This trip report was compiled from my memories of a solo trip I took at age 18 to the Mexican Volcanoes in 1992-1993. It was written using my perceptions when I was 18.
I had been dreaming about climbing higher altitude mountains since I was a young child and would check out mountaineering books and a copy of the Climbers and Hikers Guide to the World's Mountains. I would imagine what climbing those mountains would be like. I had longed to climb something higher than anything found in the Rockies. At the time, the highest I had been was Kings Peak, Utah’s highest summit at 13,528 feet/4124 meters. I never had the opportunity to travel outside the country, other than when we lived near the Canadian border, so I wished to do that also.
My friend Vu, had expressed interest in going to Mexico in 1992. By working graveyard shift while going to college, I had enough saved for school and to budget $700 for the trip. My friend Vu had no interest in hiking or climbing, but the plan was that we would travel together and he would hang out while I climbed the peaks.
In July (1992) I bought a plane ticket from Salt Lake City to Mexico City for a trip in December to January when I was between my classes, and enrolled in a Spanish class fall semester. In August, Vu dropped out, so I learned I would probably be traveling all alone. Since age 15, I had done a lot of solo hiking before in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains, but only for a few days at a time.
In early December, it was time to go. I borrowed my dad’s old wooden handle ice axe, in which he gave me a quick lesson, his old and very worn crampons, and bought a stove. Clothing was hiking boots, a few pairs of Levis, a pair of army surplus wool pants, some very old ankle high gaiters, 2 pairs of wool socks, a winter jacket, a poncho, sunglasses, underwear, and a few t-shirts. That was all I had that I could take on hiking and climbing trips at the time. I also had a tent and sleeping bag I got in 1986 for Christmas one year. The only maps/guidebooks I had were a few photocopied pages of the Climbers and Hikers Guide to the World's Mountains.
The first night after landing in Mexico City was a long one. It was the middle of the night I found that all the hotels in the area of town I was in were full/closed. A man my age invited me into his home to stay. The next morning I was on my way to Toluca where I spent the night.
It was time to get into the mountains! I rode a bus to Raices at the base of Nevado Toluca, but when I got off the bus, it was snowing hard. I bought some chips and bread (not much food for sale in this tiny town!) I walked he road towards the albergue (mountain hut), but two local girls, age 19 and 22 wanted to join me. I could tell they had no chance of climbing the peak, and was annoyed that they were following me. Using my rudimentary Spanish, I tried to tell them that this was a dangerous climb to try and dissuade them, but they would ask, “then why are you going?” It was still snowing very hard when pickup truck passed and the girls ask them for a ride to the albergue for them and myself. We caught a ride to the albergue, when I again started walking towards the mountain. The girls were still following, to my disappointment. I wouldn’t mind making a few new friends, but I came here to climb the mountain! They were freezing cold and it was still snowing hard. The 22-year old girl sat down to cry on the side of the road. I remember thinking, what should I do now, set up the tent? I didn’t want to turn around and walk all the way back to the albergue. After a few minutes, a Volkswagen Beetle passed. They were going to give us a ride up the mountain, and hopefully take the girls back to town. When we got the national park checkpoint, almost to the crater and start of the climb, the national park service turned us all back because of the snowstorm. “Too dangerous on the mountain” they said. I ask if I could camp at the checkpoint and wait out the storm in my tent, but they said no and we all had to go back to the albergue, which we did. Dang, wasn’t this supposed to be the dry season? There was a party going on at the albergue for school children and teachers. I was offered some food, which was better than just living on bread and chips. I camped nearby, because I didn’t want to spend the $12 to stay in the albergue. After setting up the tent in the snow and waiting around getting soaked, I finally gave up and went into the albergue and spent the $12 for a room. The girls finally left after I ignored them the whole time.
The sun came out near sunset and the mountain was covered in fresh snow and with the sunset, was very beautiful. One of the school teachers invited me to his house down in Toluca where he said he was coming up to the mountain in a few days and he would show me around the country a bit. I accepted and rode down to Toluca. I found out that evening that he had romantic interest in me, so I took off late at night. Jeez, can’t a gringo climb a mountain without being bothered? That was the end of my first attempt to climb one of the Mexican Volcanoes.
I made my way by bus to Amecameca for an attempt on Popocatepetl. After spending the night at Amecameca, I woke up to find clouds outside my window. Dang, more bad weather, I thought. I went outside and noticed that the clouds were just low hanging and small, and that “Izta” and “Popo” were bathed in sunshine. I went shopping for food for the climbs. My stove didn’t work, so I bought a few boxes of cornflakes and toasted bread. That was the extent of food I had for the climbs. The photocopied book pages said that there were meals available at Tlamacas (where you start the climb to Popo).
I found that a taxi to Tlamacas was too expensive for my budget, so I caught a few rides up on trucks. This took the rest of the day. I didn’t get to Tlamacas until almost sunset, so I quickly ran around taking photos of the mountains before it got dark. This time, I opted not to camp and stayed in the big lodge for $10. There were no meals available at the lodge, so if I did climb these peaks, it would be with just bread and corn flakes.
Having never climbed a mountain this high, I just decided to do what everyone else was doing. I had hoped to camp up higher on the mountain, but was worried about leaving my stuff in the tent. The day was spent day hiking to Las Cruces at 15,000 feet (Tlamacas is at 13,000 feet). I must have walked up pretty fast, and could really feel the altitude. It could also be partially be caused by having a cold, and not having any food besides bread and cornflakes. I took some more photos and headed back at Tlamacas to rest and get ready for the summit climb the next day. I asked around various groups down a Tlamacas if I could join them. A youth group from New Hampshire said yes.
The next morning we left at 3AM and started up the mountain. The group I was traveling with was going way to slow and I was shivering while waiting for them in my army surplus pants and jacket. I also didn’t have a headlamp, so had to stay close to the others. They turned back at 15,000 feet. Another group from Colorado passed us, and I asked if I could join them. They said yes, and I followed them up the mountain. It was freezing. They were going fast and I really tried to keep up. I was a fast hiker back then, but they had already climbed Izta (another 17’er) just two days before and were well acclimatized. I wasn’t as well acclimatized, but didn’t want to tell them and wait in the and cold for a slower group. When we stopped for lunch at 11AM or so, they noticed that I had only cornflakes for lunch. They ask about it and I said it was all I had to eat.
We made the summit at 2PM, and I felt really bad. All I wanted to do was get down the mountain. The view was great from 17,910 feet; we could see all the way to Orizaba. After only 15 minutes, we retreated down the mountain and they gave me some of their spare food, especially energy bars. I thanked them, and when they said they were heading for Orizaba, I didn’t ask if I could come because I had had enough of climbing the mountains for a while. My cold was preventing me from getting any sleep, and no sleep, high altitude, and not much food had killed my mood to climb more mountains for a while.
I spent a week and a half hitting the beaches, ruins, etc, and then went over to Guatemala to climb volcanoes Tacana (from the Mexico side) and Tajumulco (the highest peak in Guatemala).
As I was headed back to Mexico I kept thinking of my failure on Toluca and wanted to complete the climb. I made my way back to Toluca to try again. As I walked the road towards the volcano, an Irish expat living in Mexico City gave me a ride all the way to the crater lakes. I then climbed Nevado Toluca in perfect weather. It was a nice scramble. I then made my way back to Mexico City to head for home after my 22-day trip.