Mexico's Lady in White: A Traverse of Ixtacihuatl

By Jerry Fine with photos by Lee Waite

Ixtacihuatl - the Lady in White

Ixtacihuatl is a snow capped peak of volcanic origin located in central Mexico. With its neighbor, the imposing volcano Popocatepetl, it dominates the eastern end of the valley of Mexico, rising from the valley floor at about 8000 feet above sea level, to a height of 17,343 feet. The mountain, as seen from Mexico City, has the form of a sleeping woman covered in white. The meaning of its name in the Nauhatl language is "white woman". It consists of a long North South ridge, having well defined features associated with the feet, the knees, the belly, and the breast, which is the true summit. The breast and the head, a striking rock peak of rounded form, are separated by a col identified as the neck. Ixta, as the peak may be called, is the third highest mountain in Mexico, and the seventh highest in North America.

The mountain is climbed often by Mexican enthusiasts, as well as a handful of foreigners. There is an easy route to the top starting from just below the feet, which involves only scree sliding, small amounts of rock scrambling, and snow plodding. Other more difficult routes have also been climbed on the mountain.

Jerry Fine first saw Ixtaccihuatl in March of 1969. He was taken along on a trip to climb the three high mountains of Mexico, Popocatepetl, Ixtaccihuatl, and Pico de Orizaba, by two mountain climbing friends from Rice University. The team was successful on Popocatepetl, but failed to reach the summit on Ixta, on a long route which started at the feet, traversed the mountain at low elevation, and then climbing directly to the breast. Jerry's memory is hazy, but he thinks that they finally gave up about a thousand feet below the top.

In 1983 Jerry returned to Mexico with a strong team of friends, including his next door neighbor in Austn, Texas, Jerry Carlman, with whom he had climbed Pico de Orizaba the year before. However, after a climb of Popocatepetl, the two Jerrys were too tired to attempt Ixtacihuatl.

By 1988, Jerry Fine was living in Indiana, and suffering from a lot of knee pain. He had arthroscopic surgery to correct the problem, and as part of the rehabilitation process, started exercising to get in shape. Naturally, he told Lee Waite, his exercise partner, (and best friend on the faculty at Rose-Hulman) about his exploits climbing the peaks of Mexico, and somehow the idea of a trip to knock off Ixta was conceived. Jerry and Lee were joined by Jerry Carlman, and another friend from Austin, Alan Marks. The idea was to climb Ixta by approaching the neck from the village of San Rafael, and then climbing the so-called Ridge of Light to the summit. The trip took place during the first week of January, 1989. Together, the four climbers reached the Chalchoapan hut, about 1000 feet below the neck, but were unable to continue due to a number of factors: weakness of Jerry Fine, lots of steep ice on the neck, lack of rope for belaying, and intimidation by the mountain and altitude in general. One bright spot on the trip was the inn that the team stayed at in San Rafael, just before and after the climb. The Posada Familiar Yuri is a really neat, out of the way Mexican guest house with clean rooms, good food, and great hospitiality.

During the 1992-1993 academic year, Jerry went on sabbactical and worked in Austin, Texas. He and Jerry Carlman saw a lot of each other, and soon decided to launch another attempt on Ixtachihatl, this time using the conventional route starting from the feet. After being completely out of shape for several years, Jerry Fine had started exercising by running in September 1992, prior to making the trip in March of `93. He took his training a lot more seriously than on previous trips. The two partners rented a car in Mexico City and drove to the Tlamacas lodge high on the side of Popocatepetl, where they spent the night. Instead of pausing to acclimatize, since both of them felt good, they began climbing from the trailhead at La Joya towards the knees at 5 am. By 11 am they had reached the Republica de Chile Hut at 15, 585 feet. Not long after moving into the hut, Jerry Carlman, who had been complaining of mountain sickness decided that the problem was bad enough to require a retreat. The Jerrys passed a pleasant few days at the Posada Familiar before returning to Mexico City and home. So ended the attempt, but not Jerry Fine's determination to climb the mountain.

By 1995, Jerry and Lee Waite both back from sabbatical had become serious running partners at Rose-Hulman putting in 15 to 20 miles a week. At some point during the summer the subject of Ixta was raised in a serious way. Lee inquired of his travel agent, and found very cheap fares. The tickets were bought and the trip was on.

