This blog post is about Parker and his friend’s attempt to summit El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, and how the significance of the feat was found not in reaching the peak , but in the little wins against a big volcano.
Four and a half years ago I met a climber at Mesa Rim who spoke of a volcano just outside of Mexico City tall enough to dwarf a 14’er. At 18,491’, El Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico, third largest in North America.
This past October, I decided that I was going south to check it out. My partner Mike and I took the first flight out of San Diego Sunday morning. We had a layover in Phoenix before landing in Mexico City, followed by a four hour bus ride through Puebla to Tlachichuca. Resting at a little over 8,000’, this would be our home for the next week. We utilized a local guiding company for lodging at their home and four wheel drive transportation up to base camp, we were treated like family but received little other help.
We hitched a ride up to base camp to drop off a guided group. We spent two hours at 14,000’ doing our best to acclimate, which meant doing nothing but drinking and snacking. Frosty breath and slightly hungry with a headache, I didn’t move much. Mike went higher than I on a short walk outside basecamp and we drove back down to sleep at 8,000’.
We left with all our gear at 10am headed back to the Piedre Grande Hut (Basecamp, 14,000’). Today was an acclimatization day too, no real hiking or activity. Ambitious, we had been convinced to do the entire route in one day from this hut. I was a little concerned for how fast this was and my concerns were later realized as the group we dropped off the day before got sick over night and decided to go down with the car that brought us up. By the end of day, we decided to extend the trip back to our longer itinerary leaving more time for acclimatization. Indecisiveness was my worst enemy on this day filled with nothing but thought. Regardless, spirits were high and we felt strong, as we should.
Often times in climbing there is a certain motivation to reach the top, the summit, the ridge, the spot higher than where you were last time, or whatever other locations of success you may desire. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I get confused on my own motivation, am I doing this for my own personal growth and achievement? Or am I doing this to put a photo online and let everyone else know of what I achieved? Both feel good, yet the former is clearly the healthy motivation I want. All of this confusion aside, my motivation to be there did not matter anymore. The fact was I was in Mexico, I was at the base of an 18,600 foot volcano and although I was armed with a camera I felt I was there for only my partner and me.
When we woke up at 14,000’ Mike was sick and unable to eat or drink, yet I felt fine. We immediately hiked down 1000 feet and napped for a few hours before returning to the hut. Mike was now good to go but in the course of an hour I deteriorated to nausea, headache, and the inability to eat or drink. Our ride was not coming back until 3pm the following day, we had too much gear to carry it all down, and we knew we would not be able to recover for the hike tomorrow at this altitude. We decided to grab enough of our camping gear for the one night it would take us to walk back to town (what would be a 2 hour car ride). We left all our bulky and heavy snow equipment at the Piedre Grande hut hoping we could intercept our guide picking us up tomorrow morning and retrieve the gear.
As we retreated the feelings of failure set in, we tried to justify every way we could, that it was too dangerous to go up, that the itinerary was too fast, that the Jeep was late, we did not have enough food to stay the amount of days needed, or that we weren’t ready. What were we going to tell our friends and family? Our coworkers? How could we travel all the way down here and not even start the route? At this time the 20 minute walk Mike took outside the Piedre Grande hut on day two was going to be the high point of the trip and I didn’t even go with him, I was not ready to accept this!
As we hiked through the sickness we had dropped to 11,000’ and started feeling strong like I wanted, like I expected to feel. We realized if we could make it back to the hotel and sleep well at 8,000’ there may be a chance we could still make it. We ended up hitchhiking for 500 Pesos from Hildalgo, a town 3 hours hike away. We got back to surprise our guides and let them know we needed yet another ride back to the Hut the following morning.
It’s my birthday today, and although I planned to be on the summit, I was happy enough to be redelivered to the Piedre Grande Hut for the day. Based on our flight home to San Diego we only had one day of climbing left, tomorrow. It would have to be a long push from 14,000’ to 18,500’ and still be back by 3pm for our ride off the volcano. All day long we sorted gear and got food ready for the next day. We felt great but I was unable to sleep, either excitement or altitude, I was hoping for the former but it didn’t matter at this point.
Taking advantage of our second chance we started at 12:30 am with a stove, energy gu’s, a few of my favorite bars, crampons and axe, all the clothing I had, two liters of water, and we returned by 2:30 pm. It was slow, steep and bitter cold in the morning. I remember wearing my ski goggles in the morning darkness to keep my eyes warm. There was fresh snow on the ground through some tricky to navigate gullies. The sun was nowhere close to rising when we started on the 2,500 feet of glacier. We had reached the crater at the top in 8 hours and 41 minutes. Ironically, this crater was not completely level, there was a ridge to the South highpoint on the crater about 25 minutes away and we chose to not go to the true summit. We were tired, a storm was coming in, but more importantly, we were satisfied.
The trip only cost $1100 a climber and I will gladly help answer any questions if you are interested in going.
Parker Onufer – Assistant Operations Manager