Hike: Mexico’s Iztaccíhuatl

In Hiking, Reportage, Travel by Dave Fanner2 Comments

Here’s one from the vaults, 2007 to be exact.  An oldie, but a goodie…

Iztaccíhuatl – The White Lady

Mexico City is so big it has been re-classified (like Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Mumbai) as a ‘megacity’.  It teems with upwards of twenty million inhabitants but when many live in slums without running water, electricity, or google maps, even that number is open to debate.

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The city was founded in the 13th century on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs.  Later on as the population grew, the lake was drained and due to noxious combination of a thirsty population and poor conservation, it is now literally sinking under its own weight into the lake bed (10m last century) like a modern-day, stinky Atlantis.

It’s a heaving, sweaty wreck.  It’s oppressive, it’s dirty, and it’s dangerous.  However for all that, Mexico City is incredibly exciting with a wild and eclectic mix of culture and people, food and music.

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DF, as the locals call it, is the Big Dick of Central America…isn’t just a city, it’s the city.

Coming from Canberra, I was in sensory overload…despite (or perhaps because of) the subtle hint of menace that walks the streets of DF, I loved the place.  It was an exciting place to be and in early 2007, only months after a controversial election result, was an exciting time.

Every morning as I rode an over-crowded camione to school I would daydream, gazing out the window at the urban sprawl.  It wasn’t until one day after heavy rains that I saw her for the first time with my own eyes, off in the distance.

Regal and beautiful, her name was Iztaccíhuatl, a Nahuatl name meaning ‘White Lady’.

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View from the town of Amecameca.

Located fewer than 80 km from Mexico City in the Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl Popocatepetl,  Izta is an extinct volcano and is the third highest mountain in Mexico behind Pico de Orizaba (5636m) which lies to the east, and Popocatepetl (‘Popo’ 5426m), connected to Izta by the high pass, Paso de Cortes.  On particularly clear mornings before the smog sets in to swallow the horizon, Izta can be seen in the distance between the gleaming high rises and rusting corrugated iron shacks of Santa Fe.

With only a little imagination, Izta looks like a woman lying on her back, particularly when seen from the west.  There are features on the mountain which correspond to the head, neck, breasts, stomach, knees, and ankles and these anatomical terms are commonly used as points of reference on climbing routes.

One of the many Indigenous legends surrounding the two mountains has it that Izta and Popo are the volcanic remains of ill-fated lovers who once displeased the gods.  For their troubles Izta was turned into a mountain without life while Popo was given eternal life, doomed to gaze upon the extinct form of his beloved Izta for eternity.

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His anguish is to blame for Popo’s near constant state of volcanic activity over the last thousand years.

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Popo puffing away in the distance.

The first recorded ascent was by James de Salis in 1889, climbing the now standard route (without foreplay) from ankles to breasts.  However archaeological evidence points to numerous climbs by earlier indigenous cultures.  Even today Izta plays an important part in local culture and to climb the mountain is seen as a rite of passage for many young Mexican men and women.

The plan Rowan and I had concocted earlier in the week was quite simply ‘to climb the bloody thing’, over a weekend, and quickly as the weather window was closing very fast.  At best the plan might have been regarded as ‘simplistic’, at worst (and perhaps closer to the truth) it could have been described as naïve, even dangerous.n609185136_326822_7020

When not climbing mountains in Mexico, Rowan studied Psychology in Wollongong.  A surfing nut, he possessed a filthy mane of shoulder-length dreadlocks in what I suspected to be a cunning attempt to hide his bright ginger hair in plain view.  It was a bold ploy and I respected it, as I respected the man.  He was as stubborn as I was and I thought together we’d do alright.

Technically speaking, Izta is simplicity itself, the perfect way to embark on a climbing career.  There are no roped sections, no technical climbing skills are required and trail finding is relatively straightforward.  For most, the challenge lies in its height, 5260m at the summit.  The climb is usually completed over two days, where the first day sees you to a refugio (shelter) at 4680m and the next day sees you to the summit and then all the way back down to the base.  It is also often climbed in one extremely long and unpleasant day, although why one would want to do such a thing is beyond me.

