Trip Report: La Malinche, Nevado de Toluca, Iztaccihuatl, and El Pico de Orizaba
After celebrating Christmas with my family in PA, I flew to Mexico City on December 27 to meet my friends Juan Valderrama and Annica Carlson for some climbs on the well-known "Mexican Volcanos." My plans to meet up with Juan and Annica that evening fell through, and after some confusion and a very stressful taxi ride, I managed to find my way to the Hostel Catedral in Mexico City's Zocalo (central square). The hostel is quite nice and offers beds for $9 a night. There is also a bar and internet cafe on the premises and its location next to the Cathedral and Templo Mayor can't be beat. I was unable to contact Juan and Annica that night, but left a message, hoping to meet up with them the following evening. Before heading to bed, I made arrangements to go on a tour of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine and Teotihuacan the following day, which turned out to be a great day trip and allowed for some acclimatization.
1) La Malinche (14,640 ft) -- December 30, 2001
On returning from Teotihuacan, I finally met up with Juan and Annica and we made plans to head to La Malinche in the morning. We were planning on a 2 hour bus ride, but somehow ended up on a local bus which stopped more than 50 times along the winding country roads to pick up passengers. The bus also picked up and let off people selling everything from candy to potions that "make ugly people beautiful." Although the trip took 4 hours, it was an interesting cultural experience to say the least.
When we arrived in Apizaco, we inquired about transportation to the mountain and were able to hire a VW van to take us to the IMSS resort for about $12. The driver also agreed to pick us up in 2 days for a $5 deposit. The campsites at the resort were quite nice and we were able to pitch our tents in a flat area surrounded by shrubs. That night, the locals were absolutely crazy, yelling and partying until 3AM. Luckily I had my ear plugs.
The next morning, we got up at 5AM, had breakfast, and were on the trail at 6AM. Since the road beyond the resort entrance was closed, we had to hike an extra 3 miles to reach the usual starting point for the climb, but the forest was quite nice and the path was graded easily the whole way. When we reached treeline, lots of clouds were blowing over, but we managed to catch a few glimpses of the peak.
I started to make my way up to the ridge and soon passed some Americans who were coming down. They said that conditions were quite icy higher up and had elected to turn back. I was also nervous about the building clouds, but pushed on. As I approached the ridge, I noticed two people above me apparently struggling with a large backpack. Either unintentionally or on purpose, they dropped the pack and it started tumbling down the slope, heading directly for my friends. I started yelling "rock" and my friends looked up to see the pack rocketing towards them. They spread out immediately and Juan managed to stop the pack. He later told me that he thought it was a person who had fallen.
Afterwards, I continued on to the ridge and decided to push on to the summit without waiting for Juan and Annica. As I neared the summit, the clouds cleared and I was able to take some nice photos. On the summit, I posed with some of the local climbers (who were all quite excited to have their picture taken with an American climber). After 15 min, I headed down and passed Juan and Annica about 200 ft from the summit. Further down, I had some lunch and waited for about 1 hour until Juan and Annica returned from the summit. Annica's previously-injured ankle was bothering her, so we agreed that I should head down quickly to check on the tents while Juan and Annica took their time coming down.
As I stomped down the trail back to the resort, I passed more than 200 people (mostly day hikers) who had come to the resort for the weekend. I arrived back at the resort to find the tents undisturbed and Juan and Annica arrived shortly thereafter. That night we were invited to a barbeque by a Mexican family who was staying at the resort. Most spoke very good English and we had a great time talking and telling jokes. The next morning we woke up early and caught our ride back to Apizaco. This is where I ate the now-famous Tomale which I believe made me deathly sick a few days later. After breakfast, we boarded the bus (express this time) and headed for Toluca, where would attempt our next peak (Nevado de Toluca).
2) Nevado de Toluca (15,390 ft) -- January 1, 2002
Since Annica's ankle was still somewhat tender after the climb on La Malinche, Juan and I decided to attempt the traverse of the crater rim as planned while Annica did some hiking around the crater floor. We had learned of traverse from xpmexico.com and were excited about the possibility of climbing an alpine-style route in Mexico. So after a nice dinner in town, we managed to hire a taxi to take us all the way to the hut for about $20. We arrived at the hut just as the sun was setting and got spaces for $3.50 each. After claiming our bunks, Juan and Annica spent some time chatting with a group of runners who had been training on the mountain for 16 days. The wind was really picking up and the runners told us that it is usually quite strong during the night but calms down around 7AM. After some sandwiches, we headed to bed, hoping to leave at around 6AM the next morning.
We woke at around midnight with the wind howling outside and wished each other "Happy New Year." It was now quite cold outside and Juan came to appreciate my patented "pee bottle" when he didn't have to venture out. We slept well until 6AM, when I woke Juan to leave for the summit. Annica remained in bed while Juan and I had our breakfast and set out into the cold. The wind was still ripping but I was hopeful that things would calm down by the time we reached the rim.
