By Jerry Fine with photos by Lee Waite
The Climb: Day 1: Sunday:
-Nos dejo plantados. When we awakened at around 5:30 am, the rain had stopped. We dressed quickly. Our packs had been completely made up the night before, so we left the room quietly and went down to the courtyard to await the arrival of the cab. The morning broke with a high gray overcast. We sat around listening to the early morning sounds, awaiting the most welcome sound of the approaching taxi. But it did not come. We were most irritated by this unwelcome hitch in our plans. We had a long way to hike that day.
Finally about 7 am, Jose Sanchez came out to ask us about our arrangements. We explained that the taxi driver, who claimed to be his nephew but wasn't, had stood us up. "Nos dejo plantados". or "He left us planted". Jose had a jeep and told us that he would drive us to the trail head. Hurrah! We have really grown to trust and like this man over the years. We loaded the jeep, tying the backpacks on top, and putting Dr. Waite in the back seat.
We drove through the back streets of Pueblo Nuevo and then back down the main highway towards Tlalmanalco. We pulled into a Pemex gas station to fill up. While standing around waiting for the attendant, we noticed that the clouds had lifted and Ixtaccihuatl stood completely revealed, against the gun metal gray morning sky. It was really white with snow. Apparently the rain from the previous night had fallen as snow on the upper mountain. We found ourselves pondering what this would mean to us as climbers: probably tough going through knee deep, or even thigh deep drifts. This was our first time to see the peak since reaching Mexico.
After a few quick pictures we got into the jeep and started out. Jerry immediately noticed that Jose was driving back towards San Rafael. Sure enough, he did not understand what trail head we wanted to start at. Jerry explained carefully that we wanted to go to La Joya. To get there we would have to first go to Amecameca and then up to the Paso de Cortes, the saddle between Ixta and Popo. It was here that Cortes and his army crossed the sierra and saw for the first time spread out in front of them the great valley of Mexico.
Jose was still willing to take us so off we went. He showed us the by-pass around Amecameca so we didn't actually go through the town. We reached the familiar road and started up the hill. For the first ten miles or so, the road climbs steadily out of the agricultural zone around the foot of the mountains and into the upland forests. The road switchbacks many times as it climbs, and it was rough. It had been paved at one time, but the higher we got, the worse it became. Lee was getting his head pounded unmercifully on the roof of the jeep as he bounced around in the back seat.
As the road climbs above 11,000 feet, the vegetation thins out into stunted bushes and alpine heather. Nearing the pass of Cortes, we noticed it: snow drifts. Actually, Jose seemed to be pretty good at driving on snow, and so on we went until we finally reached the traffic circle which marks the pass. It is an impressive place. To our left towered Popocatepetl, looming large and lethal in the early morning light. It had been erupting, and was now completely off limits to climbers. It wore a mantle of white. To our right, across the foothills was Ixta. Seen from this angle, straight along the axis of the body, so to speak, the mountain is not as imposing as when seen in profile. But it still looked high, and very steep, very steep. Maybe it was the snow.
The pass itself was snow covered, and was the scene of a nice little traffic jam. A number of Mexicans, some of who looked official, were directing traffic. It looked at first as though they were not going to let us proceed to La Joya. Jerry tried desperately to think whether we could climb the mountain starting from right there. When he had just about decided that it didn't matter, we had to try anyway, a man with a radio said we could go on. Evidently he had been in communication with a man in the parking lot at La Joya, which was completely full of snowed in cars. We had explained that it was just a drop off and we didn't intend to park.
So up the hill we chugged. The road winds up towards the feet climbing several hills and gaining maybe 1500 feet. On the highest of these hills is perched a microwave relay station. Driving over snow in central Mexico is a rare experience. There was definitely some slipping around, but fortunately there was not much traffic. As we approached the turnoff to the relay station the snow was really much deeper. We could go no further. Jose found a flat place to turn around about a mile from La Joya. We off loaded our packs and saddled up. Jerry sighed mentally as 45 pounds now pressed down on his body, at a altitude of 13,000 feet. Lee looked strong and didn't say much. After thanking Jose, and telling him we would be back at the Posada on Thursday at the latest, we set off walking. It was around 8:30 am.
Lee Waite (left) and Jerry Fine at the snack vendor
Actually, the mile or so we had to walk was almost level, so we made very good time. Lots of vehicular traffic had beaten down the snow so it was really easy walking. By 9 am we were at La Joya, the scene of lots of mountaineering activity. We discovered that many Mexicans were on a three day weekend, and had come up and camped. Many tents were in evidence along the hill side. We found the "Socorro Alpino" (Alpine Rescue) truck, and registered our climb. We told them that we would be traversing the mountain, and that we had enough supplies to be out until Thursday night. Jerry signed us up on the register, and got the name of a contact person to call when we got back safe. There was even a snack salesman in the parking lot who sold us two big cups of hot tea, at rather outrageous price. He could speak some English, and wanted to try it on us. Mexicans have to be some of the hardest working and most entrepreneurial people in the world.
It was now time to start. We reshouldered our packs and started climbing. The route starts straight up the steep hillside above La Joya, aimed at the crest of a ridge, which seemed to be lined with cliffs. It was a real grunt, and both Jerry and Lee commented on the saneness of people who do this kind of thing. After gaining a few hundred feet, the trail slants off to the climber's left, traversing along below the ridge crest, and climbing much more slowly. It was here that we began to pick up some rhythm and start to make good time. We needn't have worried about the trail. It had already been well stomped down by the passage of dozens of climbers.
