| Pico de Orizaba Climb for Alzheimer's Association - Colorado Chaper
Day 1 – Fly from Denver to Los Angeles then to Mexico City and take a private ride to Tlachichuca (about 17 hours travel time)
Day 2 – Take 4x4 vehicle up to Piedra Grande Hut at 13,966 feet set up camp and a short hike to 14,816 to break our old attitude record.
Day 3 – Acclimation hike to 16,000ft at the base of the Labyrinth
Day 4 – Summit!!!! Come down, break up camp and head down 4x4 road to Tlachichuca for the night
Day 5 - Travel back to Mexico City stayed in hotel that night
Day 6 – Flew home from Mexico City early Tuesday morning.
As some of you know I really enjoy climbing but even more so when it is for a good cause. I decided to climb Orizaba to support Alzheimer’s research. Allen Arnette is a big inspiration to me as well. I would love to be able to say that I was able to contribute a small fracation of what he has done for Alzheimer's. Allen if you are reading this you are a big inspiration to me. I lost both my grandparents on my mother’s side to this disease so this climb became especially important to me. The purple shirts I wear throughout the trip represent my support for the Colorado Alzheimer's Association and in remembrance of my late and loving grandparents.
Annie and I started talking seriously about this climb after we climbed Mt. Rainier in August. We thought this would be a great way to see how our bodies handled higher altitudes above 14,433ft. We trained for this climb for months spending countless hours in the gym and climbing 14ers here in Colorado whenever possible. We wanted to make sure that fitness would not be a problem on this climb.
After a long day of travel stopping in Los Angeles first for whatever reason we arrived in Mexico City around 4pm on March 1st. Mexico City was interesting to say the least. As we flew in I couldn’t believe two things: One how gigantic the city was; and two how polluted it was. We had just flown into and out of Los Angeles and it made LA’s population and pollution seem like nothing.
We had heard about recent complications and the dangers of traveling in Mexico so we decided to hire a private driver which I think was probably one of the best decisions we could have made. Everyone had told us to take the bus because it is cheap and easy but we met a couple who arrived in Talchichuca about 30 minutes after us and had arrived at the airport more than 2 hours before us. They spent $120 for the two of them to get there on buses and were not comfortable at many of the locations they had to stop to let other people off. They had to constantly watch their luggage each time they stopped to make sure no one took it. We found a private driver mentioned on summitpost. His name is Antonio Juarez and he can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com. I HIGHLY recommend contacting him if you need a ride in Mexico. He is willing to go pretty much anywhere you need, and at whatever time you need. He knows a small amount of English, and is just a really nice/trustworthy guy. We spent $140 each way for the two of us which was $20 more than the couple who took the bus. To have the peace of mind to travel safely in the back of the car with an extremely friendly driver who knows his way around Mexico as well as the people we were staying with while saving almost three hours of travel time was worth every penny.
We arrived at the Canchola family's hotel which is operated by summitorizaba.com around 8:30pm. These people could not have been friendlier. The owners Joaquin (Father) and Maribel (His Daughter) were absolutely incredible. Maribel speaks fluent English so we did most of our communication through her. She will help you with everything you need and do everything they can to make you feel at home. The meals they provide are simple but very tasty and they will feed you as much as you want with no extra charge. Every meal is homemade and consists of black beans, excellent salsa, corn tortillas, bread, and some kind of meat. They also have luke warm beer for you to have with dinner. Breakfasts are usually an assortment of breads, bananas with honey, scrambled eggs with some sort of meat, hot water for tea/coffee, and of course black beans, corn tortillas and salsa.
The second day we woke up had breakfast at The Canchola's and were excited to get up to the Piedra Grande Hut. Maribel was going to give us fuel for our jet boil but instead sent us up with an even better larger gas stove at no additional cost for us to use on the mountain which was great. She still gave us a large canister of fuel for our jetboil just in case we decided we wanted to do a high camp. Also, she gave us two 19 liter jugs of water so 38 liters total. She was originally going to give us just one but I asked for another one just in case which was a very smart idea because during the 3 days on the mountain we burned through every last drop of the 38 liters. We went to the market right around the corner to grab a few small items. Make sure you bring some money in Pesos because they will not take American dollars anywhere in Talchichuca except at the Citlaltepetl hotel. I would recommend bringing the equivalent to about $50 American or about 550 Pesos. We had to have Maribel walk with us to the bank to exchange money which took forever. The banker stared meticulously at my I.D. for over 20 minutes before finally and reluctantly exchanging mine and Annie's $20 bills. Apparently this is how it goes at banks there. They really don't want to change your money for you. They looked for any cracks in your I.D., so they can say that because your I.D. is flawed you get a lower exchange rate.
