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.

Cofre de Perote, Sierra Negra

Cofre from approach

Cofre de Perote is a maybe-14er volcano near the town of Perote, north of Orizaba. It earns its name for its large square summit block, high and vertical on all sides, which likely made it Mexico’s most technical volcano before someone blasted concrete steps in the side and littered the top with antennas. It is a long drive east and around Mexico City from Toluca, so it was getting late by the time I realized that I should have gotten gas at one of the many Pemex stations along the toll route. It was even later by the time I tracked down a random station on a side road, so I went only a short way up the road toward El Conejo before finding another dirt side-road on which to camp. This one even had an old fire ring, making me feel more like I was respecting local customs.

Improved ridge
I continued uphill in the morning, driving through the increasingly rural towns of Los Pescados and El Conejo, then on up into the Perote park, a sort of poor man’s version of the Malinche one to its west. I became increasingly concerned for my poor little rental car as I bounced up the lousy cobbled road toward the antenna installation, so I parked at the first marked parking spots and walked the rest of the way to the unoccupied hut and sort-of trailhead. Instead of following the road, I found what looked like a built-up downhill mountain bike track, with drop-offs and banked turns.

Summit uglification project
I returned to the road for a bit and then, following a track I downloaded from Peakbagger, took a faint trail that climbs the ridge directly toward the towered summit. Though it looked like a mere use trail, it was at one point official enough to merit concrete steps and handrails on one narrow section. This trail rejoined the road just below the ugly, decaying infrastructure littering the summit area. I passed some dilapidated concrete buildings, climbed the stairs, and awkwardly greeted a trio of antenna workers as I tagged the summit. The peak has another, almost equally high south summit, also accessible by road, and I got about halfway there before deciding I did not care. I returned to the trail, retraced my steps to the car, and drove back through the towns, having to stop a couple of times to allow herds of sheep to flow around the car.

Sierra Negra telescope
As expected, the outing took a short half-day, leaving me time to drive south through Ciudad Serdan, then around east and up the familiar road through Atzitzintla and Texmalaquila to the saddle between Orizaba and Sierra Negra. My rental car made easier work of this dirt-and-cobble road, and I reached the 13,200-foot saddle between the two peaks by mid-afternoon. From there, I hiked the road to the large millimeter telescope and observatory that houses the Orizaba webcam.

Sunset on Orizaba
I peered through the fence around the dish and summit for a minute, but no one came out to challenge or greet me, so I stood on the highest reachable rocks to take some photos of a partly-cloudy Orizaba, then hiked and jogged the road back to my car. To my surprise, there was a pickup with a pop-up camper at the trailhead, a rare sight in Mexico. I guessed it meant gringos, and I was right — Montana gringos at that. I felt weird camping next to them in one of the nice wooded spots, so I drove a few hundred yards away to sleep in an inferior place on the open plain. Hopefully hiking to 14,000′, then to 15,000′, then sleeping at 13,000′ would acclimatize me for the next day.

Tour de Toluca

Toluca and Laguna del Sol

I had five climbing days between flights into and out of Mexico City, and needed to improvise something worthwhile: a mixture of FKT attempts and new peaks. Rolling out of Mexico City late at night in a tiny rental car, I decided to do a bit of acclimatization on nearby Nevada de Toluca. Though I had tagged the highest peak a couple of winters ago, my companions on that trip were not interested in the lesser peaks. Now by myself, I could sleep somewhere high on the mountain, then take my time traversing around the crater rim from Nevado de Toluca to Pico de Aguila, then tag Pico de Humboldt before returning to the trailhead. Tired and following lousy Apple Maps directions, I drove through Raices and straight past the turnoff to Toluca, continuing on a Mexican backroad for awhile before catching my mistake. It was near midnight, so I retraced my route until I spotted a quiet-looking dirt side-road, drove a short distance from the pavement, and figured out how to sleep in a tiny rental.

Burn shit
Not wanting to get in trouble with a farmer, I woke early the next morning, drove back toward Raices, and easily found the well-signed turnoff to Nevado de Toluca. After the crazy crowds we had experienced last time, I was surprised to be one of only a few cars at the trailhead. Coming from 5000 feet, and recovering from a couple days of public transit hell, I was painfully slow climbing the trail from the parking lot to the saddle below Humboldt. I followed the familiar route down into the crater, past Laguna de la Luna, and up Toluca’s east ridge. It seems to be “burn shit” season in Mexico, so in addition to the usual haze from Mexico City, there was a solid layer of smoke over the countryside from various fires, including one not too far from where I had slept.

