Pico de Orizaba
22 February 2014
Last month Hubert, Ephrat and I were hanging out in June Lake, finally taking the second day of a long-delayed ice climbing class that we arranged last year. Our instructor, Dave, is a world-traveler climber and it's really entertaining talking to him. He lives in June Lake, a very tiny community and really isolated in winter, but he just came back from a long journey in the Alps. Lucky him!
While chatting at the ice crag, he mentioned he was going to Mexico to guide some people on Pico De Orizaba and he hinted that would be a great climb for us. The idea is definitely not new and Hubert and I have been talking about doing the Orizaba trip for several years at this point. We initially thought that would be the perfect intermediate peak before Denali, but things went very differently. Our first high elevation mountain was in Peru, then I and Ephrat made it to the top of North America last summer. But Pico De Orizaba remains a beautiful mountain in a country that I always wanted to visit.
Hubert has some serios down time because of his back problems and he racked up quite a bit of time off from work. I am always fluctuating around zero balance, but generally it's not a big issue for me to take time off.
Ephrat had a "lucky" situation, when she worked extra hard one full week and then managed to take the entire following week off. We postponed buying tickets for Mexico City for at least a week and, the day we finally decided a deadline for it, we extended the invitation to Dafna, Ephrat's siter. Nicknamed 'sugar sister', Dafna is not the type of person that would pass on an adventure for a matter of vacation time or money. Our fifth recruit was also easy to persuade. John works few blocks away from my office and that morning we met for coffee; once I told him about the plan, he said he was seriously interested and, just few hours later, he had both time-off and buy-in from his wife!
Saturday, February 22nd 2014
The five of us met at the San Francisco international airport for the red-eye flight to Mexico City (this was my first red-eye flight). Dafna flew from Seattle a day earlier and worked from San Francisco to simplify the logistics and the short Uber ride to the airport was a no brainer. Once there, we met Jon and Hubert, who had to give us his mountaineering boots in order not to exceed the 23 Kg allowance with United Airlines. Hubert boots have always been source of entertainment, since the giant German wears size 15.
The start was a bit messy, with Hubert forgetting a knife in the carry-on (who doesn't...) and having to ship it back and with a beer-drinking session that ended with the airline personnel calling our names because the flight was almost completely boarded. I can sleep pretty deeply in almost any circumstance and I was disappointed by how quickly the four hours elapsed. Fortunately the excitement offset the sleep deprivation and by early morning, after a remarkably long line at the customs, we were at the bus station with destination Puebla.
I am always astonished by how nice and efficient buses are in Central and South America. Our bus had wifi (slow, but working), pretty comfortable seats, air conditioning. At this time of the day we still had no idea where to stay in Puebla, since none of us took the time to really plan this trip. All we had were few printouts from SummitPost that Hubert brought, since I managed (as usual) to leave all the beta I gathered the day before in my backpack back home.
Despite having 4 smartphone in 5 people (normal ratio in the Bay Area), I was the only one with an international data plan; in retrospect I think that saved us a lot of time, but it would have been perhaps more adventurous just to go blindly to town. At the busy bus terminal in Puebla we made the first mistake taking a cab from the road and not from the authorized kiosk inside; we ended up paying 160 pesos for a very short ride to the historic part of Puebla. The hotel was randomly selected from a list we found online and the price seemed appropriate, although we later discovered other places may have been cheaper.
It's striking how difficult it is to make a simple decision when five people are involved. Even deciding how to split up in two rooms took a great deal of talking, but eventually we made it. For the duration of the trip the most opinionated person was probably Hubert, followed by me. John and Ephrat had their opinions, but did not care too much and 'sugar sister' did not give a dime, she just wanted to eat and have fun.
After the check-in we started walking ramdomly in Puebla, looking for an ATM. That was easily accomplished and the reward was to be care-free for at least a couple of days. We were all surprised by how nice Puebla is; none of us had any expecations and we even considered not visiting Puebla at all and rather go somewhere else. What a foolish mistake that would have been!
Although we had been away for less than 24 hours, I was already feeling completely in a different world. Street life in Mexico is hectic, but so different from what I am accustomed in Europe or San Francisco. In Puebla people do not stare at their smartphones while walking, there is no concept of 'hipsters' and there are very few (if any) homeless people. The city is nice and clean and the downtown streets are covered in cobblestone, something that seems to be true for every town we visited.
