Volcano Climbing in Mexico
While movies may romanticize the Mexican wilderness as the last holdout of the hostile Old West, the guidebook was clear that bandits no longer rule the wilds. Hence, we decided to spend Christmas break climbing Mexico’s highest peaks completely unguided, driving to trailheads in a rental car, and climbing non-standard routes. Right.
The friendly couple at the mountaineering store Origenes in Puebla had different ideas. I asked about climbing Mexico’s 3rd highest peak from the opposite direction as the standard trade route. “…mucha belleza…muy peligrosa.” Gangs apparently still rule the northern area, and a guide we met later said that he climbed from that direction once with people who were “well armed.”
Ok, change of plans. No need to turn this trip into a scene from the old movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
We left Puebla in early afternoon, following Google Maps east to Paso de Cortes between the highly active Popocatepetl and our first target, Iztaccihuatl. The peaks rise nearly two miles above the agricultural fields of San Nicolas de los Ranchos.
The road turns to rough 2wd dirt and climbs to the visitor’s center at the pass. After paying for wristbands at the visitor’s center, we were allowed to proceed up the road to La Joyita, the parking lot. I decided to walk this 4 mile section in order to have my total elevation gain equal the mountain’s prominence. We set up camp at La Joyita before walking up to the La Joya parking lot (closed to vehicles), where the trail starts.
The trail starts just above 13,000 feet, and climbs very steeply at first before traversing a nice grassy hillside. We made an afternoon hike to about 13,600 before returning to camp at La Joyita.
The wind began to get stronger, and the parking lot filled with flying sand. The entire area has a fine, dusty, abrasive sand instead of dirt, and anywhere that the plants don’t hold it down, it blows around in massive clouds.
We cooked dinner in the grass away from the sand with a background of sunset and alpenglow.
After a restless night of being woken up by wind and sand drifting in through the edges of the tent, we started hiking at 1:30 a.m. The trail passes through 3 “portillos” or cols: 14k, 14.4k, and 15k. From the 3rd portillo, the trail traverses the eastern slope, but I missed this turn and we instead followed the rougher, slower crest of the ridge. Eventually we passed El Refugio Grupo de los Cien hut at 15.5k, where a guided group was just getting started. The next slope is steep and loose scree leading back to the ridge, where we crossed a few class 3 steps around 16k. Eventually, we approached the top of the first major false summit in the first light of Christmas Eve.
La Arista del Sol, the Ridge of the Sun, stretched out in front of us.
The route traverses over and around quite a few false summits, all at more than 16,400 feet above sea level. This was only our second day of being above 10,000 feet, so we were moving fairly slowly.
From the last major false summit, the Ayoloco Glacier suddenly appeared below. It has been a severe drought year, so the glacier is very icy this season. We used crampons to cross it carefully with ice axes for balance only as it would be impossible to self arrest on the bulletproof water ice.
The fall line below this icy traverse leads off a 30-foot ice cliff into a frozen lake.
The center of the glacier is rapidly loosing mass to sublimation and melting, leaving crevasse remnants and ice sculptures.
After a little longer scrambling up volcanic “rock” on the ridge, we reached the summit crater. There is a flat, round ice-field ringed by 3 peaks. Most people, especially guided groups, seem to stop on the closest peak, but it seems that the true summit (with cairn and cross) is across the glacier. Along the way, I visited the third, lowest summit to the west.
The summit glacier was easy enough to cross without using crampons, as it was very flat and textured. The final scramble to the north summit revealed a nice view of the northern peaks of the massif. Our original intended route climbed from this direction.
As far as I could tell this was the true summit, at about 17,126 feet above sea level. It was the first 5,000 meter peak for all 3 of us.
Looking to the south, I captured a fun photo showing the summit glacier, the false summit, and Popo erupting in the background.
The descent was very tiring, as we had to regain elevation on each of the false summits in the increasing heat. Eventually, we made the big drop towards the hut.
This is the scree and scrambling section above the hut that we covered in the dark. Note the hut in the lower part of the picture. The hut was absolutely disgusting: there was poop everywhere, even in the middle of the trail.
That night we slept again at La Joyita before driving to the small mountain town of Xalitzintla (pronounced sha-lit-sint-la) for Christmas mass. We were the only foreign tourists in the town, and the Christmas celebrations were wild. As the mariachi bands played everything from Jingle Bells to Johnny Cash, locals carried exploding paper-mache livestock costumes that shot out candy, and others performed complicated dances with machetes.
We spent that night in Puebla, and the next day we explored Cholula before heading to Tlaxcala.
From the peaceful and pretty town of Tlaxcala, we drove to the government-operated resort IMSS Malintzi, which is the trailhead for the 14er La Malinche. The trail starts around 10.2k, and we reached treeline at 12.9k shortly after sunrise.
A steep scree section leads to an aesthetic ridge and a steep talus field.
The 14,501-foot summit of La Malinche requires some scrambling to gain the last few feet. The mountain is taller than any in Colorado and has over 6,000 feet of prominence.
