Climbing Pico de Orizaba
In December 2022 eight of us went to Mexico to climb Pico de Orizaba also known as Citlaltépetl – highest volcano in North America rising to 5,636m (18,491 ft). I love climbing volcanoes as they tend to rise much higher above surroundings than a mountain belonging to the mountain range, providing breathtaking views stretching for more than 100km in good weather.
Our group was mostly beginners – few of us had experience above 5000m or experience of glacier travel. This was intentional as one of my goals for this trip was to let people experience some basic altitude mountaineering and see how it is different from your casual day hike in the mountains.
The group consisted of current Perconians, my former colleagues, some of whom I have not seen in a while (Pandemic did not help) and one brave spouse, who bravely embraced our group dynamics and added fun with his British humor mixed with Portugaise passion.
The trip was organized for us by Lonely Summits – folks we climbed Volcanoes in Ecuador earlier in the year. The logistics on the ground in Mexico was done by Orizaba Mountain Guides and it does not look like they were completely on the same page on all details. Take away for me is to make sure next time to work directly with people who will be on the ground with us to avoid the chance of a “broken phone”.
Day 1 – Mexico City 2240m
We start the trip by arriving in Mexico City. My plane was delayed and it looks like the airport ground crew was overwhelmed – we ended up waiting for an hour to be de-planed and another 2 hours for my luggage. So by the time I was out the person who was supposed to meet me was not there. The organizers also did not give direct driver contact information and as it was late they themselves were not responding until I was in the hotel. I am perfectly fine grabbing a cab to the hotel and I was actually worried the driver may continue waiting for me in some other place for hours… Anyway it was a good start of “acclimatization” for me – not so much for altitude but to have a much more laid back Mexican attitude.
We stayed in Barcelo Reforma hotel which is a great hotel in a rather convenient location, though as I just spent the night out there on the way to the mountains, anything would work.
Day 2 – Transfer to Lodge in San Miguel Zoapan 3000m
We start a day by going for a run with Michael Coburn while everyone else is catching up on their much needed beauty sleep. After a quick breakfast we meet our lead guide Arturo have a quick briefing, leave the “city stuff” at hotel – they are happy to hold on to our things for a few days and take the ride in the minibus to San Miguel Zoapan – small village in the foothills of Pico de Orizaba where Orizaba Mountain Guides (OMG) has their base. The Lodge is basically a Hostel attached to the residence of Orizaba Mountain Guides owner (Roberto Flores AKA Oso). Rooms have bunk beds for 5 people and an attached bathroom, though we had 2-3 people in the room as they were not full. We got nice home cooked meals provided to us during the stay. The drive from Mexico City took about 5 hours including a brief stop along the way.
After Lunch we went to hike around the village surroundings for a couple of hours. It was a windy day and there was a surprising amount of dust in the air. Bandanas and dust proof eyewear were quite handy.
After Dinner we discussed plans for the next day. While our original plan stated we will climb Malinche first, we were actually to climb Sierra Negra first which is slightly higher, so it may look counter intuitive but it was a shorter and easier climb so we were doing it first.
Day 3 – Climb Sierra Negra, 4580m
Sierra Negra is a smaller Volcano in Pico De Orizaba Proximity, allowing for great views. It also has Large Millimeter Telescope on top so it is not particularly “wild”. We start from the lodge rather late – 9am or so and it takes almost 2h drive to get to the trail head. Some of the road is pretty bumpy and OMG used a local village Minibus for transfer with poor suspensions and a bench around the cabin instead of proper seats. No seat belts and perfect opportunity to get some bruises on your back and head. I had worse transportation but this looked like unnecessary inconvenience – I’m sure for $100 more we could get a couple of cabs to get us to the location.
We started at about 4000m so you could feel the altitude but otherwise the hike was rather easy and I was glad I had my La Sprotiva trail runners instead of heavier hiking shoes. Trekking poles were helpful especially going down on sandy section as it was easy to take a fall.
On the way to Sierra Negra you pass by abandoned Church – very picturesque place with great view on Orizaba.
We’re back by about 4pm, had a late lunch and dinner a few hours later – we were well fed and I think we put those calories to good use too.
Also for a hike itself OMG packed a lunch pack for us (they did it for all days on the mountain) so even if you have not brought your favorite snack with you, you had something to snack on.
