This post is part 2 of my quick stint in Mexico. Click here for Part 1
Izta was great. Aside from banging my toes pretty good and feeling tired, all-in-all, it was a great day. We packed up the jeep and got ready to make our way to the lodge. I could not wait for a nice meal, but more importantly a shower. I was excited to just lie on a bed that night. But I miscalculated something. I assumed that Oso's lodge, based in a little village called Zaopon beneath Pico wasn't all that far. Pico de Orizaba was visible from the Summit of Izta - I assumed that this drive would simply take a couple of hours. But oh no... I was very mistaken.
As the jeep made its way down Izta on an extremely bumpy road and at a snail's pace, I asked Juan sitting up front how long it'd take to get to Zaopan. He responded "4 to 5 hours". 4 to 5 hours?!?! It didn't seem that far. See, the issue wasn’t distance, it was speed. Had this been in the US or Canada with a developed highway infrastructure, yes, it would have taken a couple of hours tops. But this is Mexico.
Driving to Izta, we used it's more popular western access road from Mexico City which is paved for a substantial amount. Pico is located towards the east of Izta, so we descended eastwards towards the city of Puebla on an access road which sees far less traffic. It was an entirely unpaved dirt road, It was extremely bumpy and very long, 4x4 mandatory. Needless to say, we were moving at a snail's pace. I was tired, and It was impossible to get some shut-eye with the bumpy drive.
It took an hour and a half of off-road driving to get to some sort of asphalt. The dirt road ends in a southwest suburb of Puebla, far from the highway we needed to get to. It took another hour or so navigating its small streets to get to the freeway which was on the northern end of town. But it was Sunday, and there was a parade in town with road closures causing some traffic havoc. I will say that I did appreciate the drive through Puebla, everything seemed quintessentially Mexican - not sure if it was the festive colors around town, everyone's attire, the architecture, or the culture, but in that drive through town, I actually felt I was in Mexico.
We merged onto the freeway and continued for another hour before having to take the back roads. Our destination was a town called San-Miguel Zaopan, a small village next to a small town called Tlachichuca. As you would imagine, the speed limit was lower here. I also noted that there were countless speed humps. I was just tired and needed to crash and It took 5 hours to get to Zaopan. We got off at the hostel and reconnected with Oso. The first thing I did was take a shower, and then I headed downstairs for a fantastic meal prepped in the kitchen. It was amazing.
The plan was to tackle Orizaba the following night, but seeing as how we were practically at the base of the mountain, I assumed I had a full day to chillax. I was wrong, Again. I asked Juan what the plan was - I presumed we were to leave around 4 pm or so. But no, we had to leave at 9 am. It was nightfall by the time I came to know this, which meant I literally had one night to recover, and I was back on my feet running the following morning. I wasn’t all too thrilled to hear about this as some downtime would be nice, but it is what I signed up for.
Passing out like a rock was easy, I was worn out and the beds were comfortable. The night was nice and cool as Zaopan is at an elevation of 10,000ft. I woke up at 7 am and felt rejuvenated. The truth is I did not recover 100% and I would have liked to have slept in, but it’s all I had, it’s all I got, and I made full use of it. I packed my things for Orizaba and made my way to the kitchen where I was prepared a fantastic breakfast. I headed out to see that my ride to Pico has arrived, an ancient Jeep Wagoneer with so much awesome and character. I didn’t question it’s reliability (more on this later), but it looked like it worked. I loaded my things into the Jeep, and said my goodbyes to Ming and Vlad.
Juan, myself and the driver got into the Jeep and made our way, and I quickly realized why we had to leave so early. It was a rough dirt road all the way from Zaopan to the mountain. It was a very slow and bumpy drive on what was loose volcanic dust. Just like the drive up to Izta, an SUV was mandatory, except this was far longer and messier.
It took 2 hours, but we did make it to Pico’s base camp, a large stone hut known as Piedra Grande hut (which literally translates to…*drum roll*... a large stone hut - very original, I know...) The hut is quite large, it's nowhere near as fancy as the huts in Canada or the Alps, but it’ll do. It had 3 levels of bunks. I figure it could hold about 30 people, but I’ve been told that on weekends it’s not uncommon to find 100 people packed-in there like sardines with dozens of tents around the hut. I was there on a Monday and the hut was empty when we arrived. I chose the lowest level so that I could head out as swiftly as possible without interrupting anyone.
