Next to Mt. Rainier and the Colorado 14ers, Mexico’s volcanoes are probably the most popular mountaineering destinations on this blog. So to help you understand what a Pico de Orizaba climbing tour is like, I’m bringing in one of my favorite adventure partners who has climbed Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccihuatl, and Nevado de Toluca.
Gale Garcia started hiking and climbing after her son went off to college, and her rise in the sport has been fast and inspiring! Just a few years ago, she graduated from Colorado Mountain Club’s Basic Mountaineering School. She has since gone on to climb Mt. Rainier, Mt. Olympus (Washington), and is currently training for the Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington. In addition, she is an insatiable traveler, who has adventured to Japan, Patagonia, and is quickly checking off the U.S. National Parks.
In today’s post, Gale shares the details of her magic and tragic 2017 mountaineering trip to Mexico’s volcanoes. I hope you enjoy her story and gain both excitement and respect for these mountains through her words!
Day 1 – Travel to Mexico City
I feel compelled to write my experience of climbing three volcanoes in Mexico so future mountaineers and my family can share the joy and pain of this accomplishment.
It all started with my friend Sarah, who is an amazing mountaineer, whom I first met hiking the mountains of Colorado. She invited me to join her and some other Colorado Mountain Club members who were going to climb the volcanoes of Mexico the week of Thanksgiving.
My first thought was of not being able to be with my family during Thanksgiving, as we usually have our family celebration at my home in Denver. My eleven brothers and sisters plus my son Carlos would be disappointed not having me home for the holiday. After doing some research on the trip and seeing the pictures of the volcanoes and the hot springs, I decided to go as who knew when I would have this opportunity again to go with someone I knew and trusted.
I booked my flight to leave Denver at 5 a.m., so that meant getting up at 2 a.m., parking my car at the 40th and Colorado train station, and then catching the train to Denver International Airport. Nomada Mexico, our guiding outfit, wanted us all to be in Mexico City by 2 p.m. to coordinate our travel from the airport to our first destination outside of the city. And if you did not know, Mexico City is the 6th most populated city in the world at 21,157,000, so just imagine the traffic!
Day 2 – Nevado de Toluca to Tlachichua
Our first climb was Nevado de Toluca at 15,354 ft., which was not too challenging, as you can compare it to climbing a 14er here in Colorado. On the way up, there were two lakes: the Lake of the Sun and the Lake of the Moon. Both were beautiful, and our guide had stories for each lake.
The best part of climbing Nevado de Toluca was the scrambling at the top. Sharing it with other enthusiasts on trail was a challenge in itself, as there was not much room on the summit. Descending was not pleasant, as it was via a scree run the whole way down. Ugh!
Once at the bottom of the scree, I saw two men in uniform who had Mountain Police on their shirts. They had firearms, and I was told they kept order on the peak and helped with rescues when they occurred.
Our guides had nice hot alphabet soup waiting for us at the van, and then we packed up to head toward our next peak, Pico de Orizaba.
We drove to a town called Tlachichuca. It was late when we arrived, so once a room was assigned at our hostel, I was ready to go to sleep. It had been a long drive, and we had stopped to eat along the way.
Day 3 – Tlachichuca to Orizaba Hut
The next morning, we were all ready for a nice hot shower. I felt like a new person! We had a nice breakfast and soon after began chatting with the other climbers, who had arrived to attempt the summit of Orizaba. One group of four, (one woman and 3 men) was also from the United States. We called them the Millennials, as they were young, energetic, and ready to tackle Orizaba.
A couple from Norway approached me asking about my headband, because it has the Norwegian flag on it. I have had this headband for years since buying it in Norway as a souvenir on my visit in 2003. They were very nice, and I wished them luck on their attempt.
In the meantime, our guides and the hostel staff were busy loading up the jeeps that would be necessary to transport us on the dirt road to the hut. The road had so many ruts that it felt like a roller coaster ride.
Eventually, we arrived to the hut where we would be spending the night and preparing for our attempt on Orizaba. Our guide, Vicente, made a delicious pasta dish that put me to sleep with a full stomach. I always wear ear plugs when I travel, as I am a light sleeper and they were especially helpful this night! The hut was at capacity at 30 climbers.
