Altitude: 2000 meters
We arrived to Mexico approximately at 11pm. In the airport, we were picked up by Liuba Ivanova (Mexico). We stayed at her home. She told us that there are no tickets left for the direct bus to Coscomatepek.
Altitude: 1500 meters
After changing buses in Puebla and Cordoba, we arrived to Coscomatepek by 7pm. We decided to spend the night in the central hotel of Coscomatepek. It has a balcony with a view of the city's main (and sole) square. At 10:30 p.m., the square filled up with a Christmas procession: children dressed in a variety of biblical and indigenous costumes (sometimes weirdly combined), carts with theatrical performances of biblical scenes, little girls carrying a variety of gifts and sacrifices of live rabbits, chickens, and lambs. All of this was drowning in the music played by an orchestra and in the sounds produced by fireworks. The spectacle was extraordinary. It continued until midnight, and we observed it from the balcony.
Altitude: ~4200 meters
Approximately at 9 a.m., Sr. Manolo arrives to the hotel in his truck. He gives us a ride to La Cabana de Manolo (altitude: 3800 meters). The weather is getting worse on the way up, giving us bad premonitions. The sky is completely covered by clouds, and rain is on and off. We hope to rise above all of this mess and enjoy some better weather. In the afternoon, our truck stops near Manolo Cabins. There are several log cabins standing in the rich fir forest; the site belongs to Sr. Manolo. The amenities include water, natural gas for cooking, and etc. Sr. Manolo shows us our ascend route on a map and explains where to find water along the way. We are going to ascend using North-East route.
Everybody gets back into Sr. Manolo's truck. In 10 minutes, the road ends and we say good-bye to Sr. Manolo. The weather is good up here; we are above the clouds.
At 1 p.m., we shoulder our packs and begin to walk up the Chichimeco ridge (El Eilo de Chichimeco). For the first half an hour, we are joined by Ivan, son of Sr. Manolo. He separates from us at the place where trail branches to the Piedra Grande hut. We will have to descent to the hut after the summit. Right now, we continue along the route on the Chichimeco ridge.
After several hours of hiking, we realize that there is no water on the ridge. The closest water is in the canyons below, requiring at least an hour of a strenuous hike to get there. It's not clear what water Sr. Manolo talked about. We have 6 liters with us; therefore, we decide not to go for more water and to spend the night up here. We camp on the grass above the tree line.
Altitude: 4600 - 4700 meters
We continue ascending the Chichimeco ridge. Yesterday, we camped only about 200 meters before the beginning of icicles on the bushes. To save water, we collect them into the water bottles and try to melt them in the sun and in our hands.
By lunchtime, we reach the snow line. Here, we melt the snow with a stove and make hot meal.
Volodia reviews with us the methodology of proper self-arrest and cramponing.
After lunch, we put on crampons and harnesses and ascend to the first convenient camp site. We tramp the snow to make a flat spot for our camp. Then we erect all 3 tents; it is still relatively warm here. Most of people in the group have headaches; we only get a few hours of sleep because of that.
Altitude: 5000 meters
Today we will build a base camp and train on the glacier. We plan to ascend only a small distance. There are 2 rope teams: Libova-Slepchin-Smirnov and Timofeyev-Krasik-Ivanova.
Soon after the beginning of the ascent, we come to a relatively steep section. Volodia decides to hang a fixed line, partly for training purposes.
Approximately after 1-1.5 hours, we come to a good camping spot, but Volodia decides to look for a place higher on a small ridge. We continue to hang fixed ropes as we go. Volodia arrives to the top of the ridge first, looks around, and turns us back for the lack of a good camping place beyond the ridge. We return to the spot we noticed earlier and build a base camp. It is very cold and the spot is rather small so we set up only 2 tents, one for Timofeyev, Krasik, Slepchin, and the other one for Smirnov, Libova, Ivanova.
We got up at about 4 a.m., boil the thawed overnight snow from our bottles, and took down one of the tents. All of our gear went into the remaining tent. The group started out at 6 a.m. It was already dawn, and we left our flashlights behind, taking only our light packs with the most necessary things. In the beginning of the summit bid, we hung the fixed lines. However, soon we reached firn which wouldn't hold ice screws. From this point, we roped into two teams: Libova-Slepchin-Smirnov and Timofeyev-Krasik-Ivanova. The first rope team went about 70 meters ahead of the second one. Because of strong winds, one could hardly hear a ropemate. To communicate with the second team, one had to use signs. At one point, the second team rearranged in the following order: Ivanova-Krasik-Timofeyev. The steepness of ascent was up to 45 degrees, and there were no crevasses.
