“Hold that thought!”
I interrupt Brett mid-sentence and dash out of the hut, frantically reaching for the last two squares of toilet paper on my way out the door. The term toilet paper is being used very loosely here as the outhouses at the Piedra Grande Hut are decidedly not toilets and we’ve resorted to using Clif Bar wrappers, cardboard, and cut up boxers as stand-in paper for the past day and a half. Of all the planning and preparation that goes into an international ski mountaineering trip, toilet paper had to be the one thing to slip through the cracks. Here we were halfway up a mountain South of the Border doing our best to stave off exhaustion, low morale, and Montezuma’s Revenge. We had officially hit a new low and felt further than ever from the big mountain goals we had made in early September.
Just hours earlier a winter storm rolled in on us five hundred feet from the 18,491’ summit of Pico de Orizaba forcing an unanticipated retreat. Two mornings from now we had a ride organized to bring us off the mountain. With one final shot at climbing the third highest mountain in North America neither time, nor bowels, were on our side. It was officially, and literally, gut-check time. But let’s back pedal.
I initially pitched the idea of a Mexico ski trip, almost in jest, to Brett back in Alaska after realizing we both had mostly open schedules for the fall season. Sliding down a 2,000’ glacier on Mexico’s tallest peak seemed like a grand adventure, and a solid brainstorming session around the warmth of a beach fire with a bottle of whiskey in hand all but sealed the deal. In a matter of days we were booking individual flights to meet in Mexico City in early October. It turned out that the glasses of naivete served with whiskey around a fire provided just enough stubbornness for us to pretend that navigating crowded subtropical bus stations with ski bags wouldn’t be pure chaos. It was. But, before long, we were en route to the sleepy town of Tlachichuca at the base of our objective.
Pico de Orizaba boasts over 16,000 feet of prominence, and we got our first glimpse of the summit just before sunset on our last night in the valley below. It was as impressive as we had hoped. The following day we helped Gerardo, our shuttle driver, load gear into his well-loved Jeep Wagoneer for the ride up to the Piedra Grande Hut. The ill-maintained road climbs over 4,000 feet through rural villages, switchbacks, and craters and is one-part spectacular views, one part skull rattling laughs, and one part troubleshooting how to stop an old 4WD workhorse from sliding backwards into a tree. Late that afternoon we arrived at the simple backcountry hut in the rain, Orizaba looming somewhere overhead but shrouded in clouds.
Brett and I were pleased to encounter only one other group at Piedra Grande, a hut large enough to sleep upwards of forty during peak season. As we unpacked our gear a guided trio from Seattle woke up from an afternoon siesta and greeted us with a casual “Hey! Have you heard the rats yet?”
While a bit unsettling, both Brett and I felt more comfortable with this than the alternative struggle of another awkward night schlepping skis to various accommodations under the heat of the Mexican sun. After a quick dinner, we stretched our legs and tested our lungs before getting our first night of sleep at nearly 14,000’.
Excitement woke us before the sound of our 6:00am alarms, and we were soon moving upwards with skis on our backs. The day’s goal was to stash all of our ski gear at the base of Jamapa Glacier at 16,500’ to make our summit day a little lighter and faster. As we began the hike, we enjoyed the fleeting minutes of a clear starry night before dawn broke on the mountainside and the summit of Pico de Orizaba came into full view. An old aqueduct runs up toward the north side of the peak and essentially provides a sidewalk to more technical terrain and route-finding a few hundred feet above. A full night’s sleep at altitude did wonders for our acclimatization, and we made good time following cairns into the convoluted and glaciated bands of igneous and volcanic rock appropriately named The Labyrinth.
Once in The Labyrinth, the climb provides a fun and unique challenge to route finding. There are stories of climbers completely committing to a path only to have it dead end in a sheer wall of icy rock. By taking this day to acclimatize and stash skis, we were able to find our way in the daytime and choose a direct route to, and then up, the headwall of this impressive geologic feature. The final 500’ that would deliver us to the moraine at the base of the glacier was comprised of steep cliffs, snow-filled chutes, and slippery rocks – making for a fun climb in the light but would prove to be more of a mental crux the following morning. As we worked our way through the final pitch and onto more stable ground, the altitude finally caught up to us. We strolled over to the terminus of Jamapa Glacier, placed gear in garbage bags, and turned around leaving Orizba gleaming in complete sunshine. The idea was to come back tomorrow to finish the job.
Mountain orographics can provide a certain level of unpredictability to weather patterns, and Orizaba was no different. Located on the eastern flank of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, this 7th most prominent peak in the world is only 60 miles from the Gulf of Mexcio. In short, there are a lot of variables at play. Everything we had read, however, indicated that the higher elevations of Pico de Orizaba seemed to stay clear until late morning this time of year. Any later in the day and the low hanging clouds of the valley start to creep up the mountainside. Our ride back to Tlachichuca would be picking us up on Sunday morning – in two days – so Brett and I figured that if we were serious about this thing, we needed to try for the summit early in our stay and hope to nail it. If we got shutdown, ideally we would still have time and inspiration to give it another go. Moving forward with this strategy, we returned to Piedra Grande knowing that tonight was the night.