The best time to climb Izta is from the start of October when the winter snows recede enough, up until late March when dangerous electrical storms in the higher regions of the mountain increase in frequency. The starting point for climbing Izta is the small town of Amecameca, 20km from the trailhead, and that’s where we were heading.

Rowan and I arrived in Amecameca at around 11am.  What a lovely town, and there is nothing better than to be a traveller with purpose.  Rowan and I were there to climb ‘la montaña’ and chatted to the locals in the markets about her, gaining knowledge and confidence in our surroundings.

With a sense of purpose we grabbed a few tacos for lunch and registered ourselves at the Ranger’s office.  Not having our own transport we managed to reach an agreement with a cherubic man named Cesar.  He would drive us to the trailhead, and then return to pick us up at 5pm the next day.  This would cost a total of $600 pesos ($70 AUD) and was easily the most expensive part of the climb.  The price stung and I couldn’t escape the feeling that we were being put over a splintery barrel.  However, after seeing the ‘road’ that linked the town with the trailhead – it looked like it had been shelled the previous evening – it was tough to begrudge old Chubby Cheeks a few well-earned extra pesos.

We also rented what appeared to be WWII era crampons as we had heard that the ice flow in the saddle 200m beneath the summit was still frozen solid making climbing with boots difficult.  Rusting and with the fabric ties fraying at the ends, in a clever play on words we dubbed them ‘crapons’.

Even though they more ancient than my lovely old Nana I took a perverse pride in my pair, they were my passport into another world.  I was so taken by them that I insisted on strapping them to the outside of my pack, in doing so suffered several minor cuts and rusty scrapes whenever they swung around and stabbed my upper body. Izta has a prominence of 1560m and dominates the scenery surrounding the town.  As we drove up the busted road, I began to truly appreciate the scale of the mountain.  What had previously been part of an idle daydream, a topic of wistful conversation over a couple of beers, had turned into an impressive…no, an oppressive world of ice, snow and rock.  It was huge, bigger by far than anything I had ever climbed. At least we had a map.

Well…

Our ‘map’ was in reality a 24-page tourist book describing an ascent of Izta in the winter.  The majority of the book was a collection of poems and information describing the National Park’s varied flora and fauna. There were however ten photos taken from certain points on the mountain, with a red line of ascent drawn over the top.  It had cost me $4 AUD in a second hand book shop,  even that I was loath to part with.

I convinced myself that this poetry anthology would do the job just as well as any topographic map. In the end I reasoned that because we would be taking the same route as the author in the book, we could navigate our way by matching up his photos with the reality of the trail.  I dismissed the fact that we were attempting to climb in spring, not winter, and that this might change things dramatically.

Cesar left us at the trailhead La Joya, with assurances of a 4:00pm rendezvous the next day.  We watched his car disappear into a thick cloud of dust back down road, then we turned around and adjusted our packs. It was time to go.

The first thing a climber of Izta will notice is the fresh air.  After breathing in the carcinogens and hazy faecal matter of Mexico City, the difference was noticeable.  The air was delicious, like breathing in the sweetest honey – but at 3890m the improvement in quality was somewhat tempered by a drop in quantity.

P1010068Izta doesn’t pull any punches, and the first half an hour from the La Joya trailhead to Valle Feliz was brutal.  It is very steep going up a single-file trail past purple and yellow alpine flowers and short tussock.  This continued for an hour before eventually giving way to a bleaker landscape of volcanic rock and scree.

As we trudged our way up into this vast, alien world I was asking myself the eternal question of all hikers; ‘Why didn’t I train a little harder for this?’  Altitude was playing a part in these early struggles I was sure, or at least I hoped so for my pride’s sake.

Onwards and upwards we climbed.  To think of all those chumps stuck back in Mexico City while we high in the mountains! We walked and laughed and joked and took photos.  As the afternoon wore on we scurried onto Izta’s ankles and started up her legs.

Soon enough we realised that we were completely lost, one second we were on a trail and the next we were picking our way across the boulders of a shattered landscape.  It was getting dark now, and we had no idea where we were.

