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Pico de Orizaba

“I’ve got to pee” I finally and reluctantly said. I did have to go really bad, but when you’ve got a 2,000 mile drive ahead, you try and hold it as long as possible. Andy pulled over and I was surprised to see everybody jump out of the truck, unzip and start peeing on the side of the road. You take advantage of every pit stop possible on a ski odyssey of this proportion. We were a bit outside of Moab, UT, in the middle of the desert with the white capped La Sal mountains not too far off in the distance, but those were not the mountains we were heading towards. After shaking off the dribble we all did some sprints along the highway and got back on board ready for another long stretch of road. “This is crazy”, I kept telling myself as I imagined another 30 hours straight in the car. I know, this doesn’t sound like the standard beginning of a ski trip, that’s good, because this wasn’t the “standard” skiing road trip. I mean, one doesn’t just decide to drive from Salt Lake City to Mexico for a “quick” trip to climb and ski Pico de Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America. Or do you?

 

Earlier that day we had been just outside of Evanston, Wyoming on our way from Salt Lake City, where we all live, to Jackson Hole to try and squeeze in a day or two of steep skiing before the temperatures were predicted to rise considerably. Spring skiing is tricky business, a few degrees here or there can make or break the day. For some reason co-pilot Jason Dorais was on the interweb as we drove and out of nowhere, he informed us that Pico de Orizaba was forecast to get ten inches of snow over the next few days. For some reason this made Andy Dorais pull over. And then somehow a discussion began about going to ski in Mexico instead of the Tetons.

 

Jackson, or Mexico?

In April I had decided to abort an Alaskan expedition to stay and ski in the lower 48 because the Central Range in AK had been unusually dry. Meanwhile, everywhere in the contiguous states was thick with snow. So, my radar had been focused on Colorado, the Sierra, the PNW and Montana. The Dorais Brothers were on the same program, or so I thought. The 18,000 foot Pico De Orizaba that happens to be 2,200 miles away was never a blip on my radar. Not once! Yet, here we were, in Wyoming, actually- here they were- discussing the idea of driving south of the border to ski powder. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word preposterous, but it seems fitting to use it now in describing the situation I was now part of. I heard the words they spoke, but it didn’t seem real. I didn’t think they were serious, despite how seriously they calculated fuel costs and driving times. It was Wednesday and they needed to be back to work on Monday. Plenty of time they figured!

 

I consider myself open minded and up for adventure. I’ve hitchhiked solo around the western U.S. I “quit” life and followed a guru around for a year working on nothing but dissolving my beliefs and experimented with many mind expanding substances. Hell, I’ve even been on some nutty ski trips before. But, for some reason this just seemed truly crazy. Even after Andy and Jason offered to pay for all the gas it didn’t seem like a good idea. Somehow and for some reason though as we drove back through Salt Lake City, I ended up grabbing my passport, kissed my girlfriend goodbye and I met back up with the fellas as we re-packed and headed south, far south.

 

Alpine start

Turns out Andy and Jason Dorais pride themselves in not just being endurance athletes, but endurance drivers. They once drove almost non-stop from Alaska to SLC where Jason dropped off Andy and then drove 20 hours straight to Ohio just in time to slip into class for his first day of medical school. No big deal. So here we were plunging along into the night along with Joey Campanelli who had never skied much of anywhere outside of upper Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch. I wrestled with pillows and sleep in the back seat while Jason was back on the internet, this time using his powers for good, not evil (He must have been having the same fear and loathing of the 30 hours ahead) Turns out he was checking the cost of flights out of Albuquerque into Mexico. We determined that the $400 round trip airline tickets he found were about equivalent to the amount of pesos we would end up paying in gas. And it would give us an extra two days time as well as literally saving our asses. I blurted out, “Yes, we’re doing it”! I was over playing it cool or pretending I was excited about 60 hours of driving. Think about it, 60 hours, that’s a week and a half of work (for people that have 9-5 jobs). There was a little reluctance from Andy and Jason who were still romanticizing the idea of driving, but they consented. Joey was just psyched to be outside of his home terrain and he thought this was just how every ski trip goes down. I told him it most definitely was not.

 

After arriving in Mexico City we rented an all wheel drive Subaru and got the hell out of town. We drove south through traffic and some tire fires from an apparent riot we had just missed. The customary approach to the mountain is via jeep ride from Tlachichuca, we decided to bypass the customary approach and base out of Coscomatepec de Bravo and drive to the trailhead ourselves.

