Thursday, November 26, 2009

Adventure among Mexico's Volcanos

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Distance: ~ 12 miles Total for Trip
Trailhead: ~13,000 feet (GPS data available upon request (Garmin))
Highpoint: ~16,150 feet on Ixta and Adam peaked on Orizaba at 18,490ft
Elevation Gain: ~ 5,000 ft (Total for me then add Adam's Orizaba peak)
Trail Notes: Read the blog then ask any questions.

The set of photos for this hike are located here

HUGE thanks to Adam and Robbin for sharing photos !!

Coming off the summit of Mount Rainier earlier this past summer, several of us enjoyed a post climb pizza at the Summit Haus pub in Ashford. Here I noticed several RMI posters of the expeditions they offered around the globe. The one that stayed in the back of my mind was Mexico's Pico de Orizaba. The low technical difficulty, higher elevation, easy travel access, and being able to somewhat converse in Spanish added up to an appealing goal for me to attempt.

A little bit of research on climbing sites yielded several trip reports that provided the impetus to put plan to action. Finally settling on bagging two peaks within close proximity (Pico de Orizaba and Ixta) over a time frame of a week and half, I was left with asking for climbing partners. Adam and Robbin were able to meet the proposed itinerary and were game for the adventure of international climbing.

Pico de Orizaba is the third and Ixta is the eighth highest peaks in North America. Both are volcanoes and are relative close to each other as well as Popo, another volcano, which is the fifth highest peak in North America. Though Popo is not permitted to be climbed as it is still somewhat active.

During our time leading up to the trip, the three of us enjoyed several conditioning hikes up to Camp Muir on Rainier. The long, hot summer really opened up some big crevasses on the Muir snow field and gave us plenty to concentrate on. Obtaining plane tickets, acquiring possibly needed gear, food, and intense reviews of printed material of our destinations made our preparation time go by quickly.

DAY ONE (Nov 11th)
All three of us met at SeaTac airport in the early morning hours for an anticipated long day of travel. Preparations paid off when we were able to check one bag per person and still not exceed the fifty pound weight limit. I have to admit I was surprised when not one airline employee bothered us about our large backpacks. Fortunately, as we boarded the plane, we all had room for the packs in the overhead compartments. Leaving the rain of the Northwest, we looked forward to sunny Mexican adventures as our plane took flight.

Transferring planes in Phoenix, we eventually arrived in Mexico City sometime after 3:00pm. Before landing, the stewardess handed out the declaration paperwork, asking me if Adam was my son, since we all of us boarded together with packs and in climbing clothes. We had a good laugh but assured her that we would each fill out one of the forms. M Customs/immigration was no problem for us. Even though we were not selected for a random bag check, we did have questionable items stashed in non-clear bags to prevent attention. With all gear accounted for and our passports/papers stamped and in good order, we made our way to the bus terminal area of the airport.

From airport to Puebla

Locating the bus terminal, I looked for Estrella Roja (Red Star) bus lines as they had direct service from Mexico City to Puebla (Be sure to get the service to Puebla CAPU bus terminal vice Puebla 4-Points terminal for the follow on bus to Tlachichuca). The Red Star bus was the most expensive ride during our entire trip, 184 pesos per person. Turned out this was first class service with movies during the two hour ride, packs and bags were loaded for us,
restroom in the rear of the bus, and a bag of cookies and peanuts for the weary traveler.

Watching the sun set over the arid plains of Puebla, we arrived at our first stop sometime after dark. At the CAPU terminal I asked a young employee of the Valles/AU bus lines if they had service to Tlachichuca and was rewarded with a satisfying Si. Fortune continued for us as a bus was leaving in about thirty minutes. Enough time to grab some food, hit the banos (restrooms), take a deep breath, and start the next leg of our journey. Hitting the banos first to make room for the forthcoming food, I watched the bags while Adam and Robbin searched for sustenance. Time was ticking dangerously close to our departure, which was located at the farthest end of the terminal, when I noticed Adam returning with a bag overflowing with sweet pastries and a contented smile on his face. Explaining the time situation, we all grabbed our gear, how Adam managed two large non-wheeled bags and the food is beyond me, and sped down the terminal to the last gate, hopping aboard the bus with the driver giving us just the hint of a little stink eye. M:-)M Finally situated in our seats, I glanced over at Adam who had just finished one of the fresh made pastries and was licking the remaining sweetness off his fingers, when he gave me a sly smile that seemed to say, "this international climber knows how to enjoy his travels". Not to be outdone, I opened my small bag of peanuts from the previous bus and noisily crunched them down while taking solace in the price of this second two hour bus trip only cost 40 pesos per person. MLOL

Inside Puebla station MMM Ensure Puebla CAPU

Our final destination for this lengthy day of travel was the small town of Tlachichuca. Located just within the state lines of Puebla, almost bordering the coastal state of Veracruz, Tlachichuca is a modest agricultural community of ~25,000, that resides in the shadow of North America's third highest peak, commonly called Pico de Orizaba and locally known as Citlaltepetl. Arriving some time after 10:00pm, a passenger queried us as we were exiting the bus with, "Alpinistas?(Mountain climbers?)". Answering in the affirmative he asked where we were staying and then was kind enough to escort us the three short blocks to the climbing hostel of Sr. Joaquin Canchola Limon. Upon our late arrival we were warmly greeted by Maribel, Sr Joaquin's English speaking daughter, who assured us all our needs would be met and offered to show us to our rooms so we could rest and have energy for the mountain.

The Canchola's climbing hostel, or Summit Orizaba when online, is family run and very attentive to their customers. They have ten rooms of multiple accommodations with three shared bathrooms/showers containing plenty of hot water. The courtyard/parking lot is available to sort and pack gear while the rooftop allows for excellent views of the city and Orizaba.
Be sure to bring a camera. And they have several 4x4s for transporting clients and gear up to the mountain trailhead. After a full days travel and a reluctant acceptance by Coffee the dog, we tossed our gear on the floor and went horizontal for some much needed sleep.