Aguila from Toluca
The ridge from Toluca to Aguila supposedly requires scrambling, and sees much less traffic than the normal route I had followed so far. However, I found it to mostly be a class 2 walk, with occasional cairns and bits of trail pointing the way. Only the final climb to Aguila’s summit seemed to require the use of hands for a bit of fun class 3 scrambling. I looked around at the views for a minute, then descended the other side, passing a guy resting on his way up. It was mostly easy going back to the Humboldt saddle, and slippery dirt and talus to its summit. I was of course painfully slow on the climb, but I reminded myself that this was a short acclimatization day. To that end, I sat around on the 14,698′ summit for awhile before returning to the still-quiet parking lot.

Mad skillz
I needed to generate more red blood cells before trying to do anything fast, so I picked out some peaks on the other side of Mexico City and began the long drive east. Starting off with one plan, I plowed right into the chaos of non-freeway Mexican traffic, including a bit of gonzo street performance. As soon as a light turned red, two guys painted silver ran out in front of traffic with step-ladders, climbed up them, and started juggling flaming torches. Impressed but frustrated by my slow progress, I changed plans and eventually reached the toll road around the city, which was both faster and less interesting.

La Malinche

View down route
View down route

La Malinche (or Malintzin) is a 14,600′ volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl, named for Hernán Cortés’s Nahua mistress and translator. With a “low” trailhead around 10,000′, it is a considerably harder hike than Nevado de Toluca, despite being 700′ lower. However, because it lacks distracting lakes and sub-peaks, most people who visit aim for the summit via a relentlessly-steep 4-mile trail.

After two days doing essentially nothing on the beach in Veracruz, we were anxious to get back to the mountains, and Malinche was right on the way to the airport. Sensing an opportunity to fulfill my driving obligation in the least onerous way, I volunteered to drive the first stretch. After some boring driving through the coastal lowlands, we followed another amazing (and expensive) toll road that climbed another lush, steep valley via many bridges. Emerging north of Orizaba, the road crossed a dry, rolling plain on its way to Huamantla. Evidence of volcanic activity was all around us: to the south, Orizaba presented its northern, glaciated face; ahead loomed Malinche; and at several points the road crossed lava flows that were home to enormous Joshua trees. For some reason the trees only grew on the lava, yielding strangely abrupt transitions to grassland with sparse pines.

Upon reaching the plain, the road turned from a divided highway to a strange two-lane road with wide shoulders delimited by dashed white lines. Proper driving etiquette was terrifying at first, though I got used to it. When someone wanted to pass, they would simply pull out and do so. It was the responsibility of both the person they were passing and any oncoming cars to pull partly onto the shoulder and cede the center of the road. The system actually works quite well, and the constant attention it demands from all drivers probably keeps them focused on the road rather than their cell phones.

"Parking lot"
“Parking lot”
After some circling back and forth and a little wrong-way driving, we found the nicely-paved road to La Malinche National Park, which is gated just above a restaurant and haphazard parking among tall pine trees. Nearby, a family was enjoying a campfire, and several heavily-armed park rangers lounged next to their ATV. Cameron got a few minutes’ head start, expecting Mike and I to catch up, but he was evidently feeling fast at lower elevations, and beat us to the summit. The road continues well above the gate, and we followed it for a couple of switchbacks before turning onto the direct hikers’ trail. Mike for some reason decided to make a bit of an effort, so I got to suffer.

Steep climb above subpeak
Steep climb above subpeak
We met all sorts of people on the trail, from runners in Lycra to children to overweight middle-aged women. We even passed one of the park rangers, who had left his body armor behind but was still moving slowly in uniform and combat boots. After cutting switchbacks to the top of the road, the trail parallels a badly-eroded former trail, then heads straight up a steep slope of sand and grass to the ridge between the summit and a bump to its north. After passing a rock window on the ridge, it climbs haphazardly up large talus, ending in a short third-class scramble to a decent-sized summit area.

Malinche's east side
Malinche’s east side
We all ended up summiting in around 1h45, far slower than the 1h10 ascent record, but still a respectable 2600 ft/hr, joining a half-dozen people and an exhausted dog lounging among the rocks.
Summit dog
Summit dog
Mike and Cameron soon headed down, while I hung out for awhile to take in Malinche’s steep eastern side and Orizaba farther away, and to try to talk to the locals. Two of them were guides, an older man smoking a cigarette and a 17-year-old boy with slightly better English. Impressively, the boy had been guiding since he was 14, and had climbed all the local volcanoes multiple times.