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Lost.

The smiles and bravado of earlier in the day were replaced by a sense of urgency and spidery panic.  There was a refugio at 4680m, and according to a poem, we should have gotten there an hour ago.  As the sun crept lower in the sky things were getting desperate.  If we couldn’t find the refugio in the next 20 minutes we would have to turn back and make for the trailhead at La Joya, but even then we both doubted we would be able to find our way back.  We split up, something you should never do.   Rowan trudged down a steep and rocky slope while I traversed sideways to peer over the next ridge line.

Ten minutes later I heard cries from the direction Rowan had set off.

He had found the refugio, or pieces of it.  As I made my way down the slope in search of his calls, I discerned what appeared to be a debris field.  The refugio was dead.  It lay there at the bottom of the slope in ruins, killed by a massive rock slide.  I checked our ‘map’ for a publication date, it didn’t have one.

Deciding to keep those thoughts to myself for now, I swore instead.  We both swore, but time was against us so we quickly started to retrace our steps and scrambled back up the slope.  There was no way we could make it back to La Joya in the remaining light; we would be forced to camp out under the stars.  ‘Bloody great’, I thought. Nestling up to Rowan (with those dirty dreads) to retain body warmth in temperatures of -10C was about as appealing as a spooning a dead wombat.

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There was that one last ridge.  I dumped my pack to have a look just in case and there it bloody was.  I ran back to Rowan with a relieved smile on my face.  The refugio existed, and in one piece.  We would have a roof over our heads tonight after all.  The tension that had been creeping up in us threatening panic evaporated and we were laughing and joking again.

One last ridge.

One last ridge.

Once at the refugio we met a couple from California in their early 30’s.  The man continually played with his pony-tail and beard had a condescending way about him which aggravated me as the night wore on.  The woman was nice enough, although very quiet as if she had resigned herself to living with a twat and so had mind-shifted into cruise control.

These two couldn’t have been any more different from us if they tried.  Talk about kitted up. They had everything, from the latest ergonomic, heated down sleeping bags to the top of the line dragonfly stove, I thought about asking them if they were sponsored by any particular outdoors company but kept quiet lest I come off as an amateur.  For dinner they ate spaghetti bolognese, followed by a delicious smelling coffee which they didn’t share.  Rowan and I ate tuna quesadillas washed down with water.

The sun set a brilliant pink and as we all lay out in our sleeping bags watching the show I felt absolutely content.  There was no other place on earth I would have rather been than on the side of a dead volcano 5000m in the sky, somewhere around Izta’s mountainous inner thigh.  I grinned from ear to ear.

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When the sun disappeared taking the day’s warmth with it, we dragged our sleeping bags into the refugio in the hopes of getting a good night’s rest for tomorrow’s summit day.

I am a petty man in many ways, and I secretly envied the way Rowan was apparently unaffected by the altitude, walking around for all the world like he was taking a leisurely stroll on a beach in Wollongong instead of in an oxygen-deprived wasteland like me.  For this reason I took a greasy pleasure in seeing him roll out his sleeping bag for the night; it was thin, cheap and synthetic.

Sometimes you have to laugh.

Sometimes you have to laugh.

Poor old Rozza was about to experience cold on a whole different level, a bitterness that delves right to the core and seeps outwards, throbbing through your very bones.  To this day I chuckle at Rowan when I think of him unable to get a minute’s peaceful sleep as he tossed and turned all night trying to avert the onset of hypothermia.

However if Rowan had it bad, things were looking much worse for me.  That’s karma for you, and I copped a righteously large portion of it instantly, just like the Lennon song.
I was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude more acutely and a perfect storm was brewing.  What had started earlier on in the day as a dull headache and loss of breath was turning more sinister by the minute.  My breath was coming in fits and bursts, my stomach was plotting la revolución, and things stood, I wasn’t sure what would explode first; my head or my arse.

