Initial Thoughts & opinions
I like Mexico. It’s a big country. The culture is vibrant and intoxicating. It’s exotic and colorful like a massive chilé-scented peacock. One has the option to head north and dodge cacti, coyotes and coyotajes while rummaging for desert peaks in the Sonoran or Chihuahua deserts or relaxing to the super-swinging sounds of Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney down Tampico way. Getting lost within the crosstalk and great confusion that serves as Mexico City (one of the most populous cities in the world) is awe-inspiring, frustrating and heart-wrenchingly sad.
And then there’s the volcano’s. Mexico holds three of the highest peaks in North America: Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl. Unfortunately, one of them is off-limits due to its being perpetually pissed off, but that’s another matter.
But for someone who has diminishing and occasional aspirations in all things altitude-related, I am drawn to its volcanos and mountains. As a traveler, I’m fascinated by its anachronistic progress towards the modern while keeping both feet and some could argue both hands, firmly planted in tradition and torpidity. And oddly enough, I believe that, is Mexico’s savior…tradition. For without its devout religious beliefs and tradition, the poverty which, is all encompassing and leaves one speechless in its totality, would be unbearable. But liked a buried ember, it’s tradition that rises like a Phoenix to save the people. For this, is why I like to go to Mexico when not hiking, for the people.
I tend to distain the cookie-cutter, tourist-trap cities of Cozumel, Cancun and Cabo san Lucas because let’s face it, there’s:
A.) No volcanos
B.) Massive crowds of people of varying ‘body percentages’ wearing things they shouldn’t be wearing
C.) Hyper-inflation so bad, that if Walt Disney ever got word of their business models, millions of American kiddos would get screwed and
D.) It’s just an illusion to what Mexico really is.
If I wanted resort-style comforts, it’d be a whole lot easier to just visit Miami and watch the weirdo’s [on the beach] for some exoticness and flare.
But this was going to be a quick, ninja-style run. The cultural aspects would have to be downsized to ‘single-serve helpings’ (to paraphrase Edward Norton). This is unfortunate because ‘cultural learnings for great benefit make’ enhances international climbs, at least in my opinion.
So on this trip Nevado de Toluca and Iztaccihuatl would be commanding our full attentions. Hell, even the molé would have to wait till next time.
Upon Senad’s invitation, inclination and invocation, Sarah Simon and I joined Senad and his buddy from Chicago, Zijah in Mexico City. His friend in Mexico, Juan-Carlos Livingston (mountain guide) met us at the airport and promptly whisked us away to the wonderful and very impressive Hacienda San Martin just outside Toluca. We arrived late to a dark but quiet and secluded estate founded in 1566. It was a long day for everyone (traveling is never easy). But thankfully, sleep came easily. The florally and slightly-sweet fragrances swirling about the night ethers served to stir my mind as I slept. I was tucked away in a Mexican version of a Van Gogh Starry Night.
On a quick side note, of the four nights we spent in Mexico, the first was in Toluca. The second and third were at the Refugio on the lower slopes of Iztaccihuatl (mouth-watering views of Popocatepetl!) and the last was in downtown Mexico City. Of which, while Livingston was driving us through the labyrinth of Mexico City to our final accommodations, I spied something both perverse and fascinating constructed on the sidewalk, sandwiched in between two unlucky storefronts.
Livingston must have noticed my rapt interest in the diorama in the rear-view mirror because he proceeded to explain it in guarded and loose terms. I knew more specifics about this particular ‘saint’ from watching the television program, “Paranormal Witness” and from doing my own research into it. I was mortified and shocked to learn that this wasn’t just some ‘dramatized hyperbole’ for the benefit of attracting more viewers for the Syfy channel. I’ll detail what ‘it’ was later on when I get to it.
Nevado de Toluca
Nevado de Toluca is a cool volcano. For anyone needing to acclimate before heading up the higher peaks, I’d recommend Nevado de Toluca. We arrived at the Meteorological Station to a closed gate and no other vehicles. Even the bunks in both buildings were deserted and empty. We all left the parking lot on a dusty trail heading up towards the crater rim.
