The Mexican Volcanoes

October 1-9 2014


So many times I had planned to drop south of the border and explore these smoking giants.  On one particular occasion, Brian and I had the whole expedition dialed in to the point that he pulled the trigger during winter and I could not extricate myself from work.  Brian executed the plan we had meticulously crafted.  In February of 2012, he summited Orizaba after an acclimatization run on La Malinche.

It was sitting in the back of my psyche, smoking like Popocatepetl.  Fall break was something that used to be less than a week but thanks to new block scheduling, I was facing a protracted period of vacation.  What were the chances….I started migrating my keystrokes to Kayak.  The two week window approached as I punched in every possible combination.  The day before 14 days out I made a decision.  And with the punch of a “purchase”, I was booked on United to Puebla at the cost of $630 USD.

Eight days was the minimum required for acclimatizing. I couldn’t talk anyone else into this trip.  It was last minute and no one had that sort of flexibility.  Several had the “wanna want to’s” but I didn’t expect anyone to drop their entire life to accompany me to the land of the Aztecs.  Climbing solo is a different ballgame but not entirely unfamiliar.  My last jaunt of this sort was to Ecuador in 2006.  It was Cotopaxi that entered my sights in preparation for Denali.  Like this Mexican adventure, I was prepared for flexibility and intended to arrange a guide.  There would be no guide on Citlaltepetl, Mexico’s highest mountain at 18,700 feet.  And that was sounding alright by me.

Sitting in McGhee Tyson airport the morning of my departure, I was next to former Governor Don Sundquist.  It was only after Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett passed and identified him as such that I had the notion of asking for a picture with the guy.  The irony that he would be posing with someone who named him in a lawsuit regarding a land swap between the National Park Service was tempting, although I mentally pictured my attorney having a cardiac event so I passed.   Seven hours in Houston and I was boarding a jet to Puebla.  Two hours separated me from the country in which I had never climbed anything short of a small pyramid outside of Cozumel.  I passed customs undeterred and a one hour cab ride landed me square in the center of the Zocalo, Puebla’s old city center.

Puebla is a renaissance city with great charm and hints of Old Mexico.  But modern touches creep into the skyline along with smog and a heavy people load.  Bristling with over 1.5 million, Puebla is the country’s third largest city and sits in the shadow of La Malinche, an inactive volcano that dominates the skyline. My temporary residence while I acclimate to the 8000 foot elevation gain is the Mesones Sacristia de La Compania Hotel.  (not pictured above, that is the main Cathedral of Puebla) This “boutique” residence has less than 10 guest rooms that border a courtyard known for its gourmet mole concoctions.  It was listed at well over $150 per night but I snagged a room for $70 on hotwire.  Hotwire is a great friend of the flexible traveler, by the way.  It wasn’t the first time I took advantage of their economic offerings on this expedition.  My first experience was with the airfare.  I would later book another 4 star lodging at the tail end of the trip for very little more.

My first order of business was to secure transportation to La Malinche and the hotel was quite adept and finagling a cab driver who agreed to wait for me as I finished my climb.  Total cost for the transport was $84 USD. (For the sake of clarity, I have substituted dollars for pesos to give a sense of value for Americans) My second morning was to be relaxation in the city and acclimatizing which was quite comfortable as I toured the old city Cathedral and Zocalo square.  Walking through the old cobbled streets of Puebla, I was reminded of the 1600’s.  Middle school children approached me in groups to practice their English and ask the same questions.  Yes, I was that obvious, apparently.  Friday, October 3 was to be my day on La Malinche but the weather was not looking so hot.  It was raining frequently in the city and the forecast was more of the same.  It didn’t matter because I had a schedule and it needed to be followed.  Early the next morning, after a great supper at the hotel, I was headed out of town with my taxi driver who spoke no English.  This was quite common in Mexico.  At least he understood the destination, although he had never personally been there.

La Malinche was somewhat difficult to find even for the intrepid cab driver.  He stopped for directions on three occasions.  And you climb through these small hamlets of towns to enter the National Park for which there is no entry fee.  I am thinking it took at least an hour and a half to arrive.  By 10 am we had reached the end of the road, a gate separated us from another mile of road.  I saddled up my daypack replete with copious water and snacks and rain gear and began a 4000 foot climb to the peak inside the National Park.  It was as straightforward as you could imagine.  Beginning along the road, I used switchbacks that dissected the gated paths until the end of pavement found me ascending dirt through a pine forest for a couple of steep miles.  Books have the jaunt pegged at 6 miles one way but I’m not sure if they include the closed road section.  Either way, there is a resort at the base and you can begin you ascent accordingly, if desired.