Hikers' trail through trees
Hikers’ trail through trees
After exhausting their and my limited foreign language skills, I took off back down the mountain, moving as quickly as I could down the talus to reach the skiable sand. Unlike Orizaba, this sand descent was reasonably technical, with intermittent hard patches and rocks to avoid, so I passed Mike and Cameron before the trail entered the woods. The lower trail was steep enough to be an unpleasant run, but walking would have been slow and dull, so I pounded on down to the trailhead, reaching it in 44 minutes from the summit, once again far slower than the record.

A VW bus made its way slowly through the parking lot as I waited for the others, blasting ice cream truck music to announce its purpose. Having hours to kill before returning our rental car, and no desire to spend more time than necessary in Mexico City, we headed over to the restaurant for something like lunch. Without asking about prices, we ordered beers and chicken quesadillas, then realized that with our limited remaining cash, we might have to spend awhile washing dishes. Our worries were misplaced: the bill came out to all of $8, temping us to stick around and order more food.

Having cleverly done my driving in the morning, I let Cameron do the final stretch into Mexico City. It was mostly non-awful until the last five miles, where a teeming mass of cars and buses fought over lanes, swerving in and out of the frontage road between dividers while vendors walked boldly among the trapped cars. After some contortions to reach a gas station and refill the rental car, we dragged our bags over to the airport and settled in to kill time until our 5:30 AM flight. Unfortunately, even with a camping pad sleep is hard to find in a busy airport.

Pico de Orizaba (Citlatépetl, ~3h40 up)

Starting toward Orizaba
Starting toward Orizaba

At 18,490′, Pico de Orizaba (or Citlatépetl, “Star Mountain”) is North America’s third highest peak, behind Denali and Logan. Its north side is home to Mexico’s largest glacier, extending from near the summit to around 16,000′, though most of its aspects are entirely unglaciated. Because it is a volcano, i.e. a giant pile of loose sand and terrible rock, the standard route takes advantage of the glacier, approaching from the north via a purportedly rough road to a hut above 14,000′. However, the peak can also be approached from the south, where a radio telescope on neighboring Sierra Negra ensures that a road to the 13,100′ saddle between the two peaks is reasonably maintained (and hosts a webcam). Since our rental car would take us higher on the south side, and hiring a 4WD is expensive, we opted for the Ruta Sur. Though it is the expected loose slog on the way up, I highly recommend this route for the nice camping near the trailhead and epic scree-ing on the descent.

Nearing the end of the road
Nearing the end of the road
After the last night’s adventures, we got a lazy start from Ciudad Serdán, despite having a potentially long morning drive to the south side of Orizaba. This being our biggest day in terms of gain (5,300′) and peak elevation (18,490′), I was antsy to start early; in retrospect, there was no reason to do so, and we probably should have slept in. In any case, after retracing our route a short ways, we turned off on a side road through Atzitzintla and Texmalaquilla, which ultimately leads to the radio telescope. Our outdated guidebook said the road was steep dirt, but it is now semi-paved to the saddle, and passable for any passenger car with enough power or a low enough gear. Beyond the saddle, the road remains passable for another half-mile or so to a well-used trailhead and camping area. It quickly goes to hell after that, though a high-clearance 4WD with a granny gear can reach just over 15,000′, making this perhaps the highest road in North America.

Fausto Gonzales hut
Fausto Gonzales hut
After picking out a random selection of gear, we started hiking around 9:30. I brought crampons (useless), a down jacket and mitts (nice, but not necessary), and about two liters of water, but left my ice axe behind. In retrospect, the peak could be done for speed with a single bottle, a handful of gels, hat and gloves, and a windbreaker. Starting at such a “low” elevation, we climbed about 1,000′ before reaching tree line, and grass and flowers extended to nearly 15,000′. The 4WD road switchbacks steeply to just below the orange-painted Fausto Gonzales hut near 15,500′, while a steeper climbers’ trail cuts directly across most of the bends. We met a fair number of people on this stretch headed in both directions, and two SUVs more competent than ours.

Ascent (red) and descent (green) routes
Ascent (red) and descent (green) routes
Unlike the Los Cien hut on Iztaccíhuatl, the Fausto Gonzales is sort of a dump, with a bare, dirty concrete floor and two utterly repulsive outhouses in back. After dithering around for a few minutes, we started up the long gully leading to the summit. There are three possible routes: a ridge of rocky outcroppings to the left, loose sand on either side of the gully, or talus in its center. The best upward route would probably be the ridge, but the talus was stable lower down and closer to the climbers’ trail, so I chose that, and the others followed.

