Volcán Citlaltépetl is a 5,636-meter (18,484-foot) active stratovolcano in eastern México, on the border between the states of Puebla and Veracruz. Also known as Pico de Orizaba, it is part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. It is the highest mountain in México and the third highest in North America (after Denali and Logan). It is the second-tallest freestanding volcano in the world (after Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro) and the 7th most prominent peak in the world.
The volcano’s most recent stage of geologic development began about 16,000 years ago and lasted until the late-19th century. During this time period, the recognizable cone structure was formed via repetitions of explosive eruptions and thick andesite/dacite lava flows. It is often classified as dormant; however, due to the fact that its last recorded eruption (in 1846) occurred far less than 10,000 years ago, it would be considered still active by most volcanologists. The Jamapa Glacier, the largest icefield in México, continues to sculpt the weak volcanic rock on the east flank of the mountain.
THURSDAY DECEMBER 18th, 2014
Morning is the time for us to prepare our climbing gear and hire 4×4 transport to Refugio Piedra Grande. We’re puttering about in the lively village of Tlachichuca, which is at an elevation of 2,700-m. The enormous cone of Volcán Citlaltépetl looms high on the eastern horizon.
We acquire our mountaineering gear from Sr. Reyes in a ‘budget’ rental package totaling $400-pesos (about $30). We arrange 4×4 transportation to Refugio Piedra Grande. Another climber is here – Frank, a truckdriver from Germany – who is taking advantage of Sr. Reyes’s full-deal guide services. Frank splits the cost of the 4×4 with us so that it comes to $600-pesos each. With all gear loaded in the flatbed, the truck takes us out of Tlachichuca and west across vast fields of corn.
Higher we climb, the truck kicking up incredible amounts of dust, picking up a rural farmer Carlos who is to serve as the cook for Frank’s expedition. We rapidly increase elevation from 2,700-m until we are climbing through pleasantly cool pine forests.
Two hours from Tlachichuca, we arrive to the simple stone shelter known as Refugio Piedra Grande. Built on a large flat area at 4,278-m elevation, it is a two-storey hut with room for about forty or fifty bodies. Getting out of the truck, the fierce cold of the wind bites our exposed skin. We hurriedly move our supplies into the warmth of the refugio and heat some tea for ourselves while Carlos cooks tacos for Frank.
Giselle and I take the afternoon to go on an exploratory walk, mainly to acclimatize our bodies. We stamp across the knee-deep grass to the edge of a deep canyon carved by glacial meltwater – the headwaters of a great river bound for the Gulf of México.
We follow the rim of the canyon for about twenty minutes, aiming for a small outcrop in the sun. Across the canyon, tufts of golden grass dot the lower slopes of high chocolate-coloured peaks. This sight is reminiscent of the Central Andes for me.
These peaks look miniature in the shadow of the great icecapped volcano above us. Citlaltépetl looks incomprehensibly massive, flanked by walls of columnar andesite and painted with a white hat of permanent snow. Our route of ascent is basically straight-on.
The final beams of afternoon sun kiss the roof of the hut; Giselle and I head back across the grass and along the stone aqueduct to the refugio. Giselle’s only been at such an altitude once in her life (in Bolivia) but she seems to be adjusting very well so far.
A fantastic pink sunset rings the open sky, broken only by the shadow of Citlaltépetl itself. Frank and I stay up late talking outside under a starry sky. He feels slighly ill, and is not optimistic about his chances on making the summit. Nevertheless, we retire to the refugio for our first night’s rest.
FRIDAY DECEMBER 19th, 2014
While Frank is up all night coughing, Giselle and I sleep soundly and rise in the morning feeling in top shape. When I go outside into the frosty air, poor Frank is crouched over a pathetic little fire trying to warm his bones. Carlos cooks up a batch of breakfast taquitos for all of us and the vibe is relaxed. Around noon a solo German climber returns from the summit bringing news of the favourable conditions higher on the mountain.
Giselle seems to be responding well to the high altitude, so we see no reason to stay another night down in the refugio. We pack our bags, say “see ya later” to Frank and start up the stone aqueduct that marks the beginning of the trail. Within a hundred meters the pathway degenerates to a steep scramble up a crumbly ravine. Huge volcanic blocks break off the cliffs and crash to the bottom and on to the eventual sea. We surmount the section called Los Nidos (‘The Nests’) with no issues and continue up the ravine towards higher realms.
It takes us two more hours to climb to the crux section known as El Laberínto (‘The Labyrinth). It’s a polished moraine where the Jamapa Glacier has recently melted away. Stretching between 4,800-m and 4,900-m, the convulouted gullies of El Laberínto present the last real obstacle before reaching the glacier proper. Just the day earlier we had seen a local guide go up to this part of the mountain in order to place a shrine for a climber who perished here last year. With help from internet references (advice from other climbers on the site summitpost.com) I successfully lead us through El Laberínto and up to the cusp of the glacier.
