Thursday, May 14, 2009

Climbing Mexico's Big Volcanoes

It’s called La Mordida, or “The Bite,” and I should’ve seen it coming. But when the transit cop stuck his hand into our rental car five minutes after leaving the Mexico City airport, in my naivete I simply reached out and shook it, thinking he was welcoming me to his fine country.

Mucho gusto, amigo!

But when moments later a swarm of white-uniformed officers surrounded our tiny blue Chevy something-or-other, it suddenly dawned on me. Our new friend wasn’t the welcome wagon. He was the paddy wagon. Or would have been, he made clear, if I didn’t pay the $180 “fine” (read: bribe) for supposedly running a red light at the Calzada Zaragoza intersection. This was precisely the spot our guidebook, “Mexico’s Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide,” had warned us about.

My friend, Vannak Pol, a 29-year-old former Cambodian refugee who now lives in Massachusetts, and I had been backpacking around Central America for the previous two months, totally under the radar. But that all changed when we decided to skip the bus and fly from Guatemala to Mexico City to begin climbing the big volcanoes of the Sierra Madre Oriental.

It’s amazing how quickly you can be transformed from a traveler to a tourist. For us, it only took putting four tires under our feet.

As I held my wallet in my hand, trying to convince the agitated officer in my perfect Spanglish that I only had $5 on me, he reached in and grabbed the billfold, and an honest to goodness tug-of-war ensued. When I was able to wrest my wallet away from him, he begrudgingly agreed to the fiver, since he was losing “business” with every passing minute. As he snatched the bill from my hand, Van yelled, “Go,” and moments later we were on the road to Puebla and toward the three high volcanoes we would climb over the next five days.

Fortunately, that was the only disturbing incident during our entire time in Central America. The next few days would be the high point of the trip – quite literally. Our main objective was Pico de Orizaba, a massive, conical dormant volcano two hours east of Mexico City that at 18,405 feet is the third-highest mountain in North America. It’s also relatively easy to climb, making it perfect training ground for any climber looking to do the bigger peaks of Alaska, the Andes or beyond.

There are five volcanoes rising from the central plain surrounding Mexico City, which itself is at 7,000 feet, and all five are taller than anything found in the Continental U.S. Our first destination was La Malinche, at 14,640 feet the shortest of the five, but the perfect acclimatization climb for Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, or Izta (EES-tah), which rises 17,126 feet.

La Malinche got its name from that of a Mayan woman captured by Cortes in 1519 during his conquest of Mexico, who became his wife and interpreter, unwittingly betraying her race as the Spanish conquistadors advanced on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, outside present-day Mexico City, two years later.

La Malinche lies in a national park and there is a government-owned resort at the end of the road at 10,115 feet that includes cabins, a large restaurant and campsites for $3.70 a night, perfect for our backpacker’s budget. We pitched our tents and went to bed, only to be awoken soon thereafter by a mob a screaming kids running all over the place, shining lights in our tents and generally going crazy until it stopped so suddenly that I had to ask Van in the morning if it had all been a dream.

There was no sign of anyone as we hit the trailhead in the morning, but we soon overtook the first of three climbers from California who were on the same itinerary we were – using La Malinche as a warm-up for Orizaba two days hence. It was perfect timing for Van and I, since one of the three, Doug Nidever, was a guide from the Mammoth Lakes area and had climbed Orizaba a handful of times in the past, including once the previous month.

Nidever, who has been climbing for 40 years and guiding for the past 30, has climbed in Mexico several times and always uses La Malinche as the “perfect” acclimatization hike for Orizaba.

“La Malinche is a very convenient and logical peak, what with its cabins there and its proximity to Mexico City and Orizaba,” said Nidever, who has been a guide at the Yosemite Mountaineering School for the past 25 years. “Orizaba is not a big deal in the technical sense, but proper acclamation is very important.”

But it needn’t be difficult. It took Van and I only three and a half hours of straightforward hiking to gain more than 4,500 feet of elevation and the summit of La Malinche – probably easier than any 14er we had done during two previous trips to Colorado.

That evening we joined Doug and his two clients – Larry Baugher, 64, and Ken Corathers, who would turn 58 on Orizaba – for dinner at a small comedor just outside the resort’s front gate. Though they were using a different outfitter on Orizaba, we would both be transported to the Piedra Grande hut located at 14,000 feet on Orizaba’s north face the next day and agreed to climb the glacier-capped volcano together.

After dinner, Van scored the deal of a lifetime when he spied the 8-year-old son of the comedor’s owner swinging an ice axe that had been either left behind by another climber, or, more likely, pilfered by the lad. Either way, when Van asked him half-jokingly how much he’d sell it for, and the kid responded, “30 pesos,” Van reacted faster than an habanero ingested by an unsuspecting gringo. A slightly banged-up Black Diamond for $3.

