Climbing the Mexican Volcanoes
by Steve Bragg
During the summer of 1988, I decided to climb Ixtacihuactl and Popocapetl, a pair of 17,000-foot peaks located a short distance from Mexico City. Ixtacihuactl (Ixta), Popocapetl (Popo) and Orizaba make up the "triple crown" of Mexican climbing, and are used as intermediate-level practice climbsby mountaineers intending to go on to higher climbs in other parts of the world. The peaks are all volcanoes, and offer varying degrees of difficulty, depending on the route selected. I had previously climbed Orizaba and Popo in 1986 with a Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) expedition. Flashbacks are noted in italics.
Paul Randall and Matt Jones were also going on the trip. Bob Cole sent us an informative letter, giving us directions to Amecameca from the Mexico City airport. Bob had climbed Ixta from Amecameca the previous year. Finding one's way out of Mexico City is on a par with crossing the Himalayas in the winter in bare feet, so the information was greatly appreciated. At the end of the letter, he wrote, "Have a good time and don't worry, I have to believe that your chances of avoiding a gang rape by Mexican guerillas, losing every last square inch of Gore-Tex, or being sold into white slavery are at least 50-50."
1986 - Bob Audretsch sent memos to everyone detailing the effects of high-altitude sickness, examined all of our equipment for deficiencies, and was now stomping about the room, teaching us how to "power breath." This is the forcible expulsion of air from one's lungs after every breath. The need for this procedure has always escaped me.
On December 29, Paul arrived with a vast load of equipment. The trouble with owning all kinds of advanced climbing equipment is that you have a compulsion to bring it all with you. After some pruning, our combined loads weighed 148 pounds. It was still too much.
We were up at 4:30 the next morning. Paul had survived a rough night. My neighbor had entertained guests beginning after midnight, and the less-than-soothing strains of "Freebird" had throbbed through the walls to keep him awake.
We met Matt at the airport. Check-in was a game of musical chairs as we were shuttled among various Continental ticket counters. We narrowly made the 70 pounds per person weight limit by shifting gear into our carry-on luggage.
1986 - I arrived at the airport with all my gear stuffed into a single expedition backpack. It was the size of a small dirigible. Everyone else had sensibly divided their gear into several packs. The trip leaders were Bob Audretsch, Charlie Winger, and Dave Derrick. The other climbers were Bob Cole, Debbie Reed, Steve Holonitch, Cindy Carey, and Christina Jude.
Our flight from Denver connected through Houston. A few hours later, we found ourselves descending over the vast expanse of Mexico City, enshrouded in clouds of pollution. Popo and Ixta were clearly visible in the distance, jutting above the smog. There was little snow on either peak.
In the baggage claim area, a red-shirted kid torpedoed about the enclosure, bouncing off the walls, people, and eventually his mother, who corralled him and prevented further damage to the supporting pillars and various concrete abutments.
It was time to rent a car. I had cleverly recorded all important rental information on my Avis Wizard card; the rental clerk stared at it blankly, flipped it over, and painfully read the text, using one finger to underline her position. After 15 minutes of heated negotiations, we established that I did in fact wish to rent a car. Florid hand gestures and abstract facial expressions communicated the type of vehicle and insurance that I wanted. An Avis van then picked us up outside the terminal. Considering a check on traffic to be unmanly, the driver hurled his conveyance into an onrushing stream of traffic, skillfully prodded a taxi into a guard rail, passed in an emergency lane, and sailed over a speed bump at high velocity, meanwhile making liberal use of the horn and his middle finger. The driver parked with a flourish, hauled us out from where we cowered beneath the seats, and hurled our equipment into a heap on the tarmac. Welcome to Mexican driving.
We were given a bare-bones white VW Bug with only 1,500 kilometers on the odometer. We compared the vehicle's storage area to our baggage and burst out laughing. There was no way everything would fit into the car. We jammed Matt into the back seat along with three expedition packs, effectively choking off any chance of his breathing. An occasional death rattle issued from the back seat, but we drowned that out with the noise from the radio. Equipment was stuffed under the seats as well, and the hood could only be closed with the combined weight of two people.
1986 - Nine people were crushed into a VW minibus. Many bags clung to the roof, supported by a tenuous network of frayed cord. We hadn't been on the road a half hour before a police officer stopped us. Dave Derrick and Cindy Carey, our two Spanish-speaking people, argued and gesticulated at length with the officer. I attempted to sneak a photo for posterity, but was restrained by wiser members of the group. We finally handed over a large wad of bills amounting to one dollar and twenty-seven cents, and continued on our way.
I drove, but could see nothing in the rearview mirror except Matt's hairy face, which was held in a vise-like grip by the bulging packs on either side of his head. Since he grew a beard during the trip, a progressively uglier visage stared back at me through the mirror each day.
