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11/29/2021 Setting the FKT from Skimo Co to Pico de Orizaba

By Will McKay - AMGA Apprentice Guide, Adventure Sports Photographer, and Skimo Co Employee

Editor’s note: It must be stated that a rapid ascent of a high summit is very dangerous and not recommended. Even less recommended is traveling to Mexico for only a very short amount of time. It is advisable to slow down, savor the churros, chat with the locals, and learn some slang. Oh, and acclimatize while you’re at it. In the spirit of adventure and sharing stories, we coaxed Skimo Co employee Will to give us a play-by-play of this trip. To be clear, this article does not contain beta, suggestions, helpful information, or even a single good idea other than eating lots of tacos. All photos by Will McKay.

Above it all in Mexico.

When I’m looking to travel internationally, I look for three things: powder skiing, 3000m alpine routes, and great food. Surprising to absolutely nobody, Mexico only ticks one of those boxes. Hint: it’s not waist-deep turns. Due to the less-than-ideal latitudinal location of the country, there seems to be a real lack of snow. Puzzling, I know, but for what it’s worth, the tacos make up for it in every sense.

But Mexico does have something up its sleeve; Pico de Orizaba. If it were located 500 miles to the north, it would be a world-famous ski destination, however, that isn’t the case. Instead, the lofty summit only holds snow and ice for the top 2,500’ out of 18,450’. With its close(ish) proximity to the United States and not-too-high altitude, a smash and grab ski descent had been on our minds for a while.

So, with a few days to spare between shifts in the grinding laboratory of Skimo Co, myself, co-worker Zak Munro, and some friends from Bozeman, decided to catch a flight down to Mexico to ski North America’s 3rd tallest peak.

November 9th: 6pm MST (All times in MST so you dear reader don’t have to do time zone conversion math)

Zak and I finished work at Skimo Co and agreed to meet up at 4:30am the next day to catch our flight to Mexico City. We discussed the final details and I made a quick stop to the local REI for some power snacks.

November 10th, 6am MST

Twelve hours later we were packed in a plane flying to Dallas. Walking around the airport in Texas with ski boots and helmets drew a fair amount of looks. I can’t even count the number of times we were asked where we were going “hiking”. Zak even fielded a question of where somebody could get some of our Scarpa F1LT’s for their vacation to Winter Park, Colorado. They loved the “stylish” look of the boots and I’d have to agree.

November 10th, 3pm

After landing and going through customs, we began the 10 minute walking approach to our Airbnb in Mexico City. Zak requested I book it close to the airport so I made sure we found a place where you could both audibly and physically feel the planes taking off and landing. With basically the least amount of Spanish you can know while still having taken a Spanish class, we set off into the local neighborhood and successfully acquired dinner from a little street food stand. To be honest, I just kept saying yes to whatever question the waiter was asking and I ended up with a great meal. This was a consistent theme of the trip, just say yes unless you can visually see a pig’s foot with flies on it.

November 11th, 9am

The next morning we went back to the airport to find our buddies from Bozeman, Montana, Tucker Hoefler and Chris Kussmaul. Tucker is an incredibly strong athlete and consistently put the rest of us in the ground throughout the trip. This past spring he made the third ski descent of Archangel on Mount Foraker with two other partners. Chris Kussmaul is also incredibly strong and experienced. He is the author of the guidebook Peaks and Couloirs of Southwest Montana and also the author of this trip. Zak and I are basically nobodies compared to these two Kardashian-grade superstars. We just ski in the Wasatch.

With only four days to make this trip happen, everything had to fall perfectly in place. So it was only fitting that a mere 15 minutes after meeting up with Chris and Tucker, we almost got totally hosed on getting our rental car. The rental car manager explained that our pre-purchased insurance was not a thing and that we had two options, either leave a deposit of $22,000 USD and collect the money upon return of the car (no) or buy their own insurance for 4x what we paid online (yes). After the hour-long haggle of insurance rates, we hopped in a Kia Ultima and were almost t-boned roughly four times as we sped out of Mexico City.