The climbing hostel of Summt Orizaba MMMMMMMMMMMM Coffee, the friendly dog


It had been quite some time since I had woken up to the sound of a milk cow needing attention, but sure enough, after I wiped my eyes, got my bearings, and realized where I was, the black and white Holstein named Juanita was calling to Sr. Joaquin for her daily delivery of dairy delight. Soon there after, the awakening of the household and climbing hostel, which I will now refer to as the 'hacienda', caused the rest of us to gradually rise up and greet the new day.

Beautiful weather MMMMMMMM Juanita the dairy source

Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we each performed our morning rituals, including washing away the previous day's travel. As we freshened up, Maribel, Sr. Joaquin's daughter, kindly asked us when we would like to take breakfast. Giving ourselves a half hour to shower, scratch and stretch, we went up to the roof to hang our towels to dry and took in the views of the town and mountain which dominated the eastern skyline. The weather was perfect and temps were in the low 60sF already. I took a GPS reading and commented that we were at 8,660ft. Normally we have not been affected by AMS at this altitude, but quickly coming up the stairs last night with my bags left me catching my breath. I was surprised.

Orizaba from the roof

Coming down from the rooftop, we met Sr. Joaquin and introduced ourselves. In business for close to forty years, Sr. Joaquin gave us an informal looking over and seemed satisfied that we were capable of summiting Orizba. Tolerating my poor Spanish, he then asked if we were acquainted with Fred Becky. Being from the Pacific Northwest, of course we were familiar with Fred Becky and Ed Viesturs, two of the worlds most renowned mountain climbers. Sr. Joaquin then proudly showed us some of his personal pictures with Fred Becky and a hard copy of Becky's 1982, 'Mountains of North America' were he hired a guide by the name of Joaquin Canchola Limon for his services. I find it difficult to describe the look of reminiscent pride on Sr. Joaquin's face as I perused this rare treasure.

Becky & Sr Joaquin MMM Book photos

Soon we were in the dining room enjoying an extremely wonderful breakfast prepared by Maribel and her mother Sra. Guadalupe. We started with a diced apple under a light blanket of maple syrup before moving on to the main course which consisted of
ham, eggs, tortillas, extremely fresh milk, whole beans (frijoles ranchos), fresh tomatilla salsa, limes, and various fresh sweet pastries. Maribel was kind enough to obtained fresh flour tortillas upon my request. Everything was tasty and we spent enough time to eat everything placed in front of us. We were very happy and contented when we excused ourselves from table.

Giving ourselves a full day and another night for acclimation purposes, we rolled our full bellies outside the hacienda to explore the town. Enjoying the warm and sunny morning, we navigated ourselves down a few side streets towards the central plaza. It was mid-morning and we expected more liveliness than we saw. Some of the businesses surrounding the plaza had just begun to open their doors, sweeping their entrances, and beginning preparations for the day's activities. It was a jarring reminder that we were not in the U.S. and that life had a different and easy flowing rhythm in Tlachichuca.

Tlachichuca Central Plaza MMM Church from the hacienda and closer

Having captured our attention earlier from the rooftop, we made our way to the central church, or iglesia. Attentively painted, we quietly wandered the premises, absorbing the ecclesiastical ambiance. Leaving the
iglesia, we took to exploring the surrounding streets that connected to the center of the town. Passing businesses and homes alike, we soon heard some cacophony of music coming from around the corner. As if the Pied Piper lead us himself, we followed our ears to the brewing sound. Soon enough we had divined the source of music. One of the local elementary, or primeria schools, had congregated outside to form up and practice their part for the upcoming Dia de Revolution Festivo or independence day festival. This was an unexpected pleasure and we enjoyed seeing the children practice their musical roles with innocent and coquettish smiles. This occurred several times with other elementary schools over the next few hours of the morning as we wondered about the town, greatly adding to our experience.

Inside the Iglesia

Festival practice for the elementary students

After another satisfying meal at Maribel's table, we spent some of the afternoon sorting through our gear, separating what we were going to take on the mountain and what would be left at the hacienda. Then we strolled out among other areas of the town, collectively noting the cultural differences of another country and yet the similarities of people living their own lives as we do ourselves.

Extremely fresh & low cost MMM Adam going local MMMMm Ethel if she's working

Daily life in Tlachichuca

After a filling dinner with Maribel, someone got the crazy idea to go for a jog. Adam was wise enough to excuse himself, taking the responsibility of checking the weather forecast on the mountain for the next few days (no precipitation for the next five days). I reluctantly laced up my shoes and attempted to follow Robbin as she lead us to the outskirts of town towards a small but prominent ridge. The further we went the more bucolic the scenery became. Farmers returning from their day in the fields, corn stacked in conical formations, kids playing ball after chores were finished. Very peaceful, to some. For others, such as myself, I had to keep inventing excuses to take a breather. First the shoelaces, then the large meal, then whatever came to my mind, ignoring the blatantly obvious fact that jogging at almost 9000ft after originally coming from sea level the previous day is not the easiest thing to do. Robbin was excruciatingly kind enough to keep circling back, making sure I didn't get lost and my food remained inside me. I think we covered about three miles, it was bearable except for the time when a farmer with a wagon full of kids passed me, driven by a mule. Discounting the pointing fingers and giggles of the boys, as Robbin was way ahead of me, and the farmer's look of CRAZY STRANGER, it was the mule's snort of derision and roll of his eyes as he slowly plodded past me that caused me to hang my head in accepted defeat. mLOLm But I'd do it all again in a heartbeat, or four. M:-)

Surrounding views

Morning came with much anticipation, as we were to reach the Piedra Grande hut and begin our Orizaba experience. With a palate pleasing late breakfast from Maribel, Sr Joaquin and his son loaded our gear and satiated bellies into the Jeep Wagoneer for the approximately two hour ride up to the hut, which is at 14,000ft, which sure beats lugging a sixty pound pack up 5000ft of vertical to Camp Muir on Mt Rainier. M :-)M We rode past more fields under cultivation, herds of sheep and their shepherds, and finally into the Pico de Orizaba National Forest. Surrounding by pine trees (pinos), we slowly made our way along the winding and rutted dirt trail. We were fortunate for the lack of precipitation as a recent rain would have made the dirt road a lot more treacherous.

