Words by: Sam Kimmerle | Photography by: Dan Cardon
Words & Photograph by: Sam Watson
Words & Photography by : Sam Watson
"It did not look like a hospitable environment. Several descending climbers confirmed this, looking understandably dejected after not reaching the summit."
El Federale whistled sharply and signaled that Rogelio pull the van over to the side of the road. Rogelio, our driver, obliged. The officer sauntered up to the window and rapped on it with his left hand while his right hand remainded on the trigger of his AR-15. Rogelio and El Fed exchanged a few words in rapid Spanish and Rogelio passed along his ID and work papers. El Fed looked them over and motioned that he needed something more. Rogelio reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of pesos, which he handed over. Seemingly content, El Fed nodded. We were free to go. Pulling away, Rogelio looked back at us, and shook his head. “Corrupción,” he said, with more than a hint of disgruntlement. "Bienvenidos a Mexico, Los Gringos!"
We (Los Gringos) were on our way out of Mexico City, leaving behind the chaos of the most populated city in the Western Hemisphere, and driving southeast. Our destination was Citlatepetl, or Pico de Orizaba. Orizaba is a massive stratovolcano, distinguished by being the highest point in Mexico, as well as the third highest point in North America (elev. 18,491 ft). I was with my two good friends and travel/ski companions, Jackson Bodtker and Seth Gillis. If all went according to plan, we were hoping to ski off of Orizaba’s summit in the next few days. I felt an immense wave of relief upon leaving the greater Mexico City metro area, knowing that I would be on a mountain for the next four days.
After several white-knuckled hours traveling on Mexico’s interstate highways, we arrived at the small town of Tlachachuca, situated at 9,500 feet and nestled in Orizaba’s foothills. It’s home to Servimont, a guiding outfit owned and operated by the Reyes family. Although we were not using a guide on the mountain, we enlisted Servimont’s help for transportation from Mexico City to Orizaba, food, and a place to stay in Tlachachuca. The Servimont compound exists in what used to be a soap factory, built and maintained since the 1800s by previous generations of Reyeses. Although the walls of the compound now featured photos of mountains from around the world and climbing and skiing gear of past generations, all of the antiquated soap making equipment was still in place, giving it the feel of some strange special interest museum with the target audience as hygiene-conscious alpinists.
We would spend two nights in Tlachachua before heading up onto Orizaba itself. Both of these nights fell on two of Mexico’s largest holidays: Día de Todos los Santos and Dia de los Muertos (All Saints’ Day and The Day of the Dead, respectively). The town’s festivities were in full swing when we arrived, complete with traditional skull face paint, incredible street food, and no shortage of fireworks that would certainly not be legal in the United States. While we paraded with the locals for two nights, our day time mission was to acclimate for our hike up to 14,000 feet on Orizaba.
On our third day in Mexico, it was time to head for La Piedra Grande, a hut situated at 14,000 feet on Orizaba that would serve as our base for the next three days. After riding in the back of a pickup truck for several uneasy hours, we arrived at La Piedra Grande. The Spartan hut featured six giant bunks, two tables, and not much else. All supplies needed to be packed in (and packed out) by those staying there. When we arrived at the hut on Saturday, several other parties of climbers were already there, preparing to summit the following day. We were hoping to summit and ski on Monday. We would use Sunday as an extra acclimatization day, and shuttle our skis and glacier gear up 2,000 feet, at the foot of the Jamapa glacier. We were "Getting two birds stoned at once", by testing our bodies out up to 16,000 feet, and also making our summit day easier by not having to carry a fully loaded pack for the entire way.
After a fitful night of sleep, I awoke feeling like total shit. Sleeping at 14,000 feet had taken its toll on me. One of the few features of the hut was a large bilingual sign serving as a warning to, and diagnosis of, altitude sickness. I looked it over, checking most of the boxes as I went. Difficulty sleeping? Yes. Lack of appetite? Yes. Headache? Nausea? Shakes? Yes, yes, and yes. The highest I had been before was the 14,300 summit of Mt. Shasta, in California, but that had only been for half an hour before skiing back down. Spending 16 hours at 14,000 feet had dealt me a debilitating blow. I parried with large amounts of water and Diamox. 45 minutes later, the Diamox took effect and I was feeling better, and ready to hike to stash gear.
As we plodded along up to the foot of the glacier, Orizaba’s summit was shrouded in clouds. Occasionally they would break, revealing a plume of spindrift coming off the summit. It did not look like a hospitable environment. Several descending climbers confirmed this, looking understandably dejected after not reaching the summit. Even the few that had persevered and made it to the top seemed crushed, after battling strong winds in white out conditions at 18.5K feet. The last forecast that we had seen, several days prior, showed Monday as the best weather window. None of us wanted to speak about the possibility of getting weathered out after traveling all this way. Back at the hut, I fell into a fitful sleep, my fingers crossed for good weather.
My alarm went off. 1 am. Time to go. I poked my head outside. Stars! I can see stars! Elated, we gulped down instant coffee and oats, and geared up. 1:45am. We started up. My pack felt amazingly light without skis and glacier travel gear rigged onto it. I wasn’t sucking wind as hard as I had been yesterday. Maybe I was acclimatizing better than I had thought. Thank you, Diamox. 4:00am. We reached our gear stash at the foot of the glacier. We paused to re-rig our packs and put on harnesses and crampons. Looking out to the east towards the Gulf of Mexico, a small waxing crescent moon rose over cumulonimbus clouds pulsating with blue and gold bolts of lightning. The three of us stood (sat), staring awestruck this wondrous light show, thousands of feet below us and miles away. 4:30. Time to keep moving. We still had 2,500 vertical feet of glacier to ascend, and with less and less air to get us there. El Maestro del Escaleras Mexicano. The Mexican Stairmaster. 6:30am. 2/3 of the way up the glacier, and the sun rises. To the east, a fiery layer of clouds lay on the horizon. To the west, a huge blue triangle cut through the deep pink of the low-lying clouds, all the way to the horizon. Orizaba’s shadow. We stopped to (try to) catch our breath, and marvel at nature for second time that morning.
Photo: Seth Gillis
8:30am. We summit. The last thousand vert were crushing. I had been moving at a pace of 2 breaths/step for the last I don’t know how long. Left foot. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Right foot. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Left foot... The difference in elevation from the hut at 14K to our gear stash at 16K had been significant. But the difference from 16K to 18.5K was brutal. The last several hundred feet to the summit made me feel like I was moving underwater. It took about twice the usual effort to do anything. We sat on the summit, elated that we had hit the weather window perfectly. It occurred to us that we were probably the three highest people in North America (assuming that no one was standing on the summit of Denali or Mt. Logan at that moment, as early November is not exactly prime season for those objectives). After half an hour sitting on top, our dull headaches began to deepen. It was time to descend to thicker air. We shuffled over to the top of the aspect we wanted to ski. The Jamapa glacier stretched out into the distance underneath us. Below that, distant rocks marked the end of the glacier and the start of our trail back down to the hut. The Gulf of Mexico was somewhere out to the east, 18, 491 feet below us. I thought of palm trees and bikini-clad Latina babes wielding margaritas. I after a few pole clicks with Jackson and Seth, it was time to drop. Below us was 2.5K of perfect tropical wind-buff. I let my 4FRNT Hojis slide 90 degrees into the path of least resistance, and dropped into my first line of the 2018/2019 ski season.