Altitude sickness.  Some people get it, and some don’t.  The worst thing about it is that you can feel the effects coming but do nothing to prevent them.  Think Superman just after Lex Luthor unveils the glowing rod of kryptonite, he always looks so pathetic as he’s gasping for breath.  Well, if you excuse me comparing myself to Superman, altitude was my kryptonite that night.

Head, stomach and bowels all rebelling, I passed many hours of the night away from my warm sleeping bag on the windswept and icy ramparts of Izta.  In freezing conditions I performed a three legged break-dance with pants bunched around ankles.  My pitiful sobs stole across the plateau, carrying on the back of a merciless wind.

 

A bloody long night.

A bloody long night.

At around 2am, as the storm outside was reaching its crescendo; there came a loud banging on the door.  ‘Socorro…Help!’ reached us.  Someone was outside in this weather?  One of the Americans unbolted the latch and 4 extremely cold ghost-like figures poured through the doorway.  They were in their early to mid twenties, locals from the Greater Mexico City region.  They told us the next day that they had climbed to the refugio guided only by the moonlight as part of a ‘test of manhood’.

My nemesis.

My nemesis.

If the night couldn’t have gotten any more drawn out and surreal, after the windswept shits and the late night Mexican interruption, it was about to take turn towards uncharted waters of wretchedness.  As I tried to doze off again, I felt something large and hairy crawl first onto my shoulder and then across my face.  Jumping up in fright I found a rat clamping down on my hair, his filthy rat-balls sliding across my face as I tried to shake him off.

After a frantic moment of violence the rat let go of my hair and raced across the refugio floor to plot his next move.  Advantage: rat.  But I was beyond caring, and as the wind outside died down I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and dozed without sleeping.

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Three things the rat nibble that night.

At first light the Crazy Mexicans were off, followed an hour later by the Californian couple.  I watched both parties go from within the cocoon of my sleeping bag, without even the energy to wish them buena suerte…good luck.   The headaches of the night before had crystallised into jagged shards of pain drilling into my skull and my guts were still a churning putrid sea of tuna, water and bile.  Rowan was comparatively bubbly, glad to be up and about and getting blood flowing again to his frozen extremities. I had to do something, the present situation was intolerable.

I downed 5 Mexican caffeine tablets, (the gut-busting equivalent of 1000 strong coffees and definitely not available in Australia) and was able to mount a counter-offensive against my body.

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We packed up and set off, only slightly behind schedule.  The trail from the refugio leads up a 60 degree scree slope intermittently doused with snow and ice.  It was punishing, for every vertical step the scree would give way and you’d slide half a step down.  It was tortuously slow going, my discomfort compounded by the fact that I was in a constant struggle not to throw up and/or shit my pants.  Somehow, after what seemed like an eternity (45 minutes?) I reached the top of the rise fittingly named Esperanza…Hope.  Rowan, who still felt no ill-effects from the altitude, was smiling when I finally reached the top ‘Welcome to 5000m mate!’ he yelled.

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Trudging up to 5000m.

 

 

There was no time to celebrate, as we had some serious decision-making to do.  There were several dark clouds moving in fast from the east.  We had to assess whether we could realistically make it to the summit and back down to at least the refugio before the infamous spring electrical storms set in.  We both felt the full weight of our under-preparedness.  But in the end we decided to go for it, porque no?

It was getting cold now and Rowan and I layered up as best we could, which is to say we wore all the clothes we had. Ingenuity was needed as our lack of preparation had become apparent in the glove department.  This mini-crisis was averted by wearing our dirty socks on our hands like mittens.

 

Gloves: an unnecessary indulgence.

Gloves: an unnecessary indulgence.

We followed the ridge line from Esperanza for almost an hour and here we met the Crazy Mexicans who were returning from the summit.

Those crazy Mexicans (on ridge line).

Those crazy Mexicans (on ridge line).

They brought good and bad news.  The weather was fine at the summit, and it wasn’t more than another hour or so ahead of us, the bad news was that the ice-flow was reduced to such a point that crampons weren’t required to cross it.  After carrying them all this way, we wouldn’t end up using our crap-ons.  It was a shame.

