Mexico's Lady in White: A Traverse of Ixtacihuatl

By Jerry Fine with photos by Lee Waite
The Climb: Day 2:
Monday:Swirling Snowflakes. Knowing Lee, one can almost bet that he slept well. Knowing Jerry, one can know that he didn't. Jerry had to make several trips outside during the night, and walked as far away from the camp as was decent before relieving himself. This was definitely no fun. He would lie there, feeling the urge coming on, and wondering how long before he had to brave the elements. Sleep was hard under these conditions.

Sunrise on Ixta with Orizaba in the distance
The two heroes were late in getting up. The camp was stirring and Mexicans were leaving by the time they were up and lighting the stove for some breakfast. Everything seemed to take a long time. Breakfast was oatmeal, and was accompanied by coffee and cocoa. Lee did most of the cooking. Jerry packed up the stuff inside the tent while Lee went off to make some pictures from the top of the nearby ridge. In the early morning light he looked off towards the rising sun in the east. He could see the volcano Orizaba, (18,700') far off in the distance, rising from the haze covering the Valley of Puebla.

The upper mountain was clear. We could now see the somewhat intimidating route in front of us. The climb went up a steep field of scree to the Lopez Mateos Hut. The route then seemed to climb up broken rocks to the crest of the knees where another hut, made in an igloo shape, was visible. Beyond that, we could see nothing.

Boy, we were slow. It was probably close to 9 am when we hoisted our packs onto our shoulders and started up the trail. Strangely, we felt pretty good. Shortly after starting we realized we had too much on, so stopped to take off a layer. After that we seemed to ascend rapidly. As we neared the Lopez Mateos hut we were greeted by a strange sight. A climber was approaching, accompanied by his pooch, a low slung Basset hound type, wearing a nice doggy jacket against the cold. Upon inquiry we were told that the dog's name was "Anser". Anser was pretty demoralizing to be around since he was running up and down the mountain like crazy, completely unaffected by the altitude.

We carried on. There was a significant amount of sliding around in the scree. Carrying over 40 pounds on the back does not help get traction. Finally we got to a snowy area and put on the crampons, but not long after that we reached an area of the ridge where Class III scrambling was definitely called for. (This means a bit of hand and foot climbing.) This was the steepest place on the mountain, as we approached the knees weaving our way between cliff bands. The trail was easy to follow. Once Anser shot between Jerry's legs. Heck of a mountain climber, that Anser.

After leaving camp on day 2 we could see Popocatapetl in the background
After breaking out of the cliffy area the trail heads straight up the slope towards the knees. We followed it slowly, definitely feeling the altitude. By about 11:30 or so, we had pulled up alongside the igloo hut on the knees of Ixta. It had taken us well over 2 hours to climb this 1000 ft segment. We were very excited to see the upper mountain open out in front of us. To our left we could see that the trail followed along a ridge towards a snow plateau in the distance. Even further back was a higher plateau, which we took to be the Breast Glacier or the true summit.

The hut was really in poor shape. It did give us shelter while we had a long lunch and wondered what to do. Our original plan had been to go for the summit that afternoon, and to camp that night on the summit plateau. We were then going to return to this hut, and descend to traverse the western side of the mountain below the snowline. This idea seemed less appetizing now. One Mexican that we talked to said that it was not dangerous to ascend the neck if we wanted to go down that way. This suggestion was like a planted seed. Anyway, we did decide to go on to the summit that afternoon.

Lunch was lots of pepperoni, candy, tortillas and cheese. It was probably nearing one p.m. when the two partners descended from the hut to a low saddle and then set out to follow the trail to the top. After about 15 minutes Lee started having troubles with his crampons coming off. We were on alternating patches of snow and scree. In retrospect the crampons probably were not needed. But we both seemed to think that they were, and finally, at one point along the trail Lee decided he was going to get those crampons on or die trying. We were there for an hour almost. It must have been the altitude, but we both felt really clumsy. Lee would fix the crampons, and then they would pop off again. In the meantime, the weather was getting cold, and cloudy, and finally a light snow began to fall.

At some point, Lee did get his crampons fixed and so off we went, trying to warm up after being so long in one place. The weather was worsening. Some Mexicans we met returning from the summit asked us about our plans. When we reassured them that we were completely equipped for high altitude camping, they went on.

The trail finally gained the crest of a ridge, but we could see nothing now, except swirling snow on either side of us. The ridge was not steep and the footing was pretty good so we kept on. The snow increased rapidly in intensity, and we stopped to discuss our options. There seemed to be two choices. Head back to the knees or camp where we were. The ridge seemed to be broken by some pinnacles which we could barely see through the snow. There seemed to be a ledge or flat place down off the ridge crest to our right. On inspection, we declared it to be a completely suitable campsite, safe from avalanches and rockfall.

There's no place like home

The snow was about ankle deep and coming down heavily. The wind was brisk and our climbers were very tired and slightly hypothermic. We feverishly pitched the tent, looking about for rocks to help us anchor it. Lee fished the stove out to light it, and there our troubles began. The butane cigarette lighter that we had just would not function at this altitude, which we estimate to have been around 16,700 ft. We found some damp matches, but they often lost their heads when struck, and did nothing to help us. Finally, Prof. Waite, violating every rule of safety known to campers, used the flint from the butane lighter to land a spark directly in a puddle of gasoline to get the stove going. The gasoline barely ignited when the spark hit it, but ignite it did. Ah, that was nice.

Supper was a kind of noodle dish. There was a lot of coffee brewed also. Once, during a brief clearing we could see some people on another ridge parallel to ours across the snow filled valley to the east of our roost. Then the clouds and snow closed in again. In the meantime, Dr. Waite showed his associate, Dr. Fine, one of the nicest tricks ever. He heated a fairly large rock next to the stove, and when it was toasty, he wrapped it in an extra knit cap and handed it to Dr. Fine, inviting him to put it next to his feet in his sleeping bag. This was bliss. Jerry's feet had been cold and damp. Lee made another hot rock for himself, and then turned off the stove. For a while the two partners lay there, and between gasps for air, chuckled about their cleverness. It was a memorable day. If you have never been truly cold, you can not imagine the pleasure of a warm rock against cold feet inside a very warm sleeping bag at the end of such a day.

Around sunset there was a brief clearing, and we saw that we were still some distance from the upper summit area. We took some compass bearings just in case, and then settled in for the evening. Lee read his book again. Jerry tried to sleep. It was a tough proposition. His bladder was even more hyperactive than the previous evening. Lee was sleeping so soundly that he didn't seem bothered by the nightly excursions. Several times, Jerry went out to a completely clear night with more stars than he could ever remember seeing.


Day 1

Day 3 - summit day

Day 4

After the Climb

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Copyright 1997 by Lee Waite and Jerry Fine
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