Mexican Volcanoes

8-17 Feb 1996 - by Chris Fiedler

FEBRUARY 8, 1996

Leave Truckee at 5:30 AM for Reno, for flight departing 8:05 AM for San Francisco. Arrive San Francisco, board 11:30 AM flight to Mexico City. Flight aborted prior to take off---mechanical problems means return to terminal. Passengers given a $10 lunch credit each. Flight rescheduled for 2:00 PM departure. Arrive Mexico City at 9:30 PM (2 hour time difference). The delay concerns me as it is going to put us in Amecameca very late and may be difficult to find lodging. When they saw our ice axes, Customs and Immigration had us take everything out of our packs, and one of the officers wanted one of our freeze dried desserts, Chocolate Mocha. No problem, gave it to him. It was the only 'Mordida' of the trip. Holly was annoyed as she wanted that desert. Taxi to the TAPO TERMINAL, where busses leave for points East. TAPO at 10:30PM. Problem as most of the bus services close at 10:00 PM, but by luck, the last bus to Amecameca was leaving at 10:30 PM, a 2nd class carrier. Got on in the nick of time. The TAPO TERMINAL is modern and easy to get around. As we left Mexico City, we had a good look at the night life. Very smoggy and the city lights gave the city a yellow/brown cast. Throngs of people and cars. Have never seen so many VW Bugs in one place. There are countless blocks of concrete and masonry buildings, mostly two and three stories, many with rebar protruding from the top for future expansion. Most of the Mexicans air dry their laundry off their decks. Doors and windows have iron bars or grill work over them and many of the structures are surrounded by tall masonry walls with broken glass embedded on the tops. The city and it's environs had a rundown, shabby appearance.

The night was warm and the bus made numerous stops to pick up passengers, soon their was standing room only. Passengers were friendly and several struck up conversations. The pollution was beginning to bother Holly as she is sensitive to smog. Once out of the city, the country is beautiful.

Mexico City is sited on a high plateau or meseta, referred to as the central meseta, in a mountain ringed basin known as the Valley of Mexico at an elevation of 7,359 feet. The statistics are staggering. It is the second, if not the first largest metropolis in the world, with more than 20 million people. It is estimated that 2,000 new residents arrive and 700 million gallons of water are used every day. 12,000 tons of air pollution are exhausted every day. It is said that breathing the air is the equivalent of smoking forty cigarettes a day. Chronic bronchitis is endemic among the residents. Visitors typically experience sore throats and eyes that smart within hours of their arrival. The population is expected to reach 23 million by the end of the century. Not surprisingly, the crime rate in Mexico City is higher than any other place in the country. Geologically, Mexico City is susceptible to earthquakes, but it is its topography that causes its immediate problems. Landlocked and ringed by mountains (100 km long, 60 km wide), it lets neither water in or sewage out. Mexico City is running out of water as they draw their aquifer down, the land settles and they lose whatever underground storage capacity they had. The water coming in does not come close to matching the water going out. Along with the question of enough food for everyone, there are looming crisis on the horizon.

After a 1 hour, 10 minute bus ride, we arrive in Amecameca at 11:40 PM. We get off into a nearly empty town. Even though we are over 8,000 feet in February, it is still warm. We are let off near the Zocalo and walk around the town in a futile search for lodging. Back where the bus let us off is a cafe, TACO LOCO, that was keeping late hours. We inquired about a place to stay and found the people to be very helpful. They took an immediate liking to Holly and directed us to the Hotel Marque about a 1/4 mile down the road. They insisted on helping Holly with her bags and at the Marque, they raised the manager from his doze in front of the TV set and we got a room with a shower and queen sized bed with TV. Clean, but no blankets. So we did use our sleeping bags, just did not need a tent.

The hotel El Marques is a one level, pink stucco, hacienda style building that has a private courtyard for every room and is relatively quiet.
Amecameca.jpg HotelElMarques.jpg

Around the hotel and in town are a number of palm and date trees, which you do not think of thriving at 8,000 feet. We are several degrees South of the Tropic of Cancer, which makes this a tropical latitude. The botanical reference books refer to the climate of this area as "rim tropical" because "it lies at the edge of the tropics where temperate zone air masses have a notable influence". The Mexicans refer to our elevation as the Tierra fria or cold land. This zone lies between 6,000 and 10,500 feet and occasional frost and light snowfalls are typical during the Winter. The vegetation is a mixture of plateau grasslands and woodlands of oaks, junipers and pines. On the other side of the volcanoes, on the coastal slopes above Veracruz at this similar elevation is a cloud forest where maritime breezes cause thick cloud banks to form. These are cool, humid forests made up of tropical mountain trees.

