A GOOD DOSE OF THIN MEXICAN AIR.
Dec 23 - Dec 30, 2005.
By Francisco J. Garza.
It had been a year full of racing action, from 5k`s to 50k`s. I was feeling a little bit burned out because of so much training and also tons of long hours at work, so I decided to shift gears and run away from it all going on a solo trip to the high Mexican volcanoes, a trip that I had been thinking about for a couple of years.
My family and I traveled to Monterrey, México from Houston to spend the holidays there.
Day 1: After spending four days in town I departed for Toluca on December 23, driving via San Luis Potosí and Querétaro before leaving the main highway to take the one leading to Atlacomulco and Toluca. As I was getting close to Toluca at dusk I was able to catch my first glimpse of volcán Nevado de Toluca in the horizon, to my surprise it was completely blanketed with snow.
Once in downtown I found lodging at Hotel Casa del Abuelo.
Day 2: After a not so mexican breakfast at a nearby Burger King, I drove to Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca. I snapped a few pictures of the volcano on the way up, it looked majestic. Once at Parque de los Venados (at the entrance) I quickly realized that the road leading up to the huts and the crater was closed due to the snow, this would alter my plans since I had wanted to spend the next two nights at the huts to get acclimatized. After spending a couple of hours getting to know the place and it`s surroundings I grabbed my daypack and went for an exploration hike of the volcano. I quickly found a trail leading all the way up to the base of Pico Aguila past the winding road and timberline after about two hours of hiking. From there I headed west on the road to try to find the trail leading to Pico Fraile but had no luck since the shin deep snow was covering everything and there were no signs or climbers in sight anywhere, a few cops were passing by but they had no clue of what I was looking for. I decided to head back to my SUV before the sunset and try to find a place to stay.
Once at the parking lot I inquired about the dormitory but the person in charge had left for the Christmas weekend and the place was locked, so I decided to spend the night in my vehicle but as I was getting ready to eat dinner and jump into my sleeping bag the cops came back to tell me that I couldn`t stay, that everyone had to leave the park for the night. The only choice that they gave me was to spend the night at the nearby village of Raíces (3,400m), so I had to head back down to the village only to realize that there were no places to stay or camp so I ended up spending the night in my vehicle parked next to the safest place in town, the church.
Right when I was finally falling asleep the hells bells came alive urging the villagers to attend Christmas mass and celebrate with chants and loud fireworks; needless to say I didn`t sleep much on that cold night.
Day 3: I got up at 8:00 AM and after a light breakfast I drove back to the park`s entrance and started hiking at 9:00 AM, already late on this Christmas day 2005, I followed the same snow covered trail up past timberline and then started heading southwest toward Cerro Prieto to resume my search of the trail to Pico Fraile. After hiking for a few hours through the snowy basin and boulder fields I finally gave up and decided to head up to the nearest peak since it was getting late. As I as hiking up on the very steep slopes I started to wonder if I was going to be able to make it to the crater rim, this was taking much longer than expected and given that the whole area was unfamiliar to me and that there was no one else around I felt like I could put my self in a predicament.
I didn`t want to hike down the same way I was going up, so I had to hurry and finally reached the summit of what I later realized was Pico Pieschel at 3:30 PM. I only spent five minutes taking pictures and admiring the other peaks. Pico Aguila is not that far away but given the snow conditions and the late hour of the day I decided to pass on it, my main concern now was to make it back to the trail or the road before sunset.
I started my descent on the ridge facing Pico Aguila looking for a nice snow ramp that I had seen on my traverse earlier. After 15 minutes of scrambling I finally reached the ramp but progress was slowed down by the sometimes knee deep snow. Two and a half hours later I was back at the parking lot, just in time to be kicked out of the park again, this time I opted to go back to the same hotel in Toluca, but first I had to endure another two and a half hours of the worst rush hour traffic on that little country highway to travel those agonizing 20 miles back to town.
Even though I didn`t reach the main summit I was very satisfied by the end of the day.
Day 4: I left Toluca with mixed emotions hoping for better luck on volcán Iztaccíhuatl. I drove across Mexico City arriving at Amecameca around 1:00 PM. and immediately went to the Izta-Popo park offices to obtain my access permit and procceeded to look for a hotel other than hotel San Carlos. I found hotel Bonampak just a block away from the main plaza to the north, it is a much better place that has a parking lot and hot water.
I arranged my backpack the best I could and left the excess equipment and luggage at the hotel to avoid a car break-in at La Joya, and left for Paso de Cortëz where I paid the entrance fee and then drove to La Joya.
After a quick lunch I hit the trail toward the refugio around 4:45 PM. Four hours later I arrived at the Grupo de los Cien hut already hosting a group of five guys from Aguascalientes, México and two French guys. I chatted with them for a while and then jumped in my sleeping bag. Not being able to sleep at altitude on Nevado de Toluca came back to haunt me, I got a headache at midnight and it kept me awake all night.
Day 5: We got up with the first light of the day and got out the door at 7:30 AM, I still had the headache; after a while on the trail I realized my backpack was way too heavy, it was slowing me down. Once we reached the knees I opted to leave my backpack and take the fanny pack instead.
Izta was very dry compared to the snow covered Popocatépetl volcano, when we went across the belly glacier I was shocked to see patches of bare ground already in the center of it (result of global warming), this is probably the beginning of the end for this glacier. We kept pushing making it to the west summit first and then to the main one at around 11:15 AM, by this time I had a pounding headache.