Not long after this we met the Californians who had turned back, not liking their chances of getting back to La Joya in time for their lift into town.  I often wonder if they knew how close they were to the summit, thirty minutes more would have seen them to the top.

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And so we came to the ice-flow, Izta’s frozen belly.  The Crazy Mexicans were right in saying crampons weren’t necessary but even so we felt the crunch of snow under our bare boots and felt like real climbers.

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At the other end we stopped to gather our strength. Oxygen is a beautiful thing, and is often taken for granted.  It’s only when you don’t have it that you realise how much you actually need it.  One of the worst things about altitude is that once you stop moving you feel alright.  Your energy seems to return and you think ‘I’m ready to go’.  It’s a lie; your body is telling you porkies.  You become unable or unwilling to remember how bad you actually felt only thirty seconds prior and so you continue on.  That’s when a tsunami of exhaustion hits you as you tentatively take another few steps.  It is truly staggering; imagine sprinting off the blocks on a 100m race track right into a fully weighted punch to the nuts…then imagine running the rest of the race.

Now it was time for the final push to the summit.  We dropped our packs and as he had the entire climb, Rowan pushed ahead.  We were now climbing Izta’s ribs and the views increased as our place in the world decreased.

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Hard yakka.

The body becomes a metronome of movement, and the mind, freed of its normal constraints opens up indiscriminately to all thoughts great and small.  There is nothing spiritual, it is a simple case of exhaustion, but it’s a hell of a place to be exhausted.

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Hands-on-hips time.

On and on we climbed, the wind blew stronger and wisps of thoughts drifted across my mind like the clouds racing around us and down the other side of the mountain.  Left then, right, take one step then take another…I wonder if that’s the summit, nup…left then right…all we need in life: purpose and love…left then right…I love chocolate but hate hazelnut…left then right…where is the summit…my ankles are killing me…I’ll get there if I have to crawl…I wish I could fly instead…left then right…wings or a jetpack?

After numerous false summits we finally approached the real one, Izta’s stony breast.  I’ve never been one to consider climbing a ‘race to the summit’, and that’s a good thing because Rowan reached the top 5 minutes before me.  I arrived according to my own dignified pace and after hugs all round it was time to sit down and soak it all in.

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Weren’t you supposed to smoke a cigarette after this?  I drank down the water I’d kept for this moment, savouring the clean flavour and the pure moment.

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But we were only halfway; we now had to retrace our steps of the last two days in only four hours to meet for our rendezvous with Cesar.  As this thought crossed my mind I couldn’t believe it was only yesterday that we had started out on this adventure, we had crammed so much into so few hours.   But that’s the point of climbing; chasing those crowded hours.

Because the route up the mountain is the exact route we took down and off it, I won’t go into much detail of how Rowan and I, after spending those sweet moments cradled in Izta’s magnificent bosom, made our retreat.  Rowan set a blistering pace ahead and I did my best to keep up.  Even so, we had taken too long and it was already 4pm by the time we had reached Izta’s ankles again. Would Cesar be there?

We passed the same purple and gold flowers from yesterday, without the time to appreciate them.  On reaching La Joya we found a beaming Cesar waiting for us.  He asked if we made it to the summit.  I looked at Rowan, my comrade on the mountain for the past two days and replied a satisfied ‘Si.’ High-fives all round.

The trip back to Mexico City passed quickly, our minds warm, and heavy with lack of sleep and exhaustion but more than anything, with satisfaction.  It felt good, we had earned this and a little bit of pride isn’t such a bad thing when you earn it.

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Success!

The next week some French students tried to climb Izta and failed miserably.  The weather was atrocious and it was impossible to proceed past the refugio.  We offered heart-felt condolences but were secretly glad to have been the only students from that semester to have summited Izta. As time passed it slowly dawned on Rowan and I how lucky we were.

Iztaccíhuatl, the White Lady of Mexico and I had a relationship of extremes.  She liked it rough, sometimes a little too rough, but she was also a giver.  She gave me great memories, she cemented a friendship and she gave me a tale to tell.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the great write-up, made it to Refugios on a short, group day tour from city. Was painful not to be able to continue. Cheers.

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