Sr Joaquin loading up MMMMMM Hazards of bucolic life MMM Entering the Park

Sr Joaquin kept us occupied with his stories of Orizaba (29 summits), exploits of Becky, the Large Millimeter Telescope on the nearby mountain Sierra Negra, and local fauna (mostly birds, rabbits and lizards). Even though it is located in a national park, there is no fee nor permit needed to climb Orizaba. The local guide services maintain the Piedra Grande hut and work together to ensure all clients/climbers are well taken care of. Several times as the truck crept closer, we were able to see the various routes taken by other climbers as they ascended the Jamapa Glacier (pronounced hamapa). Photos were taken along the road and spirits rose even higher as we rounded a bend, finally seeing the hut in the distance. We arrived at Piedra Grande at 11:30am.

Finally the Hut MMMMMMMMM Routes emerging behind the Sarcophagus Rock

Unloading our gear, we noticed about a dozen other people milling about the hut. The stone hut or refugio is roughly 40ft long by 20ft wide and 20ft in height, with the entire eastern side composed of three levels for sleeping arrangements. I imagine it can accommodate up to sixty people or maybe forty-five with gear. With people and gear coming and going throughout various hours of the day and night, we chose to bring our tents and used one of the nearby flat spots about thirty yards away from the hut with the expectation of fewer disturbances. Temperature was somewhere in the low sixties, which was plenty comfortable for us Northwest folk.

Inside and outside of the Piedra Grande Hut

After establishing our camp and eating some lunch, we did a non-load bearing acclimation hike up the aqueduct and beyond to what we called lo-camp (15,000ft), consisting of 3-4 semi-circular stone sites (similar to Lunchcounter at Mt Adams). No water is at this area, so either bring it up or find snow and melt it, which can be higher depending on the time of the year. This short stretch of the legs was about three quarters of a mile, gaining one thousand feet. The aqueduct was used for the first couple of hundred feet in elevation then we took to the trails. About halfway to lo-camp, we bisected another aqueduct that ran northward. After this second aqueduct we again followed the trails up to lo-camp. Normally I'm accustomed to a prominent destination having one main trail or two, but we saw cairns (or patos, Spanish for duck) all over the place with interlacing trails through the scree/talus, like a plate of spaghetti with meatballs. No matter, we went up and we came down, feeling good after this acclimation hike and not sensing any of the symptoms of AMS.

Camp, small hut & aqueducts

Upon our arrival back in camp, sixty minutes to ascend, thirty to return, we noticed some new climbers had become our neighbors by using the smaller hut (4-9 people depending on need) about 25ft above us. After the usual meet and greet, we took our dinner in the main hut for company and conversation. After the sun left us its lingering rays of fading orange light, we made our way to the camp and attempted the nights sleep.

Heading to Lo-Camp

I forgot to mention that even though we had no symptoms of AMS, we definitely could feel the elevation. Just the act of walking at normal city speed from the hut to our tents at a slight upgrade, left me trying to catch my breath. It certainly caused us to adjust our speed down to first gear, so as not to exert ourselves as much and therefore end up trying to breath with some sort of normality. Matter of fact, that first night at 14,000ft left me with no sleep. I would be drifting off to sleep, respiration and heartbeat gradually slowing to a normal resting state. Several times, just as I would be falling asleep, my slower breathing, which was bringing less oxygen to my body, would cause me quickly to sit upright, gasping for breath. It was very frustrating to say the least, especially when I could hear the snores of other climbers.

Crawling out of our tents a little after sunrise, we again took our meal in the hut. Meeting people and querying those who had summitted about conditions. Adam suggested we establish a hi-camp at the base of the glacier. We agreed to take two trips, one today and the final one on the next day (Sunday). Carrying half our needed gear each time and leaving a small cache at the hut. We reasoned this would give us some more acclimation without rushing our ascent in altitude.

Rise & Shine MMMMMMMMMM Going from Lo to Mid-Camp

So we divided our gear and loaded our packs with 25-30lbs of gear(water, harnesses, food and extra layers) that would remain in a yet to be designated cache below the glacier. The trip up to hi-camp took a lot more effort than I expected. I took many breaks on our ascent up to high camp, lengthening the trip and earning some jokes from my mates but not affecting our schedule that much. Past lo-camp the trail levels out a bit and is easy to follow. Then we reached mid-camp or the base of the Labyrinth. Like it sounds, the Labyrinth is a wide and steep section below the glacier that is full of ravines/gullies, many filled with snow and ice even at this time of year. Helmets, crampons, and ice axes are strongly recommended. Taking the lead, Adam chose a direct route to where we expected to find a decent campsite. Negotiating the labyrinth in daylight was a tremendous help. Class 3 and 4 scrambling over frozen rocks and up icy ravines is not my preferred choice for alpine ascents in the early, dark hours of the morning. After several breaks for me and my winded lungs, Adam successfully had us up and over the labyrinth.

Looking down, negotiating, and going up the Labyrinth.

