Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 19.18330°N / 98.6333°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Nov 24, 2003
Iztaccihuatl – Trip Report

Iztaccihuatl – Trip Report

November 22-24, 2003

Our team was composed of three climbers--Nate, Scott and I--all of us from Boulder, CO. We were in good shape, experienced at camping, and had some experience in crampons. However, none of us had been above 15,000 feet, before. We arrived at Lo Joya around noon on Saturday, November 22nd. The parking lot was filled with about 25 vehicles of all makes and models, and there were nearly 30 people milling about. It was my first experience with the Mexican wilderness, and I immediately headed over to the soda stand for a cokeJ. We signed in with the park ranger, gathered some beta, and scouted our first nights camp.

We were planning on climbing the Ayoloco glacier route, and we had three days and two nights set aside for the task. It was already after noon so we saddled up our packs and dropped down, out of La Joya into the first drainage to the North. After about a mile we found several very nice tent locations, and decided this would be a good place to spend our first night of acclimatization. We placed our camp close to a good stream at 12,800 feet. As we muddled about preparing for dinner we also spent some time watching climbers descending off both the Ayoloco and Arista del Sol routes.

We began to track one party in particular. They were two saddles above us on the Ayoloco route, moving slowly. We continued to watch them as dusk turned to darkness and each of their headlight flared on. After a bit, two English speakers walked through our camp. The group above had been moving so slowly that we were not overly surprised to learn that a Mexican climber above had fallen ill and was in need of assistance. This was our first night at elevation, and without being acclimated there was little we could do to help. We decided the best we could do, would be to time their descent and meet them at the far end of the drainage, as soon as they reached an elevation similar to ours. We brought all of our extra food, and as much water as we could carry.

When we met the group of Mexicans, we counted about 15 climbers and 2 rangers helping the sick man. It became apparent immediately that this was no simple case of AMS, but rather a full blown case of HAPE, and probably HACE as well. His breathing was tattered, raspy, and filled with fluid. He was semiconscious. The other climbers had secured two ice axes together with an empty backpack on which he sat. One climber took each of the four corners of the makeshift contraption, and with the help of a shoulder sling, lifted the unit as a whole. In this manner they were slowly making their way down the steep dirt paths carrying the injured mans entire weight.

None of the climbers spoke English, but they eagerly took the water and food rations that we had. Together, we all helped bring the sick climber back to the end of the 4 wheel drive road below La Joya. It was exhausting and we were all spent by the time we made it back to our camp at 11:00 pm, but it was a true rescue situation, and for the first time I realized what it meant to put aside, entirely, ones own climbing goals to help a fallen climber. I never heard how he did, but we saw him all the way to the ambulance and with swift medical care and evacuation to a lower elevation, I believe he stood a good chance for a full recovery. We were shaken psychologically and exhausted physically but we had done everything we could.

Even after all this it was difficult to sleep. It was the highest any of us had ever camped. In the morning we stashed some of our extra gear, packed up our camp and moved on. After several hours of climbing we made a saddle at 14,500 feet. We all celebrated this milestone, since to achieve this elevation an American must to travel outside the contiguous U.S. From here we dropped about a hundred feet and camped in the base of a small ravine. We had been planning on camping at the base of the glacier, near the Ayoloco Hut. However, the beta we had gathered indicated that there would be little or no water higher on the route. Furthermore, we were hearing that the glacier had receded so far, as to be out of reasonable reach from the hut as a primary water source. So we decided to lower, at 14,400 feet, where we found numerous, excellent tent sites and running water.

As we built camp we were beginning to feel like mountaineers. None of us had ever been this high and we weren’t just passing through, we were camping! Then, much to our chagrin, we noticed that further up on the route we could see a small herd of cattle. This much abated our feelings of greatness--we named the camp “High Cow Camp”. We lay down for the night, but none of us slept well, and I did not sleep at all. The altitude was certainly beginning to having an effect on us. We awoke at 2:00am for our summit attempt. We were slow getting started and didn’t roll out of camp until 4:00am. Having little knowledge of what lay ahead, we had chosen to be over prepared. We each carried 5 liters of water, plus we had a rope, pickets, and ice screws, extra clothing, extra food, and various pieces of emergency gear. Our packs were heavy and we moved slowly. As we climbed, the only sounds were those of our deep breaths and Popocatepetl booming in the distance behind us. Often we would pause to watch the steam billow from its vent, and wonder at the tenuous nature of our existence.

We arrived at the Hut (15,300 feet) just after sunrise, at 6:30 am. After a break, we stashed some water and moved on. The glacier truly has receded dramatically. When the Hut was originally built in the 1960’s, the base of the glacier was probably just outside its door. Now the base of the glacier lay 1,000 vertical feet and nearly a horizontal mile further up the slope. This slope left by the receding glacier was steep, slick, rocky and loose. We moved slowly. We stopped briefly at the base of the glacier to gear up, and it was here that the first clouds moved over us. They were thin and misty as they tumbled past us at a rapid pace. We started to make decisions based on time, hoping to outpace the weather. We first decided to solo the glacier as it was not too steep or icy, and this would save a lot of time over a running belay. We began to moving up the glacier as quickly as we could safely. An hour later (2:00 pm) we made it to the saddle at the top of the glacier. Here our route turned left and rejoined the Arista del Sol route for the final push to the summit.

Having pushed hard up the glacier we were all shot, so we took a nice long break at this 16,600 foot saddle. As we waited, we watched the weather deteriorate. We found ourselves in intermittent white out conditions. Having only traveled this route once, in the predawn darkness, by headlamp, we worried about a complete whiteout, and our ability to find camp again. The idea of an unplanned bivy, above 16,000 feet was not appealing to any of us. As we looking on at the summit, 800 feet above us, and a mile away, we decided this would be as close as we would get. We packed up and made our descent. We made an extra long stop at the hut on the way down as we were all spent. Arriving back at camp at 4:00 pm, we all felt that we had made the right decision. The summit is not the only goal in mountaineering, and we learned far more from Iztaccihuatl in this way, than we would have had she allowed us to touch her highest point.

This was an unbelievably majestic mountain, and I would never have believed the beauty of the white woman, had I not seen her for myself. I am in awe.

--Mark, Nate, Scott

If I had my life to live over I'd like to make more mistakes next time. I'd relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. -- Nadine Stair


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