Climbing Pico de Orizaba is straightforward. Unlike Izta, it is an incredibly direct climb with no false summits. The summit is visible from the hut and the route is a straight line to the summit. It is however quite long with decent vertical gain (1,400m). The climb can be divided into two parts. The first half of the climb is navigating el laberinto (Translation: The labyrinth, d'oh). It's named that way because it's literally maze of boulders requiring a game of multiple choice. I didn't have to worry about this as I had Juan. The second half is the ascent on the Jamapa glacier itself, starting at a very mellow angle and slowly getting steeper till the largest angle close to the crater rim. I haven't been able to get a solid answer on how steep it actually is near the top, but I have been told anywhere from 45 to 50 degrees. I recall seeing an old photo of Pico at Oso’s lodge and noted that the glacier was really imposing with massive crevasses and ice falls, but that’s all gone now. The glacier has really deteriorated over the past couple of decades and no longer has any crevasses or seracs to circumnavigate. In fact, when I was there, the route was practically a straight line.
It was noon by the time we unloaded the Jeep, and there was really not much to do other than exchange stories and take photos. At around 2 pm, a climber from California descended, he was with a group of 3 who all summited, but each of them got lost navigating the labyrinth. It took a good hour for the other two to catch up. They too were staying at Oso’s lodge. They look pretty beat, but in good spirits, they took the same Jeep back to the lodge.
It was just Juan, his assistant (who would end up looking after my stuff at the hut), and myself now. It was mid-day and Juan took a nap. I have to give Juan credit, the man can sleep anywhere anytime, and in any situation. It was pretty bright outside, I snapped some quick photos. I watched another group descent after a small acclimatization hike, they were staying in the hut for a few days and were going to go for the summit a few days later. I felt great sans sore toes, but deep down, I felt a little tired. I laid down hoping to get some sleep. It was bright as sin, there’s no way I could sleep, I just laid there with my eyes shut. Towards the evening, familiar faces arrive, the 4 gents from Iowa and Izta too made it to the hut.
More guys trickled in, and after all was said and done, there was probably a total of 20 people in the hut that night. Around 7, everyone prepared large dinners exchanging stories. It turned out It was only the Iowans, Juan, and myself that were going to attempt Pico that day. Juan suggested to wake up at midnight, have breakfast, and leave at 1. The Iowans decided to leave an hour later.
By 8, everyone hit the bed. There was some ruckus as everyone settled in, but within half an hour, it was dead silent. With a full belly and tired, I dozed off. I could hear the guy next to me having a rough time breathing. Not sure how much time he spent acclimatizing, but it was evident he did wasn’t acclimatized by the pace and irregular breathing. He spent a good amount of time coughing till at some point he woke up and vomited all over his sleeping bag (yep.... ew!). He clearly was caught off-guard by all this and was now in an unfortunate position of having a vomit-covered sleeping bag - which he somehow had to clean. He spent a good hour trying to clean his surroundings, he left the hut multiple times trying to clean off his sleeping bag (don’t ask me how - especially without running water). He managed to get it all cleaned up (I guess?) and settled back to sleep at around 10. I was pretty tired myself, I passed out and managed to get some deep sleep - albeit for 2 hours if you want to count that...
At midnight my watch alarm buzzes. Like clockwork, I chucked down some food, geared up, and by 1 am on the dot, we were out the door. It was surprisingly warmer than I thought - completely windless. I was only wearing a base layer and fleece and felt perfectly fine. We started on. The trail starts off on this abandoned concrete pathway that slowly disintegrates into a rocky trail slowly gaining elevation. We were going at just the right pace. It was quiet. I could hear rockfall in the dark gully to the left of us, but they were not a threat. The trail got pretty steep until Juan called out “after this steep part, we take a break”, and we did, roughly an hour in. I felt fine, the weather was great. It was dark, but looking around with my puny headlamp, I could tell that we were in the labyrinth surrounded by large boulders. I downed a clif bar.
