El Pico de Orizaba
By: Jack Cronk
As our AirBus winged its way South from LAX toward Mexico City, I peered out my window and began to ponder the plan that we had developed. The backbone of our strategy was to build-in acclimitization and a couple of weather delay days. We were spending a night in Mexico City at 7,341 feet, a day in Tlachichuca at 8,530 feet, a day near the village of Hidalgo at 12,000 feet, a day at the Piedra Grande hut at 14,100 feet and another day at the beginning of the Jamapa Glacier at 16,000 feet. Now that we were actually underway, I just wondered how the actual events would manifest themselves over the next several days.
Upon arriving at Mexico City we found our way to the Marriot, the Hotel connects directly to the airport terminal. Our biggest problem was moving all our gear from customs to the hotel. The next day, traveling from the Mexico City airport to Tlachichuca was also very easy. The Bus for Puebla leaves directly from the airport terminal and cost $7.00. At Puebla the connecting bus for Tlachichuca cost $2.90. Again our biggest problem was moving all the gear we had. At Tlachichuca, we managed to send word via a young man on a bicycle to Joaquin Canchola Limon's "Friendly Mountain Service " and Senior Limon sent his truck to pick us and our gear up.
We met Joaquin and his family: his daughter, Maribel and his Wife, Guadalupe. I can't say enough good things about Joaquin and his family. They were an absolute delight and were willing to do anything they could to accommodate our needs and our climbing schedule. We were immediately treated like members of the family. Staying with them in Tlachichuca was an absolute pleasure. That night we were next introduced to Guadalupe's cooking which was absolutely delicious. After dinner, we reviewed our transportation schedule, fuel and waters needs with Joaquin and as usual he gave us his "no problem".
When we left, the big news was; the NBL players and owners had agreed to play basketball, Tyson's return to boxing, and the melodrama in Congress of impeaching the president. Upon reaching Tlachichuca, we found that these people were not much interested in this stuff. These peoples' lives evolved around other priorities: their families, the church, and the local community. The reality of hard work in their daily lives could be seen in their faces and on their hands. The big news here was that John Paul II was coming to Mexico! John Paul H's 1979 reference as "Mexico, always faithful" had evolved into a special relationship between him and the Mexican People. The mention of his visit brought many smiles.
Next morning after a great breakfast, we loaded our gear into Joaquin's truck and headed for 12,000'. Joaquin took us to a seldom used camp site at 12,600'. This had great vistas of both Orizaba and the valley below. We were still below the tree line and were able to have a nice fire before turning in for the night. Before Joaquin left to return home for the night, we had asked him to check the weather report for our summit day.
The next day Joaquin arrived in his 4WD Ford truck to take us up to the Piedra Grande hut. He hadn't forgotten our request. On his way he had checked in with the local Indians and had gotten their weather forecast. The Indians don't use such stuff like high pressure, frontal systems, or other technical terms but characterize the weather by what is typical for a month. Their forecast was "Weather-like-May" was actually a good forecast. So there you have it; armed with the official Indian weather forecast, we were now ready to proceed up the mountain.
On arriving at Piedra Grande, the place looked a little bleak, no trees, grass, birds or animals. Otherwise, the Octavio Alvarez Hut was in a fair condition. During our stay, the hut was housing about 18 climbers. Our only major problem was keeping the door closed. With some polite discussion and coaching, we were able to finally keep the door somewhat closed and the cross wind minimized through the night.
The next day we climbed up to 16, 100' and established our high camp. We encountered the most difficult climbing of the trip, negotiating an ice and hard snow band from 15,500' to 16,000'. We settled in our tents early as the sun set and the temperature plummeted. I don't believe anyone got much sleep, just laying in your bag required an elevated respiration rate.
The next day we were up early, but we were all slow getting ready to leave. Things just take longer at 16,000'. Soon we were rest-stepping on the Jamapa Glacier and could see the beginning of a Weather-like-May day in the making as predicted. As the hours passed, we continued up Ruta Espinoza route and could see and occasional puff of smoke and ash from Popo about 100 miles to the west. As I walked up to the summit I felt like a steam locomotive pulling into the station. As I leaned on my ice axe, laboring to catch my breath, and peered down into the huge crater that is invisible from below. As we enjoyed the awesome view of the massive crater and the great vista from the summit, I reflected on our success. I realized that although planning is essential, luck especially with the weather had a lot to do with it.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the team members. Joe White (a.k.a. "Jose Blanco") did a great job of route finding on the mountain. The exact location of the summit on the crater rim is difficult to determine from below. Joe was able to lead the team precisely to the summit. Terry Flood did an outstanding job as the team interpreter. Anyone planing a private trip like this needs someone on the team that can communicate with the local people. Sue Holloway (a.k. a. "Mustang Susie") always maintained a positive attitude and kept the teamwork among us guys on track.
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