Orizaba Rodeo: A little adventure south of the border
FLY: INTO VERACRUZ, MEXICO
DRINK: 2 MARGARITAS
BIKE: VERACRUZ TO PIEDRA GRANDE (110 MILES, 16K VERT)
CLIMB: PICO DE ORIZABA (18,491FT)
SUMMIT: DRINK 1 TECATE
BIKE: PIEDRA GRANDA TO VERACRUZ (110 MILES)
DRINK: 2 MARGARITAS
FLY: OUT OF VERACRUZ, MEXICO
The 1984 Jeep Wagoneer creaks and groans as it slows to a crawl and the nose of the vehicle dips down and bounces, recoiling up as the front tires make contact, finally, with the bottom of a massive pothole ahead. Our hired driver, Ricardo, keeps it in first gear as I rattle around in the jeep, heads bobbling as we enter the hole after hole in the road. I hit my head on the window frame of the passenger seat on the next one, then swallow a heaping spoonful of dust stirred up as the Wagoneer’s RPMs rev, sending us out of the next ditch. We’re at 12,000 feet above sea level now and things are hot, dry, and steep as hell. The engine roars as we climb while Ricardo, ever the optimist, looks at me with a cheesy grin, flashes the peace sign with his right hand and shouts, “Chido One! Chido One!”
Ricardo and I have been navigating these potholes for an hour now while making the final 4,000 foot climb to the Piedra Grande hut, which sits at 14,010 feet. I’ve been riding with Ricardo for two days, starting at 5 a.m. yesterday morning in Veracruz, Mexico at an altitude of sea level. Together, the two of us have been working to support my three adventure buddies, Mike Chambers, Jason Antin and Wade Morris as they bike their way west to Piedra Grande all the way from Veracruz, a 110 mile ride with an absurd 16,500 feet of total climbing. A single stage in the Tour De France doesn’t even climb 10,000 feet in one day. From there, Mike, Jason, Wade and I will climb Pico De Orizaba, Mexico’s tallest mountain and North America’s third tallest mountain, at 18,491 feet. Then, the guys will bike all the way back from where we came.
We left the ritzy Hotel Castelo in Downtown Veracruz before dawn to beat the scorching Mexican sun and give us plenty of time to reach the first day’s goal: the little mountain town of Nueva Vaquería. Even still, it’s hot already and I’m sweating out the two margaritas from last night that started the clock on our little adventure, the Orizaba Rodeo. I have two cameras, an assortment of lenses, a Go Pro, my phone, and a drone all handy in our trusty Wagoneer just to document this adventure. As we ride along I work with Ricardo to slow down to get shots and navigate out of the city. Even though it’s 6 am, Ricardo begins to give me impromptu Mexican history lessons and tells me about the neighborhoods and types of fruit trees, pointing them all out as we pass. He bellows with laughter after delivering a lengthy dialogue in Spanish, none of which I understand. I laugh just as hard along with him. Of course, Ricardo speaks no English. This should be fun.
The first two hours seem to last an eternity for me as we ride in the darkness. Eighteen-wheelers whiz by on the highway and we get a barrage of honks as retribution for our 20 km/h pace, well below the 70 km/h limit posted on the road, all while keeping the guys in sight and right behind us. I shoot hanging through the open windows and take in the sights of an urban Mexican city. The air is pleasantly humid — not yet hot — almost cool with the breeze from the moving jeep. The guys cruise right along and they’re visibly excited for the day’s challenge ahead.
The newly paved roads turn rotten and riddled with potholes as we put Veracruz into the rear view mirror. For a bustling urban center featuring a full-fledged mall and a Best Buy, Veracruz goes directly from a buzzing metro area straight to a very rural expanse, completely skipping any kind of suburban development. No cookie cutter housing developments or giant shopping malls here as we exit the city, just a noticeably slower pace as we whiz by local small businesses, restaurants inside home, farmers working in the fields to produce maize, coffee, and mango.