FEBRUARY 9, 1996

There is a smog haze this morning, but it is clear enough for spectacular views of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl. These are Mexico's third and second highest peaks. The names of these peaks come from Aztec mythology, Popocatepetl (the warrior) and Iztaccihuatl "the sleeping maiden". Pre Aztec Indians referred to Popocatepetl as the smoking mountain, and true to its name, there was a plume of vapor rising above it. Paso de Cortes, the saddle or pass between the volcanoes is visible. Of the two volcanoes, Popo is more aesthetic as it is conical. Sybille Bedford, when seeing these volcanoes, wrote in the 1950's

"Japanese contoured shapes of pastel blue and porcelain snow, and thin formal curls of smoke afloat in a limpid sky."

The town of Amecameca is attractive and laid back. Many restaurants and local markets where they sell local produce--there is a citrus fruit similar to a mandarin they call a toronga or naranga that is good. At breakfast, Holly meets Barbara from Austria who has taken time off from college and is traveling the world. She is fluent in English, has a crew cut dresses in a non-gender way. Probably safer that that way when traveling alone. Her desire is to climb Popocatepetl. Holly invites her along, which is fine as long as she is not directly connected to us as I note that she looks out of shape, has no alpine gear and no warm clothes. I do not expect her to go very far.

We arrange for a taxi and at 1:30 the three of us are off to Paso de Cortes. From Amecameca, we pass through the small town of San Pedro Nexapa, where we leave the woodlands and begin a steep twisting climb up the mixed timbered slopes of the volcanoes. At 10,500 we pass through the "upper limits of the tierra fria into a sub alpine forest belt that extends to approximately 13,100 feet, which is composed almost entirely of Mexican mountain pines (p. hartwegii), a sub set of the Mexican yellow pines. These pines grow in open stands of erect, symmetrical trees with an undergrowth of course bunchgrasses (Festuca tolucensis, Calamagrostis tolucensis, and Muhlenbergia tridentate). There are isolated pines ranging up to 13,800 feet".

At the top of the Paso de Cortes (12,070 foot elevation), we find the road to Tlamacas barricaded and we are dropped off at the Cortes Hut.

This was a surprise as I had not heard that the Tlamacas Refuge was closed. This was formerly an expensive hotel that had been converted into year round dorm style accommodations for a hundred people. Popocatepetl has been rumbling and fuming since September of 1994. Popo last erupted in 1920 to 1921 with ash emissions and lava flows but had then gone quiet. Since its reawakening in 1994 with low level volcanic activity, it had entered a period of quietus, although the Federal government had closed off the volcano. Back in the states, there were rumors that the mountain had been closed but no one knew what it's current status was. What was clear was that there was no enforcement of the closure as local families were taking picnic lunches up to the Tlamacas Resort and spending the day climbing around the lower slopes as well as the occasional climbing parties that were still summiting. It appeared to be a 'go at your own risk' attitude on the part of the authorities.

The Paso de Cortes hut is a large masonry/concrete and glass building of modern architecture. The roof is concrete and may not be a good place to be in an earthquake. It is owned and run by the Federal government and is open on a 24 hour basis. Inside, sleeping/living conditions were Spartan. No bathroom facilities, cooking facilities and no water, but bottled water was available at a steep price. The sleeping area is in a medium size room in the lowest part of the building. If available, you are given a mattress and find a spot on the floor with everyone else. Tightly packed. There is no ventilation, which does become a problem. Up a step or two is a dance floor/office area and further up is an area where the park employees did their cooking, which was fueled by kerosene. They did a lot of cooking/boiling water and the fumes settled and collected in the lowest point of the building, the community sleeping area. It is 10 pesos per night per person. If nothing else, it is a good place to leave your gear when on the mountain, so I rented a space for three nights. Popocatepetl is beautiful in the evening alpenglow and the air is fresh and clear as we are above the smog layer.

The hut is crowded with an assortment of Americans, Canadians and Europeans. Two American brothers from Utah, Issac and Nathan, and two Canadians, Derek and Steven are climbing Popo in the morning. These guys are sleeping outside the hut next to their cars, which is what we should have done. Sleeping inside is noisy and soon the kerosene fumes began to build. This pollution was ten times worse than the air in Mexico City. No way could I sleep in that atmosphere. We moved outside into a fenced in deck area which worked, although there was traffic from returning climbing parties. Somewhat later, one of the staff came out, demanding that we go back inside. Holly got up and had a loud argument with the guy, who finally threw up his hands and went back inside.

FEBRUARY 10, 1996

Up at 2:30 AM. This is the time Issac, Nathan, Derek and Steven go by us for their ascent. We gathered our gear and found the front door locked. Holly makes a racket until one of the staff grudgingly gets up and lets us in. Dropped off the stuff we were going to leave behind, woke Barbara up and Holly loaned her a jacket but it did not look like Barbara is a morning person as she went back to sleep. We headed out with our gear only to find the outer gate locked. Again, Holly rousted one of the staff members (she is really good at this) and had him unlock the gate. The guy was muttering something about gringo blonds. We were finally on our way at 3:00 AM.

