Trapezoid

Fine turns


I had one final break between May snowstorms (!) to do some Sierra skiing, so I was thinking of going big and doing something crazy. However, I ran into Dan, and he convinced me to head back up to South Lake and explore another drainage, the Treasure Lakes valley between Mounts Johnson and Goode. I slept in comfortable temperatures near the Buttermilks, then drove up to frigid South Lake early in the morning. I took longer than I should have to prepare myself for the cold, finally starting skinning around 7:15.

Skinning across South Lake

Someone getting an earlier start had bravely skinned across the lake and not fallen in, so I followed his tracks through about 6″ of fresh and surprisingly light powder. The track on the other side of the lake was less than ideal, bobbing and weaving around cliffs in the woods instead of following one of the inlet streams, but it eventually led into the open area above the lake. I left the beaten path where it seemed to head toward Thompson, arduously breaking trail up toward Treasure Lakes. The well-worn track from two days earlier had been completely obliterated by the fresh snow.

Unnamed peak near Treasure Lakes

The terrain was mostly uphill, but there were enough flat sections that I knew the return would be slow. I saw potential lines facing all directions, but thanks to my late start, I dismissed the east-facing ones, which had already been baking for hours on a calm, sunny day. I eventually chose a northwest-facing slope on “Trapezoid Peak,” a minor summit on the ridge between Johnson and Goode that I had not yet climbed. Based on the map on my phone, it looked like I would get about 1300 vertical feet of skiing out of the line — not huge, but not bad either.

Slog, slog, slog

The slope started out fairly gentle, steepening to about 45 degrees toward the top. There was 8-12″ of fresh snow on the slope, already starting to become heavy from the sun and warming temperatures. The fresh snow had not bonded to an underlying hard layer in some places, and while it didn’t slide, it did make skinning a bit annoying. I switchbacked up the lower half, booted for a bit, then skinned the rest when the angle eased and the postholing got worse.

Goode and Palisades

I eventually reached a saddle about 80′ below the summit, from which I could look down to where the Bishop Pass trail passes near Saddlerock Lake. The final climb to the summit looked painful, but I was so close… I put my skis on my pack, and booted thrashed, and dug my way toward the summit, kicking through to the old snow, and digging for rocks to get an occasional solid stance. I booted to within about 30 feet of the summit, then was forced to put my skis back on to avoid thigh-deep postholing.

Le Conte Canyon

The summit rocks had been scoured dry, so I took off my skis, found a good seat, and ate a late lunch while admiring views of the Palisades, the Black Divide, and more distant peaks including Goddard and Humphreys. The wind eventually picked up intermittently, chilling me and coating me with spindrift. I waited for a break, then quickly transitioned to downhill mode.

I had noticed a narrow chute leading to the summit on the way up, and found its entrance after a bit of searching. A few careful turns later, I was on the main slope I had ascended, making fun, swooping turns toward the uppermost Treasure Lake. I got in a few more turns lower down, but there was a lot of poling and shuffling to get through the flat sections in increasingly-sticky snow. I was regularly whacking my skis with my pole to keep the bases clean, and on one whack, the bottom part of my pole flew off to one side of the ski track. I thought for a moment that the bottom section had come out, but quickly realized that the pole had broken. Ugh. I picked up the piece, then cautiously one-poled my way back down to the lake, and around through the South Lake Glacier to the parking lot, where I deposited the pole pieces in the dumpster. Perhaps it was a sign that ski season is over for me for the time being…

14er guide update

Palisades 5/19/19


Thanks in part to interest from a couple of Eastern Sierra bookstores, and to that expressed by some correspondents, I will be printing more copies of my California 14er guidebook. I will try to contact people who expressed interst in a print copy, but I will probably miss some; please email me. Anyone who wanted a print copy, but had to settle for the e-book instead, can contact me to get a print copy for the price difference, i.e. $12.95 including shipping. Books will begin shipping within two weeks, so they will arrive well before the best 14er season in a heavy snow year.

South Lake skiing

After getting shut down two days in a row on Red Slate Mountain, first by a mechanical failure and then by weather, I took advantage of a break between May snowstorms to sneak in a couple days’ skiing out of South Lake. The road is plowed all the way to the lake at 9500′, opening up a lot of terrain that is difficult to access during the winter and early spring, when the road is gated miles from the summer trailhead. The 6″ or so of fresh, heavy powder made for pleasant skiing on the way down, but brutal boot-packing on the way up.