Passing though a street market Ephrat spotted a beautiful artwork that we promptly bought with money borrowed from Sugar Sister. The artwork was an oil painting and Ephrat had a chance to meet the artist that created it and took a picture with him. We paid with no negotiations 700 pesos, which visibly made the artist thrilled; we knew we could try to lower the price, but we both decided that the price was appropriate, especially for a westerner. Making a living out of art is a near-impossibility even in more developed countries and I feel we helped somebody that day.
Exhaustion was starting to build up and we retreated to our hotel room for a siesta. Two hours of good rest revitalized us and, after experiencing the amazing street food that is part of Puebla's heritage, we went to bed for the day.
Sunday, February 23rd 2014
My vacations are definitely not known for having down days or 'enjoyable' days, but this was to be an exception. Sunday's itinerary was extremely low-key and all we had in the agenda was to visit nearby Cholula, north-west compared to Puebla, and check out an ancient pyramid that is the main attraction in town.
The walk to the bus station was fairly long, but it gave us the opportunity to have breakfast and check out Puebla on Sunday morning. Not surprisingly almost everything was closed when, at 9 am, we headed out, since Sunday is the day of the week when people go to church.
Spanish missionaires definitely left their traces, since I hardly recall seeing so many cathedrals and churches anywhere else in the American continent before.
Some streets were closed to traffic and it was quite pleasant to walk around; as always, the waiting time for the bus was negligible and soon we were in Cholula. I distinctively remember how 'daring' the bus driver was and I was smiling at the idea of having him as a MUNI driver in San Francisco.
Once in Cholula we got hinted by an english-speaking woman and we got off the bus, greeted by hundreds of people crowding the cobblestone streets of the small town. On the way to the pyramid we purchased a gigantic fresh-squeezed orange juice for less than 100 pesos, what a treat.
The area surrounding the pyramid features a big street market with artworks, food and other miscellaneous items. That's where, on our way back, Ephrat and I bought a second piece of artwork that followed us for the entire journey.
The pyramid is located on a hill and Spaniards thought it was appropriate to build a cathedral on top; we did the short hike to the top, nice views but hazy day. Ephrat and Dafna bought several rolls of chocolate from a local woman that is a real delicatessen back in San Francisco.
On the way down the hill from the cathedral we passed by the pyramids. Not much to see, honestly. I was far more entertained by all the stories Jon was telling us about his youth than looking at those Aztec ruins. On the way back to the bus station we found a very rustic place selling 'gorditas', one of the food highlights of the entire trip.
Once back in Puebla we got our stuff we stored at the hotel (monopolizing the little storage they had and that was supposed to be shared by all the guests) and took a bus to the main bus terminal. Our destination was Apizaco. From there we took a collectivo to the vacation center at the base of La Malinche, a big volcano that would serve as our acclimatization hike.
The collectivo driver definitely applied western fares and we kept seeing people paying just few pesos whereas we were asked 150 pesos to get to our destination. Before we left he mumbled something about the last collectivo going to our destination being at 4 pm (it was past 5) but he could still take us up there for a bigger fee. However it went, it was a relief to be at the cabins at the 'centro vacational'.
We dined at the restaurant, racking up quite a bill, but that included beer and dessert, a treat I was not willing to give up that night.
Monday, February 24th 2014
We woke up early, at 6 am, to get to La Malinche. The climb is almost entirely on trail, but with over 4,000 feet of gain at elevation (the volcano is taller than Mt Whitney). As soon as we opened the door we were greeted by a stray dog that already eyed us the night before and apparently waited for us the entire night.
The hike is straightforward and the mix of road and trail kept climbing up very steeply. There were not that many decisions to be made and it was fun to just chat and enjoy this unknown part of Mexico. We were aiming at what we thought was a bump on the ridge, where we took a lengthy break. That's where the wind started picking up, so we all wore some expensive western garnment at this point.
The dog, which we named Chalupa, was still with us. She was starving and dehydrated and we gave her some bread we stole the day before from the restaurant and some water from the camelback. That seemed to be really good for her and she made it all the way to the summit! What a dog!
On the way up we spotted two people that we happened to see the day before at the restaurant; they were two guys from Colorado that we later met at the Piedra Grande hut.