As we ride, the flat roads and dense early morning cloud cover teases my eyes as I search to the west for clearings and a view of our highest objective, Pico De Orizaba. Just as my thoughts drift to climbing higher mountains, I hear yelling from behind our transport car and notice Jason signalling for us to stop. Beyond him is a bike flipped upside down and one hell of an embankment next to the road. I yell, “Alto! Alto!” to Ricardo and he emphatically slams on the brakes and throws the Wagoneer into reverse.
Only Jason and Wade are actually visible standing on the road and Mike is nowhere to be seen. As we pull up in front of them he finally emerges from the embankment completely covered in a black filth. Mike takes the first digger of the day.
“Nice makeup job dude!” Jason yells. Potholes be damned, Mike tells us he went head over heels into the embankment and, “ate a mouthful of adventure,” as he recalls it. On a serious note, he’s lucky to escape with no injuries, though his helmet is dented and he mentions having a headache later.
Mike grabs a bike rag and goes to work. It takes a good five minutes to clean up and a bleeding gash on his forehead reveals itself under the thick layer of dirt. It’s 8 am and we’re clearly having an adventure.
With our first hiccup behind us we carried on into the Mexican plains, weaving our way through more fruit, coffee, and corn farms, canyons, and a few sketchy towns. The guys keep a solid 15–20 km/h pace the entire time. It’s hot but after gaining 5,000 feet of elevation of 85 miles by midday, it’s noticeably cooler than Veracruz. We reached the town of Coscomatepec for a well deserved break and to refuel water supplies before the guys would face their first real challenge of the day: 5,000 feet of climbing in 15 short miles to Nueva Vaquería.
After an hour break, worked our way up through the cobblestone streets of Coscomatepec and immediately began climbing. Ricardo kept the gears low and moved at a crawl, only a 5 miles per hour pace, never letting the lead climber out of sight. From time to time and on steeper sections especially, he would even let the engine stall, as shifting into a higher gear would mean we’d be moving too fast for the guys behind us. While he follows the main road, I wonder if he truly knows the route, but start to realize there really is only one main road going up, and up is most certainly the direction we need to be traveling in.
Just a mile and 1,000 feet of climbing in, I notice Mike and Wade are the only ones visible behind us. Mike signals to me and I ask Ricardo to stop. Wade grinds his way up to our position and lets us know Jason’s front tire blew. So, Ricardo and I to turn around and drive almost a half mile back and find him hanging on the sidewalk. For a guy who just blew his front tire, I’m impressed at how calm and collected he is when pulling up next to him. Not a single pessimistic thought seems to have even entered Jason’s mind despite his predicament. I realize rather quickly that from his point of view, he’s simply going to fix the tire, and then continue to crush the ride ahead of him. There is no other option.
I pull out the tire repair kit for Jason and as we work to patch it up, Ricardo jumps out of the Wagoneer, inspects the situation, calmly steps into the middle of the road and begins directing traffic. At one point, an oncoming car might have slammed right into us, if not for Ricardo delivering passionate and spectacularly effective traffic signals. I was beginning to really like this guy.
Our ride carried on, passing through town after town, each with it’s own distinct character and set of intricacies. One town seems to be tapping into the lumber transportation industry, given the number of truckers loaded to the brim with lumber. One has a bustling market where a number of taxis from Coscomatepec congregate. Another is hosting a communal religious ceremony, judging by the human sized wooden cross a pastor preaches to around a growing crowd. All of the towns, however, get noticeably smaller as we ride on. The landscape grows increasingly epic as we start to get afternoon light peeking into the valleys below. The guys take a few more breaks in between the steeper sections to recover and take in the views.