It seemed like it might be cold up at the trailhead, so I slept down in the desert before the first day, where temperatures were pleasant and I had cell service. I got a reasonably early start, though a couple of other parties were ahead of me. This was fortunate, because one of the parties knew the best route from the trailhead to the base of Ski Mountaineers Peak, my goal for the day. Had I been forced to break trail and find the route myself, the trenching and inevitable route-finding errors in the cliffy terrain above the lake would have been wretched.

The first trick was to navigate the South Lake Glacier, a rim of broken ice that forms when they lower the level of the lake, causing the thick surface ice along the edge to crack as the center ice drops. I followed the boot-track through the crevasse maze, then along a stream and through some cliffs to open terrain leading toward Ski Mountaineers and Thompson. The track continued toward the latter, so I abandoned my original plan to see what the Thompson chutes might hold.

I saw a skier ahead of me checking out the western Thompson couloir, and skied a bit farther to see for myself. I didn’t like what I saw, so I returned to the eastern couloir, which is lower-angle and did not have a cornice. The other skier apparently didn’t like what she saw, either, and returned to the base of the couloirs. I switchbacked up increasingly steep snow toward my couloir, hoping I could find some solid boot-packing to reach the ridge. However, whenever I tentatively stepped off my skis, I sunk at least knee-deep. I eventually gave up on the frustrating endeavor, and made some fun turns back to the valley, intending to ski Ski Mountaineers Peak instead.

I spoke to the woman I had seen ahead of me, who told me that her partner had booted up the western couloir (with a huge cornice — yikes!). She decided to use my skin track to take a lap, while I skinned and scrambled through some rocks to reach Ski Mountaineers’ gentle east face. Looking back, I saw that her partner had dropped into the middle chute, triggered an avalanche partway down, then absolutely flew down the lower part, making huge turns where I had made cautious, small ones.

Ski Mountaineers’ east face had been baking in the sun all morning, and while the lower part was reasonably wind-packed, the top was horrible heavy powder. It felt too steep to skin, so I agonizingly booted final slope to the summit ridge, where I stashed my skis to scramble to the summit. The register, if it still exists, was buried, but I still hung out for awhile, enjoying the impressive views of the Palisades to one side, and Sabrina Basin and Darwin to the other.

The descent went well enough until I decided to stop following skin track and take a more direct line toward South Lake. I soon found myself in a maze of small cliffs, and had to side-step, shuffle, and throw my skis down a small step and downclimb at one point to get back on-route. Thanks in part to these shenanigans, I did not make it back to the lot until late afternoon. Not wanting to waste gas driving 40 miles back and forth to Bishop, I settled in to read for awhile, then prepared for a cold night.

The next morning, I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag until around 6:30, then got a lazy start after 7:00. I headed up the trail toward Bishop Pass, but found a long stretch of bare dirt, and decided instead to check out the open bowls west of Mount Gilbert. Starting out on the previous day’s skin track, I took a branch to the south, following a slightly fainter path from the day before. The chute west of Gilbert looked like a fun ski, so I eventually left the skin track to sidehill around the head of the basin.

I found a boot-pack in the chute, which gave me some hope, but things soon turned grim. I persevered despite knee-deep postholing, but after the third time I managed to stomp out a waist-high wall in front of me, I gave up on the wallow and headed down. I found good skiing in the upper and lower bowls, separated by some tricky crust in the middle, and returned to the car just after noon. This was earlier than I had planned, but probably for the best, since the wind was already picking up ahead of the next storm system. Winter is not yet done with the Sierra.

Bloody Couloir

In the summer, Bloody Mountain is a slag-heap like many of its neighbors, build mostly of loose red talus. However, the couloir dropping north from its summit is a popular spring ski descent. It was a bit steeper than the other descents I have done this winter, but not unreasonably so. While there is a road leading almost to the base of the couloir, most people will start down in the desert. A high-clearance 4WD can make it a bit farther, but will usually be stopped by snowbanks well before the end of the road. My car is more capable than a sedan, but I rolled in late and didn’t want to risk backing back down a dirt track, so I pulled into the first flat-ish pulloff to sleep.

