Climbing the Mexican Volcanoes
11/14 - 11/22/98
Mike Sullivan, Stephen Janus, Mark Schraad, Ellen Kress,
John Stephens, Ingeborg Sacksen, Andy Grieder
There are three volcanoes in Mexico that rise above 17,000' - El Pico
de Orizaba is the tallest of the three (and is the third highest peak in
North America) at 18,410'. Popocatepetl stands at 17,930', and Iztaccihuatl
is 17,160'. Popo has been erupting for several years and is currently closed
to the public. For our trip, we chose to try the other two, as well as
a smaller volcanic peak known as La Malinche. All of these peaks are located
between Mexico City and the Gulf of Mexico. Further information on them
can be found in Richard Secor's Mexico's Volcanoes: A Climbing
We started our trip on Saturday morning, piling into 3 different airplanes
to converge upon Mexico City. We then took a bus directly from the airport
to the city of Puebla, where we settled into the very nice Hotel Colonial.
Our objective for Sunday was a warmup hike to the top of La Malinche (14,640')
just north of Puebla. Instead of the route described in Secor's guide,
we started from the south, in the small pueblo of Canoa. This provided
us with about a 14-mile round trip, and maybe 6000' of vertical gain. It
was a long but rewarding day... we hiked through lush pine forests and
found enormous fields of lupine in the meadows above treeline. Unfortunately
the summit knob was trashed out with litter and graffiti. On the bright
side, we found a nice rock pinnacle sub-summit, with a large cross as its
only trace of human activity.
On Monday, we caught a bus to the town of Cholula, where we hired a
pair of taxis to take us up the east side of the Paso de Cortes and over
to La Joya, the trailhead to Ixta. Our lead driver, Juan Isaiah Raoul,
was a very entertaining character. We arrived at dusk in a rainstorm, and
promptly pitched camp by the microwave tower road. We left for the summit
around 4 AM Tuesday, in blowing fog and mist. Occasional glimpses of starry
skies kept us hopeful that we would eventually have good weather. Unfortunately,
the fog kept us from seeing the Leonid meteor showers that were supposed
to be happening overhead. Our route, La Arrista del Sol, was long
and interesting, with traverses along rock towers and over a discouraging
number of false summits. The weather improved, with large cloudbanks blowing
through and then dissipating to give us views of nearby Popo. The last
hour of the climbing was over stable glacial snowfields, which were a pleasant
contrast to the loose ashy scree of the lower mountain. Three of us summited
at 12:45 - the others had turned around below the glacier. We spent about
10 minutes on top, taking photos and gaping at all of the snow on the summit
of Orizaba, 100 miles away. We returned to the trailhead by 4:30, and our
cab drivers picked us up an hour later for the return to Cholula.
On Wednesday morning (after a deep and dreamless sleep), we wandered
around Cholula to shop, sightsee, and climb to the site of an ornate santuario.
It was located on top of the ruins of the world's largest pyramid,
dating back to the Aztec empire. Pretty wild... That afternoon we bussed
our way back to Puebla and then over to the village of Tlachichuca - our
jumping-off point for the climb of Orizaba. We arranged for Felipe Espinosa
Coba to provide us with the necessary 4x4 transportation to the trailhead.
We then checked into the Hotel Gerar, run by Gerardo Claudio Sanchez. Felipe
and Gerardo are two of the absolutely nicest guys I've ever met, and I highly
recommend their services to anyone. (Gerardo also provides 4x4 transportation
to climbers; we found out that there is somewhat of a business rivalry
between the two men...)
On Thursday, we loafed and played tourist until it was time for our
Wagoneer ride up to the Piedra Grande trailhead on Orizaba. Once there,
we pitched our tents, while two of our group decided to bunk inside the
large Octavio Alvarez hut. I was rather put out by the "industrial
tourism" feel of the place, with jeeps and trucks dropping off
and picking up climbers at all hours of the day and night. It was a far
cry from the near-solitude we'd had on our first two peaks.
We started our climb of the Glaciar Jamapa / Ruta Espinoza
3 AM Friday and summited about 7 hours later. The climb was very straightforward,
the first half on scree and the second half on a very mellow glacier. We
were amazed at the large number of parties (mostly guided groups it seemed)
that were tottering around on the route. I counted at least 40 climbers
on the glacier at one point, and would guess that only about 1/4 of them
reached the summit. (One member of our group turned around at the base
of the glacier, as well.) When the rest of us reached the summit, we found
a very impressive volcanic crater - quite deep and craggy, with whiffs
of sulfurous vapors in the air. The views were astounding, and we spent
quite a while gawking and taking photographs... We returned to Piedra Grande
by 2 PM, and were eating a delicious dinner at the Restaurant Casa Blanca
in Tlachichuca by 6.
We left Tlachichuca early on Saturday, intent on squeezing a visit to
the pyramids of Teotihuacan into our last free day in Mexico. After 3 bus
rides (connected by a short trip on the excellent Mexico City metro), we
arrived at Teotihuacan at 2 PM. This is an amazing place, with pyramids
and stone structures that date back to the time of Christ, long before
the rise of the Aztec empire. We climbed the Pyramid of the Moon and the
Pyramid of the Sun, and marveled at the frescoes and stone carvings. Many
of us also went on a shopping binge, buying all sorts of goods from the
throngs of wandering vendors. We returned to Mexico City that night and
checked into the Hotel Gillow, located just west of the city's main plaza
(where we saw what must be the world's largest flagpole).
We scattered on Sunday... While on our way to the airport, Ingeborg
and I got to watch the raising of the flag in the plaza at dawn, complete
with drum and bugle corps and several dozen goose-stepping armed guards.
I believe that the others watched a parade there later in the morning,
while on the way to catch their flights home. All in all, it was an excellent
trip, with satisfying climbing, memorable experiences, and most of all
- a great group of people.A gringo's guide to getting around the volcanoes:
1) Take advantage of public transportation. The first and second-class
buses are very nice and will take you almost anywhere you need to go. The
Mexico City metro is clean, efficient, and costs less than 20 cents per
2) Try to have at least one person in the group who is reasonably fluent
in Spanish. My hat is off to Ingeborg, who really made our trip go smoothly
due to her communication skills. It seems that most Mexicans are very willing
to provide help to foreigners - if they can get past the language barrier.
As in most countries, it seemed that the inhabitants of the smaller towns
were generally more open and friendly than those in the cities. I'd say
that only about 1% of the Mexicans we met could speak English well.
3) Live it up! At the current exchange rate of almost 10 pesos per dollar,
we were able to stay in very nice hotels for $8 to $10 per person. Large
and delicious meals cost about $4 to $6. Tip well, don't waste food, and
be prepared for the possibility of intestinal "side effects"...
4) Acclimate carefully, or you may experience serious or fatal
altitude sickness. We did climbs to nearly 15,000, then 17,000, then finally
18,000', with rest/travel days in between. We generally slept about 4,000'
below our objective summit, and took care to pace ourselves during the
climbs. With these techniques, we only had a few members of our group with
minor headaches. In contrast, some of the people we passed on Orizaba were
incapacitated by vomiting and other unpleasant altitude problems.