It was during the way up that I started to feel more and more sick and I was quite exhausted when we reached the summit. Definitely I was feeling the elevation, but my stomach was not feeling good at all. I started to think what could have caused such a tummy ache and I thought about the strawberries I had in Pueba. John had warned me that strawberries should be avoided, but I totally forgot about it and got a cup of them during our street-food quest.
On the way back we decided to tag another sub-peak of Malinche, just to have a longer day. After all, it was still very early and we had nothing to do for the rest of the day.
Everybody agreed to continue, to my big surprise. I am generally the one insisting for those types of detours, but this time it was Hubert! I was favorably impressed. In retrospect I don't know if I should have continued or not; the summit looked way more difficult than it actually is, but my physical conditions were pretty miserable.
Once I got to the summit, my 4 teammates were waiting for me and snacking on food; I wished I could do the same. All I had for the day was a minimal amount of bread and just some water. The cramps on my belly were pretty bad and I had to stop and take deep breaths quite frequently.
Hubert led a fairly direct line down the mountain, easy for humans but not-so-easy for dogs. Nonetheless, Chalupa followed us all the way back to the cabin.
On the stroll down I spotted a man that seemed to have a giant load on his back; he was moving slowly and panding and was inquiring about other people we passed on our way down (there were quite few people going up at this point, including a woman with a very small baby).
This guy, an American that moved to Mexico 20-something years ago, was carrying his daughther on his shoulders! The little red-head was not talking and was perfectly still on her dad's shoulders. This fella shared with us that he has 7 children, 'all from the same mother'. Wow.
The rest of the way down was pretty uneventful and we got back to the cabin in broad daylight. After a little rest to a 'tent' at the entrance of the village where we got drinks, I went to bed to rest for a bit since I was feeling very weak. Ephrat came with me and shortly after the rest of the gang joined.
The 'tent' is family-ran and the husband offered to take us to Tlachichuca for 700 pesos, but we negotiated 600 pesos and a stop in a nearby town to buy supplies and get money at the ATM. Later that day we returned to the tent for a much cheaper dinner. We were all happy with what we got, but once more my dinner was extremely slim and my stomach was definitely suggesting me I should not eat for the day.
Tuesday , February 25th 2014
Scheduled time for breakfast was 9 am, so there was no sense of rush at all. I woke up with my stomach begging for food, but my breakfast was still a tiny one as I didn't want to do the trip to Tlachichuca with a potential throw-up I'd have to hold the whole time. The hippy van that we were to ride for a couple of hours was in ridiculously bad shape. When our driver tried to turn it on in the morning it didn't start at all, so he pushed it near the start of a gentle downhill in order to turn it on later on.
We mentioned him several times we wanted to go to Senior Reyes in Tlachichuka and he nodded, suggesting that he knew what we were talking about.
The brief stop in town for resupply was refreshing and we bought canned food as well as bread and some other perishables that we'd consume for lunch the next several days. Our driver indulged himself with street food while we were shopping and he looked particularly happy that morning.
On our way to the final destination, while I was observing how good of a highway we were actually driving, we were pulled over by the Mexican police. He was visibly nervous and he had to bribe them with 50 pesos in order to be released (I understood they were complaining about him having passengers for profit without having a license, a quite true argument for the matter).
After the episode we decided to pay him the 700 pesos he initially wanted, but when he asked to have the money at a gas station he never thanked us for overpaying him 100 pesos.
Once in town we were driven to a competitor of Mr Reyes; not a big deal, but we had a verbal reservation with him that we wanted to honor. It was obvious that the poor man would get a cut from the other place and that was probably part of the reason why he charged us so little, but we still decided to go to Reyes after the excellent reviews we read online.
Reyes striked as a little odd; he spoke very good English, but he was very reluctant of giving us any sort of information. When we told him we wanted to climb Sierra Negra he didn't tell us anything until we paid, then he said it was way out of the way and a permit was required and we there was a much better acclimatization hike that he recommended. Why not saying that earlier?
Senior Reyes gave us a small tour of the climbing hostel, a former soap factory founded by his grandfather. That part was pretty neat and the place is a real gem. The hostel is clean and the decorations are nice, featuring posters from mountains around the world and climbing books. We soon discovered that all the prices in Tlachichuka were for Western people and Mr. Reyes was definitely riding the wave and charging a remarkable amount of money for lodging and service.