Popocatepetl (left) and Iztaccihuatl (right) loomed far to the west. Popo is closed to climbing because it erupts very frequently.
Next, we descended back to the Malintzi resort and drove east through the rural countryside towards Orizaba. These traditional silos seem to mimic the shape of the surrounding peaks.
Orizaba looked very impressive on the drive to the camping area at 13,000 feet on the south side. The peak is the highest in Mexico, the 3rd highest in North America, and the 7th most topographically prominent in the world.
We camped in the pass between Sierra Negra and Orizaba, an area called Valle del Encuentro. This campsite was much nicer, as it was forested and carpeted with pine needles instead of the terrible dust of La Joyita.
The next day, I headed out solo to climb Cerro Colorado, an obscure 14er with almost 400 feet of prominence. I started by crossing a very rugged lava flow, with unending lava rocks to scramble around. After the lava flow, I climbed a steep scree / grass slope and crossed a final rocky ridge to this rarely climbed summit.
Cerro Colorado is about 14,633 feet tall with close to 400 feet of prominence, making it taller than every Colorado 14er and more prominent than 10 of the 14ers on the list of 58. I did not see a single other person during the entire climb, and there was no evidence the summit had ever been reached before (I’m sure it has, in fact, been climbed before). I left a sizable cairn on the summit rock.
We left camp at 13k the next morning around 1:30 a.m. headed for the summit. The road winds up to El Refugio Fausto Gonzalez Gomar at 15.5k, where most guided ascents begin. Driving this extra 2,500 vertical feet up the side of the mountain seems a little like cheating, IMHO. Anyway, we continued past the hut up steep scree before cutting left onto a rock rib that offered easier climbing. There were quite a few parties going up the Ruta Sur with us, as the standard northern route was unseasonably icy, having already produced several fatalities. We, along with everyone else, slowed down significantly around 16.5k, and the sun came up shortly thereafter as we neared 17k.
The volcanic rock provided interesting contrasting textures and patterns.
The rock band ends about 800 feet below the summit. The next several hundred feet require delicate climbing up slippery scree. Before attempting this route, it is important to know the Spanish words for falling rock “piedra” and “roca” as well as the idiomatic Mexican expression “aguas.” Frequently, climbers would knock loose significant rocks that would bounce down the slope. A helmet is also highly recommended.
El Pulpito is a massive white rock formation that is visible for most of the climb. It provides a landmark, and we knew we were almost to the summit when we rounded the climber’s right side of this formation.
The crater and summit crosses abruptly appeared once we passed the Pulpito.
At well over 18,400 feet, Orizaba was a family dream, and we all three managed to reach the top. Clouds spread out far below on all sides, and the wildly sharp and rotten walls of the crater loomed just to the east. While the wind was blasting making it fairly cold, the altitude did not seem too bad. Acclimatizing on the other volcanoes probably helped. It took us 8 hours and 10 minutes to cover the 4 miles and 5,400+ vertical feet of gain from the car to the summit; 6 hours of that was spent on the last 3000 feet above the hut.
For the descent, we reversed our route through the white scree before dropping east into a massive scree field. It was fun and easy to plunge step down this scree.
This photo gives a good overview of the route. The Pulpito is the white bump that appears to be the summit, the ascent ridge is the left skyline, and the descent gully is obvious near the center.
We drove out that night to Tlachichuca and spent two nights there before returning to Puebla. Tlachichuca had big markets that also sold cheap, tasty meals, but the town was nothing special. The zocalo in Puebla was covered in beautiful lights for New Year’s Eve, and we enjoyed some fresh churros from the local equivalent of a doughnut shop. We flew back to the United States on January 1st, 2018, happy to have found a great mountaineering finale for 2017.
- Stove canisters, although not white gas, can be bought at Origenes in Puebla. My MSR Whisperlite International also burned Pemex gasoline just fine.
- Plan on buying and carrying all of your water, especially in drought years like this.
- The non-standard side of Izta (Llano Grande Alto / Teyotl) is NOT safe regardless of what the guidebook says. The non-standard side of Orizaba IS safe and is a scenic climb.
- We locked everything in the car before leaving in the mornings, and we never had a problem with theft or vandalism at La Joyita, IMSS Malintzi, or Valle del Encuentro.
- Having a decent understanding of Spanish was immensely helpful for everything from customs to hotels to not getting hit with falling rocks.
- 17k and 18k are not that much worse in terms of aerobic difficulty than 14k.
- Doing these peaks unguided is definitely doable, even as a first >5000m experience. The route finding is not too difficult, and there will almost certainly be other people on the route.
- Temperatures were not too bad–we wore snowpants and fleece and occasionally wore our winter coats, usually shedding most of this in the late morning.
- Crampons / ice axes were very helpful on Izta, but completely unneeded (and left behind) on Orizaba’s Ruta Sur.
- You can get to 13k on both major peaks (La Joyita and Valle del Encuentro) with a sturdy 2wd.