At 4:00 AM, we pass Tlamacas at elevation 12,960 feet. The lodge looks like it was magnificent in it's day. About 100 feet above the lodge, approximately 13,050 feet, the tree line ends. There were no individual trees above this line. Botanical resource books attribute this to the mountains volcanic activity. Above the forest line, the bunch grasses form tussock grasslands called sectionals. These grasslands can reach as high as 15,750 feet, but on our route, they died out around 14,000 feet leaving just the loose volcanic rock rubble among the rocky spires. The environment we are moving into is dry and cool.

Up to this point, a homeless dog that had befriended us the night before, had followed us up the trail to this point before it abandons us. This is one of the curiosities of Mexico. Seemingly ownerless dogs abound in the towns and other sites of human habitation. Most of them have a stunted, malnourished appearance. The locals do not bother them, indeed, they are ignored. We had been warned not to try to touch them, or we would be candidates for rabies shots.

Above Tlamacas, we move up a sloping ridge of tussock grasslands which is the bottom section of the Ventorrillo route. This is a more direct route than the Los Cruces Route, which is regarded as the tourist route, and is longer, less steep and avoids the glacier. However, you are climbing on sand and loose scree and takes much more effort. As we worked our way up the route, the sun came up, giving us spectacular views of the surrounding country. Legend has it that this is the same route the conquistadors followed on their way to the crater rim in their quest for the sulfur that lay at the bottom of the crater. The temperature was not cold and ideal to climb in. I had read that January, the coldest month, has a mean temperature of 37 degrees. This is the same as Seattle, Washington. At this latitude, they lack a well developed Winter season.

On the other hand, the warmest month has a mean temperature of only 44 degrees F. These temperatures were recorded at tree line and indicate a long and cool growing season. October to March is considered to be the winter season and frost occurs on 70 to 75% of those days. April to September is Summer and a light frost occurs on only 35 to 40% of those days and lasts only for a couple of hours. In this latitude, day length changes are small. The most favorable weather conditions for climbing are from October to January, when there are long clear spells. Storms become more common from February through March, with the rainy season going from April through September. You will get snow at anytime of the year on the summits. Even though these mountains experience tropical weather patterns in the Summer, they are not considered to be tropical mountains as true tropical mountains have no cold season, only wet and dry seasons. Nortes, will come from the North, dumping snow, sleet and hail on the peaks. This past January, a Norte dumped 3 feet of snow at Paso de Cortes, closing all the roads. Luckily, we are in a clear weather pattern.

Some what below the Queretano Hut, Elevation 15,288 feet, Holly came down with mountain sickness.. She was moving very slowly and seemed nauseous. I got her to the hut and it was clear she would not be able to continue upwards. At the hut, we had company. Luis, a geophysicist from the University of Mexico City, was part of a research group studying the recent volcanic activity and specifically the North Glacier. There is concern that the increased heat from the volcanic activity will cause a catastrophic melting of the North Glacier, as well as the other glaciers and take out towns in the flow path of any such Lahar. Luis, a Spaniard by birth, was part of a team and was waiting for the others to join him so they could move up to the glacier. He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. Luis is one of the Saints of the mountain. He is the most helpful person I have encountered on a mountain. He gave Holly and I hot lemonade which was superb. He doted over Holly and after some discussion, it was decided that I would continue with the climb as she was greatly improved from the rest and fluids and that she would be OK descending by herself to the Cortes Hut.

The Queretano hut is a small A frame structure perched above a cliff and has spectacular views of the north Glacier, the top of which I was going to traverse.

It had not been my intention to solo the glacier, which is always a bad idea, but Luis thought it doable as the slope angle was not steep and the crevasses had high visibility. He himself had been there and had soloed it and did not consider it to be an unreasonable risk. Luis drew me a map and gave me directions on the best way to navigate the crevasses. From the hut, the route follows a rocky canyon separating the Ventorrillo from the north Glacier. It is an easy climb that ends at the Teopixcalco Hut, elevation 16,175 feet, sited on the crest of a small saddle separating the Ventorrillo from the summit. Unlike the Queretano Hut, the Teopixcalco Hut does not look like a comfortable place to stay. From here, you walk up the saddle until you are abreast of the North Glacier and switch gear for glacier travel.

By this time, it was late morning and a cloud cap had developed around the peak, although the clouds would break momentarily to afford you a view of your route and at times the Queretano Hut, far below me. The route suggested by Luis was a diagonal traverse, West to East, running parallel with the crevasses, the slope angle somewhere in the mid 30's. There was a faint trail visible in the old layer of soft snow over the ice, which afforded good purchase for the crampons. With one narrow crevasse marked by a steel rod and a short stretch of glare ice penitentes to negotiate at the uppermost portion of the glacier, it proved to be easy and exhilarating climbing. At times I would have to stop and let the clouds clear enough so that I could see my route, but once at the glacier top, I was above the clouds.

