Climbing Pico de Orizaba is not a walk in the park: at around 5700 m (18,490 ft) it is Mexico’s highest mountain as well as the third highest in all North America. It can be dangerous (accidents happen and people die every year) and it’s very challenging, but mountaineers with some experience and people with an adventurous spirit like myself can test themselves and experience high altitude climbing in this extinct volcano. In other words: if you like challenges and mountains, climbing Pico de Orizaba can be an exciting but tough challenge.
Pico de Orizaba Difficulty
I’m not an avid mountaineer by any means, but having at least climbed a few mountains before (Mt Fuji in Japan , Acatenango volcano in Guatemala and attempting 5,200m Iztaccihuatl in Mexico ) I had an idea of what it takes to even try something like this. After having failed to reach the summit of Mt Iztaccihuatl two years ago there were two things I was going to work on this time: 1) acclimatizing to the altitude by getting there a few days earlier and 2) training cardio for better resistance. I knew that the ascent would last around 8-10 hours and getting back down should take around 3 or 4. Lack of oxygen would pay a toll, for sure.
I also wanted to do something different on this trip, and I set myself a unique challenge: not only did I want to climb the mountain, but I wanted to eat a Paella at the summit. Paella is one of Spain’s most typical dishes, world known, and is based on rice, meat, vegetables and beans, all slowly cooked in a large pan with two handles known as “paellera”. This meant that my challenge would not only involve getting myself to the top, but carrying the paellera and food all the way too, something that has never been done before at this altitude.
Physical Training for the Climb
As an avid surfer I like to think I’m in fairly decent shape. I hit the ocean a few times per week, jog and work out often. Yet mountain climbing is a completely different game. Endurance plays a key role, and while I can be in great shape at ocean level, it’s a completely different game at an altitude. A couple of months before the climb I started training with my friend Cesar Bertomeu (this would be his first mountain ever) who’d join me on the quest, running longer distances two times per week, increasing the time as the date got closer. Three weeks prior to the climb I was running 2-3 times per week for 1-1.5 hours each, swimming, and training leg strength as well. I felt good, I could see a lot of progress…but would it be enough? The more I thought about it the more I remembered the fatigue I endured at 5000 m, and I began to wonder if I was simply not made for this. I should have trained walking and climbing lower mountains, but where I live there are none, hence my only acclimatization would come from the days I would spend in the area before the final climb.
How I Planned my Pico de Orizaba Climb
High altitude climbing is not a walk in the park. Even if some mountains may seem easy, there are several risks involved including getting lost, sudden storms, accidents, breathing problems…the list goes on. As a newbie to the sport there was one thing I new from the beginning: I’d be reaching out again to the my now friends at HGMexico , a company I consider to have the best high altitude guides in the country. I also love they’re laid back attitude, outgoing and fun spirit that makes any trip worthwhile. Another advantage of working with them is that they can lend you all the gear you may need at no cost, including boots, gloves, jackets…even pants.
The next part of my planning involved finding a provider of original paella from Valencia (I didn’t want a frozen version of something made elsewhere) who’d be interested in sending me pre-cooked paella ingredients in a sealed can that I could then mix with the rice to prepare the paella (while my initial plan was to cook the paella a the summit, the chance of facing very strong winds at the top are high, making cooking impossible. I thus decided to be on the safe side and prepare at base camp, and then take the food in a container and the paellera to eat everything at the top). I eventually spoke with Rafael Baixauli from Paellas Amparin who found my project very exciting and was eager to work with me. Coincidentally he had just shipped a container of paellas to their distributor in Mexico City (get in touch with Begona del amo via email at firstname.lastname@example.org) so he sent me a bunch of cans and rice I could use to try at home and then take with me on the expedition. I also got in touch with Spanish high altitude climbing boot manufacturer Bestard Mountain Boots who were happy to send me a pair of one of their best boots (which unfortunately I would not even be able to use).
The final stage of preparation meant getting in touch with press in Spain to see if they’d be interested in covering the story of a Spaniard who’d be climbing Mexico’s tallest mountain (third tallest in North America at 5,700 m) and eat a paella at the summit. Were they? See for yourself!
