This is a long all inclusive trip report. It has some good info in it for someone planning a similar trip as well though and for those interested in that I have highlighted what I feel like is useful trip info in red to make it easier to find. Also I will tell you right now that we did not summit so if you only enjoy trip reports that include a summit this isn't it. Otherwise please enjoy however you'd like; skim the pictures; the info or dive in and relive our trip to climb Mexico's volcanoes.
As with any trip this one began long before we booked any flights or new gear was purchased. It began about a year ago much like most of my climbing trips right here on 14ers.com. Not sure who to give the credit to but someone mentioned Orizaba and I started to investigate. I had more than enough time to plan it all out. Our itinerary changed several times but finally we settled on a pretty flexible one and bought our tickets in September. (If you would like a copy of our itinerary just ask, not perfect but a good starting point.) For the two of us we paid $740 for our roundtrip flight into Mexico City, in the future I will happily pay more to avoid anything that has to do with U.S. Airways. That $740 included the trip insurance which would prove to be a good $40 investment.
I had a wonderful time preparing for our trip, Jessica basically gave me the green light to buy whatever we "needed" for the trip and every day was like Christmas, Backcountry, REI, Steepandcheap… their deliveries filled my doorstep much to my delight. I guess most people don't get so excited about these things but I do, new crampons, down jackets etc. Our gear quickly got up to par and tested before our trip. The night before we left we laid it all out to check off the packing list (also available if anyone wants a copy).
We arrived in Mexico City and cruised right through customs. We stayed at the Ramada Aeropuerto ($115/night). We were greeted by a shuttle that takes you straight from the airport to the hotel (included with a room) and quickly set off to find some canister fuel for my new Jetboil Helios. After 2 Walmarts we gave up and decided to just have dinner and relax. The room was nice and would be our last luxury of the trip. This was our biggest expense for one night and next time I will take the bus straight from the airport in Mexico City to Puebla, ($184 pesos or $14USD) and stay in Puebla or continue straight to the Reyes or Cancholas.
"Bidon de Combustible?"
Breakfast at the Ramada (also included in the price) was amazing. Several different fresh squeezed juices, eggs, omelets, meats… insane. If only I was better at forcing myself to eat in the mornings I would have been in heaven. Jessica enjoyed hers and after drinking a coffee I began to worry about the water within it. My worries never proved justified fortunately. This day we decided to focus 100% on getting fuel since we couldn't attempt Ixta if we didn't get fuel first so we went to the one place I knew (thanks Gabriel) that had fuel; Puebla. We went back to the airport on the free Ramada shuttle and bused to Puebla. Once there we got a taxi to Walmart, again no fuel. So we got another cab and tried with our little bits of Spanish to explain what we needed; bidon de combustible. He took us to a big mall, asked a security guard where we would find fuel and dropped us off. It was about here that Jessica understood why we had minimized everything we brought, walking around with 2 full backpacks with axes strapped to them and a duffel bag through anywhere is no fun. At long last we found fuel and now we were off to Amecameca. (If anyone needs the name of the store with canister fuel I saved the receipt so just ask).
No bus goes from Puebla to Amecameca or vise-versa. We tried to ask our bus driver if we stopped there and he barely seemed to know where we meant (probably my lack of proper pronunciation) but a kind soul seeing my face struggling to understand came over and helped translate for me and the bus driver. This was one within a long list of random acts of kindness. The driver told us to sit up front and he would tell us when to get off, then we'd take a cab to Amecameca. Then on the side of the highway, in the dark, somewhere in Mexico that I wasn't sure where I was he looked up at me and said that word; "Aqui." Jessica looked at me hesitantly and probably gripped the mace in her pocket and just the two of us hopped off the bus.
There we were, on the side of some highway in Mexico with backpacks, duffel bags, and an intended destination. I'll be honest; this was the only time during our whole trip that I even bothered feeling at all worried but any worries were immediately dismissed. A taxi driver came over, helped carry one of Jessica's bags and after some more interesting conversation we were off to Amecameca. It was about two hours away apparently so we had to pay for him to drive back as well so we doubled what the toll said. Who knows if we got screwed here but it seemed fair to me as he was a "metro" taxi and it still only cost about $40 USD for the ride. He also refused a tip and arranged our ride to La Joya the next day for us when we arrived at the San Carlos in Amecameca.
