We woke up at a reasonable hour in Amecameca, added ice axes and crampons to our packs, and drove up to Paso de Cortés, the 11,100′ saddle between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. Once dirt, this road is now nicely paved on the west side, and I cleverly chose to do some of my share of the driving on this uncrowded and scenic stretch. We stopped at the shiny visitor center, picked up a day pass ($5 for the three of us), then drove a decent dirt road to the southern La Joya trailhead at 13,100′.
Rather than being a symmetric cone like neighboring Popo and most volcanoes, Izta is a long, undulating ridge with numerous false summits. From the east or west, it looks like a woman lying on her back, with the pechas being the high point. Therefore it would be several hours before we could see the summit. There were already a decent number of cars at the trailhead when we started at 8:40, unsurprising for a weekend during prime climbing season. The route starts on the shady western side of the mountain, but soon crosses over to east- and southeast-facing slopes, where it was already hot enough to be sweating in a t-shirt. Having expected it to be cold at such high elevations, I had neglected to bring my sun hat on the trip, an omission I regretted as I alternately suffered in my warm hat and roasted my scalp.
After a brief period of shade, we crossed a saddle at the “ankles,” where we met several people breaking camp or just enjoying the clear, windless day at 14,800′. Below to the east, a herd of cows or horses grazed in a spring-fed meadow. A variety of use trails lead from the ankles to the Los Cien hut at 15,500′, most involving unpleasant travel through loose sand or (worse) ball bearings over hard-pack. The hut was reasonably clean, and even had a decent supply of ramen and tuna, but we kept going after only the briefest look around.
From the hut to the “knees,” the route climbs a steep slope of miserably loose sand and rocks. The rocks to the right provide some relief, but the climb still involves a fair amount of back-sliding. I also began to notice the altitude above 15,500′: while the climbing so far had felt more or less the same as climbing a fourteener, my “cardiovascular ceiling” was noticeably lower above Los Cien. This was most noticeable when taking large steps up rock or powering through back-sliding sand. Other than becoming winded more easily, the altitude seemed to have no effect for the remainder of the day.
After passing through a short third class rock band that gave Cameron a bit of trouble, we reached our first false summit at the “knees,” featuring the mangled remains of some sort of tower. Amazingly, it was windless and probably in the mid-40s — t-shirt weather while moving uphill at 16,500′. The summit is still hidden, but the rolling, gradually ascending route to the glacier is clearly visible. After dropping off the knees, we scrabbled our way east of the next subpeak on wretchedly-angled ball bearings and hard-pack, then followed the ridge to the edge of the glacier, where we could at last see the summit. Though it is in rapid retreat, the wind gathers enough snow here to have created an ice-saddle that will last for some decades yet. While Cameron put on his crampons, Mike and I carefully made our way down the glacier’s crunchy surface to the flat saddle, where it was an easy walk in running shoes to the other side.
From there to the summit, the route stays mostly on the ridge, except for one somewhat exposed dirt-traverse to the east. Feeling the same inexplicable urge, both Mike and I jogged the last 20 yards to the summit, reaching it about 4 hours from the trailhead, including several stops. Even at 17,100′, it was barely cold enough for me to add my shell to my long-sleeved shirt. Secor’s 15-year-old book describes the summit as a snow dome, but we found three similarly-high points of dirt ringing a lower ice-field on the south, west, and north. We talked with two fit-looking Mexican triathletes for a few minutes, then hung out watching a herd of ravens play near the next summit before retracing our steps.
Even in the mountains, Mexico seems to operate on a relaxed schedule, and we passed a steady stream of people on their way up in the early afternoon. The hard-packed sidehill section to the saddle above the knees was unpleasant, barely faster going down than up, as we had to carefully skitter across the dirt between the refuge of stable rock outcroppings. The descent from the “knees” to the hut was a challenging but fun scree-ski; as on Toluca the day before, my experience on such terrain gave me a good gap over Mike and Cameron, made larger when they went too far west and cliffed out above the third class step. This gave me plenty of time to sit at the hut and watch the crowd. No one else seemed to have the English or inclination to talk, and I am not good enough at Spanish or humans to want to start a conversation myself. So I ate my Christmas candy and watched them enjoy their cheese and bottle of wine until the others arrived.
After more mixed slippery dirt and loose sand below the hut, we passed the only other white person on the mountain, a guy from Seattle on his way up to camp at the hut. Though still around 15,000′, I absurdly felt like I was “down low” on this section. There was a sizable crowd at the “ankles,” including a dozen or so members of some kind of scouting organization, one of them eating something that looked disturbingly like a full diaper. The people here were more outgoing, and a friendly young woman named Dora approached us and chatted for awhile, then offered Mike and I a taste of the “diaper,” which turned out to be a paper-wrapped pastry stuffed with some blackish plant whose name I did not recognize. It tasted… better than it looked.