Our hut-mates were awake by midnight and moving by 1am. Feeling confident in our acclimatization and our direct route up the Labyrinth, Brett and I started hiking by 2am with a new Peruvian friend tagging along as well. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, creaked open the one entrance to the hut and was instantly awake. The crisp mountain air, a blanket of infinite stars, and the illuminated lights of distant cities and townships left us feeling confident. It was clear. Today was to be the day that an idea born by bullshitting on a beach 5,000 miles to the north was actually going to come to fruition.
Following the same route as the day prior, we cruised through the first leg of the climb almost too quickly. The hope was to start navigating the glacier at first light so we slow down, enjoy the quiet, and get to the entrance of The Labyrinth by 3:30am. The snow here had hardened to ice overnight, and the darkness made for another added challenge. The three of us negotiate our way upward – kicking steps in ice, self belaying with ice axes, and working through four exposed Class V moves on the headwall. We find our way into icy chute after icy chute continuously fighting for the path of least resistance. Moving efficiently, though, we get to our skis by 5:30am. To our astonishment we find ourselves deep in a cloud and opt to wait in the cold and dark for some semblance of light to show, doing our best to stay warm and positive. A guide and client pass by us in a struggle. The client is vomiting but demands to continue climbing. It isn’t long before the right decision is made and we see headlamps returning our way, well shy of the summit. Our patience is dwindling as we become further engulfed in a cold, dark cloud – city lights below and stars above a distant memory from hours past.
The guided group from Seattle starts working the glacier at 6am, and we wait a bit longer before stopping on the ice at about 16,750’ discussing if the present whiteout will ever give way. We have two days left, but we’re already this far. Our options are limited to continuing a push up the final 2,000’ or returning in subsequent days hoping for better weather. Our Peruvian friend wants to go and, right on cue, the clouds break and the sun pops – its glowing warmth a welcome addition to this trying morning. Unbeknownst to us, that is all we would see of the sun for the next day. We were soon back inside the ping-pong ball of a full-on winter expedition, trudging upward on ice and battling both wills and weather. Somehow, I was beginning to second-guess the Hawaiian shirt I had buried in my backpack for the descent.
The mental melee is real, but we try and keep thoughts positive– surely the weather will break again…it always has. This time, though, it doesn’t. We put one foot in front of the other and eventually reach 18,000′ – physical tanks approaching empty, mental tanks riding with the low fuel light on for hours. We’re 500 feet shy of the summit and completely blind in unknown terrain. Eventually, we collectively decide that a final push would be both fruitless and dangerous. Visibility was nonexistent, the glacier ice was near bulletproof and, if we did summit, our views would be the same as that of a psych ward patient confined to a padded cell. Chances are we would be envying that patient. At least he had indoor plumbing.
Brett and I dug out a narrow ledge in the ice and transitioned to ski mode. What would follow would be a classic edge-holding battle. A blind side-slip down much of the steep upper glacier eventually freed us to initiate and carve unseeing turns on the lower ice.
Totally defeated, we return to the base of Jamapa Glacier with a much better understanding of this mountain and its 50% summit rate. As heart rates lower, we debate whether to leave skis and make another run at the summit in the coming days or cut our losses and hangout at Piedra Grande for the next day and a half. Frustration slowly subsides, and we opt for another high altitude sufferfest. Why would we willing choose to wake up in the middle of the night, freeze our asses off, and work to exhaustion again all for the mere possibility to stand on top of a rock? Great question. Stubbornness? Sure. Pride? Absolutely. But at the very core of it lies a simple love of the mountains, the wilderness, and the experiences they provide. That and, well, glacial snow makes much better toilet paper than the cardboard stash we had been slowly accruing down at the hut. We start the long slog by down-climbing The Labyrinth and are soon strolling down the aqueduct with aching knees, frozen bodies, and lingering headaches from a morning spent at high altitude. Tomorrow is a rest day, and we decide to take our last chance at skiing Pico de Orizaba on the morning of our shuttle arrival.
I returned from the outhouse, apologizing once again for so feverishly stealing the last few squares of toilet paper on my way out the door. Brett finds the whole thing hilarious but it isn’t long before he, too, is using his boxers for more than underwear. We’re officially riding the Whatever’s Clever Toilet Paper Express and, needless to say, morale isn’t quite where it was a couple of days ago. Not only has the above situation become dire, but the majority of our designated rest day proved to be sunny and beautiful with Orizaba laughing at us in clear view from on high. Today would have made for the perfect summit bid – leaving us frustrated at how things have shaken out and also anxious for what tomorrow morning would bring.