Bob Cole's directions were excellent. We took Avenue Consulado south from the airport. I nearly smashed the car while examining two local beauties in short skirts near the airport entrance. After looping around briefly to regain a missed turn, we found Zaragoza (Rte. 190) going southeast out of the city. If you see signs directing you toward the city of Puebla, then you're heading in the correct direction. The road lanes are painted so that a VW Bug will exactly fit between the lines. Unfortunately, a large number of buses also inhabit the streets. They swerve across lanes randomly, much as is found in an arcade game.
The extensive use of the horn and detailed imprecations delivered through an open window seem to increase the safety level by making one's presence known to other drivers. Consequently, being a naturally conservative driver who prefers to fit in with the locals, I accelerated wildly across yellow lights and chopped across lanes like a barracuda, leaving a stream of outraged motorists in my wake. Such driving habits are also common in Turkey; during one memorable episode, I was faced with a school bus passing a cement mixer on a bridge, while I approached at about 80 mph. Closing one's eyes tightly while stomping on both the brake and horn with equal pressure are highly effective in avoiding such accidents.
Matt was oblivious to how close his life was to being terminated, and blithely took photos out the rear window of such Mexican oddities as thousands of telephone lines blanketing the telephone poles, advertisements spray painted on people's homes, and piles of trash.
We sailed past the Route 115 turnoff to Amecameca with great authority, and would have unconcernedly driven to the gulf coast if Paul hadn't noticed that the volcanoes were receding. We cut through a toll booth twice and got back onto Route 115, a two-lane road that leads to Amecameca.
We stopped at three Pemex stations to purchase kerosene for the cooking stove, but did not find any. Paul finally bought regular gas at the last station. While waiting for him, I pulled the car up next to the sidewalk and scratched one fender against the curb. With us choking on the fumes emanating from the fuel container balanced between Paul's feet, we cruised past Amecameca with a police car behind us. The police correctly assumed that we were too poor to shake down, and chose not to stop us.
Given the state of Mexican roads, it was surprising to find the turnoff to Tlamacas in the same spot as two years before. We drove 28 kilometers up the steep, winding road to the lodge. On the way, we passed a village where the women washed clothes in the sewer ditches running down either side of the street. The road was lined with wooden stalls from which one could buy various colas and cooked meats.
After passing several picnic areas, we turned into the dusty parking lot just below the Tlamacas lodge. We had traveled 62 miles from the airport.
The Tlamacas lodge is a large hostel with bunk beds, cheap food, and poor service.
1986 - Bob Cole is the reigning world champion in the combined pancake eating and beer swilling competition. He regularly downed six pancakes (for dinner), accompanied by several negro modelo beers. He claimed that this was effective "carbo loading" to build up his energy reserves for future climbs. In reality, this was caused by a gene imbalance for which his parents should be blamed.
Back in the parking lot, we met a climber who said that bandits had accosted him on the hike out from the Las Cruces route on Popo. They had fired two shots into the sand in front of him, and demanded his backpack. Instead of handing it over, he ran down the trail to the lodge, pursued a short ways by the bandits.
We spent our first night in the Ixta parking lot. The area is located about eight miles from the lodge, at the end of a dirt road. On the way in, we drove past three well-fed coyotes who were chewing on a climber's boot.
1986 - Bob Audretsch and I made an exploratory drive to the Ixta parking lot in a rainstorm. Puddles of water churned beneath our wheels as I manhandled the van down the road at high speed. Audretsch peered through the fogged windshield to see if I was driving over a field, or if the road was really this bad. We circled once around the parking lot, didn't see a trailhead, and drove back to the lodge.
The parking lot was composed of volcanic ash, an excellent base for camping. I took the three-season one-man tent, while Matt and Paul piled into the expedition tent. A chorus of coyotes, apparently attempting a strident Wagnerian piece similar to a jammed phonograph recording, kept us awake well into the night.
On December 31, we crawled out of the tents at 3 a.m. I was up sooner than the others, and dropped gravel on their tent and muttered Gregorian chants to annoy them. No one had had much sleep, since we were camping 8,000 feet higher than usual. Most of my night was spent waking up, checking the time, turning over, and falling asleep again.
1986 - Bob Cole and I were sleeping in my expedition tent at 14,000 feet on Orizaba. The next day would put us more than 4,000 feet over our personal altitude records, and we were rather nervous about it. Bob was stretched out as rigid as a corpse, with his arms crossed like King Tut. He said, "Okay, we've got to get some sleep. That's it now, no more talking." I complied by drifting off to sleep. After a few minutes, he said, "I'm really excited about this climb..." I stuffed toilet paper into my ears and passed out. Bob stayed awake the entire night.
We rolled up the tents and packed them into inconspicuous places in the car, since this parking lot had a reputation for theft. We put one tent into the engine compartment. After a gourmet breakfast of broken crackers, moldy cheese, and summer sausage, we started at 4:15 a.m. The trail was poorly lit by the light of a gibbous moon. Route finding was easy, since the route, named La Arista del Sol (Ridge of the Sun), was heavily traveled and covered with footprints.
Paul led through deep sand. I brought up the rear, tuning out the world in favor of selected Boston hits on a Walkman. We passed three climbers, noting with satisfaction that they wore parkas inferior to ours (fashion snobbery strikes again!) and crossed over the mountain's primary ridge to travel on the opposite side of the peak. The trail was incalculably dull. The labor was akin to jogging up a sand dune, and about as exciting.
1986 - We were strung out in the gloom, ascending a rocky trail on the flanks of Orizaba. For most of us, each step upward was a new altitude record, so we anxiously gauged our bodies for early signs of altitude sickness. Bob Audretsch led, with Charlie Winger in the rear. Winger stopped us every half hour for a break, and told dirty stories at each stop. We followed circles painted on the rocks, with a slash through the circles indicating the direction of the trail.
We regained the ridge at perhaps 15,000 feet, where the wind speed increased. The temperature remained in the mid-30 degree range, which was quite pleasant. We continued on, this time switching back to the original side of the peak. The moon's light did not illuminate this area, so we turned on our headlamps. After more interminable slogging, we reached the Republica de Chile and Iglu huts at 15,600 feet. One hut was nearly destroyed. The other one housed someone, since we saw a lamp burning inside. This height easily broke Matt's altitude record. We were already higher than Europe's Mont Blanc.
We then tackled what is easily the worst stretch on the peak, a high angle talus slope, which angles up to the Esperanza Lopez Mateos Hut at 15,900 feet. Volcanic ash provides the climber with no solid footholds, and therefore high-angle ash is a debilitating experience to climb. We slid back a full step for every two steps forward. The right-hand side of the slope contained some rock formations, so we scrambled into the rocks for more solid climbing conditions. At the Esperanza Hut, we stopped for a photography session and then continued up a rocky ridge towards a geodesic dome hut, passing a dead climber's memorial that was similar to an AT&T phone booth.
The geodesic dome hut is strategically located in a rock outcropping where it can be hit by the full force of the wind. Someday it will be torn from its foundations by a gust of wind and careen down the slopes like a giant golf ball. No one caring for a good night's sleep would consider the place. We crowded into it to change into wind shell clothing, since the wind was howling outside. The door would not close, and kept banging open whenever a new gust of wind arrived.
1986 - We cautiously moved through the base camp hut on Orizaba, clustered together for safety from its inhabitants. The place was sturdily constructed, and was infested with both rats and a degenerate species of climber. We backed out warily, ice axes in hand, and headed for the safety of our tents.
I had previously experienced such standard altitude problems as nausea and headaches. On Ixta, since we had not bothered to acclimatize, additional aches and pains were to be expected. Beginning at the geodesic dome hut, Paul and I both experienced minor pains in the lower back area. Since the backpacks were small and light, they should not have caused any pain. By default, the pain must have been caused by the altitude. The pains disappeared during our subsequent descent from the summit.
We continued on around a long ridge, passed a group of climbers, and came upon our first patch of snow at almost 17,000 feet. We clambered down a low-angled pitch of hard snow with a consistency verging on that of ice. A slip in this area would have meant little, since the bowl flattened a few yards below us. We had not bothered to bring crampons, and found that ice axes were adequate to maintain balance. The snow bowl extended for a quarter of a mile. On the far side of it was the only crevasse on the peak, a gaping affair that was easily bypassed on the right. There was little chance of falling into hidden crevasses, since the snow was hard and could have supported a truck. The final section of the snow bowl was the most dangerous, featuring a sharp run-out over the edge of Ixta. However, only someone with serious balance problems would slip in that spot.
The summit cone looks like Mount Uncompahgre in Colorado -- big and blocky. As the sun was warming the area, we stopped to shed clothes and examine the cone. We were really feeling the effects of the altitude now, and carried on at a reduced pace.
We reached the 17,342-foot summit of Ixta at 10:15 a.m. It was littered with orange rinds and banana peels. The view was obscured in most directions by a thin layer of pollution from Mexico City. However, the fine cone of Popo rose nearby, topping out slightly higher than Ixta.
Sporting minor high-altitude headaches, we walked back through the snow bowl. The sun turned the bowl into a solar oven, and we were soon reduced to our innermost layers of clothing. My goggle lenses were thoroughly fogged over.