The Bloody Couloir is reasonably steep and shaded, so I planned to bring an ice axe and real crampons, which meant I had packed the big pack (Mammut Ice 45) the night before. As I lashed on my skis using the side compression straps, one of them broke at the attachment point, which does not look easy to repair. (It is worth noting that one of the ice tool holders broke in exactly the same way many years ago; hopefully they have a better design now.) I hate to get rid of a pack that has served me so well for 10 years, so I will probably keep it for awhile, but it can no longer carry skis.

Only a few minutes from the car, I noticed some motion in the distance. Stopping to check it out, I saw a massive herd of 40-50 deer slowly crossing the road. Deer are wary creatures, so I tried to get close by the best mixture of jittery high telephoto and scared deer. They definitely noticed me, but fortunately quite a few of them seemed to feel safe once they had crossed the road and climbed up the hillside a bit. The road switchbacking out of the desert was definitely slower with skis and boots on my back, but I still managed to out-walk a 4WD Sprinter inching up the jeep road. If I had a car like that, I wouldn’t abuse it like that to save a 10-minute walk, but I was surprisd at the enormous Sprinter’s off-roading abilities

The long hike up Laurel Canyon on the road to the lower prospect was almost pleasant, since I had plenty of podcasts, as well as a steady view of my intended couloir. I had scouted the spring route up to Laurel Lakes, which follows the streambed rather than traversing above it on the road, and would have taken it again if I intended to boot the couloir. However, with no crampons or axe, I needed a new plan. I remembered a trip report from someone who had gone up the summer route, a class 2 talus-hop from the col between Laurel and Bloody. Sure, I would be carrying skis and boots on my back on a long ridge of mixed scree and snow, but what other choice did I have?

Unfortunately, I first had to get back up to the road leading to Laurel Lakes. I should have retraced my steps, but that part of the road looked like it was still covered in angled, frozen snow. Instead, I had the genius idea to follow what looked on the topo like low-angled slopes, returning me to the road near the trail where I planned to leave it. My shortcut turned out to be a mix of thrashing through willows and aspens with skis and boots on my back, kicking steps in old snow with worn-out running shoes, and telling myself that I could totally self arrest with a ski pole. Why running shoes instead of ski boots? I knew that I would be dealing with mixed scree and snow higher up, and I much prefer running shoes on snow to ski boots on scree.

I eventually reached the road and, side-hilling along it for awhile, then took the trail to the col, which was already bare in many places. Always eager to take a shortcut, I decided to climb a closer spur ridge rather than following the partly-snowy trail all the way to the pass. This shortcut worked better than the last, with patches of good step-kicking snow providing a break from the underlying loose scree. Looking back while catching my breath, I saw (presumably) the Sprinter crew skinning up the big snowfield west of my ridge. They were making good time, but I had a solid lead, and only saw them occasionally in the distance for the rest of the day.

The skiers were still making steady progress when I finally reached the ridge junction. This section is discouragingly long, but doesn’t gain too much elevation, and in summer, there is a decent use trail compacting the scree. The trail I found was sometimes useful, but often became an “anti-trail,” a narrow path buried by hard, angled snow. I mostly ignored it, taking what looked like the best line on solid-ish rock and wind-beaten snow.

Reaching the summit, I was pleased to see that the register canister was completely exposed, its contents dry. There was even a nice rock seat nearby where I could peruse it while eating Grocery Outlet bargain lean salami ($4.99 for 2 lbs.), my new favorite non-carb trail food. It was warm out, but I thought it might be a good ideea to give the upper, steepest part of the couloir a bit more time to soften, so I hung out for 30 minutes or so, finally leaving around noon. At least for now, you can ski right from the summit.

The top of the couloir looked intimidatingly steep from above, with a blind rollover a short ways down, but I had been checking it out on the way up, and had chosen the safest-looking path through the rocks below this bulge. I played around with different aspects within the couloir, but no single line skied well all the time, and I nearly ate it when I hit an unexpected patch of windboard. A better skier could probably plow right through, but I did quite a bit of survival skiing: side-slip for awhile, make one or two jump-turns, then stop to plan my next moves.