During the fall our heroes trained even more strenously, frequently averaging over 20 miles per week at better than 8 minutes per mile pace, and adding stair climbing and hiking with heavy packs to the work out regime. In early Novermber they ran in the intramural cross country race covering 2.25 miles in less than 16:30. On Thursday, morning, November 16, 1995, the partners met at Lee's house at around 8 am. After Jerry and Lee made a last minute errand to Rose-Hulman, Ruth delivered them to Turner Coaches in south Terre Haute to catch the limousine to the Indy Airport. The trip was on!

Getting to the Mountain The limousine trip was a bit nerve wracking. Jerry discovered the camera he had brought was definitely inoperative. The limousine, actually a travel van, had strange vibrations, and made a lengthy side trip into Greencastle to pick up another passenger. Some anxiety about getting to the airport on time was felt. On reaching the airport about 45 minutes prior to flight time, they checked in at Continental Airlines for the flight to Houston without trouble and made it to the gate. Other Rose-Hulman people on the flight included the basketball team, and math prof Aaron Klebanoff, his wife Karen, and son Davis.

The DC-9 flight to Houston left on time and was a pleasant one. We read, dozed and ate the lunch provided. After deplaning at Intercontinental Airport in Houston with about 2 hours until the Mexico departure, Jerry and Lee decided on yet another lunch, and had barbeque sandwiches at a food court. Lee bought another paperback, about the Ebola Reston incident. The Boeing 737 flight to Mexico was also smooth, and a dinner was served, but as the plane approached Mexico, Jerry noted that there was an unusual amount of cloudiness, with none of the high peaks being visible.

Immigration and customs were rapidly passed and the partners were adopted by a very persistent Mexican cab driver, who in spite of a few mild rebuffs, was determined to drive them to their hotel. After changing about $100 worth of dollars into pesos, and loading the gear into the cab, they were driven through the fascinating maze of crowded streets inot the center of Mexico City. After an impromtu detour to avoid a demonstration of striking transit workers, we reached the Hotel Isabel in the heart of the historic district. The time was about 6 pm.

The reservations had been made in advance. We found the hotel to be very old and shabby looking. When we checked in and paid 90 pesos for the two of us for one night, the clerk claimed not to have the ten pesos change. We told him we would pick it up later, and took the tiny elevator, which was pretty well filled with us and our gear, up to the third floor, where our room was located. We found the room to be clean, with a high ceiling, and also a high window opening over the street. After setting dwon our packs, Lee stretched out to read for a while. Jerry set out to try to telephone Nabor Castillo, a guide in Mexico City who had wanted to meet us.

The phone in the room did not work. Another phone, at a table in the hall, was continuously busy with any attempt to get an outside line. So Jerry set out through the neighborhood of the hotel to look for a pay phone. It had rained lightly and the streets were shining. He finally found a phone in a store a couple of blocks from the hotel, but no one answered at Nabor's number. Jerry went back to the room, took two aspirin for his headache. Lee got up and suggested an excursion so the partners walked for a few blocks in the vicinity of the hotel, an area in which art and stationary stores abounded. We bought some candy and dried fruit in a store and then went back to the hotel through a downpour. At the hotel we found a pay phone in the lobby and kept trying Nabor's number with no one home. We gave up on the guy. Lee ate a late supper in the hotel dining room, (very cheap!) while Jerry just had a glass of beer. Finally to bed around 10:30 , where we slept pretty well in spite of a major thunderstorm. Most unusual weather for Mexico in Novermber.

The next morning, Friday, we were up before 7 am and had breakfast in the hotel dining room. We had bananas among other things, since we wanted to boost our potassium levels. The clientele of the hotel was not out in force, just a couple of young ladies from Europe. The hotel Isabel is definitely for the international back pack set. We got a hotel cab to the TAPO bus station. The cab was unofficial since the driver asked us to pay him before we reached the station, out of sight of any taxi police.

The bus station is immense. But it wasn't hard to find the area which has departures to the Amecameca area. We paid about 35 cents apiece for tickets to Tlalmanalco. As we were getting on the bus a policeman was frisking the passengers and looking into their luggage. Fortunately when he came to us, he was daunted by the immensity of his task and left us alone.

The bus ride took us through a maze of streets and then onto Calzada Ignacio Zaragoza which becomes the expressway leading out of Mexico City to the east. There were several stops to pick up passengers and soon the bus, a very comfortable modern one, was full of people. The trip seemed to go quickly and after the bus turned off the big highway at Chalco, we heard a guitarrist warming up, and sure enough, there was live music. The musician later passed around the hat, and we dropped in a few pesos.