Day 4 – Pico de Orizaba summit day, then back to Tlachichuca
The next morning, we were awakened at 3 a.m., ate a light breakfast, and took some time to pack food and water for our journey. At 4:20 a.m., we were out the door with headlamps secured to our helmets, carrying essential gear like crampons and ice axes in our backpacks. Vicente led the group and David (also a guide) was at the tail of our seven-person team.
About an hour up the mountain, our teammate K. said she was nauseous and felt she could not continue. David accompanied her back down the trail to make sure she descended safely back to the hut.
The remaining team continued until we came to the saddle that is the start of the continuous glacier climb to the summit of Orizaba. We successfully made it through the Labyrinth, which tested our crampon and ice axe ability, as it was steep and required skill to safely navigate up the rocks and ice. I remember teammate P. saying to me as were climbing, ”What do you think Gale?” wondering if it was safe to continue.
Our guide asked me and Sarah to rope up with him, as we were the least experienced on the ice. Sarah went for some distance before she stated she just didn’t have it in her to continue, so she decided to descend [with David, who had returned to the group after seeing K. down].
Now it was just me and Vicente roped up, with P. and K. climbing on their own. We saw other climbers with skis on their backs trying to summit and then ski down. I remember saying to myself that I thought it was crazy and dangerous to ski on this mountain of ice.
My endurance was tested climbing Orizaba. I would look up and see nothing but more ice to climb. I needed to pause often to rest and take deep breaths in the thin air. I remember the rope pulling me as Vicente continued to climb, and I would respond by starting again after a brief rest. Mentally I was saying to myself, “Come on Gale, you can do this. If Annie Peck can climb peaks in the 1920s, then you can certainly do the same.” I thought about Sarah and K., who were not able to climb, and thought, I am doing this for them as well as for myself.
Finally, we were at the top. P. and K. were in front, and Vicente and I followed up behind. We celebrated with hugs and pictures, appreciating the view, and then sat down to rest, as we were all exhausted.
Once revived, we began to descend with all of us roped together. P. was in front, followed by K., me, then Vicente. We were traversing along the slope of the mountain, because it was so steep, and we were going slowly. Vicente instructed me to take longer steps, but as soon as I did, I slipped and fell. I went down so fast I could not self- arrest, and my scream alerted P. and K. who self-arrested and were able to catch me. Once they turned me over on my belly, I was able to plant my ice ax and crampons to gain control on my own.
After my fall, we switched up our strategy and began to rappel down the glacier. It was slow but safe. Eventually Vicente released P. and K., who were able to walk down, and only he and I were roped up for two more rappels.
Finally Vicente instructed me to get confidence and walk the rest of the way down the glacier. Which I did (what choice did I have?). I had to get off the mountain.
We met up with P. and K. resting at the saddle and began our descent into the Labyrinth. We belayed down two pitches but otherwise we had an uneventful descent the rest of the way. I was so grateful to see the concrete walkway leading to the hut, as I knew I was home free!
Sarah and K. hugged us as we approached the hut. They were very happy and relieved to hear we were successful in our summit attempt and that we had descended safely. It was only after we were in the hut and eating and drinking that we heard one of the skiers who had summited died on his way down the mountain. That was very scary to hear, as I also could have been a casualty. But my fellow climbers were able catch me.
We drove that night back to the hostel. Sarah and I decided we were going to the hot springs the next day instead of visiting the town of Puebla. I needed to recuperate after being on Orizaba for 16 hours.
Sarah here jumping in for just a second.
Gale’s close call on Orizaba is a great reminder to always climb with quality travel insurance that covers all of the adventure activities you participate in. I’ve been using World Nomads to insure all of my adventure travel since 2010 and highly recommend them. To learn more, visit the World Nomads website, or fill out the form below for a free instant quote.
Day 5 and 6 – Grutas Tolantongo to Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl National Park
Luckily, I was not injured on Orizaba, and once at the hot springs, I found the hottest baths to soak my weary body. My feet took the brunt of the climb. Both of my big toe nails were black, and I knew I would be losing them. I remember my feet being in pain descending Orizaba. I think I am going to definitely need bigger mountaineering boots.
Day 7 – Izta summit day and return to Mexico City.
Our next and last peak to climb was Iztaccihuatl (Izta). It was spectacular!
We started our approach at 4 a.m., and it was freezing. Our guide David did not have an ice scraper to scrape the ice off the windshield of the Jeep, so he drove with his head out the window. I wondered if he knew how to use the defroster in the van.