Getting to Pico de Orizaba: Ciudad Serdan
I flew into Mexico city and was picked up by two members of HGMexico who took us to their offices, where we’d spend the first night. These first two days would be part of the acclimatization, because at 2600 m of altitude Mexico City is at a high elevation already. The following morning we’d spend walking around the area, with a short hike to the city’s Cerro de la Estrella and a visit to the local museum. In the afternoon they were nice enough to drive us to a historic district where we went for a walk, ate good food and were then taken to the bus station from where we’d ride two buses to Ciudad Serdan, the small town where they now base their expeditions from. The first bus was between Mexico City and Puebla, and second between Puebla and Ciudad Serdan, arriving there at midnight. Unfortunately as soon as we got off the bus in Ciudad Serdan things went wrong.
We’d been robbed. Everything was gone including our clothes, one camera, two pairs of new boots and other gear. The driver said that it was our responsibility to get off the bus at each stop and check that our belongings were safe (WTF??) and upon asking him for his name he said he wouldn’t give it an ran away. We’re convinced he was part of the scheme and gave the heads up to his buddies, who stole our stuff somewhere along the way. Just so you know the company is called ADO and they are the only ones who offer bus services there.
Once again HG Mexico proved how great of a company they are; by 7 am their local rep had brought us to our hotel sweaters, a couple of t-shirts pants and other gear we might need. We then spent the rest of the day speaking with the police, the local TV news channel , the local tourism office and even the major of the town who took the time to call the HQ of ADO with us and could not believe what he was hearing: they were not responsible. We also ate some great food and drank plenty of orange juice from a cart that was close to our hotel (Hotel Montecarlo , great value if you need a place where to sleep. Superb breakfasts too!).
The rest of the climbers and the guides arrived the following day, and after lunch we made our way to the mountains where we would set camp for a couple of days. We’d trek up to Sierra Negra at 4800 the following day and start the ascent to Pico de Orizaba at midnight on that same night.
Climbing Sierra Negra (4,800 m) and Cooking a Paella at 4,000m
Our first surprise was the complete lack of snow in the mountain- it was nowhere to be seen. Orizaba used to have permanent snow, but in the past few years it’s been melting completely, and the glaciers are the top are receding extremely fat. Those who deny climate change have not been out and about much.
Cesar and I went for a short walk and could already feel the altitude. At 4,000 m we felt kind of drunk, but just being there was exciting. The mountain looked challenging, definitely a test to our endurance, but we were already looking forward to the trek. Behind us was Sierra Negra with 4,800m, a lower mountain with a space research antenna at the top, yet despite there being a road to the summit we’d trek all the way to the top as a warm up for the bigger event to come.
The following morning (April 8 2016) we calmly started our way up to Sierra Negra at around 11 am. It would only take about three hours to reach the summit, but would be a big step towards proper acclimatization for Orizaba. The trek was fun and a good opportunity for Cesar and I go get used to the material and gear that HG Mexico had lent us. Since there was no snow we’d use our own hiking boots, and there would be no need for crampons either.
A few minutes after this picture was taken things began to go South for Cesar. The light headache he was having got worse and unfortunately would not leave until the following day. We spent an hour at the top and made our way down, and while most of the group took the chance to take a rest, deal with the headache or hang around I set myself to preparing the paella. At sea level it takes about 40 minutes to prepare it, but at 4,000 m it took me almost 2 hours and 4 times more water than expected. It came out pretty well though!
April 9 2016: Summit Day
Everyone went to sleep early, but I took my time as I knew I would not fall asleep. There was too much light and I had a headache (because of the altitude) that I new would make sleeping impossible. Cesar was even worse, and during the dark hours before starting the climb he would even throw up a couple of times. One thing was clear: my climbing buddy and cameraman would not be joining us.
I somehow managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before getting ready, and during that time my headache was gone (I bet the two aspirins I had helped me). I was sad that Cesar would not be joining us, but he was clearly not in good shape and would stay behind with one of the guides who’s remain at camp looking over our stuff.
