Mount Orizaba

25-Dec-95

By: John McCully


Mount Orizaba 25-Dec-95 John McCully Some of the details in this article are from R.J. Secor's excellent book, Mexico's Volcanoes, an indispensable guide for doing these great peaks, well worth $14.95. When we began planning a trip to the Mexican Volcanoes last summer it seemed like half the world was going to join us, but early December found only three of us holding airline tickets, Gary Craig, your editor and his wife Carol. Gary and I both needed Orizaba (18,410), so we decided to make it our first priority with Ixta as a secondary possibility. Carol has sensibly opted to wait until she has had an ice ax class before crossing a glacier such as the one on Orizaba, but if we had time she was going to try Ixta (17,160), a much less threatening peak. Recent volcanic activity had closed Tlamacas Lodge (12,960), a base for climbing Popo or Ixta, and doing Popo (17,930) was illegal for the same reason. The lodge was scheduled to reopen on January 15, 1996.

The plan - the initial plan was to drive a rental a car to Tlachichuca (8530) the town closest to Orizaba where we would use the 4WD services of Senor Reyes to get to and from the hut at Piedra Grande (13,976). After a couple of days acclimatization at Piedra Grande we would try to day hike the peak from the hut. I mentioned this plan to Rich Henke, who has a great deal of experience in third world countries and in climbing high peaks. At his suggestion we decided to spend a night at 12,000 feet on our way up to Piedra Grande. Rich also suggested that we set up a base camp at 16,000 feet after spending a night at Piedra Grande, but the thought of hauling the backpacks up an additional 2,000 feet proved too much once we were at Piedra Grande, and we wound up spending both high altitude nights at the hut. I suspect that a base camp at 16,000 would double one's chances of getting the peak. A lot of the people who were trying for the peak after spending one night at Piedra Grande were getting quite sick and not making it. I've never seen so many people get sick.

Summit Day - this was my fifth trip to the Mexican Volcanoes, and I reckon I must be getting cocky because although I trained for the climb, I didn't TRAIN. The eye of the tiger just wasn't there. Or maybe at 55 I'm just getting too old for the big ones. Gary and I started at 4:20 AM and exhaustion forced me to turn back at 10:30 only 800 feet from the top. Gary kept going by himself, hoping to descend with some folks we could see above us, but by the time he got to the top his proposed companions had mysteriously disappeared. We each descended the glacier alone in a white out, quite exciting stuff. Carol and I caught a truck down at 2:30 and Gary caught the last 4WD off the mountain at 4PM, just as the worst storm in 19 years hit the Mexico City Valley, nixing any idea of doing Ixta. If Gary had missed the last truck he would probably have had to either walk down or spend two or three days at the hut until Senor Reyes was able to get his trucks up to it again. The whole effort was a huge thrill and I can't wait to try again, probably next January.

Using public transportation - besides making suggestions regarding our itinerary, Rich convinced me to try using buses rather than a car for getting around. Rich noticed long ago that in a country where few people can afford cars there will exist a good and cheap public transportation system. The consumption of most goods and services goes up with an increase in personal income, more income means more dinners out and bigger homes. But unless it is subsidized or otherwise encouraged the demand (and hence supply) for public transportation drops like a stone when people are able to afford cars. Getting to the base of a big peak by car is quick and convenient but it's expensive to have the thing sitting there while one acclimatizes, to say nothing of the worry of leaving an unattended vehicle at a trail head. Rich's mountaineering judgment has always seemed quite sound, so I decided to give Mexico's busses a try. I'm now a believer, public transportation can work well for doing mountaineering in third world countries.

