Iztaccihuatl is the seventh highest peak in North America at 17,159 feet. It is a 30 million year old volcano which has been ravaged by glacial erosion. A rugged ridgeline remains which still manages to stretch the clouds. Local myth claims the mountain is a sleeping goddess as the ridgeline’s profile simulates the head, breasts, belly, knees and feet of a woman sleeping on her back. Possibly the most interesting aspect of Iztaccihuatl is the neighboring active conical volcano Popocatepetl. Although Popo’s glaciers have melted or are covered in dark ash it remains an awesome site from the high slopes of Izta.
Debbie and I had already acclimatized on Pico de Orizaba a few days before, so we had the advantage of not having to carry camp up the mountain. Instead, we camped 100 meters up from La Joya parking lot on an exposed bench amongst dark volcanic soil, tufts of thick grass and grazing cattle. We chose La Arista de Sol route.
Camp was set by noon so there was plenty of time to burn before our summit attempt early the next morning. We drank lots of water, the most important acclimatization precaution, and wandered about admiring the views. We decided to make a short acclimatization hike up to a saddle 500 feet above camp following closely behing a group of four locals set to sleep at the Grupo de los Cien hut. It seems quite a few locals make weekend trips of this mountain. After the hike, we came back to camp, ate dinner and tried to sleep. Without an alarm, we had to depend on our biological clocks to signal 3am.
The typical morning routine of eating hot oatmeal, hot coco and coffee precluded a brisk exit from the tent into a land of frozen dew. We were moving up the trail by 3:20 am with light blue glow from our headlamps. The lights of Amecameca shown clear below and a nearly full moon illuminated the rugged volcanic slopes of this extinct giant.
From La Joya, the route climbs an east-west running sub-ridge of the mountain. After following this sub-ridge for a thousand feet, you contour climbers left below the rugged cliffs of the feet. Easy trail leads to a major saddle between the feet and the knees on the main ridgeline of the peak. From here a slog commences up the west side of the mountain toward the Grupo de los Cien hut. This section of the route is the least enjoyable. It is like walking up a sand dune. A braided trail eventually gains the ridge proper, more solid ground and soon afterward the hut.
We passed the occupied sheet metal structure at 5:30 am and climbed back up to the ridge to find solid ground. After some brief scrambling, the sun rose over the Gulf of Mexico to the east. Pico de Orizaba stood strong as a lonely point far beyond. The trail beyond the hut actually stays well below the ridge to the east ascending loose scree fields. We discovered this when our class 3 ridge scrambling ended with technical notches. After a brief traverse, we rediscover the path and followed it up to the most rugged section of the route and the only required class 3 moves. The solid ground was refreshing and passed all too quickly. We found an easy chimney on the west side of the ridge, which brought us past a dark cross and to a skeleton hut atop the 16,800’ false summit.
On top of the knees now, we could finally see some white on this route, the belly glacier. It hid behind two rolling points of loose volcanic dirt. These obstacles passed easily and soon the first glacial crossing stood in front of us.
This ice field was significantly smaller than the one on Orizaba and had a different personality. Instead of hanging on a steep slope, it was draped over the ridgeline making it’s crossing nearly flat. The edges rolling over either side lent for more obvious crevasses. No need for an axe, rope or crampons although we did find a nasty hole which could easily ruin a fine day with an injured leg. With fresh snow hiding these dangers, this could be a treacherous area.
After crossing the glacier, we walked along a narrow fin of colorful volcanic rocks passing by the group of four locals we met the day before. They were the first to summit on the day, we were next. Summit number two of our trip was in the bag 5 hours after leaving La Joya.
Two other high points surround a glacier which fills the ancient crater. Apparently the point directly across the widest part of the flat glacier to the North is the main summit so we went over and tagged it. A cross stands on this point. The first point looked higher from both summits… ah, details. The views of Popo were excellent.
Descent: 24 hours on the Mountain
Our trip back down was a great time to revel in our success on the trip. There were dozens of people climbing up, most looked to be destined for an aborted climb. We gave some of our food to a group of three Mexicans whose stomachs were grumbling. It was amazing how fast the mountain became socked in from the east. We also had a nice conversation with a local who had been climbing the mountain since he was a boy, now an accomplished mountaineer with Aconcagua under his belt. Stoked we had completed the three main objectives of the vacation: Orizaba, Izta and Teotihuacan, we went back to camp and relaxed for a bit. After packing up camp and carrying out to La Joya to meet our arranged taxi ride, we found a most excellent taco bar. The best tacos we have ever had and they were a dollar each. Imagine a blue corn tortilla cooked in front of you on a hot barrel stuffed with your choice of meat, delicious mozzarella cheese and fresh salsa. There was even an delicious mushroom option, score!