Pico de Orizaba, Mexico: Highest volcano in N. America

Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl, is the highest volcano in North America as well as the highest mountain in Mexico. At 5,636m (18,491 feet) it wasn’t the highest I’d ever climbed, but turned out to be among the toughest.

Besides the usual exertion, this time we had to acclimatise to 4,260m (Base Camp) in two days…followed by another gain of 1,500m on summit day. Once you are above 3,000m, the usual advice is not to increase the altitude at which you sleep by more than 300-500m / night. We weren’t actually sleeping higher than 4,260m, but that amount of rapid altitude gain decided to gang up with my asthma and made for a strenuous time. But despite the solid backside-kicking we got from the altitude, we had a great time.

Map credit: Free World Maps.

Tentmates reunited

What made this climb a lot of fun was that I teamed up with the phenomenal Tina, with whom I had the fortune of sharing a tent on Mt. McKinley / Denali (Alaska) in 2012. A Sierra Club veteran, Tina is an expert on all things hiking / climbing and just great company. It was brilliant to be doing another expedition together.

We met up in the wee hours of the morning at Mexico City airport and hopped onto two buses to Tlachichuca (2,627m), a village at the end of the paved road leading to Pico de Orizaba. We stayed in a friendly, family-run guesthouse and spent the afternoon sitting in the sun, eating and staring up at the hulking mountain towering 3km above us.

We also ate a huge amount of tortillas, beans, cheese, beans, pasta, and beans. It was delicious. Climbers were constantly milling about, having come back down from Pico de Orizaba or gearing up for a climb. Another huge perk: the guesthouse had wifi!

The next day we set off for Base Camp. It took about 1.5 hours of bumpy travel along what looked like crevasse-riven dirt roads to get there. Along the way we saw sheep, little villages, forest and a memorable stop at a little farm to use their (outdoor) bathroom:

Eventually we pulled up at a huge hut shrouded in mist, which we couldn’t see until we were a few metres away from it. At 4,260m, Piedra Grande was a significant jump in altitude. As Tina and I unpacked our gear and greeted the other climbers, we made sure to down huge amounts of water to help acclimatise.

Piedra Grande hut had three-floor bunk beds, was made of stone and surprisingly comfortable. The only thing is, it’s loud! Everything echoes, the metal door always bangs and because everything outside is so still you can hear every single creak, mutter or thump from other people shifting or heading out to the toilet huts. Tina and I only slept about 2-3 hours at a stretch every night. The altitude also made it hard to actually fall asleep, so by the time we embarked on the climb we were pretty sleep deprived.

We had a good time at Base Camp over the next two days. The views were stunning and we headed up for short hikes to get used to the altitude. And though you could tell it was high up, none of us got anything more than mild sinus-like headaches, not the ‘thump-thump-thump’ serious altitude hangover ones.

From our hut we could gaze up at Pico de Orizaba. The weather changed fast up high, with the sky going from clear deep blue to white clouds scudding across and enveloping the top. Here you can see an impressive plume billowing off the left slope. Two climbers were summiting on the right side at the time.

Our second night at Piedra Grande was to be summit night. The plan was to get up at 1am and head out after an hour. The climb to the summit was expected to take around 8 hours. Our rucksacks packed, Tina and I once again tossed and turned and got only a few hours’ proper sleep.

Our route would take us partway up a crumbling aquaduct before weaving through huge rock formations, then land on the snowfield which would lead us to the summit. We were taking the ruta normal via the Jamapa glacier, traced out below:

Courtesy of RMI Expeditions

Summit night

Our route in red. Courtesy of HGMexico.com

By the time Tina’s alarm tinkled softly at 12.30am in our dark hut, I had only just managed to fall back asleep. For once the hut was not creaking or echoing, and my heart sank when I realised how little rest we’d probably had and wondered what was in store. We lay there for a while in neighbouring sleeping bags, not speaking yet very aware of how reluctant the other person was to get up. Tina later said she saw a dead mouse next to her upon waking, but I didn’t spot it. We briefly mused whether she had squashed it in her sleep.

In the darkness the guides eventually stirred, then started the business of heating water and preparing breakfast. Tina and I silently sat up and started pulling on the usual, headlamps bobbing about in the dark: more layers of clothing, thick socks, boots, harness. I staggered out to the toilet hut and realised that, unusually, my stomach was in knots. I felt queasy. It might have been the early hour or the altitude, but I think it was more to do with nerves. After dry heaving, I walked back to the hut under the beautiful full moon. At least it’s not cold, I thought to myself. There was the odd gust of wind, but nothing serious.

Back in the hut, I swallowed 2 packs of hot ready-mix oatmeal and drank some coffee, hoping the caffeine would settle my system. Then, water bottles filled and packs ready, we headed out. My backpack felt heavier than its supposed 8kgs.