Garmin Stats: 4:13, 5km, 588m elevation gain
Day 4 – Climb Malinche, 4461m
We wake up earlier and leave the Lodge around 6am. Same kind of minibus used for transfer but with a better road it was more tolerable. Road to Malinche is about 2.5h one way. This time we start at about 3100m so there is much more elevation to gain.
The trail is great going through pine forest first and when you get to the ridge from which you can see Iztaccihuatl and Popocatépetl – an active volcano which erupted ash a few hundreds of meters up several times during our ascent. The part of the climb was rather rocky with some ice patches – this generally was harder trail than Sierra Negra, though trail running shoes still worked very well for me.
On a longer hike like this you can appreciate your guide’s storytelling and entertainment skills and I should say they were not great – guides just told us a couple of things about mountains and towns we are seeing, Lonely Summit guides in Ecuador were much better in this regard.
I also think OMG guides did not use an opportunity to coach folks about how to maintain your body temperature, what breathing technique you should use at altitude as well as how to navigate different kinds of terrain safely and efficiently.
In the end some folks did not feel so well and turned back and the guide ran down with some of the folks rather than keeping all the group going down together.
As we came down to the trailhead all the guides got together in the proper car one of the guides brought to the mountain and left us to ride back in the cattle carrier with a driver who did not speak English. Another opportunity lost to go to other questions folks might have about the hike we just had.
We get back after dark, have dinner and go to get some rest.
Another interesting observation, for some reason guides, or even our lead guide Arturo would not share the meals with us, which is usually a great time to build relationships as well as exchange information. Though it might be not considered standard in the region and we should have specifically asked.
Garmin Stats: 7:59 14.3km 1322m elevation gain
Day 5 – Transfer to Piedra Grande Base Camp, 4200m
We wake up late and have time to explore the village. Those who rent equipment locally pick it up and we do a basic gear check. This is where Lonely Summit’s gear check on Zoom 1:1 I think was very helpful as rental options with OMG were rather limited and equipment generally was well worn. Boots in particular caused problems for some folks – these best be worn for a bit to become comfortable, so having our own or at least renting at home and doing few hikes in them, especially going uphill and downhill is a great idea.
After lunch we leave for Basecamp.
The drive to the basecamp takes a bit less than 2 hours, mostly mild offroad. This time we are in pretty comfortable SUVs, so no complaints here.
Orizaba Mountain Guides have their own camp a few hundred meters away from permanent refuge which is free for all individual climbers. The camp is quite nicely done with a permanent dining tent, kitchen tent and toilets. We all had accommodations in spacious tents – 2 people each.
After we settle in the camp we have a bit of time to explore surroundings, have dinner and rest.
Besides nature calls during the night I sleep pretty well, despite the altitude. Some of us learned about the importance of having a good inflatable mat (those who do not leak) and a warm sleeping bag.
Day 6 Acclimatization Hike 4700m
Where you would normally expect some “glacier school” before summit push it is not practical on Orizaba – Glacier now starts at about 5200m after probably the hardest part of the climb “The Labyrinth”, so we just do an acclimatization hike on the ground instead.
The hike first goes by abandoned Aqueduct, which is a few decades old and which looks completely out of place on the mountain.
After the hike we’re back to our camp for early dinner, final gear check and early bedtime – we’ve got to wake up by midnight and be on the trail by 1am.
With a clear sky and full moon we are expecting good light but cold weather. Mountain forecast looks good with mild winds and I’m hoping to get some good drone footage from the summit.
Folks going down from the peak report great glacier condition with a bit of soft snow – not hard ice but not deep snow taking lots of energy to wander through either. We’re told we do not even need an ice ax and can use trekking poles all the way to the summit.
Our program calls for 2 people per guide, because not everyone was confident they will make it to summit and to avoid situation where some folks need to go down because their partner can’t continue we ordered extra guides so most in the group ended up having personal guides for summit push
Arturo (Lead Guide) tells us the plan is to spend no more than 14h on the mountain as in his experience longer times means higher chance of accidents due to exhaustion. This means you should be at the summit no later than 10h after start – approximately 11am.
