Our hiking trip began catching a bus and bringing all our gear from Mexico City to Puebla. After overnighting in Puebla, we met our mountain guide “Oso” (Translation: The bear), who drove us to our first acclimatization stop in Tlachichuca. An interesting note on Oso, while he’s been professionally guiding on mountains for at least 15 years or so and climbing big peaks for much more, one of his prior careers was as a professional wrestler. Not sure if that’s where the nickname came from. The name works for him though. The man is a machine at altitude on the mountain, carrying far more, far faster than seems humanly possible. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself…
The ride to Tlachichuca from Puebla was interesting, as all travel in Mexico tends to be. An example? Well, at most toll booths in Mexico, despite there being signs that prohibit selling items from pedestrians to cars (like at all red lights in Mexico) there are always people selling all sorts of things as you queue up. On the toll booth out of Puebla though, they were selling puppies! That’s right, puppies being held up for sale to cars as they pass through the toll booths. Weird and a little sad, although damn those puppies were cute.
As we started getting a little closer to Tlachichuca it became basically farmland as far as you could see. A lot of the cornfields unfortunately did not have any type of artificial irrigation. Since the dry season has continued quite late up to this point, this meant a lot of dead corn. We passed many fields with completely dead crops of corn. If the fields of dead corn weren’t hint enough we were in an exceptionally dry season, the umm… slightly dusty driving conditions were another hint:
There were glimpses of our goal, Pico de Orizaba, on the horizon at different angles as we drove through miles and miles of farmland. However, Orizaba came perfectly into view as we arrived at the entrance of our first stop: Tlachichuca.
Tlachichuca, at an elevation of 8,500 feet, is around 1,000 feet higher on average than Mexico City. We really felt the altitude in Mexico City on the first couple of days when going up and down stairs on the Metro and walking around town all day. However, after a week we really didn’t notice at all. Just walking around town in Tlachichuca I didn’t notice any difference in altitude either. It’s a pretty small town, with an economy largely based on corn farmers. It also seems to be at an important intersection, and there are a fair number of people just passing through. One thing that did surprise me, in a town small enough to not have a single ATM, is that there was a total of three video game arcades. While not surprising that a lot of the games are old fighter games and such from the late nineties, there was one game that REALLY surprised me: Pump It Up. PIU is a Korean rhythm game that is largely derivative of the Japanese game DDR. Anyhow, a brand new PIU arcade unit can cost $15-$20k, and often costs around $2 a play in the US. But here it was in Tlachichuca, Mexico… not one, but two units at two different arcades for 20 Pesos (<20 cents) a play. Of course, I had to give it a go for a few rounds. Then I felt the altitude! Before too long though, a local teenager noticed and had to come in and show how it was really done, you know, nightmare mode with speed mods and all…. it’s the same in any urban USA arcade too. Passive competitive territorial stuff. Amazing how language and cultural barriers are normalized in such settings.
Our next stop after Tlachichuca got quite a bit more… umm, rustic. We were headed to a place called Hidalgo village. The last stop had no ATM… this place had no phone. What made it unique though, is that it is the highest village in Mexico, at an elevation of 11,800 feet. That is starting to flirt with being as high as Mount Fuji, which is as high as we’d been up to this point. We definitely felt the difference in altitude on arrival right when we hauled our gear upstairs. We stayed at a little cabin named “The Ice Flower” and were looked after by Juanito and his wife. It might very well have been the nicest place in town. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was. Overall though, it was a very comfortable stay and it definitely was a good intermediate acclimatization step before moving closer to Pico de Orizaba.
Our first day in Hidalgo we did a little acclimatization hike up to a viewing spot above the village. Based on the way the village looked and the time, it seemed like the hike may have gained 1,000 feet in elevation. Overnight, it hailed and rained really heavy. That really, really reduced the dust for the next day when we started hiking towards Piedra Grande hut and Pico de Orizaba.
The next day had us wandering through primeval forest and into desert grassland. Oso quietly lead the way as we ascended gently. It was hot and the air was thin and dry, but Martha I both were doing fine. Juanito had driven ahead to Piedra Grande with the majority of the gear.
