Blog post by Nathan Longhurst. All photos courtesy of Kevin Essa and Hayden Lynch.
Imagine a deeper way to experience a mountain. A journey not just to its high point, but around its flanks, revealing every angle, winding into every valley and over each ridge. What if you looped up and over the top, circled back around, climbed up and over again, then looped around the other side? This is an Infinity Loop, and it is an amazing way to fully explore a mountain.
On March 29, 2023, myself, Nathan Longhurst, along with Jason Hardrath, set out to establish the first Infinity Loop on Pico De Orizaba. This involved climbing up and over the 18,000 foot volcano, traversing halfway around the mountain on its middle flanks back to our starting point, climbing up and over a second time, and then traversing back around the other side. We completed the route in an epic 23 hour push, with 18,000 feet of climbing over 40 miles. It involved glacier travel, off-trail navigation, and significant time at high altitude.
Jason and I started our route planning by collecting GPX files of each section of the route from other climber’s trip reports and friends who had completed the circumnavigation. Using CalTopo, we imported several separate files onto one map, using these as a template to follow during our attempt. We consulted this map to make several key decisions. Which side of the mountain would we climb, and which would we descend? Would we circle back on the “long side” first, or the “short side”? Referencing the slope angle shading and elevation profiles of each portion made for easy comparisons of various sections of the route.
After a hectic blur of airports, long bus rides, and bumpy 4×4 roads, we reached our base camp on Pico de Orizaba’s northern slopes. Home for the next few days was a sturdy, rustic hut with stunning views of the peak, and of the valley far below. Mornings dawned clear and bright, with clouds building throughout the day. By afternoon, thunderheads reared up in billowing, dark masses, with cracks of lightning persisting into the evening. At night, the twinkling lights of villages dotting the Mexican countryside stretched to the horizon, blending seamlessly with the starry sky. It was a dynamic, yet peaceful place.
The weather steadily improved throughout the week, and after a few days of acclimation, we were eager to take off. After a fitful, nervous night of sleep, we finally started up the mountain in the early morning darkness. Our first climb up and over the peak was fairly straightforward. On the upper slopes, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise. A sea of clouds filling the valley below gave the impression that we were floating on an island in the sky. After a few moments of satisfaction on the lofty summit, we descended the dry, loose south face, the volcanic dirt providing a gloriously fast descent. Energy was high, and we felt very optimistic.
Once we started the circumnavigation, the trail became overgrown and sometimes difficult to follow. Fortunately, in each moment of uncertainty, I was able to quickly pull out my phone for reference and get us back on track in seconds. The pleasantly cool morning gave way to a hot, dusty day. We descended lower and lower. As we neared the lowest point of the trail, the sea of clouds rose up and swallowed us, the cool, moist fog providing glorious relief from the hot sun above. We steadily made our way around the peak, occasionally catching glances of the summit towering thousands of feet above us. By evening, we had returned to the hut, where we were treated to a hot meal, clean socks, and a few wonderful minutes off our feet.
Darkness was quickly descending as we began our second climb. Slowly but steadily, we pushed upward through the thinning air. The clouds that had filled the valley had dissipated, and the lights of the villages seemed impossibly far below us. We were in a different world, some alternate reality made only of the crunch of snow underfoot and the irresistible pull of the summit somewhere above in the darkness. Time stretched, seconds morphing into hours. Eventually, inevitably, we stood on the apex once more. Fatigue, darkness, and a frigid wind provided a stark contrast to the warm, sunny morning that now seemed impossibly long ago. We descended quickly, eager for air and warmth.
After our second climb up and over the towering volcano, we had only 8 miles between us and the finish, and 3 hours remaining before our 24-hour goal time. Based on the mostly efficient travel on the other side of the mountain, we were optimistic that we would make our goal. We met up with Alden, our wonderful support man who provided snacks, water, and a warm fire. Spirits high despite fatigue, we sped off into the cool night.
The first major climb went well. However, as we crested a small col and began a steep, loose descent down the other side, the trail vanished. I checked the topo map, and compared our location to a GPX track of the trail. We had indeed missed a sudden zigzag in the track. We cut back through the brushy desert, but upon crossing the GPX track several times, there was no trail to be found. As we continued forward, roughly following the GPX track, the trail remained very sporadic. We would occasionally pick up a section, begin following it with sighs of relief, then once again lose it with a wave of frustration. It quickly became apparent that making our 24 hour goal would not be easy.
With my phone out, constantly checking the map to find the most efficient lines up and down through the complex maze of gullies and ridges that cut the flanks of the volcano, I led the charge towards the finish line. I was perfectly in my element- moving efficiently through the difficult terrain, constantly making route decisions and corrections despite having very little visibility of the terrain ahead. The clock ticked mercilessly as we neared our destination.
As we crested one particularly painful climb, with less than an hour left, our radio crackled to life. Moments later, a twinkling headlamp appeared on the horizon. It was our fantastic film crew, Hayden and Kevin, waiting on the ridge above the hut. The finish was in sight. A burst of stoke and adrenaline carried us across the final basin, up and over the final climb, and down to the hut for a finishing time of 23 hours and 40 minutes. It was a beautiful moment of gratitude and elation.
Want to learn more about the story behind this effort? Check out the Journey to Infinity trailer below! This documentary follows Nathan and Jason through as they work to establish the Pico de Orizaba Infinity Loop. The full documentary drops October 1st on YouTube– use this link to set a reminder so you don’t miss the live premiere!