We stopped for a break at the geodesic dome hut. Climbers have strange urges for food, as Paul and I demonstrated to Matt. He stared in disbelief as we wolfed down a can of sardines. Food that will turn a person green with nausea at sea level can become an obsession higher up. Spam has not yet become an obsession -- one has to have some standards.
We flew down a fine stretch of scree. Paul cut off to the left, following the trail. I found a better patch of scree to the right and followed that, leaping down in three-yard strides. A thirty-foot cliff suddenly appeared across my path, enforcing a very sharp halt. I painfully backtracked uphill to the trail.
Stirring up clouds of dust, we arrived at the car at 2:15 p.m. Our round-trip time for the climb was nine hours and fifteen minutes.
We cheerfully drove back along the access road, already one day ahead of schedule with our climbing plans. We nodded pleasantly to a hiker who was desperately seeking a ride out of the area, and continued on our way without him.
We drank a multitude of Pepsis at the lodge, as well as four plates of filet mignon. A word of warning: A medium-done filet mignon means that the steer hasn't quite realized that it's dead yet.
1986 - We sat at a long table in Senor Joaquin's house at the foot of Orizaba. Our host passed around enormous plates of tortillas, fried eggs, and chopped onions, with the ever-present refried beans glued to the side of each plate. Presiding over the table was a poster of a topless woman jumping out of a swimming pool.
We obtained lodging in the hut for the equivalent of eighty cents per day. A group of climbers sat outside the door to our sleeping area with beers that evening. It was New Years Eve, and they were determined to party. They could have stacked boxes with a forklift, for all we cared. After the day's exertions and the lack of sleep the previous night, we slept like logs for ten hours.
1986 - We were lucky to get into the hut, and were kicked out after a few days when a group with a reservation arrived. We descended to a hotel in Amecameca, which had better facilities than the hut. We drove from there up to the base of Popo for our ascent of that peak. The night clerk wasn't too pleased with our banging about at 2 a.m. Neither was I, since I had contracted a bad cold.
I woke up on January 1st with a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat. This condition is common in the dry air of high altitudes, and can be alleviated by drinking large quantities of water. Paul's variation of chugging entire bottles of whiskey is also useful, but has more side effects. Matt informed me that I had snored like a buzz saw the night before.
1986 - The nine of us were lined up like sardines on the floor of Senor Joaquin's house, prior to driving up to the Orizaba base camp the next morning. Dave Derrick was sleeping next to me, and snored so loud that the floor vibrated. I punched him several times in the kidneys, but he refused to awaken.
Following our descent from Orizaba, we again had to sleep in a row on the floor. No way. Bob and I set up a tent in the courtyard and slept comfortably there. It started to rain at midnight. I stepped outside to put a rain fly on the tent, and squished into a pile of chicken droppings.
The lodge contains showers, though hot water only comes out of the shower heads at random intervals. Paul and I took ten-second showers; the water was freezing. Matt, who had wisely stayed in bed, had a toasty shower a few minutes after we returned with critical cases of hypothermia. In addition, someone had thrown up in one of the sinks.
1986 - The shower at Senor Joaquin's farmhouse only had cold water. No one told Debbie Reed about this. She jumped into the shower and screeched like a banshee when a stream of liquid nitrogen inundated her body. The rest of us grinned in delight and locked her into the shower.
I joined Paul and Matt in the warm sunlight on the plaza outside the lodge, where Paul was stewing a large quantity of potatoes. A number of ghetto blasters, some literally three feet long, were blaring from various spots around the plaza.
We met a likeable German named Wolfgang who was going to bicycle up Popo. He wore an amazing, multi-colored pair of lycra pants, and weighed a muscular 200 pounds. He had flown into Mexico City without a map, and had followed a course based on the sun until he reached the lodge. He had already bicycled up substantial peaks in Morocco, Italy, and the Canary Islands.
1986 - A group of skiers ascended Orizaba just ahead of us, intent upon skiing the great snow field just below the summit. The surface was boilerplate, and did not soften as the sun rose. After so much effort ascending, the skiers finally walked back down.
We drove down to Amecameca to wander through the markets. On the way there, we passed a ranger sporting a walkie-talkie and a rifle. He was either shooting power-line transformers or looking for the bandits.
The Amecameca market has a tremendous variety of food, little of which we dared eat. Such delicacies as sheep's heads and cow's tongues can be purchased there. We consumed a bag of bread rolls while watching fireworks rise from a local hill, kids eat ice cream, and police ticket cars.