Senior Reyes - Senor Reyes is the primary provider of services for people attempting the mountain. In addition to his 4WD taxis (surplus army trucks, he told me he's tried using SUVs but climbing gear turns them into trash within a year) he provides a number of bunk beds, perhaps 30, which he rents for about $10/night. He has several hot showers and clean flush toilets (with seats) near the sleeping building. At the time we arranged for the transportation to and from the Piedra Grande hut we paid Senor Reyes $10 each to reserve dorm beds for the night of our return. When we got off the mountain Carol and I really wanted a night in a private room and wound up kissing off this $20 and staying in a hotel. It's probably best to pay for the dorm bed when and if it is needed, but one might have to sleep on Senor Reyes' floor if he is full, as he was on the Saturday night before New Years. A strong argument can be made for staying at Senor Reyes just for the experience. His place had an amazing camaraderie, with the new arrivals discussing conditions with the battle hardened veterans down from the peak. The atmosphere at Senor Reyes was much friendlier than what I have found at the hut near Popo, or indeed any other hut where I have stayed. I think this is in part due to the efforts of Senor Reyes' son, who speaks excellent English, and who I found quite affable and helpful. Reyes pere put in an appearance but appeared to leave the running of the show to Reyes fils, who shall be referred to below simply as Senor Reyes.

We weren't offered a very good rate on converting dollars by Senor Reyes, and since he mostly quoted prices in pesos it might make sense where possible to convert at a better rate in Mexico City. Senor Reyes will watch bags and has a large compound where he will store cars while climbing. Senor Reyes may be running a 4WD taxi service but he charges like an airline, with a fixed rate for each place on his trucks. He charges about $50 each for the round trip up to Piedra Grande. He charged us an extra $20 for dropping us off for the night at 12,000 feet and then picking us up the next morning and taking us on to Piedra Grande, good value for the money. He can be reached by phone at 011-52-5-595-1203. His FAX number is 011-52-5-681-7306 and he will FAX back his price list. A reservation for his 4WD service is probably not necessary, and no one we talked to had made a reservation. An arrangement can be made with Senor Reyes for a specific day to come down from Piedra Grande, but while we were there he was sending several vehicles a day up to the hut, and it's likely that one could simply catch a ride down on almost any day when things are busy. Senor Reyes' drivers keep in touch with him when they are at Piedra Grande by using hand held radios, so it's possible to arrange to be picked up on most any subsequent day by talking to a driver. We changed our return day by handing a note to one of the drivers. Sometimes trucks can't get up to Piedra Grande and climbers have to walk the rest of the way up and walk down to below the snow to get out.

Senor Reyes seemed to be open to all kinds of deals, for example he was willing to run some guys over to Ixta and then pick them up and take them on the Mexico City for $200 each. To go by bus from Puebla to Cortez Pass one has go through Mexico City, and then back out to Amecameca (where one catches a taxi to Popo or Ixta). This is not as bad as it sounds, since Amecameca is only about an hour from Mexico city. Catching a taxi from Puebla to Amecameca would be quicker and would work well for up to three people. Senor Reyes was going to use a 4WD vehicle to go up a marginal 2WD road that goes from Puebla directly up to Cortes Pass between Ixta and Popo, thus knocking between two and three hours off the trip from his place to Ixta.

Miscellaneous notes - on our arrival Senor Reyes mentioned that a week earlier a guy was killed when he slipped on the glacier and was unable to do an ice ax arrest. Upon hearing this news Carol had to make an emergency run for Senor Reyes' toilet in the building next door.

On the night we got off the mountain Carol and I opted to stay at the Los Tres Garcias hotel on Benito Juarez Street, easily seen from the road into town and about a block from Senor Reyes, where we got an unheated private room with bath (no seat, which seems common in cheap hotels in Mexico) for about $8. Senor Reyes's dorm has heat but the hotel room provided plenty of blankets.

One 56 old guy from Wyoming spoke good Spanish and hired a guide and driver at this hotel rather than using Senor Reyes, probably saving some money. The guide proved useless as he couldn't keep up with the 56 year old, who topped out five hours after leaving the hut, almost 1000 feet/hour, not bad for that altitude.

Twenty five years ago Randy Bernard was part of a group of 12 or so Sierra Clubbers who used rented VW bugs to get up to the hut. Randy recalls that Roy Magnuson made it back to the hut before noon.

On our way back from Pueblo to Mexico the toll road was closed from the storm mentioned above, and the 1 1/2 hour trip took 3 1/2 hours via side roads.

There are two huts at Piedra Grande, a small one that sleeps perhaps 8 or 10 people and a large one that sleeps 30 or 40. Both huts can be quite noisy and Carol and I chose to sleep in a tent, giving up some warmth for peace and quiet.

