Pico de Fraile
Nevado de Toluca
Dec 27-29, 2006
The time had finally arrived! I headed home from work on the evening of December 26th knowing that the next 12 days were going to be spent in Mexico. No, not sandy beaches, sun, and Corona (Well, maybe a few of the latter…), but volcanoes, glaciers and mice-infested huts! It was going to be some good, clean mountain fun.
We had planned a long trip with a couple extra days just in case something did not go as planned. It also allowed plenty of time for acclimatization. Our three main objectives in order were Nevado de Toluca, Izta, and Pico de Orizaba. The gradual increase in height should help us acclimate and leave us feeling good on all three mountains. So with some grand plans laid out in front of us, Mouser and I left Las Cruces and headed across the border to Juarez, Mexico where we catch a flight to Mexico City the next morning. We chose to fly out of Juarez for one reason, $300 less expensive flights. We also stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport so that we could leave my car at the hotel while we were climbing further south in Mexico.
The next morning we caught a 10 min taxi to Juarez Int’l. At the airport we were slightly confused by the order of events, but after making our way through security where an inspector patted the outside of my huge backpack and asked if we had a lighter we boarded our plane and immediately fell asleep. Two and a half hours later our plane touched down in D.F. (Distrito Federal, what the locals call Mexico City), and I had to shift my thought process into Spanish.
Our bags also arrived safely in D.F., and as Mouser got the luggage together I approached a taxi stand to inquire about a taxi to Toluca. They wanted ~1000 pesos, um… let’s check into a bus. After a few wrong turns we found the airport bus terminal and were greeted with a 100 pesos/person fare to Toluca. Done!
Two hours later we arrived at the Toluca bus station and after some bartering we secured a taxi to Nevado de Toluca National Park for 250 pesos. The road to the park offers some great views of the mountain and leads through a number of different ecological systems. The turn off to the park is shortly after the small hamlet of Raices. You cannot miss Raices, mainly because of the 10 giant speed bumps that inhibit the main (only?) traffic thoroughfare through town.
Once we turned off the main road the road toward the park the road turned to a pretty well maintained dirt road. Our small taxi slowly made its way up the road while we watched Madonna and Michael Jackson videos on the souped up taxi cab stereo. About 3 km up the road we payed the small entrance fee (5 pesos, I believe) and continued up. The road is in surprisingly good condition and it sees quite a bit of traffic from tourists and locals alike visiting the volcano.
At the 16 km mark there is another gate and if you want to continue into the crater (6 road km further) then you must pay another small entrance fee. At this point there is also a small parking area, a refreshment stand, and a small hut. The refreshment stand was open on Thursday and Friday while we were there and it offered sport drinks, water, and a number of snack items. The concrete hut (Posada Familiar) is a sturdily constructed building and offers two rooms and beds for eight people. There is propane stove for cooking provided and a toilet that is BYO water. No, I’m not kidding, but there is a cistern 50 yds away where you can get non-potable water.
This hut was a perfect place to stay for us. It’s high enough (~13,800 ft) to allow great acclimatization and it provides a great base camp for any hiking in the park. The price is also hard to beat ($6.50). In addition, the rooms can be locked so your belongings will be safe while out hiking. After we settled into our room and cooked some food we started chatting with the two other people staying in the hut. It turns out that they were Olympic class runners / walkers and were staying on the mountain as part of their training regimen. The next day we would meet a number of other athletes who were also training for competitions.
With our belongings sorted and some food in our stomachs it was time to do a little bit of exploring. I mentioned earlier that the road continues another 6 km before it enters the crater. However, as a hiker, there is a short (~2km) trail that leads directly from the hut over a small saddle and down into the crater. It begins just to the right of the entrance shack / concession stand. We decided to hike up to the saddle to see what the next day had in store. After the short hike to the saddle we were rewarded with a great view down into the crater and of the surrounding peaks. In the picture you can see Pico de Fraile in the background (just up and right of Mouser’s head) and a little bit of Laguna de Sol in the middle right of the photo.
From the saddle we were able to scout out a good portion of our route for the next day.
On our way back to the hut we picked up trash and slowly ambled down the well-defined trail as we thought about the next day’s climb. The route looked straight forward, and we hoped rock on the ridgeline would be a little more solid than typical volcanic rock. We arrived back at the hut and prepared for bed. It was only 7 pm, but when the sun goes down there isn’t much to do if you don’t have electricity or fire.
Day 2 (December 28, 2006)
We woke up early, but lay in our beds for a while enjoying the warmth of our synthetically insulated sleeping bags. Our whole day’s itinerary was only 5 or 6 miles so we weren’t going to be rushed for time. After cooking a warm breakfast and watching the sun rise a little higher we began our hike at about 9 am. Slow and steady was the name of the game for our first full day at altitude. We had bigger plans
for both Izta and Orizaba, so we did not want to overdue it at the beginning of the trip. We set a mild pace where we could talk and enjoyed the mountain scenery as we moved along. We reached the saddle that served as the entry point to the crater and headed down toward Laguna de la Luna (path shown by a yellow line). You can see a couple of hikers in the bottom middle of the photo that are also heading towards the lake. The paths are all well used and the going was easy as we headed down into the crater. At the bottom of the crater we noticed that about 50% of the lake’s surface was frozen. The bottom of the crater is at nearly the same elevation as the hut, so we were right back where we had started.
