Mexico’s highest peak, Pico de Orizaba, is North America’s third highest peak behind the US’s Denali and Canada’s Mount Logan. Climbing Orizaba is a goal for many mountaineers and is the first international high altitude climbing expedition for many aspiring high altitude climbers.
Also known locally as Citlatepetl (or star mountain), Orizaba is one of only three Mexican peaks that support glaciers. Orizaba is a huge stratovolcano that is currently dormant with the last eruption recorded in the 19th century. Located about 120 miles East of Mexico City, Orizaba straddles the Central Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz. It’s flanks boast North America’s highest permanent settlement, the village of Hildago at over 11,000 feet, and North America’s highest road at 15,200 feet. The first ascent of Orizaba is credited to two American soldiers in 1848 during the American invasion of Mexico that year.
There are numerous climbing routes on Orizaba with only two that see significant traffic. The North side via the Jamapa Glacier is the most common route, but the South face route sees many ascents and with the right conditions it can be the easiest and most straightforward route to the summit.
The Jamapa Glacier route on Orizaba is accessed from the small farming town of Tlachichuca on the West side of the mountain. A two-hour four-wheel drive road takes you to the base camp of Piedra Grande at about 14,000 feet. There is a primitive large hut and tent sites located here. From Piedra Grande the peak is easily summited with about 4400 feet of elevation gain and without the need for a high camp. Setting a high camp on Orizaba is simply not a good idea due to the hazards of sleeping too high and the lack of comfort and sleep which can affect your summit chances.
From Piedra Grande you climb scree trails for a few thousand vertical feet before you arrive at the route finding crux known as the Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is an area where the glacier has recently receded and can be somewhat of a maze of small chutes and cliffs. Getting through this section in the dark has proven quite a challenge for many climbers. Once through the Labyrinth, you soon arrive at the Jamapa Glacier at around 16,800 feet. The Jamapa glacier route starts out a mellow angle of only about 20 degrees and slowly steepens up to about 40 degrees. Climbing this part of the route at sunrise is spectacular with the central Mexico plain spread out 10,000 feet below you. Once off the glacier you arrive at the crater rim at over 18,000 feet which you follow for about 20 minutes to the true summit of Orizaba.
The Jamapa glacier is basically a non-crevassed these days so there is no need to employ glacier climbing techniques such as long roping where the rope is stretched out 30-40 feet between climbers. In fact, this type of roped climbing on Orizaba only increases the hazard as it makes it much harder to arrest a climbing partner’s fall. The main hazard is falling on hard snow. Sometimes the snow can become hard and somewhat icy and a fall could result in an 1800-foot slide down the glacier. While guiding we employ a “short roping” technique to stop our guests from taking falls. Climbers on Orizaba should be proficient in the use of ice axe and crampons with some previous experience climbing at altitudes up to 14,000 feet.
The South face route is usually accessed from the town of Ciudad Serdan. The trailhead is much higher at 15,200 feet and the route to the summit is much less distance making the summit day much shorter. I have climbed both routes and I would say that the South Face is a much more straightforward and easier route to the summit of Orizaba. However, the South face is non-glaciated and you must have sufficient snow on the upper slopes otherwise the climbing is on 40 degree slopes of ball bearing loose rock which is can be very tedious at best and downright dangerous at worst. So the South face is a route that must be in good condition or it’s a no go. One added attraction of the South Face is the mutt Citla Tepetl, a friendly Mexican dog who sometimes will follow climbers all the way to the summit and has his own Facebook page.
The elevation of Orizaba is very high at over 18,000 feet as are the car-accessed trailheads. This requires one to very carefully respect the altitude. Many climbers from North America and Europe will fly into Mexico City and then immediately travel to one of Orizaba’s trailheads over 14,000 feet… a very bad idea. Going from sleeping at close to sea level to sleeping at over 14,000 feet in 1-2 days is only asking for trouble. At best you may get altitude sickness and have a wasted climbing trip. At worst, you could get a more serious and life threatening illness such as HAPE or HACE. Climbers on Orizaba have lost their lives to serious altitude illnesses.
Proper acclimating is key and by far the best way to acclimate is to climb lower peaks first. Not only does this add to your peak list, it is a great way to see more of the country. The most ideal acclimating peak for Orizaba is the 14,600 foot volcano La Malinche near the city of Puebla. La Malinche is on the way to Orizaba, has cozy cabins to sleep in at the trailhead (which is located at an ideal 10,000 feet), and is a mellow hike to the top that does not require crampons or ice axe. For those with more time, Iztaccihuatl (17,000 feet) is another great peak to climb before Orizaba.
I have been guiding Pico de Orizaba for over ten years and while I do not find it to be a difficult peak I do find it to be one of the most aesthetic climbs around. That, combined with experiencing the rich Mexican culture of Central Mexico makes this trip one of my favorites.