Garmin Stats: 3:54 4.83km 432m Elevation Gain
Day 7 Sumit Push Pico de Orizaba – 5636m
I barely sleep with anticipation keeping me awake. We wake up at midnight, have a quick breakfast and get ready to go. We use our headlamps but the moon is so bright you could see a path without it. It is below freezing even in the camp and there is more wind than mountain forecast would imply.
I’m wearing my double boots which are bulky but better than cold feet. My hands tend to run warm but toes get cold easily.
Some from our group chose to start an hour earlier, moving at a slower pace.
“The Labyrinth” is a gnarly mix of ice and rocks and particularly not fun to navigate in the big double boots. Still we are making good progress.
By the time we get to the bottom of the glacier it is rather cold (-9C per my Tempe sensor ) and windy. Some folks from our group decide to turn around and go back.
By this time my bladder system froze (expected, and I had very little water there) but my electrolytes in the Nalgene bottle froze solid too, even though it was moving constantly. Good lesson to take Thermos next time.
I tinker with my harness longer than I would on the sea level, recognizing with roughly half the oxygen in the surrounding area you’re not sharpest. Put on my crampons and we’re ready to go – we’re trying to sit still as little as possible so as not to get cold.
We are tied on the short rope with Michael Coburn and our guide is Alfredo Martinez nicknamed “Diablo”.
We start up on the glacier – Orizaba Glacier is kind of boring – no crevices or significant slope changes, just never ending slope, not particularly steep but steep enough so there is no good spot to sit down to take a breather.
After some two hours spent on the glacier we have sunrise and the “iconic” triangle shadow you see on so many Orizaba climb photos and videos. We were in the shadow though so there was no sun for us.
I am taking two breaths per step, when 3 breaths per step – steady progress, slow enough so you do not run out of breath. I’m watching my GPS and encouraging Michael and Myself – 200m, 150m, 100m left until summit. Because of the slope you can’t really be sure when you’re seeing a true summit and when just another false summit.
My right eye does not close due to nerve damage and it gets pretty painful by this point. So focused on the summit I ignored pain too long – should have pulled out my glasses a while ago. Turns out my cornea is frozen and I do not see with my right eye any more. Not the best to hike without depth perception but I’ll manage. Will need to make sure I overdo my eye protection next time – probably just wear ski Goggles to be on the safe side. Another push and we’re on the Summit – took us about 7 hours. Summit is rocky – no ice or snow due to winds.
Winds are pretty high on the summit and gusty – not even close to 25km/h Mountain Forecast. But at least you can get some sun here. We do not stay on the summit for too long – take some pictures and start going down.
We knew we were first to reach the summit but did not know we would be the only ones from the group to do so. The rest of the folks who started on the glacier turned back at some point. The reasons to head back were cold, equipment issues and guide equipment issues.
Even though Sun was relatively high up, our descent continued in the shade, so it was not as toasty as I would have expected. Just as we were reaching the end of the glacier where the sun was shining, clouds rolled in and ended up being in a fog which condenses on all your equipment and clothes and freezes instantly.
We removed our crampons and continued our way down. This cold and wet weather persisted almost all the way to the base camp.
As we came down everyone who came down earlier went to meet us and congratulate us on a successful summit. I wondered how they knew – turns out they were tracking our progress by Garmin Inreach I carried with me.
We had a hot drink, packed our belongings and took the ride down to the lodge in San Miguel Zoapan. By about 2pm we were in the lodge where a proper hot lunch awaited us.
The rest of the day was spent resting and sharing our all summit push experiences.
I would say for me Orizaba was harder than Cotopaxi I did earlier this year – even though Cotopaxi is some 250m higher, the Refuge is higher too, so there is not as much elevation gain. You also mostly climb on the glacier which is easier than “The Labyrinth” on Orizaba. Cotopaxi was also warmer and not so windy and the trail there had plenty of “flat” spots where one could take a rest.
Garmin Stats: 20:32 12.06km 1680m Elevation gain
Day 8 – Back to Mexico City
This day was our reserve summit day, in case of bad weather or other issues. We did not not end up needing it. In this case our itinerary called for staying one more day in San Miguel Zoapan. We already explored the village and surrounding through and other day trips Orizaba Mountain Guides suggested were not exciting, so we decided to go back to Mexico City a day early. Many of us have not been to Mexico before so it was more exciting to explore.