Just for a comparison we collectively paid 3,500 pesos for the 4wd trip to Piedra Grande, whereas the hippy van charged us 600 for a ride that took as long. Obviously the fleet belonging to Reyes included 4 really bad ass jeeps with insane clearance, but still I think that the service was very well paid.
The acclimatization hike he was suggesting was on gentle slopes on the north side of the mountain and it was conveniently on the way to the Piedra Grande hut. Well, conveniently for Mr Reyes. Every day he tries to send only one vehicle up there (which is sensible given how strenuous the road is) and this hike was no detour for people going up to the hut. I firmly believe that there would have been several other (higher) options (we went only to 13,500 feet), but we didn't know any better.
That night we went out for dinner in town and the tiny restaurant didn't have a menu. Most of the food had pork in it, but we still managed to get some Kosher food for Ephrat and Dafna (Dafna is way less strict that Ephrat, but she prefers not to have any pork).
We didn't have to wake up early at all the following day, so we ended up the day playing cards and having fun.
Wednesday, February 26th 2014
I spent the night with an upset stomach and woke up in real need of food. We purchased breakfast at Senior Reyes, which proved to be really palatable. I was growing sick of tortilla smell and I was dying for some lighter food. For the first time in my life I thought that American food wasn't that bad, since you always have at least one or two lighter options, which in Mexico seems not to be an option. We also ordered fresh squeezed orange juice (for which we had to pay extra), which was a real treat.
Two guys from Massachussets, that we met on the way back from La Malinche, were to share the ride with us and their guide.
The four wheel drive vehicle was indeed a serious vehicle with an enormous clearance, but the ride is bumpy and I get carsick easily. For me the ride was pretty bad and I got sick in my stomach more than once. It was a big relief when they pulled over and we met our guide for the day.
The guide was a local young man, who was living just a couple of kilometers down the road. He didn't speak any English, nor he was trying to talk too much anyway. He was just hiking at 'touristic' pace with his dog. We were merely following him, not asking any questions. The hike was easy and, although it was true that there were no trails, it would have been pretty easy to find our way up the gentle slopes.
I started feeling much better and after just a couple of hours we emerged on top of a ridge that exposed the imposing north face of Pico de Orizaba. Too bad that the clouds were covering much of the mountain; we knew the weather forecast wasn't good for the afternoon and we were ready earlier in the morning... and I am sure that Mr Reyes also knew that it was going to be overcast in the afternoon, but it was more convenient for us to share the ride rather than sending a separate vehicle just few hours before.
Views were still grand and the mountain did look impressive, but the glacier didn't seem to be that bad, which was somewhat reassuring.
On the way down we took a slightly different route and we went past some waterfalls. It was nice to see water and we all found it extremely unlikely given how dry the surronding terrain was. But I can confirm that waterfalls do exist in that part of the mountain!
Once down, we started to talk about our hike and we considered whether it was really worth the time and money, since we went "only" to 13,500 feet. I tend to get very loud and animated when I discuss and that upset Ephrat in large amount, since she thought that we were just complaining without having a constructive conversation. I disagree with that and I still believe that the hike was probably worth it; it would have been nicer if the hike was a couple of hours earlier, mostly because views would have been clearer, although this is specific to that day and cannot be generalized.
Back at Reyes we had nothing to do but relax and wait for dinner. The agenda was to have as much rest as possible and we played that card well. Dinner was very tasty and that night we had the whole place for ourselves, since everybody was gone. Not bad!
We played cards for quite a bit and I think Dafna won the most, definitely uncharacteristic given the previous rounds.
Thursday, February 27th 2014
This was going to be another easy day. I woke up leasurely by 8am or so, but the others woke up much earlier hopong to have a good view of the mountain in the early morning. When I went downstairs everybody was sitting at the table and chatting.
Once breakfast was over we headed to town to buy groceries which we used to compliment the lunch boxes we purchased at Reyes.
We were ready to go at 11am, because the day before we were told that we would leave at that time; only later we discovered that we were waiting for two people coming directly from Mexico City. Like I said, Mr Reyes was pretty reluctant in giving us the big picture; we were unaware that these two very nice fellas needed breakfast (lunch, really) and had to figure out a lot of the logistics.