Here we deposited our cache and located a good campsite, marked it with the GPS, made some high fives for Robbin and I on our new altitude records, and then started the return trip. We had started at 10:00am and return to Piedra Grande was about 4:00pm. Longer than I expected but our goal for the day was accomplished. Climbing with gear at higher elevations was a humbling experience for me. I thought I was physically prepared for this expedition, but I learned that cardio needs to be higher on the exercise regimen than cuba libres (rum and cokes). ;-)

Marking Hi-Camp MMMMMMM The goal MMMMM Late summit attempt by lone climber

Again it was dinner in the hut for company and conversation. This evening before turning in to sleep I took half of a 250mg Diamox. I noticed the increased respiration it caused and hoped it would provide me some much needed rest. I actually hadn't had any decent sleep for the past four nights, averaging only about 15-30 minutes. I know I got a little sleep because I remember one dream of underwater cave diving. I recall swimming and swimming, trying to reach a tank of air that was always just out of my reach but I woke up gasping for breath before I ever reached it. Things that make you go hmmm....

The sunrise provided another wonderful diarama display for us to enjoy as we crawled out of our tents. Man, I really love unspoiled nature. Being as thorough as we could we separated our remaining gear, dividing the equipment into what would we take to hi-camp and what would be left at the hut. Our loads today were predominantly tents, sleeping gear and warm layers. Our extra water, about four gallons, some food, and non-climbing shoes would be left in the hut(Not one item was stolen or ended up missing during our whole time Mexico). Today's goal was to make it over the Labyrinth, establish hi-camp, relax the remaining part of the day before turning in for a 2:00am start up the glacier.

Grabbed cooking instead of drinking cocoa M:-(

Because of my lack of sleep over the past half-week, I included a full 250mg Diamox with breakfast. Even with our final loads to carry up the aqueduct, pass lo-camp, and negotiating the Labyrinth, I did climb stronger and felt better than any of the previous ascents, though Diamox does not replace energy lost by not sleeping. Familiar with our route, Adam once again lead us up the direct trail, necessitating crampons and use of our axes on the steep icy sections of the Labyrinth, directly to our cache for hi-camp.

Others staging at Mid-Camp

Arriving near 2:00pm, we caught our breath and then established hi-camp in the midday sun. The tents became very warm once erected and exposed to the full force of the sun and its reflected rays off the glacier. It became so warm inside the tent that when I tried to sleep, unsuccessfully, in the tent, the temperature drove me too strip down to my boxers and eventually out of the tent. It had to be in the 70sF outside, surprisingly warm for 16,300ft. So to take advantage of the moment, we melted snow and subsequently filtered the water for our hydration needs.

Needed breather MMMMMMM

Necessities taken care of, Adam scouted ahead to verify we had the correct route to reach the Jamapa glacier. Here above the labyrinth yet below the glacier, we needed to ascend approximately 350ft of easy scree and talus before donning crampons and negotiating the glacier. Thankfully the trail was easy to find. Our views at hi-camp were spectacular. The surrounding towns on the plains to the northwest of us were contrasted by the ridges and rollings hills to the south and east as the topography of the land made its way to the Veracruz coast and finally the Gulf of Mexico. It felt good being above what little clouds there were while being soothed by the sun.

Adam scouting ahead

After eating our dinner we prepped for our early ascent. The more one does in the evening to make the morning duties easier, the sooner boots hit the trail. We also took Adam's advice to strengthen the tent tie-downs in the event we might experience katabatic winds, bringing cold air from the glacier. After all was in order and the setting sun was hidden by the Sarcophagus Rock, we sought the familiar comfort of our sleeping bags. Even though I had my fifth sleepless night, the sounds of the others in their restful slumber came to me clearly over the 25F glacial night air.

Waiting for the alarm clock to sound, I went over possible reasons for my insomnia. The travel, climbing, and exertions of the previous days certainly made me tired enough to sleep. Yes, I was excited to be climbing the third highest peak in North America, but that type of emotion is easy to control and put away when necessary. I was without a clue as too why I could not sleep. At least my mates were resting much better and none of us had any common symptoms of AMS.

The alarm went off and we didn't hesitate to exit our warm sleeping bags, for our big summit day awaited us. Robbin and Adam made a warm breakfast while I went with a cold meal, Diamox included. Base layers, sweater, and shells were donned. Even some hand warmers were started to be ready when needed. Outside the tents, we put on our climbing harnesses in case they would be used, loaded our summit packs, and attached the final items consisting of crampons, water, ice axe, etc. and finished with balaclavas and gloves. I felt as tight as tick with the GPS and camcorder kept within my layers for battery warmth.

Prepped for glacial ascent MM crack of dawn

Away we went, following Adam's headlamp over the easy trail that lead to the glacier. Thirty minutes later we reached the edge of the glacier which was as distinct as crossing the beach to reach the ocean. You could place one foot on the glacier while keeping the other on the scree. It was that apparent. With crampons attached to boots, ice axes in hand, and packs double checked, we began our ascent of Pico de Orizaba.

The temperature was in the mid 20sF with a slight wind coming off the glacier and the snow conditions were absolutely perfect. The crampons bit well with no hesitation nor sloppiness, couldn't ask for anything better. We all fell into a easy rhythm of rest steps that gave us steady progress up the steep slope. Our headlamps provided plenty of light to follow the tracks of previous climbers though we were the initial climbers for this day. We were all surprised that the route basically attacked the mountain head on. There were no switchbacks to lessen the degree of steepness, just straight up.

I got into my climbing rhythm, ice axe, step, step, ice axe, step, step, repeat. Matter of fact I climbed for most of the first hour with my eyes closed doing just that. Nothing to trip over and I could hear Adam and Robbin off to the side or in front of me. Piece of cake, or so I thought. Keeping a slow and steady pace helped me maintain my breathing without much trouble even as we passed 15,000ft. But I was tired and it was beginning to show when I requested my third break within an hour and a half. Adam and Robbin gathered to one side while I tried to pull up some more energy from somewhere. Next thing I knew, Robbin and Adam were telling me how tired I looked and that they had never seen me so weak. It took me a moment to realize they were asking me to turn around and give up the summit. I'm sure whatever I said was feeble, cause they pulled the 'you need energy to get back down without injury' card. Damn, I was in a pickle. Yes I was exhausted, enough for my mates to be concerned about my safety, yet it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other for a while longer and Orizaba would be mine. But it was the hands of my mates that I placed my trust in and I reluctantly faced away from the summit. #&$^@!! I was frustrated to say the least.