We kept going, I could see the trail deviating many ways around large boulders. This part wasn’t that steep at all, but it was long and windy. There were a few instances where I wasn't even sure how Juan got to where he was, despite being no further than 15ft apart. There were cairns around, and you can tell someone went through the effort of spray painting marks along the trail, but I can understand how one can get lost and disorientated in this place in the dark. I didn’t have anything to worry, I was with Juan after all. An hour later, Juan asks how I’m doing and whether I needed a break. I felt 100%. We were going at such a mellow pace I didn’t even need water. We kept on pushing on. The trail now evolved from a scree trail to a more rockier trail - Similar to Kili and Izta - familiar territory. Another hour later, we were walking in ice filled gullies. The ice was harder than stone. Personally, using crampons would have made this bit much easier, but Juan insisted that crampons wasn’t required. After that bit, we took a break, and it was time to don on our harnesses, ice axes, and crampons. I figured we must be getting close to the glacier. Juan preps the rope. In the far distance below, 4 headlamps were making their way up, it must be the Iowans.
I was expecting to simply walk out onto the glacier, but little did I know that just prior to the glacier is steepest and hardest portion of the labyrinth. The trail got pretty steep through rock solid ice. There were steps in place created by all the climbers who used this route throughout the season, but it was such hard water-ice that crampons were absolutely necessary. I recall banging my pick onto the ice and exclaiming how hard it was. It was almost harder than rock.
This portion was pretty sustained for about 30-40 minutes, but we did get out of the labyrinth and to the foot of the glacier. It was noticeably flatter, I could see the moon, but it wasn’t bright enough to light up the mountain. Juan points towards the summit, I couldn't see anything in the darkness, and I humorously commented: "If you say so". We were the first to get to that point. It was considerably colder, but hardly any wind, it was necessary to put on another layer, in my case a down-jacket.
It was very straight forward up to this point and I'll even go as far as saying it was easy. We took shelter in a small ditch as I downed more water, a Clif bar, and a peanut butter sandwich. It was a generous break.
Heh... from this point on, things went sideways rather fast.
I felt pretty good, and while chilly, there was hardly any wind. We roped up and walked for a few minutes before finally making our way onto the glacier. The ice was hard but softer than Izta’s glacier, all in all, the ice was good. The slope was mellow, but it gradually got steeper. Roughly 30 minutes in, I noticed that the wind started to pick-up from my right. Another half an hour in, the wind only grew stronger and hitting us head-on. With the first hint of daybreak, it became evident that we have gotten higher than this outcrop that was sheltering us from the wind all along.
The air wasn’t that cold, but the wind was persistent. It was an experience, wind is usually gusty, you get them in bursts with slight pauses here and there. There were no pauses here, it was a clean consistent blast of air as if you stuck your head out of your car's window. It wasn’t as strong as the wind I experienced on Mt Washington, but it was steady. Since it was blowing head-on, fighting definitely took effort. It was exhausting, and it was slowing us down. It was twilight about now, and I could see all the way down the mountain with the Iowans making their way onto the glacier. The sun still wasn't up yet though.
The next hour was hell. While you could take a direct path to the top, we took switchbacks to lessen the effects of the wind. I got really tired really fast, it became apparent that I didn't recover from the past few days of shenanigans.
The stronger the wind got, the slower we got, the colder I got. The sun was rising and up by now, but due to the shape of the mountain, it’s rays didn’t quite hit us yet. I wasn’t feeling all that great and I couldn't wait to bask in the sun’s heat. However, as the sun was rising, it cast a beautiful shadow onto the landscape below. It was amazing. I had to pause for a photo. At this point, the correct thing to do was to put on my hardshell, but it was all the way at the far bottom of my pack under my bottles, snacks, camera, and other crap that I didn't bother to even try. It also wasn’t all that cold, I felt that I would overheat in my non-breathable hardshells had I put it on. It wasn't worth the hassle of trying to find out.
So we kept going, the wind grew stronger, and our slow pace became evident with the Iowans catching up. The sun's rays did eventually come up, but it made no difference, it didn't warm me up at all. I was getting tired of fighting the wind and having my hood constantly batter against my face. which by this point was for about 2 hours. I was exhausted, and even more importantly thirsty. I needed water for any chance to continue. I asked Juan to pause, and we did.
I kicked in to stabilize so I could take off my pack ---- wow... my toes… the pain… Jesus... It wasn't even a hard kick, and it was debilitating. Up until this point, my toes were neither an issue nor a concern as I was headed uphill. But after those relatively light kicks, I looked around and made the very somber realization that somehow, I was going to have to get all the way back down with these very painful toes. For those that don’t know, descending already sucks and puts a lot of pressure on your feet. I was not looking forward to this descent at all. So here’s the situation so far:
- I was tired
- Fighting the wind was exhausting, and it was only getting stronger.
