Mention “Mexico” and images of palm trees, exotic beaches, burritos, tacos, and sombreros start appearing in one’s head.
"What?! There are mountains in Mexico?! With Glaciers?"
That's basically the reaction I get after telling people I went to Mexico to climb. Yes, Mexico has mountains, big ones too.
Having just climbed Rainier, choosing the next climb was a tough choice. It had to be taller, but not too high that it would require a lot of time. That left a few options on the table; Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia. Bolivian and Russian mountains are best climbable during the North American summer, but I was too impatient for that. Climbing in Ecuador was my top choice, but it required more time acclimatizing. Mexico was the best remaining option. It's close, relatively affordable, and seemed challenging.
Mexico has a number of peaks higher than 4000m, all volcanic in nature forming the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, or Cordillera Neovolcánica. I was surprised how many did not know this; I guess it's because many have a stereotypical image of Mexico's beaches or the Sonoran desert. In fact, of North America's top 10 major summits, Mexican volcanoes account for 3 of them, and I signed up to climb two of them; Iztaccíhuatl and Pico de Orizaba.
At an altitude of 5,636m, Pico De Orizaba is Mexico's tallest mountain, North America's tallest Volcano, and North America's third tallest mountain after Denali and Mount Logan. From my research, climbing Orizaba isn't technically difficult at all. Crevasses are minimal, and if they do exist, they are small. Avalanche risk is negligible. Essentially, climbing Orizaba is like climbing a glaciated Kilimanjaro with skills utilized from Rainier. Orizaba appeared to be a reasonable stepping stone within my ability.
Due to its high altitude, many prelude Orizaba with an acclimatization climb of other smaller volcanoes. La Malinche and Iztaccihuatl are popular choices, and as I was short on time, I chose to prelude with a climb of Izta. It's Mexico's lowest mountain with permanent glaciers and is considered a non-technical walk up similar to that of Kilimanjaro. Two climbs in one trip? Why not?
The Local Guides
Mountaineering isn’t a common activity here in Toronto, so finding climbing partners isn’t easy at all. Without many options, I sought out for a guide. American guide companies do offer guided climbs in Mexico; however, I found them too costly. I received input from climbers who previously climbed in Mexico and was recommended a local guiding service run by Roberto “Oso” Flores (Orizaba Mountain Guides), offering excellent no-nonsense climbing itineraries, including one where you climb Iztaccíhuatl and Orizaba in 7 days. The itinerary included all airport transfers, meals, transportation, and lodging. Unlike group climbs offered by American guides, the service offered by Oso was ad-hoc and could end up being a private climb. Iztaccíhuatl and Orizaba can get busy in-season, I figured I’d meet many other climbers along the way - So, I got in touch with Oso and organized my trip for the middle of February. I will admit that there isn't too much out there as far as reviews go on Oso's guiding operation, especially outside of Mexico, so this post can serve as a synopsis and review of his service (which I can tell you right now has been excellent through and through and I highly recommend!)
Unfortunately, after my Rainier climb, I developed discomfort in my hands and was later diagnosed with moderate bilateral Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I still do not know the root cause of it all, however having CTS meant I could not use nor train with a strong grip, virtually ruling out lifting heavy or climbing hard grades at the gym. I wasn't going to back down from Mexico, so the only thing I could do to prepare was lots of cardio, which woul dhave proven most useful for Mexico anyway.
I went on winter hikes with heavy packs to further prepare. Hiking also gave me a chance to get break-in my new Mountaineering boots. My biggest downfall in Rainier was the descent when my legs gave out towards the end. So I integrated quad extensions, squats, and calf raises into my regimen. Two weeks before my departure, I climbed Mount Washington with a group of friends, the weather was exceptionally ruthless and we were forced to turn around early, but it served as a great prep for Mexico. My training regimen was far from ideal but I believe I did the best I could given the circumstances.
Having already had most of my equipment from Kilimanjaro and Rainier. I finally bought the missing pieces for Mount Washington. A pair of mountaineering boots, a parka, glacier crampons, and a sleeping bag. I couldn't find a clear consensus on which boot I should need for Orizaba, whether it was single or double, plastic or leather. American guides recommend double boots, which I thought was overkill for a single day ascent, especially in Mexico where it doesn't get terribly cold. So with Oso’s advice, I got and brought along a pair of Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX Boot along with Grivel Air-tech new-matic crampons. For a sleeping bag, I settled for a -18C North Face Inferno down sleeping bag which I managed to score on sale, with the temperature rating also recommended by Oso.