It starts to gets hard for me to empathize with any physical struggle my friends are going through. I’ve been a part of some grueling challenges, but sitting in the car all day with the luxury of taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the land, never experiencing one lactic acid inducing hill under the power of my own two legs on a bicycle, doesn’t help me much. I start to notice the grimacing from Mike, Jason, and Wade, and know the mental darkness they’re all likely entering. Mike takes it like a champ, visibly expressing his pain and exhaustion, but pushes on out in front. Wade takes a self-humiliating approach, laughing off the absurdity of the physical pain and general predicament we’re all in. Jason charges on with a menacing face of raw focus and ultimate determination, but always has a witty comment waiting in the reserve tank. I struggle to find a way to bond and communicate with them as they fight a never ending barrage of hills and switchbacks, but settle for simple words of encouragement and fist pounds while focusing intently on just capturing the moment. Ricardo on the other hand, has resorted to making whipping motions to the guys, implying they’re going slow and they should get a move on. This is after all, the Orizaba Rodeo.
We arrive at Nueva Vaquería just as the sun makes its final descent behind the horizon. Rising above the clouds for the first time that day, Pico De Orizaba finally comes into our view with spectacular alpenglow striking the Jamapa Glacier. The town grows grey and dark as night falls, but the community is very much alive. Incessant chatter and laughter rings down the whole block. It’s Friday, I remember.
Plopping our tired bodies onto the pavement behind the Wagoneer, which Ricardo seems to park next to a very specific green house, we begin to unpack, organize, and repack gear as we pull out our down jackets,freeze dried meals and stoves to boil water. We wait as Ricardo meanders off and disappears into the green house while audibly starting several cheery conversations. We’re not sure where we’re sleeping (Ricardo says he’ll handle that,) but assume we’re setting up our tents in someone’s backyard.
As hunger consumes us and the hot water we boiled for our freeze dried meals re-hydrates our food, Ricardo emerges from the house and motions for us to come in. We walk into an assortment of tea, soup, tortillas, and chicken fajita mix all prepared by the lovely women of the house. Not expecting to be fed, it feels weird to be served by them and not learn their names or even get a chance to make eye contact, but they quickly set the table with a Mexican feast and scurry out behind a kitchen curtain. I can only hope they hear me mutter and appreciated my thanks. Ricardo tells us he also set us up with actual beds in a house down the street, and we’re pretty excited about that.
Our high altitude bed & breakfast makes for a well deserved and longer than expected rest, but our lazy morning seems to directly contradict the Nueva Vaquería tradition, which is to say the entire town is up and at it before sunrise. The wood chipper is running, the snack shop is open, hammers pound nails in the distance, and the neighborhood butcher shop (which happens to be next to the community bathroom,) has drawn a crowd 20 people strong by 8 am.
The guys started for Piedra Grande that morning at 8:30 am, heading straight for the dirt road ahead that leaves the pavement for good. They got quite the head start as I hung around in town waiting for Ricardo as he again ventured back into the green house. I'll never know what he’s doing in there - so I walk around and explore the town a bit more while waiting.
A half an hour later Ricardo emerges from the house and fires up the Wagoneer, engine cool from last night’s chilly temps as well as a long day of riding yesterday, and it stutters for several seconds before starting. The custom wires running from the dashboard down onto the floor, blue push button rigged to the stick shift, and a choking engine in a 1984 Jeep Wagoneer gives me a slight pause of doubt, a sliver of concern that maybe these final 4,000 feet ahead of us might just be the last voyage this thing ever makes. Ricardo shifts the Wagoneer into reverse and the engine moans, moves forward instead of backwards, and then violently jolts into reverse. I ponder stealing the bike laying on the house across the street, just as Ricardo taps his hand on my shoulder. “Chido One! Chido One!” he says, with an innocent and familiar cheesy grin.
We barrel down the dirt road initially losing elevation, straddling the cliff side and following the obvious drainage cut by the Jamapa River, the major water flow originating from Pico De Orizaba's largest glacier, the Jamapa Glacier. The gravel road quickly gets steep and dusty as we start to gain elevation again, passing through glaring scars of past landslides on the one and a half car wide dirt road. Ricardo guns it on these sketchy sections and elbows me as he lets out an impassioned, “Weeeee!” followed by a giddy laugh, as the three of us fish tail along on our actively eroding mountain road. We pound fists and exchange laughs all while acknowledging our extreme levels of coolness. “Chido One!” I yell.