Our destination? Tlachichuca.(T-laa-chee-choo-kuh)

Light at the edge of town.

November 11th, 5pm.

We arrived in the small town just around sunset and parked our car at the Citlaltepetl (Summit Orizaba) hostel where we then unloaded our things into a little room. My god, we had been in a car for only four hours and we already smelled awful. Not a good sign. I obviously took the bed with a creepy doll stitched into the comforter. We then proceeded to gather in a circle and take some pills together. Diamox, the pills were just Diamox, nothing else. We had no shame taking some altitude drugs as we’d be cutting it close on acclimatization time. The following hours I then learned just how much of a diuretic Diamox is. It was like we were on a synced up cycle of peeing on what seemed to be every forty five minutes. This became an issue when Zak had to continuously get off a rather tall, rickety, and noisy bunk bed throughout the night. I vaguely remember Chris mentioning to Zak that he’d stab him in the back if he kept moving. Ah, the comradery.

November 12th, 7am.

The next morning we loaded into the truck and began our journey to the Piedra Grande hut which sits at roughly 14,000’. During the two hour long car ride up a proper 4x4 road, we discussed our plan of getting to the hut, prepping for the following morning, and possibly shuttling a load up higher on the mountain. That would reduce the weight of what we would have to carry early in the morning during summit day. This seemed like the best idea to reduce the chances of any altitude sickness. Obviously when we hopped out of the car at 10:15am, we immediately tossed out that plan and suited up fifteen minutes later to try for the summit that afternoon. We were all aware of how it could go wrong if we pushed too hard, so we kept a mellow pace. And took more drugs, of course.

Those stylish, hiking boots being unloaded at Orizaba's Base Camp.

November 12th, 9:30am

With trail runners on, we started up the 4,500’ climb through an incredible amount of scree, dust, and boulders. Until about 16,000’, we were averaging about an hour per 1000’ of climbing. On the way up we passed about four parties all giving us nasty looks and comments about how there was very little chance that we could ski the peak. We became very familiar with the Spanish words “firme” and “estupido.” To be fair, we were doing the opposite of what the other climbers were doing. We were unguided, carrying small packs, leaving in the daylight, and hauling skis up, so it’s not surprising that they were taking some playful jabs at us.

We cruised up to the snowline - around 16,500’ - and then transitioned to boots n ‘pons. This was also the first time I personally started to feel the altitude a bit. Chris had a tiny headache earlier but that disappeared once we slowed our roll a bit. Suddenly the summit became covered in the clouds that had previously been obediently sitting in the valley. Up until this point the weather had been the definition of “splittah.” Clear, no wind, and beautiful views all around. And now it started to look like we might be having to summit and ski in no visibility, which wasn’t ideal. We debated back and forth on whether to head back to the hut and try again in the morning, or to push on to the summit. Ultimately, we decided to continue our ascent until it didn’t make sense anymore. And honestly? We didn’t want to do that already confusing approach again, but in the dark. I mean, I like challenges and all but I’ll happily avoid them whenever I can.

With pointy bits on the feet, we began the slog to the summit. Pico De Orizaba is by no means a technical peak other than having to wear crampons and carry an axe. Although, I put the axe away within ten minutes of hiking and just stuck with two ski poles. Plenty of guided parties will rope up but none of us saw a single crack in the glacier. Years ago there were more crevasses but with the warming climate it seems that these have mostly disappeared.

Sloggin' at altitude.

As the climb continued, the clouds began to vanish and we were left with some incredible views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. This was convenient timing as at least three of us, (seemingly not Tucker) began to slow down significantly as we gained altitude. Chris and I were on the “thirty steps and hit a wall” program, while Zak was on the “thirty steps and occasionally dry heave” program. Usually I’m all down for laughing at somebody else suffering, in fact I try to make a good effort to do so, but I just couldn’t muster it when we got above 18,000’. The last 450’ were god awful as we ascended this seemingly endless curving track to the summit.

November 12, 3pm.