Eventually, the trail reached the crest of the ridge, at a kind of notch, and we saw that we would have to scramble up a pile of rocks to go on. A person was sitting around at the base of the rocks. Getting closer we could see that it was a woman. After addressing her in Spanish, it became apparent that she wasn't Mexican. We shifted to English and she told us her story. She was a Canadian, an Eskimo would you believe. Her boyfriend was somewhere up on the mountain, but she was headed down. We took her picture, and drank heavily of our water supply. A strange meeting.
Scrambling up and gaining the crest of the ridge we continued onward towards the mountain, slowly but steadily. The trail actually stayed a bit below the ridge crest on the western side. At around 10 am we came to a little saddle, next to a really huge boulder. Numerous Mexicans were sitting around chatting, so we stopped to socialize for a while. It appeared that the trail crossed the saddle lost some altitude, and then started traversing towards the feet.
On we went. Finding the trail was no problem. We saw many climbers ahead of us. Soon the trail appeared to head up a fairly steep gully, with the feet on our right, towering over us. Here was the first steep climbing. The footing was a mixture of snow and scree, and it really was not bad. We were capable of doing it, and we didn't try to rush it. We fell into a steady slog, up the trail which had short switchbacks. We could see the top of the gully, which ended in a saddle with a pinnacle on the left and a steep ridge up towards the feet on the right.
When we gained the saddle, we stopped to catch our breath, literally. The whole southern side of the mountain now stood revealed. Behind the pinnacles on our left, the ground fell away sharply. Directly in front of us was the main ridge that we would be following, which connects the knees with the feet. We could see that the trail traversed beneath the feet to gain this ridge at a low place called "El Portillo".
We carried on, mushing along through the snow, counting our blessings that the Mexicans had broken trail so nicely. Speaking of Mexicans, we fell in with a lot of them for this leg of the trip. Strangely, many of them were carrying lumber and other construction materials. They said something about a hut being built. Based on this leg of the climb, one could say that two fairly in shape American climbers from Indiana carrying 40-50 pounds can barely keep up with a Mexican climber carrying 80 pounds of boards at 14,000 feet. We got to the Portillo at noon and stopped for lunch.
We didn't really feel that bad, just a bit tired and intimidated. As we sat lunching at the Portillo, the sun started flirting with us, hiding behind clouds from time to time. We could definitely see that the afternoon would be cloudier. We nibbled on pepperoni, tortillas, cheese, and candy. Naturally, we kept pleading with each other to drink more water. Not just for acclimatization, but also we hoped to lighten our packs.
Leaving the Portillo, Jerry stopped to help a Mexican tie on his boards. Struggling with the intricate knots, in the chilly thin air, he became aware that he had a little headache and felt mildly dizzy. We now proceeded up the ridge, which was not all that steep, just long. The trail now had shifted over to the eastern side, so we could have looked over towards Puebla, and the Gulf of Mexico, if there hadn't been so many clouds.
It was just breathe-step, breathe-step, on and on as the early afternoon went by. We passed a few other climbers, and other climbers passed us. Some time around 3 pm. the trail laboriously gained the ridge crest again, and climbed to a knob on the ridge. We looked down on the other side of the knob and saw the Republica de Chile hut. It was the end of our hiking day. We had reached the altitude of 15,585 ft.
The first thing we noticed is that there were a large number of people already present. There were a couple of dozen tents at least. The new hut was in the earlier stages of construction. We could see them just starting to erect the frame. It looked at first like every square inch of level ground would be occupied, but as we walked down the slope the last few yards into camp, a very obvious tent site became visible right next to the trail. Someone had pitched a tent there earlier; you could see the snow packed down. But the nearby Mexicans assured us that it was "desocupado" and so we plopped our stuff down.
It would have been nice to rest, but we were cold. The afternoon was cloudy, and there was no sun to be seen. We started by pitching our tent. This took a lot out of us. Jerry felt his headache really coming on as he helped Lee with the tent. We moved our stuff inside and started to set up the stove for cooking. Lee was really feeling bad this time, so he got into his sleeping bag while Jerry did the cooking. There was some cajun rice and beans and some Ramen noodles, along with plenty of hot drinks: rounds of coffee and cocoa, as well as tea. Jerry went far away from the camp to get snow for melting, but when you have that many people hanging around, you really have to watch out for yellow snow, etc.
As we were doing these things, the Mexican construction gang worked on. At one point they even borrowed Jerry's ice axe for a while. We were camped in the middle of a busy construction site. At about 6 it got dark and we started settling down for the night in our sleeping bags. More groups of lumber haulers were still coming down the trail into camp. The trail by this time was quite icy. So the Mexicans already in camp would yell out, "Hey. The trail is very slippery. Do not step on the trail. Step on the snow." After much hulabaloo, things would settle down a bit. In the background a guitar (!!) was strumming and well aclimatized Mexicans were singing. We lay in our sleeping bags, panting, and wondering about sleep. Lee read his book by flashlight. Then, "Hey. The trail is very slippery. Do not step on the trail, etc." Another group of carriers had arrived. Finally we slept.
Day 3 - summit day
After the Climb
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Copyright 1997 by Lee Waite and Jerry
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