We catch the guys where the road is no longer bikeable, so we throw on our trail runners - it’s time to hike. I give Ricardo another fist pound and let him know I’ll be joining the guys on foot for the rest of our journey to the hut. With another 2,000 feet to go, we take it in stride and move casually, keeping good conversation during the last few miles. The sun is strong but not unbearable, though we keep as much skin covered as possible. At 14,000 feet, the sun’s rays are a lot more powerful than they are a sea level, even if it doesn’t “feel” hot.
Rounding what appears to be the last switchback, Orizaba comes into full view for the very first time. It’s nice to get a chance to size up the route and any noticeable features on the mountain, given that we’ll be climbing it in 12 short hours. Ricardo putts along behind us, giving us the thumbs up and the occasional arm length turn signal when we come up to a fork in the dirt roads. I’m impressed the guys don’t seem too worked despite their incredibly physical undertaking as we finally reach our second checkpoint: Refugio Piedra Grande.
At 14,100 feet the air is thinner, and I notice it while trekking uphill from the hut to take photos and survey the land below — a 100 mile expanse that we just came from. My breath is a bit short after moving around and I have a fairly typical buzzing headache that comes with altitude, so I soak up some valuable R&R with the guys inside the hut. Wade and I use this time wisely by concocting an epic burrito mix for us four, made of two different freeze dried breakfast meals and Spanish rice. Everything taste better in the mountains, but these burritos are truly amazing.
Normally a climb of Orizaba would involve an approach day and overnight stay in the hut in order to properly acclimatize, then a summit bid the next night. Given our short weekend time frame and minimal technical terrain features on our expected route, which should allow us to move fast and never stay at altitude for an extended period of time, we’re okay with a rapid 48 hour ascent from sea level to the summit at 18,491 feet. We’ll just embrace the discomfort when it presents itself.
In talking with climbers who summited that morning, we learn the glacier’s current conditions are fantastic and decide to bring no technical gear aside from an ice axe and crampons. Initially this is a tough call because a fall and potential crevasse rescue is a lengthy and tedious process on flat terrain. It can be even more painstaking on a 30 to 40 degree slope like the Jamapa Glacier is. With no gear on us, (not even a harness,) if anyone were to take a fall rescue would be several long hours away. With no technical gear or rope we can move much faster as a unit however, at night especially, when the glacier surface is colder and any snow bridges covering crevasses are theoretically stronger. We also have prior knowledge on where the bergschrund is on the glacier (18,200 feet) which is where the largest crevasses exist. With our GPS watches that track altitude, we can account for exactly where this is.
As night falls Ricardo and his friend make their sleeping quarters in the Wagoneer - almost as to defend all of our gear. He checks in periodically while we hang out in the hut and tells us we will move very fast up the mountain, which is good to hear considering he’s climbed it seven times himself. Occasionally he’s met with a barrage of freeze dried meal farts from our entire party and he chuckles and mimics their sounds with his mouth, which makes us all laugh hysterically. I run out a few times to shoot some long exposure photos and make sure my camera is properly set up for the time lapse I plan to run while we climb above. The idea here is to capture our headlamps moving from the camera all the way to the summit. I do the calculations and think it will work.
I catch a few hours of sleep before the 11 pm alarm goes off — our planned wake up time for a 12 am start. The hour buffer gives us time to boil water (which takes significantly longer at 14,000 feet) for coffee and eat a few hundred calories before setting off. We gear up, Ricardo comes in to give us another fist pound, and we’re off into a cold but perfectly clear night.
