| Mexico Volcano Trip, Part 1
Mexico Volcano Trip, Part 1.
This is only “Part 1” because I wasn’t able to get to Orizaba on this trip as I had to come back home early, so it will be bit of time before I put up “Part 2”, hopefully before year-end!
My original plan was to do Iztaccihuatl and Orizaba while warming up by climbing two moderately high peaks (Nevado de Toluco and La Malinche) to help acclimatize. I went 3/3 on the three peaks attempted, which made me pretty satisfied, despite not being able to attempt Orizaba this trip.
I learned a lot about Mexico during these past several days. As a foreigner, it's always amazing to me when I visit cities that live under active volcanoes without much of a second thought. Popocatepetl is one of the more active volcanoes, seen below looming over the town of Puebla. Note the smoke coming from its crater. Was I walking in the next Pompeii?
I’ve been wanting to visit the Cordillera Neovolcanica (Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt ) for a while now, but the news reports of the recent violence in Mexico had caused me to rethink my plans. After some due diligence and looking into such a trip, I decided to give it a go and take a trip down. Making a few calls south of the border to get hut reservations and work out travel details proved more challenging than I thought given the language barrier and my minimal survival-only Spanish skills. I was heading down solo, so I wanted to make sure the details were firmed up before I left. As such, I enlisted the help of good friend Roberto who lives in Mexico and who helped greatly with translations, transportation logistics, reservations and was up for some hiking.
The trip proved to be quite the adventure with a good dose of Mexican culture throughout the trip. Thankfully, I encountered none of the border town violence so often portrayed in the media, though did have an *interesting* encounter with the Mexican military. Most people I ran into were quite nice and friendly and despite the language barrier, were cordial and happy to help out where possible and able. Most of the local folks I ran into in the mountains were especially nice and as in the mountains here, I suppose felt we shared that kinship due our mutual interest in the outdoors. This made for some temporary bonding through the hardship of climbing. People tend to find things in common while struggling together up a 5,000M peak.
I’d do a few things differently next time and this type of trip clearly was more challenging and bit more stressful than a trip to U.S. mountains with a lower comfort level generally. Next time I will have to rethink my food strategy. I should also add that very little English is spoken in most places I visited. Lastly, coming from sea level, the altitude of these higher peaks makes a proper acclimatizing plan that much more important.
I arrived into Mexico City late Christmas evening after a four hour delay due to a snowstorm connecting through Dallas; not the best way to start what was sure to be an energy consuming trip. I stayed in Mexico City that night and after exploring a bit in the morning, left that afternoon to head out into the mountains, arriving at the Toluca climbers hut the evening of the 26th. Although the elevation of Mexico City was “only” about 7,000ft, coupled with the pollution in the air, I was really feeling it and was eager to get up higher above the city to cleaner air.
Dec 27, 2012.
Nevado de Toluco (Xinantecatl)
Elevation: 4,680M (15,355ft).
Nevado de Toluco would be the first climb: The mountain is located inside its own National Park located in the state of Mexico in the city of Toluca and is reached after quite a lengthy drive through and from Mexico City. It was nice to get away from the crowds of the city and get up here.
Living at sea level, I thought this peak along with La Malinche (4,462M) would be good training climbs for acclimatizing for the higher objectives of Iztaccihuatl and Orizaba later in the trip.
This mountain is a dormant volcano and while not recently active, shows the scars of its tumultuous past as well as two stunning emerald lakes in its crater.
We stayed in the climber's hut the night before, which had separate empty rooms for each of us which was nice. According to my un-calibrated altimeter (which means +/- a few hundred feet), the hut was located at roughly 11,900ft. This felt a bit high after coming from New York with only one night in Mexico City - doing it again, I would probably stay at around 9,500-10,000ft in between if possible.
Apparently, this hut has recently become the source of some conflict from neighboring jurisdictions who have been fighting over who controls it. As such, it had no power, heat or running water. Keep this in mind for those planning to stay here. We made a fire for warmth, cooked with the MSR stove and ate a rehydrated dinner under our headlamps. Due in part to this ownership issue, nobody else was there, which was fine by me and would increase the odds of a better sleep. It made for more comfortable surrounds than pitching a tent and was situated at a good altitude to acclimate, despite not really sleeping this night due to the higher altitude coming from NY.
