"Star Mountain" stands out in a chain of volcanic peaks.
Rising more than 18,400 feet on the border between Mexico's Puebla and Veracruz states, Pico de Orizaba claims two superlatives: the tallest mountain in Mexico, and the tallest volcano in North America.
It's also very prominent in the landscape, potentially visible from ships in the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles away.
Orizaba, also known as Citlaltépetl, "Star Mountain," in the indigenous Nahuatl language, is a logical destination for international climbers. It's majestic, well-traversed, and—near to both Puebla City and Mexico City—very accessible. (Plan a visit to Mexico City.)
Which is not to say climbing Orizaba is a low-risk activity. It's had fatalities as recently as a few months ago.
Climbing partners Jeven Dovey and Carlos Bonilla met while making an ascent of Mount Rainier, and they have summited other peaks in the Cascades. (Explore skiing on Mount Rainier.) Confident in each other's support, they decided to make a trip to two of Mexico's mountains their first international foray, and their highest attempts to date.
The guided RMI Expedition, led Mike King, also included an attempt at Iztaccíhuatl—Izta for short—just outside Mexico City. Like Orizaba, Izta is part of the long Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Both volcanoes are dormant, unlike the very active Popocatépetl, adjacent to Itza.
But the Izta climb had to stop 1,000 feet short of the summit. The time it would have taken to complete the trek would have left the party exposed during an oncoming storm. The guides had been caught in an electrical storm before, and there was no question that the disappointing choice was also the right one.
The weather was much better for the push up Orizaba (relatively speaking: the temperature was 10 degrees Fahrenheit). To keep the elements on their side, the party took what's known as an Alpine start, setting off in the middle of the night, to get the best chance at avoiding storms, which are more likely to hit later in the day in some ranges. The early start comes at the price of exhaustion at altitude, still a challenge even after some days of acclimating.
However, the biggest challenge they could have faced would have been no precipitation at all. It had been a dry season, making the glacier they'd need to ascend a sheet of blue ice, and too risky to take to the top. The alternate route, covered in loose rocks, or scree, had its own dangers, which Dovey could anticipate. On a previous climb, an encounter with a falling rock would have knocked him off the mountain, had he been alone. Bonilla proved himself a literal life-saver on that trip.
It snowed while the team was at Orizaba's basecamp, so the climb could proceed, no longer facing a bare, slick glacier. (Learn about glacier climbing in Iceland.)
A benefit of the early start was hitting the crater, just below the summit, in the morning sun, for a spectacular view. From there, a smaller contingent—Dovey, Bonilla, and their new friend Seth Redden—pushed on to the summit with King, with the reward of a full 360 panorama, and an emotional rush. In all, the ascent took about eight hours.
Dovey wanted to share the videos of his experience to encourage others to take on similar challenges. Mountain climbing hadn't been a part of his life growing up, and he now appreciates the chance to reach what lies beyond. (Learn one way to get started in mountain climbing.) And taking the guided trip not only provided success, but also the right kind of failure, knowing when the risk is too great.
Next up for Bonilla, Dovey, and Redden: Ecuador's Cotopaxi—altitude 19,300 feet.
READY to take on Orizaba? Follow in these mountaineers' footsteps.
Or compare this climb to other legendary peaks.
- Nat Geo Expeditions