CitlaltÚpetl 2002 - An Angry Volcano

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The Plan and The New Plan
After flying to Veracruz and spending one night there, we would arrive in Tlachichuca (the village at 8500 feet at the base of the volcano) on Sunday, December 8th. The next day, we would be driven up to Piedra Grande (base camp at 14,000 feet). On Tuesday the 10th, we would climb to the 18,410 foot summit of North America's third highest (Mexico's highest) peak via the Jamapa glacier route, descend and be driven back down to Tlachichuca. We would then spend the next eight days traveling to Oaxaca, Puebla and back to Veracruz, taking in as much of the Mexican culture as time would allow. The schedule for climbing Citlaltépetl (the Aztec name meaning the star mountain, the Spanish name is Pico de Orizaba) was an aggressive one, but we were confident of our abilities. If, due to unfavorable weather, an extra day for a summit attempt was needed, we were willing to sacrifice our first night in Oaxaca. We had climbed to 14,000 feet twice in the previous two weeks in Colorado, as well as spent one night at 11,500 feet. We had been to a slide show at a local mountaineering shop in our home town in which one of the presenters said that if you can do a Colorado fourteener, you can climb Citlaltépetl. We had climbed 39 of the Colorado fourteeners including many of the more difficult ones and including many routes on moderate and steep snow. This was going to be a piece of cake for us if the weather cooperated. We had no idea.


The coloful Mexican culture

Upon arriving in Tlachichuca we were greeted with the festival for the virgin of the immaculate conception. Many of the streets were blocked off and the whole town was enjoying chaos. With directions received from a police officer, we made our roundabout way through narrow side streets and finally spotted an American looking woman dressed in mountaineering clothes at a pay phone. Debby went to ask her if she knew where we would find the Reyes residence (a family in Tlachichuca who has served climbers of Citlaltépetl for over 40 years). The woman turned to answer and with tears streaming down her face, said that three climbers had died the day before on Citlaltépetl, that conditions on the glacier were horrible, that everyone there was going to climb Ixtaccíhuatl (another Volcano) instead and that the Reyes lived across the street. We were greeted at the Reyes compound by Pedro, one of the staff members. Pedro confirmed what the woman had told us and asked us about our experience on ice and if we had brought pickets or ice screws. We allowed as how we had experience on steep snow but not ice, and as how we had brought crampons, ice axes, a rope and harnesses, but no other hardware. Pedro suggested we hire a guide.


The Reyes Compound with Citlaltépetl watching

That evening we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with a large group of climbers. The group consisted of two American guides, two Russian clients and seven American clients. They would later meet up with a Mexican guide, Roberto, nicknamed El Oso (The Bear) who had summitted Citlaltépetl 133 times in the last six seasons. We also met El Oso and decided that if we were going with a guide, we wanted it to be him. El Oso was committed to this group for the next several days and would not be available until the next weekend. After spending the night at the Reyes climbers dormitory and having breakfast with the group, we decided that a change in our vacation schedule was in order. We would go to Oaxaca for four days, entirely forego our visit to Puebla, come back and climb Citlaltépetl with El Oso, and then return to Veracruz as planned. That morning we prepared to head out to Oaxaca as the group prepared to head up to Piedra Grande. One of the American guides, Graham, was particularly friendly and chatty with us. He had lived in Colorado and climbed many of the same mountains and rocks that we have. He gave Debby some good advice about the fit of her crampons with her brand new gaiters. By about 10:30 am, we were packed and ready, wished the group well and headed out to what ended up being a delightful and enchanting four days in Oaxaca.


