In November 2010 Hector and I attempted a summit of Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltepetl, which is Nahuatl for “starry mountain.” At 5,747 meters, it ranks as North America’s third-highest peak and Mexico’s tallest mountain. When I first laid eyes on it — on a road trip over to Veracruz in 2007 — I told Hector I wanted to climb to the top. He said I was crazy, it was impossible, and only experts make the trip. But the idea kept simmering in my mind, and I set it as my big goal before leaving Mexico and returning to the States at the end of 2010.
Being mountaineering novices, we opted for a package that included meals, pre-and post-climb hotel stays, transport to and from base camp, equipment and guide service on the mountain. Our drivers picked us up at noon Saturday in the village of Tlachichuca, which serves as a point of departure for nearly all Orizaba expeditions, for the two-hour drive up to base camp. The deeply rutted dirt road is impassible to all but the beefiest four-wheel-drive vehicles.
We hiked the last mile to the alpine hut as a warm-up, then sat around inside with three dozen other climbers and an assortment of guides, cooks and drivers. The hut is simple but offers refuge from the fierce, cold wind outside, as base camp sits above the tree line at 4,200 meters. We hadn’t thought to bring books or cards and so were bored, trying to keep quiet so other climbers on the platform next to us could get some late afternoon and early evening sleep. Nearly everyone attempting the summit starts in the wee hours of the morning — the so-called “alpine start.”
The next day we went for a mid-day acclimatization hike up to 4,500 meters with our guide, Lupe. The terrain was steep, rough and crumbly. But with snow where we leveled out, we had a chance to try out some of the gear we’d be using the next day — crampons and piolets. A recent cold front had dumped a lot of snow on Orizaba, which we knew about the weekend before when we hiked Iztaccihuatl (one of the twin volcanoes closer to Mexico City). The Izta trail offered great views over to Orizaba, and we were alarmed to see so much snow on the mountain well below where the permanent glacier at the top lies. But Lupe told us that snow is good. It pads the icy glacier and makes the trip easier and safer.
Back down at base camp, we ate and then tried to get some rest, but there were so many climbers coming, going, cooking and talking that we only got about three solid hours of sleep before it was time to eat a quick breakfast, pack up and set out in the wee hours of the morning.