The drive up to the hut from the main road while winding and narrow, was refreshing and lined with tall conifers, reminiscent of the road entering Rainier National Park. It was scenery and terrain I didn't expect see in Mexico, particularly after spending the day before in the city and its surrounding suburban area with its desert-scrub like terrain filled with prickly pear/cactus and prehistoric looking giant agave plants. The air temperature up here was 15-20 degrees cooler which was nice after being in the city all day.
We left about 5:30am the next morning from the 'trailhead' located further up a dirt road.
As in many volcanoes, the original summit has been blown off, so the “summit” is one of the high points along the crater's edge. There are a few options for climbing once you get to the crater – one can head left, right or straight and climb more or less depending on what you want to do as there are many subpeaks along the crater ridge.
As it turned out, climbing 'Toluco was a very nice hike in itself. La Malinche would have made more sense to climb first due to its lower elevation, but that would have required driving through and/or around Mexico City again, which for those of you who have done that, can understand the order we chose to climb them in.
As you climb up higher, neighboring volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and the summit cone of Popocatepetl become visible in the distance as they peer through the lower cloud layer. It makes for a spectacular morning scene at sunrise. I stopped a few minutes to do a little extra pressure breathing to help cope with the altitude.
The starting point of the hike in was pretty high, approaching 13,000ft. The whole route is above treeline and initially you have a nice view of the city and rolling hills below. The road up to the starting point is dirt and passable by 2wd cars. Sadly, from this vantage point, you can also see the extent of pollution in the city below as a thick brown layer of smog covers the landscape.
It was cold and also very windy up here on the ridge and didn’t warm up until the sun rose higher in the sky.
The route up this mountain reminded me of a typical Fourteener in Colorado; It starts out along a nice Class 1 trail, with some straightforward Class 2/Class 3 sections on the last pitch towards the "summit" pyramid.
After a short hike up, the somewhat circular crater edge is reached, along which are numerous peaks and troughs you can climb up and down in what can probably be combined as a circuit. The high point is off to climber's right, or for a longer hike you can keep going down into the crater near the lakes and then ascend again on the distant side, circling around up and down all the high points. Given that this was my first hike, I figured I’d be happy just to “summit” the couple of points to the right, which is the direction I went to the high point, before which there are false summits.
From what I heard (though cannot verify) there is another way up the East/Southeast where you can hike South and then west on the summit ridge; I could see a hut of some sort in the bottom of the crater, so perhaps this was a refugio to stay in.
Walking along the crater’s edge, you are greeted with stupendous views down inside the crater as well as the lowlands around the mountain. Looking down into the middle of the crater, there are two lakes: Lake of the Sun (right) and Lake of the Moon.
There also appears to be a dome rising from the bottom, similar to what we see in Mount Saint Helens. Hmmm, maybe this isn’t so dormant after all. From what I understand, these lakes were the site of Aztec offerings during ritualistic ceremonies and much gold has been found by divers on the lake beds.
You will climb up and down two other subpeaks before reaching the high point, which will require some scrambling up loose volcanic scree and climbing over some sharp pumice. There are some more difficult lines up the mountain at this point, though I stuck to Class 3ish rock. There are some tricky sections to be careful on. I didn’t want to end up in a Mexican hospital.
The summit pyramid comes into view
On top, Izta and Popo are visible to the East, the city to the north/west and the gem-like colored crater lakes are below.
The roundtrip had about +2,750ft of elevation gain. Not sure of the mileage since I didn’t have a GPS with me but it was pretty short, maybe 5-7 miles roundtrip.
This was a great climb with virtually nobody else on the mountain. A few local families came up later, but nobody was climbing the mountain today at least in the morning. I imagine the fact that it is out of the way, makes it less popular than other mountains, but it is a fairly easy way to get up to 15,000+feet to acclimatize.
On to La Malinche and more driving.
The traffic in and around the city was horrendous and coupled with the amount of exhaust hanging in the air on the roads, extra driving was minimized where possible. Driving anywhere here seemed like a good three hours regardless of where you went. Driving around the highways, I felt like I was on the Sears Point Raceway, but with speed bumps and toll booths every two miles. I never saw major highways with speed bumps in them and so frequently. There were also many, many dead dogs on the road from being hit by cars. I was also a bit nervous being on the road with some of these drivers - literally passing you up hill on inside curves on nonpassable roads with traffic coming the other way. On a side note, arriving back into Queens and Manhattan actually put me at ease with the traffic here seeming to be subdued and orderly in comparison.
Dec 29, 2012
La Malinche (Matlalcueitl)
Elevation: 4,462M (14,640 ft)
Standing a bit higher than Mount Whitney, La Malinche makes a great acclimatizing climb for preparing for the area's taller mountains, at least for folks who don't readily have 4,000M peaks nearby on which to train.
Located in its own namesake national park in the Mexican states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, the trailhead is reached after a drive through the Mexican countryside filled with cactus trees, sheep farms and the oft-encountered diesel truck spewing its toxins into the air.
La Malinche as viewed from the road in:
We drove up to and stayed in one of the Cabins at the Centro Vacacional la Malinche which was located at about 10,100ft. This area was apparently a place for family picnics on holidays as there were several cabins around, perhaps as many as 40.
This area is also where Olympic athletes and Boxers come for altitude training. There is memorabilia from several such athletes in the café there.
The route on La Malinche is straightforward and Class 1 most of the way, until near the top where some scrambling is needed to gain the summit. The trail and entire route was generally easier than Nevado de Toluca, but a bit longer with more elevation gain. The trail begins at nearly the road-end, right before the entrance gate from above the cabanas at approximately 10,100ft. The gain, distance and height here made me feel like I was doing a Fourteener in the Sawatch Range.
The route starts in and travels through a nicely scented pine forest and soon steepens after the first mile or so. The beginning of the trail has the feel of hiking in the Sierra Nevada in California and while steadily increasing in elevation, was easy to walk on for the first couple of miles. Oddly, I didn’t see any wildlife at all, though according to the sign and some brochures there were wild cats, coati and coyotes here. The trail is also pretty dry (at least this time of year). Unfortunately, I also noticed a lot of garbage along the trail. Nevertheless, it is a nice hike up to treeline in the crisp quiet morning surrounded by Pine trees. A stray dog followed me up nearly most of the way.
As you climb higher, Orizaba is soon seen rising above the clouds to the east.
This mountain is also used by runners training for high altitude races and there were several runners on the trail this morning. Watching the local teenagers run up and down the mountain made me feel slow and fat as my sea level lungs gasped for air!
At around 13k on the steep northeast flank of the peak, you begin ascending a slope of volcanic ash and scree for a good 1,000 vertical feet. The slope here is steep, will test your cardio and makes for two step up-one step sliding back type of movement. I was wishing this slope would have been snow covered enabling a nice snow climb in crampons. The ash gives way to some talus and rubble higher up.
I need to get me a sombrero like the one that the climber is wearing in this pic! (top right)
After a few hundred feet of climbing up, you reach an area where you can continue directly up the loose scree or veer off to climbers left a few meters and climb up the area where there are short mounds of small tussock grasses, which has more stable footing.
As you crest the summit ridge, you will encounter a false summit and continue on a broken trail another few hundred yards. The route then enters a section where you will have to do some hopping on larger boulders on similar terrain as you'll find on many Colorado 14ers. Many of the runners stopped here and turned around – I imagine due to the trickier terrain and that there was really not much benefit for their acclimatization to travel over this stuff verses the nice trail lower down.
The last section to the summit has some trickier moves but hand and footholds are plentiful. The few meters right under the summit are very steep rock.
Once on top you are not only standing on a volcano, but surrounded by several others; Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl to the west and Orizaba to the east. The Malinche summit has a great view of the surrounding area and is marked by a jagged crater base to the southeast.
On top there is a memorial for a climber reflected by the cross. An offering of some sort was also on the rock nearby-reminiscent of Aztec offerings. After spending some time on top taking in the scenery and having my well-earned Summit Snickers, it was time to head down.