The middle part was easier, but unpleasant, with lots of wet slide debris (i.e. ice-and-snow-balls) of varied hardness. I moved a bit faster on this, but little I did was elegant. It looked like most of the debris fell from the couloir’s sides, and while I was sometimes accompanied by a few friendly snowballs, I never set off a slide. Once through the debris, I finally reached more predictable snow, and was able to make a few good turns.

Unfortunately there does not seem to be a way to glide past the lakes, especially in warm, grabby afternoon snow, so there was shuffling, double-poling, cursing, and a short carry through a bare section. I skied down to the creek junction where I had set out on my first “shortcut” in the morning, then decided that I would rather posthole to the road than ski through the maze of aspens and pines near the creek. Looking back from somewhere on the road, I could just make out the other party and their tracks as they negotiated the couloir.

Tom (SE chute)

Mount Tom is huge, with chutes and canyons descending from its long summit ridge in all directions. I had already been up Elderberry Canyon, probably the most popular ski line on Tom, and partway up the East Chute (“Dingleberry Canyon”). This time I came up the steeper Southeast Chute and face, a line leading directly to the summit from the desert nearly 7000 feet below. Unfortunately conditions were poor, with blasting wind and sometimes dubious snow. This led to indecision, and ultimately forced me to turn around near 12,800′, still 600′ shy of the summit.

I got another early start from slightly higher on the Buttermilk road, this time remembering my poles. I followed the road until the sagebrush was snowy enough to be skiable, then took off straight for the mouth of the Horton Lakes drainage. I eventually rejoined the road, and followed it to the Sonny Boy Mine cabin. From there, an undulating bench continues around to the mouth of the southeast chute, which is guarded by an old lateral moraine. Earlier in the season, it would be better to approach across the desert and into the lower end of the moraine, but it would now require too much bushwhacking.

I carefully booted down the moraine and a short distance up the chute, then put my skis back on to skin up the messy old avalanche snow. As the chute turned north and opened up around 9500′, the wind picked up from the north.

Basin Mountain (E bowl)

Basin from car


Sitting at the eastern edge of the range, Basin Mountain and Mount Tom are the two most striking peaks seen from Bishop. Mount Tom has several long ski lines, of which I have done a couple, and I planned to do another, the southeast couloir. However, that line shares a trailhead with Basin’s well-known and much more striking east bowl. Partly because it was tempting and closer, and partly because I hiked over a mile from the car before realizing I had forgotten my poles, I scrapped my plans and headed for Basin.

Skinning toward Basin

I skinned up the road for awhile, then left it to continue through the sagebrush toward an orange thing near a large boulder that turned out to be someone’s tent. Despite its being sunny and pleasant, I saw no one outside the tent or skinning up the slope above. The previous day’s snow up high may have fallen as rain below, because the snow still had a slick, rock-hard crust. I carefully skinned up for a bit, wishing I had ski crampons, booted until I began postholing, then cautiously and strenuously followed the old skin track for awhile.

Upper basin from shoulder

I eventually reached a shoulder between the lower slopes and the basin that gives the peak its name. Some previous skiers had skied a shorter line north of the shoulder, but the snow still needed time to soften, and I was here for the basin, so I side-slipped over to the south, then continued along the now-fainter track. The previous morning had been snowy, and the afternoon violently windy, so there was a mixture of powder and wind-board in the sheltered northeast-facing bowl.

Upper basin with skier for scale

The enormous scale of the terrain hides the fact that the upper bowl is 2000 feet high, so it seemed to take forever to cross the lower flat section and climb the headwall. I managed to skin partway up, but had to return to booting as the slope got steeper and more wind-packed. The bowl tops out at the base of a rock wall below the summit, so rather than follow it, I decided to explore a southeast-facing branch to see if I could reach the summit.

Those are mine!

The snow abruptly turned nasty, with various soft stuff over an old rock-hard crust. I booted and wallowed up a ways, but after backsliding a couple of times, decided that continuing might be not just frustrating but unwise. I stomped out a platform, switched to downhill mode, and had a snack, then did a trial ski cut to see what would happen. Not too surprisingly, I managed to set off a small slide, though it wasn’t very deep. I found some more solid snow on the south-facing part of the chute, and carefully made my way down to the main basin.