This was an easy hike. It is possible to continue driving on around to the east side where the road breaches the caldera but one might just as well start at the parking lot. There is a small building on the other side of the cone near La Luna that at one time, was an aspiring restaurant. But with the altitude and the drive time not to mention, the rough journey in getting there, someone’s dreams were short lived. Plus, from the saddle with Arista de Humboldt and Pico Noreste, the views of the main peak across the caldera, Pico de Fraile are awesome.
We descended the saddle down to Laguna Del Sol. Thus far, the weather was great, fantastic even. I’ve always found it interesting how one can imagine being somewhere else despite never having visited, but only in pictures (Thanks Summitpost!). As we walked along the shore, imagining we were on the pebble shores of some random watering hole on the Atacama was an easy stretch. We opted to ascend a climber’s path straight to the ridge to a small col. This is where for the first time we all took an extended break. The ridgeline over to Pico de Aguila (Eagles Peak) looked like a great scramble. There were most definitely some 3rd and 4th class sections taunting us with their promise of excitement, broken rock and risk. Eagle’s Peak from our particular vantage, took on hues that resembled Mt. Sneffels and El Diente (an exceptionally untrustworthy mountain) back home in Colorado. We didn’t partake in its invite but in hindsight, I wish we had.
We continued hiking up the ridge to the high point (Fraile Peak). With the exception of the last 15 feet, it was all easy class-2 hiking. The clouds building to the south like soap bubbles added to our experience. We all stayed perhaps 20 minutes at the summit. It was time to go. Sarah and I were the first ones back to the saddle on the other side of the crater rim. We wanted another peak, so we decided to hike up the easy ridge to the summit of Arista de Humboldt. A hiker’s path existed to the summit. There were two summits separated by perhaps a 5-minute walk. We touched both points, watched the clouds even larger and darker on the other side and decided to call it a day. We quickly descended to a great but easy lunch back at the car. The butter lettuce leaves with celery salt took first place!
We stopped temporarily at a truck stop on #115 to eat a hot dinner before continuing on to Amecameca. It was a place Livingstone had been curious about for a while. The food was delicious. There’s a reason why sandwiches and trail snacks have short legs!
Amecameca was larger than I expected. The city in general was run-down but there was something about it I liked. I can’t put my finger on it but it was intimidating, exotic and welcoming all at the same time. There wasn’t anything of special note, no curiosity shoppes, no filigree central plaza, no stand-out food or botanical oddities. It just had a good vibe to it. However, what was alarming was the “in-your-face” poverty in the surrounding lint-sized villages en route to Paseo de Cortes. A small community named San Pedro Nexapa was especially bad. The number of stray dogs roaming the streets like wandering exclamation points drove the feeling home. This was a town/village that I think actually did ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ Say what you want about local economies, finances and countries but when human conditions like that are thrust in my face, it leaves me a bit quiet and sullen regardless what circumstances drove the people to such a state.
We arrived at the Parque Nacional Iztaccihuatl-Popocatépetl headquarters fashionably late after dark but not quite fashionable enough as to be late. We obtained our sleeping permits for the Refugio from the sleeping attendant for two nights. It was a slow drive to the hut but we managed well enough. Everyone was tired and seemed to be dangerously close to irritatingly tired. But having Popocatépetl darkly illuminated behind us by the moon and driving to 14,000 feet in another country…seriously, what’s to complain about? At least we’re not at home eating Doritos, Moon Pies and watching The Price is Right!
Having slept in enough in huts and Refugio’s to know better, I took a top bunk almost immediately thinking we might have some small furry visitors throughout the night. As if on cue, at some point during the wee hours, we had a 'stunt double' from “The Green Mile” come wandering in and start poking around Zijah’s belongings. The fact that we were all tired, exhausted and a bit overwhelmed mentally and that I still heard a mouse come sauntering in, I think shows how tough of an adversary altitude can be. Over the years, all I’ve managed to find that works passingly well is to have a cup or two of hot tea before bed and let your mind drift on the latitude winds to nowhere in particular. I had thought of bringing that bastard along, Ambien but like the devil, of course he’ll promise you the world in the beginning, but it leaves you confused and robbed come morning. Fortunately, just like in the movie, our furry friend brought along some good luck. We had no more visitors that night and those that did show up the second night were even quieter than the mouse! Is that even possible in a high-altitude hut? When you can count yourself among a contingent of international climbers, especially in Mexico, silence can be a very rare thing indeed.