1986 - Bob Cole and I wandered through the Tlachichuca marketplace, snapping pictures of everything that moved. I lined up three kids against a wall to take their picture. They thought they were to be executed, and froze in fear. Cole was the affable American, handing out money and Wal-Mart brochures. He attempted to buy land for a local shopping mall while I purchased a bandanna for protection against the dust.
During the drive to the Orizaba base camp, we stood in the open bed of a pickup truck, directly in the path of clouds of dust kicked up by passing vehicles. We looked like Pancho Villa and his sidekicks, with colorful bandannas and dark mountaineering glasses covering our faces.
Upon our return to the lodge, we found that a group of yuppies had moved into the bunks across from us, laden with shiny new equipment. Unlike most climbers, they kept to themselves. Part of the fun of international climbing is the one-ups-manship of seeing who has done the most extensive climbing or the hardest routes, or been in the weirdest countries, combined with subtle and not-so-subtle put-downs of everyone else. The close observation of other people's expensive equipment is an integral part of this ritual. A typical conversation would be:
In purple boots: "Your story reminds me of the time I was paragliding off the summit of Aconcagua..."
In a yellow parka: "Oh really. I heard someone climbed that in sneakers last year."
In a silk balaclava: "I hear Aconcagua can get pretty cold, nearly as cold as that time on Foraker when my jumar froze shut on a vertical pitch. I had to thaw it out with a Bic lighter."
In edible lycra tights: "You're lucky you had a Bic lighter. Why, I was stuck in a snow cave at 26,000 feet on Annapurna without a stove, and had to warm up my feet on my partner's stomach!"
And so on.
One of the yuppies was sick, which pleased us greatly. A group from Boulder, Colorado moved in. They had gone through Mexico by train, and were delayed two and a half days when their train burned.
On January 2nd, we were out of bed at 3 a.m. and outside the lodge at 3:30 a.m. for an attempt on Popo. As usual, the sound of many climbers trying to quietly depart the dormitory while dragging backpacks and ice axes made an enormous racket, certainly waking up every person within miles.
We trudged up an interminable sandy slope, passing two other climbers. We crossed to the right side of a spur projecting out from Popo. This turned out to be the wrong trail. After an hour of hard scrambing, the trail disappeared in the midst of a scree slope.
The wind was strong, and periodically picked up large quantities of gravel and threw it at us. We had gravel in our teeth, gravel down our necks, and gravel in our underwear. The gravel flew through the beams of light emitted by our headlamps, so that it looked like rain was falling instead of dirt. We headed straight up a scree slope toward a notch in the ridge line, surmising that a hut should be located near that point.
We reached the notch at about 5:30 a.m. A strong wind was gusting through the notch, drilling more gravel and dust at us. We realized that we were standing in an open-area latrine. Toilet paper flew about us, and clumps of frozen feces littered the ground.
1986 - We were descending Orizaba in a whiteout, with Winger leading. I was directly behind him. His ice axe started buzzing like a power transformer, and visibly vibrated. A lightning strike was imminent. We got down on all fours and scuttled like crabs into the protection of a nearby cliff wall. We never heard or saw the lightning come down. The snow changed to hail, and we stood about miserably as it built up around our feet.
I led up the ridge, scrambling up a short rock spire to a pole planted at its top. Turning around, I saw the Queretano Hut a short distance below us. We decided to wait for daylight before going further, and staggered back down through the wind to the hut.
1986 - The weather had not cleared for several days, and our time in Mexico was nearly over. Having decided to go for the summit of Popo no matter what, we pushed through the sandy track at the base of Popo to the Las Cruces route, and ascended in a light snowstorm. A puppy from the lodge bounded along in our tracks, waiting for us as we knocked caked ice from our goggles and crampons. Finally, at about 16,000 feet, we gave up and headed back down to the lodge.
We stomped into the hut, making an awesome amount of noise. The wind persisted in flinging the door against the side of the hut, and required a good pull to close. A couple was in the hut, and had been there for two days to acclimatize. We thought that was ridiculous, since the base lodge was much more comfortable.
Paul huddled into a corner and fell asleep. I crouched on the floor in the gloom, listening to the hut groan as gusts of wind battered it. Another group of climbers came up behind us, entered the hut after a fearsome struggle with the door, had a snack, and continued on their way. After an hour, sunlight poked through cracks in the wall. I opened the door and looked out. The wind was still strong, but the situation appeared less evil with sunlight illuminating the scene. There was some discussion about continuing the climb. Since we had gone to some trouble to get to this point, we decided to keep going, rather than waste all the effort we had already expended.
We slogged through scree up to the Teopixalco Hut. While passing under a small cliff face, a rock about three inches across crashed into my pack. Upon reaching the hut, Paul remarked, "This is the most miserable climb I have ever made."
