Pico de Orizaba

Pico de Orizaba Trip Report (#1136)

  • Signed By: Les Owen
  • Date submitted: March 23, 2001

Flew in to Mexico City from NYC on Dec. 9th, 2000. Caught a taxi to the TAPO (main bus terminal), a bus to Puebla, and another bus to Tlachichuca. Arrived at the Reyes' at 8:30 p.m. The next day we got a ride up to the forest above Hidalgo (@12,000 ft.), where we spent the night acclimatizing.

Next day we hiked up to the Piedre Grande huts, but not without incident. On the way up, we learned from a group of descending climbers of the deaths of two climbers the previous night. One of the guys we talked to reported having seen the two climbers, roped together, fall. He related that one, the bigger of the two, had tripped and was furiously hacking away at the slope, attempting to self-arrest, but to no avail. When he put his crampons down, they caught and he began to tumble uncontrollably down the east face of the mountain, dragging his much smaller companion with him. The two slid the entire length of the glacier and slammed into the rocks below. The climbers with whom we spoke said that they made their way down the glacier and rendered assistance to the two fallen climbers. One was dead on arrival, the other was alive but badly injured. They put him into a sleeping bag and tried to comfort him, while they waited for rescue personnel to arrive. The rescue service arrived, and the injured climber was attended to, but a rescue at night at this altitude was impossible. Although the climber had a broken spine, severe facial injuries and other broken bones, the rescuers were optimistic that he would survive. However, that optimism proved misplaced, as he died sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. that morning. Word quickly spread that the two dead climbers had been experienced mountaineers, and had logged many ascents of Orizaba. It seems that, after successfully summitting, the pair had engaged another group (their friends) in a race around the crater rim. The pair were reportedly running, roped together, around the rim, when the bigger climber lost his footing. That the two had apparently died because of their own foolhardy conduct did not dampen the solemnity and dread that settled over our group, and indeed the whole mountain.

When we arrived at the huts, rescue personnel were everywhere, and we spoke with several of them, who confirmed what we had already learned. The rescue people had apparently gone up and secured the bodies to gurneys for helicopter evacuation the following day.

The next day, we could see and hear the helicopter flying in and around the mountain ridges throughout most of the day. Later that day, while practicing team rope and ax skills, the tragedy of the previous day was made real to us in a most emphatic way. We stopped in our tracks and stared skyward in unison, as the helicopter came over a ridge to the east with a body suspended below. It flew directly over our heads, en route to Puebla and presumably the morgue. A half hour later this morbid scene was repeated, as the second body was airlifted off the mountain and whisked away toward its final resting place. But for the chopping sound of the rotor blades, silence reigned as we watched each of these recovery flights until the chopper disappeared out of sight to the west.

At 1:00 a.m. the next morning, we began the long trek up the scree slope that leads to "la Lengua," or the tongue of the Jamapa glacier. The conditions were absolutely perfect. The nearly full moon cast its incandescent glow on the surrounding landscape, so bright that headlamps were essentially optional. The constellations and other heavenly bodies were gloriously and prominently on display on the vast canvas of the Mexican night sky. Halfway up the scree path, we stopped and gazed in awe to the east, as an electrical storm raged above the Gulf of Mexico.

We reached the base of the tongue, where the ice and snow began to overtake the dirt and rock, somewhere around 15,900 feet. The direct route up the tongue was very icy and slowgoing. Several positions on the route presented the likelihood of an unarrestable fall, and words of caution were exchanged down the line. Toward the top where the ice was plentiful and the runout positively horrifying, running protection was used.

At about 16,500 feet, AMS symptoms took hold, and I was froced to cut out and head down. The deaths of the two climbers probably had as much to do with my decision to turn around as the AMS symptoms I was feeling.

A hot shower, hot meal, and a solid night's sleep at the Reyes' helped to salve the disappointment of not summitting. Ready to swear off the mountain and head to Veracruz for beer and the beach, I have no idea how I was talked into going back up to the mountain to make another attempt. What I do know is that my guide, Scott Perkins of Atlanta Alpine Guide Service, reasoned that by virtue of having been high on the mountain the previous day, and having slept low last night, that a stay at a high camp on this night would maximize our chances of summitting. The weather was forecast to be the same as the previous day, and so the conditions were ripe all around for another attempt.

We returned to the huts, hiked up, and made high camp at 15,600 feet. Next day, we set out at 5:30 a.m. Instead of taking the more arduous direct route, we took the more moderate alternate route to the left of the tongue (a small route cuts up through the rock band on the left, and provides good snow and some rock all the way to the glacier).

We did a variation on the standard route, traversing right to the Ruta Espinosa, then left until we hooked up with the standard route just below the crater. We summitted 5 1/2 hours after leaving camp. The snow was great, the weather perfect, and the the views tremendous. Popo was blowing a plume of ash one mile into the sky (and forcing evacuations around the mountain), and we were there to witness this piece of history.

I tied off a string of Buddhist prayer flags I had bought in a Tibetan arts and crafts store back in Philadelphia, to the metal cross structure that adorns the summit of Orizaba. I offered up my thoughts to the wind, and gave thanks to my God. Many pictures were taken, and after a half hour or so, we headed down. The descent was uneventful, as the snow was nearly perfect for cramponing.

This was a particularly meaningful trip for me, given the events of the previous days.

Scott Perkins of Atlanta Alpine Guide Service is a first-class individual with an infectious sense of humor and a gift for story-telling. His expertise and competence are superior. He is one tough hombre. Once on the mountain, Scott is all business, and it is obvious that he takes the responsibility of guiding in the mountains very seriously. He has earned my highest recommendation.

>>> The above was excerpted from my (much lengthier) Trip Report. For the full text, e-mail me. I will be glad to share it or any other information with whomever wants it.

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