I had seen someone following my track below, and met him again as he put his skis on his pack to boot up the final half of the upper basin. I stopped to chat for a minute, then did some thuggish skiing on variable snow back to the saddle. Below the saddle, the east-facing crust had softened nicely, and I managed to hit 30 MPH making super-G turns on the lower slope — not particularly fast, but still fun, and not bad for the conditions. I dodged sagebrush on the flats until I found the road, then coasted back to within 10 feet of my car around 12:30. There were another half-dozen vehicles parked by then, and I passed a few skiers, but only me and that one other guy seem to have made it up high.

Buck Mountain (SE chute)

Skinning toward Buck


It’s spring in the Sierra, and some of the big east-side ski lines are coming into prime condition. Of the roughly 10,000 feet of elevation between the Owens Valley and the highest peaks, 5000 feet or more is skiable in many places, often with minimal desert hiking carrying skis. With clear skies and a higher sun, the snow refreezes overnight, and softens up enough on south- and east-facing slopes to be pleasantly skiable by noon or 1:00 PM.

Buck Mountain, and its neighbor Alice, are unattractive sand-piles east of the much more dramatic Palisades. I had climbed both for the Sierra Challenge, and not particularly enjoyed doing so. Both mountains are much improved by snow, however, with Buck’s southeast face and gully offering just over 4000 feet of moderate skiing. With the Glacier Lodge road currently closed about 1.5 miles short of the summer trailhead, there is a bit of an approach, but nothing obscene, and it was still mostly snow-covered from the small parking area.

Skinning toward Clyde

Dan and Kim had camped at the trailhead, so they probably got more sleep than I did, waking in the dark to drive down from north of Bishop. After the usually gear wrangling, we were skinning up the road on a chilly morning a bit before 7:00. This was my first time using Dan’s old boots and backup skis. The boots in particular are much lighter than my current gear, and while this made skinning easier, I was curious how they would perform going downhill.

Lower gully

We eventually reached the summer trailhead, and had to remove our skis for one short stretch of south-facing trail passing the cabins. Beyond, we followed an old skin track up across the bridge, then into the open South Fork of Big Pine Creek. High clouds and a breeze kept temperatures cool, and we were concerned as we skinned west that the snow would not soften enough to be fun.

Climbing toward lower gully

Just past the summer stream crossing, where the trail begins to climb the headwall toward Willow Lake, we finally saw the start of our route. After waiting awhile for it to warm up, and almost giving up, the clouds looked like they might be blowing over, and we fortunately decided to go ahead. The snow was still solid on the way up, and as the slope steepened, Dan and Kim put on their ski crampons. Not having such esoteric gear, I carefully skinned as best I could, then put my skis on my pack to boot up a couple of the steeper sections.

Sill and North Palisade from Buck

Above the initial chute, we found a good skin-track switchbacking up the open slope, which made it possible for me to carefully skin up to the shoulder, then around to the final south-facing slope. While Kim waited for Dan, I continued up the track toward the summit ridge. I stashed my skis in a sheltered spot, then followed a boot-track to the true summit, where I found the register in good shape and completely exposed. It was unfortunately too new to include the Sierra Challenge, but I saw some familiar names, and it was warm and calm enough to hang out on the summit, have a snack, and admire the Palisades in all their snow-bound glory.

Palisade Crest

By the time I returned to my skis and figured out how to switch Dan’s boots to downhill mode, Kim and Dan had reached my sheltered spot. It was getting late — around 1:00 PM — so rather than continuing to the summit for a clear view of North Palisade, they briefly looked over into the North Fork, then prepared to descend. I was worried about some plastic poking me in Dan’s boots, but as is often the case with ski boots, once you start going downhill, either they sort themselves out or you stop noticing the pain.

Yours Truly stylin’ it (Dan’s photo)

After a couple turns of hard crust, the snow became pleasant on the upper face, and I descended in swooping GS turns. The snow below the shoulder was similarly pleasant, except for a shaded part of the lower gully that had already refrozen, and I got up some serious speed on the final runout into the South Fork. I wish I knew my top speed, but unfortunately I was not recording the ski.

Rather than following the summer trail, we stayed on the south side of the creek, following some ski tracks that eventually deposited us among the surprisingly large cluster of cabins. I debated putting skins back on for the slightly-downhill road back to the car, but eventually decided not to: the skins had left nasty glue on the bases on the way up, and it was downhill… So, much strenuous skating and double-poling later, I finally returned to the car, and was home again by late afternoon.

