Pico de Orizaba

Two am. “Time to get up” the voice says quietly, in the dark, so as not to wake the other dozen or so climbers in the hut. Because I wake up, I realize I must have drifted off for a little while even though it doesn’t feel like I’ve slept at all. Other than that, though, I’m feeling good. Each of us slips out of our sleeping bag, and begins to tend to the morning climbing routine: packing up our sleeping bags, adding layers of clothing, eating whatever we can get down at that hour, and checking our gear for any needed items. We drink down hot tea or coffee from hot water the guides have prepared, and soon we are ready. We assemble outside the hut by 3:20, exactly when we had started up Itza two days ago. It’s dark and cold, and we are eager to get hiking.  

This climb begins near 14,000 feet, about a thousand feet higher than the Itza hut. We move steadily, straight uphill. Our guide, Ricardo, converses in Spanish with an added helper, Fernando. Our assistant guide, Ulyana, brings up the rear. I am grateful to have another woman along on the team, which is still fairly rare on high altitude climbs.

After an hour of uphill hiking, we take a break. I force myself to drink 300 ml of diluted Gatorade, having learned my lesson by getting dehydrated on Izta. Ricardo tells everyone to try to eat something. I nibble a bit of a breakfast bar. We hike on, past a couple of campsites. After the second hour, we reach the highest campsite and stop to put on harnesses and crampons, eat, drink, and take care of any bathroom needs. I’m pleased there are a number of large rocks that facilitate that purpose.

We enter the Labyrinth. There are many options through this, some of which require a technical climb. There is also an easy class 2 route, which we can take thanks to the skills of the guides. The snow thinly covers rocks in places, and ice shatters and skitters off periodically. This is all still in the dark with headlamps, so the route finding is not straightforward. Our guides do a great job, and the time passes quickly as we ascend. Just as we reach the top of the Labyrinth, the sun hits the Sarcophagus, an orange-ish pillar off to our right. I snap a picture, amused that Bob’s jacket is the same color!

The moment of sunrise is magical, the painfully early wake up and cold, dark uphill trudge quickly forgotten in the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounds us. We snap photo after photo, drinking in the majestic views of the enormous glacier and the valley far below. Finally, the guides remind us of the long climb ahead, and we continue up. There are a collection of icy penitentes to walk across, and then we are on the Jumpala glacier itself. At what I consider to be a fairly mild angle, we rope up into three teams: Ricardo, John, and Bob; Carlo and Fernando; and Uly and myself. The snow is hard, with occasional streaks of blue glacier ice. It’s not a great omen for the conditions above, and we will not be off rope until we return to this spot.

We ascend higher in the early morning, our shadows impossibly long across the white expanse. As we approach 17,500ft, the glacier steepens and we regroup with the whole team. Fernando has a guiding trip scheduled for the next day, and Carlo has reached his maximum, so they decide to descend. Fernando passes his pro to Ricardo, and they start down. We have two, 30m ropes, several ice screws, and a couple of pickets for a group of five climbers on steep, very hard snow. When I put the spike of my ice axe in to use the self-belay technique, it sinks only about an inch. I can get the pick in further by swinging it like an ice tool, but this does not inspire confidence for a self-arrest if anyone slips. We will need to do some sort of protected belay.

At first, Ricardo tries a technique of making two loops from each rope and belaying the remaining 4 of us up the mountain. This is extremely slow going, especially since putting in the pickets involves hammering repeatedly with the hammer end of his ice tool. After a few rounds of this, we decide that we are all comfortable with a running belay, so we rearrange the ropes for that.

This is much faster, but still much slower than we need to be traveling in order to make the summit and return in daylight. In addition, spending a long time at that high an altitude can significantly increase the risks of HAPE or HACE, which would be extremely dangerous with a steep, icy slope. At 17,800ft, it’s after 12:30pm and Ricardo reluctantly tells us we need to turn around.

I am inwardly very disappointed. It’s a bluebird day and the summit does not appear that far. Most of the time when I’ve turned around on climbs, it’s been due to weather or some member of the team having an issue, and it’s been much more obvious that it was the correct decision. Ricardo advises us to face outward as we descend, but I feel more comfortable facing the mountain and using my pick rather than the spike of my axe. It’s awkward to descend, and there are tense moments as the middle tie-ins are pulled from above and below, and some of the protection is difficult to remove from partially freezing into the snow. Mist begins to blow in, and suddenly there is a sense of urgency in case the weather system moves in earlier than previously predicted.

I have had a need to urinate for a long time, but fumble the pee funnel which goes careening down the glacier. This is my lowest point emotionally, as we are not anywhere close to the bottom nor am I in a position to remove my harness. I’m frustrated, tired, and disappointed, and irritated at myself and also the other climbers. Finally at a low enough angle to be off rope, I hustle after the funnel, and actually find it among the rocks at the bottom of the glacier. At this point, I don’t care much about modesty so I make only the faintest of attempts at getting behind a rock, and relieve myself. When the others catch up, we spend some time eating and drinking, the mist clears a little, and everyone’s mood improves. We take our time through the Labyrinth, enjoying seeing it in daylight for the first time. Uly and Ricardo tell of previous trips and how the changing climate is affecting their guiding.

The hard mud and snow we had on the way up is gone below the Labyrinth, replaced with soft mud and intermittent scree. This presents its own problems now that we are physically and mentally tired. Several of us slip, including me, and I sprain my pinky finger when a rock goes out from under my boot. Uly is excited to use her first aid kit, since it will not be excess weight carried in vain. We are both glad it’s not terribly serious, and I am especially glad it’s the last bit of the last climb.

We arrive at the hut, where other guides have roasted chilies, so we spend little time in the hut gathering our stuff. The Conchellas, who have a service to shuttle people to the hut, already have 4WD vehicles ready to shuttle us to town. We bump down the rough road at dusk, happy to be on our way to a fantastic hot meal and shower, glad we got down safely, and a little bit bummed that we weren’t going to be able to boast of attaining the highest point in Mexico. Such goes mountaineering, where the summit is never guaranteed. It was a good lesson, in the end.

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