Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/October 1902/An Ascent of Mt Orizaba




ORIZABA is the highest mountain in North America whose summit has been reached by mountain climbers. It lies one hundred and fifty miles southeast of Mexico City and less than sixty miles from the Gulf of Mexico and is a most attractive peak for mountaineers.

I determined to climb it, and after a week spent in Mexico City in the vain attempt to find companions for the journey took the train for San Andres, the railroad station nearest to the village of Chalchicomula, from which the ascent is most favorably begun. A broken axle delayed the train five hours. The passengers wagging their heads said the accident was to be expected, the day was the thirteenth of the month. It was evening when San Andres was reached. The station agent knew of two men in Chalchicomula who could speak English. Fortunately one of them was at home, and we were soon upon a friendly footing. He offered to find guides and horses for me, but proved to be not a very aggressive agent. A native of Florida, crowded out of his country by competition, he was teaching the Mexicans English and receiving for his work eight cents an hour. He was so doubled with rheumatism as to be scarce able to walk. After much encouragement on my part and an hour's talking on his, he engaged two guides. A horse was to be procured. It was eight o'clock at night; the rain was descending in torrents; I had eaten nothing since morning. We called at several places where horses were reported for hire and where it took the polite proprietors many minutes to explain that they did not have horses. We were making such slow progress that I finally picked my interpreter up in my arms and carried him from place to place through the rain till we had visited half a dozen polite gentlemen and finally obtained the promise of a horse for the morrow. Even the preparation for mountain climbing in that village was uphill work. That night, lying in bed, nursing a toothache, listening to the driving rain outside, remembering the remarks of the villagers that rain and snow storms and avalanches would make the ascent impossible, it seemed the extreme of foolhardiness to attempt such a thing.

In the morning the guides were late, and the horse proved to be too weak to carry a man, so I contented myself with putting blanket roll and provisions on the horse and walking with the guides. There was some compensation in this, as it gave opportunity of measuring my walking ability. The guides had the advantage of being accustomed to an altitude of eight thousand feet and of living a life requiring constant walking. But before the close of the first day one of them complained of the difficulty of breathing and on the day of final ascent begged to return before the climb was completed. After three years of mountaineering with European university students, I am of the opinion that the American college man of average athletic habits can walk with the men of any nation. Good ancestry, good food, good habits of life, produce good muscle. In the same class with the American come the

Fig. 1. Mount Orizaba, from Chalchicomula.

English and the Russian student, while the German and French are in a second class, and the Latin races in a third largely because of their habits of life.

By eight o'clock we had started for the mountain. The little burro, buried under food, bedding, ax and shovel, led the procession. A guide followed to encourage the burro and lead the caballo. The second guide came next to encourage the horse. I followed. The preceding evening I had searched the lexicon to learn to say 'whoa' Unnecessary labor! The only expression needed was 'Get up!'—and that in the universal language of the birch stick.

A short climb soon brought us above the town and showed the flat-roofed plaster houses thickly crowded together without door-yards or pavements in the narrow streets. Several churches rising above the general mass of buildings gave picturesqueness to the scene. Before us not more than a dozen miles away, and seemingly less, was Orizaba. Usually the traveler in mountain regions is disappointed in the peaks he would visit, because they are dwarfed by the neighboring hills and mountain spurs surrounding them, and seem flat and tame. But on that August morning Orizaba was the most majestic mountain that could be conceived. It was the very picture of just such a mountain as a plainsman would draw. Its sharp summit pierced the sky with such favorable perspective that the great height could be really appreciated. Snow came far down upon its sides. The treeless tract below the snow line stood out plainly and ended with thick forests which covered the

Fig. 2. Chalchicomula, and Outfit for the Ascent of Mount Orizaba.

