Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mexico Volcanoes Climb ~ Trip Report ~ Jan 29 - Feb 6, 2011

In early 2011 Eric Wempen, Jim Gouwar, and myself traveled to central Mexico to gain some high altitude climbing experience and build on our very successful trip to Climb Mont Blanc about 18 months earlier.  This would add to around a dozen trips I have led to climb Iztaccihuatl  (17,159 ft - 5,230 m) and Orizaba (18,491 ft - 5,636 m).  Iztaccihuatl is also called Izta and is the 8th highest peak in North America, and El Pico de Orizaba is also called Volcan Citlaltepetl and is the 3rd highest peak in North America.

El Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet - 5,636 m), 3rd highest mountain in North America

Of interest, here are the 10 highest mountains in North America:

#1: Mount McKinley (Denali) (20,320 feet - 6194 m)
#2: Mount Logan (19,541 feet - 5956 m)
#3: El Pico de Orizaba (Volcan Citlaltepetl) (18,491 feet - 5,636 m)
#4: Mt. St. Elias (18,008 feet - 5489 m)
#5: Volcan Popocatepetl (17,749 feet - 5410 m)
#6: Mount Foraker (17,400 feet - 5304 m)
#7: Mount Lucania (17,257 feet - 5260 m)
#8: Iztaccihuatl (17,159 feet - 5,230 m)
#9: King Peak (16,972 feet - 5173 m)
#10: Mount Bona (16,550 feet - 5044 m)

I had always been under the impression that Izta was the 7th highest mountain in North America, but as I researched this trip report I realized that Mount Lucania is actually the 7th.  Either way, our primary objective was to climb Orizaba and Izta was the most logical place to acclimate.  In the past we used to climb Popo, which sits next to Izta, for acclimatization, but in December of 1994 it once again began to erupt and has been closed to climbers since then.

Our trip began on Jan 29 when we all flew from our home cities to Mexico City, the world's third most populous city with a population of 21.2 million people.  We checked into our hotel, and immediately headed to the local grocery to pick up the fresh food that we would need for the trip.  These days you can buy just about anything you will need in Mexico Cities excellent grocery stores, and I was amused to purchase a half-dozen apples that were likely grown within a few miles of our home in Leavenworth, WA and picked by Mexican migrant workers.  The world is getting smaller by the day.


After a night in the hotel and an excellent meal we were met by our driver, Rogelio, early the next morning for the drive to Izta, which is located about 70 km from Mexico City.  On our way we passed through the town of Amecameca, and then drove up to the Paso de Cort├ęs, which is the low point between Popo and Izta and a significant place in history as this is where Cortes crossed in to Tenochtitlan on his way to conquer Moctezuma and the Aztecs in 1519.  The pass is located at around 11,150 feet (3400 m).  Mexico City is located at around 7,350 ft (2,240 m) so we were starting to acclimate while in Mexico City and this would build on our acclimatization.

At the pass we checked in with the National Park and paid our 25 Mexican Peso (about 2 dollars in 2011) per person fee and started our hike toward Izta.

We hiked about 7km with a slow uphill gain toward La Joyita, the trail head for Izta.  Along the way we came upon a series of simple buildings that we later found out were the set for a Mexican TV show, and not actual vacation cabins as we had first guessed.

Hiking around the Paseo de Cortes provides really fantastic views of Popo, which still smokes to the South.  When I first climbed Popo in 1988 I remember Pat Rastall, a guide with Colorado State Universities outdoor program, telling me that one of the best things about climbing Popo or Izta was the view of the other mountain while on the climb.  The scenery here is very spectacular.

A new trail has recently been constructed that runs along the pass that is great for mountain bikes, and allows hikers to use the trail, rather than the road when walking from the pass to La Joya.  In the past much of the hike followed the road, which at this time of year can be very dusty.

We hiked beyond La Joyita as we started up the regular route on Izta, the Arista de Sol, and climbed up to about 14,500 (4,420 m) feet as part of our acclimatization plan.