Sarcophagus blazing MMM Orizaba's shadow

I was escorted back down the glacier by Robbin while Adam, continued on to the summit (You can enjoy his excellent trip report here). We were back in camp soon enough and I checked the GPS to see how high I did go. Slightly over 17,500ft. A personal best but I still felt terrible for causing Robbin to miss the summit by having to care for a tired climber. We puttered about camp while waiting for Adam. Enjoyed another alpine sunrise, seeing the sun spread its luminance over the forests of Veracruz and paint the Sarcophagus a brilliant orange.

Sooner than expected (Around 10:00am, we noticed Adam coming down the trail. He was tired but was wearing the big smile of having climbed the third highest peak in North America (18,490ft). We were both very glad to see him arrive back safely. Once his gear was off and he had some time to relax, we asked him all kinds of questions about his climb and time on top. Hearing his tale was wonderful as he showed us several of the excellent photos and video he took.

Adam on the summit MMM The Large Millimeter Telescope M Crater rim

Another crater shot MMMMM Edge of glacier and our camp M Steep ascent

I asked Adam and Robbin if they would agree to another day and night at hi-camp to see if I could get some sleep and we could try a second attempt the following morning. They selflessly agreed and then we planned for the day, taking inventory of food and water. To limit our use of gas for the stoves, we took one of the backpack liners, a black garbage bag, and used it to melt collected snow. With the unobstructed rays from the sun warming the bag, we had several liters within a few hours. Enough to safely see us through another twenty-four hours. After lunch, I attempted to contact Sr. Joaquin via the walky-talky to make him aware of our plans and to arrange transportation back to his hacienda. We tried for several hours with no answer.

I had better luck at rummy

Even from the exertions of the early summit attempt, I was still unable to sleep. Coupled with the inability to contact Sr. Joaquin and the hour of the day, it being too late to descend the Labyrinth and reach the hut before nightfall, we were now in another night at hi-camp with no summit attempt planned. So we made the best of time and played some rummy in the tent till dark while munching on a variety of tasty trail foods. Again sleep eluded me that night, but seeing the constellations against the Milky Way and a few falling stars was enough to put me at ease and realize that the mountains would always be there and having good friends to enjoy the outdoors, whether in a tent or on a peak, was more important to me than a selfish summit.

My Orizaba profile MMMMMM Route in Google Earth

The others woke prior to sunrise, so we shared known constellations and waited for the sunrise. As the new day's light started to shine on our little spot of the planet, we noticed that the area predominantly to the east, Veracruz, was covered with a thick blanket of clouds. Alone at hi-camp with no other climbers and only the occasional crow, we felt the isolation the clouds provided and felt as if we had the world to ourselves. Even though I missed Orizaba, my soul was still fulfilled with the beauty of the land around us.

Clouds over Veracruz MMMMM Sarcophagus on fire MMMM On top of the world?

Unaware of any expected precipitation, we had a feeling the cloud cover might make us a little wet during our descent back to the Piedra Grande hut, so we broke camp with practiced ease and headed down. We used crampons and axes when descending the ice and snow covered portions of the labyrinth, then we made good time to the hut returning with our loaded packs. Only a little bit of fog kissed our cheeks near the upper aqueduct and we didn't need to adjust our clothing. With a big welcoming grin, Sr. Joaquin was at the hut to greet us and provide a ride back to the Tlachichuca and Maribel's wonderful cooking.

Final Labyrinth descent M One of many memorials MM Returning to Piedra Grande

Arriving back at the hacienda, we went to our room (all was in order) and deposited our gear on the floor and made our way to some the showers for a long, hot, and much needed cleansing. With renewed bodies, minds, and clothes we sat down to fill ourselves with delicious food. After our after dinner and evening conversation, we stopped at a cyber cafe and made plans for tomorrow's day of travel to Amecameca, the staging point for climbing Ixta, La Mujer Dormida (The Sleeping Woman).

Painting at hacienda

Woken by he familiar sound of Juanita mooing to be milked, we partially organized our gear before enjoying a final breakfast with Maribel. Another wonderful repast was followed by another hot shower before finalizing our gear and bill. Prices ran roughly as follows: for each person, ~$13 per night, ~$7 per meal, ~$10 for each used gas canister, $50 for transportation to and back from Piedra Grande, and a sizable gratuity.

Unable to determine which bus line was needed to reach Amecemeca from research the previous night, we caught the the same bus (Valle/AU) on its return route to Puebla CAPU. We caught the bus directly in front of the hacienda and gave our fond farewells to Sr. Joaquin and his wonderful family. I chose to return to Puebla as it is a large city and the bus terminal services many areas over the region we were visiting.

Roughly two hours later we arrived in Puebla where I asked the bus lines customer service people how to reach Amecameca. Learned that there is no direct bus service to Amecameca from Puebla. No problem though, with a little assistance, patience, and the ubiquitous paper napkin for direction notes, we made our way. First we had to take a bus (I forget which line at the moment) that was heading past Puente del Chalco. Directions were to exit the bus about 100 meters pass the last highway toll booth, climb up Puente del Chalco (Chalk Bridge?) and cross back over the highway to the other side, follow the north road, turn right at the furniture makers store, cross over another street and then find a bus with our thumbs that was going to Amecameca. Simple, but makes for good adventure. :-) So we followed directions, lugged our packs and gear over the highways, along the bridges, dodged some crazy traffic, and grabbed the first bus that had an 'Ameca' sign in their window. Ten pesos for a 45 minute ride with our gear crammed around us but we made it to Amecemeca.