On arrival to Piedra Grande (elevation 13,900) we were already higher in elevation than we’d ever been. Oso and Juanito cooked us up beef tips with fresh salsa…. it was damn good. The fact that it was damn good was pretty encouraging early on because one of the first things to go when you start suffering from altitude sickness is your appetite.
That evening Martha and I hiked up the aqueduct from Piedra Grande, maybe another 500 feet in elevation. I’d seen pictures of it before online and I guess I thought it was a sidewalk or something. Apparently the area around Pico de Orizaba is kind of a disputed border region between the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz. So, some years ago the governor of Puebla started a massive public works program to build an aqueduct to divert water that drains from the Jamapa glacier on Orizaba to provide water for the state of Puebla. This kind of pissed off some entities in Veracruz, for which the runoff from the glacier began a river into their state. So, “someone” blew up the aqueduct. It never worked, and it was never completed. It also sounds like some politicians in Puebla might have skimmed funds that were budgeted for the doomed project. An interesting story that means there is now a really bumpy sidewalk coming up for a while from Piedra Grande hut.
The sleep that night at Piedra Grande wasn’t the best, but it was sleep. Martha and I woke up at maybe three a.m. and went out for a restroom break. Martha didn’t want to brave coyotes and rattlesnakes and giant scorpions on her own. As soon as we stepped outside though…. my god. It was the most amazing spectacle. I guess a combination of the altitude, and not the slightest minutia of artificial light, and the moon being behind Orizaba…. the sky was spectacular. It was like a planetarium. You could see the Milky Way galaxy like a white ribbon across the sky. It really was incredible and we just stood out there in the cold for a bit and took it in before returning to the hut.
According to our original itinerary, the plan for the next day was to hike to and set up “high camp” at 15,700 feet and then descend back down to Piedra Grande to sleep another night. You know, basic mountaineering principles like “climb high, sleep low.” Well, up to this point we seemed to have been doing pretty well, so it was gently suggested that we might possibly bump up the timeline and just sleep at high camp. Well, I think for Martha and I both, that “possibly” turned into a definitely, and in hindsight, this is where our chances of reaching the summit safely drifted away. The next morning, Oso did an oxygen sat spot check on us and Martha was running low nineties and I was running low eighties. Well, I felt fine I thought. Needless to say, hiking to high camp that day was absolutely exhausting.
When we finally got to high camp, I was completely wasted and just wanted to go to sleep. In hindsight, it was the beginning of some cerebral AMS symptoms. I really had all the symptoms before too long: nausea, persistent headache, photophobia, lack of coordination. Somehow I thought (because I wasn’t thinking) that if I could just rest there in the tent at high camp for a while I would acclimatize and the symptoms would resolve.
Well, the night passed and a lot of the symptoms had lessened. However, they definitely hadn’t resolved. When we were up at 2am for our “alpine start,” Oso simply said “you don’t look well my friend, we shouldn’t proceed right now.” Options were discussed of descending then, or later, or possibly “resting” more at high camp and trying for the next day. I opted for the latter, and Martha and I slept for maybe four hours more until the sun rose. Martha really wasn’t experiencing AMS symptoms, or at least not nearly to the extent I was. I think her maiden name (translates to “of the mountains”) and the fact that she spent the first two years of life at elevation in Mexico City might give her an advantage. Or maybe she’s just tougher. Regardless, Martha was also pretty exhausted, and the prospect of another day up there to try and get through the last 2,400 feet seemed not only miserable but also pretty dangerous. After hiking a few hundred feet more above high camp we decided to call it quits for this trip. We’d gotten far higher than we’d ever been before, considerably higher in fact than anything in the lower 48 states.
Martha and I both felt a lot better within 24 hours of being off Orizaba. Oso drove us back to Mexico City with a stopover in La Malinche park and Puebla. In hindsight, had we descended from high camp immediately, we might have summited. We probably would have rested well back at Piedra Grande and climbing back to high camp the next day would have been easier, and rest likely, and summiting the next morning possible. That’s hindsight though. It was a tough little trek, and it was more than a little disappointing to not summit, but it was also a new high for both of us.
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