The route from Piedra Grande to the summit of Pico De Orizaba is straightforward. Follow the concrete path from the hut until it ends, then follow the cairns and well worn path through the river drainage until you reach the glacier. We’d read trip reports of route finding in the dark as being an issue for the last 1,000 feet before reaching the glacier, in section of the path now known as, “The Labyrinth.” It does get confusing at times for us, but within a minute or two at forks in the road, we’re always able to confirm where we needed to go. Jason navigated this section with precision and it made him visibly excited.
We make quick work of the first 2,000 feet of rock and reach the first sign of ice. There’s nothing significant about gaining the Jamapa Glacier, the rock simply turns to ice as you take a step between the two, and then you’re on the glacier for good. Strapping into crampons and pulling out our ice axes, we notice immediately the glacier is entirely ice — no new snow, no soft purchase with our crampon spikes — just pure ice. If it were higher angled, it would simply be a 2,000 foot long vertical ice climb.
The techniques needed on the 30–40 degree slope are simple: make a small kick with each step ensuring your crampon spikes settle into the ice nicely, and the bottom of your ice axe needs a good stick as you plunge it into the slope. Then, you slog 2,500 feet to summit via switchbacks or just straight up, if your want to burn out your quads, calves, and lungs all at once.
I find myself in total awe of the darkness of the sky and badly wish I brought my tripod with me. The allure of grabbing just a few quick images of the guys going on ahead is too strong for me to pass up, so I find the most moderate slope I can, rip off my pack and angle my camera on top of it for an alpine style tripod. I don’t have a ton of time to set up a series of shots and stage anything since it’s brisk 10 degrees out, so I don’t even ask the guys to hang back or slow down. After a few tries to get the camera stable on my pack, I fire off a few test shots for focus. It’s almost impossible to properly check because I don’t want to move my camera from its marginally stable position to view the image, but I also can’t move my own body much to get a closer look since I’m on an angled slope that doesn’t afford me many options, at least without risking the chance of going for a nice little ride down the glacier. I realize I’ll have to be at peace with however the image comes out for this particular scene, so I fire off a few more 10 second exposures and get a move on. The guys are already way ahead of me, so I ditch the switchbacks and move straight up the slope, front pointing with the two front spikes of my crampons. It’s exhausting at altitude but it gets me back to the group much quicker.
At almost exactly 18,200 feet, Jason calls out, “Crevasse.” I look to my left 15 feet where he points out a very obvious one foot high shelf of glacial ice, only a few feet wide. No openings are visible, so we’re looking at a snow bridge, and we’re undoubtedly at the bergschrund. I take one step forward and feel my left foot sinking into the snow, a terrain feature nonexistent on our entire climb so far — everything has been hard ice. I immediately pull back and carefully retrace a few steps, accidentally bumping into Wade behind me. Where I stepped is most definitely not a place I want to step again, and I probe it with my ice axe for good measure. On the entire glacier, if one were to use all of their force to try and plunge the pick at the bottom of their axe into the ice, it wouldn't punch more than an inch or two into the surface, the ice is rock solid. Where I probe my axe, I easily slide it a foot straight down into the snow. That’s all the information I need to know there’s a crevasse down below.
Wade and I back up and skirt left to avoid the hazard and catch up with Mike and Jason already ahead of us. The bergschrund is also a sign that you’ve almost gained the summit ridge on Pico De Orizaba, and I can tell Mike and Jason are gunning for it. Mike has been to Everest twice: making it to 28,000 feet before his team had to turn around. Jason and Wade have been high up too but also live in Golden, Colorado at almost 6,000 feet, and they are in the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains several times a week. This makes me the odd man out when it comes to experience at altitude. I’ve poured through countless mountaineering books written by all the legends, but you’ve got to just get to high altitude to really feel it. At 18,200 feet, I finally started to feel it.
