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The Orizaba Traverse: 230 Miles of Biking, Climbing, and Packrafting in Mexico

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Mehk, a local, and the hounds all look towards Orizaba in Aljojuca; Photograph by Jim Harris

Jim Harris is currently on a National Geographic Expeditions Council assignment with Gregg Treinish to look for wolverine DNA evidence in Mongolia. Read updates on the expedition here.

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Mehl, Tumolo, and Fassbinder paddle the Rio Antigua; Photograph by Jim Harris

Windmilling his kayak paddle into the pushy breeze, Luc Mehl, 34, pulls onto the sandbar at the mouth of Mexico’s Rio Antigua and squints at the novelty of a flat, seascape horizon in the hazy afternoon glare. Two days of sleepless dysentery have drained Mehl’s prodigious vigor and his hands are blanched and clammy as we high-five. Still, he’s grinning with accomplishment in the salt air.

Eleven days earlier we’d set out pedaling bikes strapped with mountaineering and whitewater paddling gear in Cholula de Rivadavia, a ciudad 60 miles east of Mexico City. Without ever having visited Mexico before, Mehl composed a 230-mile bike/hike/packraft triathlon first to Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet) and then descending through rain forest hamlets to a whitewater river. Now at sea level, we found the end of Mehl’s line.

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Mehl’s BMX racing roots reemerge on dusty corners; Photograph by Jim Harris

Mehl has risen to a sort of auspicious fame in his home state of Alaska. With a mind inclined toward calculations and an academic background in geophysics, Mehl scrutinizes topographic maps just for fun. In those maps he discovers long elegant, and unlikely routes. With a line drawn, he then turns his laser beam focus to traveling it. Completion of trips like his Mt Logan Traverse garner a mix of awe and envy from the cadre of wilderness adventurers who follow his exploits. I count myself among the admirers of his multisport traverses and so, without having met the great Luc Mehl, I accepted his invitation to join this trip.

Two other athletes were also enticed by Luc’s outline of a plan. Todd Tumolo, 27, and Steve Fassbinder, 38, are both veteran multisport adventurers. Tumolo’s work as a mountain guide on Denali and Fassbinder’s job building packrafts hint at just how dedicated both are to wilderness travel. Converging for the first time in the Mexico City International Airport, Mehl, Tumolo and Fassbinder are easy to spot. Each is traveling light, wearing the only set of clothes they’ve brought. Their technical fabric pants and weathered trail running shoes stand out amid the sea of loafers and slacks.

Raised in McGrath, Alaska (pop. 346), Mehl abhors urban bustle. There must have been a moment when he weighed the option of a traverse beginning at the baggage claim, but settled instead for a bus ride out of Mexico City before starting. The movie playing on little screens overhead shows hobos running to jump on a moving train but I’m watching pedestrians sprint to swing themselves on a bus moving parallel to ours. As our bus burrows into the mash of nighttime traffic, I’m glad not to be on bikes yet.

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Steve Fassbinder adjusts the derailleur on Todd Tumolo’s “Look Rich” brand bicycle; Photograph by Jim Harris

We begin the hunt for bicycles the following day in Cholula. Starting at a shop that deals expensive name brands, we work our way across town searching for bargains. I imagined finding some well-built old steeds but, with none to be found at pawnshops and used bike garages, we splurge on the cheapest new mountain bikes we can find. Though shiny, they’re already in questionable repair and we work into the night truing un-tensioned spokes and bolting on gear racks.

With packrafts rolled in tight burritos and strapped to our handlebars, we spin into the rising sun. The very first pothole loosens my handlebars from the clasp of the bike’s stem and they begin spinning. With plans to give the bikes away when we reach the headwaters of Rio Antigua, we’d sought cheap ones and hope our mechanical know-how will help us nurse them through the coming days of hard riding. We buy a properly sized bolt for my stem, and then replace Fassbinder’s too. One of Fassbinder’s crank arms doesn’t tighten to the bottom bracket. My rear tire blisters before exploding a few miles later. We pull over often to re-align shoddy parts and tighten bolts on our overloaded bicis.

Squeezed between semi trucks and tall curbs, I swerve over the remains of a dog. The next one isn’t more than a dry pancake but I cringe as I roll over the matted fur. The lanes narrow and the shoulder shrinks. I pedal past a third, fourth, fifth and sixth dead dog. One that’s hit but not yet dead watches us pass and the grim vision spins in my head. The frequency of road kill dogs becomes our litmus for how dangerous this road is. There’s no room for bikes in the slim lanes and we continue in the ditch, granny-gearing along sandy washes. When we turn onto a quieter route a dozen miles later, I’m relieved to find long intervals between both dead dogs and passing semi trucks.