Talus-slog lower down
Talus-slog lower down
I felt slightly faster than the day before at the same elevation, feeling the noticeable slowdown closer to 16,000′, but this part was a pure cardiovascular test, so I was in complete coma drive keeping up with Mike. The talus became less stable as the gully steepened higher up, and eventually I decided to cut over to the ridge. After a short but extremely unpleasant crossing of the sandy slope — thrashing at a 45 degree angle to move straight across — I reached the ridge and found much easier going that allowed me to gap Mike, who stayed on the talus for awhile. I also found plenty of bootprints and, as is depressingly common in Mexico, bits of trash.

Climbing on the upper ridge
Climbing on the upper ridge
Unlike the past two days, there was a strong west wind, which encouraged me to stay on the protected right-hand side of the ridge. Passing through 17,000′, I felt no effects of altitude other than the expected slowness. However Mike was apparently feeling light-headed when he stopped, and Cameron appeared to be suffering a bit. I found a sheltered nook and put on my shell and mitts to wait for them, then continued climbing.

Dangerous loose section
Dangerous loose section
The convenient ridge disappears below a white rock outcrop known as “the pulpit,” and the steep, loose slope above is both frustrating and dangerous. Moving from rock to rock up the sand-slope, I broke off a decent-sized outcropping, which broke into several pieces and sped down toward the others below. I yelled “rock!” (less colorful than the Mexican equivalent, “aguas!”, a warning from former times of incoming night-soil), though I am not sure they could hear me over the wind. Fortunately no one was hurt, and I continued somewhat more cautiously and less selfishly.

Convenient plane bits
Convenient plane bits
The rock becomes somewhat more solid at the pulpit, and a bizarre plane wreck also provides good holds. Topping out on this section, I got my first views of both the crater and the summit cross. I slogged up the much easier final slope, then did the traditional jog up the last 10 yards to tag the cross, reaching it just as oxygen debt caught up with me. I had expected to find crowds of Americans on the summit, arriving via the standard northern route, but found only a single woman from Guatemala. Using the cross as a windbreak, we shared Coke and Mexican Cheetos, and I learned that she was quite the mountaineer. In addition to four times up Orizaba, she had made three attempts at Everest, reaching 25,000′ once and witnessing this year’s devastating avalanche on the latest.

Crater
Crater
While there are good views from the summit west to Popo, Izta, and La Malinche, the eye is drawn east to the abyss of Orizaba’s crater. 1,500′ wide, it plunges vertically on all sides in rotten and rime-covered cliffs to an invisible floor 1,000′ below. I am sure someone has been inside, but it would take a long rope to get down, ascenders to get back out, and some creativity to make an anchor on the sandy rim. I stepped as far as I dared down the loose slope on its edge to take some photos, then retreated a bit to sit out of the wind and wait for the others. It was chilly even out of the wind, and I would have been uncomfortable sitting still without my puffy. As the others had not brought down jackets, we did not stay long after they arrived.

Scree-ing with Popo, Itza, and Malinche behind
Scree-ing with Popo, Itza, and Malinche behind
Retracing our steps would have been slow, and would have subjected other climbers to a hail of rockfall. Instead, we headed into the next gully west of the ridge, where we enjoyed epic scree-ing in the sandy equivalent of untracked powder down to about 17,000′. Here we crossed back over to the ascent gully, where further sand took us within a short hike of the hut. Including stops, I averaged about 100 vertical feet per minute descending from the summit to 16,000′. This is why the south route beats the north, despite the slog on the way up.
Epic scree-ing
Epic scree-ing
I chatted with a guide and his client as I emptied my shoes and waited for the others, then we all continued to the car at a comfortable walk, jogging a few sections of the road for variety. We passed a variety of people on the way down, from mountaineers with camping gear to locals out for a hike, but no fellow gringos.

It was only early afternoon, but we were all feeling worked after three busy days, so after hanging out for awhile at the trailhead, we drove only as far as the town of Orizaba before finding a hotel and some terrible (but cheap!) pizza. The road from the Mexican Altiplano down to the town at 4,000′ was spectacular, passing through several tunnels as it wound its way down the side of a lush, steep-sided valley from which Orizaba would occasionally show itself far above. Having avoided injury so far, I let my guard down in the hotel and cut my big toe exiting the bathroom, leaving blood all over the floor. As John Muir said, “few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes.”

Iztaccíhuatl (~4h up)

Izta from visitor center
Izta from visitor center

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′.

View back to Popo
View back to Popo
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.

"Ankle" camp
“Ankle” camp
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.

Hut and miserable climb to "knees"
Hut and miserable climb to “knees”
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.

