When you think of high altitude ski mountaineering missions, Denali, Logan, The Northern Andes, and the Himalayas generally come to mind. For the North American or European skier, all of these options are quite involved whether it be cost, travel, on mountain logistics, technical climbing demands, or extreme temperatures. How about climbing a 2200’ vertical, consistent 35 degree glacier, with few to no crevasses, in just below freezing temps? Top out at 18,500 feet above sea level and take in the panorama from the 7th most prominent mountain in the world? And do it in a day trip from a hut that you can drive to? ¡Vamos a Mexico!
I had first heard of Citlaltépetl (“Star Mountain” in the native Nahuatl) while sitting around a campfire during a Colorado 14er spring skiing mission. My good friend Drew, ski partner on that trip, had plans to climb and ski it in 2014 with another mutual friend Brendan Olsen who died in a tragic climbing accident the spring before their planned mission. This fall, Drew and I, along with Dave, Cal and Andrew were fortunate enough to team up and head for Pico de Orizaba, as it is commonly known.
Traditional climbing season for Pico is November through March, due to the summer rainy season. Therefore, a ski mission is generally best early on in this season when snow conditions on the glacier tend to be more consistent. The best weather window for our climb happened to our second full day during our week in Mexico- November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos. This was an unforeseen yet amazing opportunity to honor loved ones that we’d lost, particularly our friend Olsen that would have certainly been on this trip.
Orizaba lies on the border of the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz, roughly four hours by car from Mexico City. The Refugio Piedra Grande is a simple yet spacious hut that stands on the side of the dormant stratovolcano at an elevation of around 14,200 ft at the end of a long, yet not too technical 4-wheel drive road. The simple hut has a few tables, sturdy timber and plywood bunks, outdoor pit latrines, and a few mice to clean up your mess. The refugio, as well as the road, are maintained by the Canchola family of Tlachichuca, Puebla. The Canchola's have a climber friendly hostel and Sr. Joaquin Canchola has been driving climbers from all over the world up to the hut for 50 years.
We departed the hut at roughly 4:30 am with views of a thunderstorm raging below us near the Gulf of Mexico, beginning on a trail consisting of loose dirt and talus. At about 15,500 ft, we reached a ridge with a few stacked-rock windbreaks, commonly referred to as “high camp”. We reached high camp around first light and were able to take a quick break and soak in the dawn view below us. After high camp, we passed through an area of wandering trails and easy scrambling typically referred to as the labyrinth.
Drew's photo of Refugio Piedra Grande at night and the distant thunderstorms
We reached the glacier at roughly 7:30 am and transitioned into our ski boots and crampons, leaving hiking boots and un-needed gear and water at the foot of the glacier (roughly 16,200’). We elected to leave all skins and ski crampons at the hut, which was the right call. The slope is just steep and slick enough to have made skinning more trouble than it was worth. Furthermore, this saved weight and space in the packs for the 3-hour hike to snow. Ropes, harnesses and other glacier/crevass gear also stayed behind after gathering a bit of beta from a team that went up the previous day. Although we did not encounter any crevasses, I can't recommend this gamble for everyone as there have been glacial cracks reported in the past. We chose to climb the glacier with a whippet in hand and cane with an ice axe as well. Although the glacier is not technical, it is long and steep, and a slip and fall without self-arrest would result in a high speed slip and slide into the scree below. In hindsight, I would have a preferred a longer axe for easier craning and to have put the whippet on the pack, saving it for only the descent.
The altitude was noticeable, yet not incredibly limiting, at the beginning of the glacier climb. Though simple and straightforward, the altitude became increasingly cumbersome as the views became more spectacular. At about 17,500-18,000 feet, the altitude became quite limiting to me, and resulted in a simple goal of 30 french steps at a time with a break in between. The feeling of absolutely reaching my limit, combined with the slight loopiness that high altitude can bring, resulted in the most incredible exhausted yet peaceful feeling I have ever felt. I simply breathed slowly through my nose and continued upward, meeting the rest of the crew, who although slowed, were clipping along at a better pace than I was.
We summited Orizaba around 10:30 am, and were in awe of the views from the airplane like vantage point we had reached. We gained the over 4,200' in only 3 miles, and just under six hours. The partly cloudy skies were below us, blue skies above. The temperatures were around 20 degrees F and wind speeds no more than 10 mph. Unbelievable for 18,491 ft! After some photos, high fives, snacks, and remembering those that we’ve lost on this special Mexican holiday, we geared up for the ski.
Looking east over the massive crater from the summit of Pico de Orizaba
The conditions on the NNW aspect Jamapa glacier were best described as “sugary pool table”, demanding total focus and a conservative turn shape. Altitude did have a significant effect on the descent. Our group comprised of former and current ski patrollers, accomplished backcountry skiers, and avid mountain sports athletes needed 4-5 pitches to complete the descent of only 2,200 ft. I skied my Fischer Hannibal 94's mounted with Speed Radicals which were appropriate for the terrain and conditions. While the whippet was redundant on the up in combination with the axe, it was mandatory for the smooth and un-edgeable descent. A very short and mellow apron with a more southerly aspect held some wind drifted warm pow and a little corn snow, which I milked all the way back to the rocks.
Cal making the ski look easy
The slog back down through the labyrinth and talus was arduous and forgettable, except for the surreal experience of walking down through the clouds that we had watched build below us. By now, the summit was in and out of cloud cover and the mid mountain was completely socked in. We returned to the hut and reloaded our vehicle exhausted, hungry and full of stoke. A quick drive back to town had us back at the Canchola's hostel where hot showers and a home cooked meal awaited us.
Drew and Dave disappear into the clouds during the return hike to Piedra Grande
Summiting Mexico's highest peak on the Day of the Dead was quite an experience, however, we did miss out on some of the festivities in town. We made a point of visiting the incredibly dense cemetery in Tlachichuca the following morning, which was absolutely coated with the traditional yellow and maroon marigolds. Dave put it best, "You could feel the positive vibration, making for a very peaceful experience in a place many people associate with grief, sadness and darkness." The positive vibes derived from the cemetery were echoing the vibes built up the day before, and will keep us riding high until the powder stacks up this winter.
The Tlachichuca cemetery the day after Dia de los Muertos, Orizaba in the background