We started off into the night. The snowy top of Pico de Orizaba glowed beautifully above us, behind great arching slopes of dark rock interlaced with snow and ice. As we started walking, I did an internal audit and wondered if I could honestly manage the climb as I felt so weak. Within 30 minutes the altitude had hit all of us hard. I had to stop a few times to retch unproductively, while Tina and a third climber, James, looked as miserable as I felt. Evidently we weren’t getting enough oxygen and felt shattered before we’d properly begun.

“Is there any way we could go a bit slower?” I asked our guide Juan. He nodded – “There is no hurry” – as he assessed us carefully, and we started off again, painfully slowly, over the rocks.

Within minutes we all felt miles better. My nausea disappeared, and Tina and James told me later how much better they’d felt after the change of pace. The next few hours passed uneventfully. We climbed by the light of our headlamps, and while I concentrated on my footwork and keeping a steady pace, every so often I would glance up to look at the beautiful cliffs and rocks (the “Labyrinth”) around us, bathed in moonlight.

Photo courtesy of intothemountains.wordpress.com

At around 4,600m we strapped on our crampons and took out our ice axes, and eventually reached the edge of the snow field leading to the Jamapar glacier.

Tina, Juan and I took a break here (James and his guide carried on as a separate party).

“What altitude is this?” I asked Juan.

“About 5,000m” he replied.

I looked up at Pico de Orizaba rearing up directly behind us, now we had cleared the rocky terrain before it. “700 metres” I thought. “That’s more like the kind of altitude gain on a usual summit day, and we still haven’t started on it yet.” Meanwhile the sun began to rise, and lit up the valley with a beautiful warm glow.

We set off across the glacier. On our right we passed a rock formation called the Sarcophagi (left) and as we did the wind started up. That whistling and roaring wind would not let up until we’d been to the top and headed down again to the same spot. We think it might have been around 35km/h, speeding up to around 50km/h as we got higher and turning our faces into cold masks. It was probably -15 to -20C.

Photo credit: Tina

We started switchbacking back and forth across the glacier as we worked our way up. Heading on the west-facing “zig” was so much worse than the opposite “zag” of our zigzags. We decided to try marching straight up the slope for a bit, but that was tough too. So we shortened our zigzags and plodded on… and on…

I (and probably Tina on the rope behind me) had started the heavy breathing (huge inhale, quick exhale) to help ourselves get enough oxygen. But somehow, halfway into the summit push I started having problems. I felt absolutely exhausted and just couldn’t get enough air. What was worse, the intense cold air was forcing my throat to tighten and the Ventolin I’d taken earlier was losing its effect. I forced myself to hyperventilate – inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale every second.

Sunrise casts a shadow across the valley. Photo credit: Tina

It didn’t really help. I’d only ever felt this awful once before, on Mont Blanc, for similar reasons.

Another curious thing happened: my eyeballs got really, really cold. Not just “the front of my face feels cold” stuff. Literally the whole eyeball was cold all the way through. I had two chilled golf balls in my skull and I could feel the warmth of my eye sockets around them. It was bizarre! I closed my eyes a few times to warm them up. It was about as useful as wrapping two cold golf balls in cellophane. We hadn’t put goggles on as the wind hadn’t been so bad at first… and then when we did try to put them on, the wind made it almost impossible.

For the last stretch it was: walk three paces, stop, lean on the poles and pant, walk another three paces, stop, gasp. If I went any longer I felt close to passing out. At one point, with the freezing wind howling, I stopped again and turned round to Tina:

“What do you think?”

“Not much further.”

I looked up again. The summit wasn’t far objectively, but it may as well have been on Mars.

“It’s too hard.”

Pause. Then Tina called back: “Not much further. Slow and steady steps.”

So we carried on. We worked like dogs for every few metres of ground gained, and by the time we got to the top I was desperately wrung out. If it weren’t for Tina’s strength and encouragement I may well have turned back. As soon as we sat on the snow by the crater I started blubbing. It had been so very rough. It took another while before I stopped shuddering from effort. Fortunately, the crater was an oasis of calm and warmth. James, the third climber, had gotten up faster only to throw up at the top.

Made it!!! Hard earned.

A triumphant Tina

Crater (Photo credit: Tina)

Photo credit: Tina

On the way down, everything seemed so much easier. With each step, we left the “Stupid Zone” and the oxygen became denser. About 13 hours after setting off that morning, we trickled back into Base Camp.

Our descent

So, Pico de Orizaba was a hard-won peak. My feet were a mess and we were starving after not really eating since 2am. I gave serious thought to finding a new pastime. But despite everything, Tina and I agreed we’d had a fantastic expedition. We had talked about it, and accepted that struggle was part and parcel of adventure. To quote ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes:

“Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfortwith happiness.

[…] Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence.

You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”

Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

I’m not about to run an ultramarathon any time soon. But his words make a lot of sense. Mountain climbing is not meant to be easy. It’s meant to hurt like hell.

Taking revenge on Pico de Orizaba: “I CRUSH you!!”

Roll on the next volcano…