A friend in need

I deliberately constrain my writing here to the subjects of mountaineering and (occasionally but relatedly) climate change. However, I think this deserves making an exception.

I met Shannon this past fall, and found her to be a talented and highly-motivated trail runner, a strong scrambler, and a pleasant and positive partner in the hills. Apart from some long outings in the Sierra, we did a couple of tough routes that were on my bucket list (White Mountain’s west ridge and Badwater to Telescope), and even explored the deserts I normally avoid. When I learned that she had only been to the tourist part of Mexico, and that flights between Las Vegas and Mexico City were ridiculously cheap, it seemed natural to head down there to climb and see some of the good, non-tourist parts. Tickets were bought, and plans were made.

The week before we were to leave, she texted me that her son was experiencing abdominal pain that could potentially be appendicitis. Since that is not serious if treated quickly, I hoped that he could have an appendectomy and recover before our trip. Unfortunately, rather than a swollen or burst appendix, the doctors at the local hospital found a large mass. They promptly sent him down to the UCLA children’s hospital, where tests determined that it was Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. While modern survival rates are high, treatment still requires chemotherapy using (among other things) Methotrexate, a drug developed in the 1940s and ’50s with horrible side effects. So while I was in Mexico running up and down volcanoes, Shannon was in a hospital watching her son suffer; both remain there today.

Her friends have set up a donation page, both to offset the substantial cost of care, and to help fund research into improving treatment of this rare and terrible disease. If you can, please consider contributing to a worthy family and a worthy cause.

Iztaccihuatl (Pies y Pecho)

Izta from Pies


Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third-highest volcano, and the second-highest that can be legally climbed, as Popocatépetl has long been closed for being too active. Translated from Nahuatl and Spanish, the title is literally “White woman (feet and bust),” and the mountain does indeed look like a woman lying on her back when viewed from the east or west. Her bust is the highpoint, her head and feet are legitimately separate peaks, and her belly and knees are minor bumps on the standard climb from below her feet to her chest.

Los Pies

I had hoped to climb Tlalocatépetl on my way over from Malinche, but confusion about the trailhead location and problems turning around on the divided highway spoiled that plan, so I kept on driving to Amecameca, then up the magnificent and windy road to Paso de Cortes, between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. I paid the $3.50 entry fee at the visitor center, then crept along the dusty road to the La Joya trailhead, arriving late in the morning. I wasn’t feeling especially energetic, so I decided to take a short, slow hike up Los Pies, which would be new to me and, at 15,387′, would give me some acclimatization benefit.

Trail toward Izta

I ate some junk food, then took off slowly up the trail, passing various hikers headed in both directions, and a group of Red Cross members possibly patrolling the popular area. I left the main trail near a saddle where the trail crosses from the south/east to the north/west side of Izta’s crest, finding occasional old boot-prints and cairns on the slope leading to Los Pies’ summit knob. I was feeling slow, but was cheered up by a couple stretches of seemingly mandatory class 3-4 climbing getting through rock bands. This was the most technical climbing I had found on this trip, slightly more difficult than the crux on Pico de Agila, and it even required some route-finding.

Los Pies’ summit knob

I eventually emerged on the ridge west of the summit knob, from which I could see the trail toward El Pecho below and to the north. The summit knob itself looked serious, defended by sheer cliff bands of questionable rock on all sides. However, tackling one problem at a time, it proved no harder than class 3. I started to the left, climbing near the crest, then crossed to the right, traversing a sandy slope below the main cliffs. Here I found a ramp trending back left, where moderate scrambling led back to the crest and to a couple old pitons and a dubious hand-line. After a brief wrong turn, I crossed back to the left near the hand line, traversed a bit, and was soon at the summit.

Los Pies summit plaque

I found no register or cross, but there was a plaque cemented to the summit rock that made no more sense to me even after running it through Google Translate. There also seemed to be an easier way down a loose chute on the other side of the summit knob. I hung out for awhile, looking for people descending Izta to one side, watching Popo puff on the other and listening to its deep rumbling, then retraced my steps off the summit knob.