At about 12:30 p.m., the first rope team arrived to the crater and made a stop. Volodia informed Igor that he doesn't feel very well, and that he had headaches on the way up. It was just 70-100 meters to the summit from there, but Volodia decided to stop the ascent. This decision was also due to the slow progress of the second rope team which arrived only 15 minutes after the first one. Volodia suggested that the people who felt better may go to the summit on their own, but the group decided not to separate.
We rested on the edge of the crater for about 40 minutes. The view from there was magnificent: huge crater 300 m. in diameter and with brownish marks of sulfur and lava flow inside. There were snowflakes covering the lava outside. We hid from the wind on the inside of the crater close to the edge. Except for the wind, the weather was beautiful. We relaxed in the sun.
We decided to descend by the same route we used to go up. Three people decided that they want to go down fast. Consequently, Igor Slepchin switched rope teams with Ilya Krasik. There were the following teams then: Irina Libova - Ilya Krasik - Volodia Smirnov (in the order of descending) Ilya Timofeyev - Igor' Slepchin - Liuba Ivanova (in the order of descending)
The second team started out 5-7 minutes after the first one. Even though this team planned to go faster, the gap between the teams only increased as we proceeded. During the descent, Ilya Timofeyev fell several times but was able to self-arrest his fall easily due to the softness of snow and non-steepness of slopes. Nearly halfway between the crater and the base camp, Smirnov's team started to deflect right from the route of ascent (looking down the direction of descent). Liuba Ivanova asked Ilya Timofeyev to keep to the left. Ilya, in turn, decided that it would be more sensible to let Liuba lead their rope team. The new order of the rope team became: Liuba Ivanova - Igor' Slepchin - Ilya Timofeyev.
During this rearrangement, the other rope team diverged considerably to the right and was going over a small snow ridge. The right slope of the ridge was very steep and lead into a very long ice/snow couloir. The last time we saw anything of our friends was Volodia Smirnov sitting on the ridge and belaying himself with an ice axe. Possibly, he saw Ilya and Ira negotiating a steep section and decided to belay them. We did not see Irina and Ilya Krasik, because they were already on the other side of the ridge. From our spot we already could see the camp.
At this moment, when the second team was on the less steep left section, Ilya Timofeyev lost his balance and started to slide down. He could not self-arrest right away and slid about a half of the rope length. Finally, he stopped on the level of Igor Slepchin. It took us 15-20 minutes to recover, and we were facing the slope all this time. We did not have a chance to observe the Smirnov's rope team during this period. Liuba used an ice screw for security and let Igor Slepchin go ahead of her. When Igor descended half of the rope length, Liuba and Ilya Timofeyev followed him on the same level. We started to worry when saw that the Smirnov's team was not at the camp yet.
Liuba and Igor arrived to the camp first; there was no trace of the other team anywhere. Immediately, Liuba and Igor started to search for the other rope team. Igor belayed Liuba while she descended the rocks east of the base camp in order to check the North-East canyon out. There was no sign of the other team in the canyon either. With the darkness 1.5 hours away and with Ilya and Igor not feeling well, the group decided against letting Liuba descend the couloir on her own. Instead, Liuba was to run for help to Piedra Grande, while Ilya and Igor were to spend the night in the base camp.
At 8 a.m., a group of Austrian alpinists came to the base camp from Piedra Grande. Ilya and Igor showed them the descent route of the other rope team, and two of the Austrian alpinists went up to the rocks to search for a place of a possible accident. Mainly, the rescuers searched around the place where we saw our friends last. The other two Austrians went back to Piedra Grande to bring more rescuers and to tell them where to conduct the search. After some time, the first two rescuers returned from their search and informed us that they did not find anybody. Nevertheless, they did see some tracks going down on the snow. The rest of the rescuers were then to search in the lower part of the canyon.
Ilya and Igor transferred part of the gear to the campsite closer to Piedra Grande (altitude: 4900 m., see the map). Smirnov's tent was left in the base camp; the second tent was set up in the new camp. Soon, Liuba returned from Piedra Grande, and all three of us spent the night at 4900 m campsite.