Thrown out of the bus MMMMM At least there is no ice MMMM Making the adventure

Finally onboard

The only information on lodging we had was from a prior online Ixta trip report. So we sought out the Hotel San Carlos. Located near what we'd call a city park or town square or plaza, we found our nights lodging. (We did see nicer places on the way into town, but needed to stretch our pesos, so we rolled the dice) We were very furtunate when we exited the bus as a good visual scan of the road and surroundings yielded the marquis for the Hotel San Carlos about a half mile away. As we neared the entrance to the hotel we noticed the local offices of the National Park that Ixta was a part of is located adjacent to the Hotel San Carlos. As the day's sunlight was descending on our day of travel, we obtained a room (250 pesos for 3 twin beds and a bathroom, no TV) As far as accommodations go, lets just say the Hotel San Carlos does not provide customer satisfaction survey cards. MLOLM Basic needs are met, firm bed with sheets, a towel for each person and hot water for the patient person.

Gear stashed in the room and hungry, we promptly went to the National Parks office to obtain permits and route information before they closed. Permits are required for Ixta but not Orizaba. Permits us cost 22.08 pesos per person. We filled out a hike itinerary form for the group, receiving wrist or pack bands for each person. A helpful young lady, Monica, assisted us with our questions and arranging secure transportation from the Hotel to the trailhead and back. The negotiated cost was 800 pesos for all three of us and our gear leaving at 0500 and meeting us back at the trailhead for our return at 1900-2000. It was a little higher than we desired but within our budget. (There is a storage closet underneath the stairs nearby the front desk of the hotel, we used it to keep our travel bags secure while we climbing on Ixta. Again, we had not one thing show up missing during the entire trip)

Route information from the National Park office (see attached) showed a round trip of ~11 kilometers which converts to ~6.75 miles. After acclimating on Orizaba, we felt capable of a 7 mile round trip and therefore scheduled only one day for Ixta. With info obtained and transportation arranged for the morning, we finally acknowledged our hungry bellies and made our way to the plaza in search of local fare. Many delicious tacos (Cabeza, tripa, puerco), elote (corn on the cob on a stick flavored with either, salsa, mayo or cheese) were consumed buy us (5 pesos per taco, even Costco can't beat that). Hunger satiated, we strolled the plaza enjoying the night time activities. We soon walked through a small market district (mercado) where Robbin and Adam spent some time with Lupita sampling many and purchasing some of the items offered (various nuts, cactus, sweets, and such for tomorrow's trail food). Then it was back to the room by 10:00pm for some sleep. I actually slept well for several hours, best rest of the trip so far.

Fresh, flavorful, and fast tacos MMm Lupita sharing info MMMM Take you pick

It was either the alarm or the dog outside telling us the alarm was going off that woke us up. Our practiced morning routine went quickly, leftover bags stashed under the stairs, and we were outside waiting for our driver, Arturo a little before 5:00am. He was there exactly on time to begin the roughly ninety minute drive to the National Park entrance. Scheduled to open at 7:00am, the park personnel were a little late, but we quickly showed them our permits, obtained a small distance vs elevation graph for part of the route, and jumped back into the car for another forty-five minute ride to Paso de Cortez, the trailhead for starting Ixta.

Ixta Legend
In Aztec mythology, Iztaccihuatl was a princess who fell in love with Popocatépetl, one of her father's warriors. The king sent Popocatépetl to war in Oaxaca, promising him Iztaccíhuatl as his wife when he would return (which Iztaccíhuatl's father presumed he would not). Iztaccíhuatl was falsely told Popocatépetl had died in battle, and believing the news, she died of grief. When Popocatépetl returned to find his love dead, he kneeled by her grave. The gods covered them with snow and changed them into mountains. Iztaccíhuatl's mountain is called "White Woman" because it resembles a woman sleeping on her back, and is often covered with snow. (The peak is sometimes nicknamed La Mujer Dormida ("The Sleeping Woman").) He became the volcano Popocatépetl, raining fire on Earth in blind rage at the loss of his beloved.

Popo for Ranger building and Ixta MMMMMMMMMMM The Sleeping Woman

Park sign

Arranging with Arturo for our return pickup at 7:00pm to make the park closing time of 8:00pm, we shouldered our packs and put boots to trail shortly after 8:00am. Temperature was warm enough, around 50F, that even light gloves were not needed. The sky was mostly clear with high, light clouds to the south of us. With no snow in sight, except on the nearby smoking volcano (Popo, which is not permitted to be climbed, due to activity) the terrain around Ixta provided a refreshing change from Orizaba with its surrounding ridges, valleys, and rock formations.

(Paso de Cortez) MMMMMMMM Local fauna

Trailhead to Ixta MMMMMMM Enroute

Following the well worn path, we began to ascend quickly (from 13,000ft to 14,500ft in the first mile and a half). Though we all felt good with no issues of AMS, the elevation prevented us from jogging up like a bunch of eager puppies. LOL We had gear and food in case of an emergency overnight stay, but we each shouldered our packs without comment as the trail started ascending up a rocky ridge. Pretty soon our ascending turned into scambling as the ridge steepened and we found ourselves on a rock outcropping. Though the scrambling was a pleasant experience it turned into an untimely diversion as we soon cliffed out.

We had wonderful views of he surrounding topography and enjoyed a brief respite, but we had to backtrack a little and scramble down a steep chute to the main trail that we saw from above. Missing the main trail probably cost us about thirty to forty-five minutes of valuable time. At the base of the cliff, we picked up the main trail and began a gradual ascent next to the base of large rock formation.

