Climbing a Volcano

Trip Start Jul 29, 2012
Trip End Aug 01, 2013

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Flag of Mexico  , México,
Monday, October 29, 2012

Of the miles I've hiked in my life, very few have been above an altitude of 12,000 feet. None of them have been above 15,000 feet.  In my experience, making an ascent from 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet can be just as satisfying as, if not more satisfying than, a climb that rises from 9,000 feet to 13,000 feet.  While the Brooks Range in northern Alaska and the Torres del Paine range in southern Chile host relatively low mountains (peaks at or below 10,000 feet), I think they are just as majestic and rugged and awe-inspiring as the highest mountain ranges in the world.  That said, the mystique and allure of the high peaks hasn't evaded me.  So, in mid-September, when my friend Oliver invited me to join him on an October 23 climb of one of Mexico’s volcanos, I was intrigued. 
The volcano known as  Iztaccihuatl, "The White Woman," in Náhuatl, beckoned. The third highest peak in Mexico, Iztaccihuatl (click HERE for the correct pronunciation), or Izta to the linguistically challenged, rises 17,342 feet (5,286 meters) above sea level.  The dormant volcano gets its name from its profile, that of a woman lying on her back (the photo to the left is not from the correct angle to see the woman).  It’s covered in snow for much of the year.  The topography of the mountain is regularly talked about in terms of her feet, knees, stomach, chest, and head.  Like the Grand Tetons, her chest is the apex.  The active volcano, Popocatépetl, "The Smoking Mountain", lies just a few miles to the south and stands 560 feet higher … at least until it blows its top.

As I began looking into the possibility of climbing Izta, it became clear to me that although it would be safe to hike without technical gear – ropes, ice axes, crampons, etc. – it would still require some good gear.  Temperatures on the mountain drop below 32 °F at night and I was ill equipped to do the hike with the clothing and shoes I had brought with me to Mexico.  Go figure.  In addition to warm layers and good hiking boots, I would need a warm sleeping bag and pad.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I figured out my options: to borrow, rent, or buy new gear; to hire a guide that would provide me with everything I needed; or to somehow get my stuff, packed away in our house in Montana and at my parents’ house in Minnesota, down to Oaxaca. 

My options narrowed quickly.  Shipping my stuff from Montana to Mexico would be unreliable or very expensive.  I couldn’t find any outfit between Oaxaca and Mexico City that would rent gear.  Hiring a guide was expensive and Oliver didn’t want a guide.  So, I focused on borrowing gear and buying a few things to fill in the gaps.  My friend Mark, an Irish bloke who lives in Oaxaca with his Mexican wife and three kids, dredged up some base layers and shells and a warm weather sleeping bag for me.  I looked into what it would cost for some good boots and a cold weather sleeping bag. 

After a few weeks of not being sure whether I could pull everything together without breaking the bank, the heavens began to open.  In early October, my dad reminded me that he would soon be heading to Bozeman to give a talk at a construction law conference.  I quickly put together a short “Izta gear list”, shot an email to the family renting our house inquiring as to whether they could gather the things on the list from their places in storage, and asked my dad to swing by the house to pick the stuff up.  It worked like a charm.  Our tenants are great, and happily engaged in a scavenger hunt for my things.  When my dad stopped by to pick up the gear bag, they all had tea and zucchini bread together.  I couldn’t have been happier. 

But … and it was a big “but” …  that only got my stuff as far as Minnesota, which meant that I could have my parents bring it down to Oaxaca when they visited over Christmas, not by October 23.  Then, another stroke of luck.  My father-in-law, Gary, who was having grandkid withdrawal, found a reasonably priced ticket to Oaxaca and called to tell us he could pay us a visit four days later if we were up for it.  “Of course”, we said.  “Oh, and would you mind being a pack mule for us?”  My mom packed up a duffle bag, dropped it off at Gary’s house, and I received it less than 30 hours before Oliver and I hopped on a bus headed for Izta. 

Oliver had invited others to join him as well.  When we reached go time, the final count was three, Oliver, Oliver’s friend, Peter, who lives in Cuernavaca, about an hour south of Mexico City, and me.  On Monday, October 22, my alarm went off at 3:40am.  I met Oliver at the center square in San Felipe del Agua at 4:15 to catch a taxi to the bus station.  From there, we would take the 5am bus to Puebla, a four hour drive, and catch another bus to Cuautla, a two hour drive.  In Cuautla, we would be picked up by Peter, who would drive us a couple more hours to the Izta trailhead near Paso de Cortez.  All went as planned.  The first bus ride was very pleasant - Oliver and I both slept.  The second bus ride included a bad American movie, dubbed into Spanish.  I spent most of my time reading and looking out at the beautiful countryside. 