18,450’, what a trip. Chris had been above 20,000’ a few times and Tucker had been up 19,000’ before, but for Zak and I, this was our first time above 14,500.

Once on top we hung around and took some photos, did the whole high five thing, and watched Zak dry heave some more. The next bit is where the question mark lay. We all figured we’d be able to get to the summit with some ease, but we had only heard horror stories of terrible ski conditions and accidents. A few years back I had some close friends attempt to ski Orizaba and witnessed another skier die as they slid on blue ice and went over a cliff. With that nagging in the back of my mind and having seen some ice near the summit, I decided to hike down to 18,300’ to click into my skis while the others made some spicy-ish turns from the top.

In hindsight, I wish I had skied just from the top but it is what it is. Still a ski from above 18k!

The scenery makes up for snow quality.

By summiting in the afternoon, we actually had the weather on our side. The west-northwest face that we descended had warmed up as much as it could and provided an interesting mix of ice, corn, and small runnels of soft snow. Having only skied a handful of times this year before the trip, my legs felt somewhat like jelly after more than six jump turns. Another cycle began for all of us (again, excluding Tucker) where we’d link five to seven turns then gasp for air as we watched the crazy landscape drop below us. It wasn’t great skiing but it wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced. In fact, I have had much worse - possible knee breaking - snow conditions while skiing the Emmas after they refroze from some midday clouds & wind. I guess not every day features Utah’s “greatest snow on earth.”

November 12th, 3:30pm

Back at the toe of the glacier, we popped our skis off, put on the trail runners, and pointed our tired bodies toward the hut. Looking back up at the summit, it didn’t look like a big deal at all. But then I took two steps uphill to grab my backpack and had to stop and lean on my poles to breathe.

Right, altitude is a different beast.

On the descent, we were treated to an incredible sunset as the volcano cast a massive shadow on the clouds that hung in the valley.

November 12th, 5pm

After quite literally almost blowing out my knee three times from the awfully loose, scree descent, the sun had finally set. We were treated to a stunning sunset above a valley of clouds. We switched to headlamps, well, the other three did. Mine was conveniently discharged at some point during the climb. So I followed closely behind Zak as we poked our way back to the hut where we ended up hoarking down some freeze dried meals. We then proceeded to have one of the worst nights of sleep of the entire trip as every other climber chose to wake up and get ready to climb at midnight. Note to self, bring a tent next time.

November 13th, 10am

The beefy Suburban picked us up and we made our way back to the hostel. Tired and smelling absolutely awful, we collected our things, repacked the bags, and hit the road to Mexico City, a mere forty five minutes after getting back to the hostel. With heads down and hunger increasing by the minute, we quested into the city and narrowly avoided a few collisions. In somewhat of an explosive manner, we landed in our rental apartment and then focused on putting as much food as physically possible in our bodies. Great success.

November 14th, 3pm

Rocking negative covid tests, Zak and I loaded onto the airplane headed back stateside. When we landed in Dallas, we pointed our compasses north and walked straight into a TGI Fridays. Tell me that is not the most American thing to do… granted, it was the only thing open. Surrounded by screens blasting NFL highlights and stereos playing mid 2000’s Sean Kingston, we felt like we were the furthest thing away from the quaint, quiet Mexican town we had just been staying in.

November 15th, 12:30am

Finally back at the Salt Lake City airport, we made our best attempts at the local FKT time from the infamous terminal B to the passenger pick up traverse. Personally, I feel like we had an unfair advantage as we were coming from 18,000’ a mere 48 hours ago. Though we didn’t beat the FKT, I do think that with appropriate planning and a summit of an 8000m peak, one could easily uproot the current champ.

November 15th, 10am

A mere nine hours later, Zak and I met up once again back at Skimo Co for the weekly shop meeting. Tired, haggard, and full of a confusion that could only come from a smash and grab international mission, we joined in on the meeting and proceeded to tell this exact tale to our fellow co-workers.

Total Skimo Co to Skimo Co time: 112 hours (FKT)

Skimo Co to the summit of Pico De Orizaba: 74 hours (FKT)

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