Debby walking through time

On Friday, December 13th, we returned to Tlachichuca, only to find another festival, this one for the virgin Guadalupe. At the Reyes compound we were greeted once again by Pedro. Debby's first question to him was "How did the large group that we had met do on the Volcano?". His response seemed almost insensitive, "Badly, but forget about it". Looking back now, I am quite sure that Pedro's tone was a result of the stresses and exhaustion of the previous week. Upon inquiring further, we learned that Graham had made a careless slip high on the Jamapa Glacier. He and the three clients he was roped to fell over 1500 feet to the base of the glacier. A full scale mountain rescue had ensued. Involved in the rescue were Dr. Gerardo Reyes and much of his staff including El Oso and Pedro, five helicopters, the Mexican Red Cross, three American climbers that were at high camp, and a host of local volunteers. Three of the climbers were airlifted to a hospital in Puebla. The least severely injured climber was brought down the mountain to Piedra Grande in a rescue sled. Graham had broken legs and a broken pelvis. The most critically injured, Phil, had severe head trauma and all were concerned for the health of his brain. We were told that a bad melt/freeze cycle had the glacier seeing its worst condition in years and that no one had made it to the summit safely in the past two weeks. At this point we were considering another change of plans, perhaps bagging the attempt altogether. Debby put it very well, "I think the volcano is mad". We enjoyed another wonderful dinner at the Reyes compound, this one with the three American climbers who had participated in the rescue. Later that evening we had a reassuring conversation with El Oso (he was one of the last climbers to reach the summit safely) and decided we would head up to base camp the next day, Saturday, to be joined by El Oso and Pedro on Sunday, December 15th. Prior to our departure on Saturday, a Mexican television station had sent a crew to the Reyes compound to do a report on the accidents that had been occurring on Citlaltépetl. It was a bit of a circus. They formally interviewed Dr. Reyes, spoke with three Oaxacan alpinists and another young mountaineer from Monterrey, Mexico and filmed Debby and me making the final preparations with our gear. When the media crew had gotten their fill, the climbers from Oaxaca and Monterrey and Debby and I all loaded ourselves and our gear into the 4x4 truck and headed up the hill.


Citlaltépetl (Pico de Orizaba)

The Motivation and The Inspiration
Debby and I first set out on this trip with somewhat selfish motivations. We were going to get our introduction to high altitude mountaineering on what had been billed as a non-technical climb to over 18,000 feet. We were going to take this mountain by storm as a couple of experienced Colorado fourteener veterans. With the passing of the events of the week, our motivations underwent significant changes. Debby was climbing for her grandparents and great grandparents who, given the opportunity, would have most definitely embraced a journey such as this. She is very grateful for the sacrifices they made, which have enabled her to live the rich, full life that she does. I found myself climbing for my father, who introduced me to backpacking and climbing, and for my brother in law, a formidable and accomplished mountaineer himself, who has also served as a mentor to me. We were both climbing for our mothers, two incredible human beings who have each endured more than their respective shares of hardships. We were climbing for Graham and the other three who had fallen with him, and even the three climbers we hadn't met who had lost their lives. We had developed a false sense of importance for our climb. We were compelled to become the first to summit under such difficult conditions. We were certain that this would not only benefit the Reyes family and their business, but shed a more positive light on this volcano for the climbing community in general. We would later come to the humble realization that the Reyes will do just fine in the future and people will undoubtedly be climbing this mountain for many generations to come. Once on the glacier, our focus had narrowed and our motivation became very simple. We were climbing to stay alive and safe.

Tlachichuca and Piedra Grande - Base Village and Base Camp
Debby and I are each very intrigued with the Mexican culture. As a third generation Mexican American, she is continuing to explore her ancestral heritage. I, having lived two years in Mexico City when I was 12 and 13 years old, enjoy a special fondness for the people and the country. Tlachichuca is a typical small Mexican town that loves a festival and exaggerates everything. Fireworks is an understatement of what was used in the celebration. Dynamite is a better word. Carnival rides were packed into the Zócalo (the central plaza) so tightly that people on different rides could have "high fived" one another while spinning in opposite directions. There was a short window of relative quiet between 2:00 am when the music and barking dogs stopped and 6:00 am when the roosters and church bells started. The town cathedral is the one building in town that is kept in immaculate and beautiful condition. We visited an older cemetery in town. The graves were so close together that it was difficult to move through the cemetery without stepping on something you felt you shouldn't. Dead plants and flowers that had been brought by families of the deceased had not been cleared away. The gravestones were, in many cases, statues or marvelous carvings made with meticulous detail. The graveyard enjoyed a spectacular view of the volcano. We had never seen a cemetery anything like this one.