There is a very good trail that runs up the Arista del Sol route as far as the Grupo de los Cien Hut, but like most volcanic trails, it is at times very loose and steep, but easy to see.

At the end of the day we drove down to Amecameca to spend the night in a hotel and allow ourselves a bit more time to adjust to the altitude, following the high-altitude plan of "climb high, sleep low."

The next morning, now day 3, we drove back up to La Joyita (located just a few meters shy of La Joya, which is often mentioned in guide book descriptions) with a plan to carry about 20 liters of water up to the Grupo Cien Hut to acclimate and also to put in place some water for the climb as there is no water on the Arista del Sol route on Izta during this time of year.

We headed up the same trail we had climbed the day before, this time continuing on to the Grupo de los Cien Hut located at around 15,500' (4,750 m) where we planned to sleep the night prior to our climb.

Today our packs were a bit heavier as we were transporting close to 40 lbs. of water and we would be climbing a bit higher than the day before.

The Grupo de los Cien hut is a usuable space, but is not very fancy and could be very tight, and very difficult to sleep in if you are sharing it with other climbers.  We took the risk of not bringing up a tent as it was midweek.  In the photo above Jim and I are showing off some of the water that we carried along.

Here is a photo of the hut with Jim and Eric in the door and the start of the climb showing just beyond the hut.  The primitive trail goes up and through the rock band before traversing to the climbers right to gain the ridge and the ruins of another hut.  Many climbers opt to descend a steep, loose gully just out of sight to the left.

On the upper section of the trail to the hut there are a few easy sections where you need to work your way thorough some loose rock that is at times slightly steep.  It is never difficult and does not really require scrambling, but is getting beyond what you would call a standard hiking trail.

Here is a shot looking back up at the trail below the hut on a nice section.  Very beautiful, very dry.

Here is Jim just above La Joya with Izta in the background.  The summit is the farthest peak on the left, which looks a bit lower from this perspective, but it lets you see how much of the mountain you need to traverse to climb from this side.

After reaching La Joyita, we hiked down and across to this bizarre array of antennae that has a small hut called the Altzomoni Hut 13,000 feet (3,950 m).  This would be our first night sleeping up "high" and things went really well.

We had a beautiful sunset and I ran out during dinner to grab a photo of Izta.

Here is a shot of the interior of the hut.  There is no running water, but there are toilets that can be flushed by dumping water from large barrels of water in the hut (non-potable) directly into the toilet.  If staying here, be sure to bring your own drinking water.  Maybe a step above a tent, but not by much.

As nobody else was using the hut we had a room entirely to ourselves and we cooked in the hall.  Each room sleeps 8 people and has mattresses.  With the help of Rogelio we made burritos with Carne de Res and had a feast.  The next day all we needed to do was hike up to the hut, so we got to bed early with plans to sleep in.

We were up around 7 am and hiking by 9:30 am.  Rogelio gave us a ride back to the pass at La Joyita and we made the trip back up to the hut in around 4 hours.  Here is photo of Jim and Erik in the door the evening before our climb of Izta.  You can now see the descent gully on the left side of the photo.

Here is a shot inside the hut showing the cooking space in the center with the triple tiered bunks on either side.  We were careful to sleep on the middle bunk as this is the hardest for the Ratoncitos ("mice") to reach in the middle of the night.  At one point during the night I leaned out of the bunk and counted 6 mice on the floor!

Here is the view to the West as we cooked dinner at the hut.  The smoke and smog is a combination of the pollution from Mexico City and smoke produced by people burning the grass around the edges of their fields and as well as old corn stalks in recently harvested fields.

The views became even more interesting as the sunset progressed.

Erik and Jim watching the sunset and contemplating the climb the following day.

Looking out the door of the Grupo de los Cien hut on Day 5 of our trip.  We were in bed by dark, which seems to fall just after 7 pm.  When we went out in the dark it was amazing to be basically in a wilderness while looking down upon a population of over 20 million people just a few miles away.