We set off up the trail from the hut with the wind directly in our faces and fought our way slowly upwards. As we reached the saddle between Noreste and Humboldt, we caught our first glimpse of the route we were about to undertake. It looked fantastic! We made our way down to the crater floor and ascended to the opposing ridge where we were happy to find that the winds had subsided somewhat. We set off climbing up lower Companario and had a great time scrambling along and pausing to study and discuss the route.
We encountered some nice sections on Higher Companario and were soon at the base of Pico de Fraile. I led the way up, stopping to take a few pictures of Juan climbing below me. The climbing was the type that I absolutely love - moderate alpine rock - and we were able to climb unroped without difficulty. We paused for drinks and pictures on Pico de Fraile and set off down the ridge. The next sections were relatively straightforwards, until we reached Pico Ordonez, where we dropped to the right of the ridge to traverse below that peak. The rockfall potential was quite high here and we moved quickly to minimize the danger.
After regaining the ridge, we continued on to Pico de Aguila without problems, both feeling quite tired now. We paused at the summit for quite some time and then started descending, dropping quickly on what appeared to be an obvious path. It is here, however, that I believe that we strayed from the preferred route, since we were forced to traverse on steep snow on the outside of the crater with poor rock underneath. As we moved cautiously along, we saw our first signs of dayhikers below and soon came to a steep gully which seemed to offer the best escape from the route. It looked quite treacherous and some crazy Mexican day-hikers were setting off firecrackers below to make things even more interesting. We down-climbed cautiously over the icy rock and exchanged "pleasantries" upon reaching the Mexicans.
After this, it was a simple hike back to the hut. Annica arrived about 45 min later and we had some tacos as we waited for our ride back to town. The same cab driver from the day before arrived on schedule since he had come to the mountain with his family. We loaded the car and set off down the gravel access road but soon encountered absolute chaos. About 4,000 people had come to the mountain for New Years and there were cars facing in every direction imaginable. We made very slow progress and our driver got out of the car on several occasions to investigate the problem. About 2 hours later, we made it back to the main road, but apparently our driver had to go back to pick up his family and he drove like an absolute maniac - passing lines of cars at 80 mph with trucks coming head on. Then he took us on a "short-cut" through the slums of Toluca where we all became quite nervous. Eventually, we made it back to town and payed him, happy that he didn't kill us.
That night we stayed in Toluca at the Hotel Rex and had dinner at Vips (the Mexican equivalent of Denny's which soon became my favorite place in Mexico). We decided to take two days off before heading to Ixta, which we spent running erands and cruising the canals at Xochimilco. The traverse of Toluca was an outstanding climb, probably the best of the trip. I would encourage anyone heading to Mexico to climb Ixta and/or Orizaba to seriously consider climbing this route. It is probably the best route of its kind in all of Mexico.
3) Iztaccihuatl (17, 340 ft) -- January 6, 2002
Two days after our climb on Nevado de Toluca, we headed to Amecameca by bus to attempt Izta's Ayoloco Glacier. When we arrived in town, the sun was shining and both Ixta and Popo looked fantastic. We originally planned to stay in town that night, but the staff at the National Park office offered us a free ride to Paso de Cortez and suggested that we spend the night in the electrical station on the route to La Joya. We decided to take them up on their offer and arrived at Paso de Cortez at around 3PM. Unfortunately, the military informed us that the station was locked and that they couldn't give us the key, since they needed to be able to run there in the event of an eruption on Popo. We were debating about going back to Amecameca when the army suggested that we might stay in the lodge at Paso de Cortez (now serving as an army barracks). We were greatly appreciative and prepared to settle in for the night.
Later in the afternoon, I started to feel quite sick, apparently from something I had eaten, and I had to head off into the woods about every 20 minutes or so. I wasn't overly concerned but around dinner time, I started getting waves of chills and I was unable to get warm in my sleeping bag, even while wearing my down parka. Soon, a very high fever came on and I accepted some antibiotics (bactrim) and aspirin from the military. They wanted to give me an injection of penicillin, which I respectfully declined. I was unable to eat anything and the night was absolutely miserable, since I was in a state of confusion with a fever of about 102. In addition, the army had locked the doors of the lodge so that we were unable to get outside to go to the bathroom. Annica peed on one of the plants in the lodge and I made good use of a large plastic bag I found. Juan woke up at around 2AM to find me on top of my sleeping bag trying to stay cool - it was 10 degrees F. In the morning, Juan arranged transport back to Amecameca and soon I was resting at the Hotel San Carlos. I had some crackers and sipped hydration fluid for most of the day and was feeling considerably better by the evening. Hoping not to lose too much time, we decided to head back to Paso de Cortez in the morning.
I awoke early and was feeling considerably better, but certainly not back to full strength. Nonetheless, we decided to make a go for it and headed to Paso de Cortez. Our driver was unwilling to go to La Joya, so we started walking and I soon forgot about being sick. After about an hour, we reached La Joya and headed down into the Tlaltipatango valley towards the Ayoloco Hut. The people in town told us that it was only 2-3 hours to the hut, but we soon realized that this was probably not accurate. The route was very poorly marked and we seemed to be traversing along the side of the mountain for a long time, dropping into ravines and then out again. It was quite strenuous and at 5PM, we still had not reached the hut. As the sun was setting, we had reached about 15,000 feet and fanned out hoping to catch sight of the hut. I found it about 15 minutes before complete darkness and shouted to Juan and Annica who were quite relieved.