Orizaba towering above Talchichuca in the morning
The ride up is a very bumpy two hours. It is similar to many roads to Colorado 14ers but the difference is that the vehicles which we took up which were awesome in deep mud and crawling over rocks had almost no shocks so we felt every little bump the entire way up and down.
On the way up in the jeep taken while moving as the mountain gets closer . . . .and Bigger
We arrived at camp around 1pm. After setting up camp we decided to go for a little walk to try and get above 14,433 to break our old altitude record. Annie thought about going to 14,450 but of course me being the guy said how about 14,500 to be higher than any peak in the lower 48 states. We checked the GPS around 14,300 and realized we needed to go a little higher. The next time we checked it said 14,671 with which we let out a big Whoot Whoot!!! It is amazing how addicting breaking your altitude record is because at this point we decided lets go a little further just to figure out the trail a little more but really we wanted to go higher. The next time we checked we were at 14,816. Since this was our first day up there we decide not to push it and go any higher. Annie and I did some jumping jacks and pushups to “speed up our acclimation” and then decided to head down for the day. I am hoping no one saw us doing this because I am sure this would have been hilarious to see. The weather was great at this time and I was in non hiking pants, summer hiking boots, and a t-shirt.
Me breaking my old Altitude record
Annie breaking her old Altitude record
We brought a tent in case the hut was too crowded. This turned out to be an excellent idea. People were coming and going non stop at all hours of the night in the hut. Having a large tent for the two of us made everything easier. We had no one waking us up and our own private space. Also we had heard about thefts in the hut because during the late morning/early afternoon hours there are a lot of local tourists who come up to the huts to look and walk around and have been known to make things disappear. We had little TSA locks which we ended up locking our tent with. We did this by using a cable and we MacGyver tied our heavy suitcase to the tent door zipper so the zipper on the tent door wouldn’t move and if someone was going to open it they would have to cut into the tent which would be pretty obvious to other people around what they were doing. Locking the tent made us feel much more comfortable when we were gone up the mountain while everything else was around the tent.
Our campsite elevation according to our GPS was 13,966ft which was in between the two huts but closer to the smaller one a little further up the mountain. We had never slept this high so the first night was interesting. I could feel and hear my heart beating heavy most of the afternoon and part of the night. Every time we moved to shuffle our gear we would end up having to pause to catch our breath. Temps at night did get a little chilly. If I had to guess I would say in the mid 20’s but we were plenty warm in our 0 degree sleeping bags. We took some Melatonin which I have read is one of the few safe sleep aids at high altitude and it really helped us fall asleep the first night.
Sunset view from our tent the first night on the mountain looking toward the main hut.
We were excited to wake up and break another altitude record. We woke up around 5:30am and hit the trail sometime between 6:30 and 6:45.
Sunrise from our campsite at 13,966ft on day two as we leave to hike up to 16,000ft
From here it took us only about 2 hours and 45 minutes to get to the base of the Labyrinth just below 16,000ft. There are a couple trails which lead up the mountain and they all converge right below the base of the Labyrinth at 16,000. There are also little pink flags which are easy to follow during the day but harder to find during the night. We began to feel the altitude a little more around 15,300ft. We slowed our pace down and watched our breathing and then had no problems the rest of the day. Snow was intermittent at this point and crampons were not needed until the Labyrinth so we never put them on this day.
Me by the main trail at the bottom of the Labyrinth. This is the correct gulley you want to go up but it is steeper than it looks
After doing some more jumping jacks and stashing two one liter water bottles at 16,000ft we decided to head down for the day and rest up and eat as much as possible for the summit push the next day. There are camping spots around 15,750 just below the Labyrinth for anyone who is interested in a high camp. There is also running water but it looked a little dirty and only runs during the afternoon because it freezes solid at night.
View of the Labyrinth from the pink trail marker about 16,000ft if you look closely you can see a climber heading up the correct gully
We took our time and got back down around noonish and decided it was time to start pounding the water and calories.
I was a little thirsty when we got down. Finishing off our first 19 liter jug after less than 24 hours on the mountain
I had three packets of ramen for lunch and added a ton of salami and summer sausage for additional calories totaling somewhere over 1500 to 1700 calories.
We had lots of food for only 3 days. . . . way too much actually.
There are two stray dogs that wander back and forth between the two huts and know right when you are cooking. I love dogs (Obviously) but would not recommend feeding them or they will not leave your tent. DO NOT pet them!!!! I tried to use one of the outhouses in the middle of the night and there was one of the dogs lying in the corner of the outhouse around and on top of all the dirty toilet paper and number two misfires that landed all over the floor of the outhouse. You are much better off going to the bathroom behind a rock but even there you need to watch your step. Even this is pretty gross because you can see that all nearby large rocks have been used as the toilet. Be careful if you’re wearing sandals which we did during the days because it got pretty warm.
Annie and I talked to a group of 3 that summited that day. They told us to stay left when you got to the base of the Labyrinth to avoid going straight up the steep part (more on this later). We rested in the tent and read books and lounged around the rest of the day. We cooked a large dinner that night around 5:30 with the other couple from Colorado we met who had arrived earlier that day. Rex and Wendy if you are reading this I hope you guys did well on Orizaba and it was great meeting you on the mountain.
We again took some Melatonin and fell asleep really early. Annie was out by 7pm and I was out shortly after that. We had set our alarm for 12:30am to hopefully get started by 1:30am. I woke up around 11pm and couldn’t fall back asleep. It was one of the many times where I thought too much about the big day ahead and was too excited and nervous to go back to sleep.
Day 4 – Summit Day!!!
The alarm went off at 12:30am. I quickly ate two NutraGrain bars, half a jar of peanut butter and slammed two liters of water. We ended up hitting the trail about 1:45am after saying a quick prayer. I brought 2 liters of water, one liter of Gatorade, plus 24 ounces of hot lemon tea. This does not count the liter of water I stashed at the base of the Labyrinth. If I would have had a chance to do it over again I would have tried to brought an additional liter to what is listed above on summit day because I still ran out on the way down.
I really liked the idea of the acclimation climb we did the day before to 16,000 because I know how important that can be. But I also had somewhat mixed feelings about it. I know it was needed but when I woke up on summit day both of our legs were not at 100% it was more like 75%.
Since we had scouted the route to the Labyrinth the day before in the daylight we were pretty confident we could find it in the dark. We got off trail a few times but figured out quickly when we did and got back on trail. We made it to the Labyrinth about 4am. I wanted to go straight up so we didn’t get lost but Annie brought up what the group told us the day before to stay left and go up the terrain that was a little easier. The problem was we didn’t know how far left to go. We soon found ourselves on 45 to 65 (yes 65) degree snow and ice slopes in the dark.
Annie following me up the wrong part of the Labyrinth on at least a 45 degree plus angel.
We are not ice climbers so this was a unexpected and nerveracking experience for us especially being above 16,000ft in the dark. This for us was the worst part of the trip. We got lost and probably wasted about 1.5 hours in the Labyrinth trying to figure out where we were going. At one point, the ice was so solid that Annie’s ice axe was just bouncing off the ice when she tried to hammer it in to climb up.
Me not in the best mood knowing we are heading up the wrong section of the Labyrinth
We had a general idea where to go because we could see the mountain hiding the stars where we knew the glacier would be. I am not sure what time it was but we got to the base of the glacier just as the sun started to come over the horizon.
Annie at the base of the glacier as the sun starts to come up
The sunrise was incredible and gave us additional motivation that we needed to keep moving. It is always a good moral boost when the sun comes up. I think we were around 16,500 at this time and we were starting to feel the altitude more.
Annie and me
Me loving the sunrise!!!
We needed to eat calories but the thought of food and water began to lose its appeal. I forced down a few Reese’s peanut butter cups and half a snickers bar which tasted much more bland than normal. Other than this and slowing our pace down I felt fine. Above 15,500 I would say we did about 2/3 the speed we normally would ascend a peak in Colorado.
Annie with the sun getting a little brighter before the glacier decided to get a lot steeper
Our favorite sunrise picture taken around 17,000ft
At about 17,000ft we were slowing down to about ½ the normal pace and were trying to find a rhythm as we went up the glacier. I remembered counting steps. So from here until about 17,750 Annie and I took 20 steps before we rested a few seconds and then repeated this over and over again. We both found this immensely helpful because it gave us something to focus on. It helped to break the glacier down into much smaller goals! Annie started to feel a little nauseous around 17,000 feet, and really struggled to eat anything. She said she just completely lost her appetite and even the thought of eating made her sick. Luckily we had plenty of energy gel’s and shot bloks, which are a lot easier to take down with minimal effort.