The next morning (day 6) we woke up at around 2:30 am and were off by 4 am.  We climbed steadily up and through the rock band before taking a break about 1100 feet above the hut.  We climbed around 2/3rds of the route in the dark and were just below the summit when sunrise arrived.  We needed to wear crampons for a very short section as we descended to the top of the Ayoloco Glacier and traversed toward the summit.

Sunrise on Izta looking toward El Pico de Orizaba, which is to the East.

Jim making good time on his way to the summit of Izta with Popo in the distant background and the Ayoloco just behind him and to the left.

Looking East at the summits of La Malinche and El Pico de Orizaba from high on Izta.

Our team on the summit of Izta with Popo in the background.  It took us about 3.5 hours to reach the summit from the Grupo de los Cien Hut.

This is one of my favorite shots from Izta.  It shows Eric and Jim walking down the Arista del Sol after coming off the summit of Izta.  Note how the cold air coming down the mountain has pushed the smoke in the valley to the east away from the mountain.

The climb up Izta finishes with some steep ridge walking.  It is not to the point where you need to scramble, but it is a place where you need to take a bit of care.

As we crossed over the upper sections of the Ayoloco Glacier we had to negotiate sections of "Neve Penitente Snow" where the glacier was very melted out.  We were able to make it all the way back to the trail head for a total time of just of 9 hours round trip.

When we got back to the trail head things were starting to cloud up a little bit.  This provided really good photos of the summit, but would prove to add to the difficulty of climbing our next objective, Orizaba.

We drove off the back of the Paseo Cortez down to the town of Puebla, one of the nicest spots in Mexico.  We checked into our hotel that afternoon around 4:30 pm, took showers, and repacked our equipment for Orizaba.  The hotel is old, very nice, and full of interesting paintings.

Puebla has many quaint spots to eat and we wished that we had more than one evening to spend in this beautiful colonial town, but we still had some climbing to do.

Here are a few night shots of the area where we ate dinner near our hotel.

On the morning of day 6 we drove 2 hours from Puebla to Tlachichuca.  There was a big windstorm that was moving a lot of dust around, but we still managed to get good views of the mountain.  Tlachichuca is an interesting place as it is an agricultural center and you still see people plowing with mules or oxen, and people riding horse drawn carts loaded ten feet high with firewood or corn.

In Tlachichuca we base out of the Reyes Family compound.  They have turned a soap factory that goes back three generations into a climbers base camp and dormitory featuring a comfortable seating area, spaces to pack and leave gear, hot showers, sleeping quarters, and a dining room where local meals are cooked for visiting guests.

The interior of the soap factory has a large collection of old tools, soap making equipment, and various flags, posters, and stickers that have been left by climbers who have visited the area over the past 30 years.  I first stayed here when I was 19 in 1988 and while the quality of everything has improved (I love it!) it still has the essential character that attracted me in the first place.  Waking up to the sounds of roosters, Mexican music, vendors, and all the noises of rural Mexico is always a highlight of my trip.

Here is part of the old engine that ran the operation and was built in Chicago and then shipped to Mexico.

On this visit we did not use the Dodge Power wagons that the Reyes family maintains for transporting climbers up to the Piedra Grande Hut, but looking at them brought back memories of the many pleasant, but dusty, rides I have taken in these vehicles over the years.

Here is myself, Erik, Gerardo Reyes, and Jim outside the soap factory and dormitory.

Some of the Calla Lilies in the garden at the Reyes compound in Tlachichuca.

Jim and Eric loaded into the back of the truck for the multi-hour drive from Tlachichuca to the Piedra Grande Hut.

As we drove out of town the wind was picking up and you could just barely see the mountain through all the dust.  This wind never really died down for the next 24 hours.

As we drove higher and higher we passed through the town of Hidalgo and got better view of the El Pico de Orizaba.