While I did pick up an excellent parka for a bargain price (Feathered Friends Frontpoint Parka), I later found out that this was overkill for Mexico, and was told a small down jacket would be more than fine.
Logistically, getting to Mexico City was straightforward. One direct flight from YYZ to MEX and I was there. Oso picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at Hotel Maria Cristina in downtown Mexico, one block away from Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico city’s grand avenue. Mexico has a reputation for crime, however, the hotel was located in a fancier part of town among government ministries, courthouses, and foreign embassies, so needless to say I was in the safest part of town. As much as I'd like to say I trotted around the city snapping photos like I normally would, I just ordered pizza and slept.
I woke up pretty early the following day, and without much of a plan, I strolled around town exploring the must-see sights; Zocalo (with an impromptu flag-raising ceremony), Monumento a la Independencia, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I didn’t spend too much time as I had to make it back to the hotel for an early departure. Back at the hotel, I coincidentally had breakfast a few tables down a man who I later came to know would be my guide - Juan. At 10 am like clockwork, Oso formally introduced me to Juan, and we loaded the jeep to make way for our first objective, Iztaccihuatl. Oso informed me that he’d be picking up two Americans who would be joining me in climbing Izta - I didn’t mind at all, the more company, the merrier.
Iztaccíhuatl is located a couple of hours away from Mexico City. It took more than an hour to escape the City’s notorious traffic and smog, but in time, Izta became visible as it stood tall next to Mexico’s second tallest peak Popocatepetl separated only by a high mountain pass known as “Altzomoni”. Popo is an active volcano that constantly spews smoke, and as such climbing it is no longer allowed (Well.... I'm sure no one will stop you, but do you really want to climb an active volcano?). I have seen photos of Popo from when it was dormant in the past, and it was snow-capped with glaciers looking similar to Ecuador’s Cotopax. But now that it’s active, all traces of ice and snow are gone.
Iztaccihuatl means “White woman” in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl. Aside from being a snow-capped mountain, it actually does look like the profile of a woman sleeping, which each of peaks named after a woman’s body parts, like the head, breast, hips, knees, and feet.
Before entering the park, I met Oso along with Ming and Vlad from NYC at a restaurant in a small town called Amecameca. I don't remember specifically what I ate, but I do remember it being local cuisine, and it was great. After lunch, we went to the town’s center to pick-up last minute supplies and meet our two other assistant guides - Juan Carlos and Teresa. This was effectively the beginning of the climb and we made our way to Izta’s basecamp on Altzomoni sharing the car with Ming (who I also learned went to school in Waterloo - small world!).
Unlike my previous trips which involved a lengthy approach, On Izta, you can drive up all the way to base camp. In the span of a few hours, we went from an elevation of 2600m in Mexico City to basecamp at 3700m in Altzomoni. This was the fastest I've ascended. On the drive up, I noticed similarities with Kilimanjaro. Both Izta & Kili are volcanic in nature, they are roughly the in the same altitude category, and the terrain of the lower slopes, trees, shrubs, even the fine volcanic dust were all starkly similar to Kili.
Perhaps I’m too spoilt by the standards of US and Canadian national parks with their pristine roads and relative ease of access and facilities, but things were different here. Beyond the park’s main entrance, it was a long bumpy ride on rough dusty roads to the trailhead, our de-facto Basecamp - a 4x4 highly recommended but was surprised to see many do the drive on small compact vehicles.
The original plan was to stay in the Altzomoni huts. But we were climbing on a weekend, which meant it was going to be hoarded with people from Mexico City. We decided that the huts would be a moot effort, and decided to set-up camp at the dirt parking lot instead. We arrived mid afternoon to an empty lot and not much to do, so Ming and Vlad suggested we’d kill some time by going for a short acclimatization hike.
I was wearing the wrong shoes for the job, gym trainers with worn out soles. It had no traction on the fine dusty trail. Having driven up to this elevation, It didn’t take long for the effects of altitude to kick in with shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate. We ascended leasurely to around 200 vertical meters before turning back. The last thing we’d want is to get altitude sickness this early on.
Back at camp with our tents were already set-up, and Juan, Juan Carlos, and begun prepping dinner by squatting one of the shacks. We met a group of 4 cool dudes from Iowa; Charlie, Dave, Ryan and Jon setting camp nearby, they had just climbed La Malinche prior to arriving at Izta, and they set up their tents a few feet down. I noticed that the place had a few wild dogs running around, they were friendly, and there was one particular always hanging out with us (photo below - Let's name him Spot). As the sun set, we huddled in the shack devouring a tasty pasta meal that the two Juans and Teresa prepared. It got drastically colder the moment the sun set, and I made my way back to my tent with the last hint of twilight.
Unsurprisingly, with the quick elevation gain, I got a slight headache. I later learned that sleeping at altitude without a proper pillow didn't help the cause. All I had was a 2” inflatable pad which forced my head to rest at an awkward angle, aggravating the headache even more
It was surprisingly colder than I expected. My sleeping bag, even though rated for -18C, felt as though it was on it's operational limit. The remedy to altitude is water, which I was drinking a lot of, it didn't take long till my first piss break. When I came back into the tent, I noticed condensation forming inside the tent. It's not particularly unusual, but but it was a fair bit of water.
Halfway through the night, a brawl broke out between the stray dogs that lived around the camp. The loud barks, growls, and aggressive noises was immediately outside my tents. It sounded viscous. I could hear the dogs running around and in between the tents growling. Perfect timing too, I really had to go take a leak at that very moment, but leave the tent and walk into a pack of angry dogs? No thanks.
That lasted about ten minutes or so before it got quiet again. It was time to head out for that leak. I had a fairly small tent, so as soon as I got up, my head brushed along the tent and noticed the condensation froze. It was really cold outside, If I had to throw a number, I would have guessed perhaps -5C?
A few hours later, another piss break, and this time the ice inside the tent had thickened. I’d get up, brush my head rattling the tent, and the ice would fall all over my sleeping bag and face, great… Every time I left the tent and returned it would take a good 20 minutes or so to warm up before being able to rest comfortably. This would repeat itself around a few times throughout the night. Between a dull headache, constant piss breaks, cold, and the fact I couldn't sleep, I recall feeling absolutely miserable. Hahaha! Sleep?! What sleep?!
I’m naturally an early bird, so I was up and about at the first sign of daylight. Sunrise was on the other side of the mountain, so it was still chilly being in the mountain's shadow. I met up with the Iowans who also didn’t sleep and shared coffee with them as we exchanged stories of the night (I wasn’t alone!). The slight headache was still there that I almost considered taking Diamox, but I didn't.
Juan woke up and I explained the condensation issues I was having, and he remarked the same thing happened to his fancy Hilliberg tent. In fact, he did admit that he’s never experienced Itza's basecamp to be that cold before.
The plan was to make it up to high camp at roughly 4700m located just after “feet”. High camp too also has a hut, but just as with basecamp it would probably packed like sardines and simply not worth the bother, so we planned to set-up camp there too. After breakfast, we caught a mini eruption of Popo, we didn't have a clear view, but we did get the important bit. We left at around 11am after a majestic pancake breakfast, with perhaps the heaviest pack I’ve ever had to carry yet. In an effort to save weight, I only had my mountaineering boots and wore those from the get go, complete overkill for this portion of the climb. We took a couple of breaks and noticed that one of the stray dogs - Spot - also happened to be following us gaining some good ground.
The first part of the hike wasn't too bad as it was over a tightly packed scree trail, however things got rather difficult on the second half as we had to haul such heavy backpacks on very loose scree. A grind involving two steps forward, one step back as feet slid down. Trekking poles were a godsend for this part. Effects of altitude started to take effect as we made our way up to the closer to the feet.
I will say that the view from the hike was pretty spectacular, it's not every day you get a clear view of a belowing volcano.
We got to our campsite just above the feet, we huddled to set up the tents and immediately took a rest from that haul. The campsite was pretty isolated from where the hut was, in fact, it was just us and a group of 2 other guys from New York.
The view from high camp was spectacular watching the sunset with Nevado de Toluca, another Mexican stratovolcano directly ahead of us, directly over the pollution of Mexico City’s suburbia below. Popo bellowing to our left. The trail we had just taken visible with base camp far down below at the end of the trail.
I was expecting my slight headache to get worse by this point, but luckily it didn’t, in fact it completely went away. Ming complained of some stomach pains while it seemed that Vlad got a good dose of a headache, but we were fine for the most part. The plan was to wake up at 2am, and leave at 3am for the summit bid. Everything was covered in volcanic dust, I wanted to leave my pack outside the tent, but Juan insisted I took my food in with me as the animals may nibble at it. Animals? At this elevation? Frankly, there was no sign of life in this alpine environment, but I heeded his advice.
Concerned with how cold it could get now that we were higher, I hit bed just after dinner and well before it got dark. It was tough to sleep as another group set up camp next to us with all the ruckus, noise and lights associated with it. By the time they settled, I could hear a pack of dogs running among the tents again, almost as if they were rummaging for something. I had gotten used to the fact that stray dogs wandered around and ignored it at first.
But they weren't dogs.
I was dosing off until a very loud howl went off not too far from our tents. It was not a wolf's howl nor a dog's howl. It was a high pitched shrieking howl as it echoed against the mountain with no other noise to wash it out. I jumped up asking “what the hell was that?!”. It was a Coyote. The group nearby tried to scare it (or them?) away by imititated growling. They hovered around camp for a bit running in-between and around the tents looking for some sort of food (Juan knows best!). It was an unsettling feeling knowing a pack of coyotes lies just outside your tent, and of course in similar fashion to the previous night, I needed to take a leak then too. Walk into a pack of Coyotes? Most absolutely not. It took a few minutes before they did eventually go away, and it got quiet. I snuck out quick (but not far) for a quick leak and then actually managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours. I must really have been tired from hauling that heavy pack.
It seemed the Coyotes were the talk of the night. While we weren't camped near the hut, it seems that the pack also seemed to have caused some ruckus over there. I wouldn't have guessed that Coyotes hung around this high (~4,700m).
I woke up at 2am like clockwork to find Juan already preparing breakfast. It was surprisingly much warmer than the previous night that I barely needed gloves. Oatmeal was prepared. Vlad and Ming join in with Vlad complaining of a headache, but he was a soldier and pushed through. Juan Carlos wasn't feeling too well and decided to stay at camp. By 3am and on time, Juan, Vlad, Ming, and Teresa were ready and good to go, headlamps on.
We started our climb by first reaching the hut which resembled more like an airstream trailer than a hut, but could somehow fit 20 people like sardines. The area around the hut was a gong show of tents and people. It was crowded, I’m glad we didn’t set up camp there. The first and steepest portion of the climb is getting up to the knees.
Now from a distance and in daylight, the climb up the knees didn't look bad, but this part is apparently notorious for a few deaths on the mountain. First off, it is far steeper than it looks on photos, but also, it was all true loose scree, by far the loosest scree I've come by. I didn't find it too bad as I had trekking poles on hand, but Ming did this part without trekking poles at all, what a trooper. Similar to Kili, the closer we got to the knees, the rockier it got which I enjoyed. I was also thoroughly impressed with my boot’s performance on rock. In under 2 hours, we got to the top of the knees.
Once at the knees, you see the hips in the distance, a false summit for the true summit behind, and you realize the day is far from over. After descending slightly, we make our way up again to the hips. This part wasn't especially memorable as it wasn’t particularly difficult, but I do recall that the winds started to pick-up at this point. At the hips, Juan asks us to take a break while he determines whether we need crampons for the glacier. He confirms that we do. We chuck down water and clif bars, and then donned our crampons.
At the edge of the glacier, we see the summit in the distance, but getting to it involved descending a fair bit before coming back up. We our way on the glacier. The glacier was in poor shape, it was evident it didn't have any growth at all. It was all rock solid ice. There was hardly any depth to it, the underlying moraine was seeping through the crevasses. Like all receding glaciers around the world, the glaciers on Izta was no exception, and it was clear it didn’t have many years of life left, speaking with Oso later, he guesses that at this rate, all glaciers on Izta will disappear within 5 years.
