El Pico De Orizaba 18,405'

31 Jan - 9 Feb 2004 - by Ricardo Pena

The trip was a very interesting, challenging and enjoyable one. Conditions were not typical. The Mexican volcanoes received,just prior to the team's arrival, the most amount of snow they've had in 20 years. Getting to normal trailheads became a major challenge. Thus El Nevado De Toluca was climbed via its northwest ridge as opposed to the normal route from inside the crater. This made for a more satisfying experience given that we climbed 3000 vertical feet in snow as opposed to 1500' in sand and rocks. It felt more of a worthy challenge to this team, which happened to be a very strong team!

Prior to this climb I had to convince local police to let us through their road block to get anywhere close to the volcano. Given the snow condition of the road (very safe for Colorado standards, dangerous for Mexican standards, since it almost never snows there!) the police had blocked the road and was waiting for it to melt. Luckily we were let through- we found the road and mountain conditions to be very safe and were able to put the whole team on the northern summit, called El Pico Del Aguila (15,157'), and safely back down, establishing many personal altitude records.

For Orizaba, we found access to base camp with 4x4 impossible. So, from about 12,200', the team had to carry all equipment to the hut at 13,900'. I talked to everyone about the added risk of being on the mountain without 4x4 access to us. From base camp (13,900'), there was no contact with anyone except by foot (4.3 miles, 2800' to the nearest village). Given this, Brian Dunne decided, before we moved to base camp, to go down with our 4x4 driver, Joaqumn Canchola to Tlachichuca, where he would have lodging and meals provided by Joaqumn .

From base camp, the remaining members (10) and I hiked up to 16,000' as an acclimatization hike. At about 15,800', I decided it would be safer to put crampons on before continuing. At that point, Mary Walker walked away from the group a few steps to relieve herself. Unfortunately, she stepped on snow covered ice and slipped. She slid down the ice about two feet and the fall resulted in an ankle fracture.

The events that followed are described in detail in the attached letter by Mary. In short, since Mary was able to walk at the moment, I sent her down with Jan Schmidt and a radio, knowing the team would be meeting them soon on our descent.

The rest of the team and I climbed up about 200 or 300 vertical feet to the start of the glacier to assess conditions on the route, in case we would get a chance to climb after Mary's mishap. On our descent, I stopped to talk to a guide who had arrived to the mountain a day later than us. He was now camped at 15,500'. I sent the rest of the team down to meet Jan and Mary while I talked to the guide, Roberto. He informed me that there was now someone in base camp with a radio and contact to Socorro Alpino (Search and Rescue). Down in base camp, I treated Mary for shock with the help of the team by providing her with hot liquids, food, and getting her into her sleeping bag.

Contact was established with volunteers from Search and Rescue, who eventually arrived that night at about 11 PM. Seven members from Search and Rescue and I evacuated Mary. Unsure of the experience level of these volunteers, I went along to help and supervise. These volunteers were not familiar with snow evacuation procedures on low angled terrain. Normally, there is no snow in the lower part of the volcano. I showed them how to drag their "wrap around" rescue litter in the snow to facilitate the evacuation. Luckily, Search and Rescue were open to this and other suggestions I made.

After about two hours of carrying Mary and her equipment, I felt we were close enough to their truck to let them handle the evacuation by themselves. I personally was exhausted and needed to climb back up to the hut at 13,900'! This was the fourth day of intense exercise:having climbed "El Nevado de Toluca", having dug snow and pushed the trucks repeatedly, trying to get them higher two days before. Having done two hikes up to base camp to bring all the gear up, and finally the day of the accident:We had climbed, carrying ropes and hardware to 16,000', then back down to base camp at 13,900', then I carried Mary and her equipment for about two hours down the mountain. At that point I decided it would be safer for me to head back up to the hut before I got too low and overly exhausted to climb back to 13,900'.

The search and rescue team seemed tired, but able to make it, so I turned around. They reached their truck and drove down to Tlachichuca to drop Mary at Joaqumn Canchola's residence, where Brian was. I, on my part, was faced with a very exhausting climb back up to the hut arriving there at 2:30 AM. I had with me a radio with contact to Beth at the hut in case I had any problems.

The next day, we rested and made preparations for our summit attempt. And finally, on February 7th, all remaining nine members and I summited Orizaba (18,405'). I found that the Jamapa Glacier has retreated considerably and the route has changed. The summit is now safer to reach via a more direct route which actually is steeper than the original route. An ascent of Orizaba now requires about 7 or 8 pitches of 400to 450 steep snow terrain. I used six pickets as a running belay to protect the team on the steep section. In my two prior trips, I never needed pickets using the old route. I would strongly recommend anyone attempting Orizaba now to bring pickets and screws for protection.

Joaqumn Canchola, our 4x4 driver, did an incredible job for us. He fed the team prior to our climb, provided us with white gas and purified water. Joaqumn, his brother and his son, worked with us intensely trying to open the road to get us as high as possible in our approach to base camp. A day later, they hiked up to base camp to bring us gas and a 20 liter water jug. (Normally, there is no snow in base camp to melt. In our trip, we encountered lots of snow, ironically making it non-essential to bring us the water as long as we had enough fuel.) Finally, on our summit day, Joaqumn hired seven other people to help him open up the road all the way to base camp. It was a very impressive feat, considering the condition- six foot deep snow drifts, long stretches, etc. To our great surprise and joy, he met us at base camp as we descended from the summit saving us another night at the hut and a hike down with all of our gear!

Finally, we spent a night at Canchola's reunited with Brian and Mary. Brian had gone up with Canchola and hiked up to above 15,400' to let us know that Joaqumn was waiting for the team, and thereby establishing a new person altitude record. I would highly recommend Canchola's services, and he deserves a lot of gratitude for making our CMC outing so successful. He did a lot of work for us/besides get us up there and did not charge any extra money!

A great Mexican dinner in Mexico City, a visit to Plaza Garibaldi, with dozens of live mariachi ensembles, great music and tequila, brought our trip to a very happy ending. All the team members were physically and psychologically very strong and endured the adverse conditions and challenges admirably. I would happily recommend any of them for an outing or expedition. They all expressed to me great satisfaction and enjoyment with the trip.

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