Eventually you round the corner and you are looking directly up at the route you will climb, which basically goes up the drainage in the center, passes to the left of the Sarcofago, the peak in the foreground, and then climbs up the steep Jampa Glaceir to the crater rim and summit of Orizaba.

The Piedra Grande hut is by no means fancy, but it did allow us to not bring a tent and simplified the camping process.  The hut is located at 14,000' (4267 m).

The inside of the hut has been repainted and cleaned up by the outfitters that provide transportation to and from the hut and we were happy to have the hut to ourselves once the group that had climbed the day arrived headed down the mountain.

The hut has 2 sections of three tiers of bunks, and can sleep as many as 50 or 60 people, not a situation I would ever want to witness, and a good reason to avoid climbing on a weekend.

We woke up at 1 am and were able to walk out of the hut by 2 am.  It was still fairly windy outside and we had some concern that it would be much more windy up high.

As we climbed upwards the wind remained workable, but made for a pretty cold climb.  The lower sections of the route are exposed to significant rockfall hazard so we were very careful to only stop in places that offered some level of protection from rockfall coming from the dark cliffs above us.

By the time the sun rose we were well up onto the Glacier de Jampa.  Here we are taking a break at around 17,200' (5,242 m) where we sat in the wind and watched the sun rise.  At this point I was very unsure if we would be able to make the summit given the combination of high winds and a steep, relatively slick glacier surface.

As the sun rose the colors became more and more spectacular and motivated us a bit to stick with the climb.  The photo above is looking to the East and gives an idea of the angle of the lower Jampa Glacier.  At this point things are still pretty reasonable, and you need to commit to climbing the steeper slopes above.

On all mountains you often see a very impressive shadow of the mountain to the west as the sun rises and this was an exceptionally beautiful shadow.

We were in and out of the clouds and the summit had a cloud cap, which would make the winds up high even stronger.

Eric and Jim buckled down and climbed very strongly from 17,200 all the way to the summit at just over 18,400'.  We took a line out to the climbers right side of the Glacier de Jampa that went almost straight to the summit, but narrowly avoided putting us over the ice cliffs to the west.  As we neared the crater rim we wanted to get over the the rim, but the wind kept us out on the glacier itself.  Here are Jim and Eric on the summit after climbing to the top in just under 7 hours, a very impressive time, but one that we needed to take given the conditions.

From the summit of Orizaba you get very wild views down into the crater rim, a treacherous and inhospitable place.

Jim on the summit displaying some of the rime ice he picked up while climbing in the clouds.

Eric with his iced up clothing and eyebrows on the summit of Orizaba.

We made the descent back to the hut and then took the 4WD truck back to Tlachichuca.  After a great dinner and a long night of sleep we headed to Mexico City.  On the drive to the city we decided to take a short detour and visit the pyramids outside Mexico City.  We went to Teotihuacan, site of an ancient city that dates back almost 2000 years and lies to the NE of Mexico City.

We climbed the steep steps up onto the Pyramid of the Moon.

You would think something like this would be easy after climbing the third highest mountain in North America, but we were all still a bit tired and dehydrated after climbing 2 mountains in the past 3 days.

We then went over and climbed to the top of the even larger Pyramid of the Sun.  It was interesting to see folks meditating on the top and struggling to get up and down the steep steps.

Here is a shot looking down the steps that lead to the top of the Pyramid of the sun.

Jim and Eric on top of the Pyramid of the Sun with the Pyramid of the Moon in the background between them.

I had them shoot the obligatory tourist photo of me, the guide, for posterity.

There is an really interesting museum near the Pyramid of the Sun which we toured on the way out.

No visit to these spots is complete without reading about the human sacrifices that were made on most of the pyramids throughout Mexico.  This is an odd shot to end the trip report on, but it was one of the last photos we took.

Hats off to Jim and Eric for such a great trip and many thanks to the Reyes family for providing us with excellent transportation and support. 

If you would like more information about guided climbs to Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, the Mexican volcanoes, feel free to contact the Northwest Mountain School at 509-548-5823 or visit our website at: