South for the Winter: Orizaba & Company

by Scotty Strachan


2002 was a year that exceeded the wildest aspirations of peakbagging glory --- at least for my climbing partner Barry and myself! After dayhiking the California 14'ers with a few extra challenges thrown into the mix (such as the memorable dayhikes up the NE Ridge of Mt. Williamson and the East Face of Whitney) we decided to end the year on a very cool note: by grabbing some real altitude on some Mexican volcanoes. Coincidentally, the University department that we are affiliated with has a remote climate data-gathering station near Colima, so Barry & I set up a plan to recover data and bag some peaks over the winter holidays...

Complete Travel Outline

By flying down in Barry's general aviation aircraft, we were able to set our own schedule on a day-to-day basis. While a Piper Arrow has slightly less ground speed than a Boeing 737, the fun and adventure of flying ourselves more than made up for the extra time involved. Aside from the fact that we experienced Barry's first-ever in-flight mechanical failure over the El Desierto in the morning darkness of the second day, the trip went smoothly.

We left Reno 12/27/02 just ahead of a winter storm, stayed overnight in Yuma and Guaymas, and arrived in Colima via Tepic on 12/29/02. We stayed at the inexpensive-but-recommended Hotel La Merced before heading up Nevado de Colima the next day. On 12/30/02 we drove up to ~12,000' on Nevado, took care of our weather station, and climbed the twin summits at ~14,000'.

After another night at La Merced, we flew out to Puebla, passing Nevado de Toluca, Izta, and Popo on the way. Away across the plain we could see La Malinche and Orizaba sticking up through the 13,000' garbage layer, the glinting Jamapa Glacier looking positively inviting from that distance. We finally secured a rental vehicle (like so many places on this trip, the pre-arranged agency was closed) and hightailed it for La Malinche, intending to get some more altitude that afternoon. Due to classic guidebook directions, we didn't make it to the Malinche National Park until 1700 local or so. The summit was reached via headlamps, and we were in our bags asleep long before the ball dropped in Times Square.

New Year's day found us arriving in Tlachichuca after an uneventful drive. Again, the finding our way up to the recommended parking area near Hidalgo was a tedious, time-consuming operation. Thankfully, we had been briefed on the approach by Matt Anderson, a fellow Reno Ultimate Frisbee player who had just done Orizaba in October. His slide show and memory helped us greatly. We camped at Piedra Grande, and summited Orizaba the next morning on 1/02/03. After returning to the hut, we hitched a ride to our car and drove to the highly recommended Hotel Imperial in Puebla.

Our nonstop schedule started to catch up with us at this point, and so we waived the planned Izta plod and left for home. After a night at the not-recommended Posada de Los Condes Hotel in Zacatecas, we made it back to Reno 1/4/03 in one long day via Guaymas and Yuma. We will be putting up more trip-related pictures on our respective homepages soon.

Peak Details

Mexican Volcano número uno: Nevado de Colima, 14,240'

We drove up the easy-if-dry dirt road to the Colima National Park, staging the vehicle near our weather station at ~12,000'. After taking care of our duties there, we cruised up the radio-tower access road towards the summit of Nevado de Colima. As the day wore on, sporadic clouds began to roll in and out at high speed, making for very alpine-like weather. I kept my Marmot Dri-Clime shirt and REI polypro on for the entire hike. Volcan de Fuego (a 13,000'+ cone on the south side of Nevado de Colima) was smoking lightly and ejecting large hot objects down the south-west slope every few minutes. I really enjoyed spending the afternoon in such proximity to a "live one". After passing the radio facility around 13,000', we struck out across the sandy slopes, which at times were an unpleasant reminder of the Langley hike this summer. Fortunately, the hike is so short on Colima that it's over before you know it. I purposefully took a fourth-class+ route up to the summit to keep things interesting and to get there quicker. As we took photos from the top of the true summit, the clouds continued to blow in and out, but the wind directly on the ridge was almost nonexistent. A quick jaunt to the second, more exposed summit followed before we returned to the truck; the volcanic rock here really showed the effect of lightning strikes! Not a fun place to be in a storm, I guess...