Comfy at 16,500'
Comfy at 16,500′
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.
Glacier and summit
Glacier and summit
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.

Exposed dirt-traverse
Exposed dirt-traverse
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.
Ravens and summit icefield
Ravens and summit icefield
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.

Headed down
Headed down
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.
Looking down slog above hut
Looking down slog above hut
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.

Finishing the hard-pack sidehill
Finishing the hard-pack sidehill
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.

Parting view of Popo
Parting view of Popo
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.

Malinche and Orizaba
Malinche and Orizaba
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.)

Cultural postlude

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.

Hotel in Ciudad Serdán
Hotel in Ciudad Serdán
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.

Nevado de Toluca

Saddle with summit behind
Saddle with summit behind

Since climbing Mount Whitney, I have wondered how I would feel at higher elevations. For someone living in the lower 48, by far the cheapest and easiest way to find out is to visit the volcanoes around Mexico City. Other options within the hemisphere, such as the Andes and Alaska, require some costly combination of gear, permits, and transport. Like Starbucks drinks, Mexico’s volcanoes come in a variety of sizes, the most common being Toluca (15,350′), Iztaccíhuatl (17,154′), and Orizaba (18,491′). We chose to sample them in that order.

After our land attack this spring went off course, Mike and I decided to try again by air. While significantly more costly, this approach would be less likely to end in a barrio garage. With Mike’s friend and fellow pro mountain biker Cameron along, it even became affordable to rent a car. Because of Mike’s full-time job and airline pricing policies, we landed in Mexico City at 11:00 PM on Christmas Eve. After retrieving our bags, we rousted the rental car lady, and were on the road out of Mexico City by around 1:00 AM. The City is famous for its lawless gridlock traffic, so despite our bleary eyes, we considered ourselves lucky to be driving to Toluca during what had to be some of the least-crowded hours of the year. We checked into what claimed to be a Best Western around 2:30, and immediately passed out.

Toluca hut
Toluca hut
A morning shower would have been nice, but the room had very little running water, none of it hot, so we took off grimy for Nevado de Toluca, visible above the smog to the west. After our GPS led us on a scenic tour through a slum and a dumping area on some dirt roads, we eventually reached the highway and the nicely-paved byway. Shortly after passing through a town around 11,500′, we turned onto the rough 2WD dirt road up the volcano. After paying the entry fee (40 pesos), we continued our slow progress up to the hut at 13,800′. We could probably have driven on to the crater itself, but we were bored with the slow drive, so we parked with the other 40 or so cars on the side of the road, and followed the line of Mexican tourists up the wide path to a saddle to the south.

Flowers above 14,000'
Flowers above 14,000′
From there, the sporting route follows the crater rim over a slightly lower northeast peak, but my partners are not fans of unnecessary work, so we followed the crowd down across the crater, passing between the rather unattractive Lago del Sol and Lago de Luna. For unknown reasons, most of the tourists had stopped at the saddle or climbed the lower Arista de Humboldt, and the remainder seemed content to play around near lakes, so we were alone as we climbed a sandy path to the south rim of the crater. After some boulder-hopping and even a bit of fun third class scrambling, we reached the summit in near t-shirt weather.

Popo in the distance
Popo in the distance
We checked out the view of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl rising across the smog-lake of Mexico City, then scree-d down a gully we had passed on the way up, quickly reaching the Lago del Sol. We passed hundreds of people of all levels of fitness on our way back over the saddle to the road, most out for a casual stroll and picnic with kids, dogs, food, and drink. The road had turned into classic Mexican road chaos: parking had extended perhaps a half-mile down from the hut, and the remaining 1.5 lanes of dirt had to support both two-way traffic and a steady stream of pedestrians meandering obliviously among the gridlocked cars. We had plenty of time to reach Amecameca, so I did not mind the delay, and enjoyed learning how many people can fit in various types of car we passed (over a dozen in a VW bus).

Crowds on the way back
Crowds on the way back
Back on normal roads, we were mostly lucky in our drive through the awfulness of Mexico City, spending only about 15 minutes weaving through what looked like a spontaneous street market. By day, the smog and sprawl were oppressive. Being an international metropolis, Mexico City has its share of corporate skyscrapers, warehouses, and stores, but its defining feature is the barrios that spread over the rolling terrain like a concrete fungus. One- and two-story buildings are stacked wall-to-wall, roof-to-floor, fed by narrow streets. Most have unfinished upper stories with rebar sticking up, apparently a tactic to avoid paying taxes by remaining perpetually “under construction.”

