Pico de Orizaba (5636m) is the highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North-America. We almost failed to summit due to bad weather.
Spending time in Tlachichuca
We took a bus from Puebla to Tlachichuca. This is a 2-3 hours journey, and the buses are frequent and cheap. We had already spent two nights on the La Malinche mountain, at elevations beyond 3000 meters, so we were indeed well acclimatized when we arrived Tlachichuca at the foot of Pico de Orizaba. The small town of Tlachichuca is not located particular high (2600m), but from there to Piedra Grande Hut (4260m) it's a big leap. Hence it's a good idea to acclimatize beforehand, like we did at La Malinche.
As the bus cruised slowly along the narrow streets of Tlachichuca, I suddenly saw Joaquin Canchola Limon's place. This is probably the most popular outdoor company in Tlachichuca, offering all kind of logistics for Orizaba at affordable prices. We didn't have any reservations, but the smiling lady said it was no problem. Her name was Maribel and she offered us a package price (150 USD), which included two nights in the hostel with meals and transportation to the Piedra Grande hut. Their website is www.summitorizaba.com.
The second day, we were supposed to drive to the hut, but bad weather made us change our mind. Instead we had to take a short trip to Serdan in order to withdraw money, because there are no ATM's in Tlachichuca. In the afternoon we hiked up a local hill (Ermita) and returned with minor injuries, some painful thorns from cactus.
The third day, we decided to postpone yet another day because of bad weather. The life in Tlachichuca started to become boring, but Maribel's food and company kept us happy. I also used the opportunity to get some laundry done. A few other teams were coming and going in Tlachichuca, none of them with success because of bad weather.
A bumpy 4x4 drive to the hut
The fourth day, we could finally load our backpacks into an old American jeep and head up to the Piedra Grande Hut (4260 m.a.s.l). It was still extremely windy and cold on the mountain, but it was at least sunny. We arrived the hut after almost two hours on a bumpy 4x4 road. The basic hut is non-serviced and free of charge. It had been very busy the last night because of holiday in Mexico. 30-40 climbers started to arrive back from the mountain and surprisingly, none of them had reached the summit. Most of them had turned back well below the summit because of very high winds. Two German's with a local guide had reached the rim of the crater, only a few minutes away from the highest point, but then turned around. Understandably they were quite upset about this.
I joined Tommaso for a short hike above the hut, mainly to familiarize with the trail but also to reach a few hundred meters higher than sleeping elevation. Arriving back at the hut it was very quiet there. Most climbers had gone home and it was only 4 teams left (10 people or so). We enjoyed a quiet afternoon and evening, and we went to sleep early.
A freezing cold night with numb toes
The other teams woke up shortly after midnight and started to eat and prepare. We thought this was way too early, so we continued to snooze at least another hour. We ate dry bread with ham and a few biscuits then set off at 2:00 AM. We had no guide, but the trail was easy to follow in the pitch dark night (no moon light). At the start of the labyrinth we had already caught up with the guided team from Mexico City.
We put on our crampons and started up the labyrinth, some steep gullies covered with fresh snow and ice. There was no need to have the guided team in front of us, because there was already tracks in the snow and no doubts where to go in the labyrinth. So we hurried past the Mexicans and reached the glacier a while later. Here we caught up with the solo skier from Montana (USA), presently residing in Mexico City. He didn't look happy about the skiing conditions on the glacier. Unlike him, I was actually very happy about the snow conditions. Hard snow with a rough surface. Easy walking with crampons and almost no risk of sliding. Even in the upper and steeper part (35-40°) it would almost be impossible to start a slide out of control.
The strong wind really made us suffer during the dark hours. But we kept going, only stopping briefly to maintain a sufficient level of oxygen in our blood. My tight leather boots were terrible cold, so my toes almost went numb. I frequently had to kick in the air, almost imitating Bruce Lee, in order to keep the blood circulating in my feet and toes. I had to do a similar kind of exercise with my hands to keep my fingers alive. We started to realize that we had started too early and covered too high ground before sunrise. Darkness was replaced by low light as we ascended into a cloud which enveloped the upper part of the peak. I was surprised when I arrived at the rim of the crater and could see the summit only a couple of minutes away. No doubt that we had found a perfect line on the glacier.
We arrived the summit after 5 hours, much faster than any of the trip reports I had read upfront. It was still cold after sunrise (7:00 AM), especially as the cloud kept the sun away. At least it was less windy on the summit than further down the slopes. We waited 40-50 minutes for the cloud to disappear, but it never happened. We only managed to take a few photos, because our fingers turned instantly numb without gloves. The guided group from Mexico eventually arrived and we started to descend. Further down we met the American guy with fat-skis on his back. Later he told us that this was his worst skiing experience ever.
Crampons vs plastic fork
Tommaso really struggled with his low-weight crampons bought in Kathmandu. They started to fall apart, piece after piece. This made his descent tricky, but also energy consuming. He became very exhausted, almost talking and walking like a drunk man. No doubt that his night without sleep and proper food also started to take its toll. But we had plenty of time, so no reason to be in a hurry. The sun started to make it pleasantly warm, so no problems to enjoy frequent breaks. When we were down at the bottom of the glacier, I removed my crampons and Tommaso removed whatever was left of his. The cheap crampons reminded me of a fragile plastic fork which fast food vendors provide for french fries. Those are strictly made for one-time purpose, because there will be no spikes/tines left after the first meal. The labyrinth became somewhat tricky without crampons. We had to stay on dry rocks/slabs and avoid the gullies with snow and ice. But we managed to get down safely without crampons.
We arrived back in the hut a couple of hours before the agreed pick up time. We also had to wait for the American skier to return, because he was going with the same jeep as us. A few hours later we were back in Tlachichuca. We enjoyed Maribel's food and a couple of beers before we both collapsed in our beds. Next morning we took the bus back to Puebla and connected with a night-bus to Palenque, which boasts some fine Mayan ruins in the jungle. A journey full of contrasts.
Most of all I want to thank Maribel for taking so good care of us. I highly recommend this hostel and organizer in Tlachichuca.