On October 20, 1988, from the summit of Popocatepetl, I looked to the northeast and could see the massif of Citlaltepetl or Pico de Orizaba as it is more popularly called. Like Popo' it too is has the typical characteristics of a stratovolcano but it has the distinction of being not only the highest mountain in Mexico but also the highest volcano in North America. Furthermore, it is the third highest mountain (5,611m/18,410ft) in North America with only Denali (in Alaska) and Mount Logan (in Canada) exceeding it in height. Citlaltepetl is the eastern most volcano in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Chain and is located on a major fault that marks the Altiplano from the Mexican Gulf coastal plain. The oldest rocks found on Citlaltepetl are 1.5 million years old and the volcano is made up mostly of andesite, however, about 100,000 years ago the composition shifted to dacite and tephra due to volcanic activity. The mountain last erupted in 1687, producing a small volume of gray ash but there have been major eruptions in the last 13,000 years that have sent pyroclastic flows down the volcano. These flows were often channelled into river valleys and towards population centres. Typically these eruptions have occurred every 1,000 to 2,000 years in the past, however, the last large eruption with pyroclastic flows was 3,400 years ago. Volcanologists are predicting that future eruptions will probably also include highly mobile pyroclastic flows. Although the mountain is considered safe when comparing it to neighbouring Popocatepetl it is not dead but just dormant and is waiting for the day it can vent its anger once again on the surrounding countryside. Hopefully scientist will have collected enough data to be able predict and warn residents well ahead of time that the volcano is in an agitated state.
Pico de Orizaba and the surrounding 19,601 hectares is in the State of Puebla and was decreed a National Park on January 4, 1937, under the administration of President Lazaro Cardenas. In Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, Citlaltepetl means "Star Mountain" and it has become a prerequisite for many aspiring Mexican climbers as well as North Americans who, for their first time, are attempting a 5,000 metre mountain. Unfortunately, Mexican's can't claim the first ascent of their mountain. While occupying the city of Orizaba as a part of General Scott's army in the war with Mexico, American Lieutenant W.F. Raynolds organized an expedition consisting of eight army officers, two navy officers and thirty-six enlisted men. The party ascended from the southeast via a route known as "El Perfil del Diablo". On May 10, 1848, Raynolds, Maynard, and three soldiers erected a makeshift American flag on the summit in order to mark the first ascent. In 1851, doubting that Raynolds had really made the ascent, a group of forty Mexican residents and a couple of Frenchman attempted to climb the peak. The summit was reached by a lone Frenchman, A. Doignon, who found a tattered American flag with "1848" whittled into its shaft.
While descending Popocatepetl, Geoff Mahan and I talked about making an attempt on Orizaba while the weather was holding. After spending another night at Tlamacas, we got a ride down to Amecameca and then caught a bus to Chaluco. With us were also two Americans: Rob and Joey who we had met at Tlamacas. Eventually we reached the city of Puebla and after getting lockers for our packs we went into town. Rob decided to come with us to Orizaba while Joey chose the warmer climate of the beach. We had lunch in town, bought some food and then went back out to the bus station, got our packs, and caught the 4 p.m. bus to San Salvador el Seco. We thought that this town was the end of the line for the bus so just as we were about to get off someone asked if we intended to climb Orizaba and if we were we should stay on the bus and get off at Tlachichuca. So, we got back on, paid a few more Pesos and stayed on until we arrived in Tlachichuca. As we got off the bus a couple of local guys approached us and after chatting they said we could stay the night in their building for free. They were in the Pumice stone business and although they had no beds but we could sleep anywhere on the floor. By now it was late evening so we all went down to a local restaurant to eat where they bought us dinner. Always on the lookout for scam-artists there was something about them that made us feel they were genuine and as our luck would have it they were.
The next morning while they were out doing business we searched around for a vehicle to take us up onto the mountain. Eventually we found Joaquim Limon who runs a well-known climbers hostel and will take climbers up to the hut in his 4X4 for US$50 (1988 prices), whether it is two or six people, which included the return trip the next day. That afternoon we shared the ride up with three Mexican climbers. It was quite a long drive and would have been a long, dusty walk if it were not for the ride. After passing through a fragrant pine forest the mountain's northern aspect came into view as we gained elevation. It looked impressive but for some reason it didn't look as high as Popo' to us. At the end of the road near Piedra Grande were two huts: a large hut and a smaller one, and we claimed the smaller of the two. That afternoon we lounged in the sun, staying hydrated and eating, and then as the sun set we lit a fire outside and roasted potatoes with the Mexicans. It was a bright, moonlit night so we stayed up until about 10 p.m and then went to bed but since we were at 4,200m I didn't get much sleep.
At 2:35 a.m. my alarm went off and Geoff, Rob and I were ready to leave by 3:30. After hiking up about twenty minutes we stopped and hid what we weren't carrying up the mountain. We had been warned by Joaquim that kids come up in the morning and raid the huts for any gringo goodies. After gradually climbing on a trail up scree slopes for two hours we arrived at the snow and put on boots and crampons. We then raced up onto a nearby ridge to catch a fantastic red sunrise over the lush tropical forests that slope down to the Gulf of Mexico. The light created a soft subtle rosy pink glow on the on the snow above. The snow of the Glacier de Jamapa was in prefect conditions and we were able to climb quickly, our crampons giving us confidence as they bit into the firm, crisp ice. Geoff and I were starting to feel acclimatized! There was no need to rope up as the ascent wasn't very steep and there weren't any crevasses about. At 9:30 a.m., after six hours of climbing, we arrived on the summit and were able to look over the rim of the crater into the lake below. Being early in the morning the skies were clear and visibility was good in all directions and we snapped away taking photos of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl in the distance. It was October 23 and just three days ago we had been on the top of Popo' at almost exactly the same time.
After about half an hour on the summit, Rob eventually arrived, and then a few minutes later all three of us began the descent. During the descent the clouds moved in and the views disappeared but we had seen what we wanted. As usual the endorphins were flowing through us and we were experiencing a climber's high - even the descent wasn't deflating our spirits! Shortly after arriving at the hut Joaquim arrived and took us back down to Tlachichuca where we caught the next bus to Puebla. We arrived in Puebla late at night and it took us a while to find a hotel and get something to eat. We had been too rushed to get to Orizaba after climbing Popo' that we didn't have time to celebrate our ascent but tomorrow, after a well deserved sleep, we would be celebrating climbing Mexico's two highest mountains. Those Corona's had better be cold!