Eight weeks on the road has allowed us to cross paths with numerous individuals: relatives and strangers, old friends and new. All of which are on their own journey, whatever it may be, the only constant being it was different than ours. Upon arriving arriving at the Piedra Grande Refugio, found 20 kilometers to the south east of the Mexican mountain town Tlachichuca, the differences fell by the wayside. For three and a half days our goal was exactly inline with those around us – successfully summitting the third tallest mountain in North America, Pico de Orizaba.
Our siege of the mountain began with a pitstop in aforementioned Tlachichuca to gather supplies and a bit of information on the mountain from the reputable Señor Reyes, proprietor of Servimont, the classic European-style climber hostel in the heart of downtown. From there we embarked on a roller-coaster two hour drive up to 14,001 feet where the Refugio Hut stands and our acclimatization process began.
Pico de Orizaba
Signing the registry
Climbing tools of yesteryear
Piedra Grande Hut
Hidden in the clouds
Orizaba peeking out
I would be lying if I said our acclimatization process was all day-hikes, mountaineering stories, and games of chess. Due to the fact we had spent the last month+ at sea-level, we had a long way to go to adjust our bodies to the thin air and lack of atmospheric pressure. Señor Reyes’ recommendation was for us to hike down 2,000 feet to the tree-line the first day, as opposed to up. Of course, ever confident in our bodies physical capabilities we chose to ignore his advice and within 18 hours at elevation I was unable to hold down food or drink. Carson was able to squeak by without any major ailments beyond a small headache, but I was forced to retreat back to town at lower elevation for a night of rest and eating as it would be impossible to tackle an 18,490 foot peak on an entirely empty stomach.
Five and a half thousand feet higher, the Refugio was full of energy and anticipation as climbers from all over the world prepared to tackle the mountain. During our stay we came across climbers hailing from Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, The United States, Japan and Spain. Truly an international community. It is worth noting that while all of us had the same end goal in mind, our methods differed in many ways. For one, we planned to not only climb the Mexican giant, but ski it as well, hopeful we would be able to steal a few good turns on the 2,250 foot decent of the Jamapa glacier. Next, climbing without guides is always our first inclination unless absolutely necessary or required by local law (Ecuador..); instead we prefer to lean on heavy research and our proficiency in the outdoors. What’s more, we encountered a difference in approach nay alpine philosophy we had not been previously exposed to – we planned to climb without the use of pharmaceuticals designed to aid acclimatization process or postpone its effects. The number of climbers using Diamox was both surprising and frankly disappointing. A poem by fellow rope-team member and brother, Carson Bowlin, captures our shared sentiment well:
Can You Take Me Higher?
Popping pills pave the way
I’m thinking about a summit today,
Patience aside, process lost,
A chemists’s concoction is what I’ve got,
A pure form pursuit of a high alpine climb
I traded away, with Diamox on my mind.
Climbing the glacier
After returning from the natural remedy of lower elevation, we made a push up to ~16,000 feet to drop our skis, boots and crampons for the following morning’s summit bid. We felt strong returning from the gear drop, the forecast predicted clear skies and moderate winds, it was time to strike. Our ascent started at 6am, around three hours later than most groups depart in an effort to give the glacier’s surface-layer time to soften in the morning sun for our ski-descent. The climb itself went exactly as planned – a stunning view of the rising Mexican sun, consistent quality purchase of the ice by our crampons ensuring good footing, and thousands upon thousands of steps coupled with gulps of thin air as we slogged higher. Meteorologists had it right that day and while healthy 30mph winds did their best to impede our progress, there was no stopping us. We made good time to the summit, snapped a few quick windswept photos then locked and loaded for a highly anticipated ski descent.
Top of Mexico
The snow ended up being better than predicted and we were even able to find a few small wind-gathered powder stashes to slash. Within a single minute we were no longer cold as the adrenaline surged through us. When ski mountaineering, one has to ask whether the real prize is bagging the peak or the ski descent – that’s a question I still don’t know the answer to. In all we were able to log just over 2,000 feet of vertical before resigning once again to boots and crampons. Before swapping over, we exchanged numerous high-fives – a few for the turns, a few for setting new personal altitude records, and maybe one due to the natural high of the much act thicker air.
Slashing the pow stash
Base of the glacier
Powder snow in Mexico?
We will return someday
From that point the decent was uneventful and soon we were welcomed backed into the Refugio like Templars returning from a Crusade. A celebratory cerveza was enjoyed, a few quick stories shared and before we knew it we were headed back down to town where we planned to check in with Señor Reyes and catch up on some much needed sleep. That night we were able to sleep sound with the knowledge Orizaba had been conquered. Our first international climb, done in classic NW ski mountaineering style, 4,000 feet higher than Mt. Rainier. Our stoke level rides high and the anticipation for our next peak even higher.