It wasn’t too cold, and I had my backpack ready with everything I’d take the the top:
- 3 liters of water in a hydration pack
- Sweets and energy bars
- An extra sweater
- My Nikon D90 DSLR
- My smartphone
- The “paellera” ( I managed to convince one of the guides to carry the food in a tuperware)
At around 12:45 am we got inside the old Jeep that would take us up a trail saving us about two hours of walking, but it broke down halfway up meaning we’d walk about an hour more than planned. Oh well, not big deal. One of the guides led the group at a slow pace and up we went. I was very happy that I had no headache, I felt strong and was excited about the adventure! We’d take a ten minute break every hour and a half of walking, and slowly but steadily we made progress towards the summit.
My first benchmark would be passing the 5,000 m mark, the highest I had ever been when I had to turn back during my previous high altitude climbing attempt. About 5 hours into the climb I checked with the guides and we were at 5,300 m already!! Woohoo!! I still felt strong and confident, and was looking forward for the first sunlight. This would come at around 5:45 am and an hour later we had the first amazing views.
Progress for the next few hours was slower and slower. I began to feel the altitude, breathing got harder, and the mountain became a very inclined sand slope that would have me slide back two out of every three steps I made. I eventually reached “regret rock“, a rock about 100 meters from the summit where many climbers turn around because it proves to be too challenging. I, on the other hand, saw it as a motivator. I could now see the summit, and very slowly and with many stops and made my way to the top. I have to confess that I would take a break every 5 steps, sitting on the mountain hoping not to slide down, exhausted. It was all will power from here, mind over body, that would drag me to the summit.
It took me about an hour and a half to cover the last 100 meters. Unbelievable. I was as tired as I had ever been, but very aware that this time I would reach the summit. I slowly set one foot ahead of the other, focused on my breathing, ready to get it over with.
And I reached the summit! Finally! Very happy, excited, but above everything, exhausted. I sat down for a few minutes and got my breath back (at 5,700 m there’s just under 50% of the oxygen in the air as there’s at sea level, meaning you have to breath twice two get the same amount of oxygen you’d get at sea level with one breath), knowing that the effort of walking uphill had come to an end. Once I was ready we all hugged, happy that we had all reached the summit despite it’s difficulty, that there had been no accidents (there had been several deaths during the season already) and the we had a paella to eat! Never had anyone eaten a paella as high anywhere in the world, meaning that I’d just broken a world record (I’m currently speaking with the Guiness Book of World Records).
We ate the paella, spent about thirty minutes at the summit taking pictures and resting, and then returned along a different faster route. It took us about 3 hours to make our way back down to the meeting point, and while it was downhill we were so tired that it wasn’t much fun. We had to be careful too, as most of the accidents happen on the way down because of exhaustion and the lack of will power to reach the summit.
Apparently My Adventure Was of Interest to the Media!
During the next few days I got a few phone calls and emails from journalists asking if I succeeded, and a few newspapers and articles published the story, while others decided not to because of competition among them. Unfortunately the little video footage (the camera was stolen and Cesar didn’t make it to the top) I had resulted in a Spanish TV station not having enough material to publish anything on national TV, but they did edit the short video I made and published it in their website!
This is the link to the video on the national TV website, which is a remake of my video on Youtube
Climbing Pico de Orizaba is an adventure, and it’s tough. It requires training, endurance, and a lot of will power. But it’s also a challenge that makes you grow, believe in yourself, and show you how much you can really achieve if you set yourself to it. At some point you’ll feel like turning back, but if you push yourself the rewards are immense. Mountain climbing has make me understand things about myself that nothing ever had. The friends I’ve convinced to come with me have all told me at some point that they regretted having listened, but once everything is over they are all hooked and looking forward to the next challenge. If you need guides look no further than HGMexico.com , they are the best in the country in my opinion. The question now is…what’s your next challenge?
The climb was possible thanks to the great work of HGMexico who went beyond their job to make this a successful project. They are a lot of fun and know the mountains inside out!