It is 4AM and I cannot sleep. I’ve been asleep on and off for the past three days, getting up only when it was necessary. The sick feeling in my stomach is still there but the worst is over. It is warm and cozy in my sleeping bag as I reach out to grab my camera. The images taken only a few days ago have now become a part of a distant past, split into two eras: Before and After. The first one is a picture from the plane landing in Mexico City, taken 3 days “BP”. “Before Puking” that is.
It was a bright sunny day, and the drive from San Diego to LAX was not going well. I somehow missed the 405 split and was inching my way to the airport via the infamous parking lots of Los Angeles, named 5, 91, 110 and 105. Needless to say, 8AM was a suboptimal time to be there. Due to my error, the meeting place was changed several times and we barely managed to made it to the check-in, arriving just 5 min before the cut-off time for luggage acceptance. The ski bags still had be searched and we were worried that they may not make it onto our plane in time. But the flight went well and 4h later we were glad to see our skis coming out from the airplane.
Our driver met us as agreed and after 4hrs on mexican highways we entered a small community of Tlachichuka, that sits in the foothills of the highest peak in Mexico and 3rd highest in North America: Pico de Orizaba (18,491 ft). We stopped at a large metal gate, protecting the entrance to the compound that was surrounded with 4ft wide white walls. There was barely any light and I was clueless how he new that it was the right place. A strange writing above the heavy gate said: “PETROLEOS MEXICANOS”. This made no sense to me. But the heavy locks on the gate soon opened and we were escorted to another building on the inside, where we were going to spend the night.
During the the last two days there was no chance to get a workout – my days were busy at work and I was packing and doing last minute shopping. I was restless and we spent an hour after dinner buildering and trying to spend the excess energy. The clouds looked ominous over the mountain, and the forecast was expected to have snow for the next few days. The question lingered in my mind as I was falling asleep – will there be a break in the weather?
Next morning brought no relief – it was raining. The silence was interspersed with random announcements via loudspeakers, roosters, barking dogs and distant laughter. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know I was far away from home. When I did, however, the spirit of exploration transformed me into a little kid. The building where Senior Reyes hosts his visitors is an old soap factory.
Soap-making equipment was imported in the early 1900s by his family. His father would take trips toward Veracruz, selling soap and buying gasoline which he then sold to local farmers. This explained the “PETROLEOS MEXICANOS” sign on the outside.
He stopped soap production in the mid 20th century to take a job in Mexico City. After a while, Senior Reyes modified the factory to suit the purpose of a climber/skier hostel but left all the soap making machinery in place. I spent the next few hours discovering the residence.
The compound was built around 1850, with thick walls to protect the inhabitants from intruders. I spotted several downward pointing gunsites in the walls. As I explored around the corner, I saw a climbing wall, equipped with bolts and holds!
And if this is not enough, there are plentiful opportunities for parkour, as Austin demonstrates.
We had a nice breakfast in the dining room and I got to play a game of ping pong with guys from New York. All this at elevation of 8500 ft. Let the acclimatization begin.
The town of Tlachichuka is ~10-15 thousand residents, most are farmers. Naturally, these is a farmers’ market smack in the middle of town and about a stone’s throw away from our compound. I indulged myself into trying some things I believed I’d never try, like deep-fried pig skin. Having purchased all the necessities, we were ready for the ride up to the hut.
I must admit that I was impressed with the organization. The driver and a few helpers showed up and masterfully loaded the truck in minutes.
The back cabin was equipped with soft seats – I will learn in just a few miles how important they were.
The ride up is over 20 miles and about 2h long. It is quite steep at times and very bumpy most of the way. Several stops along the way provide for necessary respite from the shaking.
Once above the tree level, the hut becomes visible and few minutes later we were there. The view down was great, with clouds encroaching the valley below.
There was a thin layer of snow at the hut level, unfortunately not enough for skiing.
Another vehicle has arrived and to my surprise they were mostly russians from Pyatigorsk! Good conversation and fun games followed. I went for a quick hike up to 14,700 ft or so and felt great.
The hut is large and rustic. There is no water, heating or electricity. The three levels of sleeping shelves would comfortably host 36 people. The stated max occupancy of 60 is somewhat of an overstatement. As several more groups arrived we were struggling to fit everyone in.
One group arrived at 10PM and started cooking on some heavy lard around 11PM. I could see the light of my headlamp from the suspended fat particles. It was loud and it stunk. Surprisingly, this didn’t phase me at all – it was all part of the experience. Maybe earplugs helped, too.