We met a Canadian guide and his client at the hut. He was in the story-telling mood, and mentioned that he once climbed the Cassin route on Mount McKinley in Alaska, where his ice axe shattered at a temperature of minus 77 degrees Celcius.
Matt was understandably psyched out by the view of an ice slope above us that we had to climb; the crux of the El Ventorillo route. However, some moderate cheer leading (shaking him until his teeth rattled) got him to agree to the ascent. Paul took the lead position while I took the rear. Matt clipped into the middle of our rope. Matt was using old-style crampons, and stopped for a long time to strap them to his boots.
We started up the slope. It was quite easy. The sun was rising up over the crest of Popo, while we were still in shadows. I was wearing a triple layer of clothes, and was anxious to keep moving fast enough to stay in the shadows and avoid the baking heat of the sun. I was thwarted by Matt, who stopped twice to readjust his crampons. Suddenly, Matt's overmitts broke free from where he had placed them and rolled down the slope towards me. Fortunately, they weren't traveling very fast. I snatched them up as they rolled by. The overmitts were on loan from Bob Cole -- they had caused trouble in the past.
1986 - Halfway up the snow field on Orizaba, we stopped for a water break. Bob Cole's overmitts slipped away from him and shot down the ice-covered slope. Dave Derrick jumped from his spot and grabbed the overmitts, only to see his pack, no longer supported by his body, rocket down the slope and into the rocks far below.
Finally, Matt's crampons decided to stay on, and we progressed rapidly up the ice. I repeatedly jogged up the slope to take pictures before the rope between me and Matt tightened.
1986 - Charlie Winger and I were far ahead of the others, near the top of the Las Cruces route on Popo. I wasn't trying to forge ahead of the others, but I'd be damned if I'd let Charlie get ahead on me. He didn't stop for a water break, so neither did I. Meanwhile, a Mexican in motorcycle boots chugged up from behind us. He stopped repeatedly, bent over and gasped for air. Somehow he passed us and kept going to the crater rim, where he collapsed. We trudged past his body and continued around the rim to the summit.
The photographic opportunities on this route were not good, despite the dramatic angle, because we were in shadow until nearly the summit. Shots taken in the gloom don't show much snow detail. Also, the background is dull, with Mexico City's pollution providing the backdrop. In contrast, the Las Cruces route has Mount Orizaba in the background, and is especially good for contrast shots showing the dark blue snow against a rich golden horizon just as the sun rises.
Paul set a steady pace, though I wished he'd move a bit faster; the sun line was approaching me from behind. We tramped past a few small crevasses, but never crossed anything substantial. The sun crested the summit while we were still a half-hour from the top. I felt like a turkey in the oven as the temperature within my Gore-Tex shell, polypro jacket, and polypro shirt climbed past 100 degrees. We stopped in the lee of the summit hut. The altitude was 17,887 feet. After the usual munching, drinking, and whiffing of sulpher vapors from the crater, we circled down around the crater rim. We were descending via the easier Las Cruces route, which had a lower angle than the El Ventorrillo route.
We met a couple from Colorado at the top of the Las Cruces route. The husband's eyeglasses had been pitted by gravel storms during their ascent of the route. We carried on a hundred yards past the Las Cruces route and found a spot where snow had nearly disappeared from the side of the peak. After a few hundred feet of snow descent, we reached the highest finger of scree. While changing clothes at this place, I caught a face-full of wind-driven gravel and crouched down sightless, waiting for tears to wash out the dirt. Meanwhile, Paul and Matt flew down the slope with giant strides, literally descending a thousand feet every few minutes. I recovered from my blindness and cruised down as well, buffeted continually by blasts of dirt sweeping across the slopes.
1986 - Steve Holonitch ran down in front of me with giant strides. The snow was losing its firmness as the sun heated the Las Cruces route. Suddenly he staggered in a deep patch of snow and rolled over. If the snow had been harder, he could have rocketed down the slope and been forced to self-arrest with his ice axe to stop. Instead, the soft snow stopped him at once. Since it was an easy way to travel, he did several more body rolls during the descent.
In some places, the wind came from several directions at once, creating small whirlwinds that spun gravel into miniature tornadoes. Paul stopped to urinate, and his outflow promptly turned into a cyclone that pursued him down the path for a short distance.
We marched down the Las Cruces access road, passing the remains of a hut at 14,700 feet. We reached the lodge after 1.9 miles of hiking on the road. There was no sign of the bandits. Just outside the lodge, a group of school children went into hysterics at the sight of my Lawrence of Arabia sun hat.
1986 - We straggled onto the plaza, which was mobbed with Mexicans. We spread out equipment in a corner to dry in the hot afternoon sun. CIndy Carey collapsed onto the pavement with a dirty sock on her forehead. We never established why she put it there.