I thought it looked easier to drop north and join the standard trail on the main peak, but I was wrong. What looked like nice scree-skiing was a shallow and slippery layer with hard-pack underneath, with occasional patches of Izta’s evil mud. After numerous slips, I reached flatter ground and picked up the trail at the saddle northwest of Los Pies. With plenty of daylight left, I took my time on the trail down, passing (the same?) Red Cross group, this time playing around with ropes and gear next to the trail.

Radical Mexican bike design

It was only mid-afternoon, and I was bored, so I made the long drive back to Amecameca for some street tacos, which cost about $1 each and contained generous helpings of chorizo and cecina. Many of the region’s eateries advertised their cecina, and I was eager to try it, having enjoyed it in Leon. However, this “cecina” was a different thing entirely, more like thinly-sliced, salty roast beef. It was good in its own way, but I preferred the Spanish version. After ingesting real food, I drove back up the pass to sleep near the trailhead and turn my meal into red blood cells.

El Pecho

For my last Mexican climb, I wanted to try to set an FKT for Izta’s standard route. The climb gains just over 4000 feet, and I thought I could go faster than Joe Gray’s 2h11 ascent despite the altitude and somewhat indirect route. I had my doubts when I woke up, sore from 5 days sleeping in a tiny rental car, with my cough and headache worse than they had been the whole trip. I sat in the car for awhile, drinking cold instant coffee and eating bland crackers, then finally drove over to the trailhead and got ready. I started my watch and jogged down the trail, and almost gave up when my left glute and hamstring complained. But suffering up hills is what I do; instinct took over, and I got to work.

Crossing the first saddle before Los Pies, I was surprised to run into the Mexican Army. There must have been at least 50 guys in combat gear, most carrying assault rifles, some carrying regimental banners, hiking steadily up the loose climb. The ones in back noticed me and shouted to their companions, who stood aside for me to run through along the short downhill-to-flat section. I reverted to hiking as soon as the trail turned uphill, and slowly plodded past the rest. I was impressed by their progress carrying all that gear; one guy even had a gallon water jug strapped to the top of his pack.

Ayoloco Glacier

I saw no one at the hut, and only a few other people on the rest of the familiar route. I stuck to the rocks on the grind above the hut, and tried to run the flat and downhill sections along the undulating ridge. It was cold up high for a change, with a brutal west wind driving me to put on my hat and windbreaker, and to shelter my left eyeball. I sketched my way down onto the Ayoloco Glacier, passing two guys in crampons, then jogged by some people on the flat section before grinding out the final ridge climb to the summit.

South from north summit

Izta’s highpoint may have been its summit icefield many years ago, but it is much diminished, and is now an icy depression surrounded by three similarly-high points. I reached the south one first, where most people stop, then cut straight across the ice plain to climb the north one via its east ridge. This one had a couple of crosses, but both had geological markers, and the south summit looked higher from the north. ¿Quien sabe? Pleased to have made the south summit in about 2h02, and the north one in 2h08, I decided I was done with speed for the day.

Conquering Mexican Army

My plan had been to continue to La Cabeza, Izta’s northern distinct subpeak. However, I was sick of the cold wind, and it looked tricky from where I stood, so I moseyed on back the way I came. The Mexican Army had occupied the territory surrounding the hut, setting up brightly colored and very un-army-like tents. It seemed like they had plenty of time left to summit, but they were going to wait for la mañana. I made my way through camp, trying to be friendly and not get too close to any guns, then put on a bit of speed on the descent toward Los Pies. I stopped once to talk to a fellow American, then cruised back to the car.

I drove to the visitor center to rinse the volcanic dust off my feet and legs, then found a Starbucks to kill a few hours before driving to the airport. Using the Starbucks WiFi, I learned that I was far from the FKT, a blazingly fast 1h40 or so set (once again) by Santiago Carsolio. Oh, well… Luckily I left myself plenty of time to return the car, because it took me several circles and wrong turns to find the hole-in-the-wall car lot. I handed in the keys, got back my deposit, then began the 2-day transit nightmare home. It hadn’t been the Mexico trip I had planned, but non-tourist Mexico is still an awesome place.

Orizaba (3h18), Malinche

Orizaba from trailhead


At 18,491′, Pico de Orizaba is Mexico’s highest volcano, and the third-highest peak in North America. Gringos seem drawn to its north side, where the standard route leads from a hut at the end of a 4WD road, to the small and shrinking Jamapa Glacier, and on to the summit. However, like many Mexicans, I prefer its south side, where there is no hut, no glacier, and no need for an expensive 4WD taxi. Having done this route in 2016, I was familiar with the best ascent and descent paths, and wanted to see how fast I could do it. I was done playing around; it was suffering time.

