Climbing in Mexico

17 Jan 1997 - by Steve Eckert

I've read on rec.climbing that the Orizaba hut shooting was an urban legend, but one of my group was in the hut on 17 Jan 97... while I was on the summit:

La Malinche		14,640		01/14/97
El Pico de Orizaba	18,400		01/17/97
Nevado de Toluca	15,390		01/19/97

I flew to Mexico City to join some friends who DROVE DOWN from California (that's doing it the hard way). Our goal was to do all the 14ers - we thought there were 5, but see below for info from a local that indicates there are many more. (He also provides details on spelling that may surprise you - Ixta is offensive to the people who named the mountain, Izta is better.)

While in Mexico City, we were stopped twice by cops who demanded money from each passenger. When challenged as to what the money was for, a FOOT COP said we ran a red light. There were no lights in sight. The driver argued, the cop unholstered his gun, we paid US$20 each. The second stop we just paid. I've heard since then that flying to Puebla costs the same as flying to Mexico City even though you stop in Mexico City on the way. Caveat Emptor.

But it's better on the mountain, right? Popo was blowing up, Izta was a place where people were carrying their full overnight packs all the way to the summit. Sigh. Leaving stuff in the huts was a sure way to lose it, and even those who cached it part way up looked back an hour later to see it headed downhill with a stranger. Rental cars left at the trailhead were stolen or trashed - hire a cab at the base of the mountain, and pay them only half the fare to be sure they'll be back at the appointed time to get you.

Half of our group was late, but some of us went for an acclimatization hike on Izta. We got to the hut at 15k, all on good trail, and were impressed with how nice the hut was inside. We just had daypacks, intending to meet our friends that night and bring full packs back up the next day. Surprise! Our friends were planning to go do one of the shorter peaks first, so we headed for La Malinche.

La Malinche (14,640') was our first dayhike, and our group wasn't very interested in accommodating the novice among us - she struggled with the altitude and just being out of shape while we pressed on. There were some arguments about pacing, and on the way down I stopped trying to keep the group together and had a great glissade. The one who was sick up high got better, but that night our other female climber got fairly bad altitude sickness at the campsite (a random place in the trees, away from the trailhead and below the guarded entrance station). Feeling nauseous, but not wanting to try quick fixes like lots of hot chocolate, she went down to the valley (9000' ?) with two guys and one of the trucks while the rest of us spent the best night of the trip: We stretched out in comfortable temps and looked up at the stars through the canopy of trees while the sun set. Meanwhile, they were setting up camp beside a small farm road when they were surrounded by a rifle-toting mob. None of us spoke good Spanish, but they gathered that the older men wanted to rob them and the younger men wanted the blonde. With something like a half hour siege and a few shots fired over their heads, our guys convinced the older men that the consequences were not worth the rewards, and the crowd followed them closely to the trailhead entrance station where our guys had (falsely) said they had friends. Once near the guard station, the mob dispersed.

Having fun yet? On to Orizaba (18,410')... With 4WDs of our own, we didn't hire a ride from Sr Reyes. The hut at 14k is great, really! It has 3 bombproof sleeping levels (with small mice that can climb to each of them) and can accommodate so many people that it is never really quiet inside. The water supply was a trickle, and we chose to pump since it was of unknown origin. There is an old aqueduct in the area, but it's full of scree and cracked from ice and snow. The cooking area in the hut was crowded, but it was out of the wind and you could stand at a counter while cooking - a most welcome change from other huts I've been in.

Most people do Orizaba as a long day from the hut at around 14k, but there are some good tent sites further up. I camped at 15k+ in old stone-walled campsites, others in my group started from the hut, and other groups camped near 16k in marginal sites. The rest of my group surprised me at my tent an hour ahead of our agreed schedule (they left the hut at 1am), but would not wait for me to finish dressing because they were carrying no spare clothes and got cold if they stopped. I should have bailed at that point, but hurried after them with no idea how to find them in mixed rock/ice gullies and no line of sight to their headlamps.

We were back together by 16.5k, soon after which the tracks in the snow went away as we walked onto blue ice. I remembered watching people traverse the top of the bowl the day before, keeping an uphill slope to their left, but our leader insisted we should walk straight uphill or perhaps traverse left. Oops. Once the tracks were gone, he stopped and admitted he really didn't know where the peak was. After trying to convince them we should go right, and failing, I left the group and struck out for the peak on my own. Amazingly, they followed. We hit the summit somewhere around 8am, having taken no real food or water breaks due to their lack of extra clothes. I kept putting on more layers as we climbed, wondering how they did it without getting frostbite. I think the temperature was near 0F, with a brisk wind, and lenticular clouds had formed on the summit by 10am the three previous days. We didn't stay long.

We split up at the top, agreeing to meet at the hut. On the way down, I stopped to help a stranger in canvas boots who had walked out of his flexible crampons - he had no strap on his ice axe, fleece finger gloves, and was hanging from the axe with no chance of regaining his footing. After chopping a step so he could wobble to his feet and re-attach the crampon, I suggested he go down due to lack of proper gear. He refused, and I mentally wrote him off as he chugged uphill. No reports of a death that day, so I assume he made it. The clouds swallowed all of us before I got to my tent.

While we were gone our novice non-climber was hanging out in the hut (where she wisely agreed to stay due to lack of experience) with a few other people when the bandits showed up. One person had a gun trained on her, another had a knife against his ribs, and the third bandit went through the luggage. (I always carry my money, tickets, and ID to the summit!) At some point there was a distraction, someone threw an ice axe at the gunman, and the bandits bolted. They weren't aware of people sleeping on the third level, which seems to be where salvation came from, but had been casing the hut for over 24 hours. Beware of climbers without boots! They told us the day before that they were workers trying to fix the aqueduct. As they left, the gunman fired a shot back INTO the hut, but the bullet ripped into a duffel bag about 3 feet from the target person. I've got a picture of the very shaken climber holding his punctured juice can.

There are bad guys in every place I've been, but a universal theme is that making friends with the people who live in the area will tend to improve the image of both countries. Only in Russia have the people we hired actually been the ones ripping us off. If we had used Sr Reyes instead of driving ourselves to Orizaba, he would have had a stake in our well-being. As it was, we stayed at his compound on the way out... and he expressed great concern over our story, but did not contact us to say if the bandits had been "dealt with".

Nevado de Toluca (15,390') was a long dayhike with fresh snow, but we got no sleep in the noisy smoky lodge at the base. Stay at a hotel in town (as we did the next night), or camp just out of sight of the lodge (as we saw others doing). There was a road most of the way to the crater, and we popped over the rim with hordes of family groups. Crossing the crater the crowds thinned out, and we were the only ones climbing the high point that day. We decided to split the group because our novice was getting sick and having trouble with 2' of fresh snow fluff over sharp talus, but in keeping with the general behavior of our group the slow people decided to follow us instead of going back as agreed. Some of us arrived at the peak before the clouds, the others stopped to vomit and got there late and exhausted. We decided to take the fall line down to the crater instead of the minor traverse we did on the way up, and wound up with some nice glissading. We reached the car well after dark, lucky to have found our way back just as the street vendors were leaving (after which pitch black would probably have gotten us lost).

Between arguing with the bad decision makers in my group and being attacked by both bandits and policia, I decided enough was enough. I went home. Didn't wait for Popo to stop, didn't try Izta, didn't pay United the $50 to change my return flight (convinced them it was THEIR mistake). Several of our group did climb Izta by a glacier route, but Popo kept popping off and they headed for the coast to relax before driving home.

I'm not saying every trip will go like ours did, just that I've never been to a place with such a thin veneer of safety. Keep together, assume nothing is safe, take only what you can carry, hire the locals whenever possible so they can tell you who is dangerous. (One common kids game was to stand in the road, playing chicken with the cars, and while WE never slowed down we assumed that the crowd of kids on the side of the road would converge if you DID stop.) My experience may not be typical, but it's all I have to go on. The tyranny of one data point, eh?

Below are some related comments from subscribers of the [now defunct] high-altitude email discussion list at Climber.Org, included here by permission of the various authors:

Rodulfo Araujo adds:

Grupo de los Cien is the hut organization in Mexico. As a member, we are concerned about this kind of news, although little we can do but ask authorities for better protection. Certainly, better roads also mean better access for anyone, good or bad-intentioned.

As far as we know, the last shooting happened in 96/97 season... is this new? I will answer accordingly to my suspicion that this is old news recycled. Pls confirm.

It seems to have happened once in the referred year, although thieves were very active during that season. Better control on the markets of Tlachichuca and Coscomatepec have reduced these problems. You can't find anymore stolen items there easily.

sre> While in M.City, we were stopped twice by cops who demanded money

and they payed... Police corruption has been greatly reduced. If this is new, I would be very surprised. Obviously, nobody took the police plate number... they just payed. Either side is guilty (to say the least) to me.

Rodulfo Araujo continues:

Detailed elevations (and disagreements) available at These all are 14k+

If you consider also subsummits, the list grows. (R) means "Rock":

Roger J Wendell adds:

Eight years ago a friend and I drove from Denver to Guatemala (and back). We attempted Popo but only made it just above 15,000 feet.

The police, in some places, were brutal. In others, they were great. On the west coast they searched us out at 1:00 am in the morning to warn us of an approaching flood. Near Monterey (a big city) they robbed us twice at gun point.

We even drove through Chiapas just as it was flaring up (because we didn't know any better) and felt safer there, than in Monterey, even though the bandits threatened to cut our throats (it seemed more like a threat than a promise, at the time).

All in all, we met a lot of great local people throughout Mexico and loved our 6,000 mile drive through their country.

Rodulfo Araujo adds:

In an old USENET discussion, I posted the following. Recently, a member of this list suggested I should post this info here because it could be of interest to others, and help our crusade for correct spelling (I was shocked when a US friend called it "Ixty"!).

The name Iztaccihuatl is in Nahuatl (known as Aztec language, although Aztecs just adopted it), and was a post-conquest invention.

Before the Spaniards, there was no "woman" indian legend. The indians knew it in different languages as "white sierra" (in Nahuatl it was Iztatepetl). Later, it was associated with a godess Iztazoatl ("blood of salty water"). It was also known by different tribes in different times as Cihualtepetl ("woman mountain") and even as "volcano of the dead", due to the silouette of its shadow.

Iztaccihuatl does not mean "sleeping woman". That is also a late XIX century addition to urban myth, by poet Jose Santos Chocano.

There is no "controversy", but the right way to spell and pronounce something in any language. In this case, there are generally accepted rules to write Nahuatl in our alphabet. The corruption Ixta, widely spread in English speaking people, and Ixtla, widely used by Mexican are aberrations and IMHO lack of respect for the Nahuatl language. To give you an idea:

Get it?

R.J. Secor adds:

A group of CMC (that's California Mountaineering Club) climbers went to Mexico in late October. Here's a report:

Climbing conditions were excellent. The extension of the rainy season into October (producing the floods in Hidalgo, Puebla, and Veracruz) left lots of new snow on the high volcanoes. The snow started at approximately 4600m/15,000 feet, and I saw a few sluffs, but no major avalanches. The snow was perfect for crampons.

Cabanas at the Centro Vacacional La Malintzi were MN$260/night mid-week. The road above the camp had been graded and gravelled, but it is closed to private vehicles, so one must hike La Malinche from the resort. There was no snow on Malinche.

We attempted La Arista de Luz on Ixta by approaching it from the northwest via the road between San Rafael and Llano Grande. We had two days of rain, clouds, and fog (the only bad weather on the trip). I misjudged the height of a rock on the road and managed to crack the exhaust manifold on my father's Ford Aerostar; otherwise I would consider it to be suitable for high clearance 2WD vehicles. We had the manifold welded back together for MN$100 in Tlachichuca a week later. The attempt on La Arista de Luz ended with a bivouac beneath an overhanging boulder at 4500m below the Chalchoapan Hut. We then hiked out, drove around the mountain to La Joya and climbed La Arista del Sol in one day with beautiful weather and snow conditions.

We then drove to Tlachichuca and hired Reyes to drive us to the Fausto Gonzlez Gomar hut on the southern side of El Pico de Orizaba. It has always been a bad road leading from Ciudad Serdn across the pass north of Sierra Negra, but the rains had done a number on this road. At one point we encountered a wall of mud. Our driver, Leopoldo Cortes Pena or "Polo" shoveled the wall into a ramp (well, we helped) and got us past this obstacle to the next obstacle, overcome with more shoveling. We eventually reached the roadhead and hiked the short distance to the hut. There was snow outside the hut, so we didn't need to carry the extra water we had packed. At sunset we were visited by a driver, a rescue guy, and a Puebla state policeman (who had a bottle of tequila under his jacket). They told us that two Americans had fallen on our route. One had hiked out and notified the authorities while the other was still on the mountain. The rescue guy said that "one of your compatriots is missing." We told them that we would look for him the next day. The rescue guy said that he was to the left of our climbing route.

We didn't see anybody on our ascent or descent of the southern route. It was a bit windy during the day, but that's okay, it can be blazing hot in calm conditions. We then hiked back to the roadhead and met more rescuers. They said that a German was missing. Our driver than drove us back to Tlachichuca via Texmalquilla and Atzitzintla. This was a good 2WD dirt road. Also, a "highway" is being built to Sierra Negra for the observatory. So it appears that access to the southern side of El Pico de Orizaba will become much easier in the future. And the next day Gerardo Reyes told me that they found the Spaniard's body to the far right of our ascent route. We didn't see any other gear in the hut and no marks on the snow indicating a recently fallen climber.

There has been a thread on Mexico over the past couple of days and here's my report:

There is a $15.00 tourist tax, but I neglected to pay this at a bank while I was in country. There was a Federale checkpoint outside of Reynosa (across from McAllen, TX) and they told me to pay it at the bank in Reynosa the next day. The next day was Sunday, so I must remember to do this the next time I am in Mexico.

One must deposit cash or a bond on a vehicle taken to Mexico, unless one has a major credit card. There is a fee for the credit card service, but it is cheap.

Mexico City has a driving restriction with vehicles with certain license plate numbers can't be driven on certain days of the week. This has now been extended beyond the D.F. to urban areas of the state of Mexico. This cost me MN$800 (I had too much cash handy) but I got the cop to give us a police escort to Miraflores on the way to San Rafael. The cop initially asked for MN$1,900. If it was any other infraction I would call the "cop" a "pig." And he wouldn't have gotten 80 bucks.

My father and I drove to the volcanoes from our home in Pasadena, CA and we found some great overnight campsites:

We pulled off Highway 45 at Concho and cooked dinner in a school yard. The principal/teacher/janitor told us to move so we drove north on the side road on the west side of the highway and then left on a paved road to an electrical substation. We slept across from the substation at 13, 470269E 3093190N.

On Highway 85, south of Actopan and north of Pachuca we drove up a road leading to a microwave station. We camped in a field of maguey cactuswhen the road became too rough to continue . 14, 509517E 2230509N.

On Highway 150 between Tehuacn and near Ciudad Mendoza we camped next to some railroad tracks on the south side of the road. 14, 681601E 2070745N. We were awakened by the Veracruz State Police at 5:30 a.m. Five of them with shotguns. "What are you doing here?" "Sleeping. Do you want to see my identification?" "Yes." I showed them my passport and my driver's license. They seemed to write down everything from both documents. I have a piece of paper on the back of my driver's license instructing a California police officer to have the notice to appear in court to be in a court at the county seat. The policeman asked me about it. I told him that it was a note to the American police indicating that I am a man of privilege. The interrogation quickly ended and we went back to sleep.

Highway 85 at Tamn. There was an army checkpoint here and I asked one of the soldiers where we could camp. He told me to leave the highway, drive through town, cross a bridge and camp next to the river. There were fireflys around us at a beautiful spot next to the Rio Moctezuma. 14, 512540E 2347811N.

Finally, on the spelling of the mountains. In my book I consider "Ixta" and "Popo" to be American nicknames for the volcanoes. They really aren't correct from a Mexican cultural standpoint. When a Mexican tells me this I am respectful, but I think of "Baldy" for Mt. San Antonio and "Grayback" for Mt. San Gorgonio and "San Jack" for Mt. San Jacinto.

And here's a question: How high is El Pico de Orizaba? My GPS read 18,865 ft on the summit. One of Reyes' postcards says 5675m. The second edition of my book says 5611m, based on a USAF navigational chart. Any inputs?

Rodulfo Araujo adds:

There are still disagreements around the higher elevations. USAF chart has the same number that INEGI has (the Mexican Geographic & Statistic Institute). It is evident one copied the other (I understand that under international agreement, the two governments were responsible to measure their own and exchange data). Most climbing clubs agree with what you measured and INEGI tends to be very precise in other elevations but really high ones: after Cofre de Perote there are all kind of discrepancies, generally to the low side. Gerry & Jennifer Roach proved this when climbing Cofre.

There is no consensus but most tend to believe INEGI is wrong for this specific mountain. (Carlos: what do you think? Does UNAM have different elevation numbers?). As a rule of thumb, climbers in Mexico are taught 5,750m for Pico de Orizaba, 5,450 for Popocatepetl and 5,250 for Iztacchuatl.

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