Volcano número dos: La Malinche, 14,640'

One day after our return to 14,000', we both set new personal altitude records on this "tourist peak". Although we had only minimal time to acclimate, the effects of the summer's work must have still been with us; neither Barry nor I experienced any obvious effects of altitude during our walk up La Malinche. We were obliged to do this one in the dark due to our late arrival at the camping area, but the New-Year's Eve festivities commencing in every village below kept the hike interesting. Upon paying our camping fee at the gate, we threw our tent on the grass and started walking around 1736 local as the sun went down. Before we hit treeline, the headlamps came on, and the fireworks all around had started in earnest. Later on we decided that it was for the best that we couldn't see the seemingly endless sandy slope that came next, as it looked quite demoralizing in the light of day. After a bit the ridge was gained and we made fast progress up the talus to the top. We had done the ~4,500' unfamiliar high-altitude ascent in the dark in 2:49. Some quick photos and a change of clothes were in order as we were both still in shorts and it was quite chilly! The cool guy at the park gate had hurriedly drawn a crude map showing major landmarks and approximate distances for me, and this came in quite handy on the way back down, as the trail forks in a couple places through the forest. We got back to the tent and grabbed some rest, as the next two days promised to be downright difficult.

Volcano número tres: Pico de Orizaba, ~18,600'

Driving in Mexico is fun, as long as you know your destination; like most other things down there, the rules are waaaaayy relaxed. We got to Tlachichuca quickly enough, but the final 10 miles of road came the hard way. Somehow we made it up to Hidalgo, where we promptly took the rental Nissan up even further until a high-center was assured. We stuffed our packs with overnight gear and started up what looked like the right road --- at least it went up towards Orizaba. About an hour before dark we made it to Piedra Grande, where we set up our tent and looked vainly for water (after we got back from the summit, we noticed some newly-arrived climbers making a water run down the gully to the east). There were two VW Bugs parked at the hut when we got there, and while we were setting up a 3-cylinder 12"-wheeled economy car chugged up and unloaded 4 people with gear! That was too much for us, as we hate to pack extra gear, so we rationalized our afternoon walk from 11,000 up to 14,000 as an "acclimation hike".

At 0430 the next morning, we got up and headed up the aqueduct under the light of our headlamps; Barry had his time-honored Black Diamond crag pack, and I had my Mountainsmith Ghost. We followed the trail without trouble to the "high camp", where we came upon two tents with no occupants. At this point we were running low on water, and as we learned from the Williamson excursion, you can't melt snow in your hydration bladder without a bit of water to accelerate it. Accordingly, I chopped into a drift on some nearby rocks and extracted a few large wafers of frozen snow. This ended up being enough to get us through, but it would have been nice to have an excess of water on this climb! I hate water rationing. I had my PUR filter ready, but we never found running water, even in the early afternoon. Soon after this we reached the section where the "Tongue" used to be. Currently it is just a series of steep, frozen gullies between small ridges of highly-polished stone. We kept to the rock, and soon were on the glacier itself. At this point we took out our crampons and prepared for the final assault just as the sun peeked around the icy east slope. Both of us were using lightweight high-top hiking shoes (in my case some last-minute Merrill shoes purchased at Dillard's in Yuma) with flexible Stubai Aluminum crampons, and they felt quite secure in the crust that covered the glacier. In the light we could see a party of four climbers making their way to the crest --- it turned out they had left the high camp at 0200 or something! We traversed to the far right as we crossed the bottom of the glacier, and then took a diagonal across the steep face for the high point. This way, we finished the steep section just yards from the actual summit, and stayed on nice snow instead of the very slippery-looking direct NNE face. About halfway across the glacier, I forgot to blow the water back into my hydration bladder and the entire hose froze. On the way up the steep section, I was only able to stop once and pull my pack off to sip directly from the lid; on the way down, I followed Barry's lead and put the bladder under the front of my jacket to get warm. As the morning wore on, the air temperature rose enough to help me thaw the thing out.

Making a steady pace to the top required arguably the most work I have ever done --- whether it was the lack of sleep the night before on top of hiking a few thousand feet in the prior 24 hours, or the altitude, or the lack of fitness, or food or water, who knows --- but by the time I got to the crest I was beat! We stayed a few minutes to take some pictures, and then started back down. While neither of us had headaches, both had a little nausea and were pretty weak to boot. Just going down took a lot of effort and required more than a few rests! Negotiating the steep icy/rocky section at the "Tongue" proved tricky in reverse, but eventually we made it down to where the last of the party of four was packing his tent. We passed two of the others on the way down, and got to the hut without mishap. After hitching an expensive ($20!) ride in a Reyes Dodge back to our car, we were greeted by a flat tire and some nasty Spanish phrases drawn in the dust on our window --- along with three little dings made by a rock. Ahhhh, Mexico.

Concluding the Adventure

Most of the lessons learned here are unimportant, however a few are worth noting:

1) If you drive up to Piedra Grande from the north-east instead of the north-west, you can make it with the most pathetic vehicle you could imagine --- to heck with the guidebooks (time of year surely plays a part)

2) If you took French in school, you still get charged gringo prices

3) Hiking in the dark is possible --- you navigate by following the trash along the trail

4) And of course.........don't forget to pack your hand-picked hiking boots!