Finally on snow above the hut, Ixta in the clouds.
THE UNCERTAIN TRAVELER
Travel is always an inexact endeavor, that’s what makes it adventure. Popocatepetl is an uncertain Mexican volcano that exceeds in height any mountain in the Lower Forty- eight of the U.S. My atlas says the peak rises to 17,930 feet above sea level making it the fifth highest mountain in North America and second highest in Mexico. A variety of publications list a variety of heights for “El Popo” as the peak is affectionately known, with National Geographic listing it at 17,802. So what’s 128 feet? Climbing the 17,930 foot volcano in 1973, I got to understand this uncertainty.
Like it’s height, it is also uncertain who was the first to climb Popocatepetl, an Aztec name meaning “The Smoking Mountain”. Cortez in letters sent back to the King of Spain in 1520 claimed a group of ten soldiers sent to investigate the source of the smoke “Reached very near the top” before the smoke and ash drove them away. The peak was erupting. In later journals credit is given for reaching the crater rim to Diego de Ordaz, leader of the group Cortez had sent to investigate the smoke. But rock structures and artifacts have been found in the vicinity suggesting the Aztecs or even their predecessors the Toltecs may have made it to the smoking crater of “El Popo” around 900 A.D. Mexico and it’s volcanic peaks are like that, distant, sometimes obscure.
In Texas before leaving on my climbing adventure I stopped in the Mexican Consulate for a tourist card. I explained my mission to Mexico was to climb the high volcanoes. The consulate took a serious tone as he told the story of Popo and Ixta. He made animated gestures as he described the maiden mountain Iztaccihuatl “The Sleeping Woman”. Running a hand down the back of his head as he gestured to flowing hair, another gliding down the side of his hip to his knee explaining the goddess’s legs and then standing holding both hands to his chest and nodding more seriously, yes he said, even the breasts I would see in mountain form of The Sleeping Woman lying next to the warrior Popo.
Iztaccihuatl “The Sleeping Woman”is another high volcanic peak across a low pass named Cortez, from Popcatepetl. A warrior, as legend has it, Popo was in love with the Emperor’s daughter Iztaccihuatl but went away to war. Before his return, word reached the princess that he had been killed and she died of grief. But Popo did return to place the fallen maiden on the mountain which he now stands next to holding a funeral torch.
The consulate handed me my tourist card and reminded me that I must be prepared if I was going to climb the volcanoes. I assured him we had proper equipment and had trained on other peaks so had the skills necessary for the climbs. As I walked down the hall I heard him from his office in raised voice this time “You must be prepared! You must or you will die!”
In the 1970's and 1980s The Mexican Volcanoes became popular training ground for would-be high altitude climbers. Though technically not difficult, the extreme altitude makes Popocatepetl a challenge. Because of easy access from the U.S. and low cost travel the region became known as “The Poor Man’s Nepal”. Many notable climbers cut their teeth in high altitude climbing on El Popo.
But the Volcano has always had an allure that has drawn many through the ages. In 1881 the mountain’s magnetism pulled at Adolph Bandelier an archeologist wanting to see the effect the mountain had on the minds of the local people and what part it played in their mythology. He climbed the peak and would go on to make archeological discoveries in the American Southwest which would lead to the naming of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico in his honor.
In 1973 I spent a week in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains before catching a flight to Mexico City then driving on to the climber’s lodge near Cortez Pass. The Vincente Guerrero Lodge is a beautiful building of native stone with hostel style accommodations. Roaring fires built at days end gave a warm glow to the sleeping areas and around boiling pots in the communal cooking /dinning area climbers brewed camaraderie.
The lodge lies at 13,000 feet so several in our party were already showing signs of altitude sickness. Climbing Popocatepetl was not going to be easy. Beginning from the lodge a trail makes it’s way through loose volcanic cinders to the first climber’s hut at 14,000 feet. Each foot placed on this trail to gain the thousand feet to the hut slid back half again. It was a rough morning of climbing and reaching the first hut, I too began to feel the effects of the altitude. I went inside the hut where a number of climbers were resting out of the wind. Two Mexicans sat on layers of newspapers on the concrete floor eating out of a communal can of jalapenos. This sight sent me out of the hut nauseated. It took me sometime to recover and begin the climb of the snow slope above the hut. There was quite a crowd climbing the steep slope. Reaching the crater rim the three of us in my climbing party were alone but for three members of a Mexican climbing club. They seemed glad to see us and unfurled their club’s flag as poses were struck and cameras appeared to record the moment. We all shook hands then were off to continue the ascent around the edge of the crater to the actual summit of Popocatepetl. Climbing mountains is a test.
In 1993 almost exactly 30 years after I stood on the summit ridge, the funeral torch of El Popo grew to a funeral pyre throwing out clouds of ash and toxic gas and radiating tremors. For seventy years the volcano had rested but now it is awake and threatens small villages around the base of the mountain and deposits ash and cinders as far as Mexico City on occasion. Climbing this high peak today is out of the question. Much of the glacier like ice around the summit is gone.
Mountaineers call it “boiler plate”. Snow melted then re-frozen into hard- as- steel, plate-like sheets of ice. Traversing around the crater rim, slowly climbing towards the summit, the altitude was not the only problem we were having. The boiler plate took determined prodding with ice ax and crampons, the mountain climbers spiked tools for dealing with such tractionless slopes. I had good footing and that proved to be very lucky. Climbing along the crater rim gasses from within the volcano blew intermittently across our path. Breathing at this altitude took concentration and great effort. But perhaps most importantly it also took good timing to avoid inhaling the sulfurous gasses of the volcano. I had just solidly planted my cramponed boots, hard stuck the point of my ice ax when through miscalculation I breathed in a lung full of fumes. I momentarily blacked out and fell forward over my ice ax saving me from a serious slide down the mountain that would of been difficult to recover from. In a short time though we successfully reached the summit of the smoking mountain, Popocatepetl.
In the 1920s world adventurer Richard Halliburton wrote of his climb of Popocatepetl with his father who at the time was in his mid-fifties. The climb brought a youthfulness to his dad but Richard’s carelessness the night before stole the summit view from his father. During the cold night Richard had left his boots close enough to the fire to burn the soles off of them. Wrapped in rags they very nearly made the summit but the makeshift boots left poor Richard standing in stocking feet short of the summit. His father removed his boots, handed them to his son and strode down the mountain. The Halliburton son trudged guiltily on to the summit. Besides summiting Popo Richard would be the only human to swim and be locked through the Panama Canal , go skinny dipping in the reflection pool in front of the Taj Mahal and complete a long, long list of “you’ll never do it “escapades.
So now it doesn’t seem odd for me to record a climb of a peak more than thirty years ago and here in lies a universal truth of travel. One should not put off making the trip. Any trip. Each is a unique opportunity and passing that up one may never regain the chance. Popo is quite active now so climbing chances are rare if at all possible and without the glacier like ice and snow, would be a much different style of climb. One thing does remain, the mountain. A mountain that has watched not pages or chapters but volumes of human history pass before it and that is still there waiting for more to be written by the adventurer, the explorer and that is for certain.