The rest of the day was straightforward, if unpleasantly slippery. Mike had the worst of it in his worn road-running shoes, falling several times and getting a nice flapper on his palm, but after making it nearly to the car without a fall, I managed to sit down in some mysterious mud right in front of a ranger. Though the trail had been dry on the way up, and there had been no rain, the porous volcanic soil and rock apparently store up moisture and releases it in the heat of the day.
After returning to the now-full parking lot, we drove back to Paso de Cortés, where I eyed placid-looking Popo. Though it is apparently not safe enough for modern mountaineers, Diego de Ordaz likely reached the summit in 1519, and Francisco Montaño had himself repeatedly lowered into the crater of the lightly-erupting volcano in 1521 to retrieve 60 pounds of sulfur for gunpowder. But we live in a timid age, so after a longing glance, we headed down the dirt eastern side of the pass.
This was much slower than the way up, with many overloaded cars picking their way along the rough and winding road. The faster drivers passed aggressively close to blind corners, counting on oncoming cars to make room for them. One particularly aggressive driver in a lifted pickup blatantly forced us and an oncoming car to make room as he sped past us. When his running board broke and forced him to stop a few hundred yards later, we cackled with glee. The road became paved above the little town of Xalitzintla, and we could at last go faster, though we had to remain ever-vigilant for the evil Mexican speed bumps, which are large, sharp, unpredictable, and rarely painted or signed. (Sometimes there will even be a speed bump before the stop sign at an intersection, and another one on the other side.)
We made better time on the highway through Puebla, but foolishly failed to stop for food or rest until we were back out in the boondocks. We grabbed some mediocre gas station food, then looked for the nearest hotel in our GPS, finding one a couple of miles away in Palmar de Bravo. If the owners took the time to submit a listing, how bad could it be? Well…
The place looked closed as we pulled up, with just an old woman sitting in the dimmed front room. We were about to leave when a middle-aged woman, perhaps her daughter, came to the door and offered us a room for about $25, normally enough for two decent beds. It looked vaguely sketchy, so we asked to see the room first. The middle-aged woman and a younger one (her daughter?) led us up a flight of stairs, through a dimly-lit dining room full of empty tables, and down a short hall with three doors. The room looked old and smelled a bit funny, but it had beds, a toilet, and a sort-of shower (a shower head sticking out of the bathroom wall, and a shower curtain serving as the bathroom door), and we were tired. After pulling the car around to the side for parking, we dragged our suitcases up to the room and gave her sufficient money, expecting change. As we began to settle, she sprayed the hell out of the place with some sort of perfumed disinfectant.
A few minutes after the women left, Cameron discovered that the toilet did not flush. With no real bathroom door, this made the room unlivable. The woman seemingly claimed that she just needed to turn on the water to the toilet, but when that did not work, she offered us two of the other rooms for another 100 pesos. I was frustrated and wanted to take our money and leave, but the others seemed tired enough to be willing to put up with the place, so we reluctantly accepted her deal. I didn’t want to use the shower, and would probably sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the bed, but it had been a long day, so… whatever.
Then I went to my room, turned to close the door, and found a dead mouse behind it. The middle-aged woman was still hanging around in the hall, so I called her in and pointed this out. In a put-upon way, she explained that she had just fumigated the place — apparently I was supposed to be grateful that the mouse was dead — then picked it up in a paper towel and went downstairs.
I was thoroughly pissed at this point, and after a few minutes we agreed to leave, so I went downstairs to get our money back, perhaps letting her keep 100 pesos as a peace offering. Downstairs, I found that a car had pulled up in front, and the woman was talking to its driver at the door. I explained that the rooms would not work, and that we wanted to take our money and go. She said something I took to mean “I’ll be with you in a minute,” then went to the next room, money in hand, before I figured out her game. In an extended and heated conversation aided by the automatic translation app on Cameron’s phone, she claimed not to have the money, so our only choice was to take the rooms. She had probably passed it on to a co-conspirator outside, but even if not, I wasn’t about to frisk or fight her for it. At this point we decided to cut our losses, as the situation was getting sketchier by the minute; at least we still had the rest of our money, our stuff, and an undamaged car, and we had not been subjected to any felonies. Refusing the woman’s absurd offer to help us carry our bags to said car, we hurriedly packed up and drove away, noting that another car had joined the first out front.
Having learned our lesson, we looked up the next decent-sized city on the map, and drove a bleary-eyed 25 miles to Ciudad Serdán. The vibe was much better here, with cobbled streets, some old buildings and churches, and people out enjoying the Christmas fireworks. Less than $30 got us a clean room with a hot shower near downtown. I washed off the stink of the other place, then collapsed into bed.