The crater rim is only yards from the top of the glacier and upon reaching the rim, I gazed in awe at the spectacle. The crater is elliptical and reputedly, it has been measured to be 2,850 feet long, by 2,035 wide by 1600 feet deep. The crater walls are mostly vertical with sheer 1300 foot to 1500 foot drops would be my guess. The floor is an uneven mix of yellow/green snow sand and a mix of large and small boulders with a cone like depression of sand in the middle. There was no snow or water there, but it was alive with fumaroles, venting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Most of this activity was situated at the base of the crater walls. Where vapor vented from caverns in a cycle of low and high intensity emissions. At its peak intensity, it sounds like a steam locomotive. In the time I stood there, there were numerous rock falls, dislodged from the sheer walls of the crater. Sometimes you could see them crashing and clattering into the pit, other times the vapor obscured them and only the sounds let you know that the crater was changing its shape. In a peculiar aside, near the top of the Eastern edge of the crater wall, was a rock formation that bore an uncanny resemblance to the visage of an Aztec man. I think it was the altitude combined with the gaseous vapors that had me hallucinating. Still, it did look like something out of Dante's Inferno. This was the source of the vapor plume above the mountain. This crater was the most vivid and memorable image of the trip.

I do not know how long I stood there, but I became aware it was time to move. The summit trail meanders next to the crater precipice and the heightened volcanic activity had opened up several fumaroles on the trail itself. Luis had warned me of these and urged me to wear a water soaked bandana over my mouth and nose to protect myself from the sulfurous gasses. I was too impatient to take time for that, and I am sure that contributed to my headache and nausea at the summit. I was about 20 to 25 minutes from the top and encountered Issac, Nathan, Derek and Steven descending from the summit. It was good to see they had successfully summited. They had taken the Las Cruces Route and said it was tough going in the loose sand. Conversely, it is easy to go down. At 2:00 PM I summited Popocatepetl, elevation 17,930 feet. After climbing 7 miles and 5,857 feet of elevation, it was the highest I had ever been. At the summit is a round metal structure that is the summit hut. Although strapped with guy wires, the hut was on it's side. A quick look at the summit vista and I headed down. The North Glacier was clouded, so I took the Las Crucess route instead. I quickly descended several thousand feet, not feeling better until I had come down two thousand feet. From the bottom of the of the sand slope near the Las Cruces Hut, Elevation 14,694 feet, it was a long trudge past the ruins of the Texcalco Hut, elevation 13,124 feet, to the sand road at the base of the El Ventorrillo Hut. Near the bottom of the descent, I passed two members of the mountain rescue club, wearing red jackets with white crosses. They seemed surprised I had been on the mountain, but did not say anything. Once I was on the road, I followed a large family group of joyful locals on holiday past Tlamacas. There were a large number of locals/tourists on the Tlamacas Plaza. At 6:00 PM, I finally made it to the Cortes Hut, after a 14 mile round trip that lasted 13 hours. Holly had fully recovered and was anxious to go somewhere other than the Cortes hut. Issac, Nathan, Derek, and Steven were headed for other mountains. Barbara returned Holly's jacket after a short hike to Tlamacas and returned to Amecameca. In the parking lot, an American in a rented VW Bug happened to stop on his way to Amecameca, Dave Loia. We hitched a ride with him and left the Paso de Cortes at 7:00 PM. Evening in Amecameca at the Hotel Marques.

NOTE: It is risky to climb an active volcano. It was in a period of quiescence, so I was willing to chance it. In March, volcanic activity resumed with increased ash emissions, sulfur dioxide vapor emissions and the growth of a lava dome. On April 30, 1996, five climbers ignored warnings to stay off the mountain and were killed near the summit. When found, they had 3rd degree burns and projectile impact trauma. There was an eruption and blast that happened during the time frame that they were on the mountain. Some reports attribute their deaths to lightening. They also may have had problems with emissions of sulfur dioxide. Source: USGS report, Jan. 14, 1999. You are playing Russian Roulette with the volcano.

FEBRUARY 11, 1996

Dave Loia generously offers to drive us up to the Paso de Cortes Hut, then the Iztaccihuatl trail head. After breakfast at the El Mayoral we are on the road by 1:30. At the Cortes Hut, we dropped off our luggage gear we would not use with the staff for safe keeping. They remembered Holly. Although we had another night we had paid for, I gave one of the staff additional money to watch the gear. We would not need glacier travel gear. From a conversation with Nathan and Issac, there is little snow and ice on Iztaccihuatl and the route can be done without crampons , ice axe and rope. From the Cortes Hut, we drove up a well graded dirt road, past a fortress like microwave facility, where the road becomes well worn and rutted, where we arrive at the La Joya trailhead, elevation 13,124 feet. The parking lot is jammed full with cars and swarms of people returning from the week end climb. Many families come here for Sunday day hikes, in the clean air. There is a thatched roof snack bar. The word is that theft is a problem here, so do not leave anything in a parked car. At the trail head, you have to register with the Club Socorro Alpine (Alpine Assistance Club), and advise them of your expected return date. This club staffs the trailhead and provides rescue services only on weekends and as we would be on route and finishing during the week day, the head official asked us to call them at home in Mexico City and advise them of our safe return. A husband and wife, they are very nice people.