"So this is what a $10/night hotel looks like…"
The San Carlos cost us $23 USD for 3 nights. What else can you say? Of course the bathroom floor was soaking wet, of course the pillows were basically rolled up socks or recycled carpeting sewn into a pillow case, of course there is no hot water. For hot water I have heard that the Hotel El Marque has some and next time I'll probably stay there. We got breakfast at Pepe's based on the recommendation of a cop and Jessica enjoyed her huevos rancheros and warm milk. I enjoyed some bread. Then we were off to La Joya. Our taxi driver was awesome; the ride to La Joya is a windy road that the driver agreed was "muy divertido" or fun. He got our picture at Paso de Cortes with Popo smoking in the background. He dropped us off at what a Park Ranger called La Joyita and we walked the 200 yards to La Joya to set up our tent. Walking at 13,200 felt more difficult than I had hoped and we quickly laid down for bed. Hoping to attempt Ixta the next day. The sunset was the only one I remember from the whole trip and the pollution made it a beautiful mess.
Paso de Cortes
"Sleepless in La Joya"
Sleep was horrible as expected and Jessica was having terrible leg cramps. We brought our backpacks into the tent and slept for a few hours by leaning on them and sitting a little upright. Not sure why but this helped. When we got up at around 4AM to go Jessica's cramping legs hadn't improved. We got up to walk around a little and I knew that it just wasn't happening. The moon was full and the way it illuminated Ixta was about the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I wasn't feeling too great either and even threw up a little bit so we just enjoyed where we were at and have no regrets about not going for the summit. We figured rightfully so that if nothing else we were acclimating for Orizaba and would make our time there more enjoyable. During the day we went for a short hike with a National Park ranger Martin while his partner watched our tent. Martin was a cool dude. We talked the whole way despite our complete language barrier. The views of Popo were surreal and he described when it erupted in '01 and when he climbed it in '97.
The moon rise over Ixta
Popo cursed to burn eternally for his lost love.
Our tent framed by Iztaccituatl
Our driver picked us up promptly when we had asked him to and we drove back down that divertido road to the San Carlos. On our way we asked him where to get dinner and he drove right up to the place, pointed and said; "al pastor." It was here that we were introduced to the most delicious taco known to man, when we ordered it we had no idea what kind of meat it was but have no fear; it is just pork. Then they put on cilantro, pineapple and if you are completely unlike me onions. I hate those things though so "no cebolla por favor."
"Al Pastor" roasting deliciously away…
"The Day of the Bus"
From Amecameca to get to Puebla you have two options, either through Cuatla or Choluca (I think) we opted for Cuatla for no other reason than I had to pick one. When we got to Cuatla the attendant at the bus station gave me some bad news, no buses went to Puebla until 10:30PM. But there was apparently another bus station she tried to explain, obviously my face said to her I didn't understand so she walked out from behind her counter, left her work with the line of people behind me and walked me outside to point to the other bus station. It was moments like this that left me feeling guilty for how my country would have treated someone in my position.
After one more bus transfer we arrived in Tlachichuca at around 8:30PM and like usual were greeted by a taxi wanting to drive us wherever we needed. We asked very clearly for the Reyes or Servimont and asked how much. ($1.75USD) Then the driver kindly drove us straight to the Cancholas. I knew that their building was bright orange so I told him no before he ever rang the bell but he went straight ahead and rang it. Before she had to say anything I knew it was Maribel who answered, I said hello and apologized for what we were looking for. She is as funny and kind as her legend and after joking; "it's funny because I don't remember where they live" she seemed to tell the driver it was ok for him to take us to the Reyes. He acted like I had just pronounced it wrong; "oh the Reahyeaz" he emphasized, I am convinced the Cancholas have a deal with the guy and if he sees you with climbing gear your pronunciation won't be so clear either; smart business people. Maribel also kindly offered that if we need anything to let her know and that her dad would be on the mountain if we needed anything from him.