- My toes hurt really bad, they were in no condition to do this descent.
- I needed to get back down that day (The summit is only halfway!)
- I was dehydrated.
Despite all that, I still kept going and we went on for about 10-15 more minutes. The tipping point happened when my body simply failed to warm up from that break. I was shivering when we got moving, and I was hoping that I’d warm up now that the sun was up, but that didn't happen at all. 10 minutes later my core started shivering as I could feel my sweat on my back cooling down really fast without any sort of shell, the wind piercing through. Our pace was down to a snail’s pace, it was simply not fast enough to heat back up. Despite being only 200 vertical meters from the summit, I did the math and at the pace we were going, it would take at least another 2 hours to reach the summit - if not more. That’s when I made the call to tap out at 5,415m. I knew I would not be able to recover should I fall into a hypothermic state (which I felt that I was very close to). Descending with my toes now became a far greater concern than reaching the top.
Had I continued to push on for the summit and I did hit the top, I would have burnt out all my energy with absolutely nothing left to come down (seriously). To put it simply: my battery was at a blinking red 10%, and I needed 25% to get back down.
The Horrible Horrible Descent
Did I regret it? Absolutely not, because the moment I turned around, the weight of my body shifted towards the front of my boots, and wow... the pain. I knew I was in for one hell of a disgusting day. I didn't even need to step or stub my boot for it to hurt. The pressure of my socks upon my toe alone was sufficient to make me cringe. I only had to descend for a couple of minutes to walk past the Iowans, Charlie and Dave were waving to me to continue, I could tell they were having a rough time (well, except Charlie) but I was finished.
I couldn't descent in a normal fashion, I was practically limping down using my pole and ax as crutches. I tried to land on my heels to lessen the blow, but that required a different muscle group and that just burnt more energy. I took a break every few minutes descending the glacier, it was awful.
Behind the Iowans were 3 other guys carrying snowboards that I didn't recognize from the hut. I have no idea what they were up to, the glacier was simply too hard and icy to snowboard, and there was no sign of snow in sight… but who knows… maybe they were training.
It took an hour and 15 minutes to descend the glacier. I looked back up at the glacier to find that the Iowans were roughly at the same spot where I left them! I collapsed on the ground for a much-needed break as I watched the 7 guys crawl their way up. I chucked down lots of water and inhaled my peanut butter sandwich. I wasn’t going to get a summit photo that day, but I damn well will get a photo, so I donned the rope for a pose and Juan snapped this photo. That smile is a lie. I was exhausted to my bones.
Regardless, we must go on, there’s still the steep icy bit on the labyrinth to worry about, which was just horrible. I tried to slowly navigate and balance it all with busted toes. Nonetheless, we got to the same spot where we put on our harnesses, and we took them off. Here, the labyrinth was evident, it was a large boulder field with literally many choices. The way to the hut is not clearly marked. I would have loved to take a photo of this to show you, but I’m sorry, I had other priorities. I was busy suffering.
There was a point where I took off my backpack and gave it to Juan to hold for a second. I cannot recall why exactly I did that, but when I gave it to him Juan exclaimed “Wow! So heavy!” I respond: “what do you mean heavy? I went bare essentials!”. He then gave me his pack to compare, and I was amazed that his was a featherweight. We were curious as to why my pack was so heavy and we started to unload it. I had my large camera (a Sony A7R which I didn't use at all, and while compact for a 35mm camera, it's quite dense), and more importantly, I still had 2 liters of water remaining. I drank nowhere as much as I thought. Those two items felt like a ton. We threw out the water to lessen the load. But even then I could barely stand on my feet with that pack, and I asked Juan for help. I was simply in no position to get back down like this. I mean I could have made it, but it would have taken all day, and then all night, and probably another day and I say that with no exaggeration. Juan agreed (Muchas Gracias!!). Fortunately, I had a 70L pack, we were able to fit his entire 45L pack and whatever gear I had left. Did my heavy pack play a role into this whole ordeal? Perhaps, but at that point, it didn't matter.
