Ascent of Pico de Orizaba on 2015-11-06

Climber: Sean C

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Friday, November 6, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Pico de Orizaba
    Elevation:18491 ft / 5636 m

Ascent Trip Report

Got bus from Puebla to Tlachichuca ($MXN75, 2hours), walked around town to the different operators to see who would give me the best price for transport to/from the Piedra Grande hut, as well a night’s accommodation either side. Servimont (Señor Reyes) worked out the cheapest since he already had other people going the day I wanted to go, so after spending a night in his cool hostel converted from an old soap factory I was in the back of a 4x4 with two Americans & two Mexican cousins on the bumpy road to the Piedra Grande.

We arrived around 2pm, & while the others grabbed some space for their camping mattresses in the hut I started off hiking. The plan was to hike until I was tired, or the weather changed, & camp as high up as possible. I passed a couple of nice camping spots, but they were too low down (around 4,500m & 4,650m). Since the weather was still okay (cloudy, bit no humidity, so no threat of rain) & I was feeling good I decided to shoot for the 4,900m campsite at the edge of the glacier. Unfortunately, I got lost in the “Labyrinth”, a maze of rocks & snow below the glacier - I got to 4,850m then hit a dead end surrounded by cliffs & had to descend all the way to 4,700m before hiking back up a different route & eventually finding a small flat area for my tent in the middle of the Labyrinth at 4,750m. It was almost dark now, & I was pretty tired from all the walking around in circles with my heavy backpack, so I quickly set up my tent & lay down.

I was feeling the effects of altitude sickness, I had previously spent 3days in Mexico City (2000m), one in Puebla (2,100m) & a day/night in Tlachichuca (2,600m), but this had not adequately prepared me for Orizaba. I had a headache & complete loss of appetite, I fell asleep without eating anything & my sleep was interrupted several times throughout the night due to a combination of the altitude sickness & waking up because of the uncomfortable, rocky, sloped campsite. Not the best preparation for the big day ahead.

I had an alarm set for 4am, the others had said that they planned to leave the Piedra Grande at around 2am, & I figured I was nearly two hours up the trail. I heard the first group walk past my tent at 3:30am, but I was still tired so just rolled over & waited for the alarm. My headache had eased a bit, but my stomach still didn’t feel good & it was very cold outside, so I didn’t bother making any breakfast - I would get by on chocolate bars, cookies, fruit & RedBull I figured.

After some scrambling up icy rocks & gullies I found my way out of the labyrinth (not any easier in the dark) to the start of the glacier. Here the two Americans from my 4x4 caught up with me. They offered to wait while I put on my crampons (they had used theirs in the Labyrinth), but I told them to go ahead, not wanting to hold them up - I knew I was going to be pretty slow given how I was feeling.

The glacier was a long, long, hard slog up varying types of snow - some hard & icy, some softer drifts. It seemed to go on forever, just when you thought you were coming to a crest the slope would continue on up. About ? of the way up, right in the line I was taking, I spotted the tip of the handle of an ice axe half buried under the snow - it had obviously been there for awhile. I dug it up with my own ice axe & stuck it in my pack - free ice axe :)

About half way up the glacier I was really starting to struggle, unable to take more than 40-50steps before having to rest, gasping for air. I decided to try some fruit, but could only get through half a mandarin orange before feeling nauseous. My heart rate was also extremely high, so I decided against the RedBull. The headache was gone at least, I was just feeling really weak from the lack of food. I drank as much water as I could (not much), & continued on up slowly. The sun was now rising & Orizaba was casting a spectacular shadow.

I was determined to make the summit, but for awhile it looked like I might have to turn back, I was now only managing 20steps between stops. The first team passed me on their descent & encouraged me to keep going, telling me it wasn’t much further. Then the two Americans guys came into view, one of them was headed down & the other standing on the crater rim, just 100m above me. I made one last push & got to the rim & then the summit, which was just about 50m away from where I reached the rim. Since the others had all now headed down, I was alone on top of the highest mountain in Mexico!

The view was great, especially into the huge crater & to Popo & Izta in the distance. It was pretty windy & cold on the rim, but my camera was still working, as were my fingers (just about), so I quickly snapped a few pics before beginning the long trek down. By the time I reached my tent (after briefly getting lost in the Labyrinth again), I was ready to collapse. I had eaten the rest of the mandarin & a small apple after getting off the glacier, but didn’t feel able to eat anything else, I just tried to drink more water. I jumped into the tent onto the mattress & fell asleep almost instantly. I woke up maybe half an hour later & realised that I needed to pack up my gear & head down or I would miss my ride back to Tlachichuca. I briefly contemplated just staying in the tent another night, but eventually everything was packed & I was looking for the best way out of the Labyrinth. I got lost (for a third time), stuck on the wrong side of a steep ridge, until I found a section that I could climb down (not easy given my state of exhaustion & near-20kg backpack).

Eventually I made it back to the Piedra Grande, where the two American guys were waiting with the 4x4 driver. They had flown straight in from the US (one from Denver, the other from Montana), without any acclimatisation - they arrived in Tlachichuca the same day we took the 4x4 - but had raced up Orizaba after just 12hours in the Refugio at 4,250m. One of the Mexican cousins was not doing so well, however. They had planned to stay one or two nights in the hut before trying for the summit, but one guy had been feeling really unwell from the altitude so he decide to come back with us in the 4x4. Moral of the story: altitude affects different people to very different degrees!

Overall, I can’t really say that I enjoyed the hike up Orizaba, the first part of the hike was on a rocky trail with only intermittent views back towards the hut & the mountains beyond between the clouds (& no view at all on the descent, thick cloud). The labyrinth was an extremely frustrating place, I tried to follow other people’s GPS files, but the ice & snow is different at different times of the year, making route finding difficult. There were some small flags & stone markers, but these were sometimes infrequent or missing, so I found myself lost most of the time there. The glacier offered spectacular views, but in my weakened condition I found it was just way too long. The summit was the obvious highlight, I summited at 9am, well after sunrise (I started at 4:15am), but there was good visibility in all directions & the view into the crater rim was pretty special.

I’m glad that I’ve got a 5,600m+ mountain under my belt now, smashing my previous high of 4,220m (Volcán Tajumulco), & it was interesting to see how I was affected by the altitude - I have never experienced problems with altitude before. Were I to go back to hike Orizaba again I would definitely add another acclimatisation day above 4,000m - possibly at the hut, possibly another nearby mountain (Malinche, Sierra Negra).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4580 ft / 1395 m
    Round-Trip Distance:8.7 mi / 14 km
    Route:Jamapa Glacier
    Trailhead:Piedra Grande Refugio  13911 ft / 4240 m
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cold, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Time:7 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Time:4 Hours 15 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Sean C
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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