Getting off the bus in Tlalmanalco was a bit dicey because of the crowding. We had the two packs and two duffel bags in the overhead racks. Jerry said politely, in his best Spanish, -Excuse me, gentlemen, but I must lower these bundles. Everyone was very cooperative, and by 10 am we were standing in the sun on a street corner in Tlalmanalco watching the bus drive away. Jerry went in search of a cab, found one, and soon everything was loaded and we were off to Pueblo Nuevo, a village about 5 miles further up into the mountains. Salvador, the driver, knew exactly where the Posada Familiar Yuri was located, in fact he claimed to be a nephew of the owner. Later on, Jose Sanchez vigorously disputed this claim. Believing Salvador to be reliable, we talked to him about the possibility of driving us to the trailhead at La Joya. After agreeing to a price, he agreed to pick us up at 6 am on Sunday morning in a suitable vehicle.

The Posada Familiar Yuri

Actually, we were expected. Our letter mailed two months earlier, asking for information, reservations, and so on had arrived the previous day. We were met by La Senora (Mrs. Sanchez) and soon installed in our old room from 1989. She brought us sandwiches for lunch and we relaxed and read for several hours, feeling very content at how smoothly our arrangements were proceeding. By 1 pm we were hiking up the main boulevard towards San Rafael. Passing through the town and heading uphill steadily, we found the old road leading up into the mountains.

We hiked at an easy pace, feeling a little of the 9000 feet of elevation. We stopped and bought some bananas and tangerines which we munched on as we walked. Our goal was to find the side road which leads most directly to Nexcoalanco, an important way station for climbers on the way to Chalchoapan, the head, and the neck. We had missed this road on the 1989 trip and wandered through a maze of logging trails before finding Nexcoalanco. But the 1993 trip, in which this road was used twice, plus Lee's excellent memory of the return in 1989 made finding the right road a snap. We hiked up this steep jeep road through the forest for about 30 minutes before turning back. Nexcoalanco was on the agenda for the next day.

In the meantime, there were errands to perform. We walked back to San Rafael and found a big wedding just ending at the church. We hopped into a collectivo (commuter cab) for the trip back down the hill. Stops were made to buy purified water, some extra food items, and unleaded gas for our stove. By 5 pm we were back at our inn, taking our ease, and greeting our host, Jose Sanchez. The shower was working and the water was hot! The only trouble was that there was no seat on the toilet. One can't have all the luxuries on these trips.

Dinner that night, served like all meals, was in our room. It was extremely tasty, pork chops with a chile and mushroom sauce, shoe string potatoes, beans and tortillas. We were also served, as an appetizer, sandwiches with beans, cheese and mayonnaise! An usual treat. We had good appetites and settled into bed to read and chat at an early hour.

The next morning we kind of laid around until breakfast which served at 8:30. We filled the day pack with a pepperoni sausage, some tortillas, fruit and a couple of liters of water and set off up the hill again. We made stops at a fruit stand for oranges and tangerines, and then at a refreshment stand where we bought two cans of Tecate beer. As we climbed up the trail out of San Rafael we noticed lots of Mexican climbers and hikers on their way up the hill.

We hiked easily, feeling pretty good. We had taken our first dose of Diamox before leaving the Posada, and the only side effect we noticed was a slight tingling in the fingers. As we hiked up the switchbacks of the road we encountered a large group of Mexicans headed straigth up the "tubo" a water conduit that we directly up the hill. They had a boom box playing loudly. Even after the having to do the s-turns we were faster and soon left them and their racket behind. The weather was cool and cloudy. So far we had not seen the summit of our mountain.

Advancing steadily without any lengthy stops we reached Nexcoalanco well before lunch. Its altitude is about 12,000 feet above sea level, and it consists of a large flat area on the side of the mountain where reservoirs for the water supply system have been put in. We found a real tent city of Mexican climbers bound for Chalchoapan and Ixta. After greeting some of the climbers we sat down on the lawn outside the little caretaker's hut to enjoy our lunch.

After lunch we walked around, looking at the reservoirs. In the woods, not far from one of the ponds, we found an isolated spot, behind a little waterfall in a stream, where we hid the beer, to be picked up on our way down the mountain. We then started rapidly off downhill and by mid-afternoon were back at the Posada.

We spend the rest of the afternoon packing our gear into the backpacks for the morrow. We also read, rested, and watched a small television the Sanchez had put in our room. Supper was very tasty, and we hit the hay at an early hour. During the night we heard it begin to rain, first in sprinkles but then a real big time thunderstorm hit the area. It seemed to last a long time.


Day 1

Day 2

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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