I was feeling especially strong given two days of travel and relative inactivity.  The idea of sweating up a hill with a daypack was just the trick and my stride was impressive.  I had gained two thousand feet before finishing the tree line.  From there, in the fog and mist and what I fully expected to be a torrential rain storm, I began the grass which hugged a ravine and ended in a scree slope.  Through the mist, small openings were all that revealed my objective.  It was from these mental bearings that I was able to navigate to the scree field for another 600 feet.  The end of the scree found me on a ridge line at 14,000 feet.  It had taken me 3.5 hours to reach this particular point.  The altitude, although heavy, wasn’t weighing me particularly and my pulse was 130 bpm.  This cardiovascular event had the psychological effect of loosening the plaque from my sedentary arteries and brain, conferring life back into my body after traveling from sea level in Tennessee.

On the summit ridge I walked in scree until gaining a prominent rock feature.  My decision to climb over instead of around was laughable on descent but thus is the nature of my astrological cancerian crab movements.  Soon another rock gendarme was to be dealt with in similar fashion and there, in the fog and mist of a Friday afternoon, I found the small cross that signified the “cine” or “cumbre” of Mexico’s third highest peak.  It was tucked in the fold of volcanic rock on a table sized area surrounded by more latent volcanic shelving.  It was a summit and I enjoyed every cloud socked minute.  For 15 minutes I relaxed, shot video and waited for the elusive opening in the sky that was not to be. My summit photo could well have been on a movie set but my lungs were leaving little doubt.

Dropping down I followed another route that avoided the class 3 scrambling on the climb.  Then I could see the error of my way. There were paths that circumvented the rock bands and I had little difficulty following them back to the ridge and scree line.  There, on the scree field, the sky parted and displayed what I had just climbed.  La Malinche was shining in all her majestic glory.

I “skied” down the scree field for several hundred feet.  Soon I was back at the tree line and intercepted three trekkers that had attempted a nearby peak.  One lad was French and the other guy and gal were from Singapore.  We followed each other back down in a descent that would take two hours.  The total time to the summit was, for me, four hours exactly.  This contradicted the claims of my cab driver, Juan Carlos.  His conviction was firm that I should summit in two hours.  That is why I didn’t pay him until the return.  And there he was, dutifully at his post when I came pouring back in sporting a total time of 6 hours.  The kids I had met were anxious to split my cab back to Puebla.  I had no problem allowing them to cram into the back and Juan Carlos appreciated the extra income which shortened his tip from me considering he didn’t make any allowance for our pre-arranged price.  La Malinche was in the bag and the evening was spent in a celebratory dinner with music and singing provided compliments of the hotel. 

The next day I packed and departed via AU bus lines to Tlachicuca.  If you have fears about travelling on a Mexican bus, do not hesitate.  There were no chickens or banditos.  The total fare was 7 dollars for the two hour ride.  I found the Mexican buses quite comfortable and safe although I sat over the luggage bin to make sure no one offloaded my ton of gear prior to arrival in Tlachichuca at the portal to Orizaba.  Mexican buses stop everywhere and all the time.  Another peculiarity of this form of transit is the frequent boarding by hawkers of varying wares from herbal tonics to food and drink items.  Their sales pitches are quite dramatic and lengthy and they are accustomed to placing products in your hands unless you firmly refuse.  My lack of Spanish was useful in this regard.  The countryside was relatively flat and as we entered Tlachicuca I caught a glimpse of Citlaltepetl, aka Orizaba.  It dominates the skyline of this region.

The bus driver let me off several blocks from the home or Joaquin and Maribel Concholas.  The guy wasn’t sure where they lived and pointed me two blocks from where he and another passenger surmised was the place.  It was eerie to be standing in the middle of a foreign country with a huge, 55 lb. duffel bag and my carry on.  I saddled the heavy load towards a busier street until I encountered a woman and two teenage girls.  Producing the address crumpled from days of travel, the lady dispatched her daughter to accompany me to the gated compound that was to be my home for the next short while.  The teenager refused my offer of a tip despite having walked me several blocks to my destination.  I found this attitude quite common amongst the inhabitants of this country.  The girl rang the bell and in short order a metal door was slowly prying backwards.  Soon I was staring at my host, Maribel who promptly showed me to a bunkroom.

It wasn’t much by any standard.  There were two beds and one set of bunks.  The concrete room was cold and undecorated.  It sat within a walled compound that consisted of the Conchola residence across the way.  There was a communal dining room that opened into the kitchen.  My side of the compound was like a motor inn with several ground floor rooms and a top level that housed other members of the Conchola family.  In the back were four off road vehicles that looked as if they could tell many stories of trips up to Orizaba and the Piedra Grande Hut.

