I missed the Northridge Earthquake of January 1994. I heard about it from a cab driver in San Diego while heading toward the Mexican border en route to the Mexican volcanoes. I think his exact words were "did you guys hear that L.A. was destroyed by an earthquake"? I live in Los Angeles. He may have overstated the situation, but I worried a lot about friends, bookcases and chimneys while in Mexico.
Bryan Johnson and I had set aside 11 days to go climb the Mexican Volcanoes. Most people try for the Big Three: Orizaba (18,410 ft.), Popo (17,930 ft.) and Ixta (17,160 ft.) which are the third, fifth, and seventh highest mountains in North America respectively. We set our sights on Orizaba. Our plan was to camp high on Orizaba and attempt several technical routes and then, if we had time, try to day hike Popo.
From what I had read, the crux of climbing the standard route on each of these peaks was trying to get out of Mexico City in your rental car without getting a traffic ticket. Stories of close encounters with the tourist police abound. We cheated! We used public transportation. I have traveled much in the Third World and I found that Mexico follows Basic Rule No. 1. This rule is 'If local people need to get someplace and if local people do not have private cars, then public transport will be available, frequent, and inexpensive'.
We began our trip on a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City arriving about 3 p.m. A taxi ride to the eastern bus station (called TAPO) connected us with a bus to Pueblo (departs every 10 minutes) where we caught another bus to Tlachichuca (departs every 30 minutes). By 8 p.m., we were at the climbers dormitory run by Senor Reyes. The most difficult part of riding public transport in Mexico is that once you buy your ticket, the bus leaves so quickly that you don't have time to go to the bathroom.
Information about the technical routes on Orizaba was hard to come by. Summit magazine in Sept./Oct. 1987 had an article about the Eastern Glacier and described two couloirs of 50-70 degrees of steepness. The article included a beautiful photograph of the east side of the mountain - we learned in Mexico however, that the photo was printed backwards. Luckily we discovered this before the climb! R.J. Secor's guide 'Mexico's Volcanoes' also had good information including excellent maps which when combined with the Summit Magazine photo (held against the sun backwards) provided us with all we needed. The photo accompanying this article is in the correct orientation and shows Orizaba as seen from the east. Lines on the photo indicate the normal route (our descent route) as well our three routes which are described in this article.
We allocated several days to acclimatize leisurely on the way up rather than going up too fast and having to descend to recover from altitude sickness. My experience at high altitudes has taught me that a basic rule also operates in this domain. Basic Rule No. 2 is 'The time required to reach a summit must include sufficient acclimatization time'. We spent one night at Senor Reye's Ranch (8,500 ft.), and a second night camping above the village of Hidalgo (12,200 ft.), before hiking to the Piedra Grande hut at 14,000 ft.
The Piedra Grande hut is well maintained and sleeps lots of people. Unfortunately, most people who stay here feel they have to get up at 1 or 2 a.m. to climb the peak which does not allow others to sleep much. We chose to camp nearby in order to get a good night's rest. The following day, an alpine start was in order as we started our hike to our high camp at 10 a.m. We found a flat area on the moraine below the Jamapa Glacier at about 16,200 ft. where we set up our Bibler tent. This would be our base for the next four nights. The Jamapa Glacier is the standard route from the North which most climbers follow and was our planned descent route. This route went up toward a landmark on the crater rim called the Aguja de Hielo, or Ice Needle, before going to the right along the crater rim to the summit.
Orizaba, The First Time
The following morning at 7:30 a.m., we headed east across the foot of the Jamapa Glacier to a ridge from where we could see the Eastern Glacier. The two couloirs were visible from here. We traversed over to the Left Couloir which was the wider of the two. We climbed unroped over very hard snow in excellent conditions. Steepness estimates are difficult to make without a measurement device which we did not have. It was steep enough and the snow hard enough that a self arrest would have been futile. However, the slope never reached an angle which required us to front point. By 11:30 a.m., we had reached the crater rim near 18,000 ft. The crux of the climb was traversing over some loose rock and then descending into the Right Couloir as we worked our way back to the Jamapa glacier and the standard route which was our planned descent route. We roped up for one pitch which traversed very steep snow (requiring front points) for a short distance. We reached the Jamapa glacier at 2 p.m. and were back in camp by 3:30 p.m.
Orizaba, The Second Time
The next day we headed for the Right Couloir. This couloir is narrower and steeper than the one climbed on the previous day and can be subject to rock fall on a warm day. However, that was not a problem for us; we were climbing in an ice storm. The temperature was about 32 degrees F and the moisture that we encountered froze onto everything, coating our packs and ice axes. We set up a running belay using pickets for anchors at the top of the couloir. The rational for this was to practice using pickets more so than to overcome the difficulty of the terrain. However, front pointing was used periodically during this time. At the top of the couloir we traversed right and by noon, arrived at the exact place we exited the previous day. We were back in camp by 1:30 p.m.
Orizaba, The Third Time
For our third climb, we decided to attempt the ridge on the far side of the Eastern glacier. The first few hours were identical to our first climb. Upon reaching the Left Couloir, we started a long traverse to the steep ridge which formed the left hand side of the Left Couloir. Most of this ridge was very steep but there was a reasonable ramp near the bottom. As we approached, the snow became increasingly more difficult. We had to use our front points and used pickets to set up a belay. One pitch got us to the ridge which then continued all the way to the crater rim, to a point directly opposite the true summit on the west side of the rim. We traversed around the rim clockwise to the south and reached the summit at 1:30 p.m. This was our only visit to the true summit during our climbs. A descent of the now very familiar Jamapa Glacier got us back to camp by mid-afternoon.
We would have climbed another route but the only other technical climbs were on the west side and would have required a long approach. Also, it appeared that the technical sections were very short. We decided to descend and hoped that we would be lucky and find a truck at Piedra Grande hut to take us back to Senor Reyes. No such luck! We ended up descending by foot all the way to the village of San Miguel Zoapan, a descent of 6,000 ft., before catching a ride to Senor Reye's ranch at Tlachichuca.
Popo, A Day Hike
Since we had a couple of days remaining, we had time to visit Popo. Public buses easily got us to the town of Amecameca (via TAPO bus station in Mexico City). We hired a taxi to take us to the Tlamacas Lodge which is the standard starting point for one day ascents of Popo. The lodge, constructed in 1978, is a beautiful building but unfortunately is not well maintained. The toilets don't work, the cafeteria has been closed down and there was no heat. After being awakened several times during the night by people leaving to climb Popo in the dark, we started off at about 6 a.m. and climbed the peak via the Ventorrillo route. We spent the night in Amecameca and flew from Mexico City back to Tijuana the next day.
My house was still standing when I returned home. Maybe it was better to be gone.
Considerable savings can be achieved by flying from Tijuana. Public transport can be used to get from San Diego to the Tijuana Airport. It is not necessary to speak Spanish. To get to the volcanoes via public transportation, practice saying the following words on the flight down: TAPO (Eastern bus station), PUEBLO, TLACHICHUCA, AMECAMECA, AND TLAMACAS. Total cost for public transportation (including taxis) in Mexico for our trip was $46 per person and our flight cost $175 each.
Although the standard routes on Popo and Orizaba are not technical, it is not uncommon to be using crampons and ice ax in conditions where a self arrest would not work. There are many, many people attempting these peaks who should not be there.
For equipment, we took two ice tools each, four pickets, several ice screws (which we did not use), one 9 mm rope, and standard mountaineering clothes and gear. We took all our camping food from the USA to avoid going into Mexico City but enjoyed eating in local cafes when possible. We used a Bluet hanging stove and bought gas cartridges in Tlachichuca.