Finally at Servimont we were greeted by Dr. Reyes who picked up our taxi fare for us since we didn't have small bills, we later paid this back but it was a kind introduction. He called Lucia the cook and she came over to prepare our meal. After a quick tour we had our first hot shower since the Ramada and then went over for dinner. The first course was the most delicious soup I have ever had. It was all veggies, squash, cactus, zucchini etc. Nothing could have been good enough to follow up this soup and the beef, rice and potatoes weren't. They weren't bad or good, reminded me of my mom's cooking, it wasn't good but it fed all 5 of her kids, my grandmother who lived with us often and her and my dad. So it got the job done. We went to bed excited to be there and glad to be done dealing with buses. We were the only guests in the compound so we had it to ourselves; still we shared the top bunk of one of the tiny beds and had another relatively uncomfortable sleep.
Anytime I get a call from my mom early in the morning I know something is wrong. Jessica answered and handed me the phone; "what's wrong Mom?" she barely could even say it, she didn't need to. "Nan…" she trailed off. Jessica was hysterical before my brain let me realize what was being said to me. My grandmother, my roommate, my lunch and movie partner of the last 25 years was gone of this earth. I'm glad we were alone at Servimont, grief is hard enough when shared with family so having strangers around would have made it even more difficult. I immediately occupied myself with changing our flights and cancelling our hotel for later in the trip. Jessica took some pictures of the beautiful Lilies in the courtyard of the compound.
Flowers for Nan.
We also got our first look at Orizaba.
Dr. Reyes was kind and brought me a rosary for my loss. After another delicious meal from Lucia we hopped in the truck to head for the Piedre Grande. The ride in the truck was by far my least favorite part of climbing Orizaba. 2+ hours of pure discomfort. On the way we picked up Mr. Larry and Dave from Canada. They made for great company the next few days. We talked politics and adventures and lots of other fun topics. They were really working on getting acclimating because last time AMS stopped Dave and "there are too many other places in the world to keep coming back here." So they wanted to make sure to summit. Once at the hut we met a few other folks that would be there the next few days, hopefully I'll get this right; Greg who was 24 and from Cali seemed to be more into big wall climbing, he worked at a mountain shop. His mom; Kit who was a real badass mountain woman. Also into technical stuff but obviously lots of experience and a perfect hut Mom for everyone. Jessica really liked Kit. And also Scott and Tim, unfortunately I can't remember which was which, I just never got their names straight so they'll forever be a pair in my memory. One of them is from Denver and one of them coined the term; "Orizaba Prayer Flags" when describing the toilet paper that would often blow around. Classic. There was also a group that we always missed by a day on Ixta and Orizaba but flew there and back with on the same flight. It was cool, an unspoken bond between the faces that would keep popping up; all on our own adventure to the same places.
That night two fellas popped up to the hut; John from Vail and Mike from Mexico City. These two had it dialed, steaks, wine and planned to climb Orizaba in half the normal time. They shared their steaks with me which I am forever in debt to them for and followed through on their plan. They left around 5:30AM and got back strong by 12PM. I have been in good shape in my life but not like that, nice to have something to aspire to. John had completed our 14ers several times and said he only had a few of the Elks left for calendar winter ascents. Nice.
I slept well at 13,900. One lesson I will bring with me next time I go to the Piedre Grande though is that an air mattress and pillows would be easy to bring. Around 8:45AM I woke up to people discussing a climber that had to bivy around 17k the night before. It sounded like he broke his ankle or foot. Before anything else I started putting my boots on. I was confused though; there was a total lack of urgency on everyone's part. "Was he up there right now?" I asked a very dazed friend of the missing climber. After confirming what was known I grabbed my first aid kit, boiled water for tea, snow flukes for a possible splint, and some other things and myself and Greg headed up to find Joe. We moved quickly and got to his campsite around 15,600 in about 40 minutes (10AM). I went right up to the tent before he responded but I could hear him breathing from further away. He woke up and told me how fine he was. He had taken his boot off though and had a badly swollen foot. He was a physicians assistant so he knew exactly what he'd broken. He wasn't in a rational state though. I explained to him that we would splint his foot or get his boot back on and we'd tie it up tight. After lots of convincing he put his boot back on. Greg and I loaded most of his gear into our packs and helped him up. We left the tent for the others who were coming up to meet us. The hike down took almost 4 hours. We cleared steps and held hands almost all the way. Joe caught me from slipping a few times too so really we helped each other down. Jessica met us around 15,200 and came down with us. We needed to take an acclimation hike anyway so it all worked out well. Once down Joe's friends met him near the aqua duct and everyone was happy. Their driver picked them up and they got back to the Cancholas for some well earned rest. Unfortunately Greg didn't feel well after so he rode down as well. We spent the rest of the day drinking a ridiculous amount of water and the result of that… Sleep never really came that night as we waited for our own attempt. One thing we promised as a result of Joe's incident was we wouldn't split up. Joe had gone for the summit (successfully) while his friends went down. Joe had an unplanned bivy around 17k and a broke foot.