By the time they were done, it was past noon. The two gentlemen were from Colorado and were trying Pico de Orizaba as an insane push, bypassing any acclimation hike given that they trained at high elevation in Colorado.
We shared the ride with them, but I didn't get to chat since I needed to get in the front seat in order to avoid puking over my teammates and they understood.
From the place were we hiked the day before the road became definitely rougher, but I still believe I could have done most of it, probably all of it, in my Rav4.
On the way to Piedra Grande our driver hit and killed a puppy; I looked on the rear mirror only to see the poor animal moving the front claws and dying. That was incredibly upsetting. I look at the driver and he pretended nothing happened and told me "Piedra", which means "rock". I wanted to tell him to stop, but I didn't. For the rest of the ride I didn't feel like talking to the driver at all; at the pee break I asked the others whether it was just me or they also saw this happening and they were all shocked, confirming my story.
After one last rough turn, Piedra Grande comes to sight. It's a small cabin and from the first spot where you can see it it appears to be much closer than it really is.
We all brought tents and we were considering sleeping outside, but when we got there we decided we would stay inside the hut. That proved to be a bad decision, but it simplified the logistics a lot.
The big question mark was the conditions of "the maze". The first person we saw when we parked in front of the hut was one of the Massachussets guys who triumphantly said they both made it. Then we inquired about the maze conditions and they confused us quite a bit, saying it was not difficult but that they would not do it without a rope.
Their guide was either unwilling to give us any information or he was unaware of being very confusing; he reported a very icy section, very steep, but he said he would do it without a rope if he was by himself: At this point we really didn't know what to think.
Our best bet was to send somebody to check the route out. Our heros were the two sisters and Hubert, while I and Jon stayed in the hut and finished preparing the beds.
At the cabin there were not many people; two people from Colorado, one guy from Canada with his son and the two Colorado fellas that came up with us. The rest were guides and people working for Reyes that were helping at the cabin. There were also a handful of people working for a movie crew; although the actors moved to high camp they were still at Piedra Grande.
We talked quite a bit with the people at the cabin, anxiously waiting for our partners to come delivering what I expected to be good news. They came back much later than we thought and I was afraid they would lower their probability of making it by getting very tired, but this was silly thinking.
Their analysis was simple: if you want to avoid the ice in the maze, go left. So we decided that there _was_ an easy way up the maze. Eventually the Canadian fella, who had been to Pico de Orizaba several times before, convinced us that the best route was to go up directly and it was not such a big deal to do it and that's what we ended up doing.
I'd like to capture the fact that the two Colorado fellas that were already at the cabin had their hiking poles stolen supposedly by the film crew (ugh), but most importantly they provided wrong directions and they ended up in steep ice, on which they were very uncomfortable.
After an early dinner we went to bed to get our 6 hours of sleep. Everything was going fine, except that there is a golden rule that proved to be true even in this case: if you EVER share a room in a hostel or a hut, there WILL be somebody snoring. And this was no exception. Argh! I am very sensitive to snorers and I could hardly fall asleep. On top of that, the support crew for the movie returned to the cabin at around 10pm and they could not care less about being quiet. I yelled at them few times, but they would keep making a bunch of noise. In my mind I was thinking that it would be very satisfactory to hit them right in the nose, but the consequences would be a high-altitude fight that was totally unnecessary...
Friday, February 28th 2014
Our summit day started pretty early, at 1am, but given our usual speed we didn't start before 1:45am ... no names here. We managed to make a lot of noise in the cabin; I was pretty worried about it and the Canadian fella woke up and asked us to go outside; he was totally right, but I considered that a pay-back to the unpolite guys that kept me awake long time the day before.
The start was very rough for me; I was slow, much slower than anybody else. On top of it, my stomach was hurting quite a bit and I had to stop for an unplanned serious toilet break.
It was frustrating to see people disappearing and having to wait for me for minutes, but I was feeling really sick at every step.
Scouting the route the day before greatly helped and we went very smoothly to the beginning of the labyrinth. At this point I started to feel a lot better and I was ready to take on the challenge. We started to go straight up, after a bit of talking, like suggested by the cabin-mate. This worked really well for most of the way. There was an icy section that required to be a bit careful, but nothing that I would call deadly; I've been scrambling on places way more exposed than the maze and with much worse snow and ice conditions, so I knew that was not going to represent a threat to us.
