis and Steve had the sled in tow. Finally, Steve comes into sight, wrestling what came to be known as "The Pig" (aka, the sled). Snafu had me grab the radio and tell him to "Cut the b*tch loose."
We all had a good laugh as Steve walked in, a bit speechless and justifiably exhausted after dealing with the sled. "Bob" dubbed his and Steve's descent as the "Hillbilly Breakfast," as with the shovels clanging around in the sled, it sounded as if Jed Clampet had decided to take up skiing in a POS truck with loose hubcaps.
Nathan took off early to get in some early boarding at Mammoth prior
to meeting Special K up at Uncle Tom's Cabin for some backcountry
action that evening and the following day. The rest of us followed
about a half an hour later, and were looking forward to some grub
in Lone Pine.
* incur a hand injury before we even reached California
We started the trip with 8, finished with 8. Always a plus.
On the journey homeward, looking out the window at the beautiful scenery, Jimmy Buffett provided the soundtrack for the end of our trip:
The days drift by
And I have found me a home
We arrived at Jim's house right about 3:45 pm. We thanked Snafu for putting together the self-rescue...er, we mean, winter backpacking trip.We bid farewell to one another, at least until our next adventure.
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