I utilized the Wi-Fi to gain weather information about Orizaba.  Nothing was looking particularly appealing.  There was one day with minimal precipitation and that was to be Sunday, the following evening.  I was not excited about rushing my trip up the mountain but Monday was showing six inches of snow so I had little choice.  It was decided that I would depart for the hut the following morning.  Maribel showed me the way into town to secure last minute food items.  Soon I was wandering the maze of streets that led to a very small “store”.  Even by Mexican standards, Tlachicuca is but a hamlet.  Cruising down street after street I was regarded strangely by the locals.  One particular occasion, two rough looking guys sized me up as I ambled through their town and it was the only moment in which I was really uncomfortable in the country.  I wasn’t able to find what I needed in the store, it was more of a hardware merchant because the other stores were not open.  But I grabbed some chips and candy bars and returned to the compound.  Not without taking a detour to the Reyes place.  Senor Reyes is the “competition” for mountain business in the area and ironically abuts the Concholas compound.   I went around to survey their establishment and someone was knocking on their metal door.  It swung open to reveal a huge operation with varying mountain memorabilia.  That is all I could see before the stranger was allowed entrance and the doors swung loudly shut.  I had emailed the Reyes family and did not receive replies which was one factor in my decision to use Maribel and her Father, Joaquin.

Following a delicious dinner I retired early in anticipation of the next few days.  My gear was thinned down to the basics as I prepared to make a summit bid directly from the Piedra Grande hut instead of establishing a high camp.  Following breakfast I loaded my backpack into the Jeep and Joaquin ferried me out of town directly into the shadow of Citlaltepetl.  We entered large farm fields and picked up Joaquin’s brother and two friends and they accompanied us for a few miles until we offloaded them into a farm field.  Joaquin’s limited English and my nonexistent Spanish was not a problem.  We communicated quite well.  I understood that they needed a lift like me.  Soon we left the outskirts of Hidalgo, one of the highest inhabited towns in North America.

Joaquin stopped the Jeep to lock in the hubs and within minutes we were rocking and rolling up a very rutted jeep track for approximately one hour.  It was apparent he knew this road and confided he had driven it “a thousand times.”   Through his deft maneuvering, I was left with no doubt.  We passed the National Park entrance, a gate was lifted and soon we entered a high plain at almost 13,000 feet.  “The Hut”  Joaquin explained as it filtered through the clouds that passed and covered the structure.  There was another four wheel drive vehicle parked but outside little evidence of other humans.  It was now approximately 11 am.  Inside the Piedra Grande I found evidence of a guided group.  Bread and cheese remained on the table inside the structure as if left in a hasty alpine start several hours earlier.

After bidding my farewell the affable Joaquin, a 71 year old man who has climbed this behemoth a record 27 times, I settled into my digs by unpacking and surveying the scenery.  Misty clouds rolled over the high plain as I stood in the doorway of the Piedra Grande hut.  Staring up towards the end of the aqueduct, I recognized the beginning of a trail to the highest point in Mexico and third highest point in North America.  From the maps at Joaquin’s home, I spied the scree slopes and mentally toke note of how to negotiate them.  “Turn left at the end of the aqueduct, then another left, then a hard right.”  These were easily ingrained but so familiar I could turn in for the day.  Hoping to engage what had to be a descending party, I suited up for a “walk” up the scree.

Soon after embarking on this pre ascent, I spied figures appearing on the high horizon.  It was the first of the guided group making the slide down muddy scree.  20 minutes later I caught up with the leader, an Argentinian guide who described the route and eventual summit.  He conveyed that one of his group was, “on his first mountain” and their time, now at 12 hours was extreme.  Indeed I had expected eight to the summit and five back down.   Didn’t seem too extreme to me.  I continued up reaching 16000 feet.  The route through the rocks wasn’t particularly clear in broad daylight so I had some concerns about a pre-dawn start.  Close mental notes were overlayed with photos of the route I carried on my camera.  It was best that I now descended to gain precious rest before the long day ahead.  Sleet started immediately upon my descent as I approached the hut which had grown quite small.  Pellets were nailing me and now thunder was crackling nearby.  One streak hit no less than two hundred feet between me and the hut.  I expected to feel it through my shoes. 

