el Pico de Orizaba
Kevin, Jeff, Suzanne, and I climbed Pico de Orizaba (18,410')
via the Jamapa Glacier in January 1997.
Brian, Suzanne, Jeff, Kevin
The Short Story
Starting Saturday 4 Jan 1997...
Sat) fly into Veracruz, drive to Tlachichuca climber's ranch at 8.5k'
Sun) drive up to climber's hut at Piedra Grande at 14k'
Mon) acclimatization day, climb to 15k'
Tue) summit Pico de Orizaba at 18.5k', return to Tlachichuca
Wed-Sun) play tourist in Puebla, Oaxaca, and Veracruz
High/low temperatures: 50/10 degrees F (a guess). Temperatures on the summit
were probably in the mid 20's, assuming the sun was shining. We had widely
scattered clouds around the mountain for the entire trip, with occasional,
temporary local cloud cover (with very low visibility). Some low-lying areas
in the distance had thick cloud cover, but with no apparent precipitation.
Leaving DIA at 8:30am, fly to LA, Mexico City, and finally Veracruz, arriving
at 9:30pm. We take a taxi from the airport and arrive Senior Reyes' climber's
ranch in Tlachichuca at about 12:30am. It's been a long travel day, we go
directly to bed.
We sleep late, purchase fuel, wander downtown to see the open-air market and
do lunch, and organize our backpacks. Reyes loads us up in the back of a 4WD
pickup, and, around 2pm, we leave for an obnoxiously dusty ride up to Piedra
Grande. The terrain reminds me of Colorado. Arriving at around 4pm, we claim
some space in the larger hut. The hut is very simple with three levels of
bunks and a cooking table. The hut could sleep about 24 people comfortably
(sleeping-space-wise), and perhaps 48 people (or more?) if everyone slept
shoulder to shoulder. Including our team there were roughly 14 people
sleeping in the hut -- the 3rd level bunk was empty. Perhaps another half-
dozen people were either in the other small hut or camping nearby. We opted
not to bring a tent, which would only have been necessary if we wanted to stay
a night at the 16k' camping site. We talked to folks who summitted that day
and folks who planned to summit in the next day or two. In spite of horror
stories about "hard ice" snow conditions (and related accidents) earlier in
the season, everyone said the current snow conditions were great.
A party of two leaving the hut wakes me up at around midnight. I had slept
well up to then, but now I notice that I've got a splitting headache and I
don't sleep well for the rest of the night. Suzanne also has a headache, but
Jeff & Kevin do not. Our decision to have an acclimatization day may have
been more of a necessity than a precaution. After hearing stories of people
getting off-route between Piedra Grande and the Jamapa Glacier in the pre-dawn
darkness, we decide to do our acclimatization workout by hiking partway up
this first leg of the route to the summit. There is a somewhat confusing
variety of paths heading up the gully. It starts out as annoying scree, but
after a while it turns into large boulders. We hike half-way up the gully, to
about 15k'. This is a leisurely hike that takes about an hour and a half.
Looking at the upper half of the gully, we see that there are some small snow
fields, and that snow and ice start to mix in with the boulders.
We make our plan for tomorrow's summit attempt: wake up at 1:00am, cook some
breakfast, leave at 2:00, and arrive at the start of the Glacier by around
5:00 or 6:00. Sunrise is at about 6:30 -- if we want to traverse over to the
East Glacier (Plan B), we'll need some sunlight in order to route-find our way
across the Filo de Chichimeco ridge. Even if we just do the Jamapa Glacier
route (Plan A), I don't see any reason to be on the snowfield before sunrise.
Some folks reported summitting around sunrise, but there is no apparent
advantage to summitting so early, yet there is a distinct disadvantage to
hiking & climbing in the dark of night.
- The Gully
A party of six wakes up at midnight and leaves at about 12:45. We wake up at
1:00am. Suzanne & I brew up some hot-cocoa and oatmeal, whereas Jeff & Kevin
opt for cold granola bars. At 2:15 we're off. Having scouted the route the
day before almost certainly saved us some time and trouble. Despite my pleas,
the group gets somewhat spread out, which makes hiking more difficult. At
night traveling as a group is easier because one can follow another's foot-
steps and benefit from all the other headlamps. The upper part of the gully
consists of scrambling up & over large boulders, mixed with small snow fields
and ice patches. There was no apparent main route thru this upper gully -- it
was easy to imaging wasting a fair amount of time with an unlucky choice of
route. Jeff & Kevin were getting further and further ahead of Suzanne & I.
