Pico Orizaba (5640m) is the highest mountain in Mexico and the 3rd highest in North America (after Denali and Logan). I arrived in the area by bicycle about a week ago and started from Puebla with an acclimatization hike on a smaller mountain, the nearby volcano Malinche (4500m). Then I drove by bus to the little village of Tlachichuca where I stayed with the Canchola family who operate a climbing service (see www.summitorizaba.com) – very nice folks. Three days ago we drove up by 4 wheel drive to the Piedra Grande hut (4260m).
With me was a Swiss guy, who also wanted to climb Orizaba. At the hut we then got accompanied by two large teams from American outfitters with both American and Mexican guides as well as two smaller groups guided by Mexicans. So the hut was moderately full, which was both good (plenty of water, food, gas, etc. – plenty of people to meet and share stories) and bad (snoring at night).
The following day the weather was very bad, with cloud cover and freezing rain almost all the time. Some snow outside, very little visibility, not a day to go up a mountain. We all waited in the hut with little to do but to share mountain stories, eat and sleep. At least the wait time would help with acclimatization, which I felt I badly needed for altitudes above 5000m.
Then yesterday very early morning the hut got busy: Some teams started at 1am, others at 2am, the Swiss guy and I we started at 4am. Luckily there were only thin clouds through which we could already see the near full moon, and after a 1/2h or so it cleared up and we could see both the summit cone and down to the valley.
We got up to the glacier after 2h and the Swiss guy took off – he was in great shape and apparently an expert mountaineer, with little weight on his back, he practically ran up the mountain! I went somewhat slower, but still caught all the other teams which had left up to 3h earlier! It was somewhat cold, maybe -10C and a bit windy on the glacier, but nowhere near the extreme cold I had experienced on Logan and Denali. Also, around 6:30 the sun rose and created beautiful colors, long shadows, warmth and great views all around.
We had to be careful both on the approach to the Jamapa glacier due to an icy layer of frozen rain covering the rocks making them very slippery and then on the glacier due to the generally quite steep route (40-45 degrees). But there was a good snow cover and with crampons and ice-axe it was safe. Above 5000m I noticed how I slowed down due to lack of oxygen, but I didn’t have any headache, so apparently I had sufficiently acclimatized. I reached the crater rim around 8:30am and enjoyed great views into the crater and around into the valley.
After another 100m I reached the summit a little before 9am, with great visibility and good conditions on the top, little wind, not cold at all.
I lingered on the summit for a full hour. Most of the other teams made the summit as well. The descent was uneventful and didn’t take much more than 2 hours. At noon I was back at the hut (8hr round-trip; 5hr ascent, 1hr summit, 2hr descent) and an hour later our driver showed up and took us back down. After the 2hr 4 wheel drive I was back in Tlachichuca, enjoying a hot shower and a restful afternoon and dinner. In the evening Pico Orizaba was visible from the center of town as if to remind me of the great experience I just had!
Now back to the bike and on to Guatemala!