Disgusting hut and Sierra Negra

I woke to clear skies and calm winds, and waited around the trailhead until about 8:30 to give the air up high a chance to warm up. By the time I started, it was t-shirt weather at the parking area. I jogged some flatter stretches of the 4WD road toward the bright orange and disgusting hut, but mostly hiked, taking the use trail shortcutting the switchbacks where I could. I had a lot of climbing to do, and was still not acclimatized enough to do much uphill running at this altitude.

I passed a group standing around a couple of burly trucks near the large boulder where people seem to camp, then gave the outhouse a wide berth as I passed the hut. I stopped for a minute once safely out of smelling range to eat a bar, then continued along one of several use trails, aiming for the talus rib to the left of the chute leading from the summit. This route avoids loose volcanic sand for most of the climb, and the stable talus is actually fairly pleasant.

I tried to keep a steady pace, but had to stop occasionally near the top of the rib, eating my second bar during one panting break. I passed two American-looking guys moving slowly, and a group of three locals, including a woman dressed sensibly in sweat pants. Despite the entire route being visibly snow-free from the trailhead, the Americans were carrying ice axes. After bringing one and not needing it in 2016, I had sensibly left mine at home.

The talus rib unfortunately ends short of the summit, and the rest of the climb is a mixture of miserable sand and treacherous hard-pack. A large group above me kicked down occasional rocks, which I easily dodged as I caught and passed them. I trended a bit right onto the hard-pack, climbed just left of the plane wreck, then regained the trail near the crater rim, just below the summit. I topped out in 2h29 and a few seconds, and was pleased with my time.

What a poser…

Since I was going for a round-trip time, I was still on the clock, but I hung out for a few minutes on the pleasantly non-windy summit to try to talk with a group of three, put on my windbreaker (I had been climbing in just an overshirt), and pose for a few photos for my friend’s son. Then I waved goodbye and bombed down the sand to the right of the ascent route. I nailed the descent, bombing down sand right of the rib, crossing, then continuing down more awesome sand and scree to just above the hut, losing over 3000 feet in under 30 minutes.

Sand collection

I stopped above the hut to empty a half-cup of sand from each shoe, then jogged/ran the route back to the trailhead. I passed some groups hiking up to the hut, and a couple of trucks bouncing down the road, then smiled as the guard raised the gate for me to run up the short hill to the sign. 3h18 round-trip was a good time for me, but I have no doubt that some fast Mexican like Santiago Carsolio could do it in under 3 hours, or perhaps already has.

Malinche

Sunset on Malinche


With lots of daylight left and nothing else to do, I drove over to La Malinche, a lower volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl. Carsolio had put up an insane time on it that I knew I could not beat, but I thought I might as well at least watch the sunset from its summit. There were plenty of people picnicking at the trailhead, and crowds of Mexicans and even a few Americans descending, but I was the only person moving uphill so late in the day. I tried to keep up a decent pace, but I was tired from the morning’s effort, and did not feel like pushing myself too hard.

Malinche shadow and Orizaba

It was cold and windy on the north ridge and on the summit, so I did not loiter long, but I did pause to enjoy the volcano shadow stretching out east toward Orizaba. I tried beat the darkness on the way down, hurrying a bit more, but dusk does not last long so close to the equator. I finished at a pathetic pace, descending the rough trail through the woods using my cell phone as a flashlight.

Popo again

The quesadilla place looked like it was closed, but they reopened just for me, so I quickly enjoyed a chicken quesadilla as they washed the plastic lawn chairs, then drove down the road to a pullout to sleep. I was just washing my legs when a police caravan rolled slowly by, then stopped. Oh, shit, here we go… However, it turned out my dread was misplaced. An officer in a bullet-proof vest approached, but instead of giving me a hard time, he simply asked where I was from, then told me that it wasn’t safe to camp here, and that I should sleep back near the restaurant. It didn’t feel any sketchier than the places I had slept the last few nights, but I did as he said, and passed an uninterrupted night back at the trailhead. Mexico is awesome.