Once on the trail, we began to warm up. As we reached the saddle, we stopped and looked in awe at the sea of clouds with just the peaks of Orizaba, La Malinche, Popocatepetl (Popo) and Nevado de Toluca peeking out over the top. Suddenly the sun began to rise. It was blood red as it rose, then gave a burst of yellow. I was stunned by the beauty and wished I could have captured this amazing event on camera.
Up and up we climbed. We had a new guide with us (Anayn), and we also had the Millennials tag along. The trail sometimes went down then up until we reached a snow field. We put our microspikes on for safety, and once across the ice and snow, we saw the summit loom above us (so close).
Finally, after much needed effort we made it to the top! David threw his hiking poles in the air in triumph, so the rest of us followed suit. Of course, we had to take several pictures, some serious and others silly with Popo as our background.
After resting and all around congratulations, we started our descent. I started down by myself. Everyone else wanted to summit what they thought was the “true summit,” but I was not interested, and I always descend slowly.
I met up with the Anayn, who had stayed behind with some of our gear. Soon the others arrived, and we all hiked down together. Unfortunately, there were several areas that were covered with scree (loose rock), so the likelihood of falling was 99.9 percent. Needless to say, we all fell, but no one was hurt, and we all had some good laughs.
As we continued to descend, watching our footing, a couple of climbers approached coming from the opposite direction saying that the volcano around the corner was erupting. We had been taking pictures of Popo since our arrival to Mexico, and we had only seen it smoking. So we were very excited and began to quicken our steps to get a look.
Sure enough, once we got to the pass, there was Popo erupting! We could hear the explosions, and the smoke was spouting out with great force. It was a spectacular sight to view, and we all watched in awe. I had to get a video and a few pictures, as who knew if I would ever witness such an amazing event again.
Eventually, we had to get going again, as it was starting to get dark. Soon we had to stop to put on our headlamps. We were almost to the parking lot, and I was ready to be done, when I remember seeing Sarah lying in some tall grass along the trail. I started to laugh, as it looked so funny! She shouted, ”I’m OK. Good thing I fell in something soft.”
As we continued on, we finally made it to the parking lot and got into the van to return to Mexico City. Of course, our first thought once in the van was to grab a beer and some chips! That was the most important thing our guide service did; they always stocked our cooler with beer!
Day 8 – Mexico City and Teotihuacan
Our last day was spent touring the pyramids of Mexico City. It was a nice, warm day: no ice and snow, no erupting volcanos, just tourists and vendors.
We meandered around listening to our guide Pablo talk about the history of the pyramids. The first was the Pyramid of the Moon, which of course we had to climb. It had very steep steps.
The second was the Pyramid of the Sun, higher and more elaborate. Again, we climbed this one which had great views on the top.
After buying all our souvenirs, we stopped to eat near the exit of the pyramids and had the most amazing meal. I had to take a picture!
Our last night in Mexico was planned by our guides to include a visit to Garibaldi Plaza, which had several colorful Mariachi bands strolling along and playing beautiful music. We entered our first restaurant Tenampa, known for its excellent tequila and learned in Mexico you don’t order by the shot, you order by the bottle.
The waiter arrived with several tall shot glasses and lined them up. He then begins to pour the tequila from one glass to another without spilling a drop! I was impressed. Some of us sipped our shot while others threw them down with gusto. Sarah opted to try some mescal which she claimed was awesome.
After drinking and listening to mariachi music, we were informed it was time to move to another restaurant known for its music and dancing. The second restaurant was great, with dancers and singers who performed traditional as well as modern songs. After the performance was done, another band would play salsa, and we all got up to dance. It was so much fun.
Day 9 – Depart Mexico City
Our guides had arranged for drivers to get us back to the hotel, as we had been drinking, and they wanted to make sure we got back to our hotel safely. Sarah and I got to bed at a reasonable hour.
I had an early flight, so I had to be at the airport by 7 a.m. My flight home was uneventful. I am always relieved to be back home in my own bed and surroundings.
I will always ponder my experience in Mexico with a smile on my face and appreciate my good fortune to have great friends and good health. I now look forward to my next adventure.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this day-by-day walk through our Pico de Orizaba climbing tour.
Have you climbed Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccihuatl, Nevado de Toluca, or other Mexican volcanoes? Comment below to share your tips!
Published April 16, 2019.