The cemetery in Tlachichuca

The Reyes compound is a first rate facility devoted to serving climbers of Citlaltépetl. The building is old and, on the surface, looks to be in disrepair, typical of many buildings in a small Mexican village. It is kept that way intentionally, so as not to stand out. In fact, it has belonged to the Reyes family for at least five generations and is in excellent condition. It is a converted soap factory and much of the old machinery still sits there as a museum to the family history. Parts of the main building have been converted to a gear/equipment room, a dormitory, a dining room, a kitchen and a recreation/big screen video room. Outside, in one of the gardens, they have bolted climbing holds to a 150 year old stone wall that was built entirely with natural rock from the area. This provided us with some very interesting and unique bouldering. Dr. Gerardo Reyes currently runs the climbers service (Servimont). We also had the good fortune to meet his brother Luís, with whom we had all of our email communications. The Reyes family and their entire staff are consummate professionals. Lucía and Juana prepare delicious dinners and breakfasts daily for the guests. Lucía is a charming woman in a class all by herself and has been invited to come visit us in Colorado. Joel and Memo drive the climbers up to Piedra Grande and maintain the trucks which take a lot of abuse. Upon our first arrival at the Reyes compound we noticed that one of the tires on our rental car had gone flat. It was very fortunate to discover this here, as Joel and Memo repaired and inflated it for us while we ate breakfast the next morning. Pedro is a guide and doctor himself, but generally handles details for climbers who have hired a guide. El Oso combines the heart and soul of a giant with world class mountaineering skills. It would be a privilege for anyone to climb with him. Dr. Reyes not only guides and manages the business but is the one in town who coordinates all rescues/recoveries regardless of who the climbers might be, often footing some of the bill himself. He is without a doubt "the man". He had us to listen to a CD of traditional Mexican music played by a full orchestra during dinner. He played for us, on the big screen television, a DVD telling the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's definitive Antarctic adventure. If this didn't inspire you to climb a volcano, nothing would.

At the Reyes compound, we had the opportunity to meet and casually joke around with Dr. Yuri Contreras, a famous Mexican climber who has twice been to the summit of Mt. Everest. The next day, we arrived at Piedra Grande to find him packing up his tent and gear after aborting his climb of Citlaltépetl because of dangerous conditions on the Glacier. Piedra Grande is at the end of the dirt road which leads up from Tlachichuca and Coscomatepec. It sits at approximately 14,000 feet in elevation. There are two huts there, one which sleeps about twelve people and the other which sleeps up to sixty. There are also several tent sites and running water that needs no purification, in the form of a spring located a short walk down a well defined trail from the huts. The smaller of the two huts has a hole in the roof and was not used at all while we were there. The larger hut is a stone building with a metal roof and glass windows. In addition to climbers, it is home to high altitude mice. Because of winds, we spent the first night at base camp inside the larger hut and twice during the night, I felt a mouse running across my head while trying to sleep. They were friendly little critters. The wind made quite a racket as it blew across the metal roof. There were only about ten climbers sleeping there but loud snoring did prevail. The following night brought more climbers to Piedra Grande but almost no wind, so Debby and I decided to pitch our tent and enjoy a little more privacy and quiet. We enjoyed the privacy but there was no quiet to be had. The village of Hidalgo is located approximately four miles down the road. At over 11,000 feet in altitude it may be the highest village in North America. Some sort of a party or festival was happening there, imagine that. Amplified pop music with the exact same beat reverberated up to Piedra Grande and beyond for several hours until about midnight. This was during the night that we would awaken at 1:00 am to begin our climb.