Most rural Mexican towns are like duplicates stamped from the same piece of sheet metal. One can expect the same cluttered streets, people as thick as mosquitos and strangely enough, idle. There are pockets of delicious aromas surrounded by oceans of dust and exhaust. There’s always a central plaza and church, Coronas and Pepsi snuggling each other like amigos and the occasional troupe of federalés walking around. Seeing armed military personal walking around with fully automatic rifles for the first time can be a bit…disconcerting. Amecameca is no different. But as stated above, it does have a vibe to it that makes it unique, as do most towns. It’s hard to decipher what it is. Although some towns have the opposite effect; I have no plans or intentions of ever visiting Juarez or Aguascalientes ever again for the same but negative reasons.
Senad and Zijah went for a local hike around the hills surrounding the Refugio and communications center whilst Sarah and I accompanied Livingston back down into Amecameca to pick up one of his employees, another guide and some chicken. We never could manage to figure out what his (the guide) name was or what he was saying, but what we do know is that his name was something close to Salvador. So for the rest of the trip, we just called him Sal. Sarah and I liked the market set up around the central square. Plus, the main church being over 400 years old was definitely an eyepiece once inside. I’ll hand it to the Catholics, even for those not religious or pious, walking around inside their churches leaves one humbled and guilty without really knowing why! We picked up some additional provisions and made our way back to the hut for an early start up Iztaccihuatl the next morning. I rather enjoyed our brief time in Amecameca and wished we could have seen more.
We walked the standard route clear to the summit. We started out on the slower side taking our time. The trailhead is already over 14,000 feet and we started at roughly 2:30am, so there wasn’t any need to make haste. However, like with all things cold, with the appropriate clothing, the cold is manageable…until you stop. The winds, which thankfully, up to now were still in bed sleeping it off, were graciously not in attendance. At this altitude, if we had strong winds, it would have been downright miserable. But as long as we kept moving, all was fine.
Unfortunately, Zijah was feeling the altitude. But being from the great hot-dog town of Chicago, everyone knew this was to be expected. Livingston and Sal switched whereby, Livingstone being the lead guide, stayed behind with Zijah. Sal (salt in Spanish, I still wonder what he thought of that!) walked with Senad, Sarah and I. We took a quick break at the (Grupo de Los Cien) high camp refugio located at 15,025’ (4.580m). It was nothing more than a 6-bunk outhouse really. It was about the size of those small silver Airstream trailers you used to see back in the 1970’s.
But….the smell…and the trash…and the graffiti…HOLY SHIT! This place was absolutely disgusting!! I’ve slept in back alleys in Amsterdam cleaner than this place (seriously). Senad and Sal went in to warm up. Sarah and I took a peek and instantly turned around to take shelter from the light winds on the leeward side. Plus, it didn’t feel right waking the folks up inside just for 10 minutes of warm if not foul and smelly respite. You could have carved a ‘half-moon’ on the front door and it would have been about right.
We kept our forward momentum going up some pretty damn loose slopes. The volcanic rock was definitely hard to keep traction on. The trail meandered back & forth like a Modelo-saturated snake. At times, it was loose and unstable ash/dirt and other times, loose and crumbly rock, probably no more than class-3 at its hardest. But a slip would prove to have bad consequences. We stopped again at the sub-summit of Los Pies which at 15,425’ (4.700m), we definitely felt the altitude. There was some wreckage strewn about the summit similar to what’s on Pico de Orizaba. We were the first ones up there but stayed long enough for a separate party of two to arrive and join us. Unfortunately, we would not see Zijah or Livingston until we were back at the parking lot.