Juan Luis and Sara Martinez
Club Socorro Alpine

We thanked Dave, and headed up the trail at 3:00 PM. The tree line is 500 or so feet below us and we going through tussock grasslands. There is a lot of ground water on this lower slope and the tussocks are lush, the grasses coming up to waist level. The tussocks died out around 14,600, becoming a sparse alpine vegetation that continued up to around 15,500. Above this is the zone of persistent firn snow, small glaciers and largely barren rock and scree.


Iztaccihuatl, which means sleeping woman or white lady, is a volcano whose topography is an elongated, humped ridge line. Our route is the La Arista del Sol (The Ridge of the Sun). Points on the ridge line are named after anatomical parts of a sleeping woman, such as the knees (Las Rodillas); the belly (La Barriga); etc. Our route is a long, rolling traverse over four false summits and several snowfields/glaciers. We will spend the night at the Republica de Chile Hut, elevation15,585 feet, which is South and below the knees. Although broken clouds envelope us and we are dusted by a brief snow flurry, the temperature is warm. There are a large number of returning climbing parties and groups of locals out for short day hikes on the route. A climbing party of three Americans from Utah were descending from a successful summit climb. One of the climbers, Scott, was interested in our climb up Popo. As it was closed, he was going to skip Popo, but was now reconsidering it before going to Orizaba. On the climb, we passed several picturesque and inviting camp sites, but were warned not to camp in these locations as they were susceptible to theft. Later, we were to learn that two guys from Colorado and an Armenian from Los Angeles did camp here two days later and had all their expensive camping gear stolen when making their summit climb. We passed the ruins of the old Iglu hut and arrived at the Republica de Chile Huts at 6:00 PM. There are two huts. One is an old, small hut that bears a resemblance to an Igloo; the other is a much larger structure still under construction. They had weathered it in with plastic to protect it from the elements. This hut was being used as there was left over food around the interior. The place is empty, which is wonderful. We bunk in the smaller of the two huts as it looks like it would be warmer. The entrance to the hut is similar to that of an igloo, requiring one to crouch down to get in and out. I wacked my head 5 or 6 times getting in and out. Other than that, it was fine. After watching a beautiful sunset on Popocatepetl, we were asleep by 7:00 PM. During the night, there was rain and hail intermittently pelting the roof and Holly heard the howl of coyotes.

FEBRUARY 12, 1996


We woke to a gorgeous morning and I felt great. We stashed our gear in an out of the way corner of the hut, as I did not fear theft at this elevation, and we were climbing by 9:00 AM. We climbed past the Esperanza Lopez Mateos Hut at 15,912 feet. This hut is perched over a cliff on the ridge line separating the Western side from the Eastern side. From here, we climbed class 2 to 3 rocky slopes to the top of the knees. At 11:00 AM, we reach the Luis Mendez Hut at 16,437 feet. The hut is a dome with metal skin and very exposed to the winds. At the hut is a Mexican climber, Yudi, who is on his way down after a night at the summit. An Alpinist, he is training for an Everest trip later this Spring. He was loaded down with gear.


Nearing the summit we cross the tops of the two main glaciers of Iztaccihuatl, the Glacier de las Rodillas and the Glacier de Ayoloco. The traveling was easy and fun with a couple of narrow crevasses to step over. A late morning cloud bank had moved in, though we were above most of it. The cloud formations were spectacular. At 1:00 PM, we reached the summit snow field which is referred to as The Breast (El Pecho).

Holly preceded me to the Iztaccihuatl summit, elevation 17,160 feet. Beautiful views.

At the summit, six climbers arrive who had just come up the Glacier de Ayoloco route. Six guys from Sacramento, CA: Jared, Jonathan, Jay, etc. Jared is the manager of an outdoor store and had put together the Mexican Volcano trip. Coincidently, these guys ended up with the one Bibler single wall tent that the factory representative had to loan out, which Holly had tried to get. As it turned out, we able to borrow this same tent from a friend, which we never used. Half way across the Belly (La Barriga), I made a wrong turn in the cloud bank and descended 100 feet on the East side instead of the West side, much to Holly's irritation. Rather than go back up, we traversed several ridge lines and shallow gullies with a slope angle of 30 degrees and one rocky outcropping' intersecting the ridge trail. Not too difficult, but time consuming.