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Todd Tumolo pedals switchbacks up Orizaba as the sun breaks over the horizon; Photograph by Jim Harris

Our route climbs gradually toward Pico de Orizaba. Its hazy triangle outline distills into a white pyramid as we crest the foothill town of Tlachichuca. The pavement ends more than 9,000 feet below the summit but the climb continues on a rutted road blanketed in a thick duff of powdery volcanic dust. Sweat-slick, we’re magnets for the billows of airborne ash that swirl from our feet as we push our bikes up the steep 4wd track.

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Tumolo admires the view from the flanks of Pico de Orizaba; Photograph by Jim Harris

In the thin air at 14,000 feet, we lean against the cracked stonework of Pico de Orizaba’s Piedra Grande Refugio and unbuckle the ice axes that have rattled against our bike frames for the last 70 miles. From the hut, a trail leads upward through talus and worn slabs to the shrinking glacier that cups the upper slopes of Orizaba’s cone. Mehl, Tumolo, and Fassbinder have fashioned insulated booties that fit over running shoes and under crampons. Their puffy Smurf feet look like caricatures, but their toes stay warm. Reaching the top at 9 a.m., we bask for an hour and a half in the high-watt sunshine and watch black little puffs of smoke sprout like mushrooms as trash piles are lit in villages 10,000 and 15,000 feet below.

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Climbing Orizaba; Photograph by Jim Harris

That same afternoon we are back on bikes, skidding around loose hairpins, and coasting through towns where the rubbish piles still smolder. Chickens patrol the streets and flocks of kids materialize from ditches, doorways, and alleys to chase our alien gringo bike gang. The summit’s lean atmosphere transitions to a misty fragrant one where white rivers of vapor flow up from the rain forest below. More than 12,000 feet. below our morning high point, we ask a farmer permission to camp in the rows of cornfield he’s walking.  Sure, he smiles. It’s not his field.

Rather than carry food, we buy it as we move, stopping for street tacos and eating produce right from the stand. One hungry night we buy two roasted chickens and savage them on the spot despite our filthy hands. People stare. We’re a conspicuous group and there’s no part of our appearance—from gear-laden bicycles, to Fassbinder and Tumolo’s beards, to our roadside campsites—that helps us blend in. Every day, friendly and curious strangers wave us down to ask where we’re headed. “Vamos a la playa!” becomes our slogan.

One last switchbacking descent leads to a bridge over the Rio Antigua where we plan to put in. Sixty miles and 15,000 feet down from Orizaba’s summit, we’ve taken the bikes as far as we need them. Stripped of their loads, they creak less and feel almost nimble as we pedal into a pueblo pequeño just upstream. “Qué quiere esta bicicleta?” I ask a man delivering a sack of coffee beans. Incredulous but elated, he shakes my hand between both of his then pedals off. Our bikes twirl through town under their new owners.

The final leg of Mehl’s traverse entails paddling inflatable Alpacka Raft boats 80 miles downriver to the Gulf of Mexico. The seven-pound boats are nimble, durable, and pack down to the size of a small two-person tent. In their latest incarnation, zippers in the boats’ sterns allow us to pack equipment inside before blowing them up. With camping gear stowed, the boats have a low center of gravity that adds stability and helps them punch through grabby rapids.

The first section of our float carries us down Barranca Grande canyon. There are few paths into the narrow jungle gorge and so the valley remains nearly uninhabited. Class III and IV rapids twist through deep shade of the 1,000-foot-deep corridor and we leapfrog downstream, drifting along overhanging walls shaggy with ferns. Twenty miles later, the pristine character of the river changes when the walls angle apart and tributaries carrying sewage and wastewater pour in. After each rapid, I spit river water from my compressed lips, hoping not to swallow much of it. I get involuntary sips anyway.

After our second day on the water, Mehl falls ill and spends the night retching in the bushes. The next night I take his place. Then Fassbinder. It’s impossible to pinpoint the source of our illnesses. Street meat? Unwashed produce? But the increasingly polluted river seems a probable culprit.

The Rio Antigua had grown in volume as it snaked through lush forests but as it neared the ocean, it not only became dirtier, but began shrinking too. Pumps hoovering water for pastures roar two-stroke staccato along the banks and each riffle feels shallower than the last.  We know we must be close to the Gulf when the current stalls and pelicans appear.

We hit the Gulf of Mexico 14 miles north of Veracruz and find an empty, undeveloped beach. Storms have deposited a dense confetti of sandblasted tree trunks and plastic flotsam. We clear driftwood and garbage from the lee of a cactus outcrop and construct camp.

It’s sunset and Tumolo and I are catching waves in our packrafts, sometimes riding them all the way into the beach and other times getting pummeled in the break. After 11 days spent moving towards this beach, it’s gratifying to play on it.

Long trips like this one don’t always easily fit into a neat narrative arc. Summiting Orizaba was the physical high point, but only one of many storied days. Even here at the end of Mehl’s line, it’s not really the end. Tomorrow we’ll walk and hitchhike to Veracruz and I’ll search out transport back to Mexico City. Mehl is already talking about his next adventure.