Pico de Orizaba, Mexico – Facing the Summit

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Pico de Orizaba. From the steep scree slope that starts the climb to the glacier to our multi-national companions in the Piedra Grande refuge – this trip had enough twists and turns for any best selling novel.

After our day of rest at the Hacienda Santa Barbara, we packed up and drove a couple of hours through farmland and small villages into the heart of rural Mexico.  We were aiming for the Orizaba Mountain Guides hostel, located in, I believe, Tlachichuca. It’s a very small village.  One gigantic house, protected by an elaborate gate and wall, dominates the streetscape.  We understood it to be a vacation house owned by people from Mexico City. Corn was drying on the rooves of many of the village houses, which a couple of days later was being fed into a machine that stripped off the kernels.  A lot of houses had large gates leading into courtyards not visible from the road. Again, I was struck by the interior nature of life here – little looks out on the street. Everything is directed toward the private family life behind the walls.

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G, our team mate, husband J and I had a room with two sets of bunk beds, perfectly adequate, but cold. My light weight down jacket was practically glued to my body by then. We all went out and took a look at the mountain when it appeared between clouds – and it looked steep! No two ways around it.

Lunch was late – and filling. Pasta with a cheese sauce, followed by chicken breasts stuffed with ham and cheese. I decided we were just carbo loading. The afternoon was for rest and a few hours later it was time to eat again – this time steak.  My mountain reading this trip was the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels quartet, and My Brilliant Friend was a good companion in the freezing room.

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The trusty 4×4

Next morning we changed vehicles from the van to a beat up 4 wheel drive jeep that is de rigueur for the drive up to the mountain hut.  Through an old growth forest to the tree line, continuing on a rutted road to the hut at about 14,000 feet. We were well aware that the wind forecast was very high.

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Outhouses around the world
Outhouses around the world

The hut contained three levels of simple wood platforms and two counters for cooking and meal preparation for whatever teams had shown up. The outhouses were rivalled those at Mt. Elbrus in the Cacausus Mountains in Russia.  These had even fewer walls, but an equally commanding view.  We commandeered a lower level platform as soon as we arrived, and immediately afterwards were sent up on an acclimatization hike to high camp. We’d had a lot of conversation beforehand about whether to spend the night at high camp – which would have meant starting off with heavy packs and trying to sleep in tents – or whether to have a day with more altitude gain – but sleep in the hut and be better rested for summit day. In light of the wind forecast, we opted for the acclimatization hike to high camp and sleeping in the hut.

Made it to high camp
Made it to high camp

Our guide, R, decided to take everyone’s pulse ox (measures oxygen saturation) in the hut. Except for one time on Kilimanjaro at 16,000 feet, I’ve never had that done before. It’s not really clear what the measurements mean, and it can freak you out a bit. As it did me.  G, our ironman companion, was well in the 90s; J was about 89; and I registered a whopping 84. Nope; not acclimatized.

But after our acclimatization hike scrambling up the scree field to high camp for a couple of hours, I could tell I was breathing better and better the more elevation I gained. Sure enough, by the the time we descended and were eating dinner and ready for our paltry hours of sleep before summit attempt, I was back up to 90. I think even our guides were surprised. But the fact is, I think the extra days of altitude I’d had in in Ecuador really helped me Eachieve that Cotopaxi summit.

Here are the players in the hut: our team: G, whom you’ve already met through this blog – Ironman triathlete and corporate executive, J, me, and our guides D and R. Next was an Italian climber, athletic, into snow boarding,  with a Mexican guide. He read a paperback novel much of the afternoon before our summit attempt. A German woman with her American friend who walked from the hostel to the hut, arriving in late afternoon. We’d helped out by taking their wheeled suitcases from the hostel in our jeep and they were going for the summit the day after us. Possibly the first wheeled suitcases the hut had ever seen. I kept envisioning them pulling the suitcases up that rutted road. Then there was the group of Russians and their guides.  More on them later. For you mountaineers out there – suffice it to say  – Snow Leopard.

We had whatever hours of sleep could be snatched between the howls of the wind and arose at 2 am. You sleep pretty much in what you’re going to climb in so base layers were already on. For some reason, R thought we should hold off on putting on our climbing harnesses until we needed them higher up – never again will I do that. I’ve always put my harness on before starting a climb and that’s a lot easier than fighting with it in the side of a mountain.

It was unbelievably windy as we started, and the night stars glowed like sparklers. We headed up the same steep scree slope we’d just climbed that afternoon. But it felt even steeper and more exposed at night, and I also quickly realized that my resistance to putting new batteries in my headlamp (they were fine in Malinche? they are lithium?) was just dumb. It was definitely dimmer than everyone else’s  and that makes a difference on a mountain, at night.

It was clear from the start that we were at a different pace than G, and not long after we began he and D, one of our two guides, took off up the mountain.

Finally, trudging away, we passed high camp, where we’d been just a few hours before, and kept going along a slightly less steep area to the canalone (spelling unknown), fighting wind every inch of the way. We knew in advance we weren’t going to attempt the Labyrinth, a steep outcropping of rock. It was too icy, and the canalone, a smooth flow of snow, was accessible. Only at that point did I start to feel that smooth movement where you are just putting one foot in front of the other and your breathing falls into rhythm.

By then we’d roped up and were in crampons – and I had been way too over confident in my ability to don crampons without practice, relying only on my success in July with them. Some things you just need to do over and over.  At some point the Italian climber and his guide headed down. Apparently he’d had altitude issues and didn’t make it to the top of the canalone. The smooth slope up of the canalone quickly changed and we were back to rock and ice and deep steep snow up toward the glacier.

Sunrise over Orizaba
Sunrise over Orizaba

By then the winds were increasing even beyond what they had been, and it was pretty clear a summit attempt was not a realistic possibility. We were just too slow. I wasn’t properly acclimatized, and while small steps were manageable and I could get a rhythm, each time big step up required a real effort that then wiped me out for the next few steps.  The wind was blowing; the sun glinting.

But you know, I probably would have kept plowing away forever, at whatever snail’s pace I was going. And I think R, our guide, realized that, because when we finally reached the glacier at about 16,000 feet he simply announced that was all for the day. I think he thought otherwise I would just keep putting one foot in front of the other, however many hours it was going to take.  The glacier was beautiful. A steep field of snow, the summit peering down. Way up on that steep white meadow we could see the others on the mountain who’d passed us. There was G and D, from our team, and two groups of the Russians. All in all, we had reached the glacier, the Italian team had returned, and there were six climbers left on the mountain.

Next up – how we battled winds on the way down, hitching a ride to the village, and who got to the top of the mountain.

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3 thoughts on “Pico de Orizaba, Mexico – Facing the Summit

  1. Stephen Brown January 26, 2016 / 10:36 am

    Very entertaining story! You are a very good writer.

    I’m surprised they roped you up if there was not a few inches of fresh snow on the Jamapa Glacier. Most climbing deaths on Orizaba have resulted from a single rope team member slip and pulling everybody else down.

    Like

    • mhoustonfl January 26, 2016 / 11:26 am

      Thank you Steve! I’m looking forward to writing about the way down.

      Like

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