OMG were super flexible and were able to move the transfer a day early with no problem, we however needed to book a hotel ourselves and Barcelo did not have rooms available so we ended up staying in Ramada couple of blocks away.
If I do it again I would rather book a spare day in Mexico City and only plan to stay an extra day in San Zoapan as a contingency.
In the morning Michael Coburn and myself went for a morning run – while our legs were not very fresh from the climb previous day it is too good opportunity to pass – it is not that often you have a chance to go for a run above 3000m
On the way back to Mexico City we stopped at Teotihuacan – very impressive pyramids and ancient city ruins. Too bad the climb to the top of the pyramid was closed. Very nice “cultural addition” to our adventure tour.
In Mexico city we have a quick dinner of Street Tacos and embrace another culture exploration – attend Lucha Libre event. Lucha Libre is Mexican Professional Wrestling in which wrestlers wear masks. And if you did not know, “Professional” in Wrestling actually means fake – the athletes pretend to fight and the audience pretend to believe they are fighting, all made possible by generous lubrication by Mexican beer. I’m happy to discover another thing which is not my thing ?
Day 9 – Exploring Mexico City
Michael Coburn had to leave us early and no one else wanted to join me for a morning run, and it is such a great way to explore the city. I ran to the park in the center of the city before it was filled by walkers and vendors – a very different impression from visiting it again later in the day.
We went for a traditional Mexican breakfast in one of the local cafes and then went about exploring the city. Most in the group ended up going to the National Museum of Anthropology while Peter Farkas and I split the group to find a good spot to fly our drones and ended up just walking the city.
It was Saturday and Christmas season so there were a lot of cool markets on all the little plazas to explore.
In the evening we went to a fancy restaurant for our final dinner which was outstanding food and service for the price of a much lower class establishment in the US. This was surely a great way to end the trip.
Day 10 – Back to USA
Really nothing to say here – my trip to the US was rather uneventful. Airport was rather quick and efficient and Sunday morning had no traffic – I probably could leave the hotel an hour later and still make it on time.
All in all it was a great trip. While not everyone has reached all the summits, everyone made great new impressions, made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We all came back safe which is quite important on such a trip. I complain about logistics and customer care, but remember I have high standards as I was running a company known for outstanding customer service for more than 16 years. If you’re getting in Mountaineering I would surely recommend climbing Pico de Orizaba and Orizaba Mountain Guides (OMG) are solid outfitter. I’m sure many of the snags I mentioned could be managed if expectations would be clarified in advance.
I was pretty happy with my gear for the trip. La Sportiva Bushido II my go to technical trail runners did very well on all the trails except Orizaba summit. With Merino socks in particular they were quite warm. Kahtoola gaiter was very useful to protect from sand getting in. For the big summit push I used La Sportiva G2 Evo which worked well at keeping my feet warm. Petzl Altitude is great at providing safety you need on the glacier without adding much weight. I also tried out the REI Traverse 32 backpack for the first time – it mostly worked well, though clips being on the smaller side are hard to operate in thick gloves. Another gem is Polartec socks which I found very handy for extra warmth for a good night sleep. For the sleeping pad I used Therm-a-rest Trail Pro – for this trip weight was not a big concern and I find it not as flimsy as very light versions. Hyke and Byke Eolus sleeping bag worked very well for me, though I’m not sure I’d actually want to sleep in it in the 0F (-18C) weather but for a few degrees below freezing it is rather comfortable.
My DJI Mini 3 Pro drone showed itself very well – flying above 5000m, below freezing even with a heavier battery. Good pictures and videos. I did not have any “calibration required” issues as with Mini 2. Also the remote controller with built in display was quite handy as it avoids potential issues with humidity in the phone port I had before in wet conditions. GoPro Hero 11 worked very well too. In particular I’m happy using it with The Remote allowing for short clips without messing with the camera.
I found it a lot of fun to enjoy adventures with people of shared interests rather than just a bunch of strangers. Yet it is fun to have a broader group than just your current colleagues. As such as I’m organizing future expeditions I will invite everyone in the community to join in – follow this blog for future announcements.
More on our Pico de Orizaba Climb
Amal Naik put together a fantastic video album about our trip you might want to check out.
I also have a number of additional pictures and notes on my Instagram.