The next day we drove to Tlachichuca, base camp for most foreigners climbing Orizaba. Since Van and I had been tooling around Central America for more than two months already, we had mailed our high-altitude gear ahead of time, and our boxes were waiting for us at the headquarters of Servimont, our outfitter. The century-old building, located a block from the town square, was a former soap-making factory that the Reyes family had turned into a compound, from which they’ve been serving the climbing community for nearly three generations.

As such, it has also become a veritable museum to mountaineering, with hundreds of old climbing photos and antiquated gear from the early days of the sport. There is also a logbook dating back to the 1930s signed by many climbing legends, including American icon Ed Viesturs, still one of only six people to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. In a couple days, we would get to add our names to the growing registry.

The next day, we were transported by pickup the roughly 13 miles up a dusty, deeply rutted road to the Piedra Grande hut to find Doug and Larry inside the stone structure, which was barren except for a couple of long tables for gear and cooking, and the six wooden sleeping platforms stacked three high from floor to ceiling. It looked like the place could sleep upwards of 60, but on this night there would be just the five of us, save for a lone Frenchman who snuck in quietly well after dark.

Ken was on an acclimatization hike to about 15,500 feet when we arrived, and Van and I soon did the same. Van made it to Ken’s turnaround point at a small campsite marked by flapping Tibetan prayer flags. I climbed higher, making my way up a tricky gully over the headwall to the base of the Jamapa Glacier at about 16,200 feet. This row of parallel gullies represents the crux of the climb as the marked trail effectively ends at the prayer flags.

Above that, the mountain rises magnificently another 2,200 feet in the classic conical shape of a volcano and is covered by a permanent glacier that, as a result of global warming, is retreating almost as drastically as the ones on Kilimanjaro.

Doug set the alarm on his watch for 3 a.m., but slept right through it, and we didn’t awaken until 4. That might have been a major concern on a typical 18,000-foot mountain, but not on Orizaba. As it turned out, we reached the prayer flags and the first unsteady climbing just as the sun made its appearance over the Caribbean somewhere off to our left. I scampered ahead and watched from atop a boulder at the edge of the glacier as the Frenchman, who enjoyed a two-hour head start, traversed across the glacier from left to right, underneath a band of exposed rock, and slowly climbed out of sight over the curved edge of the crater rim two thousand feet above.

Van, who had been plagued by acute mountain sickness two years before on Quandary Peak in Colorado, cautiously hung back with the Californians, so I trudged on alone up the breath-stealing 45-degree slope, stopping to chat briefly with the descending Frenchman and reaching the gravelly summit after about two hours. The wind-sculpted snow proved so hard and sure that crampons were unnecessary.

After waiting for what seemed an interminably long time for the others, I started down, thinking they may have turned back for some unknown reason. But I met them at about 17,700 feet still climbing, though Ken was spent and decided to stop there. Doug continued on with Larry and Van in tow, while I sat in the cold snow with Ken for about two hours awaiting their successful return.

Van, who the year before had become what is believed to be the first Cambodian ever to summit Mount Hood, found his anxieties about Orizaba unfounded. “As it turned out, Orizaba was the easiest mountain we climbed throughout the trip,” he said later. “It was an awesome feeling climbing the third-highest mountain in North America with such ease.”

For Larry, who has climbed all the 14,000-footers in California and high-pointed every state except Alaska, summiting Orizaba was another check off his “bucket list.”

“Orizaba has been on my list since 1970,” he explained, “and to summit it on my first try was very special to me.”

While the three Californians were headed back to the States in the morning, Van and I were not done. After catching our ride back to Servimont headquarters for a restful night, we set out the next morning for Izta with hand-written directions from Gerardo Reyes himself.

But even though we could see the twin towers of Izta and Popo rising majestically to the west, we quickly became so lost that if you had charted our course through the cities of Puebla and Cholula by GPS, it would have looked like a 4-year-old’s Etch-a-Sketch drawing.

Eventually, though, we found the dirt road leading up to the Paso de Cortes, the 12,000-foot saddle separating 17,126-foot Iztaccihuatl and 17,887-foot Popocatepetl, which has been closed to climbers since 1994 due to near constant volcanic activity. There is a visitor’s center at the national park located at Paso de Cortes, so-named because it was the route taken by the conquistador when he defeated the Aztecs in 1521. We paid a small fee there to stay at a hostel located at a microwave antennae installation about a mile from Izta’s main La Joya trailhead.

From there we had incredible views of both Izta and Popo, which are tied together for eternity in Aztec legend. Izta is known as the “white woman,” and if you view the mountain from the west, it does take the appearance of a woman lying down. In fact, the various summits on the elongated ridgeline are known by various body parts, such as “the knees,” “the head” and “the breasts,” which is the true summit.