IztaDescent.jpg IztaccihuatlDescent.jpg

Past the Mendez Hut, we went off trail on Yudi's advice and descended a long, 30 degree scree chute, a very fast descent. At 3:00 PM we reached the Republica de Chile Hut, packed our gear and headed down at 3:30 PM. The descent was uneventful, only one other party on the mountain (two Swiss guys who were not acclimatized) and reached the La Joya Parking Lot at 5:00 PM. Our climbing time was 11 hours. The parking lot was empty as it was a week day. What a drag, it looked like a long walk to the Paso De Cortes Hut. Just past the microwave facility, a cargo truck with a fenced, open bed carrying workers, barreled past us, stopped and waved us into the back. One of the benefits of traveling with a good looking blonde--she always attracts attention. Dropped off at the Cortes Hut, we grab our gear and negotiated a ride to Amecameca with one of the returning park employees. As the Hut was deserted, they were sending workers home. Back to the Hotel Marques in Amecameca.

FEBRUARY 13, 1996

We head to our next mountain, Orizaba. 1:00 PM bus departure to Mexico City, TAPO bus terminal. There is no direct bus service to towns near Orizaba, I am told. Like Rome, all roads lead to Mexico City. At TAPO, we find that the closest we can get to Orizaba tonight is San Salvador El Seco. We leave Mexico City at 4:00 PM and travel East on highway 150 D to Puebla, then north on Highway 140, past Acatzingo to San Salvador El Seco, arriving at 7:00 PM.


San Salvador El Seco is a dusty, run down town with few amenities such as restaurants and hotels. We found a hotel right across from the bus terminal. The room was the size of a prison cell with concrete bunks and no bedding. To take a shower, one must turn sideways and stand over the toilet. Sleep was a problem because we were situated adjacent to a main intersection and listened to big rigs rumble by all night long as well as busses that would stop at the terminal and let their engines idle. Holly did not sleep, though I was able too. In the future, do not dawdle in Amecameca, but leave as early as you can so as not to be stranded in towns like San Salvadore El Seco.

FEBRUARY 14, 1996

Valentines Day. Up at 8:00 AM. Bus terminal is open at 9:00 AM. Buy two tickets to Tlachichuca, our jumping off point for Orizaba. 10:00 AM departure and the ride is good. Superb views of El Pico de Orizaba. After stops in San Nicolas Buenos Aires and Jose Maria Morelos, we arrive in Tlachichuca, elevation 8,530 feet, at 11:00 AM. From the Zocalo, we pass a small restaurant, the Despositco, where two guys from St. Paul, Minnesota, hail us and we join them. They are here to attempt Orizaba for the 3rd time; altitude problems having thwarted their prior attempts. This time they are going to try to acclimatize by hiking the 14 mile trip and 5,000 foot elevation gain to Piedra Grande. Hopefully this will work, but what a grind when you add this to the ascent of the volcano. We ask about lodging and they highly recommended the Hotel Gerrar, which they felt was a better place to stay than the dormitory style lodgings of Senor Reyes.

You have your own room and shower. Also, they have links to a local ride service to the Piedra Grande Hut. Good advice; we rent a room for two days at the Hotel Gerrar. We explain to the proprietor that we will not stay here tonight, but want the room for storage, a quick nap and showers and will be back tomorrow and stay another night. I am interested in locating other climbers for mountain updates and a well known guide book recommends the Cafe Casa Blanca, as a climbers hangout. The food is only fair and there is a two tier price system--there are no advertised prices, so you do not know what items cost. Tourists pay one price and the locals pay another. I found a lone American having lunch, Daniel, a biologist from Austin, Texas who has just driven his Toyota 4 wheel drive pick up down here. After introductions, I learn he is going to the Piedra Grande Hut today. He has no mountaineering experience and is somewhat concerned about the climb. I propose a deal: For $30, we ride up and back with him as well as having a vehicle to lock our gear in. In addition to the dollars, he climbs with us and he stands a much better chance of making it to the top. It is agreeable and we go over to Senor Reyes where he rents crampons, ice axe and other sundry items. We set a time to be picked up at the hotel, 4:00 PM and I am off to the farmers market for provisions.

Daniel arrives and we depart for the Piedra Grande Hut. The paved road ends at Tlachichuca and we drive out past farmlands. We are in a region of grasslands, below a drought caused lower timberline. There is a water shortage in Tlachichuca. This part of Mexico is still part of the central meseta. Our first village is San Miguel Zoapan which is still in the cold land or tierra fria zone. The landscape is semi arid, the vegetation consisting of plateau grasslands to woodlands of deciduous oaks, junipers, pinyon pines, yucca and some pine forest. With irrigation, it supports crop and hay production. On the other side of Orizaba (Eastern), is the cloud forest of tropical mountain trees such as Mexican Pines, evergreen oaks and true fir (Abies religiosa).

As we climb up out of the low lands, we leave the upper limits of the tierra fria at 10,500 feet and enter a sub alpine forest belt. On Orizaba, tree line for this zone is 13,776. Here the forest is comprised almost entirely of the Mexican yellow pine that grow in open stands among the tussocks. Our next and last village is Hidalgo, elevation 11,155 feet, which is reputedly the highest community in North America. After this, we cross the stream, Paso Buey, and begin the long climb to the Piedra Grande Hut. It is the dry season, so the road is drivable with occasional sections of deep ruts and muddy areas. This was fortunate as this is the first time Daniel has ever driven off road in his four wheel drive. With a lot of advice from Holly, Daniel drove well. This road is extremely dusty and we were very thankful to be in an enclosed vehicle.

The shuttle services seem to be open air affairs with roll down tarps for inclement weather. Their passengers wear respirators or dust masks.

The road meanders through stands of Mexican yellow pine and tussock grasslands. Once we came upon a group of Indian boys herding sheep who tried to get us to stop, which you do not want to do from what we had been told. About a mile away from the Piedra Grande Hut, we left the last of the Mexican Pines, rounded a ridge and the Hut came into view, at the end of a long valley of tussock grasslands. A short way up the valley is a turn off for Coscomatepec to the East and we met our first vehicle coming down, Senor Reyes shuttle service, a dark green Dodge Power Wagon. A guided group of Californians, their guide from the Mt. Shasta area, returning from a climb. They were not looking forward to the dust bath. There are two huts at Piedra Grande, elevation 13,976 feet, the main one a large masonry structure that can sleep upwards of 60 people which is known as the Octavio Alvarez Hut and a smaller metal hut known as the Augusto Pellet Hut. Although the parking lot was empty, there were 5 guys in the Alvarez Hut. This party did not intend to climb tomorrow, but were acclimating. Three are from Florida and have been here all week. The other two are from California and are ex-North Face employees. After introductions, Daniel sets up his gear here and we take the Augusto Pellet Hut which is empty.

We had heard that there is a theft problem at these huts. When the huts are vacant, the local banditos will come in and steal the available camping gear. One story has it that a British Army Group, SAS, several months ago were on the volcano and watched as several banditos carried off all the gear they had left there, helpless to do anything about it. The local shuttle services, help maintain these huts and see this as bad for business and left a watcher in wait for the bandits on one occasion. When the local banditos arrived to help themselves to the climbers gear, he caught them red handed and chased them with a machete until they surrendered. Two men and a woman.

Since these climbers would not climb tomorrow, they would watch our gear. I had brought up several pineapples, cut them up and shared with the group. A good way to make friends. At 8:00 PM, it was time for bed. We would have a 4:00 start tomorrow.

FEBRUARY 15, 1996

Up at 3:00 AM. Had a good night. Gear is ready and Holly goes over to wake up Daniel. 4:00 AM

Departure and the three of us pass the iron crosses marking the start of the trail. I'm content to fall back and let Holly and Daniel take the lead and locate the trail in the pitch dark. The night air is cool and soon becomes a comfortable hiking temperature. We work our way past old aqueducts in disrepair and then up a rocky gulley. The trail is not that hard to find with head lamps. We reach a set of cliffs and pass to the right. From here we drop back into the rocky gulley and move to the left and ascend along snow fields on a ridge. No problems with route finding. I catch up with Holly and she asks me where Daniel is? I hear a voice below me. Daniel had dropped his light and was unable to find it. I descend 150 feet and find Daniels light.


At the first snow fields, Daniel puts on his crampons and then we continue climbing in the graying darkness until we reach a small flat area at the base of the Jamapa Glacier, our route to the summit, at approximately 16,000 feet. From here you can see the lights of Huamantla to the West, Jalapa to the North, Huatusco to the North East, and to the East, Coscomatepec and there, to the far East, the lights of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. The weather is clear and still. Off to the North East and East are low stratus clouds.

As the sun rises, it is one of the most beautiful dawns I have seen. At 7:00 AM, it had taken 3 hours to get to the bottom of the glacier and we stopped for breakfast here.

The standard route is up the Glaciar de Jamapa and is also known as the Ruta Norte.

From here, we diverged from the standard route and climbed South West to a ridge line of the glacier behind the Sarcofago, a secondary cone. This took us over towards the Ruta Espinoza, but elected not to go this way due to the crevasses. From here, we cut back on a long upward traverse and intersected the Glaciar de Jamapa Route underneath the crater rim. It was very steep in this section, approximately 45 degrees.

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Here, we went one person at a time on belay and I chopped out platforms at the belay stations. A fall here would take a climber or group of climbers down a steep slope with no run out into a boulder field. It would not have a happy ending. Far below us, at the Octavio Alvarez Hut, we can see figures outside, watching our progress. The crater rim is a short steep climb above us. As we step up to the rim, a rock structure known as the Aguja de Hielo or ice needle is to our left. The dimensions of the crater appear to be similar to those of Popocateptl, but the similarity ends there, as this crater is inactive. The walls are much more sloped and it looks like you could access the bottom through various couloirs. The bottom itself is rumpled sand hills interspersed with patches of snow.

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We take a break here, then make the final summit push. El Pico de Orizaba is 18,410 feet. What a great feeling to be here. It is 11:00 AM and the summit is windless and glistening under a crystal blue sky. This is the highest that any of us had ever been. Despite this, no one appeared to have mountain sickness. The Mexicans had erected what passes as a large iron cross. It is actually a jumble of many pieces of twisted and straight iron. It is more like a piece of intricate modern art. Here, we had a sense of solitude as there was no one else on the mountain that day.

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On the descent, I was going to move a little to the South West of our ascent. Holly had other ideas. She found a set of tracks leading straight down, which passed through a set of crevasses, though they were not large. I followed my pre-selected route and Daniel ended up somewhere in between Holly's and my route. Going alone through a set of crevasses with no protection is not good mountaineering practice.

The descent, other than us splitting up, was uneventful.

Just above Piedra Grande, we met the guys from Sacramento again, Jared and his group. They were going to the bottom of the Jamapa glacier and would spend the night there, making their summit ascent the next morning. Daniel had fallen behind us by this time and looked exhausted. At 2:30, we reached the Piedra Grande huts and waited for Daniel. Though tired, Daniel had an impressive summit experience, particularly for his first time.

At the huts, we saw Scott and his two friends from Utah, again. He was interested in the climb and noted that we were all over the mountain on our descent. I agreed that it was poor mountaineering and explained that girlfriends never listen me and there was not much I could do about it. He said he has the same problem. Scott and his group are going up the mountain tomorrow. I was glad to hear that he had decided to climb Popocatepetl. He did it in the same manner we had. I found the other 5 guys in the hut and thanked them for looking after our gear. They were also going to make a summit attempt tomorrow, though the guys from Florida may only go to the Jamapa Glaciar and over night there.

They did seem a little irked that we could show up and summit the peak without acclimatizing. It had been a good day; 10 1/2 hour round trip and I was ready for a hotel room. We stowed our gear in Daniels truck and departed. On the way out of the parking lot, Daniel did not see a large boulder and put a significant crease into the passenger side of his truck. The only blemish of the trip. Back in Tlachichuca, we dropped our gear off at the Hotel Gerar and then met Daniel for dinner at the Despositico. It was a celebration for climbing the three volcanoes and for Daniels successful climb. Having dinner also were two climbers from Seattle, Washington, Gilbert and Cathy, who were headed to Piedra Grande tomorrow. Gilbert is a RMG guide. We would not see Daniel after this and wished him the best.

FEBRUARY 16, 1996

Woke to a breezy, cool, clear morning. There are snow plumes on Orizaba's summit. We had been really lucky on the weather. We hoped it would work out for the climbers on the volcano. Breakfast at the Casa Blanca, we see Gilbert. Cathy and two other members of their group, also guides on Rainier. They are headed to Ecuador after Orizaba, to climb those volcanoes. They are concerned about the weather as it appears that there is a front moving in. They will go up to the hut and wait.

We have an extra day and I left it up to Holly to choose a destination. She wants to go South to Tehuacan where it is tropical. Before we leave we take a tour of Senor Reyes converted Soap Factory which is like a fortress.

In the front is a bulk foods and variety store, further back is a mountaineering rental shop that looks like it specializes in antique equipment. In the back is dormitory style lodging. It is an experience not to miss. The building is surrounded by a tall masonry wall with broken glass on the top, enclosing a large courtyard that is ringrd by buildings. The shower facility is in a separate building with the outhouse and is pretty rough. Overall it has a nice ambience. In the dorm were a number of climbing groups, including the three guys who lost all their camping gear on Iztaccihuatl. They were borrowing replacement gear from the other climbers. One comment I heard later was that some of the cab drivers were in league with the bandits . They would deliver climbers to the trail head and then inform the bandits of their likely itinerary for a cut of the take. There is also a mountain register here and we signed in.

As we left town on the bus for our southern destination, we could see clouds moving into the peak with a thick bank of clouds off to the East. The route took us over a 6,562 foot pass into a snow storm, as by now the storm had moved in. Orizaba would not be a good place to be. In the late afternoon we arrived in Tehuacan, elevation 4,592 feet. Town is warm and picturesque. Dinner at the restaurant Danny Richard and night at the Hotel Montecarlo. The place is known as a spa town.

FEBRUARY 17, 1996

Shopping day in the town square and there was a lot to choose from. Early afternoon, we check out and head back to Mexico City. Arrive late afternoon and took a taxi to the Zona Rosa. Holly had chosen the Hotel Parador Washington. A 7 or 8 story building it had been severely damaged in the last earthquake and was still under going a major seismic retrofit. After confirming a 6:00 AM taxi to the airport tomorrow, we went out on the town. The atmosphere was crystal clear as the storm had blown out the smog. You could see the stars twinkle.

FEBRUARY 18, 1996

Up at 4:30 AM, pack gear, meet taxi, arrive airport and board flight for Tahoe. Great trip.

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