The descent was pretty straightforward. The steep volcanic ash and scree slope went fast with plunge stepping the way to go here! On the way down, we passed 40+ people making a day of La Malinche. Whether most of them summited, I'll never know, but I've never seen so many people hiking in blue jeans, most without carrying any visible water.
My altimeter showed a gain of +4,750ft on the roundtrip – I’d estimate the roundtrip mileage to be roughly 8-9 miles from where we started.
The drive from the national park was filled with more cultural experiences; Soon after leaving the park, we ran into a military road block. There were five trucks with 20-25 soldiers dressed in fatigues, all well-armed with M16s, FAL variants, side arms and a few shotguns. This was a bit intimidating, especially with all the stories I've read concerning those rogue Federalies or military personnel making it hard on folks.
They were searching for weapons and drugs and did a complete search of our car, backpacks, trunk, glovebox and luggage. Luckily, they found no reason to detain us and with a check of our id's and passport we were on our way.
Dec 30, 2012
Volcanoes Iztaccihuatl (Izta) and Popocatepetl (Popo ) are located in the Itza & Popo National Park on the border of three Mexican states: Mexico, Puebla, and Morelos. Izta is the third highest mountain in Mexico (after Orizaba and Popo) and the seventh highest in North America.
The night before heading to the Altzomoni hut, I stayed in the historic center of Puebla, a more traditional village away from the hustle and bustle of the city center, and from what I was told where many folks stay enroute to the volcanoes. I walked around a bit and felt pretty safe walking around town by myself. The "Square" area was filled with some traditional Spanish and Mexican architecture.
For Izta, I had all my gear packed and packed essentially the same gear as I used on Rainier.
The road getting to the National Park was tedious and took most the day and was slow going with all the traffic. The latter several miles of the road is dirt and "rough 2wd" and is covered with volcanic ash/dust and as such makes for a very dusty ride. This traffic included horses, mules, donkeys, packs of stray dogs and trucks carrying enormous amounts of corn stalks.
Enroute, you have a full view of both mountains most of the ride in. Popo was smoking quite often on this day, which made for a Jurassic Park like experience and while cool to witness, was a bit disconcerting-as base camp for Izta is situated right between both volcanoes.
Here is a shot of Iztaccihuatl looming over Puebla.
Due to its activity level and danger status, Popo is currently off limits for climbing.
Between Puebla alone and other neighboring towns on both sides of these two peaks, it's amazing how many people live so close to an active volcano and several other fairly dormant ones without giving it much pause.
I love this photo – this is a view of Popo driving in from Puebla. Note that it is smoking and the many dogs on the street - a typical scene.
Watching Popo smoke and driving closer to the active volcano, I kept thinking of that famous photograph of that small truck on the dirt road escaping the pyroclastic cloud of Mount Pinatubo from the 1991 eruption…hoping that wouldn’t be me in the morning!
Again, the drive getting here was a veritable Mexican cultural experience and along the way were several interesting scenes.
Several farmers and others were using donkeys and mules as porters ferrying loads to and from wherever, loads often heavier than the animal. One donkey was loaded with so many dried corn stalks, at first I didn't realize there was an animal underneath until it started moving. Twice we needed to stop for extended sheep crossings; huge herds of sheep being driven by three-four dogs barking from the rear.
At any stoplight on the way, many vendors would approach you hawking all sorts of goods from bottled water and drinks, food and snacks, toothbrushes, cell phone chargers, floormats, soap, fans, homemade trinkets, hats, sweaters, mittens, you name it.
At one point, further up the road, the road was closed, with a line of broken glass and rocks blocking any vehicles from proceeding further. As it turned out, there was a wedding a few days earlier so the local folks blocked the road for traffic and had never picked up the blockade.
We arrived at the National Park, picked up permits and then moved up to what would effectively be base camp for Itzaccihuatl late afternoon, which at roughly 13,300ft would hopefully be a good spot to acclimatize. At the park’s entrance parking lot, there were probably 100 people, though seemed to be all local folks. On the entire trip actually, I didn’t see many Americans or touristy-looking folks much at all.
