Sunday, November 1, 2009

Climbing in Mexico

Back in 1994 Cory and I did a two week trip to Central Mexico to climb the big volcanoes east of Mexico City. We linked up with some local Mexican climbers to climb Iztaccíhuatl (Izta), at 17,802' the fifth highest peak in North America. After making that summit we rode a bus back to Mexico City then took buses to eastern Mexico near Veracruz to climb Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltépetl, at 18,840' and is the third highest peak in North America. A third peak, Popocatépetl at 17,600' was on the agenda but since it was erupting at the time the Mexican soldiers wouldn't let anyone climb the mountain. Probably a good thing for us.

This was probably my greatest guy type adventure. Cory Hines and I did the entire trip carrying everything on our backs, taking local buses to get around and did the climbs without any guides or, for that matter checking in with anyone at all. Climbing in Mexico is pretty straight forward in that there are no rangers, no radios, no safety people, no nothing. When we climbed Orizaba we were the only people on the mountain at the time and if there had been any trouble we would have been entirely alone.

Iztaccíhuatl 17,802'

The top photo is Izta from a distance and the shot to the left is taken on the flank of Izta with Popo in the background. We were probably at an elevation of around 16,000'. It was a beautiful day with great views. Most of this climb is on rock with only the final 1,000' or so on snow. We did this climb in March which is a good weather window down there. Ironically, most of the snowfall comes with the summer rainy season so the best climbing weather is in the winter and spring.

We drove from Mexico City with our Mexican friends and started the climb from La Joya at 12,000'. La Joya is situated in the Paseo de Cortes which is a pass between Popo and Izta. Legend has it that on the original Cortes expedition he and his men came through that pass and first sighted the Aztec capital of Mexico. I guess as they say, the rest is history.

The same first day we climbed up to a hut at 15,500' to spend the night. Spending the night isn't the same thing as sleeping. At that altitude and not being acclimated all you can do is try and stay warm and keep breathing. Funny thing was that hut was full of mice and they kept running across my sleeping bag. Hell, I wasn't sleeping anyway. The next day after an early start we made the summit and climbed all the way down to La Joya. More pics here:

After our friend Maximilliano dropped us off at the base of the mountain in the village of Amecameca we spent the night in an interesting hotel then hopped a bus back to Mexico City and spent a night there.

Pico de Orizaba 18,840'

The next day we took a bus to the city of Orizaba then a smaller local bus Cuidad Serdan and spent the night in another interesting establishment. The next day was yet a smaller bus with major character to the villiage of Tlachachuca. This village is at an elevation of about 8,500' and is the closest town to the base of Pico de Orizaba that has any facilities at all. There is a local guy there named Sr. Reyes who makes a side income housing climbers in an old soap factory and providing transportation from the village up to the climb starting point at Piedra Grande at 14,500'. Sr. Reyes' main man Guillermo, who was about 4' tall, drove us in an old converted Dodge PowerWagon to Piedra Grande. On the way up we passed through the tiny village of San Michele at 11,200'. We we were told this is the highest permanently inhabited village/town in North America and the link below has a couple of pics of this place. Pretty grim place to live.
There was another climbing party coming off the mountain when we arrived and Guillermo gave them a ride back to Tlachachuca leaving us on the mountain by ourselves.

We started the climbing about 2 am and for the first several hours it was just a hard slog on a rocky path up to about 16,000' where the glacier began. We strapped on our crampons and continued up the ice. I have to say that at somewhere between 17,500' and 18,000' I was on my last legs. Altitude like that when you are not well acclimated does very strange things to your metabolism and thence to your brain. I became very emotional and varied between laughing and crying. To this day, continuing to climb on from there and reaching the summit is the most difficult thing I've ever physically done. We made the summit, took a few pics and headed down. One interesting thing is in the pics you see a lot of crosses. Each one of those crosses represents someone who has died on this climb. Oh yeah, on the way up you have to pass any number of crosses for more of those who didn't make it. Anyway, on the way down it started snowing and while the crevasses aren't very big it was a concern because due to the weather coming in we were high tailing it down as fast as we could manage. When we got back to the hut at Piedra Grande Guillermo was there with a whole new group of climbers from the Yosemite Climbing Guide group. It was snowing like the dickens and we are certain that for the next few days that group could do nothing but sit in that mouse infested hut and stew.

Guillermo got us back to the old soap factory and over the next couple of days we bused it back to Mexico City for the flight back home. Great trip!

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