Ilya and Liuba transferred the rest of the gear from the base camp to the camp at 4900 m. When the belongings were transferred, there appeared a group of Mexicans who suggested their help in carrying the gear to Piedra Grande. In the evening, they drove us to Tlachichuka. Later at night they turned out to be the emloyees of Sr. Reyes who requested payment for their services. On the same day, Liuba contacted Brigada de Rescate del Socorro Alpino de Mexico, Mexican rescue service in Tlachichuka. They started the search below and to the East of the former base camp.
Mexican rescuers spent the whole day on Orizaba searching mainly in the canyon to the East of the base camp. They could not find anything, and it was decided that Ira Libova, Ilya Krasik, and Volodia Smirnov somehow missed the base camp and descended into the forest, possibly hoping to get to La Cabana de Manolo. The rescuers thought that the team might have gotten lost. The search operation in the was to be organized as well. Additionally, a representative from the local television station filmed the documents of the lost people in order to show their pictures on TV and to ask locals' assistance in the search operation.
Liuba Ivanova, Igor Slepchin, and Ilya Timofeyev returned to Piedra Grande with several Mexican rescuers. Some of the rescuers continued the search above the snow line while Liuba, Ilya, and Igor with two Mexicans traversed the slope below the snow line. Towards the evening, they reached La Cabana de Manolo, where they stayed overnight to continue the search in the morning.
The three of us and two Mexicans ascended back to the end of the tree line to continue searching. Soon we separated from Mexicans, as they wanted to return to Piedra Grande. Liuba asked them to take the upper route to the hut as this was largely the same as our ascent route on the Chichimeco ridge. The rescuers were to investigate the snow line especially carefully. That's where they actually found the bodies of our friends in the evening of January 2nd.
Yet, we found out about this tragic discovery only by the middle of the next day, continuing our search for the rest of the afternoon. Liuba and Igor checked the closest canyon with a source of water, whereas Ilya Timofeyev went up the Chichimeco ridge. He stopped about 400 meters before the place where the bodies were found.
By twilight, we returned to La Cabana de Manolo. We intended to continue the search the next morning. Our attempt to contact Sr. Manolo by radio only gave us unconfirmed information about a group of alpinists who got into a hospital somewhere in either Serdan or Tlachichuka.
The military arrived to La Cabana in the morning. There were approximately 50-70 soldiers/special forces on several trucks and Hummer vehicles. We could also see a helicopter circling the mountain.
We started the ascent with the army at about 10:30am. About half way through, they established communication with somebody on the ground and apparently learned that the bodies were found last night. However, at the time we were only told the same vague information about some alpinists found at a hospital. The military descended back to La Cabana and we went there with them While descending, we saw other groups of soldiers returning from their search in the forest. The helicopter managed to land close to La Cabana hut, picked us up and flew all three of us to Tlachichuca.
After 5-10 minutes in Tlachichuka, we saw another helicopter flying from Orizaba with a cargo attached underneath. Only then we finally realized that the search is over.
Next several days were filled with a lot of bureaucracy and were uneventful. Irina Libova's parents were informed about the accident and arrived to Mexico in a day. Igor Slepchin and Ilya Timofeyev returned to USA only on January 8th.
Since we did not witness the tragedy, the following is what we consider the most likely course of actions.
We think that one of the members of the perished rope team slipped on the way down when we could not see them. They could not self-arrest the fall right away and gained the speed in the steep section almost instantly. As a result, they slid down the whole canyon till the end of the snow section and hit the rocks at a huge speed. The vertical drop from the place of the accident to where they were found is about 350 meters, the length of the slope around 600m and the slope is about 35-45 degrees. The bodies were lying in the order of descent and were separated by the full length of the rope.
Rescuers did not think that it was possible to fall through so much distance and nobody could spot them from either above or below since they were hidden by a small crevice.
Ilya Krasik and Volodia Smirnov had fatal wounds to their heads. Ira Libova did not have any visible wounds, which may have caused the false information that some of the victims died from hypothermia. The conducted autopsy showed that all three died instantaneously. On January 3rd their bodies were evacuated by helicopter with the help of Brigada de Rescate del Socorro Alpino de Mexico members.
There is no logical explanation why the first rope team chose to diverge to the right. Possibly, high altitude and altitude sickness played certain role.