Hristo woke up in the middle of the night and said “Lets go for it, I cannot sleep anyways”. I was sleeping just fine, so I asked what time it was. It was 3 AM and we fell back asleep. We did eventually get up at 6AM and started cooking rice and eggs using our red-light headlamps to not wake everyone up.
It was somewhat hard to see so I realized I ate some eggs that were not fully cooked. I didn’t think much of it at the time. We were now ready and packed.
Most groups start the climb around 12-3 AM. As we stumbled outside the hut, it just got light and was foggy. We planned to go as high as we wanted and turn around once we had enough acclimatization. After some final adjustments we left the hut at 7AM. An hour later we were breaking through the clouds and the weather higher up looked great compared to the miserable situation at the hut.
The wind was blowing hard in our faces in the section called The Labyrinth but we were moving steadily up, undeterred.
It took less then two hours to get to the glacier. We had clear weather and decided to go for it.
We were able to skin about half way up the final ever steepening pitch.
The wind was as strong as I could handle. Getting closer to the top I had to cling to the slope many a time to prevent the wind from blowing me off the mountain. It was one of these peaks where you can see almost all the way to the top but it doesn’t get any closer as you move up.
The higher we went, the steeper it got, until we finally came level with a rock outcrop on the left. The going got easier after that and the crater came into view. The snow and ice-encrusted rock was a nice change after the endless glacier travel.
I thought it was the top but there were a few more just like this one. Eventually I reached the top at 11:38AM. Even with the wind it was over quickly. 4:40min from 13,971 ft to 18,491 ft. Maybe I just had a good day.
As I switched my boots and skis to the downhill skiing mode, Hristo came from the clouds.
We started going down around 12:10 PM on some good steep northern slopes, but as we entered the main glacier, it was not as pleasant. The wind had its way with the new snow, with ridges, hard pack and icy spots interspersed.
Skiing was much faster than hiking down. The wind was still hauling but it wasn’t as much of a problem on the way down. Check out Hristo trying to stay up straight as pellets of snow fly downward at 80mph.
The lower we descended the less wind there was.
Skiing above the clouds felt surreal.
The clearing on the left gave us a glimpse of the town of Tlachichuka below.
Down below the glacier, we were able to ski some of the Labyrinth, which was sunny and warm, in stark contrast to the cold wind tunnel we encountered on the way up.
As I skied down the Labyrinth I felt a funny feeling in my stomach. I wasn’t sure if it was serious or just some indigestion. I hurried up and was back at the hut by 1:40PM, taking a total of 1.5h to get down from the summit and 6:40 hut-to-hut.
I didn’t feel well in the hut and I wasn’t sure who had who: I had the mountain or the mountain had me. I couldn’t keep any liquids or food in my stomach and ended up emptying it entirely over the next 6h. I asked Senior Reyes to come pick me up, which was not a problem and by 9PM that day I was in the warm confines of the residence, fast asleep.
Senior Reyes is also a physician, so his advice was to drink slowly, in small portions. This proved to be the most valuable advice I received that day. It worked and I was able to have 1L of liquids in me overnight and largely recovered after ~3 days. I was a real mexican vacation indeed.
Andre and Hristo, February 2012, Orizaba, Mexico.
Orizaba Ski Mountaineernig Gear list:
Bottom: Light ventilated shell pants with two base layers (Patagonia 1 and another thicker layer)
Top: thin base layer, Patagonia Sun Hoody, Patagonia thin alpine jacket and Arcteryx Sidewinder AR Shell
OR thick windproof hat
Thin gloves, light shell gloves, light shell mittens
Dynafit TLT5 boots, Dynafit Seven Summit 170cm skis, Dynafit Speed TLT bindings
Two BD Whippets (helpful if windy, one is probably enough)
Dynafit R20 pack
Camp full auto aluminum crampons
Light Montbell down jacket in the pack (didn’t have to use it)
Food and water:
Two liters of wate
Many bars (used 4).
Total trip cost per person: $800-$900 including flights from LAX
It was great to have a personal driver from Mexico City to Tlachichuka and back. If traveling with 4 people or more, it is not much more expensive than taking public transportation.
Hut was very busy on Fri-Sat. If you can avoid being there on a weekend it will be quieter. Alternatively, bring a small tent and spend nights outside.