We take a quick break on the ridge, which is really just the rim of the volcanic crater, and I notice the lethargy starting to assert itself into my present demeanor. It’s normal for climbers to feel lethargic at higher elevations, especially when moving too high too quickly. I notice I don’t feel as motivated to stand up and shoot and am not as mentally attached to the camera slung around my shoulder as I normally am. I wonder how the guys are feeling too as I force myself to shoot anyway, making another alpine tripod on my pack, and capture the guys moving up the ridge. They move well even on the last 300 feet of the climb after biking 16,500 feet and well over 100 miles in the last 24 hours, then climbing this mountain, another 4,000 over several miles. I’m truly impressed with their feat — my friends move fast and they’ve got physical and mental motors that don’t quit.
As I get up from the snow and throw my pack on a sudden rush of euphoria hits me — I’m about to summit the third highest mountain in North America, and I’m 3,000 feet higher than I’ve ever been. The head fog from altitude consumes me too and I don’t really have the emotional reserves to let out a big yell like I want to. Instead I just smile as I near the summit, internalizing it all as I top out at 18,491 feet. We pound fists and each pull out the can of Tecate we brought with us, cracking them open and chugging. I take a few unbelievably delicious sips and discard the rest instead, as I’m sure I’ll be nearly drunk given how I’m feeling. Looking back at it, I’d drink the whole thing next time.
From the hut to the summit it takes us a little over 5 hours. Since we left at 12 am we arrive with an hour to spare before sunrise. We scout for a comfortable spot out of the wind to hang out, and Mike finds one by descending into the crater a good fifty feet down. And then, we waited.
The hour spent waiting for the sun is all a blur. With our lack of acclimatization and gung-ho pace over the last 48 hours, we all start to get a bit fuzzy, and so the quiet nature of sitting at the summit, bundled up while taking in our surroundings in a head fog, was intensely peaceful, albeit a bit uncomfortable. The crater below us harnesses an unimaginable amount of volcanic power, yet the four of us sat in silence, broken up only by the occasional joke orfart. The city lights in the distance disappear as dawn approaches, finally revealing to us a mountainous expanse of volcanoes and rolling hills to the north and west. To the east and south, farmland and the ocean stretched on for as far as we could see. It felt like we were in the heart of Mexico.
The warmth of the sun feels great as it finally peaks over the horizon and we all receive a welcome boost of energy from it. That feeling is also our cue to head down, and I hang back and let the guys move down the ridge to shoot more photos. I completely forget about looking for the famous shadow Orizaba casts at sunrise until Jason shouts out, “There it is!” and points out west.
A mountain shadow is hardly something a human mind can comprehend. At first we’re in awe when we recognize what it is, as it actively changes shape, gets longer then shorter, darker and then simply fades away. Our instincts fool us into thinking it’s a far off mountain in the distance and when we discover it’s not, we try and reconcile how the shadow could possibly be higher than the horizon itself. We’re captivated by the sheer size of it and hoot and holler over our well earned view. Chido One,” I find myself saying in my head — “That’s cool”.
We make our descent to Piedra Grande in just two hours, arriving back at the hut by 10 am. A quick rundown on logistics for how to get back home leads us to make the decision to bail on the bike ride to Veracruz. With the combination of a 15 hour ride ahead of us, some unsafe towns to pass through at night, and flights to catch, we decide we’re all better off with a ride in the trusty Wagoneer back to sea level.
Within ten minutes of piling into the Jeep, the guys are all fast asleep, heads banging against the window frames and bobbling at each and every pothole. I close my eyes in exhaustion and have the same problem, smacking my head against the window several times before I decide to just keep my hand in between the glass and my head. I doze off anyways.
We grab an authentic Mexican meal back in Coscomatapec. We order waters but are served fruit punch instead. Jason orders a club sandwich and we all make fun of him for it. It’s good to be back in civilization again.
On our final leg back to the city, we talk about where the next adventure is. We dream up plans of climbing high mountains, original adventure locations, crazy travel itineraries — basically anything we can think of to make things extremely hard for ourselves. We’ve got grandiose ideas, a finite number of weekends, and Monday fast approaching. The plans will have to go by the wayside, stored in our minds or our phones. Well, just until next weekend.