Up on the exposed ridge now, 4:00pm brings freezing wind and long shadows. I find a secluded little cove of rocks, and fashion a stone wall to protect our tent from the intense wind. The full length of the Jamapa Glacier extends from our camp at 4,950-m to the conical summit. We share a can of tuna and savour the sunset from our perch above the seamless clouds of eastern México.
The moment the sun dips behind the Sarcófago (a prominent spur at 5,100-m) the temperature drops and we huddle into the tent. We’ve got our sleeping bags together like a cozy quilt and all of our layers on, but still the cold invades. The wind is so strong that it keeps me awake for the majority of the night. Outside I hear the scuttle of a foraging mouse. I lie shivering next to Giselle, thinking, “What the heck are we doing?”
SATURDAY DECEMBER 20th, 2014
At 3:00am the two of us shake ourselves awake and reluctantly begin to prepare our gear for the summit push. It’s so cold I can barely function my fingers enough to tie my own bootlaces. By 4:00am we are on the trail. I lead us up through a short maze of moraine rocks to the base of the glacier at 5,000-m. We sit down to attach our crampons while the mouse scurries around us excitedly. We force ourselves to eat a granola bar because we know we’ll need it. I zip my jacket up all the way to shield my face from the biting cold. With the windchill I estimate the air temperature to be around -20*C, which are ridiculous conditions for Giselle of southern California.
The going is straightforward once on the hard-packed surface of the glacier. Our greatest obstacle in the beginning is simply the cold. One thing that we gradually learn is that the summit appears unrealistically close from below, leading us to think that my altimeter watch was showing a value too low when in fact it was correct all along. We keep our heads pointed down with all bare skin protected. The weak first rays of daylight, blocked by the very mountain on which we stand, do little to improve our frozen condition. We can only watch below as the lower landscape (5,100-m) bathes in the golden glow.
The climbing is sustained on the gradually-steepening glacier. By the 5,200-m mark the slope is probably 45-degrees. Fatigue begins to take hold as we push higher. With each relentless switchback I begin to wonder increasingly whether we have the strength to make it. In the lower sections we had been working back-and-forth to encourage one another upwards. But the upper part of the climb finds us quiet and separated, both lost in the all-consuming struggle of the ascent.
At last I see patches of rock above and realize that we must be nearing the rim of the crater. The glacier near the top becomes hard-packed and slick, and higher we even encounter penitentes. The rocks are dusty and loose, but easy to scramble over. When I crest the crater rim, the brightness of the sun smacks me in the face and I love it. At last my extremities begin to thaw.
I crawl a few hundred meters along the dusty exposed crater rim to reach the barren windswept summit, adorned with a cross celebrating the 5,636-m elevation as the highest point in México. I drop to my knees and begin weeping out of happiness. Just minutes later I see Giselle coming over the crater rim. The two of us embrace on the summit, not yet able to believe that we have actually reached the top.
The first thing that strikes us is the enormity of the crater. It’s almost 500-meters across, and 300-meters deep. In fact, to see the bottom we have to scramble down to the edge of the cliffs. I traverse across the rim and climb up the rocks of Aguja de Hielo (‘The Ice Needle’).
After inspecting the crater we turn our attention to the surroundings. Volcán Citlaltépetl is so isolated and so elevated over everything else, it has an incredible perspective on the landscape. The effect is akin to being on an airplane. To the east, beyond the opposing wall of the crater, is an endless sea of clouds far far below us, and presumably the Gulf of México somewhere out there too. To the north is a chain of low forested mountains stretching out to the extinct Volcán Cofre de Perote (4,282-m). To the south is the deep chasm of the Cañon del Río Blanco, and only clouds beyond that.
The most impressive view is to the west, where we can see hundreds of kilometers across the Mexican Altiplano. A smattering of lava domes and cinder cones lead out to the extinct Volcán Matlalcueitl (4,461-m). On the horizon beyond Puebla stand side-by-side the two most recognizable mountains in México: the active, cone-shaped Volcán Popocatépetl (5,450-m) and the extinct, rugged Volcán Iztaccihuatl (5,240-m). The latter is noted for having an appearance similar to a woman lying down. From left to right (south to north): feet, knees, hips, stomach, breasts, and head. Her hair trails off to the north.
We turn north to descend the glacier. We encounter one other pair of climbers on the mountain, who warn us to be careful on the descent due to the durable nature of the ice. We take it easy but still make good time, reaching the sunlight on the lower slopes and appreciating everything in the glory of day. As if in joyful celebration, Volcán Popocatépetl exhales a small puff of dark-grey ash.
Frank is waiting for us at high camp. He did not make it past 5,100-ft but is happy to congratulate us on our success.
Giselle and I thaw our clothes, chomp on carrots, and pack up camp. By noon, we’re twisting our way down El Laberínto with our spirits high.
Us two mountaineers come a-stompin’ down the stone aqueduct to the refugio. Two families are there on a day of sightseeing, and they have a few questions for us about the climb. An man from Alabama is in the hut preparing his own summit mission – he’s made three attemps already this year, but with no luck.
At 2:00pm the 4×4 arrives. We all load the gear and start bumping back down through the pine forests and cornfields to Tlachichuca.