I now had no backpack. It felt much better, but it was still excruciating coming down. This bordered the lines of Type 3 fun, it was absolutely miserable. Just awful. Every step hurt, but I made a vow to not stop. One foot in front of the other. Even with a massive pack on his bag, and no weight on my shoulders, Juan was twice as fast as I. This continued for another 3 to 4 hours of absolute hell until the hut became visible, and I was so happy to see it.
That whole ordeal took 12 hours and I didn’t even summit. I do not want to know how long it would have taken had I continued to the top. The jeep was ready at the hut. We quickly packed our things and I gifted Juan my sleeping bag for all his efforts and help throughout the trip, he truly made this a fantastic trip (despite my misery).
When we got into the jeep, the driver turned on the car only for it to cease. I looked at him and my expression said it all... “you have GOT to be kidding me”. After a few tries, he manages to get the car running. I was tired to my bones, but dozing off was impossible on that bumpy ride. 20 minutes into the drive, the car ceases again, but the driver manages to get it going again before it came to a full stop.
We descend down the treeline, and the car ceased up again. And this time, it actually ceased with no hope of starting it up again.
Ahh yes, you read that right. After that one hell of a brutal day, wanting nothing more than a bed and shower, we were now stuck in a broken-down jeep in rural Mexico, with no reception, on a dirt road on the side of the mountain used by no one, hours away from any sort of help. Lovely! They radioed the lodge, and Oso said that they were going to send another car. After two hours of lounging in the heat wearing base layers, Oso shows up with another Jeep Wagoneer, and the plan was to use one Jeep to tow the other. They used climbing rope (yes! I wish I took a photo) to rig the cars together. I got in the jeep with Oso, and after another hour of slow bumpy driving, we got to the lodge with the second jeep in tow. True story!
I later found out that the Jeep ran out of gas. Apparently, this is a common issue in Mexico where you would pay for 20L of gas, but government-run gas stations would fraudulently fill up 17L. It’s widespread and sparks many protests in the country. Nonetheless, it was avoidable and inexcusable, especially for a guiding operation. It certainly didn't help when the gas gauge in a vintage jeep didn't even work (lol). I was frustrated, but I was too tired to be upset.
No no, believe it or not, yes! there’s more!
Remember how the drive from Izta to Zaopan took 4-5 hours? My flight in Mexico city the next day was at 1 pm. This meant that I had to be at the airport by 11 am, which in turn meant that I had to leave Zaopan at 6 am to accommodate the long drive. You guessed it, I had to be awake by 5 am. So much for sleeping in eh?
I got to the lodge around 6 pm. I reconnected with Vlad and Ming and they advised that Dinner would be served at 7 pm. I had exactly 1 hour to pack all my mess. It was sloppy, but I managed to fit everything in my duffel. It was shower time, and lo and behold, the first shower didn't work at all, so I walked around to find another shower, and it worked, but without hot water. So yes, to top things off, I ended that day with a really cold shower.
It was hard to be upset about the jeep and the cold showers, I mean, this is rural Mexico, you can't have high expectations. I will say that I took it in good spirits. It certainly added to the adventure.
I had dinner in a state of quasi-zombie-ness, said my goodbyes to Ming and Vlad, walked to my bunk, and instantly passed out. I slept like a log. I woke up early the next day to roosters echoing outside, had breakfast, and made the long tiring trip back home.
That day was so brutal that when I got back home, friends and family commented that I had lost a lot of weight, and I sure did. I’m not a big guy to begin with, but my pants were loose and my jaw line very defined. I thought I was well fed throughout the trip. Obviously not, something to note for next time.
After much reflection, I thought about what I could have done to make that day less brutal, and here are my lessons learned:
- Don't go with an aggressive itinerary, rest days are key. 1 Full of day of downtime between Izta and Pico would have gone a really long way.
- A softshell would have been a gem here. I have since bought a softshell and used it a few times in the mountains to say that it is now a critical part of my layering system.
- A high camp just before the glacier would have made summit day much shorter, albeit food and supplies will have to be carried to high camp.
- Go light. I didn't even use my full frame camera but had to lug it around the entire time. Next time I would either take a smaller camera or ditch it all together.
- And of course the most important thing of all; cut your toenails.
6 months later, as I type this. Both my large toenails have blacked out and fallen off. It will take a few months or even a year to regrow, but for now, I do not have big toenails, and it's great! Why? Because now I can stub them as many times as I want with no pain. Heh, battlescars.
That was a really really long day. Damn.