The long walk in all honesty wasn’t particularly interesting. But I can see in bad weather and spending so much time on this route above 15,500’ (4.725m), the beautiful curvature of this Mexican princess is a bad place to be. The views, if not for the ample pollution below at warmer altitudes would have been absolutely stunning. On this particular morning as we left Los Pies behind and headed towards Las Rodillas and El Pecho as fast as the altitude would allow us, we had no views of the surrounding countryside. However, as we approached the Ayoloco Glacier (nothing more than a snowfield on the Atkins diet), the sunrise was clear, crisp and amazing. In fact, seeing the sunrise from 16,633’ (5.070m) as far as I am concerned was almost the highlight of the trip. Sal and I seemed to be hitting things off pretty good. We easily walked the glacier and slowly ascended El Pecho to the summit of Mexico’s third highest peak! The summit was basically a flat triangular plateau. I think we were quite lucky with the weather. A long sleeve, light jacket, hat and light gloves were enough to whether the cold. Though, I imagine this is typically not the case. On the way down, we must have passed at least some 200 odd people. I didn’t realize how popular this mountain is on the weekends. Most of course were not going for the summit but we did pass some who were. Sal and I had a great ‘chipped-grin’ conversation in Spanish and English about music. We both seemed to agree on a few bands like Skrillex, Nine Inch Nails and Bestias de Asalto.
We stopped again at the hut to eat and take a breather on the way down. This time, seeing that the door was open, I ventured inside to actually look at the place in a light that wasn't as dark & ghastly as it was earlier in the morning. Yep. It was just as foul as I remembered it. However, after talking to the two occupants inside, two Italians who for mysterious reasons, did not summit, Fabio & Matteo were picking up all the trash and debris inside! I solidly applauded their efforts and tact for doing something like that. Then we had a talk about mountaineering in general in places like Italy, Mexico and the USA. I liked them. I left with a good impression. Go Italy!
At the parking lot, I had two delicious red-chile burritos (they kicked like an ornery mule!) freshly made at the trailhead by two women who set up a make-shift kitchen in a shelter. With a Corona to wash it down, it cost me all but $2.50. I don’t have a problem eating roadside food in Mexico but I do keep diligent about some things I’m choosing to eat or drink. We all left Iztaccihuatl behind and with it, the peace and quiet of the Mexican countryside. The great metropolis of Mexico City awaited us.
I decided to do some research of my own on this shadowy and arcane ‘saint’ that in recent years, has experienced a surge in popularity and infamy, mostly along the Mexican/USA border. Santa Muerte has existed since the Spanish Colonial days (basically early 1700’s). It has always existed but in hushed, quiet tones, kept to the recesses and darker corners of faith and belief. However, due to the all too well known drug violence and kidnappings of late, people have started to pray and pay homage more openly to this ‘viceroy’ of the grave.
So while sitting at the intersection transfixed by what I was seeing on the sidewalk, listening to Livingston’s explanation, the immediacy of something so blasphemous and wrong only 30 feet away from me made a solid impression that faith is easily corruptible and misdirected. How can a country so saturated and enmeshed with Catholicism allow such an abomination to coexist? Probably, upon further thought, the same way we here in the States allow the same thing. The United States is a jig-saw puzzle of religions and faiths. Haiti is 120% Catholic and 100% Voudoun (Voodoo). You have to admit, people have strange ways of mixing oil and vinegar…and not always with good results.
Anyway, a friend of mine who works at the El Paso Municipal Building here in Colorado Springs (she’s from Michoacán), confirmed everything I asked her. She also ended my questioning by saying, “’Santa Muerte’ is bad, bad stuff. We acknowledge it’s not going anywhere but we don’t talk about it. Why would you ask death for help before God?” And that was all she would say on the matter.
So in some way, despite not having as much cultural education as I would have liked, in the end, we got our volcanos, saw some more of rural Mexico than we had previously and ironically, the cultural/religious sought me out…in a way. Chris Pruchnic (Haliku) taught me that a good, well-rounded vacation/climbing trip can only be appreciated if you can experience a good helping of both. And I have to admit, I wasn’t excited about going because the city aspect would be minimal. But this trip gets better and better the more I dwell on it; and in my opinion, that’s a sign of a good trip!