For most of the day we had Piedra Grande all to ourselves, but as evening hit so did the crowds. All bunks soon filled up with Mexican families and guided excursions. Tents started popping up outside. We try to close our eyes at 8pm in preparation for another proper alpine start, but a final group rolls into the hut shortly thereafter. Lacking a certain level of shared-space etiquette, these climbers are blinding sleepers with headlamps and one particularly booming voice reverberates off the cold cement walls. Despite having headphones lodged deep in my ears, none of the old staples are doing the job. I cruise through the cowboy lullabies of Bob Weir’s Blue Mountain, the melodic beauty of The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, and the instrumental ambiance of Lanterna’s Desert Ocean, awake as ever. 10:30pm hits and I rollover with drool on my pillow. I’m feeling thankful that I must have dozed off for at least a little bit but continue to toss and turn until midnight. Brett is awake as well, and we jointly decide to mobilize and get ahead of the pack – the benefits of this far outweighing an extra hour of listening to rats scurry overhead. We start moving slowly given the exhaustion that accompanies our second early start in three days, but the skies are as clear as we’ve seen them. I cautiously allow my optimism and stoke to creep back and fuel the climb.
The final saunter begins just before 12:30am, and my legs are undeniably tired from the work they have put in over the past few days. Without hesitation we make for the steepest and most direct route to The Labyrinth. As we take our first quick breather, a silence washes over us as Brett and I simultaneously notice clouds slowly starting to cover the city lights below and unsettling yet stunning lightning displays rock the far eastern horizon. The quiet is thick and we each only break the stillness to desperately rationalize the valley precipitation below, hoping it won’t move in our direction.
A deep sigh of uncertainty, and we are into The Labyrinth again relying on our more technical and more direct variation on the standard route. It’s our third time up here, and our confidence shows. The most challenging of the Class V moves pass quickly, and we reach our gear stash in less than three hours. It’s calm this morning, so sitting at 16,500’ watching shooting stars and listening to Beck isn’t a problem as we catch our breath and time reaching the summit in synchrony with the rising sun. If anything, it allows for some great soul searching on what has been and what is to come. Distant headlamps start dancing through The Labyrinth, our cue to don crampons and headlamps and start the final ascent under starry skies.
Our headlamps illuminate a deserted glacier as we work upwards one step at a time. Heads down, Brett and I continue the pattern of counting steps, carefully gaining purchase with crampons on ice, exchanging leads, and breathing deep. By the time we reach our previous turnaround point at 18,000’, a long trail of light litters the snow and ice behind us and the clouds and storms of previous concern are stuck in the valley. Inspiration strikes knowing that, today, there is nothing to stop us from reaching the summit but ourselves. Brett kicks it into high gear, clearly having made this same realization. The previous night we made it our goal to start our descent down Jamapa Glacier by 8:30am. Just feet ahead of me, I hear Brett give a triumphant yell from the edge of the volcano’s crater. We are only a short stroll to the true summit, and it is not yet 7am.
As I gained the ridge, there was no wiping the stupid grin off my face. We had made it to the roof of Mexico. Brett and I exchanged high fives and basked in the blazing sun just cresting the horizon. I maintain that sunrises in the mountains provide some of life’s most magical moments and, on Orizaba, the peak’s triangular shadow on the valley below truly is mystical. Each clear morning Orizaba throws communities to the west into darkness, serving as a harmless reminder that there are far greater forces on this planet than many of us humans would like to admit. We soaked it all in and were quickly reminded why the hell we were up here in the first place. It was time to ski Mexico.
We quickly discussed the descent and wasted no time clicking into bindings. Below us was 2,000 vertical feet of uninterrupted Mexican snow. With impeccable visibility and much softer conditions than our previous day on skis, Brett and I exchanged carving turns down the 35°– 45° Jamapa Glacier. Smiles were plastered on our faces as we raced past a small line of folks still on the ascent while others trudged back down short of the summit. With increasing oxygen rushing into our lungs, these turns were enough to make us temporarily forget about the disappointment of two days ago, the exhaustion creeping into our bodies, the hassle of dragging ski bags through Mexican towns and negotiating them into compact Ubers, and the fact that when we got back to the hut we would still be wiping with ripped boxers and cardboard. In homage to the Oscar-snubbed Aspen Extreme, and a throwback to ski days on Alaska’s Thompson Pass where we first met the previous spring, we finished off Jamapa Glacier with some good old-fashioned Mexican Powder 8s per Brett’s request.
More high fives were to follow and after collecting ourselves and strapping skis onto packs, we began the final down climb. Fulfilled, but moving slow, our A-framed skis seemed to find nearly every rock in The Labyrinth as exhaustion finally overtook us. Despite utter fatigue, the smiles on our faces were here to stay as we daydreamed of the comfortable beds and cheap beers that awaited us nearly 10,000’ below.
We returned to Piedra Grande well ahead of schedule, as did our ride back down the mountain. Sleeping was an utter impossibility on the rough 4×4 road out of the national park, and insomnia-fueled thoughts drifted back to Orizaba, Piedra Grande, and the highs and lows of four nights spent at elevation. Before long, though, the small town of Tlachichuca once again appeared through the windshield. Brett and I wasted no time buying bus tickets and started the final leg of our time in Mexico. All eyes were on Lucha Libre, bottomless beers, and stuffing our faces with as much Mexican street food as we could stomach. We owed it to ourselves. After all, we had just skied Mexico and had safely returned to the world of plentiful toilet paper and indoor plumbing. What’s the worst that could happen?