Fun scrambling MMMMMMM Returning to correct route

First pass MMMMMMMMMMM Approaching second pass

Finishing our gradual ascent we arrived at a pass where the actual climbing of Ixta begins (I believe we were starting at the ankles section). But we turned in the opposite direction once at the pass and went off trail for maybe fifty yards for a snack break. Checking the clock and the distance covered so far, we rearranged our packs, going from carrying one pack each to two packs total, leaving the third, mostly sleeping gear, as a cache. We did this to lighten our load a little in the hopes of making up some time.

Wonderful terrain MMMM Lunar landscape?

Back on trail we continued to climbed the dirt path as the clouds started to appear. Again the trail turned into some very light scrambling. Onward we went, enjoying the diversity of the terrain, finally peaking out on the scramble and then we saw the hut below us. Coming down the small ridge the trail took us to another refugio. This hut was expected as it is mentioned in several Ixta trip reports. Named the 'Grupo De Cien Refugio' (Group of 100 hut)

Passing the hut we saw the trail go up a steep section of scree to what we believe was the base of the knees. Less then a quarter of a mile in distance, the scree section demanding our attention as it was steep, slippery with plenty of pebbles, and at roughly 16,000ft we had to take it slowly. Forty-five long minutes later we were past the scree and at the next section. With all three of us standing at the base of the knees, we took a few minutes of rest while enjoying the clouds that were dancing in and out amongst us.

Approaching the Refugio MMM Another memorial MMMMM Plenty of contrasts

Prior to putting the packs back on we took note of the time and I studied the GPS intently. It was a little after 1:00pm and we knew we had just passed the hut. Per the Park information map the hut was supposed to be at 2.87 km (1.78 miles) but the GPS showed we had covered 5.63 km (3.5 miles) since the starting at the trailhead. Damn it !! We came to the realization that the Park info was incorrect by a factor of two. Instead of an expected seven mile round trip, we were looking at fifteen miles.

Full profile of Ixta attempt MMM Map provided by park and copied on a sign (note Dist, vs Elev)

A sense of deja vu came over us. It was obvious that we had lost the summit, again. So we played the same game and sent Adam off with a further lightened pack and our best wishes as he aimed to get as far as he could before the turn around time of 3:00pm. Off he went, scrambling up what we thought were the knee's of Ixta. Several times we saw him reverse direction and change course, but his attempts at further progress were not as successful as we had hoped. After thirty minutes Adam conceded the scrambling (class 3) and returned to the top of the scree section with us.

Adam trying to scramble up the knees MMMMMMMMMMM Behind and below us

Proper route explained here

Well, nothing to do but turn around and make the best of the return trip. We cautiously descended the scree section and took a lengthy respite at the hut, exploring the inside, writings, and several of the surrounding memorials. Then packs back on and down we went, returning to our cache to pick up all our gear and continuing at an easy pace. All three of us really enjoyed the Ixta trail with its diversity of conditions. We all agreed that we wanted to return and accomplish Ixta in its entirety.

We arrived back at the trailhead with an hour to spare before Arturo was scheduled to show up. It had been a lengthy day for us so we took a little siesta as we watched the sun bid us its daily farewell.

Tired climbers waiting for their ride

Wonderful sunsets

Arturo arrived precisely at 7:00pm and we gratefully climbed in for the ride back to Amecameca, where we washed up at the hotel then headed out for some late night tacos. With only one more day for us in Mexico before our return trip, we wanted to play tourist and see the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. We located the bus terminal and learned that the bus for Mexico City leaves every fifteen minutes starting in the early hours of the morning. So we headed back to the hotel with semi-solid transportation plans and crashed. Best sleep I had in over a week was in a one star hotel. MLOL

Two views of Ixta Route in Google Earth

Well rested, we woke before the 4:00am alarm. Showered and shouldered our packed gear and bags for a short day of travel, hopefully. Walked the ten minutes to the bus station and three gringos where on their way to Mexico City within two minutes for the low price of $40 pesos (~$4.00US)(SUR bus lines). It was roughly another two hour bus ride, which brought to mind the geographical oddity that every destination we sought necessitated a two hour bus ride. M:-)

Half of the bus ride was through Mexico City itself, which has a metropolitan population greater than 21 million. Sometime during the morning rush hour we arrived at the SOUTH Bus Terminal. After a few inquiries, I learned that our staging city for seeing the pyramids, San Juan, was only accessible via the NORTH Bus Terminal. So we took a safe taxi from one bus terminal to the other one. The safe taxi or 'taxi seguro' is a pay first for destination then line up for the next available taxi driver. Our shuttle to the northern bus terminal cost us 25 pesos each (~$2.50US). We got a grin out of the driver who drew our fare. He saw three passengers with six bags and tried to refuse to take us, claiming to the other drivers that we would not fit (Just about all the taxis were old, small Nissan Sentras). We took his dilemma in stride and showed him, with big smiles of our own, how we could fit everything in the car. All the bags and us went in without a problem. The driver was silent the whole time to the North Terminal. M;-)

We were dropped off at the first opportunity when we arrived at the North Terminal. I made a few inquiries and found the bus line (Teotihuacan Lines if I recall correctly) that provided service to San Juan (25 pesos per person). Then I asked about hotels and was given two names, 'Quinto del Sol' and 'El Sol y La Luna'. I had an unsubstatianted hunch that Quinto del Sol was the more touristy and therefore the more costly of the two. It turned out to be true. During our 'two hour' ride to San Juan, we passed the Quinto del Sol hotel and saw that it was geared more for tourists. A little more patience and further into the city, we were dropped off about two hundred yards from the other hotel.

The hotel, El Sol y La Luna, was the nicest place we stayed to date. Along with a customer survey card, they had breath mints on the coffee table, and the SPARE roll of toilet paper was folded in a flourish for astethic purposes. We three tired climbers were in heaven. MLOLM Cost for one night ran us about $13.00US per person. Bags deposited in the room, we inquired at the fromt desk how to reach the pyramids. We were informed we could take the bus or walk about two miles. Much better to explore new surroundings on foot, so we opened the door and made our way towards the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

On our way to the pyramids, we stopped at a colorful restaurant for a hot brunch. We each ordered different dishes, with Adam having the Conejito (Rabbit) platter, and enjoyed a nice sit down meal. Meal paid for (most expensive was ~$10.00US) we then continued walking to the pyramids. During a curve in the road, we could see one of the pyramids through the trees. Soon enough we arrive at one of two entrances.

