Climbers above 16,000′ on Iztaccuatl. Active volcano Popocatepetl spews smoke from it’s summit in the background.
This article was written Zeb Blais of Alpine Mountain Works.
Holly Walker, a friend and fellow ski mountaineer, approached me this summer with the idea of skiing in Mexico. I immediately said: “That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard… When do we leave?”
So in November I found myself in Mexico with a huge ski bag and a harebrained scheme to ski the 3rd highest peak in North America, Pico De Orizaba. Most people looked at me quizzically when I explained this plan to them…”you can ski in Mexico?”. The answer is yes!…sort of.
The only really ski-able mountain is Orizaba. The skiing extends from the summit, around 18,500′, and ends at about 16,000′ with a 2,000′ descent on foot to the Piedra Grande hut. Skiing at 18,500′ is never amazing, often terrifying and sometimes impossible.
But even if it wasn’t possible to ski, we would get in some great climbing and travelling. Mexico has amazing food, outstanding architecture, rich history, a whole lot of nice people, and some huge volcanic mountains. I couldn’t pass it up. We would take our chances lugging our skis across the country for the chance to find ski-able snow.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is a prime example of Mexico City architecture.
18,500′ is a long way up there and the air ain’t exactly thick. To acclimatize and enjoy Mexico a bit we planned to climb some of the smaller volcanoes before tackling the big one. Having flexibility in our schedule allowed us to go to Nevado de Toluca, La Melinche, and Iztaccihuatl before arriving at our ski destination, Orizaba.
Holly Walker looks into Lago Del Sol from the summit crater of Nedado de Toluca. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Nevado de Toluca (15,354′) is a bit out of the way, but worth the trip if you have an extra day or two. It sits a couple hours west of Mexico City, while all the other peaks are east. It’s easy to get to from Mexico City and provides a nice acclimatization hike with fun 3rd class scrambling and a couple 4th class rock climbing moves. Holly and I climbed to the summit and circumnavigated the crater, a fun movement exercise over rock and talus.
A perfect acclimatizing peak: La Melinche. Photo: Zeb Blais.
After Toluca, we headed east for 14,640′ La Melinche and 17,160′ Izta, as climbers typically abbreviate it. Although, the climbing is not very technical on either of these peaks the views are spectacular and the flow of the climbing keeps it fun.
Izta from the trailhead. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Popocatepetl, Mexico’s second highest peak after Orizaba, is hyperactive and has a constant tower of smoke rising from it’s smoldering caldera. In the early morning hours of the climb on Izta, the orange blaze from the lava illuminates the smoke. It’s worth the climb just for that view!
Lava lights up the smoke pouring out of Popocatepetl. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Despite the roller-coaster ride of multiple false summits on Izta, the climbing is really enjoyable. The terrain is constantly changing and if the mountain isn’t engulfed in clouds the views are spectacular from every point.
A friendly Izta local looks back at smoking Popotepetl. She followed us all the way to the top! Photo: Zeb Blais.
The true summit of Izta is just a handful of false summits away. Photo: Zeb Blais.
With a few high altitude peaks under out belts, Holly and I made our way to the final destination: Pico De Orizaba. Orizaba, understandably altered to a gringo-friendly, pronounceable form from it’s native name of Citlaltepetl, stands at 18,491′. This stat is according to Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. Others, claim it is lower or higher, but the bottom line is it’s a long way up there.
Jaquin enjoys his job. He’s been doing it for 50 years! Photo: Zeb Blais.
The left side is still ok. Photo: Zeb Blais.
We began the climb with a 4×4 ride from Joaquin Conchola Limon in Tlachichuca to the Piedra Grande hut at just under 14,000′. The hut is a massive building that sleeps up to 60 climbers with ear plugs. Without ear plugs, no one sleeps.
The Piedra Grande Hut. Es Muy Grande! Photo: Zeb Blais.
The accommodation is basic, just large wooden bunks stacked 3 high on one side of a massive open room. The 4×4 lift made it easy to get comfortable. We hauled in a large two-burner propane stove, all the water we could drink and a nice fresh meal of quesadillas, carne asada, vegetables and guacamole.
Lucking out after a night of rain and sleet, we awoke to beautiful, clear skies. The climb follows a trail to a section of bedrock known as The Labrynth. It becomes clear why it’s called this as soon as you get into the jumbles of steep rock, scree and snow chutes. We were glad to be navigating with clear skies.
Holly makes her way out of the Labyrinth onto the Jamapa Glacier above 16,000′. Photo: Zeb Blais.
After ascending the Labyrinth, we were on a straightforward snow slope the rest of the way. We opted to leave the skins in town and bootpack the Jamapa Glacier. In hindsight, it might have been doable with ski crampons, but we felt like we made a good choice to save the weight and walk it all.
The Jamapa Glacier Route. Almost too straightforward. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Grinding out the last 2,500′ of the increasingly steep Jamapa Glacier is a chore, but a good high altitude test. The 38 degree slopes provide a good challenge and don’t provide a great place stop and take breaks, so the stretches of climbing were long.
We were excited to find the snow on the northeast side of the mountain to be ski worthy and smooth. Yes, it was a touch on the firm side, but edgeable, rimed, windboard is about as good as it gets here and we were happy enough that it wasn’t a sheet of blue ice.
Holly making her way up to the summit ridge. Photo: Zeb Blais.
After a finally besting the never ending slope of the Jamapa, we landed on the summit ridge. We took a quick food and water break and continued the last couple hundred vertical feet to the true summit where we were greeted by two Mexicans that had ascended the south side. They took our picture on top, and didn’t mention their concerns about the sanity of these two gringos that had just lugged their skis to the top of such a high, icy peak.
Holly and Zeb prepping for some me flat light windboard skiing.
A few icy turns later and we were back down into the Labyrinth, making our way back to Piedra Grande.
Holly doing for some me flat light windboard skiing. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The skiing wasn’t anything to write home about, but the climbing and adventure of the trip was well worth it! Exploring Mexico and climbing these peaks is a unique, fun challenge. It’s a great way to experience Mexican culture and get some high altitude experience.
For more information on this trip or to organize a guided trip of your own, email firstname.lastname@example.org.