When Suzanne stops to put crampons on (and figure out how the straps work!),
the other guys get so far ahead that we can't see or hear them and they don't
respond to our shouts. This is not good. Finally we regroup at 16k' at the
start of the Glacier. It's 6:00am and it's still pitch black on a new moon
night. Here we reach a fork in the road: Plan A is to head straight up the
Jamapa Glacier, Plan B is to head left, over the Filo de Chichimeco ridge, and
up an East Glacier coulior. Somehow we've lost the requisite enthusiasm for
the East Glacier, so we choose the Jamapa Glacier. Suzanne backs out, fearing
that the rest of the climb will be like the first part of the climb with the
group fragmenting based on speed. She is apparently less concerned about
bagging the summit than she is about degenerating group dynamics.
- The Glacier
In spite of having chosen Plan A, I'm feeling pretty good and want the option
of reconsidering Plan B, so we start heading for the ridge just to "take a
look" at the East Glacier. As we traverse left, Jeff is moving just a little
slow, so Plan B is definitively ruled out and Plan C emerges: continue on to
the ridge and do the Filo de Chichimeco route, which follows the ridge to the
caldera. At 9:00am we reach the ridge at about 17k' (this, btw, is too high
up to cross over to the East Glacier). Jeff is feeling weaker yet, and the
ridge route is not the most direct route, so we decide to make a bee-line
back to the Jamapa Glacier route. We work our way up and right, and, around
10:30am & around 17.5k', we encounter the 1st group of two descending from the
summit. Jeff is now moving very slowly and taking frequent sit-down breaks.
Kevin and I start wondering whether it is reasonable to continue at such a
slow pace. I repeatedly query Jeff, who insists that he is just fatigued,
that he is not having any lung or headache problems, and that he wants to
continue. He seems to be border-line "bonked". Clearly the altitude is
getting to him, but there doesn't seem to be any serious altitude sickness and
evacuating him down the Glacier would be relatively easy (35 degree slope with
no apparent crevasses), so we push on. Another acclimatization day probably
would have solved the problem -- the three of us had been at over 14k'
numerous times before and had always traveled well as a group. The slope was
moderate, the snow was great, and we hadn't even seen a hint of a crevasse, so
up until then roping up seemed unnecessary. As we approached the caldera,
some clouds rolled in and visibility went way down, perhaps down to 50'. At
this point I insisted we rope-up so we wouldn't get separated (esp. Jeff), and
in case a white-out caused disorientation or clumsiness. Fortunately the
clouds soon dissipated and there were no further white-outs for the rest of
- The Caldera & Summit
At 11:30am we approached the north-east rim of the caldera at about 18k'.
Another descending party informed us that the summit was 10 minutes away,
which encouraged us to continue. Kevin and I feel great, Jeff could fall over
at any moment (?). "10 minutes" my ass!
Maybe if you're going downhill. One hour, 500' vertical, and three
false summits later we reach the true summit on the west side of the caldera.
Jeff does a technocolor yawn on the way up, which makes him feel better (maybe
I shouldn't have fed him that PowerBar & gatoraide?), and as soon as we stop
ascending he perks up quite a bit. We shoot some summit photos and chat with
two other folks on the summit (an extreme snow-boarder with a friend). The
snow conditions were indeed very good all the way up the mountain. There were
a few scattered ice patches, but they were easily avoided.
- The Descent
At 1:00 we leave summit. Scattered clouds are nearby, but they do not impact
visibility on the mountain. By 2:30pm we reach the Glacier's bottom edge at
16k'. Jeff really snaps back into shape for the rest of the hike down,
whereas I start getting a little clumsy from fatigue. At 4:00 we're back at
the hut, we quickly get our gear together, and by 5:00 we're in a crowded jeep
riding down to Tlachichuca. The two hour ride is almost as much of an
adventure as climbing the mountain.
- The Party
The same night, as we feast on the local fair and down a few Negra Modelos, we
scheme about our next destinations: Puebla, Oaxaca, and Veracruz!
...as recollected by Brian, Jan 1997