hills rounded and piled up over the mountain's base. A well-marked trail led through the fields, some filled with black stalked corn, some bristling with thousands of that valuable cactus, called maguay in Mexico and century plant in the United States, and some entirely barren. A horseback rider with a revolver at his belt came dashing through the thicket and asked a drink of the guides. Though they were going on a three days' trip and had but a quart of wine between them they handed the man their bottle, how unwillingly I do not know. Possibly the beggar was the proprietor of the hacienda through which we were passing and took that means to levy toll. After two hours' walking we reached the forest belt and spent the remainder of the day within it. As in all mountain regions here the most common and stately trees are pines and spruce. The pines flourish from nine thousand feet up to the tree limit—between thirteen and fourteen thousand feet. Spruce trees thrive best above the ten-thousand-foot line. There is very little undergrowth and the country is park-like. The absence of animal life is noticeable. Ants, flies, mosquitos, birds and mammals that are so abundant in most parts of the world are rare here. The only reptiles that I saw were occasional salamanders. The slopes are easy and regular, so that little energy is wasted by the necessity of descending from heights once reached.

During the day shifting clouds revealed one beauty after another by blotting out one portion of the heavens or mountains and calling attention to others. Occasionally the splendid summit of Orizaba would appear, then the top of a neighboring mountain, as if nature were trying

Fig. 3. Mount Orizaba from Elevation of about 8,500 ft., about 12 Miles away.

the effect of draperies. Sometimes the clouds would envelop us with their cold folds and shut out from view all but the nearest trees. At four in the afternoon, though much too early according to my judgment, we halted and prepared a camp under the shelter of a cliff, whose base is hollowed out in the form of a shallow cave. It affords poor protection. The rain coming from one direction is shut off, but water drips from the rocks. Just after darkness had begun to settle down we heard a far-away shout as if from some one in distress. We answered and soon found that it was simply a shepherd calling his flock. It was a cold night and sleeping out of doors at that altitude is not a luxury. In the morning my rubber blanket was stiff with a sheet of ice.

This 'cave' was probably the place where Baron Müller, who climbed the mountain in 1856, stopped, and where nearly all the mountaineers who have attempted the, ascent since have passed the night. Müller speaks of the 'granite' walls of the cave and other tourists use the same term. But there is no granite here nor elsewhere in the region. The rock masses forming the mountain are singularly uniform. They are eruptive rocks of prevailing dark grayish or brownish color composed of crystals of augite and plagioclase in a fine ground mass and are called andesite. In places glassy masses of obsidian appear, and in others volcanic tuffs and ashes, but in no place is there granite or gneiss.

Fig. 4. Forest on Mount Orizaba in the Distance—100 Miles away-Popocatepetl and Iztaccihautl.

The following morning at six o'clock, after a hurried breakfast, one guide and I started for the summit. In a few minutes we were above the timber line. Two hours of walking brought us to the snow line, that day at about fifteen thousand feet.

At the lower levels the snow is finely crystalline, very compact and of the variety known as 'firn' or 'névé.' It affords excellent footing to the properly shod climber. Toward the top of the mountain it is softer, though the individual flakes are never large, and the feet sink in to the shoe tops. The beauty of the snow furnishes one of the great rewards to the tourist. The spike of an alpine stock leaves after each thrust a hole of wondrous green in the glittering white mass. The snow fills the chasms of the mountain, smoothes out its ridges, softens its outline, gives it a dazzling splendor—a crown of glory worn only by the kings among mountains.

For five hours we plodded upward through the snow. With woolen socks pulled partly over the shoes so as to leave the rubber heels exposed, I found it easy to walk up the steep smooth slopes which held the feet almost like sandpaper. But my guide's wide sandals could not hold to the snow, consequently he had to cut steps. When he became exhausted I took his place, and thus we alternated. Exertion at that altitude is difficult. At the cave to roll over on a blanket and pull it over the shoulder almost makes one pant. 'And to pull the blanket over both shoulders would make a pair of pants, I suppose,' said my hostess at a dinner party a few months later, when the story was being related.

Fig. 5. Mount Orizaba from 12,000 ft. Elevation. Snow extending down to the 15,000 ft. Line.

