How Difficult Is Climbing Pico de Orizaba?

 In Hikes, International, Mexican Volcanoes

This is a question I’m hearing a lot these days. So I thought I’d do a separate post on Pico de Orizaba climbing difficulty.

Here are some tips from my own experience, friends’ experiences, and from our awesome guides at Nomada.

This post is part of a series on climbing central Mexico’s volcanoes.

Pico de Orizaba Climbing Difficulty, Pico de Orizaba Deaths

Pico de Orizaba: Facts for Climbers

Most Orizaba climbs begin with a stay at the Piedra Grande Hut at 14,010 ft. The hut sleeps about 40 people and can get a bit noisy, so bring ear plugs. You can also opt to camp outside. As you can see in the pics, the bathroom facilities are rather fanciful.

Pico de Orizaba Climb, Las Grutas de Tolantongo Resort

Our awesome guide service Nomada worked with the Canchola family to arrange the Orizaba part of the trip. The Cancholas also run a popular hostel in Tlachichuca, a cute little town near the foot of the mountain. The Cancholas’ service is quite popular, so independent travelers should book ahead.

Some useful facts for climbers:

  • Elevation: 18,491 ft. (No. 1 in Mexico)
  • Distance: ~5 mi.
  • Elevation Gain: ~4,500 ft.
  • Climbing Difficulty: Ice and snow up to 45 degrees
  • Recommended Equipment: Helmet, crampons, and ice axe. Depending on conditions, may also require rope, harness, snow and ice pro, rappel device.
  • Hike Time: 10–16 hours, depending on conditions and group experience

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Pico de Orizaba Climbing Difficulty

So how hard is it to climb Orizaba?

According to our guides, the answer is an emphatic “It depends.”

The slope angle of the Jamapa Glacier route is 30–45 degrees, which is pretty gentle for a snow climb. But if conditions are icy, the whole game changes.

Pico de Orizaba Climbing Difficulty, Pico de Orizaba Deaths

[CC image courtesy of Nick Moyes via Wikimedia Commons]

Ice, Ice Baby

So if you read my previous post, you know that our group encountered really icy conditions.

This was a bit of a surprise. Collectively, the five of us on this trip know many people who have climbed Pico de Orizaba. None described dangerously icy conditions.

Presumably, they climbed deep in the winter when the glacier is covered in snow. (Or maybe they were so badass they were just completely unbothered by the ice. We have some awesome friends.)

We were curious, so we asked out guides if the ice was normal.

To some degree, it is, especially in November. Before the first snowfall of the year, climbing is on bare glacier ice.

Snow usually starts piling up in late November, but the exact timing varies every year. Also, climate change has made weather patterns less predictable in recent years.

The ice returns late in the season (around March) when the snowfall stops and the snowpack begins consolidating.

While these are general guidelines, our guide Vicente (who has summited Orizaba almost 200 times), said that ice can be an issue at any time of the year.

Pico de Orizaba Climbing Difficulty, Pico de Orizaba Deaths

Don’t underestimate the mountain

In the week before our climb, there had been several near-miss accidents on the mountain. One of these involved an entire rope team falling and taking out an unroped climber. (No one was able to arrest in the ice.)

The week before we climbed, there were several rescues and one fatality. Another fatality occurred on the day of our climb, and another a few days after we left.

Our guide David, who is a paramedic involved with the local mountain rescue unit, said that most of the accidents involve inexperienced climbers. (There’s definitely a perception that this mountain is “easy.” We met a couple of unguided parties who appeared to have limited experience with rope travel or high alpine climbing.)

The three from our party who summited on Nov. 21 were all fairly experienced on snow. Still, they found the icy descent challenging, even with the help of one of Mexico’s top guides.

They roped up, and they had to perform at least one team arrest when someone slipped. At one point, Vicente set up an anchor, and they did a few pitches of rappelling down the ice.

All told, they were out for about 16 hours, and it took them longer to get down than up.

I don’t think those are typical numbers. Just possibilities every Pico de Orizaba climber should be aware of!

A special note for skiers

So last year, this short film screened at the Banff Film Festival world tour.

If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s only nine minutes long, and it’s a pretty cool little movie. I actually scheduled it to post on my Facebook while I was in Mexico.

What this movie doesn’t tell you is that ski conditions on Pico de Orizaba can range from sucky to dangerous to impossible early in the season.

On the day we climbed, there were a ton of skiers on Orizaba. (Maybe they were inspired by the movie.) After I stopped climbing, I hung out and watched maybe 30 skiers standing around on the icy glacier.

I think they were hoping the ice would soften up after the sun hit it. In reality, I didn’t see one person make an actual turn that day.

I’m not a skier. But having seen the conditions in late November, I’d definitely opt for a mid-winter trip!

So there you have it.

In the right conditions, Pico de Orizaba can be a pretty chill snow climb. But the conditions vary widely!

Try to get some beta a couple of days before you go. If it’s icy up there, make sure to take a rope and appropriate snow and ice pro.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions. And if you have thoughts on Pico de Orizaba climbing difficulty, please comment to share your thoughts!

Pico de Orizaba Climbing Difficulty, Pico de Orizaba Deaths

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