Leader: Keith Sullivan, Co-Leader: Leon Tokatlian
The Pico De Orizaba Trip 2003 on January 18 to 28 was our club’s first overseas expedition. It was a small group of 4; Dee Frye and Luis Pena joined Keith and Leon on the team.
After landing in Mexico City we left the Airport with our rental van hoping to get on the highway 4 miles away in 15 minutes and head to our first destination Puebla. We thought that we had it made; with Spanish fluent Luis in the Van communications would not be a problem. How wrong we were! It doesn’t matter if you speak the language or not, you have to be Houdini to get around Mexico City’s labyrinth. It took us over 3 hours to find our way out from the Airport to the highway.
Once on the highway it was pleasure to drive towards Puebla 80 KM away, we arrived late evening to start our acclimatizing at 7090″ elevation. Unfortunately, the airline had put Dee’s gear on the wrong plane; we had to spend an extra day in Puebla.
Next morning after breakfast we drove to La Malinche National Park 10,115″ we settled in a cabin with 9 bunk beds, to continue our acclimatizing process next morning we hiked on MT La Malinche (14,640″), the trail going up La Malinche is far different than in the Whites, no rocks or stumps to worry about except elevation. We hiked several times on La Malinche, successively climbing higher each day.
On the fourth day into our trip we were ready to move on towards our destination Pico De Orizaba. We arrived to Tlachichuca 8,530″ the town from which most Orizaba climbs start. We stayed at Hotel Gerar, a clean and pleasant little place that is reasonably priced. We hired the owner, Gerardo, to drive us to Piedra Grande Hut the following morning. There are only two good options for staying in Tlachichuca and arranging transportation to the hut. Gerardo is one, the other is the Reyes bunkhouse. Much larger, and firmly established, Senor Reyes used to enjoy a near monopoly on climbing Orizaba. However, Gerardo has been so successful in recent years, he is now putting a 2nd level on Hotel Gerar. Hotel Gerar is more comfortable and Gerardo is friendly, hard working and reliable. However, Senor Reyes is himself a former mountaineer and guide – he understands the language and nuance of climbing. He’s also decidedly unhelpful to climbers who are not using his lodging and transportation. He refused to sell us white gas for stoves because we were not staying with him. (Fortunately, Gerardo located some in a neighboring town) After organizing our gear for next days trip to base camp we dined in a local restaurant, Casa Blanca, and retired in this peaceful town.
Next morning after Gerardo and a couple of his relatives loaded all the gear into, and on to, a 1970s vintage Jeep SUV, we started our journey towards Piedra Grande,(14,000″) the Base Camp of Orizaba. The distance from Tlachichuca to Base Camp is 15 miles of rugged unmaintained road with pot holes that would swallow a Mini Cooper. It took us over 3 hours to cover that distance, on the way up we stopped at the highest village in north America Called “Hidalgo” (11,000″) There we picked up “Julio” who would be our equipment guard at Piedra Grande.
At Piedra Grande there is a hut “maintained” by Mexican Mountaineering Club that sleeps about 30 comfortably, or 60 a little too cozy. It’s first come, first served basis, no reservations and it’s free.
The first thing you notice is that the only bathroom facilities is this throne sitting atop a knoll. All of the walls have been blown away and I doubt anyone has sat there in this millennium. Instead, a gulley just behind the throne is were the considerate climbers go to relieve themselves. Unfortunately, not everyone is considerate and the evidence surrounds the hut.
After few hours at the hut we could feel the altitude but not enough to be uncomfortable. After half a sleepless night, the next morning we were anxious for a climb to high camp to set our camp and return to Piedra Grande. However, as soon as we geared up and left the hut, a steady freezing rain started. We decided to wait it out at the hut. For the next 18 hours a mix of freezing rain and snow fell, preventing us from carrying most of our gear, setting up a high camp and returning to Piedra Grande as planned.
Next morning we moved to High Camp at 16,000 ft with all of our gear to spend the night there before our summit attempt early the next morning. We set camp followed by dinner. To my disappointment Keith had left a huge bag of peanuts at Hotel Gerar either by choice or to play a cruel joke on me. I had no choice but to eat Keith’s cooking (perhaps that was his objective) To get From High Camp to the beginning of Orizaba Glacier 17,000″, you have to navigate through an area known as the “ice gullies”. There is no single right way to travel here. Instead you must pick and feel your way, hoping to find as few dead ends as possible. After dinner we scouted the lower part of the route and placed a few wands.
We were up and ready to move on at 3.00 AM. For a short distance we followed the route previously set. We made steady, but slow progress through the ice gullies, frequently putting on or taking off crampons as we moved from ice to rock, and back to ice. We climbed out of the ice gullies at around day break and maneuvered easily through the terminal moraine of the glacier, arriving on the glacier at around 9 AM. It is obvious that this glacier has receded significantly in recent years. After clearing the ice gullies, there is now considerable walking left to reach the glacier. At this point we stopped and reassessed our situation. We were all still strong enough to continue climbing, however, it was clear that we did not have enough time to climb to the summit and return to Piedra Grande in time for our prearranged pick-up time with Gerardo. The afternoon clouds, a common daily occurrence on Orizaba, were also coming in a little earlier than normal. We considered climbing higher on the glacier, but knowing we did not have time for a summit attempt, we opted to descend and get back to the peanuts more quickly.
Arriving back in Tlachichuca we gorged on peanuts, cleaned up at hotel Gerard, and had dinner at Casa Blanca again. On the way back to the hotel Keith had what little hair he has left cut in a local barber shop (really more like a living room) for 40 cents, including tip! Actually, if the barber charged based on per hair cut, in may not have been such a good price. Next morning we strolled thru the center of town and a fantastic open market with merchants coming from all around to sell their goods ranging from prickly pears, pork entrails and herbal medicines, to DVDs, blue jeans and the straw cowboy hats commonly worn in the area.
We had programmed one more day to enjoy Mexico, so we decided to drive from Tlachichuca to Vera Cruz to relax in a luxury hotel by the beach where we had a blast drinking coco locos with the locals and ended up watching the super bowl broadcast in Spanish.
From Vera Cruz we returned to Puebla, explored the historic city one last night and returned to Mexico City for our flight back home.
This was a very memorable trip for all of us. We wanted to climb the mountain, but also looked at this as a learning experience for subsequent trips. We lost a day of acclimatization waiting for missing airline baggage, and weather prevented us from establishing a high camp in advance, and cost us another day of planned acclimatization. In retrospect, we should have trained harder and pushed faster on La Malinche in preparation for Orizaba. But we had a great time and enjoyed all aspects of the trip. All agreed to come back for another try.