That motivated me to race back down to the safety of the Piedra Grande.  And I did so in record time.  After boiling some water and eating a dehydrated dinner, I was soon nestled securely into my sleeping bag, alone at 14000 feet in a hut built to accommodate 60 climbers with bad weather increasing outside.  The sleet quickly turned to real snow and I lay facing the window that framed my route for the morning as retreating sun gave way to a bright sort of darkness with the light of a full moon filtering through a snowstorm.  Every time I would drift off, something would bang on the metal roof of the hut.  I realize it must have been wind.  Several times I would find that balance between comfort and somnombulance only to be violently awakened by some phenomena.  If those sounds proved insufficient, at one point a group of Mexican coyotes begin howling outside which prompted me to get up and prop the door shut.  Then came the mice that ran nearby the platform chewing on vestiges of the Argentine’s breakfast.  I convinced myself that laying was better than not resting and so was my battle until 2 am when I gave up entirely and began boiling water.

The snow had stopped and the moon was peering through clouds with a promise of hope for my summit bid on Citlaltepetl this Sunday, October 5, 2014.  I was stricken with a serious sense of alone ness on this high peak and it wasn’t in the least bit disconcerting.  The route held concern but my solo status did not.  In some strange way I had anticipated striving up this rocky peak unaccompanied.  After eating what I could of another dehydrated meal (this time a biscuit and gravy concoction, I don’t recommend) and slamming two cups of coffee, I finished my morning rituals and embarked again upon the aqueduct.  It was 3 am.

A few hundred feet up the trail I stashed my sleeping bag and pad and the remainder of my kit.  Theft is notorious in this place but I really doubted any such thing would occur.  The likelihood of someone driving that far to abscond with my sleeping gear and stove seemed slim, still I heeded the advice of Maribel and Joaquin and created a cave within some rocks and tucked my gear safely inside.  The aqueduct soon ended and I labored up the scree, now laden with 20 lbs. of water and climbing gear to include an ice axe, crampons, and mittens, down coat, snacks and two cameras.  The water was my heaviest item and I carried plenty.  Soon I fell into a familiar climbing rhythm.  The pre-dawn was dark and foreboding and now absent was the comforting moon.  New clouds rolled from the West to create uncertainty.  My steps from the day before were covered by a blanket of granules and stones so easily gained the day before were now encapsulated in ice.  As my plastic boots drug across this ground I ran through the litany of route variations as I plugged upward to an altitude of 16000 feet.  It was here that I discovered the high point of my previous foray signified by a primitive camping spot.  From memory I recalled this was the beginning of the “tricky section”.

My fingers were letting me know that they had, in another lifetime, undergone an ordeal that required I pay attention to them.  It was another solo night in the Pamir range of extreme Western China when I ignored the pulsating pain of various digits in pursuit of a summit on Muztagh Ata.  The result was several frostbitten digits that now haunt me whenever I get into the “arctic” zone.  I carefully removed my restricting watch, placing it in my pocket and busted out the over-mittens.  It was also time to hydrate and grab a snack.  From the upper campsite I followed the outline of something and went straight uphill.  As the wind increased, I sought shelter beneath this rock formation and took my first real break of the day.  It was 6 am and I was anxious to see the sun.  One never needs to tell a mountain climber the adage about darkness before the dawn.  I am not regularly up to experience it but the original phrase coiner must have endured several “alpine starts”.  There has never been a climb in which I did not have that driven painfully home and this excursion was definitely no exception.  I spent a pretty penny on some expensive gloves and they immediately started doing the trick, along with food and water.  Sitting on pack in the ankle deep powder snow, I looked for a hole in the overhanging rock and ice.  It wasn’t making itself clear to me at the time.  Ten minutes after departing the safety of this wind protected zone, I was back in the gale and moving upward with minimal success.  The snow covered mud scree which gave way and made me think that installing crampons might be the trick.  I was wrong.

This mud/snow/scree was giving way beneath my legs and cresting my ankles that were fortunately protected by gaiters.  No purchase was being gained as I got to a point of near verticality with nothing to grasp.  I soon retreated and forfeited this hard fought ground to regroup at my rest spot some 15 minutes earlier.  I decided to traverse to the left facing the mountain.  Perhaps I had just missed the hole and kept probing the underbelly of Orizaba at every turn.  She was yielding nothing to me as I moved what must have been a quarter mile in that direction.  Several times I would plod up and over only to be met with an insurmountable cliff wall that dropped 60 feet necessitating a total retreat and advance in another direction.  After prodding every possible dead end, I returned in the opposite fashion.   The sun was starting to crest my shoulder and my headlamp was losing viability, finally.