On a 1986 trip we descended the 20 plus mile road between Cortez pass and Puebla mentioned above in a VW bug-bus convoy. The road was 2WD at the time but frequently forked and we kept having to ask locals for directions. The Auto Club map for Mexico shows this road so it's possible that it has been improved, creating an option for people who have access to a car. It's possible that a Taxi driver in Puebla might be interested in this short cut for a suitable bonus.

Transportation details - prepaid Taxis could be hired by buying a chit from booths at the bus stations and airport and seem to run about 15 cents/km plus tolls. A sign will show the prices for chits to the more common destinations but the cashier will sell chits to many other places. I didn't have any luck trying to get a better rate on the street. A second class bus such as the one that runs from Puebla to Tlachichuca will stop anytime to let people on or off, even on the freeway. Second class buses aren't all that bad, no chickens in the next seat or that sort of thing. Bags go underneath just like on busses in this country and the seats are reasonably comfortable. First class buses between Mexico City and Puebla don't stop and are quite nice, more like riding on an airplane with free soft drinks and snacks given out on the real luxury buses. There used to be buses that ran directly from Mexico City to Tlachichuca, but we were unable to find such a bus even though we had a local check it out for us. There are a number of bus companies operating out of a bus terminal, and it pays to spend a few minutes looking at the sign boards to figure out who runs where.

Bus from Mexico City's TAPO bus terminal to Puebla - takes less than 2 hours, runs every 10 or 15 minutes, and is about $5 for first class, less than half that for second.

Taxi from Puebla to Tlachichuca - takes about one and a half hours, about $30 and can take three people including baggage. On our trip last Christmas we used a taxi for getting to Tlachichuca and the bus for the return. In the future I would always use the bus.

Bus from Puebla to Tlachichuca - takes less than 2 hours, runs every half hour, a bit over $2. Second class.

A bus from the Mexico City Airport to Puebla - takes less than 2 hours, runs every hour or so, costs about $7. I think this is a first class bus and by taking it one can avoid Mexico City altogether.

Taxi from Mexico City Airport to Senor Reyes - for someone in a real hurry a taxi from the Mexico City airport to Tlachichuca runs a bit over $100. We met some guys from Utah who left LA in the morning and caught a taxi at the airport to Senor Reyes, where they spent the night. Their second night out of LA was spent at Piedra Grande hut and after bagging the peak that morning they were back down at Senor Reyes for their third night out of LA! These guys lived at 6000 feet in Utah so they had a leg up on most of us when it comes to acclimatization.

Private car - five guys drove a Nissan Pathfinder down from Texas and by following one of Senor Reyes' vehicles they managed to get it up to the Piedra Grande hut. Considering the condition of the road that day this seemed almost miraculous. None of these guys got the peak, all but one getting sick. . Following one of Senor Reyes' trucks to the hut is the best way to avoid getting lost. The road has many forks and the route differs from year to year.

Hiring a car - if you are not convinced about public transportation the tourist desk at Hotel Maria Cristina rents two year old beatles with unlimited mileage for about $30/day and similar aged Nissans that can hold four people for about 6 or 7 dollars more, including all insurance. This lovely hotel is at an excellent location near the Zona Rosa and has 150 very nice rooms in an old building for about $30. Rio Lerma 31, FAX 011-5-566-9194.

Plan for next time - Take an early plane from LA catch a bus from the Mexico City airport to Puebla (7200'), skipping Mexico City altogether. Catch a bus that evening to Tlachichuca. After a night in Tlachichuca hire a cab (or use Senor Reyes) to get to the primitive village of Hidalgo (11,155) where I'd spend a night. The road becomes very rough at Hidalgo and I would hire a mule there (I saw some backpackers doing this) to carry the back pack to the Piedra Grande hut where I would spend two nights getting acclimatized. The next day move to 16,000 feet and set up a base camp for doing the peak the following day. This schedule involving nights at 8530, 11,155, 13,976, 13,976 and 16,000 before attempting the peak. It might be sensible to try to line up the mule in Tlachichuca rather than Hidalgo, and it would be very useful to have someone in the party who speaks passable Spanish to do the negotiating.


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