During the ascent of mountains up to fourteen thousand feet in height heretofore mountain sickness has not caused me much annoyance. But for the last three thousand feet of the ascent of Orizaba, headache, pain at the top of the spinal cord, rapid beating of the heart, shortness of breath, inability to eat even a cracker or chocolate, general discomfort nearly destroyed all pleasure. I have never noticed the popularly reported tendency to bleeding at the nose and ears. Olives and lemon juice were the only things I could swallow. This mal de montagne was less severe when clouds obscured the sun than when the glare was brightest, and less noticeable when we were in hollows than when we were on aretes. When exhausted from climbing and shoveling the only thing to do was to lie down and often to sleep for a few minutes. While resting we needed only to start boulders rolling down the snow fields to behold a thrilling sight. The black masses would begin with small leaps, leaving behind indentations like an unwinding white ribbon in the dazzling snow. Increasing in speed, the boulders would finally dash with cannon-ball velocity and mighty springs out of view thousands of feet below. An obstacle at the beginning so slight as to be unnoticed would often change the path of the boulders started from the same spot so that their lower lines would be a mile apart—one making a path down a gully to the south perchance and another down an eastern gully. Form, color and motion combined to give an astonishing effect. Of the many mountain slopes that I have seen this is the most favorable for such a sight.

The weather had been propitious all morning. Though threatening, the clouds shifted constantly and disclosed one extensive view after another—any one of them a complete compensation for the effort of the ascent. Finally, after we had been climbing seven hours and were within probably three hundred feet of the rim of the crater, a vigorous snow storm swept around the mountain. We continued the ascent for an hour. The cold and wind increased. It was impossible to see fifty yards. There was nothing to do but begin the descent. We had not seen the crater nor had we had a view from the summit. But our rewards had been enjoyed all the way up and the wisdom of not postponing the return afterwards appeared since the snow storm continued the remainder of the day. So after waiting half an hour and finding the storm becoming worse, we tobogganed down the snow slope, and in fifteen minutes passed over the distance which had required three hours to climb.

We reached the cave camp in two hours, and I spent the night in bathing eyes to take out inflammation caused by the excessive light experienced on the snow.

The next morning we returned to Chalchicomula, and the tram which runs eight miles without animal, steam, or electrical traction simply with the force of gravity, carried me to San Andres, and in a few hours I was taking photographs of banana groves and coffee plantations in the city of Orizaba, having passed from frigid to tropical regions in one day.

Orizaba, 'the Star Mountain,' is the most favorable mountain in the world for an American who wishes to climb higher than eighteen thousand feet. Elbruz, the culminating point of Europe, is less accessible to Europeans than Orizaba to Americans.

The starting point for the ascent of Orizaba is high, the slopes ridable up to fourteen thousand feet, and easy the entire distance to the summit. Ice work is unnecessary. The guides are of obliging disposition and moderate in charges. They wear sandals and for ice work wrap their feet in strips of cloth. They provide the same primitive and clumsy footgear for the tourist. Knickerbockers, woolen stockings, canvas leggings or puttees, and shoes protected with rubber are the most satisfactory clothing. The guides greatly admired my golf stockings which were hanging before the fire at the cave. They would feel them repeatedly exclaiming 'Magnifico, magnifico.'

The earliest recorded ascent of Orizaba is that made by some United States army officers in 1848. But no one in the country credited their report. Three years later eighteen young men of different nationalities formed a party and started for the summit. One man after another dropped out of the company till finally only a Frenchman by the name of Doignon was left. He persevered and after great hardships reached the summit. Upon his return to Chalchicomula the villagers ridiculed the claim. Consequently the following week he repeated the ascent and planted a flag upon the ridge of the crater, where it could be plainly seen by the doubting inhabitants. He was received with honor when he descended. Since Baron Müller's ascent in 1856 more than a dozen climbers have reached the summit and made many measurements of altitude.[2] Miss Anna Peck, of New York City, who is an experienced mountain climber, displayed great courage and endurance in her ascent of Orizaba. She is the only woman who has ever succeeded in reaching its summit so far as I am aware.

  1. Photographs by the author.
  2. Reports upon the altitude of Orizaba:
    North American Engineers in 1848 17,879
    Ferran 17,885
    Müller 18,133
    Doignon 18,178 (Determined by boiling point of water.)
    Scovill and Bunsen 18,174 "by aneroid barometer.
    Heilprin 18,205 """"
    Kaska 18,270 ""mercurial"
    Scovill and Bunsen 18,314 ""triangulation.