From the vicinity of Laguna de la Luna we followed a dusty, sometimes loose, path up a small ridge toward the crater rim. Along this path we gained elevation quickly and were passed numerous times by runners going up and down the path. Our hut-mate passed us three times himself as he trained on the steep hill at ~15k ft. We felt great though and made it to the crater rim without any problems.
Along the way up I snapped the photo on the left that shows Pico de Fraile (highest point of Nevado de Toluca) on the far right end of the ridgeline. It also shows the prominent trail that leads to the ridge and is one of the main training areas for people in a lot better shape than me. As we continued up the steep loose trail the views got better and better and Mouser couldn’t put his camera away for more than five minutes at a time.
Popo and Izta from crater rim
Earlier in the morning the air had been a little hazy and visibility was limited by the clouds, moisture, and pollution, but as we reached the ridge we happened to look east and realized that all of that had disappeared and we had been rewarded with a great view of Popo and Izta. If you look closely, you can even make out a plume of smoke coming from Popo’s summit and trailing north towards Izta.
The elevation gain of our climb was virtually over, but we still had the fun part of our climb ahead of us. The trail contours around and over a number of bumps on the way to the actual summit (Pico de Fraile). We followed the trail behind the first major bump and then encountered a class 3-4 section that was composed of surprisingly solid rock and presented an interesting challenge. The ascent route seemed fairly obvious to us and after a few minutes we were passed the difficulties and were back to rock hopping.
From the pictures I had seen on summit post I knew what to expect from the final summit block, but upon arriving in the area I was surprised at
how sheer the actual summit looked from the approach route. We continued to follow the use trail towards the summit block as it weaved between pinnacles and began ascending toward the summit along weaknesses in the interior (crater) wall. The climbing was never difficult, probably 3rd class at the most, and before we knew it the summit itself was in front of me and Mouser was standing atop his first 15k foot peak.
The views of the crater floor were spectacular and we could see a number of tourists milling around the lakes and enjoying the sunny December day. We drank some water, tried to find a comfortable place to sit, and enjoyed the views back towards Popo. After surveying the area we spotted a long scree chute that looked like a great way to descend, ascend no, descend yes! So after some more Gatorade and an attempt at a Luna bar we headed the opposite way of our ascent and made our way along the rim to an obvious chute.
The top of the chute wasn’t quite loose enough for scree skiing, but after a hundred feet of vertical the skiing began and we made quick progress towards Laguna de la Sol. We passed a couple of groups attempting to ascend the route (PAIN!), and made it down to the lake without further difficulties. After spending most of the day above 14k feet I began to feel a little sluggish and developed a slight headache. An advil helped to alleviate the ailments and we continued down towards the lakes. Once we reached the crater floor we made our way slowly around Laguna de la Sol and back up the trail to the saddle that led our lodging.
Our route is shown by a yellow trace in the picture below:
Once back at Posada Familiar we re-hydrated and chatted with our hut mates concerning the events of the day. Spanish was spoken to various levels of fluency and there were even brief outbursts of Russian and Mandarin throughout the conversation. As the day began to draw to a close 8 folks showed up and wanted to stay at the hut… but there were already four of us there. Did I mention that there is room for only 8 in the hut? Well, with a little re-arranging and some pads on the floor and in the hallway we made room and the hut turned into a lively place for the next few hours. A tequila bottle magically appeared and made its way around the crowd. Then the runners decided to make up a traditional Mexican drink called punche that is popular around the holiday season. I’m not quite sure of the ingredients involved, but I do know that there were peanuts and stalks of sugar cane in my drink… it was wonderful! Eventually the festivities died down and we fell asleep hoping our taxi would arrive the next morning.
Sure enough, at exactly 9am our tax arrived and we loaded up and headed back to Toluca. We treated our driver to breakfast at VIPS (a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, and really good!) and made it to the bus station in Toluca by noon. A bus ride to the airport, a taxi to the TAPO bus station, and one ride on the Volcan bus line delivered us to Amecameca where our next adventure would begin…
The Nevado de Toluca volcano is a very cool place and there are many sub peaks along the crater rim that beg to be explored. We chose to do only the highest peak (Pico de Fraile) because of time constraints and other goals. A complete rim traverse looks like a very enjoyable day of scrambling and hikes to Humboldt Peak and along the Humboldt ridge would also be fun to undertake. We used Nevado de Toluca as an acclimatization hike and the high hut makes it perfect for this type of endeavor. However it could easily serve as a primary destination as well. I’ll remember the Toluca portion of my Mexico trip quite fondly for years to come, and I would highly recommend it to others heading to Mexico. The time from the Mexico City airport to the hut is less than half a day and it offers better acclimatization than other similar peaks.