Roadside cafe to enjoy a relaxing brunch MMMMMMMM Fresh steak and sides

First peak at Pyramid

$51.00 pesos gained us access and $35.00 pesos more was charged for my camcorder. We passed through the section of souvenir vendors who were just opening their stalls for the day's tourists. With no observable flow to the park, we went straight to the pyramid of the sun and climbed it like any good hiker would. 233ft later, I could claim my first and only summit of the entire trip. MLOLM Located at an elevation of ~7,680ft, we saw several non-acclimated people laboring to find their breath as they climbed the many stairs to the top.

Passing vendors as they open

The Sun Pyramid provides an excellent vantage point to survey the surrounding layout of the ancient city. To the north was the Moon Pyramid with the main thoroughfare between the two dominant pyramids being called the Street of the Dead. To the south were more and smaller contructions as well as some living quarters that had been excavated. Throughout our wanderings I found little posted information that could have explained what we were looking at. Though the museum, no extra charge, had plenty of information about the city and its history as well as numerous artifacts. And my memories of the movie, Apocolypto, let my imagination run in various directions.

Pyramid of the Sun MMMMMM Street of the Dead MMMMMMM Pyramid of the Moon

Pyramid of the Sun MMMMMM Street of the Dead MMMMMMM More excavations

Museum objects

We spent about five lazy hours wandering the ruins, enjoying the day off from climbing. Upon leaving the Park grounds, without any souvenirs, we were swarmed by young kids anxious to have our attention and our money in their respective restaurants or clubs. They drifted off when we ignored their hawking as we already had a place in mind for a late lunch. Much closer to the pyramids and therfore more expensive we decided to enjoy some seafood for a change. I settled on the Camarones Holendesa (Dutch Shrimp) (Butterflied shrimp, stuffed with cheese, and wrapped in bacon) and enjoyed every bite. After this early dinner, we returned to our previous spot during our walk back to the hotel where we felt we had earned some helados (ice cream).

Back at the hotel around sunset, we prepped our bags for tomorrow's departure back home. Soon enough we had finished and decided to go explore the San Juan district. The hotel clerk gave us directions to the nearby central plaza and twenty minutes later we were enjoying more of the sights, sounds, and smells of the Mexican night. This plaza was larger than Amecameca's, as expected, and provided all sorts of digestive diversion. Tacos al vapor, enchiladas, pazole, vampiros, helados, churros and many more were all available to enjoy. Adam and Robbin enjoyed trying the many items offered and swore that the churros they ate were the best ever. I had a hankering for some American junk food, so I picked up a bag of cheese puffs. ;-)

More delicious food MMMMM Made fresh and fast

Never seen such a large bag MM Future trail meals?? MLOL

DAY ELEVEN (return flight day)(tired of typing)
- Woke early, prepped bags and bodies for return trip. Went back to plaza for breakfast. Fantastic fruit bowls and different types of tacos for breakfast.
- Caught bus back to Mexico City bus terminal (North) (25 pesos per person) and then used the seguro or safe taxis to get a ride to the airport (110 pesos total).
- At airport for several hours, played rummy and ate some leftover trail food. Security a little more reasonable. Able to take greater than 3oz of fluids on plane, just had to prove it was safe by drinking some of the liquid yourself.
- Flight uneventful, baggage and customs in Phoenix was easier than expected. Almost missed flight back to Seattle, last ones on board, whew.
- Seattle return as expected, gray and raining. LOL
- Nothing lost, no injuries, no incidents, all returned safely. Adam got one of the two peaks and we learned lots of fun while having grand adventures. Successful trip !!!

Feel free to contact us with any specific questions.


Jay said...

Hey I watched Apocalypto on Saturday, good movie. Bet it was eerie walking up those steps after seeing that flick. At least they didn't paint you blue before letting you in.

Perhaps you will get another chance at Orizaba next year. Another nice report Mike. Love the shadow picture.

Pliny said...

I really enjoyed the detailed story and the spectacular pictures. They do a good job of showing the amazing scale of that mountain. For me it was like being there without all the hard breathing. It was obviously a grand adventure and the trip of a lifetime in spite of missing the summit. As for Robbin; what a great tribute to her character that missed her summit to see you down. Hope to see you out on the (little) mountains here soon. Jim

Mike said...

Thank you both Jay and Jim. Really appreciate the replies. :-)

Adam captured quite a few decent shots that we graciously shared.

R/ Mike

Adam said...


I just read your report. Excellent job capturing the mood and some of the funny situations of the trip. You did a much better job recording the finer details than I did in my short report. I especially liked how you included that legend about Popo and Ixta. I'll always remember those days we spent together in Mexico. I included a link to this report in my report on Summit Post.


Mike said...

You are too kind Adam. It was an exceptionally enjoyable trip with wonderful mates. Looking forward to the next tone.

R/ Mike

Anonymous said...

良言一句三冬暖,惡語傷人六月寒。 ..................................................

Mike said...

Thank you !!

Jay said...

Miss your reports Mike! Going to post any hikes this year?

Pliny said...

Mike, I lost your email. I just wanted to send a link to my blog I am doing while traveling this month.
Jim---see if this works.

Moises said...

Thanks for the report and nice pics, good info for me now that I'm planing a trip to Orizaba next month. I have been to Nevado de Colima, Mexico and got AMS at 13,000ft. But this is my fist time going to Orizaba I hope I'm able to acclimate to the altitude I live at sea level (Seattle).

Gracias nuevamente!


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