At 5748 m, Pico de Orizaba (Citlatepetl) is the highest mountain in Mexico and 3rd highest in all North America. Seven nights in Mexico City (2200 m) during the supercomputing meeting provided a reasonable amount of acclimatization, albeit without any physical exertion. It was remarkable that nobody there were able to tell me how to get close to the mountain [Fred Becky's book gives the name of last main village]. Arriving at the huge bus station of Puebla, a friendly local suggested asking the police for connection to Tlachichuca. My query was overheard by a woman leaving the office who said "I am going there now", and so my big problem was resolved by luck. She even presented me with the card of her father who is one of two local guides; in fact Joachim Limon is featured in Becky's book, so what more could I want? It is a two hour bus trip, with standing room only, so I miss out on seeing the landscape. Joachim turns out to be a true mountaineer and we spend the evening looking at books and discussing alpine matters; he has several good sketches of the local route and has reached the summit 27 times as a guide.
After breakfast we set off in his big truck for the mountain. The road is quite rough and we pass a few primitive villages; Hidalgo at 3500 m is the highest in North America. The total distance to the hut at Piedra Grande is 36 km according to Joachim (guide book says 23). I don't succeed in getting him to drop me off before we get high; in the end I am left with a leisurely hour's walk to the hut at 4200 m, having spent the night at 2500 m. Being a Sunday, one must expect to see other people at the hut but fortunately the two resident cars leave soon. The peace is temporarily disturbed by a group coming to paint the large hut (60 places). I retreat to a small shelter only to find a Japanese who has walked up from Hidalgo, planning the climb next morning. Unfortunately he does not have a cooker either, so my emergency soups and tea remain untouched while I make do with biscuits and cheese.
Next morning does not go according to plan. We don't wake until 5.30 by which time it is too late; in my case this was caused by slow digestion at the higher altitude. The Japanese complains of head-ache and decides to go down, being out of time. I spend most of the day in a beautiful wood at 4000 m, with my solitude only interrupted by the occasional bird. This is a good opportunity to watch the clouds build up on the peak by noon, but even so there are periods of reasonable visibility. After all, it is the rainy season as was amply demonstrated in Mexico City and even on my arrival at Tlachichuca, and this keeps the climbers away. Not to be embarrassed by another late start, I am in my bag by 6 and this time there is no problem in getting deep sleep.
I leave the shelter at 4; the first part of the marked trail is bathed in moon-shine but the torch has to be used further up. After two hours I reach the first snow, just above a campsite. However, there are rocks on the skyline and the thought of having to remove the crampons again makes me decide on following the scree slope instead. Getting up after some effort, I realize it was a mistake since the glacier proper begins at once. Putting on crampons at 4900 m, I feel quite weak after the meagre breakfast but only carry a few biscuits to sustain the advance. The first part of the standard route is done by contouring while gaining height slowly. Although the weather is still perfect, I place some wands in case of bad visibility on descent; there is an ominous spectacle of lightning clouds in the distance. Having gone far enough over to avoid some large crevasses, I head straight up for the crater rocks. The snow begins to get softer in the intense sun but the main cause for slowing down is due to the altitude. Towards the end I only manage about 30 steps between rests; leaning on the ice axe it is hard not to fall asleep. After six hours I finally reach the rocks and gain the crater's edge. Seeing the actual summit cross on top of a buttress gives me a nasty shock until I realize it can be avoided by contouring. A clear patch makes a nice picnic spot before the easy stroll to the summit. It is a privilege to be the only person on the whole mountain, and fresh animal tracks to the summit and down the other side adds to the excitement [a coyote traverse according to Joachim]. The altimeter reads only 5550 m, some 200 m less than the true height, but I am relieved there is no more to be done.
The way down is easy but great care must be taken to avoid slipping in the soft snow. I put my foot in a few small crevasses and even have to practise self-arrest after a sudden slip. The rocks seem so far below but Joachim told me of many fatalities due to carelessness or lack of experience. As anticipated, clouds start to develop during the glacier descent but there is no need to use the compass. This time I leave the crampons on until the last snow. The shelter is reached at 2.30; I feel very weak due to a hard day almost without food. The thought of having to spend another night in such conditions is not appealing, and one hour later I set off on the track down. Hidalgo is reached in two hours but my hope of getting a lift seems over-optimistic; it is a very primitive place. A boy on horseback directs me to a short-cut straight down to the next village which is larger. By this time it is 6.30 and my feet are quite sore after a long day in Koflach plastic boots. The last collectivo has gone and I am resigned to spending the night in a field of maize. However, I notice a truck on the road-side bearing the name of Joachim's village. On further enquiry, the driver says he is going there in five minutes, and thus my second stroke of good luck saves the day! In total the round trip from Mexico City cost me just $80, including two night's accommodation at Joachim's. I have demonstrated that it is feasible to climb Orizaba in the off season (3 August) and the solo ascent is another feather in my cap.