Pico de Orizaba
After a month of driving in Mexico we finally found ourselves gaining some altitude. We wound through mountain roads that went steeply up and steeply down. The curves were tight, the roads were narrow. The emerald green of the countryside sat mostly under the shadow of clouds, with narrow slivers of sun bursting through to illuminate distant hills. We marveled at the steep slopes that were being cultivated by hand. Workers lined the terraced hills, looking up from their work to give us a wave and smile.
Shepherds were common along the roadside, guiding flocks of black and grey sheep. As well, woolen textiles became common along storefronts in the little towns. Turkeys and chickens randomly darted across the road, never quite sure which way they wanted to go. Donkeys, pigs, and horses were regularly tied to trees or stakes at the side of the road, a mere 10 feet of rope to give them their pasture just inches from passing cars. Dogs slept on the road, usually around a blind curve.
In addition to the animals on and near the road were the numerous pueblos we drove through, one after another. The little towns seemed to be separated by only a few kilometers, but in that little span we would climb or descend steeply; it was the steep terrain that separated the villages more than actual distance. While the pueblos provide a charming taste of culture, they also provide the bane of driver in Mexico: the tope (“towpay”- speed bump). Needless to say, it was slow going.
Somewhere above 10,000 feet asl, the pueblos faded away and the road went from semi-paved, to dirt, to rock. As any good student of off- road driving would do, we stopped for a moment and ran through an updated risk assessment. We took into account that we were on our own, we had no cell service, we were in Mexico, and we were far from help on a rough stretch of road. There was also the weather- rain was in the forecast (there was one river crossing to contend with), and the altitude (we are both well versed in the signs of altitude sickness).
Once we assessed that we were good to continue on we had the goal of basecamp at roughly 4,300 meters/14,000 feet. The route was a nice mix of rocks and slippery mud, as well as a near-continual gully that threatened to suck us into it’s rut. Our first attempt at side-skirting the gully failed as the road tilted steeply, and the rear tire fell prey to the greasy mud. The drivers’ rear tire was deep in the gully, and our rear diff (thankfully skid plated) ground into the dirt. Our training kicked in the second we lost traction: we stopped, got out, and agreed backing up was our best option. A lot of rock piling later, we filled the gully enough to back out and pick the line we referred to the rest of the drive as “straddle that bitch!”
Stuck in a rut in Mexico...the title of the next hit country song?
The next few kilometers were slow going and required constant spotting. The long wheelbase of the van made navigating the gully super tricky as the rear tires took a completely different track than the front. More rock piling ensued, and line picking had to be precise. Because the van lacks articulation three wheeling was common. I usually think the three-wheeling thing is pretty fun- but on this route, in these conditions, it was a bit unnerving. We still had 7 km to go when the instrument cluster decided to tell us in no uncertain terms to “visit workshop.” Ha! Workshop. Silly computer- we’re at 12,000 feet on a mountain in Mexico! It turned out to be the traction control which seemed to have completely failed at that point. We continued on and thankfully the code resolved on it’s own once we turned the van off for the night.
Sunrise views at acclimatization camp.
At an elevation of 3,900 meters/13,000 feet and 7:00 PM we decided to call it a night. As the spotter for this drive I was outside the vehicle for the better part of 11,000-13,000 feet above sea level. I felt the early signs of altitude sickness and slept very little as I self monitored through the night. We woke to clear skies and views to the west of volcanoes Popo, Itza, and La Melinche, and views to the east all the way to the coast.
By morning I was feeling a little better so we decided to spend another night at 13,000 instead of descending (which had been in the back of my mind all night). We spent the day moving slowly, taking photos, and even pulled out the recovery gear to set up a triple sheave pulley scenario. Breathe, think, breathe, think.
The triple sheave pulley system- just for fun this time.
The morning of the second day at altitude we headed for the final drive to 14,000’ and the basecamp to climb the mountain. We were in no way equipped to climb such a mountain, but we did do some hiking up the trail. And even better than the hike was the shower at basecamp. We pulled out our portable Nemo shower and enjoyed views to the coast from our perch on high. We got clean, and we felt more alive than we had in some time. The challenge of the drive, the teamwork we shared, and the thrill of being remote left us exhilarated. We drove down the mountain but carried the high with us. Orizaba will forever hold a place in our hearts.
So long Orizaba.