Pico de Orizaba

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Pico de Orizaba Trip Report (#950)

  • Signed By: Mike Mays
  • Date submitted: December 21, 2002
  • Number of People Encountered:

Out team, consisting of Jim Richburg, Montgomery, AL, Ed Rybak, Portland OR, and myself, Mike Mays, Montgomery AL all meet in Mexico City on December 12th, 2002.

Our time in Mexico and on Orizaba saw all kinds of incredible scenery, adventure, and tragedy~~but overall was a fantastic experience!

We arrived in Tlachichuca to begin our climb late in the night on Thursday, December 12th to find everyone involved in a massive rescue of 3 members of a REI Adventure Trip and their American guide who had fallen from near the top of the crater, 18,200 feet (about 5,550 meters), and slid 400 feet (122 meters) and the entire rope team slid into the rocks above the high camp! All were seriously injured with broken legs, arms, head injuries, internal injuries, etc.~~and they all had to be air evacuated from the high camp at 16,200 feet (4938 meters) by helicopter except one guy who had to be dragged down the mountain in a litter after night fall. We were awakened to hear the last injured party arriving off the mountain at 2:30am~~over 12 hours since the fall!

The next morning we learned that prior to these falls, the Saturday before, three American climbers fell to their deaths from near the crater in a similar manner, and that back on Dec. 2nd, two other climbers were seriously injured in a fall up high as well. We also learned due to the very icy conditions on the Jamapa Glacier, no one had summited since early Dec~~ nearly 15 days!! It seems the lack of snow and retreating glacier over the past two years has made ascending the glacier very dangerous and much steeper near the top and along the crater rim.

After 4 days, one in the woods camp, two at the Hut, and two carries to 15,800 feet, we made it safely to the High Camp at 15,800 feet (4816 meters), however Jim was having a difficult time with the altitude and felt he could ascend no higher. I felt great and climbed up onto the toe of the Jamapa Glacier (16,200 feet, 4938 meters) that day just to check it out! It was an awesome sight looking up 2400 feet (732 meters) at a perfectly smooth, slick, shiney "ice ramp"!! It looked like the most least technical 2400 foot ice climb I'd ever seen in the world, but the ice was too hard to hammer pickets into, yet the surface was too brittle to put ice screws into~~so it was a pretty precarious situation and easy to see why so many climbers were falling! Crampons barely scratched the surface it was so hard~~or it just flaked under foot without any firm purchase! Moreso~~Self arrest was nearly impossible because the surface was so slick and hard!

That next day, Ed started having severe headaches after he and I climbed as high as 16,400 feet (about 5000 meters) on the Jamapa Glacier to check out a route for a summit attempt the next day. Back at High Camp, Ed decided he could climb no higher in his condition and he decided he would descend the following day. Even though Jim felt he could climb no higher, he felt good enough to stay in High Camp another night which would give me an opportunity to join a Czech climber (Peter Vins) in a summit attempt the next day. I felt great and was excited that I still had a small window of opportunity to try for the summit even though it was with a climber I'd only known for two days. That night we were hit by a snow storm that dumped 24 inches of fresh snow on the mountain~~what we later found out was the most snow that had fallen on the mountain in one storm in the dry season in the past 10 years~~the "10 year storm" they called it!! The next morning Peter~(the Czech climber)~descended to our camp as I was getting ready to go up to join him and said the snow was so deep and unconsolidated on the mountain above that he felt uncomfortable climbing and that he was going down as well. He said the snow was well above his knees and was not sticking to the icy slope at all and the conditions seemed very dangerous still. His decision left me with no other choice other than to descend with Jim and Ed as well, since we did not have another day to wait at High Camp. The conditions up high and with no one to climb with left me with no other option than to retreat! I was somewhat disappointed, but at the same time, I felt it was the only smart decision to make!

The day before Peter had found the empty camp of a solo California climber at 3pm at 16,300 feet (4968 meters). We had all encountered him two days earlier in camp~~however the day after the snow storm he had not descended past us nor had he returned to camp (he had only a bivy sack and sleeping bag)~~which was surely covered by the heavy snow~~so we descended the mountain with him missing and feared the worst! We left hoping somehow he made it off the mountain without us seeing him. The Mexican guides were informed and they said they would search for him during the next few days, but it is a fair assumption that the mountain might very well have claimed its 4th life in less than two weeks!

Even though our climb of Orizaba came up short of the summit~~it was still a good attempt and a great climb~~the views from 16,000 feet were breath taking~~and the 24 inches of new snow gave the mountain a beautiful and pristine look~~we all felt good~~and glad~~to have come off the mountain safely and with an awesome experience!

I'am a firm believer that any mountain~~regardless of its altitude~~like Rainier and Hood this past spring~~just turn deadly at times~~and during those times~~climbing any mountain can be dangerous! We all felt lucky~~but extremely enriched and enlightened~~by our experience on Orizaba! It made me realize~~as had many smaller but tougher mountains in Alaska that I have climbed~~that NO mountain should ever be taken lightly.

After getting back down to the hut after a long treacherous descent in deep snow, we all agreed to return next November for another attempt!

Pico de Orizaba Trip Report Index