Atop Orizaba


Summiting the Mexican Volcanoes with a Knoxville Crew

Popocatepetl was blowing smoke rings like a fifties French movie star. This volcano cut a menacing triangle across the entirety of Mexico with a halo crown of billowing fumes, off limits to all aspiring climbers. It rumbled occasionally like my stomach as we gained elevation on neighboring Iztaccihuatl, “Popo’s” ill- fated paramour. Legend says that Iztaccihuatl committed suicide after learning of the death her beloved Popo in battle. My group of eight threaded through a cloud forest to an elevation of 13,800 feet. Here we bathed in the evolutionary landscape that peeked beneath errant rays of sun.

We had already summited La Malinche, clearly visible across the plain. Locals named her after the Aztec lover of explorer Hernando Cortes who fathered one of her children. My own children (clients) were feeling the effects of altitude this day as we transitioned from the tree line to scree field. After gaining a rocky precipice and negotiating some class 3 scrambling at 14,400 feet, our team was higher than any peak in the continental US. Kerina Mitchell spied our ultimate objective in the far distance, Citlaltepetl, also known as Orizaba. Snow was all we could register on her back across the high plains of central Mexico. 

Fully acclimatized now, we waved goodbye to historic Puebla with its beautiful zocalo and cathedrals. Our group of eight motored toward Tlachichuca and the hospitality of the Concholas, my adopted Mexican family. Patriarch, Joaquin Concholas, speaks little English but hugged me as would a father for his prodigal son of five years. 

Orizaba was dominating the skyline here in this small village in middle Mexico. Dogs ran the streets with us, and I befriended  a four-year-old named Juan. Remarkable is the candor and love that locals show us Gringos as we meander alleyways. The following morning saw us boarding Jeeps for a two-hour off-road event that would carry us five thousand feet up to the Jose Rivas Refugio. 

Alpine starts mean a midnight wake up. Stoves hummed as headlamps bobbled around the hut. Attrition had whittled our group somewhat as two of our brood decided to remain with the comfort of the Concholas and their infamous mole sauce. As we climbed into a star filled night, six hours put us at the foot of the Jamapa glacier donning crampons and roping up with local guides. It was cold and I dug deeply for my parka. One of our team decided this was his high point and descended safely with assistance as Orizaba’s shadow emerged with the sun.

At 8.45 am, Patrick Caveney, Kerina Mitchell, Richard Hatten, and I gained the final steps to 18,400 feet, North America’s third highest prominence. As the sun rose, so did our spirits in the shadows of Popo, Izzta and La Malinche who winked at us across the glowing desert. 

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