After stopping for dinner on the eastern edge of the city, we continued to Amecameca, at over 8,000′ near the base of Popocatépetl, where we randomly chose a surprisingly nice and affordable motel. It even had a zillion channels of cable, so we were able to learn a bit of Spanish from the subtitles of one of the most deliberately awful American movies ever made. Having survived 15,400′, it was time to see how it felt to go a bit higher.

Copper Canyon

Climb out in the afternoon
Climb out in the afternoon

Or, “Gueros getting serious about fitness tourism.”

With some time to kill between sunrise and when auto shop opened, we naturally decided to do a few intervals. A bit of panning around on Google Maps showed some roads unlikely to have too many cars or dogs, we suited up and went our separate ways. Not having planned to run on this trip, I had brought neither real shorts nor headphones, so I had to make do with zipping off the legs of my hiking pants and taking in the “scenery” as I ran northeast out of town past a gravel yard and who-knows-what else.

Afterward, we took the van over to the mechanic, who ran a somewhat bigger and better-equipped shop than the last one. Sensing people who would pay promptly, he got right on it, attaching a pressure gage to the engine block, pulling on some wire to rev the throttle a few times, letting the van run for a bit, then plugging some hand-held device into the diagnostic port. His diagnosis: “fuel pump; should be fixed in a couple of hours.” After killing more time at the hotel, we returned about two hours later to find the van already fixed and parked on a side street. Total cost: $100, or only slightly more than places in the US sometimes try to charge simply to read the diagnostic port.

Headed north again, we returned to the southern outskirts of Chihuahua, then headed west to Cuauhtemoc, passing the time listening to Bach, PDQ and otherwise. Just as we were extracting ourselves from the center of town, the van momentarily lost power — not the total death we had experienced before, but a sort of “hiccup” like a bubble in the fuel line or something. Since Cuauhtemoc is basically the “end of civilization,” we returned to downtown to consider our options. There were almost certainly buses from Cuauhtemoc to Creel, our gateway to Copper Canyon, but we didn’t know their schedule, where the bus depot was in town, or where we could find some internet. After some indecision on my part, we passive-aggressively psyched each other up to take the “stupid” option and power on to Creel in the van. What’s the worst that could happen? We rolled on, through acres of apple orchards filled with wood-fired barrels to protect the blossoms against frost.

Turning off the divided highway at La Junta, we passed a caravan of tanker trucks being inspected by the state police, toting a truly Mexican number of large and fierce-looking guns. The van gave an occasional kick from time to time, but mostly behaved itself as we headed southwest and climbed into the Sierra Madre. After days spent in various un-scenic varieties of desert, it was a pleasant change to begin passing through terrain resembling the Gila of southwest New Mexico, with broad grassy plains, pine trees, and even a shapely volcanic plug.

San Juanito at its best (morning)
San Juanito at its best (morning)
We passed through rolling forest, over an 8,000-foot pass, and down into smoking, ruined hellscape of San Juanito. It was quittin’ time, and dead-eyed men sat along the streets next to the bodegas and crumbled buildings, drinking beer or just watching the passing traffic. It was cool at night at this elevation, and smoke from people’s wood stoves created a gloomy haze over the town.
Serving San Juanito's liquor and FUD needs
Serving San Juanito’s liquor and FUD needs
A pickup truck full of bored-looking local cops pulled in front of us, then fortunately turned off on a side street.

Central Creel
Central Creel
Reaching the outskirts of Creel, the GPS misdirected us off on some side street, taking us through the seedier side of the city, and we briefly worried that we might be looking for lodging in San Juanito’s sister city. Fortunately, tourism supports a clean, well-lit, and safe-feeling area near Creel’s city center. We had hoped to stay in the incredibly cheap and well-appointed hostel, but it was full of Mexican tourists for Holy Week, so we were forced into a “costly” ($25/night) hotel behind a canned goods store. This was a luxury establishment, with four layers of wool blankets on each bed, and a “calefactor” for our calefaccion.

Creel's main street
Creel’s main street
After dropping some stuff in the room, we went touring the downtown in search of things to cook on my camp-stove (and also next to the “calefactor”). Though the town was clearly swarming with tourists, we seemed to be the only gueros, which made us feel a bit out-of-place.
For all your calefaction needs
For all your calefaction needs
The local Mexican and Tarahumara vendors didn’t seem to make a distinction, with one offering apples, beef jerky, and peyote. On our way back to the store, we passed a Mexican army truck rolling slowly down the street with the rest of the traffic. It was everything you would expect: four men sitting in the bed with assault rifles, and one manning a roof-mounted machine gun, all wearing helmets, bullet-proof vests, and camo balaclavas. I’m not sure if it should have been reassuring or not; none of the other tourists paid them much attention.

Creel seems to be trying to promote itself as a place for mountain biking, so the next day I headed down the street to start the next part of the “fitness tourism” agenda by renting a bike (Mike had brought his own, of course). The rental place had plenty of more-or-less maintained and usable bikes for a reasonable price, but convincing the guy to rent me one took some doing. He needed his entire cycle-herd for a large family the next day, and needed mine back in good condition by 6:00 that evening. I foolishly told him we wanted to transport it in a private vehicle — ¡tu romperlo! — then ride to Batopilas — ¡no es possible! — and barely made it out the door after giving him my passport and swearing to have it back in good shape.

Cliffs and abandoned house
Cliffs and abandoned house
From Creel to the gorge containing Batopilas, the two-lane road winds in and out of canyon after canyon, many over 1,000 feet deep, past white cliffs and hoodoos poking out of the pine forest. Though as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon area is not a single, awesome hole in the ground, but a maze of plateaus with deeply-cut canyons running between them. The road, well-paved and almost entirely free of traffic even while Creel was full of tourists, would make an excellent road bike tour.

Descending a larger canyon
Descending a larger canyon
Looking at the surrounding country, we saw how the Creel area had acquired its supposedly-excellent network of singletrack bike trails: generations of Tarahumara, walking from house to house, had worn foot-paths along the valleys and across the mesas. We saw a number of them as we drove, the men wearing the universal uniform of blue jeans and button-down shirts, the women mostly in the traditional full, colorful skirts and blouses. Most had large shawls over their shoulders, which they used to carry both possessions and children. Some were walking comfortably along the trails, but most were simply sitting by the side of the road, miles from the nearest town or house. They didn’t seem to be trying to sell anything or hitch-hike; I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish.

Our plan was to drive to where things “get interesting”, either at the edge of the big canyon or where the road deteriorated to dirt, then bike the rest of the way to Batopilas and back. I had expected the pavement to end at a certain intersection, but it continued for miles beyond. Near the edge of the main canyon it started to become potholed enough to be annoying to drive, so we parked at a dirt pull-out around 6,900 feet and started riding.

Up from 3,100 feet
Up from 3,100 feet
After a bit of gently rolling, thoroughly-potholed tarmac along the rim, the still-paved road plummets in just five miles to the river at 3,100 feet. Though relatively new, the road is poorly-designed, and was frequently reduced to one lane by piles of fallen rock. My El Cheapo rental bike’s brakes weren’t all they should be, so I had to be a bit cautious; Mike gamely took it easy. At the river, we found a somewhat lackadaisical construction crew and some large Caterpillar equipment apparently working on a new bridge. The old one, a sketch-ball looking wooden thing, looked more suitable for the old one-lane dirt road than the new paved one.

From the bridge to Batopilas, the river drops 1,100 feet in only 16 miles. So does the road, but via an endless series of rollers rather than a smooth descent. We passed a few natives hanging out or walking along the road, and, across the river and on the hillside above, we saw the occasional foot trail leading to an isolated home, but the canyon was surprisingly quiet. The pavement degraded to chip-seal, then finally ended a couple of miles short of town.

Impressive mystery-building
Impressive mystery-building
After passing an amazing and well-maintained building that might have been a hotel or a monastery, we crossed a final bridge to reach the outskirts of Batopilas.

Batopilas bridge
Batopilas bridge
Mindful of the need to return my bike by 6:00, I had been riding fairly hard down the canyon, and only paused briefly for a couple photos to prove we were there before turning around for the grim slog home.
Downriver to Batopilas
Downriver to Batopilas
This was fitness tourism, and it was time for type II fun, not sight-seeing. The day had been blessedly overcast, but it was still hot some 5,000 feet below the rim, and that began to get to me on the rolling climb back along the river. I had no power on some of the steeper rollers, and shamefully even stopped on a couple to cool off before crawling back into the pain cave. We passed more Tarahumara on the side of the road, and a road crew of four slowly clearing away one of the many rockfall piles with shovels. At the rate they were going, they could remain fully employed indefinitely, clearing the last 20+ miles of road to Batopilas at the rate of a couple dozen feet per day.