Matt paid for dinner, grateful, for our refraining from bad jokes all the way to the summit. Paul watched in stupefaction as Matt and I attempted to down six pancakes each, accompanied by a stream of Pepsis. Even the orange-colored syrup tasted good.
It was still just mid-afternoon, so we retired to the plaza to watch a group of German tourists practice knot tying and belaying. A group from Boulder alternated between fiddling with a hackeysack and meditating. The school children laughed at all of us foreigners and felt lucky to be born Mexican.
Late that night, I got up for a drink of water. Looking down next to the bed, I noticed a dim red glow from the bottom of my backpack. Damn! It was the headlamp, which had been turned on for at least the past twelve hours. It was powered by an expensive lithium battery that was now nearly dead. Cursing, I dragged the pack out into the hall in bare feet. The wood floors were both chilly and covered with a sticky beer residue. After removing all the contents of the pack, I retrieved the offending lamp and removed the battery.
The next morning, I awoke with stuffed sinuses. My dictation into the tape recorder sounded very much like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit saying, "Thag you very buch." The others were determined to reach the coast that day, so we piled into the VW and headed down the road to Amecameca. After a few minutes, we came upon Wolfgang, who was blocking the road with his bicycle as he swung wide on successive corners. We finally passed him on a five yard straight section and motored away.
Matt wasn't feeling well, undoubtedly from reading a book while stuffed into the back of a poorly ventilated VW that was twisting down a mountain road. He recovered rapidly after some succinct medical advice was administered in unison from the front seats ("Quit reading the book, you idiot!).
We took Route 115 through Amecameca and turned east onto Route 150D a dozen miles later. We passed through a range of foothills at the opposite end of Ixta and reached a toll booth. No price signs were posted until the last instant, so I screamed, "Quick, give me 2100 pesos!"
Paul and Matt searched their pockets, and a 10,000 peso note was stuffed into my hand. I instantly passed it through the window to the sweating toll booth attendant. He looked at the bill in contempt, muttered something in Spanish about incorrect change, and passed back a huge wad of bills and jingling coins. I threw the heap at Paul while trying to shift up through the gears.
Vendors descended on the toll booths like a cloud of mosquitos. They forced candy through the car windows and waved cheap magazines with screaming headlines about an assassination. The candy was a brown concoction melting in a cardboard box. At one stop, they were even selling dogs.
1986- The van moved slowly through the streets of Mexico City. At one intersection, someone pushed a rabbit through the side window into Dave Derrick's face. At another intersection, a Mexican with a mouthful of lighter fluid was blowing out streams of fire. I hoped he didn't suffer from hiccups.
At one gas station, we stared in awe at the pearl-handled pistol of a policeman who was apparently guarding a trash can. Meanwhile, I tried to figure out the amount owed on the gas pump, and handed the attendant about ten times more than was required. His eyes bugged out at the enormous tip, which he returned with a wide smile. I felt like a dumb tourist, which was pretty accurate.
The road crews were dressed in red hats and yellow jackets, much like the Roger Penske racing team. The Mexican authorities do not know what gas-powered equipment is, so the crews swept the highway with brooms. Some maintenance vehicles were abandoned by the side of the road; perhaps their warranties had run out.
My Spanish is limited to such essential words as "Negro Modelo" and "Corona," so my translations of signs along the highway were probably incorrect. For example, one sign outside Puebla, near a huge VW plant, seemed to say, "Tie Your Shoelaces for Progress," while another read, "Don't Pee on the Grass."
We passed by Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America (18,700 feet high). Since we hadn't enough time, we did not plan to climb it. The climb would be wretched in any case, since nearly all the snow on the peak had melted. Thus, only an irritating scree ascent was possible.
1986 - The nine of us were strung out over the great snow field below the summit cone of Orizaba. Bob Audretsch called us together and explained that he didn't feel well, and would go down. Dave Derrick accompanied him. We were at 17,200 feet, and I had a splitting headache. Steve Holonitch gave me an Excedrin, which cleared away the symptoms. We roped into three teams and reached the summit before noon. We stood about on the summit, grinning at each other, while an enormous cloud bank crept up from behind. It enveloped us just as we left the summit. Winger and Holonitch anchored both ends of a rope while the rest of us descended along it. We repeated this method six times, successively re-anchoring the rope further down the peak.
We spent an hour behind droning trucks as the road twisted down into a long valley that led to the sea. The Mexican drivers revealed their heroic natures by passing three across while going around corners. We thought nervously of the drive back up this road the next day, and anxiously scanned the road map for an alternate route. There were no other ways out.