I think the hut is called the Altzomoni hut as stated earlier. I heard this place can be full in the busy season, but luckily, nobody was there, possibly due to the New Year’s Eve and Holiday next day. The road up to hut is dirt, long and generally passable by most 2wd cars with some aggressive driving. I think in the U.S. we would consider this a 4wd road or at least “Rough 2wd”. You might need to drive this with a bandana around your mouth to breath as it gets very dusty with a car in front of you.
We would stay here two nights, then aim to start climbing around 2:00AM on Jan 1st for the summit attempt. The hut had a light in each communal room, but no running water or heat. It was very cold here and made for a cold night sleeping. At least I had my own room, for which I considered myself pretty fortunate. A stray dog was outside, barking and whining all night.
Sleep was ok this night, surprisingly due to the altitude. This was largely the result of the hut being empty tonight and not having to deal with any snoring roommates. This would change the next night.
Dec 31st 2012
Starting at about 13,000ft, did acclimatizing hike for ~3hrs, for a few easy miles and +1,000ft gain or so to keep the legs loose and help adjust to the altitude without wanting to burn myself out for the climb the next morning. The same dog also walked up and down following me. After the hike, there was a lot of downtime before going to sleep later. I watched Popo belch out smoke, listen to occasional rumbling and took some photos. It was cold here at night and I needed a few layers to keep warm.
A nice view of Izta from near the hut:
The hut is pretty much in the middle of nowhere surrounded by barren alpine/volcanic terrain. Nonetheless, it was a spectacular setting. A group of microwave towers is also located there and apparently houses a few workers related to a television station. The hut was cold and I kept finding myself looking for the heat switch or thermostat, to no avail.
Jan 1st 2013. New Year’s Day
Elevation: 17,159ft (5,230M)
Sleep tonight was more of horizontal rest than actual sleep as I don’t think I slept more than an hour at best. “Awakening” at 1:00AM, I got dressed, sorted out my pack and ate a bit, though honestly had very little appetite and headed off to the trailhead. Some lingering Montezuma's revenge wasn’t making life easier and dehydrated me a bit.
The climb from the La Joya parking lot starts at about 13,100ft and immediately gains elevation climbing up a steep embankment which later levels out before restarting to gain altitude. The dog wasn’t following me this time. While I wasn’t able to really see beyond the illumination of my headlamp, the terrain steepened and became quite loose in spots. Nobody else was on the trail this morning.
As it was shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, despite being fairly far away from anything, music from somewhere thumped in the background while explosions from fireworks lit up in the distant night in the city far below. Climbing above the ridge in the dark of the night, the lights and expanse of Mexico City’s urban sprawl became apparent.
Gaining elevation, the temperature grew colder and the wind picked up, requiring another layer and warmer gloves. Soon I was hiking above the elevation of Mount Whitney and would remain above this elevation the rest of the day. I noticed a team a couple hundred meters ahead. As I got closer realized it was a team of local climbers – all apparently better acclimated than I was for sure as they climbed while talking, whistling and laughing the whole way up! Eventually they slowed and we all hiked pretty much together for the next little while.
We arrived at the high hut at ~15,500ft before sunrise and went in for a few minutes to take quick shelter from the increasing wind before heading out. The aluminum looking shelter was small, and actually pretty dirty and cramped inside. I am glad I didn’t stay here. Two climbers inside were heading down rather than attempting to summit due to what they considered were symptoms of AMS.
As I sat resting, my stomach started feeling pretty bad and I lost any appetite for a while, which was a bummer and was hoping it wouldn’t force me to turn around as without eating anything I’d never have the energy to summit and return back. I sat and warmed up and gradually felt a bit better, though something was not right – I assumed it was related to the combination of the altitude, my not really eating too well the last few days and lack of meaningful sleep the past three nights. After 30 minutes of watching sunrise, I sucked it up, ate the only thing I had that seemed remotely palatable-my Snickers that I was saving for a (hopefully) successful summit attempt and slowly pushed out of the hut towards the summit. I suddenly became chilled and was very cold, adding my parker on for the next half hour of climbing before I warmed up again.