Despite its poor state, the glacier was actually larger than I thought. From a distance it seemed like a dusting of snow. We passed the glacier and took off our crampons as we continued upwards on what may be best described as a volcanic ash ridge. This part was absolutely glorious with the sunrise on our right, casting the mountain’s shadow on our left. It started to get windy, but nothing too wild.
The last stretch to the summit was a grind, but we eventually all summited at 7am at an elevation of 5220m. We congratulated each other and took photos. The view from the summit was spectacular. The route we had taken from the glacier onwards was visible with Popo dominating the background. Pico de Orizaba, my next objective was visible in the distance towards the sun, with La Malinche standing in between. It took us exactly 4 hours to summit. We were the second group on the summit, later finding out that the Iowans were in fact the first to bag the peak that day.
Now, the true summit of Izta is not entirely clear, this is because the crater rim is almost perfectly horizontal, and there seemed to be a lot of debate with regards to which side of the crater was higher. Regardless, at the end of the day, the variance was +/- 10m, hardly enough to make a fuss about it.
With the winds getting worse, we didn't stay long and made our way back down the ridge and back to the glacier. Descending was easy and fast. The continuous up-and-downs of Izta certainly made things challenging - psychologically more than physical. Back at the knees, we took a lengthy break before slowly and carefully making our way down the steep scree slopes. It was exhausting. It was actually a really nice view, but I didn’t bother to take any photos.
Back at high camp, we lied down recovering from that climb. I instantly dosed off despite the winds battering my tent. An hour’s break is all what I needed before we had to pack up and make our way down. With most of the water and food finished, the packs weren’t as heavy as it was on the way up, but we were tired, so it felt just as heavy.
The descent was unpleasant, the heavy pack putting lots of pressure on an already exhausted body. The first half of the descent wasn’t too bad, but about half-way through, I started getting sloppy. I almost rolled an ankle... but fortunately, I managed to recover quickly and well enough to continue. Descent loose scree with a heavy pack wasn’t fun at at all. In an effort to descent after, I skiid down the very loose screen. This proved rather effective until in one instance when my right foot banged against a hidden rock under the scree. BAM, I stubbed my big right toe nail. It was paintful. It was like kicking a concrete wall with full force, a steel shanked mountaineering boot not helping at all. I absorbed the pain for a few minutes shaking it off and then soldiered on continued. A few minutes later, BAM, OUCH, the exact same thing again, this time to my left foot. It hurt so bad, so so bad. Both my right and left big toenails were in throbbing pain and felt as though they were bleeding, but I wasn't in a position to take off my boots.
Now normally, I wouldn’t mention this detail, banging and stubbing toes is normally part of the descent, but this time my toes played a critical role in part 2 of this story, which I shall share later. If there was one thing I learned through that whole ordeal, is to cut your damn toenails. I knew prior to my trip that my nails needed trimming, but things were too hectic and I simply never got the chance to trim them. People learn the hard way I suppose.
My painful toenails made an already tiring descent absolutely miserable. 2/3rd of the way through I ran into Ryan who also happened to have a similar “bloody toe” problem. While taking a small break, we noticed someone carrying Spot down and were amazed how much elevation the dog had gained. We slowly soldiered our way back to base camp, this time without stopping, realizing that stopping only meant that that relaxation would be delayed. I was pretty happy to get to the parking lot and have a seat in shade. It felt so good to take my boots off. My toenail were super painful to the touch, they looked fine and weren't bleeding, but man they hurt. Juan offered us a cold coca cola as a celebratory drink, It was amazing.
This is where I'll end Izta’s story as the sequence of events playing into Orizaba's story starts here. How was climbing Izta? Fantastic! It doesn’t get the attention of Orizaba and as such not much is known about it general, however, I will admit that it was harder than advertised. Even though it is a relatively short summit day, its multiple false summits made it interesting with many rewarding views. In fact, I would recommend one climbs Izta over Kili any day, not only is it essentially the same terrain and type of mountain, it’s closer to us here in North America, far cheaper, and has a faster rate of ascent. There are also no porters to help you out, making it a far more physical challenge than Kili.