Journey to the Summit of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s Tallest Mountain

sunrise from the top of pico de orizaba
Sunrise at the summit casts a conical shadow to the horizon. (Image Credit: Joel Scheingross)

The Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico. It is also the third highest in North America rising 5,636 metres (18,491 ft). Once an active volcano, it is currently dormant but not extinct. Its last eruption took place during the 19th century. It is also the second most prominent volcanic peak, second only to Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

hikers up the side of mountain
A climbing party ascends the Orizaba glacier. (Image credit: Patrick Sanan)

Pico de Orizaba attracts a sizable number of tourist climbers annually. Jeff Marlow, a graduate student in Geological and Planetary Sciences from the California Institute of Technology and Wired Blogger was one recent trekker, obviously mesmerized by the stratovolcano. It’s barely past 1:45 am, and he narrates,

“I’m in southern Mexico, on the flanks of the continent’s third tallest mountain, preparing for a summit attempt with fellow climbers Patrick Sanan, Joel Scheingross, and Josh Zahl. We had left the oxygen-dense altitudes of southern California just two days earlier, and I was skeptical of my body’s ability to handle such a quick displacement to Orizaba’s 18,500-foot summit. But the sky was clear and everyone was feeling good: there was no time to waste.”

ascending pico de orizaba glacier at dawn
Ascending the glacier at dawn. (Image credit: Patrick Sanan)
rocky peak of pico de orizaba
Looking upward into the Labyrinth, a steep jumble of boulders below Orizaba’s glacier-capped peak. (Image Credit: Joel Scheingross)
edge of caldera at summit of pico de orizaba in mexico
The edge of the caldera at Orizaba’s summit. (Image credit: Patrick Sanan)

Jeff is at the Piedra Grande Hut Base Camp located at an elevation of 4,270 m (14,010 ft) above sea level. It is a highly recommended spot to get acclimated with mountain conditions. He continues,

“The first few hours were a poorly-lit re-run of our acclimatization hike the day before. We moved in single file over the hollowed remains of aqueducts, up a steep slope of rocks, and through the high camp, where other climbers are beginning to stir. Reaching the grandiosely named “Labyrinth”, we strap on our crampons in a high stakes race against time: the procedure requires dexterity, which plummets with every second the gloves are off. We crunch and scrape through fields of building-sized boulders to reach the mountain’s sleek glacier, a vast expanse of ice pointing upward to the summit.

hunk of metal at peak of pico de orizaba
A monument of twisted metal watches over the summit of Pico Orizaba. (Image credit: Patrick Sanan)

Putting one foot in front of the other at such a high altitude is no joke; the thin air makes breathing as much of a challenge as walking, and with no reference points to cling onto, one has no way of knowing how much further it is until the endzone. After what seems like an endless loop of labored breathing, ice shelves and false summits, the peak is finally within sight.

“Turning around from the 1000-foot cliff, I see the peak’s shadow stretching to the horizon, a perfect triangle enveloping the valley below. And now I understand the convenient third benefit of an early start time: the stunning views of sunrise from the top of Mexico.”

view from the top of pico de orizaba
Orizaba, like most of Mexico’s tallest peaks, is a volcano. Its deep caldera indicates a violent past. (Image credit: Patrick Sanan)

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.