Popo was a legendary warrior who was in love with Izta, but when he was returning to claim her after a victory in battle, rivals sent notice of Popo’s death instead, and Izta died of grief. Popo, which means “smoking mountain,” then built the two facing mountains, placing her lifeless body atop one and standing sentinel over it on the other. Indeed, Popo has been one of the most volatile volcanoes in North America even since Cortes’s day and it has been off-limits since its most recent spate of eruptions in 1994.

Amazingly, five of Cortes’s soldiers scaled the erupting Popo during the siege on Tenochtitlan and two of them were lowered into the hulking, bubbling crater to retrieve sulfur for gunpowder, a brave and heroic act that would be unbelievable had it not been recorded in transcripts sent back to the King of Spain.

Later, in 1847 during the war with Mexico, several American soldiers with idle time on their hands after sacking Mexico City also climbed Popo, including a future Civil War general and U.S. President by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. It undoubtedly marks the highest point every attained by a U.S. president. We won’t talk about the lowest point.

Like Orizaba to the east, both Izta and Popo are capped by permanent glaciers, but both too are receding, especially the one on Izta, which if climbed by the standard route, comes into play only on “the stomach,” and is a flat expanse devoid of any crevasses.

After his successful summit bid on Orizaba two days before, a satisfied Van decided to sleep in on this day and I headed to the Izta trailhead on my own. But like the experience with the Californians, it didn’t take long for me to catch up to and fall in with another gringo on the trail.

Zac Bookman, a 27-year-old University of Maryland graduate on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Mexico’s recently passed Freedom of Information Act, was climbing Izta with a handful of locals he had met at a climbing gym in Mexico City. In fact, they were completing their self-proclaimed “La Triada,” having summited La Malinche and Orizaba over the previous two days, as opposed to my four.

Zac, who was training for what would be a successful summit of Denali later in 2008, had invited his father, Charles, who was coming in from Seattle where he works for the Department of Transportation, to join them. Charles, who had climbed Mexico’s big volcanoes fresh out of college in 1970, jumped at the chance to do it again on the cusp of his 60th birthday, arriving from sea level just in time to jump into a 4x4 and head to La Malinche.

The elder Bookman wasn’t able to summit all three mountains, but that was due more to the rigid schedule of La Triada than his stamina. He reached the summit of La Malinche on the first day to be greeted by a wizened old man offering tequila and hot Serrano peppers, telling the group, “You’re not done until you drink and take a bite.”

The second day he surpassed 17,000 feet on Orizaba before Zac collected him on the way down. And on Izta, Charles made it another 4,000 feet up to “the knees” before rejoining us at the La Joya trailhead, where a couple of local women were selling tacos and we were gluttonously washing them down with cold beers as quickly as they could prepare them.

In all, Zac and five of his Mexican amigos completed La Triada, including Humberto, a fiend on the rock-climbing wall who had never tackled an entire mountain before, but left the rest of us gasping for air.

Then, to top it all off, Popo joined the show, throwing up big plumes of ash high into the atmosphere three times as we sat at La Joya enjoying the remainder of the day, capped by an unforgettable sunset. Juan Carlos, another in the group, said he knew someone at the park service who would “look the other way” if we wanted to climb Popo, but none of us were on a death wish.

The La Triada climbers then hatched plans to up the ante by climbing Mexico’s final big peak – 15,354-foot Nevado de Toluca just west of the capital – the next day, and we were invited to join them. Zac said we could crash on the floor of his apartment that night. But that meant doing something Van and I had pledged to do under no circumstances: drive in Mexico City after dark.

Assured it was not dangerous, we packed up and fell in line behind Benito, the driver of the pickup, who I am convinced drove as if he was trying to lose me at every opportunity. Somehow, I kept our tiny Chevy whatever-it-was glued to his bumper for 60 miles as he raced through stop signs, failed to slow for speed bumps and once even crossed several lanes of oncoming traffic without warning. All, I imagined, while laughing maniacally at the white-knuckled gringo in his rear-view mirror.

Then, suddenly, on the outskirts of the city, he pulled to the side of the road after hearing a strange rapping noise in the engine. Comically, we tried to shoehorn Zac and Charles and all their gear into our Matchbox rental, but then, thankfully, Benito announced there was no problem after all: he had called the pickup’s owner on his cell phone to learn that the truck was supposed to make that noise.

Back at Zac’s, more friends stopped by, and we all walked to a tacoreria for late-night chilangos and more beer. Nevado de Toluca was soon forgotten. The next day, we said goodbye and drove back to the airport, glad we didn’t have to pass Calzada Zaragoza once again. Though we did learn from Zac how to avoid any future run-ins with the transit police. Just bring a video camera and point it in the officer’s face. He’ll make like Speedy Gonzalez.

And you just might save five bucks.

1 comment:

  1. nice recount of your Mexico trip, Gary. Quality writing, too. Thank you for posting this. You can find me at: