(Tlachichuca is pronounced: T-la-chi-choo-ka. Pico De Orizaba translates to the ‘peak of Orizaba’. Orizaba is a city near the peak.)
I mentioned in the post before I left why I chose to climb Pico De Orizaba: It is the highest peak in North America doable around November. There was another reason though. In the final hours of my trip to Peru while I was at the Lima airport, I met a Mexican guy about my age. He worked for an NGO in Mexico and was in Peru for a conference. He gathered that I liked to trek and said, “Hey you should come to Mexico to climb Pico De Orizaba.” And just like that, Pico De Orizaba was on my to-do list.
I would have loved to consult him for my itinerary but all I had was his first name, Jose. (In Latin America, that’s the information equivalent of not knowing his name.)
This was the least planned of all my solo trips. I had tickets to and from Mexico 10 days apart. I had roughly 80 hours to plan and climb Pico De Orizaba after I landed in Mexico. I had a ticket to Cancun (a beach town on the east coast of Mexico) for 3 days in between. This was all the information I had before I left. Not planning further turned out to be a good decision — probably the best as I would learn later.
Most of my hiking/travelling shopping was done before Peru. I only needed to pack my bags this time around. Pico De Orizaba requires mountaineering gear as the trail crosses a glacier and much of the hike is through snow and ice. I carried winter clothing (snow jackets, ski pants, gloves, ear-muffs, ski socks), but I didn’t have to carry crampons, boots and ice-axe; I was renting them at Tlachichuca.
The rest of the packing was simple: Light clothes (track pants, shorts; no jeans), music on the phone and a pair of slippers.
I worked from home on Friday, the 19th of Nov., so I could also take care of last minute preparations, or as I call them: preparations. Late afternoon, I was dropped off at the airport. My flight was delayed by an hour because of bad weather at San Francisco. The connecting flight was from Dallas and the original layover was an hour an a half. Now it would be 30 mins. The American Airlines representative was quite helpful. She double booked me, meaning she *also* booked me on another flight from Dallas to Mexico City for the next morning. Taking the morning flight would mean precious hours were being cut from the 80 hours I had to climb Pico De Orizaba — but I had no other choice.
We vilify airlines all the time, so let me commend American Airlines for being helpful when it wasn’t expected of them.
The morning flight wasn’t needed. A half-mile sprint at Dallas airport and I made it to the gate of my next flight. I was the last to board before they shut the door. I just wasn’t sure about my checked-in luggage. It made the flight too.
Since I had been traveling for the past few months, I wasn’t as excited to go to Mexico as others wanted me to be. It was another routine travel (This sounds obnoxious, but it’s not. I’m just trying to reason the lack of excitement.) The impending trip didn’t even figure in my scheme of things as I was swamped with work for a few days before I left. Further, Mexico wasn’t something I had planned months ago and was looking forward to. It was put together a couple of weeks ago.
Only when my flight started to land at Mexico City, the feeling started to sink in: I was in an unknown land for 10 days with a 19,000 ft. peak to summit, alone. And I didn’t know the language.
The flight reached Mexico City at 12.45 a.m. on Saturday. The airport looked somewhere between a U.S. airport and the Lima airport, which in turn was between a U.S. airport and an Indian airport. Do the mental math. I reached immigration just before the counter shut down at 1 a.m. I didn’t have to apply for a visa beforehand: Indian passport holders with a valid U.S. visa don’t need one for Mexico. I handed my passport to the officer.
“Aah, Deepak! La Deepak Chopra!!”
Mexico was more dangerous than I thought. Deepak Chopra was famous here.
(This would be the first of five “Oh! Like Deepak Chopra?”s I heard in Mexico. The guy is wildly popular in Mexico — or in Deepak Chopra’s words: The infinite consciousness of the finite minds of beings in Mexico were conscious of a quantum of Deepak Chopra’s works.)
I asked, ‘Is he well-known here?’
‘Yes, my wife has read his book.’ (The first of three “My wife has read his book.”s).
He was curious (not as an immigration officer) why I was traveling alone. I must have given him one of the several answers I have for that question. The real answer is somewhere between ‘I like to travel alone’ and ‘I don’t like to travel with others’.
Next, I took directions from the officer for the bus terminal located at the airport. The first bus, wise folks online had said, wasn’t until 6 a.m. My plan was to sleep at the airport for the next 5 hours — fresh with the Lima airport experience and the website http://www.sleepinginairports.net/ (That’s a real website that you ought to read if you plan to sleep at airports).
The itinerary I had in mind for the hike was:
Take the 6 a.m. bus from Mexico City to Puebla, the 8 a.m. bus from Puebla to Tlachichuca, rest in Tlachichuca for the remainder of the day and hitch a ride for the base camp the next day. This was planned before I checked out trip reports of Pico De Orizaba. Two days before leaving, I realized that Pico De Orizaba was not going to be trivial. The number one reason for failed attempts was lack of acclimation.
Acclimation is your body (lungs mainly) getting used to the low oxygen at higher altitudes. The only known way of acclimation is by spending enough time or sleeping at high altitudes. Breathing exercises and drinking plenty of water helps, but nothing beats spending time.
For perspective, 12,000+ ft. is considered high altitude, 17,000+ ft. is considered extreme altitude. Remember all the while that Mt. Everest is at 28,000+ ft.
So I figured I should leave for the base camp on the 20th night itself — the same night instead of the next morning. This would give me an additional night’s sleep at the base camp. The base camp is a two hour ride from Tlachichuca. It’s really just a hut at 14,000 ft. called Piedra Grande. Hikers stay here before making the summit attempt. I needed the extra acclimation because I was going straight from sea level (San Francisco) to 18,500 ft in one push.
Back at the Mexico City airport, I walked to the bus terminal. I was told the first bus to Puebla was at 2.30 a.m. (and not as 6 a.m. as I had read). I booked my ticket, and walked back to the airport terminal. The food court was open, and there were about 20 travelers eating, sleeping or recharging their electronics. I ordered a sandwich at the first food-stall that had vegetarian food. The sandwich was just okay, not great. (Vegetarianism is my choice and I’m okay with eating to live when I travel. Vegetarianism does seem elitist at times, and I’m never morally righteous about it. I just treat it as any other personal choice.)
I found a spot under a pillar and got an hour’s sleep. I woke at 2.25 a.m. and walked to the waiting bus. It was a comfortable, cushioned bus (first-class) and I dozed off within minutes. The bus reached Puebla in 2 hours as promised. My next bus wasn’t until 6 a.m. so I toggled between sleep and observing people. Puebla is a small town, and the demographic at the bus terminus was representative of what I would see throughout my trip: Most women were beautiful (and curvy), most men were macho — mustaches were quite common — and most kids were doing what kids do at 4 a.m.: Not letting their parents sleep.
I forced myself to sleep lest I ruin my body clock.
The next bus was a ‘second-class bus’. I boarded it and gave the driver a printout of where I wanted to be dropped off: Right outside the agency with whom I had booked mountaineering equipment, stay and a 4X4 ride to the base camp. Their place was called Hotel Canchola. A couple of hours later, I was at the main entrance of their hotel.
Next part here.