After a good 45 minutes on the summit we went back down stopping at the hut again. We made it back to La Joya by 4:30 PM and I still had the headache, so I immediately headed back to Amecameca to load up on pizza, coke and water making me feel a lot better after an hour.
I took a shower and went to bed early that night feeling tired.
Day 6: After an interrupted night of sleep thanks to a loud dog across the street I got up, grabbed something to eat on the go and left Amecameca. After a stop in Puebla for breakfast and two veeery long stops at the toll booths an the highway I headed east to Atzizintla and Texmalaquilla to snap some pictures of Sierra Negra and the south side of Pico de Orizaba, then drove around the west side arriving in Tlachichuca around 1PM.
Once at Mr. Joaquín Canchola`s place I bought extra water, prepared my gear and ate a delicious meal cooked by Mrs. Canchola. At 3:30PM we departed for Piedra Grande hut where I would meet our guide Roberto “Oso” Flores and the other climbers on our team, César from Monterrey, Patrick from Dallas, Ted from Canada, Raquel (Oso`s wife) and Lupe (assistant). Once there I found out that the summit day had been changed one day ahead (Thursday instead of Friday) since two guys had failed to show up and we were acclimatized and ready to go, that was one change of plans that I didn`t mind since it was going to leave me with one extra day for fun.
After a great pasta dinner prepared by Oso and some hydration we hit our sleeping bags in the crowded shelves of the Piedra Grande hut to get some rest (not much sleep).
Day 7: We got up at 1:30AM, I got dressed in my layers ate some cereal and had a cup of coffe; we got on the trail around 2:30AM. The temperature was a mild 25°F, but that would change as we got higher and closer to sunrise.
As we got to the base of the “canalón” (to the right of the labrynt) we strapped our crampons on and roped up to negotiate a mixed terrain section below the glacier.
Once at the base of the Jamapa glacier we saw the first sunrays to the east and the mountain`s giant conical shadow to the west, the temperature plummeted to 5°F as we kept going up on the steeper and shady side of the glacier, the Espinoza route, to avoid the icy normal route.
After several breaks to catch our breath and to have a bite my fingers were almost frozen from taking my thick gloves off each time, after almost four hours on the glacier we were relieved once we reached the sunny crater rim where we took a nice break and left our daypacks. After a 15 minute hike on the rim Oso congratulated us as we arrived to the highest summit of México at 11AM; it was an exhilarating feeling to be back on this summit and spend some time on it as opposed to the first time I reached it in 2003 via the ruta sur on an extremely windy March day that only allowed us to spend two minutes there.
We congratulated each other and had a long photo session taking advantage of the perfect weather conditions. We took our time going back down to the hut enjoying every minute of this beautiful day, Mr. Canchola was waiting for us there and drove us back to Tlachichuca as the sun was settinfg in the horizon not before taking a postcard photo of Pico.
After a great dinner and a shower we crashed in our rooms.
Day 8: Open day!
The idea of bagging four volcanoes in one trip had always been in the back of my mind, this was my chance. Having already climbed Malinche in the past I moved to a new challenge: Sierra Negra, the most overlooked volcano in the area mainly because of it`s giant neighbor to the north (Pico de Orizaba).
So I drove to near the saddle between Sierra Negra and Pico de Orizaba after unsuccessfully trying to find a route from the west side. I started hiking from the access booth to Sierra Negra`s road to the Milimetric Telescope, from there went west through the grassy valley and then southwest on the rocky slopes just below the northeast ridge.
I took a break about half way up and then heard some noise coming from above, at first I looked for somebody on the upper slopes but this wasn`t a person it was a large rock tumbling down from the top of the ridge, it came crashing down and across the path I had just taken ten minutes earlier. I just stood there petrified and watched the spectacle in frightening awe. I got myself together and kept scrambling now a bit further away from the ridge on the steep scree ramp.
Once I got to the top of the ridge it was just a 30 minute hike on the upper 40 degree sandy slopes to the eastern summit and another five minutes to the actual summit wich lies next to the telescope after passing through the electrified fence`s open gate at that time.
I was saddened when I saw that they had bulldozed about 80% of the summit ridge for construction purposes.
I had nice views all around specially toward Pico de Orizaba, this is such a magnificent view that I had to sit down and soak it in for a while.
The hike down was really fast on the loose sand slopes and later on the steep sand and scree ramp on the north side of the mountain. The round trip to the summit took me about four hours, my only regreat was not being able to hike through the forested slopes on the western side but it was still a fun outing on a very lonely mountain, not taking in consideration the people working up on the top.
I ate my last meal at altitude, took a few more breaths of fresh air and headed back down to start my drive back to Monterrey, this time taking some back roads through the Veracruz countryside.
As I drove through Coscomatepec I took a couple of pictures and gazed at Pico de Orizaba for one last time from a sugar cane field.
All in all it was a very gratifying adventure and I felt very lucky to have had everything come together and work in my favor to summit four of the five highest peaks in México. I was thankful for the great weather and the nice people that I came to meet.
Special thanks to “Oso” Flores, his wife Raquel and Lupe for their expert guidance and support during our climb of Pico de Orizaba, they are such a nice group of people to work with, keep up the good work guys!!!
Hasta la vista Volcanes de México…