Monte Alban Ruins (restored and original)

During our stay at Piedra Grande, Debby and I had the good fortune to meet some truly remarkable people. Mike, Jim and Ed, three American climbers in their forties, were very friendly. Mike delivered blueberry cobbler to us after we had already retired to our tent the second night. Peter, from the Czech Republic, had spent the last 100 days or so riding his bicycle through Mexico after starting in Tucson, Arizona. He said he had suffered 21 flat tires. He had ridden (and pushed his bike) up to Piedra Grande and was planning to climb Citlaltépetl solo with a rented ice axe and pair of crampons. Roberto was the young, but experienced mountaineer from Monterrey, Mexico that we met in Tlachichuca and with whom we shared the truck ride up to base camp. He was there to train for his upcoming trip to Argentina to attempt Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. He had already summitted Citlaltépetl roughly a dozen times, and given the conditions on the glacier, he decided to forego a summit attempt in lieu of packing down some of the gear that belongs to the injured climbers. The experience at Piedra Grande reinforced Debby's and my fondness for climbers as people.

The Climb
At approximately 7:00 am on Monday, December 16th, El Oso stated quite authoritatively, "Yo creo que ya esto es todo muchachitos". Loosely translated, this meant "I think this is it, kids". These were the words I was dreading hearing, but yet knew were inevitable. The summit, though still 1400 feet higher, seemed so very reachable and both Debby and I were having a good day, not suffering from the altitude at all. Far was it from either of us to even question the decision of someone so experienced in both the good and bad that this mountain had to offer. The words came at approximately 17,000 feet after making good time up the loose rocky trail, third class mixed rock and ice climbing up the couloirs below the glacier and slogging up 30 to 45 degree glassy smooth ice that, according to El Oso, had become significantly more dangerous in just the last two days. You could break your ice axe through the ice cap by driving the point of it into the exact same spot three or four times. It was too hard to drive a picket into, yet too brittle to hold an ice screw. With every step of your crampon and every punch of your axe, the ice would fracture into a star pattern. This indicated a very fragile ice cap, one that could "give" and send a big portion of the plate and all climbers thereon careening down the glacier at any moment. The climb had been perfect up to this point. We started on time (at 2:00 am) from Piedra Grande under a starry sky with the moon almost full. There was no wind at all. We were on the glacier by 5:30 am and only that late because we burned some time so that we would not be on the difficult part of the glacier in the dark.


WikiMapia Satellite Image of Citlaltépetl

With his axe and crampons, El Oso carved out spots for each of us to sit and purchase our feet. He asked if we had brought a camera and told us this was our photo opportunity. Now anchored by all three of our ice axes and an ice screw, we carefully turned and sat down facing out. The view that had unfolded as the sun rose during our prior half hour of climbing was breathtakingly stunning. We looked down on the massive rock outcropping known as El Sarcófago which was basking in the morning sunlight. The volcano we were on cast a magnificent shadow to the west, an amazing sight seen only on high mountains at sunrise or sunset with the right conditions.