 

The summit and the skiable upper mountain

We woke up at 3 am on summit day and drove through misty mountain roads lined with shacks, donkeys and even people waiting for the bus. They were up dark and early so they could catch a ride into the larger nearby towns. At one point the clouds were so thick we were creeping along at 10mph. Jason had his head out the window while we all peered at the side of the road helping to alert him to the edges when they became visible. The pavement then ended and the rough dirt road began. Long switchbacks across the mountain allowed the Subaru to gain elevation. We occasionally came upon large immovable boulders that could have shut us down had they been properly placed, but luckily we found the room to weave around and through them.

 

It was still dark when we arrived at the Piedra Grande Refugio located at 14,000 feet. This is the end of the road and the beginning of the trail. Many people spend a night here, hike up to 16,000 feet to acclimate, return to the hut and then go for the summit the next day. No time for that for us, our acclimatization plan was Diamox. I had a few pills left over from skiing Denali in 2005 that I had been administering over the last two days. There were no cars and there didn’t seem to be anybody at the hut. We packed up and headed out, traveling light. The trail is well marked with stacked stones and I led the way since I had been there before. I had come to Pico in 2000 on my first ever ski expedition. Unfortunately then, there was no snow. We hiked up to find 2 foot tall penitentes, so we ditched our skis and summited without making any turns. That was a lifetime and many expeditions ago. Back then it had seemed like a huge ordeal. All the preparations, logistics and effort that went into it. Now we were just making a weekend out of it.

The ground that reaches to the clouds

It’s rare I end up in front when hiking and skinning with these speed demons. But on that day it was exactly because I’m slow that they put me out front. The hope was that our mild effort would lessen the effects of altitude. The plan was for me to lead the mild pace so nobody blew themselves up racing up the mountain, which often happens among competitive brothers like the Dorais and extremely fast youngsters like Joey.

 

We encountered patches of new snow after an hour or so of hiking, which was a good sign. The climbing became steeper and the light became lighter and magnificent. Right around sunrise we reached the base of the Jampa Glacier and switched over from booting to skinning. The first morning light was so beautiful it was hard to keep moving, even for this crew that rarely stops for anything. Everybody felt fine and we were making good time. It was great to finally be on snow, but we discovered only a trace of fresh on top of an old firm base. Our dreams of #mexipow were dashed, but that’s the way the churro crumbles.

 

Volcanoes have a way of providing what might be called a “summit mirage” (maybe there’s a real name for it). High up on the mountain, the slope angle and distance is such that it creates the illusion that you’re not very far off, almost there in fact. However, some time later you’re still plodding along looking at the same damn lump ahead of you and experiencing the same mind fuck. Orizaba was happy to provide a short spell of this. Our pace slowed down and the last few hundred feet delivered some shortness of breath and that high altitude fatigue.

Summit pose

On the summit we took in all the view and there was plenty of them. Then the obligatory high fives and selfies around the mangled pile of metal crosses that has formed into a post apocalyptic modern art installation for Christians. Well worth the price of admission.

 

We clicked into our skis and connected together a few dirty patches of snow allowing us to descend off the summit. The route stays near the crater rim and then back onto the wide open glacier. The snow was mostly firm and not exactly easy or fun in the way a skiing run can be “fun”. But I’ve noticed that most of the time on exotic ski trips, the context overrides conditions. The fact that we were in Mexico on the third highest peak in North America with a group of friends sliding on frozen snow won out over the fact that is was a little bumpy. After ten or twenty turns each, our legs would lock up and we would lay down to recover. It was funny skiing our way down through each other this way. And I must admit it was good to see the Dorais brothers feeling gassed for once. Again, not anywhere near the ten inches of snow we had allowed ourselves to dream about, but it was damn good to be back and able to actually ski the mountain this time.

It wasn’t the powder we had hoped for, but it was still the best skiing in Mexico

Looking back on how we had come to be here, we realized that this trip wouldn’t have and couldn’t have happened any other way. Without the hope of powder we probably wouldn’t have signed on and there’s no way we would have flown directly from SLC. Each little carrot was perfectly placed in front of us at just the right time and proper distance to draw us deeper and further into the Mexican rabbit hole. During the rest of our travels we continued to debate and discuss among our team the quality of travel and adventure between driving the entire way versus having flown. The difference in having some time to actually interact and enjoy the country instead of racing through it. Maybe I’m just getting old, but as we strolled over the cobbled streets of the lovely cliche of a Mexican mountain town while eating pan dulce instead of cramming into the back seat of a truck for 30 hours, the answer was clear to me that we had chosen wisely.

Descending to the hut

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Noah Howell

Noah Howell

What is your favorite part of a big day in the backcountry?

Besides all the exploration, inspiration, exhilaration and face shots, taking off my boots at the end of the day is my favorite part of an epic outing.

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