Pico Orizaba, Glaciar de Jamapa Route
By: Nicolas Binette | Climbers: Nicolas Binette, Andrew J. Barden |Trip Dates: Feb 25 - Mar 8, 1999
Photo: Gary Clark
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My friend Andrew J. Barden and I took off on Thursday, February 28. Most people go between October and February when, apparently, the snow is better for climbing. I found March preferable: less people, longer daylight, warmer temperatures, less chance of snow storms (!!!), ... It's also a great time to get away from the Canadian winter.
We landed in Mexico City (2 000m) around 1:00 AM. Within 5 minutes the locals found a way to rip off my friend. Even the taxi driver (who drove a VW van) said that he would have to charge extra because our bags were too big! We finally got to the supposedly cheap hotel, to find out that they did not have our reservation and only one room was available: a suite!! Yeah right, but at this hour you just want to get to bed, so we took it.
We got up and left the city first thing in the morning. The bus system was pretty good. You can have cheap rates or can pay a bit more and get a luxury car, with a hostess, coffee and biscuits, just like in a plane. Our first stop was Puebla, 2 hours east of Mexico City, right beside the well known 5 425m volcano Popocatepetl, ( in eruption since 1994), Ixta (5 280m) and our first climb: Malinche. The altitude gain was already noticeable: simply climbing a set of stairs made us dizzy and out of breath. (By the way, we had spent three months training 6 days a week!)
From Puebla we took another bus to Apizaco and a cab (reasonable this time) to the federal park IMSS Malintzin. La Malinche (4460m) is an often chosen acclimatization mountain because it doesn't require any technical equipment and is still higher than anything in the continental US. We camped in the park which was really nice. Malinche can be seen from the park and looks very impressive.
We woke up at 4:00 AM knowing we would have a long day - not just the climb but also getting to Orizaba. The climb went very well and was easy despite the altitude and the thin air. It was dry but we had very nice weather. It took us 3 hours and usually takes 5. (On top we met an American from Chicago, who hates Americans and loves Canadians!!?) On top we had our lunch as we drank in a great view: Popo was smoking and growling , Ixta which looks like a sleeping woman and on the other side, the famous Pico De Orizaba soaring above the clouds like the king of Mexico's Sierra Madre Range. We could also see the very disappointing brownish smog from Mexico City.
Back at the tent, we packed and went back again to Puebla to get a bus to Tlachichuca. A 3 hour bus tour watching the same old picture: Mexicans living in dirty old shacks made of piled cement blocks with a big and modern antenna dish on the roof! They were very nice people though, always smiling and willing to help with anything.
Tlachichuca is the closest city to Pico De Orizaba (excluding Hidalgo, which is the highest village in North America). Usually people spend a night there before going to base camp. The most popular place - and I strongly recommend it - is the Reyes Family. Their facility is an authentic soap factory and they have everything you want. They will welcome you, feed you, equip you, let you sleep, guide and drive you to base camp. They will even receive you in their own dining room!
The road to the base camp is for 4X4s only. The Reyes have an old 1944 Power Wagon which is well appreciated when driving up the road. It's a 2 hour ride and the altitude gain is significant. Carrying your back pack a few metres will make you crawl! The isolated base camp (4 200m) is a lot colder, dryer and above the tree line. There are two huts: one big where they say they can fit 60 people (I wouldn't want to be there) and the one we chose, a small one where two people are comfortable, three is doable but they claim 6 can fit in there!! There is a natural water source not far from the huts. Most people trust it but once you see the air pollution in the rest of the country, you'll want to filter or boil it! You can see many crosses that people left after one of their friend died. It reminds you that you are not on eastern Canada and the USA's little bumps. It's a real mountain.
On the second day our goal was to reach 5 000 metres, at the Jamapa glacier tongue, and come back down: an acclimatization climb. We had a good plan: bring the heavy equipment and water to the glacier so we wouldn't have to carry it for the first part of our summit bid, which was this coming night.
It was dry. Very dry. Every 5 minutes we had to stop, catch our breath and drink water. It took us two hours to reach our goal, which is fairly fast considering we are "sea-level rats". There are cleared camp sites for any party that wants to shorten the climb. We stayed a bit, studied the gleaming summit and then left, anxious to come back. The blinding sun was so strong that after three hours I had third degree burns on my hands! Luckily we covered ourselves with our Gore-Tex gear, hats and polarized glasses. Back to the hut, a little nap imposed itself as we were exhausted from the altitude effects.
By the time we got back to the hut the summit was covered by clouds. Every day it is religiously the same: by 1:00 PM the summit has some clouds around it. By 2:30 you have to be close to the tongue or you could get lost. By 3:30 it is advised to be inside the hut. This is what we had seen so far but, that day, clouds were darker and faster. At 2:00 they had already covered most of the mountain. Something was going on and there were still six people up there. At 3:00 there was hail falling hard enough to leave marks on cars, lightning just like in a disco, thunder strong enough to make waves in water bottles and wind lifting sand from the ground and dumping it into your eyes. One person, who was not too experienced with climbing, was still missing.
Around 3:30 the ground was white. About 1 inch of "lovely white stuff" (that you expect to see much later) already fell. We hoped it would stop soon. The last person finally showed up, exhausted, after taking only one day to acclimatize (duh!). All these victorious climbers left the mountain with the last truck. No new climbers came up that day, leaving us alone in the threatening storm.
It snowed all evening. Thunder was still very loud and lightning every 15 seconds. Around 1:00 AM, as usual, everything cleared out. We got out to look at the results. There was a full moon and with the snow reflection one could think it was 7:00 AM. It would have been a perfect night to climb but with almost a foot of fresh snow we preferred the comfort of our sleeping bags. There was no way we were going to climb that night. We finally got to sleep.
That day we decided to at least get to the glacier tongue to see the state of the trail and the glacier; and possibly come back down with our gear. And that's exactly what we did to avoid bad luck. Walking was strenuous and slow. We couldn't see the trail. The sun and the reflection on the fresh snow was so strong that we were dazzled. We found ourselves in pretty good shape though: we climbed in about 50 minutes. We were ready!
Back at the hut, clouds were coming back and we could recognize the same pattern as the night before. We could see that another storm was preparing. After the first one things were pretty bad enough, one more would make it too dangerous, so we took off. There was no way we could climb after another storm. Fortunately our truck came up but the driver told us the forecast for the next few days was not looking good. We decided to go back down with him. The mountain forced us to retreat just as if it was tired of seeing us. From below we could see the storm and it was worse this time: it rained and snowed all night.
We headed to our final destination Veracruz for the beaches and warm salt water. From 5 000 metres to 0 metres, -15°C to +35°C in 24 hours!
Ed. Note: This trip report (with photos) also appears on the author's web site.