After the high hut, the terrain steepened and became more loose and involved some easy climbing on Class 2+ / Class 3 rock. The team of five local climbers was ahead gaining ground quickly as if they were climbing at sea level. I moved slower. Popo came into full view...still letting out some smoke.
Soon I saw people lingering on a high point with some sort of metal structure which I assumed was the summit! I climbed slowly up, moving like a sloth through the jungle canopy, making it to this highpoint…only to realize that it was just a false summit, the “knees” on Izta. Talk about being disheartened. From here on in, the terrain was snow covered.
I gathered the energy and moved on, looking down at the snowslope that I’d need to descend, then climb back up on the return.
The slope lead to what’s left of the glacier enroute to the summit which involved another climb up and down of a few hundred painful feet each way. There was still quite a lot of snow on top, but from what I understand, far below levels from 20yrs ago with the glacier having receded much in that time. This was the "Belly" of Izta.
Clipping on my crampons I started down the snowslope to the lower snowfield and glacier which itself was on flatter terrain. Crevasse risk was a non-issue from what I could tell.
The land here was stunning. I could imagine a Photo labeled “Of Fire and Ice on Izta.” The far end of the snowfield ended in yellow sulphur stained sand, indicative of volcanic origin. Oddly, I found myself gaining strength as I climbed from here on up, stronger than a thousand feet lower.
The true summit lay just beyond this high point below, not actually visible from here:
The Aztec translation of Iztaccihuatl means “White Woman” and reflects the fact that the mountain is often covered in snow and is supposed to resemble a woman lying down. There are four subpeaks of sorts on Izta, the head, breast, knees and feet. Listening to the local climbers chat about Izta, they were mentioning other subpeaks; her ear, neck and abdomen/belly which was glaciated – so perhaps there are seven subpeaks here…nonetheless I was not on the summit on this one and I moved on.
Looking towards the glacier and what needed to be overcome. The slope here wasn’t very steep, but the fact that it was nearly 5,000M made every step pretty tough.
Slowly and methodically, I rest-stepped up the next two subpeaks hoping the summit would soon appear before the altitude got to me. Another hill covered in hard packed snow and ice lay ahead of me, then the terrain was blown free of snow. Crampons came off. Two more climbs up to what appeared to be the summit ridge in the distance!
Another false summit needing to be climbed right before the real summit (note climber towards the top). It seemed that each of these false summits was another couple hundred feet up and made for slow going! Acclimatization is key on this climb.
Moving like molasses on a cold winter day, I pushed up that last steep section to the eventually gentle slope leading to the summit proper. Before this section, I noticed there was a sharp dropoff that ended in a cliff to the climbers left as your ascended and I saw a couple climbers coming down this way. This was very dangerous as one slip and there was no protecting that fall without rope, which was at least 100ft sheer drop. The safer way up in my opinion was straight up/to climbers right – that while steeper Class 2+/3 rock and involving some handholds, was safer than the loose exposed section above a sheer cliff. For the first time all week, I heard English being spoken by one of the climbers coming down.
Ten more minutes of slow climbing and soon I was on top - my new high point at 17,159ft and a great way to ring in 2013!
The view was stunning; snowfields, glaciers and richly colored volcanic rock surrounding the summit. Clouds started to move in pretty quickly and semi-white out conditions prevailed high up very fast, though it made an even more dramatic setting.
Roberto near the top looking out into the distance
Me on top
In short, the climb of Iztaccihuatl was long, challenging and very rewarding! The route offered a nice mixture of terrain from gentle hiking trails, slippery scree, steep rock, snowfields and glacier crossing at relatively high altitude all on a volcano steeped in rich Aztec lore and native Mexican heritage. I’d highly recommend climbing it.
Whether it was due purely to the altitude or a combination of that plus the fact that I felt a bit worn out, lingering stomach issues, lacking in proper food and sleep, I felt that climbing Izta was harder than Rainier.
On the day from the trailhead, my altimeter clocked an elevation gain of +6,049ft - mileage I would say was 12-14 miles roundtrip.
For Part 2 – I will have to go back and get to Orizaba, which hopefully will be Autumn, 2013.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):