There was a bit of thinking at one particular spot, because there were some PVC pipes that were reportedly off-route, but we all bypassed the obstacle and found ourselves in easier terrain.
After a short break we started walking on the glacier; the transition from the volcanic terrain to the glacier was very smooth and, after disconnecting my brain for few minutes, I realized that I was walking on snow.
Once at the glacier we all knew it was just a matter of endurance to get to the summit and I was indeed feeling like a new person. The way up is long and it took a great deal of time. The sun-cups and and faint trail that climbers created over the season made the route-finding very easy, but the summit is a lot further than it initially appears.
On the way up there was a fantastic view of the sunrise with the shadow of the giant volcano just behind us; we could see La Malinche quite well and the view of the glacier was crystal clear.
Several times I thought I spotted the actual summit, just to realize that a much higher point was behind it. We walked and we walked. I got extremely cold because of the wind and stopped to put on my big puffy; at this point John and Hubert had already taken off to the summit, whereas Ephrat and Dafna were a short distance behind me.
We never cought up with Hubert and John and they were waiting for us at the summit for quite a while when we eventually showed up. The ironic part is that the summit does not look like the summit from 100 feet away!
It happens like everybody says: you are walking for what it seems an infinite amount of time and all of a sudden you find the summit cross, which denotes the highest point.
We all made it! We congratulated each others, had a snack, took pictures and started to head back. The way back from the glacier was much easier and losing elevation was recharging me more and more. Hubert removed crampons and used his giant feet to ski on the glacier and got at the bottom of the glacier a great deal of time before us; once again I was the laggard, mostly slowed down by more cramps that I got while on the glacier and that fortunately went away after another visit to the bathroom.
On the way back we proved that the 'left' route is free of snow and ice and, despite being longer, is a feasible alternative. Our driver was parking the jeep right when we got back; we negotiated 20 minutes for cleaning after our stuff and, after chatting and saying a final goodbye to people at the cabin, we left.
Back at Reyes all we wanted to do was take a shower and get to Mexico City; it was shocking to discover that Senior Reyes wanted to charge us 30 pesos for the shower and we were unwilling to do so, mostly because of the principle. John was the only one that disputed not having a free shower after climbing the mountain, but Senior Reyes didn't change his mind and we left unshowered.
We took the bus to go back to Mexico City, a much chaper alternative. That involved two lags, the first to Puebla and the second to Mexico City. Both buses had movies going on, but the most notable 'pelicula' was 'Ride Like Hell'. That movie reminded me why I hate Hollywood and most of the American productions, but now I will always say 'Ride like hell' when I mean 'do something non-sense and stupid while riding your bike'. Way to go. We used my phone to find an accommodation in Mexico City and we ended up in the historic center. This time we used an official taxi service that didn't overcharge us and we got to the hotel quite easily.
It was late and we were exhausted; the girls went to bed but I and the two others found the strength to go out for dinner. We found a good place where we got tacos, then we ended up the night drinking beer that we bought at 7/11 at the hotel reception where, oddly, there were few people sleeping.
Saturday, March 1st 2014
Our last full day in Mexico was really supposed to be party time; we went to breakfast to a delicious place that Hubert found online, but unfortunately Ephrat felt sick and stayed in the hotel the rest of the day.
I have not really much to report for the day, except that we walked a lot. We visited the Torre Latino Americana and really got to appreciate how giant Mexico City is. We shopped around for food and drinks and we ran into a group of Justin Bieber's fans (can you believe it?).
By evening we bought some medicine to Ephrat, but it didn't help her too much. We ended up the day playing a lot of cards in a pizza-by-the-slice place and drinking in several different bars; that was a pleasant Saturday night with friends in a foreign city, like I didn't have in a long while. Btw: if you run into "indio" beer, simply don't drink it, I think it's disgusting and rather save your alcohol budget for some delicious tequilas that would cost a fortune in the United States or Europe.
Pico has been on the to-do list for a while and I never thought we could have a smooth trip with five people, but that worked out greatly. In retrospect I don't think we could have done much differently and I have no regrets for any decision we made. If you are thinking about doing Pico De Orizaba be reassured: you can make it and have a blast in your summit quest...