The second series of forays took me to the right of my high campsite and ended in much the same fashion.  My last hurrah involved climbing up over an ice encrusted rock with my now ungloved fingers with a bit of a knee to rock leap.  Gaining that promontory was disillusioning because the magic passage was not behind that magic lantern.  Now I was tasked with the chore of descending the little stunt or finding a way around.  The way around took fifteen minutes.  Stopping for another water and food break I took note of the time.  It was now 9 am and the sun, what bit wasn’t obscured by clouds, was doing whatever it intended to do for the day.  Sipping the bottle and craning my neck I could see a prominence easily recognized as the Sarcophagus.  All the route maps told me to stay to the left of that thing as if its name was insufficient deterrent.  Again I probed and probed and eventually found myself back at the first snow/scree debacle.  Having reached full circle with daylight now a painful reality the weight of what I was facing was undeniable.  It was time to turn around.

On Mt. Elbrus in 2009, my climbing partner and I had reached the crux at 18,000 feet on Europe’s highest point.  The driving snow had cemented to my face and Brian could not hear me as we shouted in each other’s ears.  The driving gale had us pinned less than two hundred vertical feet from an easily obtained summit that would remain elusive.  Brian reminded me that we could easily walk off the side of that hill and convinced me of the wisdom in turning around.   Sure enough, within an hour, the gale subsided and Elbrus laughed as she kicked our butts back down to high camp.  We had one window and that night was the wrong window.  Like now on Citlaltepetl, I had overshot my turn around time.  Descent was my only option as was accepting it with little remorse.

In the cloudy dawn of a new day and with a heavy heart I dropped down the rivulet towards the base of this dormant giant.  Ice still covered the boulders and I dared not remove my crampons.  However, those crampons almost were my undoing.  I caught the right inside spike on my gaiter and before I knew it was head over heels in a superman flight down the hill.  My landing was somewhat unbelievable.  I ended up in a fetal position hugging a rock that I totally missed.  It was the perfect launch and landing.  No injuries but a wakeup call for careful foot placement.  Losing altitude at a rapid pace I followed yet another rock cairn to the end of a straight end cliff.  Why these rock cairns strew the side of Orizaba is beyond me.  I ended up having to retrace my steps and gain the original ridge yet again and survey my surroundings.  Gaining ground, then giving up ground and then having to gain it again only to give it up again is exasperating. 

I was beginning to think I could get stuck up here for a while.  These passages that are straightforward in the dark, get mazelike on descent.  I always try to look down and memorize a route from the opposite direction on a climb.  But all that traversing on the mountain had me discombobulated.  It was warming up considerably and I removed my down mittens and shed a layer of clothing while taking some more water and food.  The calorie burn had to be significant for 10 hours of prying at the gates of Citlaltepetl and my stomach was reaffirming that fact.   One more dead end and I finally caught sight of the hut.  I had traversed so far to the left of the mountain it was little wonder I had lost the thread through the Labyrinth.  And still there was no one on the hill but me.   And I relished every minute.

I sauntered down the aqueduct that signified the final steps to the Piedra Grande hut.  Retrieving my sleeping kit from the rocks in which they had been stashed, I opened the door to the edifice and collapsed on a bunk.  I passed out immediately without removing any clothes or my double plastic boots.   For fifteen minutes I slept like the dead until I decided to roust myself and make some sustenance, primarily coffee.  I had just finished pouring water into my kettle when I heard the approach of a vehicle.  Looking at my watch, I realized it was 1 am.  Joaquin was to arrive at 2 and I figured he might be early, which ended up being the case.  I certainly didn’t mind.

He helped me carry my kit to the Jeep and conveyed sympathy for my lack of summit.  I was not that disappointed, however.  I had given it my best shot.  Joaquin, like the country of Mexico itself, had been kind to me in so many ways.  As we dropped down into the pine forest of tree line at 11,000 feet I turned to regard Orizaba, now shining in all her snowcapped glory.  There was little doubt I would return.

(Joaquin tries my helmet on for size.)


I spent another night with the Concholas family and their hospitality lived up to its published standards.  Joaquin is a genuinely nice guy and Maribel goes out of her way to make you comfortable.  I look forward to seeing them on my return.

I booked another 4 star hotel from Tlachichuca in Puebla.  This time it was the Purificado.  This more "modern" property was a tad off the Zocalo and abutted a convention center.  I had no trouble walking to the old city and spending a day roaming the alleyways of this old Mexican city.  Below is a shot of La Malinche from the rooftop bar at the Purificado.

Mexico had treated this Southern boy quite well and I anticipate my next foray into the region when I will complete the route on Orizaba. 


If you enjoyed this narrarative, consider my book journaling the ill fated Broad Peak climb in 2013.