"A New High"
The alarm went off at 11:30PM and I was glad I could stop pretending to sleep. The Jetboil took almost 40 minutes to boil our 1.5L for breakfast and tea so I got it going right away. Jessica snacked on some Oatmeal, Grape Nuts, and milk mix while I drank some hot chocolate. We left at 1AM for our attempt. The weather was still and warm, we immediately stripped down to just tee shirts. I wore liner gloves the whole time (despite having my new Alti gloves at the ready; thanks Tom). We moved slowly up the first part which is basically just a scree climb. There is good trail all the way though if you can stay on it, we did. After you get past here around 15,600 it flattens out and takes you between some cliff walls. It was almost a full moon and there was a soft snow giving the night a really cool ambience. Finally we hit the Labyrinth; you will hear lots of different things about this before you get there. "Stay far left… only go right... up the middle… definitely not left…" it can be a little confusing. Here is what we did; we stayed pretty straight and followed the obvious path whenever possible. If anything it was a bit to the right; never did we take a turn to the left. We also followed some orange glacier wands that led to the base of where most put on crampons. Here you can go left or right or up the rock in the middle. We followed the rock and didn't put on our crampons. The climbing is easy; it was wet from the light snow and still was easy. No real exposure either, as in while it may look like there is some you are never looking at more than a 10 foot fall. We moved slowly through here because Jessica doesn't have much rock climbing experience, especially in stiff boots at 16k. She kept trying to climb with her knees instead of trusting the boots so I stayed very close to her and never was she without a very solid spot or my hand as a hold.
We were finally at the top of the labyrinth, maybe 20 vertical feet and one crux move. My altimeter read 16,882. It had been 200-300 feet off since we got to the hut so I figure 16,500 is a good bet. Above us was a solid cloud and the wind began to kick up, Jessica's throat tightened. Her eyes clouded up and the reality of where we were became a little too much for her. I have seen this look before and knew what it meant. We were at the top of our mountain. I said it was fine and that the weather above was reason enough to turn around anyway. We both felt well physically and it was cool see acclimation work. I felt far worse the last time I was over 14k on Shavano than I did on the middle section of Orizaba. That was a big part of the trip for me; getting to see what my body did in thinner air than it had experienced before. That is a fascinating part of climbing to me for some reason. So we turned back. Our descent was uneventful and we took our time both enjoying being higher than would be possible for awhile. The sunrise was nice and afforded some of our best views of the trip. My imagined views of the sunrise from the Jamapa will have to wait for my next trip to become reality. I'm working on convincing Jessica to let me go down in the next few months for just Orizaba but we'll see how that works out, anyone want to come with? I am pretty confident we would have made the summit in good fashion had we just gotten past that hurdle at the top of the labyrinth. We had arrived there in just under 4 hours so we were moving pretty well. That night we returned to the Reyes for more delicious dinner and soup and one final serving of Al Pastor from a street vendor. The next day we flew home and were greeted with lost luggage, a newly purchased vehicle in the shop (again), work, school, bills, incorrect charges to our credit card from US Airways that won't be corrected for up to 60 days, a million people asking; "did you summit" and not understanding that was the least important part of our trip, grieving family and a funeral. What a beautiful thing this life.
Image #17 (not yet uploaded)
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