Shadow of Orizaba
Above 17,750 those 20 steps and rest became 13 and above 18,250 they went down to 10. We were still both feeling good as we approached the top of the glacier. The unfortunate thing about this glacier is that it gets steeper as you get closer to the top which at 18,000ft makes things pretty tough. It looks SOOO close, but at the pace you’re forced to go, and at the steep incline, it just takes so much longer than it would in Colorado.
Me approaching the crater already above 18,000ft
I still thought we had a ways to go but once we were at the top of the glacier we were pretty much there. I couldn’t believe it as we walked the last 100 yards and 20 feet of elevation gain or so on the crater rim to the summit with the summit cross. I got a little emotional at top knowing all the time, money and planning that Annie and I put into this but especially knowing that I had told the Colorado Alzheimer’s Association that I wanted to do this for my Grandparents and that we finally did around 9:30am.
SUMMIT!!!! 18,491 ft and the third highest point in North America with the summit cross in the background
The summit was great. Looking down into the volcano was a little intimidating because it was a sheer drop off maybe 1000 or more feet down but made for amazing scenery. We passed two other climbers from Mexico near the very top who were kind enough to take our photos on top. I wish we would have gotten more of Annie and I together but we didn’t know how to ask them that in Spanish and didn’t want to take the moment away from them either.
Annie relaxing on the summit
For my Grandparents
The view was incredible even though there was cloud cover around 13,500 it was still an amazing view and a great experience. I have never in my life looked 5,000ft down on a cloud ceiling which was really neat.
ALZ Stars for the Colorado Alzheimer's Association. Thank you for your support!
We spent about 30 minutes on top before we decided to head down. I still felt good other than being a little thirsty.
One more on the edge of the volcano rim for my Grandparents
I would not recommend glissading on the glacier. The snow was great from walking up and down in crampons but not glissading. I tried and went a very uncomfortable and slow 5 or so feet before I stopped and thought “forget this.” The snows consistency was that where even if you fell it would take you a few second before you could get going. Even at that steep angle I doubt you would get going very fast. I tried but it was painful so I gave it up and continued walking down. We did not need or use ropes, harnesses, or pickets at all on this trip.
As we climbed down the glacier the temperature rose dramatically and I went from wearing all my warm clothes at the top down to just wearing a long sleeve base layer and a T-shirt with liner gloves at the top of the Labyrinth (bottom of the glacier). The climb down was uneventful except for once again getting briefly lost in the Labyrinth. There were cairns in multiple places so we got a little off trail and once again found ourselves on some steep ice only this time we were down climbing. Luckily this section was much shorter than on the way up. At the base of the Labyrinth we took off our crampons and enjoyed our stash of water that we left the day before.
We ran into our friends Rex and Wendy who were debating on whether to set up a high camp at about 15,750ft. They decided to head down a different way than us. We thought our way was faster . . . . we were wrong and quickly broke off our trail to meet up with them. However, I would not want to ascend their way because it was loose scree and dirt. Around 14,700 on the way up we split off to the left and hugged the ridge to the base of the Labyrinth on the way up they stayed to the right and followed a more defined trail but it was a lot of loose dirt and scree. Both trails were marked with multiple cairns. I liked descending their way but was glad we ascended our way because the trail was much firmer. Both of the trails met at the base of the Labyrinth.
We got back to our tent around 1:45pm and had Joaquin waiting for us with the 4x4 truck giving multiple hugs and cheek kisses for Annie. He is a really nice elder man, probably mid 70’s or so, and he was especially nice to Annie. We didn’t have a lot of time to think about what had just happen because he was waiting for us so we broke camp as quickly as we could and then headed down in the 4x4 truck back to the Canchola’s where Maribel greeted us with a smile and a hug. She gave us fresh towels and after the longest most amazing shower of my life she stuffed us with more food than I knew what to do with. We were hoping to enjoy several celebratory beers but after the large meal and only one cervesa we couldn't keep our eyes open anymore. Once again we were in bed around 7pm except this time we woke up 13 hours later.
Joaquin, Annie, Maribel and Me just before leaving.
Maribel had contacted our driver Antonio Juarez who arrived two hours before his 12:30pm time we had discussed. He was once again very helpful and friendly and patiently waited for us to get all our gear together. We said bye to Maribel and Joaquin and headed back to Mexico City where we stayed in the Fiesta Inn. The hotel was a great choice for Mexico City – it was right next to the Airport, and is a 4 star, gated/guarded hotel & more of a resort style place with bar and restaurant, cold drinks, and purified ice! It was around $120/night, which is probably high for Mexico City, but well worth it to stay in a really safe, convenient place.
