My journey began in snowy Maryland around 4 a.m., tiptoeing out the door to keep from waking my 10-month-old, four-year-old, and still trying-to-sleep wife! After a few coffees to jog my body into gear, I was off, flying to Mexico City. At the airport I was met by my climbing partner Matt Butterfield, and we hit the road toward a little town known as Tlachichuca in the state of Puebla. Tlachichuca is the starting point for most climbers on Mount Orizaba (also known as Citlaltépetl, which means “star mountain” in the Nahuatl language).
The relatively easy climb — for a peak of this size, anyway (Mount Orizaba is the third-highest peak in North America) — makes it an attractive destination for many amateur climbers wishing to experience high altitude. And though it is easier than a hike up Denali, it does require the use of an ice axe, crampons and rope, as climbers must traverse snowfields, a glacier and the rim of the volcanic crater in order to summit — where a misplaced foot can lead you either into the crater or down the steep-sided volcano. On the eve of the first day, in the relative comfort of our hostel, we were feeling prepared and eager to get out the door.
The next day, we awoke to a foggy morning and the sound of fireworks. According to Matt, this is the local way of praying. With the morning came bright sunlight that burned off the cloud cover; for the first time we could see the beautiful white cone of Mount Orizaba towering over the western edge of the town. A small sliver at the top of the peak peeked out from a ring of clouds, revealing a steep and somewhat intimidating climb ahead.
Time to load the truck. Stepping back in time, we packed into a 1980s yellow luxury Jeep Wagoneer, and we were off. Making our way through the cloud forest to the base camp — Piedra Grange Hut, at 14,000 feet [4,267 meters]— we immediately felt the rapid rise in altitude and experienced a bit of light, but tolerable, head spinning. The views from the Piedra Grange Hut were stunning, and improved even further when we took a gentle hike to 15,300 feet [4,663 meters]. “Climb high, sleep low” was our mantra, and so we did just that. After the quick climb, that night we slept “low” in a small climbing tent, leaving the big hut to the French expedition that was also hiking the mountain.
Around 7 a.m. the first rays of sun hit the top of the cone, moving slowly down the peak until the entire mountain was fully lit. There was a magical moment of silence. The French expedition, which had left at 2 a.m., had already transformed into tiny dots slowly moving towards the summit.
Our breakfast was slow and plentiful, consisting of dried eggs and Starbucks decaf instant coffee. We were not planning to summit until the next day, so we took our time. By 11 a.m. we took off. The weather was excellent as we hiked to the bottom of the glacier, donned our ropes and crampons and continued upwards. We followed a narrow shoot through the Labyrinth, a steep slope consisting of boulders, snow and ice. Finding the easiest way up during daylight hours was one of our two objectives for the day (the other one was to continue acclimating to the altitude). We practiced climbing with gear and tried to make a mental map of the path we would take during the next day’s early morning climb, which would be done in the dark. When night fell we were safely back in our tent, preparing for the big climb the following day.
Miroslav Honzak is the senior advisor for the Human Dimensions program in CI’s Science and Knowledge division. Read Part 3.