Resting (yet again)
Resting (yet again)
I hoped that the weakness would pass if I drank more water and kept up a moderate pace, but a 6:00 return looked impossible. I finally convinced an increasingly-bored Mike to take off at his own pace, fetch the car, and meet me on the climb out. That turned out to be every bit as bad as I had expected, a slow, grim accumulation of vertical feet in units of 250, with rest stops between each of these weakness-induced “intervals.” With unlimited time I could have made it back to the car by dark, but would almost certainly have had to play “giardia roulette” with one of the roadside streams, as I ran out of water some 2,000 feet below the rim (and had not been saving my own urine).
Burros along the climb
Burros along the climb
On the good side, this unpleasant process gave me an excuse to take a few pictures.

Sunset on the way out
Sunset on the way out
I timed things just right, mounting up for another 250-foot push just seconds before Mike drove around a bend. I tossed the bike in the back and collapsed in the passenger’s seat, and Mike began rallying the van — to the extent that’s possible — back to Creel. I took some decent evening photos of the scenery through the window, but stopping was not an option. At 5:55, we pulled up 50 yards short of the rental place, and I “triumphantly” pedaled across the street to give the surprised rental guy his precious bike. Then it was time to shower and visit the grocery store for chorizo, eggs, and vegetables to make an extra-large pot of nutrient glop.

Jimenez

Or, “Dr. Dirtbag loses to Mexico, part 2.”

[This part was not photogenic, though the next was. — ed.]

Finding our way out of Chihuahua late in the morning, we calculated that we would arrive in Toluca after midnight, but that with some possibly ill-advised late-night driving, we could still nearly stick to our original plan. (On hearing that we gueros were headed to Mexico, one of Pablo’s friends advised us to never drive at night, and to run over anyone manning a blockade who was not obviously one of the Federales. But we were running out of options.) From Chihuahua, Mexican highway 45 heads southeast through Delicia to Jimenez, leaving the truly barren desert for something more like the area around Las Cruces, including regular arrays of pecan trees.

We were feeling rushed, but optimistic: with only a day’s drive to Toluca, the Ford with the ghetto fuel injector was running well. But at the last toll plaza before Jimenez, the van once again died. Mike paid the slightly impatient lady in the booth, then mercilessly flogged the starter until the car was able to keep running long enough to limp into the parking lot. We had found another good place to break down, but were even more doomed.

Finding no payphone nearby, we milled around aimlessly. To avoid the heat, I took over a recently-vacated covered table. One of the previous occupants returned with a rag to clean it off and, impressed by my obvious guerosity, tried out his limited English. I sort-of explained our situation, and he immediately broke off his poor son’s surreptitious make-out session to ask that he take a look at our van. The son asked a few questions, tasted some oil in the coolant water, and declared that we were in bad shape.

Fortunately we were at a full-featured toll booth, with some kind of semi-official Chihuahuan aid station across the road. After waiting for some Federales to finish a photo shoot against the mountain backdrop (flashing lights, puffed-out chests, etc.), we scampered across the highway to ask for help. One of the men at the aid station lent us his cell phone, and after some back-and-forth with the insurance company, and a long, very awkward period trying to use our combined few hundred words of Spanish to make small-talk with men knowing only a few dozen words of English, we drove the van onto another tow truck.

This one was immaculate and modern compared to the last, driven by a father-son team who knew a bit of English. The son was even studying programming, so I tried to encourage him to stick with it. The aid station chief had recommended a particular mechanic in Jimenez, and the tow truck driver agreed, pointing him out as we drove into town. The mechanic was closed for the day, and there didn’t seem to be much to do in Jimenez, so we settled into a surprisingly-empty hotel with internet to consider our options.

While most things in Mexico are cheap, including fuel pump replacements, the dozen or so replacements it would require to reach Mexico City would add up, not to mention taking more time than we had. Being my usual pessimistic self, I was leaning toward either making a run for the border in Mike’s van, or setting it on fire, fleeing back to the US, and claiming the insurance. However, Mike suggested another option: a detour to Copper Canyon on the way back from a shorter trip. We had deliberately skipped the canyon, partly because it was out of the way and partly because the State Department suggested that going there was a bad idea. But at this point, it seemed no riskier than the Chihuahuan barrio, and preferable to utter defeat. If the car took multiple days to repair, we could seemingly get there by (many hours of) bus. If repairs went quickly, we might even be able to coax the van an extra few hundred miles on the way home.

It was early, we were bored, and Jimenez is not exactly a happening place, so we turned to the Iternets for entertainment. I had never seen “The Three Amigos” in its entirety and, amazingly, it turned up on YouTube. It was the perfect movie to watch at the time: a cornball 1980s Steve Martin comedy full of Mexican stereotypes, made even better with Spanish subtitles. Laugh now, and deal with life in the morning.