When Oliver and I grabbed our bags and exited the bus terminal in Cuautla, there was Peter, waiting for us with a big smile on his face.  We squeezed our gear and ourselves into Peter’s ’93 VW beetle and headed toward the volcanos.  Oliver and Peter are both Germans who married Mexican women and now reside in Mexico.  For the first third of the drive, we all spoke in German.  Well, I spoke Germ-Span-Glish.  With all kinds of new Spanish words swirling around in my head, I had a hard time switching back to pure Deutsch.  Eventually we settled on English – Oliver and Peter’s English is better than my German - though I enjoyed the novelty of speaking German when I felt confident.
In the weeks leading up to our hike, I had expressed my concern to Oliver about the nonchalance with which he seemed to be approaching the altitude element of our hike.  Altitude sickness was something we shouldn’t mess with, I argued.  If we really wanted to set ourselves up for success, we should properly acclimatize ourselves by spending some time at altitude before the peak ascent.  After telling me he only had a two-day window on his schedule for hiking, Oliver eased my concern by revealing that this hike wasn’t about reaching the peak for him.  It was about spending time on a beautiful mountain and getting as high up as we could.  If we needed to turn around because of altitude sickness, so be it.  Wow.  How chill.  How totally Mexicano … er, German???  It caused me to reflect on my own goal-oriented mindset regarding this climb.  I wanted to summit.  It was oddly liberating to agree with Oliver that reaching the top needn’t be our goal.  And so it was that I approached the hike as a kind of scouting trip for a future ascent.
I found it both amusing and fitting that we were heading up the side of a huge Mexican volcano squeezed into a VW beetle.  When we stopped for lunch at a roadside stand, I felt as though we emerged from the beetle like clowns from a clown car.  Oliver and Peter are both taller than I am, and they don’t lack in the lankiness department.  The three of us sidled up to small table, asked the señora what she was serving, and proceeded to each down (or “mow” as my sister might say) a bean and cheese “pocket”, two mushroom and cheese quesadillas, three chicken and cheese quesadillas, and two bottles of mango juice as we fueled up for our climb the next morning.  Then we squeezed back into the bug and drove higher and higher, through a beautiful fir forest, until we reached the park service station at Paso de Cortez.  After filling out some paperwork and paying about US$4 each, we drove our final stretch up a pockmarked sandy road to La Joyalita, where we would pitch our tents, organize our hiking gear, eat some dinner, and settle in for an abbreviated sleep.

 Upon arriving at the La Joyalita parking area, I was surprised to see at least a dozen search and rescue personnel.  My first thought was, “Wow, if they’re stationed here all the time, this must be a more dangerous hike than I thought.”  I soon learned that a young woman had basically had her knees hoist a white flag after making it to the summit.  Some emergency personnel were helping her down the mountain. The rest were on call in the parking lot.   Iztaccihuatl was shrouded in clouds, but as the sun got closer to the horizon, the clouds dissipated and the mountain revealed itself.  Impressive.  I soaked it all in and was happy to note that, at nearly 13,000 feet of elevation, my head and body were feeling good.  

“Do you like fish?” Peter asked as he began preparing dinner.
“Yes”, I replied.
“Do you like tomato sauce?”
“Do you like carrots?”
“Do you like sour cream?”
Little did I know that Peter was planning on combining them in a pasta sauce.  So it came to pass that I enjoyed my first creamy tomato tuna and raw carrot rotini.  It wasn’t bad.  I topped off my tank with some corn chowder, helped with dishes, brushed my teeth, and headed to the tent.  Temperatures were approaching freezing, so I was very thankful to have my own down sleeping bag.  Close to sleep, I heard some rustling around in the direction of the Peter’s beetle.  Footprints on his hood would later reveal that a coyote had paid us a visit. 

Oliver’s alarm went off at 3:30am.  I had slept surprisingly well.  I got dressed in layers and packed up my gear.  Headlamp on, I emerged from the frost covered tent and got my blood flowing.  Peter wasn’t around.  I assumed he was heeding nature’s call.  Little did I know how right I was.  When he sauntered over to Oliver and me, he said, in his German accent, “I just, how do you say, 'womited’.”  “You vomited?” I replied.  The altitude was clearly affecting him.  “We need to get you down the mountain.” He said he felt he could take care of himself and that Oliver and I should go on as planned.  He would meet us back in the parking lot sometime after 3pm. 
At 5am, later than we had planned, Oliver and I set out.  We both carried mid-sized packs and hiked with headlamps and hiking poles.  I hiked faster than Oliver and when I stopped to wait for him, turned off my headlamp.  The stars were incredible.  Shooting stars, one after another.  Absolutely soul-feeding.  A look over at Popocatépetl revealed a beautiful and magical and sobering sight.  Popo’s crater glowed red.  I was awestruck.  The volcano was indeed active.  The red radiance in the dark night sky exposed its lava-filled crater.  I wish Micah and Zola had been there to see it with me. 

Plugging along up the mountain in the dark, Oliver and I mistakenly followed one of the many “variations on the theme” paths.  We lost some time finding our way back to the main trail, but there were otherwise no ill effects.  Two hours into the climb, the sky began lighting up in the east.  Popo’s red glow disappeared, the city of Puebla appeared, and we hiked higher under clear skies.  I took off my winter hat and a couple of layers.  During breaks, I drank from the four liters of water I was carrying and snacked on cheese, apples, nuts, chocolate and hummus sandwiches.  The fact that I was feeling great was in and of itself energizing.  Although I had embraced the hike as a relaxed scouting mission, my juices were flowing and I was eager to keep going up, up, up.  Another friend of ours in Oaxaca had asked me to carry his GPS unit on the hike.  It showed that we had reached 14,000 feet at 6:10am and 15,000 feet at 9:00am.  It was there that Oliver shared with me that he was struggling.  He had erred on the heavy side when he packed food, water, and supplies.  His energy was being sapped. 
Hmm… I really wanted to keep hiking, but I also wanted to be safe.  Oliver and I made it up to the Grupo de los Cien Hut (around 15,500 ft.), where many hikers spend the night before heading up to the summit, and came up with a plan.  Earlier, Oliver and I had shared a snack with two young guys from Colorado who said they were going to hike to “the knee”.  Knowing that they were up ahead, Oliver encouraged me to keep hiking.  He would rest a bit and hike until he hit snow, then turn around.  He and I would reconvene at the hut no later than 2pm.  So, at 10:15am, with the clock ticking, I headed up the mountain to reach the knee.
An exhilarating one hour later, I was enjoying lunch on the knee (16,650 feet) with the two guys from the States.  The temperature was over 60 °F.  I had crossed a snow field to reach that point and could feel the effects of the sun on my chapping lips.  In the east, I could see the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak (18,491 feet).  In the west, I would have been able to see Mexico City were it not for a thick haze of smog.  I briefly considered hiking further before concluding that the prudent thing to do was to head down the mountain with my two new friends.  I heard Leah saying, “remember you have a wife and two kiddos; don’t get cocky…”  We hadn’t seen anyone else up ahead and I understood that the mountain had been clouding over by 2pm the preceding week, so it wasn't a hard decision to turn around.
Refueled, at 11:30am, the three of us headed down the mountain.  Oliver had reached his goal – snow – and had enjoyed a nap during my absence.  The hike back to the car was easy, but hard.  Easy in that we knew where we were going and knew what to expect.  Hard in that we were both very tired.  I was also experiencing a mild headache.  We stopped a few times to drink and snack.  I told Oliver I didn’t want to sit very long or it would be hard to get back up.  The idea of a nap was very enticing, but the idea of being back at the car was even more so.  We headed onward and reached La Joyalita by 3pm.  It had been a satisfying hike.

Driving down the mountain, we stopped at another roadside stand.  I didn’t feel like eating, so I lay on the grass while Peter and Oliver ate mushroom soup and drank mango juice.  From there we drove back to the bus station in Cuautla, where I caught a bus to Puebla and then to Oaxaca.  Back in Oaxaca at 4am, less than 48 hours since I'd left, I caught a taxi home, showered, and crawled into bed.  I slept well.
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Matt on

Steve what a great adventure! Looks like the Mexican life is still treating you well.

Uncle Ralph on

You can take the mountain away from Steve, but you can't take Steve away from the mountain. Good to see you on top again.

Hunt on

Hi to you and Leah. Another great report.... and pics. You are the greatest adventurer I know. Tu amigo

Uncle Bob on

the graph of elevation gain is impressive. I've heard that every 1000' of change in elevation while hiking is like adding a mile of walking on level ground. That was a long hike!

Uncle Ben on

Steeden - awesome post!! Hoch Deutsch, mowing, volcanos, womiting from the've packed almost all of my great loves into one story. Great adventure. Leah's a good wife to let you slip away to charge up the soul from time to time.

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