The hotel was right by the airport in Mexico City so all we had to do was jump on the 4am shuttle which took us to the airport the following morning to catch our flight back first to Los Angeles and then back to Denver.
All and all it was amazing trip and something I would recommend to anyone who truly loves climbing not just for taging the summit but for the incredible experience and is interested in trying to get into more high altitude climbing. You can keep this climb probably class 2+ as long as you don’t get lost like we did in the Labyrinth which turned it into class 3 or 4 snow/ice climb at one point. It is still hitting me what 18,500 feet was like and looking at it in my GPS on the summit almost in disbelief. What a fantastic experience!!!
Wowza!!! what my GPS read on the summit.
Gear Worn/Used on Summit Day
Me - Scarpa Mont Blanc Mountaineering Boots, Grievel Cyborg Crampons, Smart wool Liner Sock, Smartwool Heavy Mountaineering Sock, OR Gaiters
Annie - wore Sportiva Baruntse’s (double boots), which was probably overkill, but she gets cold feet, and was really happy she brought these instead of something less – although the first 1000 feet through dirt and rock wasn’t ideal in her boots!
- Dynafit Windstoppper pants
- My legs usually stay really warm so I didn’t feel like I needed long underwear underneath even on the summit when it was really cold but Annie did wear long underwear.
- Synthetic T Shirt, Long Sleeve Base Layer, First Ascent Base Layer Hoodie, Another Synthetic T-Shirt (Purple Alzheimer’s one), REI Wind and Waterproof Jacket, Down Jacket, Beanie, Baklava, Ski Goggles, Hestra Heli Gloves, OR PL 400 Liner Gloves
- Petzl Tikka 2 Headlamp, Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe, Black Diamond Trekking Poles, Garmin GPS, Helmet
Other Key Items
-Tons of grocery bags and a few larger garbage bags, extra batteries, solar charger for ipod, enough junk food to last a month, travel alarm clock, book, pen/paper, caffeinated tea, bowl and spork, cough drops (so nice to have with all the dusty air on the drive and all the pollution!), hand sanitizer, aspirin, Excedrin w/ caffeine, melatonin, tylenol pm, diamox (just in case but we never used it), toilet paper (definitely bring at least a full roll up to the mountain), bag locks, pepto bismal (Annie was popping these like candy b/c she was terrified of getting some sort of bug), emergency kit (blister pads, etc.)
Things We Should Have Brought
-Better working knowledge of Spanish (we hadn’t taken Spanish classes since high school, and with all the preparation and concentration focused on the climb, we were ill-prepared with our Spanish skills – not a huge problem for the most part, but we would have felt a little less like spoiled brat Americans if we had been able to speak their language a bit better)
-Pesos (best to convert at least some in the US)
- To my late loving grandparents who I wanted to succeed climbing this mountain for more than anything.
- To the Colorado Alzheimer’s association and their support in this.
- To the love of my life Annie (Marie123) for making this experience a trip of a lifetime.
- To everyone who was looking forward/concerned about hearing from us to make sure we had a good time and got back safe . . . you know who you are and that really meant more to us than you know.
- To Antonio Juarez our driver who made us feel welcome and most importantly very safe traveling through central Mexico.
- To Maribel and Juaquin at Summit Orizaba for your amazing hospitality and services. They graciously took care of the two of us making their home feel like our home . . . . .even though our Spanish really sucks.
- To everyone who gave Annie and I advice on this trip. Everything was helpful and greatly appreciated.
- To our parents for not killing us for going on this trip. I know you lost a lot of sleep over this and I am sorry . . . . . . but it will not be the last one!! (Hopefully Annie’s parents don’t read that, because they are very close to killing me as it is)
Shirt I wore on summit day for my Grandparents
“A summit doesn’t have to be the top of a mountain. A summit is that moment when we realize our lives our important and that we can contribute to something extraordinary. When we come together with good people anything is possible. It’s a snapshot that captures the essence of who you are.” Eric Weihenmayer – First and only blind man to summit Mount Everest.
If anyone is interested in getting involved with the Colorado Alzheimer's Association you can visit the website at http://act.alz.org/site/TR?pg=entry&fr_id=2380
You can also visit my personal page at http://act.alz.org/site/TR/ActiveEvents/CO-Colorado?px=6328653&pg=personal&fr_id=2380
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