After melting snow for water and a quick dinner of sandwiches, we went to bed planning for a start at around 5AM. That night was especially clear and we could see the lights of Mexico City from the window of the hut. I woke at 4AM, and since it was relatively warm, we elected to start our climb to the summit. We reached the glacier easily and found it to be more of a steep snow slope than a true glacier. We gained the ridge shortly after sunrise and climbed easily up La Arista del Sol to the summit. There was some confusion about the location of the true summit since there were a number of snow domes of apparently similar height. After some wandering around and inspections from various locations, we determined the summit to be th point with the crucifix and plaque.
We headed down soon and took a nice break back at the hut. We decided to search for a better route back to La Joya, since we had clearly gotten off route on the approach to the hut. By moving carefully and straining our eyes to search for cairns, we managed to locate what is probably the preferred route between La Joya and the Ayoloco Hut. It is, however, quite easy to get off route without the proper route finding instructions. We took some picture on the return and I've attempted to describe the route in detail on my Ayoloco Glacier route page. When we got back to La Joya, we met some Mexican state police who offered us beer and a ride back to Paso de Cortez. Once back at Paso de Cortez, it took some time to hire a taxi back to Amecameca, but we were soon on our way.
After finishing the climb, I decided that the normal route may have been a better choice, since the approach is more straightforward. Additionally, the Ayoloco Glacier is not the moderate route that we were hoping for and has likely become much easier than in past decades due to the severe glacier recession in Mexico. Nevertheless, we had the hut and the route to ourselves and the approach and climb were quite beautiful. If Popo ever opens for climbing, I would definitely consider a return trip for a climb of the normal route.
4) El Pico de Orizaba (18,410 ft) -- January 10, 2002
After our climb on Izta, we headed back to Mexico City and then on to Puebla for a few days of rest before attempting Orizaba. We visited a Talavera pottery factory, an old fort, and many nice neighborhoods throughout the city. I especially liked the large palm trees in the city center which were illuminated from underneath to create a lighted canopy of palm leaves over the entire square. Annica had decided not to come along to Orizaba, so on January 9, Juan and I headed to Tlachichuca, hoping to complete a "light and fast" climb on the mountain and meet up with Annica in Mexico City the following evening.
On arriving in Tlachichuca, we inquired about transportation to Piedra Grande and determined that $50 is pretty much the going rate. We ended up hiring Gerardo and, after purchasing some supplies and enjoying a large lunch, headed out of town at around 1:30PM. The jeep had some issues on the way to the huts, but we finally made it at around 3PM. There were about 20 people staying in and around the huts, and most were skeptical when we told them of our plans to summit the following morning. Nevertheless, we had a good time chatting with the other climbers and inspecting the route for the following morning. We had a dinner of sandwiches and went to bed at around 9PM. We woke at 2AM and were out the door by 2:30, taking only what we absolutely needed for the climb (crampons, ice axe, food, and water).
On the climb up to the glacier, we had some difficulty finding the exact route, but forged our own way upwards amongst large boulders and cliff bands. By the time we reached the glacier it was quite cold and the sun had not yet risen. We could see another party just above us and followed more or less directly in their tracks. The snow was quite firm and became icier and steeper as we climbed. Near the summit, I felt very cold and climbed from that point wearing my down parka. The other team soon passed me on their way down and told me that I was only 20 minutes from the summit. I managed to find some new strength and climbed quickly to the crater rim and on to the summit, where I waited for 30 minutes until Juan arrived. We snapped some pictures and then started down.
The descent proved long but posed little difficulty and we passed another group of Americans near the bottom of the glacier, still heading towards the summit. They had left the hut directly behind us, but apparently got lost during the hike up to the glacier. They also seemed overloaded with gear, a tremendous mistake on Orizaba. I continued down, once again ahead of Juan, passing several day hikers on the descent and reached the hut at 11:30, having completed the round-trip in 9 hours. We had called Gerardo from the summit using a 2-way radio and he arrived shortly to take us back to Tlachichuca. We shared the ride with the three guys from Montana who had summitted ahead of us. They had been to Denali the previous summer, so we took the opportunity to ask lots of questions about logistics and the route. On arriving in town, we grabbed a quick lunch together and then Juan and I headed back to Mexico City to meet Annica. On the way from Puebla to Mexico City we travelled by Grand Luxury bus. I highly recommend this mode of travel. Our flights home weren't for 3 days, so we used the extra time to take in the Anthropology Museum and Templo Mayor, as well as a bullfight and ballet at the Bellas Artes.
In general, I would say that the traverse of Toluca was the best climb of the trip, although we were also quite pleased with the style in which we climbed Orizaba. By relying on our skill rather than overburdening ourselved with equipment, we were able to complete the climb in less than 24 hours from Tlachichuca. The ability to combine climbing with other touring made this trip especially fun, and I came home feeling like we had really seen Mexico - both the mountains and the culture.