Climbing Pico de Orizaba

A weekend trip to climb the tallest mountain in Mexico.

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A few years ago, my friends Joey Schusler and Thomas Woodson made a short film called "55 Hours in Mexico". This tribute to weekend warriors focused on their weekend trip from Colorado to Mexico in order to climb Orizaba and be back for work on Monday. At 18,491′, it's a serious climb, but also one that is easily attainable in a single day push. Along with my friends Austin Smith and Nate Luebbe, I flew down to Mexico for a few days to tackle this massive, inactive stratovolcano in a similar style.

Quick facts

  • Pico de Orizaba is 18,591 ft high, the highest in Mexico and the third tallest peak in North America.
  • It is most often climbed via the Jampa Glacier route or the South route (less technical)
  • The best time to climb Pico de Orizaba is during Mexico's dry season, roughly November to March

Our trip to Pico de Orizaba

After flying in to Mexico City, we had originally planned on doing an acclimatization hike on Iztaccihuatl, a common warm up for Orizba, but someone (Austin) forgot his passport at home and missed our flight. As a result, Nate and I spent the evening in Mexico City and waited for Austin to arrive the next day.

Orizaba as seen from Tlachichua

Due to our tight timeline, the next day we drove straight to Tlachichuca, a 3.5 hour drive from Mexico City and the jumping off point for climbs of Orizaba. We stayed at Servimont, a local guide company + hostel. The afternoon was discussing mountain conditions with locals. We eventually decided to scrap our original plan to ascend the classic Jampa Glacier route. After an unseasonably cold snap prior to our arrival, the glacier essentially turned to extremely dangeroussheet ice. In the week before we arrived, there were several accidents, rescues, and one death on the Jampa glacier.

We eventually decided to ascend via the South Route, which while less technical and exciting, promised safer and stable conditions. It's better to climb a boring route and come home safely.

It's a long drive to the South Route trailhead, so we were grateful for Servimont. We didn't use their guide services, but they provided a ride to and from the trailhead. It's always surprising how high roads go in many places outside of the US. We drove to within a quarter of a mile of the shelter -- at nearly 15,000 ft.

Driving to the South trailhead of Orizaba

Because we weren't starting our climb until the next morning, we did some scrambling around the Fausto González shelter, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset from ~15,000ft. The shelter was packed for the night, due to many folks changing their Jampa glacier plans, and none of us got very much sleep.

We left  the shelter around 2:30am to start our ascent. The first part of the climb involves steep scree fields and a bit of route-finding in the dark before reaching snow at higher elevations. I had some stomach issues, which I was pretty confident weren't altitude sickness related and attributed to my backpacking meal the night before. After a short break (and emptying my stomach), I felt significantly better and was able to continue. Still, not my strongest showing.

The scree eventually gave way to snow, which was shaped into massive suncups on this side of the mountain. Soon, we enjoyed a wild sunrise as we neared the top. Watching the shadow of a massive volcano grow as the sun comes up is an incredible sight.

The sunrise shadow of Orizaba
Looking into the Orizaba caldera

Summits are great, and Orizaba is no exception. It's a wild view looking down into massive caldera, and endless views of Mexico all around you. We spent a bit of time on the summit before heading back down to catch our ride back to Tlachichuca, get some sleep, and then head back to Mexico City for our flight home. All in all, an excellent few days in Mexico.

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