Citlaltépetl's Shadow

The glassy smooth Jamapa Glacier

The first part of the descent was quite unnerving as Debby and I had to learn how to plunge step down steep ice. In Colorado, on compacted snow, we always glissaded but this was quite different. Self arrest was virtually impossible and any attempt to glissade would have quickly deposited one on the rocks below the glacier. With some patient coaching and a rope held tight by El Oso, we were soon marching, in an upright posture, straight down the icy precipice rolling our crampons forward from the heel points to the front points with each step. At the base of the glacier we stopped at the horribly sobering site where the four American climbers finally came to a stop after their horrendous fall. There were blood stains in the snow and torn and mangled gear strewn over an area larger than our front yard. This was an image that neither Debby nor I will ever forget. It was obvious that El Oso was deeply affected by having been on the mountain when the accident occurred. We each wanted to help carry out the gear that remained there. I was carrying an expedition size backpack that was less than one third full, so I was able to fit an entire climbers backpack inside. Debby stuffed as much loose gear as would fit in her pack and we continued down the mountain. Descending the moderately technical rock and ice couloirs with our heavier loads was one of the more athletically challenging, yet rewarding aspects of the climb. We soon thereafter arrived at the high camp set by the three climbers from Oaxaca with whom we had shared a truck ride up to Piedra Grande. We made many wonderful new friends on this trip, but there was something special about these folks. Leticia had just taken the first bite out of her quesadilla and promptly handed it to Debby. There was another quesadilla in the pan, hot and ready to eat, and it was immediately given to me. On our acclimatization hike the day before, we had casually asked them whether there was a McDonald's anywhere nearby. After giving us the quesadillas, they joked that there was no McDonald's but the world's highest Taco Bell. We hope these three will come visit us in Colorado sometime. At approximately 10:45 am, after chatting with many climbers who were on there way up, we were back at Piedra Grande. I cannot put into words the wide spectrum of emotions that Debby and I were each experiencing then.

The Aftermath
Back in Tlachichuca, we enjoyed hot showers, another delicious dinner and a twenty second view of the top of the volcano turning bright orange, red and pink at sunset. There wasn't time to get the camera. We were exhausted and went to bed by about 7:30 pm. Miraculously, there was no festival in town that night, but quiet still remained illusive. I was awakened at about 9:30 pm by rain pounding on the roof of the dormitory. The rainy season was over and, what's more, I didn't think that it ever rained that hard there. Debby managed to sleep through it, which is a testament to how tired she was, as she is a much lighter sleeper than I am. Dr. Reyes was ecstatic in the morning and said he almost went outside and danced in it. We were all hopeful that this meant snow on the mountain that we could not yet see through lingering clouds. We were given the honor to meet and speak with Dr. Reyes's father and mother, two of the classiest people on the face of this great planet. His father, Francisco, was the one who started the business of serving climbers, but his grandfather, Gonzalo, was the first in the family to have climbed Citlaltépetl in 1931. After breakfast, we packed the car, said our goodbyes and started the drive to Veracruz. Once we were on the highway, the clouds began to clear and unveiled a distinctly different looking volcano with a blanket of fresh snow on it. The snow line was below the level of Piedra Grande and I was guessing that the glacier must have gotten six inches to a foot. I returned home to Colorado to an email from Mike stating that the glacier had received two feet of fresh snow overnight and the climbers who were deterred from summitting by the ice were now desperately concerned for their safety because of the threat of avalanche. They were calling it a ten year storm and Citlaltépetl's summit had still yet to be reached in the next couple of days after we left. Once the avalanches have run and the snow compacts a bit, I am sure that El Oso will make his 134th.


The sun rises over a new day in Veracruz

I still cannot completely verbalize the scope of Debby's and my emotions. I must say however, that our drive to continue mountaineering and other adventures is as strong as ever, yet tempered with a new found respect for the inherent dangers in such activities. No mountain climb, regardless of how it may have been described by others should be taken lightly. I hope that this story has portrayed our high point on the glacier as somewhat of an anticlimax while having emphasized the remarkable events of the entire journey. Indeed when we (all climbers) reach any summit, entirely too little time is spent there. We would have liked to reach the summit and 17,000 feet is over 2500 feet higher than we had ever climbed before. The importance of safe return outweighs the importance of reaching the summit by several orders of magnitude. We came away with far more from the adverse conditions that we experienced and scenes that we witnessed than we would have if we had reached the summit in ideal conditions. We will continue to climb in Colorado and are entertaining the idea of climbing higher and harder (perhaps in Ecuador or Peru) in the future. We will probably go back someday and try again to climb to Mexico's highest point, but forever on our souls is etched the anger of Citlaltépetl in December, 2002.

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