We passed innumerable donkeys tethered near the road, grazing unconcernedly as we whipped past, inches from their heads. We didn't need a dead donkey stuffed into the back seat with Matt (it smelled bad enough back there already), and subsequently swung wide of the animals. As the elevation dropped, small mountains thrust up on both sides of the road, draped in a heavy coat of undergrowth. Sugar cane plantations appeared. Trucks drove past which carried enormous loads of sugar cane, piled far above their cab roofs. Coconut and banana trees grew in profusion. The smell of burning was all around us, since burning grass appeared to be easier than cutting it. Moss hung from the power lines.
We arrived at the Hostal de Cortes after driving 400 miles. I was drenched in sweat from the virus by then, and only wanted to lie down. We dragged all the equipment to our room and repacked it. While doing so, we found an English-language film on the TV, about the pirate Morgan, who seduced women who persisted in wearing low-cut gowns (even to breakfast). After watching Spanish gentlemen walking the plank and sword fights in which the hero always wins despite losing his sword, we went down to the hotel pool for a nap, followed by a massive meal of stuffed crab, filet mignon, and red snapper in the hotel restaurant. Paul downed a succession of beers, which opened up a fabulous sense of humor. We sat around the table until late, listening to Paul's tales about the wily brown trout.
I went to bed, floored by the virus, while Matt and Paul walked to the beach to watch night baseball being played with tennis balls and bare hands. Upon their return, they flipped a coin for the beds. Paul lost, but Matt let him sleep on his bed anyway.
1986 - During our last full day in Mexico, we visited a museum of Mexican history. I was so exhausted from a bad cold that I stopped to lean against an Aztec monolith to keep from fainting. The museum guards eyed me with suspicion.
On January 4th, less than a day after arriving, we repacked the car and drove back to Mexico City. We stopped near Cordoba for gas. The simple act of taking the locking cap off the gas tank turned into a minor epic. Each of us took turns testing the intricacies of turning the key about in the lock and applying various amounts of pressure to the cap. The pressure ranged from delicate (me, with thoughts of the Avis bills for a new gas tank) to bone crushing (Paul, with an emphasis on filling the tank). The gas attendant hovered about as the three smelly Americans swore in many colorful and innovative ways.
Finally, Matt and I removed everything stored under the hood and discussed ways to pull off the fuel gauge and fill the tank via the hole thus created. Meanwhile, Paul jimmied the cap off with an ice axe. We pulled the gas attendant out from where he had hidden at the sight of Paul brandishing the ice axe. We filled up without further incident, and continued on our way.
The linked hairpin turns coming up out of the Veracruz valley were awesome. We pulled out from behind a double-loaded truck while going uphill and around a corner. We accelerated rapidly from 35 all the way up to 36 miles per hour. I was shifting gears and munching on sardines at the same time. Paul screamed "Goforit, Goforit!" in my ear while Matt burrowed into the packs in the back seat and intoned numerous "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys." The truck driver grinned at us evilly from his cab and pushed thetruck for all it was worth. A cement mixer appeared ahead, rushing downhill, belching fumes. We squeezed in next to the truck, and somehow the three vehicles fit on the two-lane road without any scraping. By this time Matt had fainted, while Paul wriggled in glee and swore at length. After an hour of this, we topped out on the central Mexican plateau and cruised on straight roads for the remainder of the trip.
Arriving back in Mexico City, we strolled into the lobby of a Holiday Inn, being widely avoided even by the dogs. Tee shirts worn for three days tend to elicit that response. In accordance with our appearance, we were granted a room in the furthest corner of the building, with a view of a nearby junkyard. Access to the room was via an elevator that allowed one second for egress before snicking shut like a clam. The numerous guards posted near the entrances were an adequate commentary on the class of people living nearby.
1986 - We stayed in a hotel in downtown Mexico City. The earthquake of 1985 had left its mark on the hotel. Doors didn't close smoothly, and cracks were noticeable in the walls. Bob Cole even walked at an angle, though that may have been caused by his drinking.
We annoyed the restaurant staff with our presence while downing such treats as avocados stuffed with tuna fish. We then retired to our room to complete the final equipment repacking for the flight out the next day. The entertainment was a country music video channel (including such classics as "She Loves Her Truck"), war documentaries, and raids on the room bar for beers and fruit juice.
After another harrowing ride on the Avis shuttle back to the airport, we flew into Houston, where an enormous customs line awaited us. After an interminable wait, the line moved forward two feet. Paul's luggage was searched. I have noticed an evil twitch in his left cheek for many years. The customs inspector also saw this nefarious feature, common in drug smugglers and used car salesmen, and promptly went through his baggage.
1986 - We trundled piles of baggage through customs without harassment - until Bob Cole came through. They tore through his pack and even peered down the length of a map tube. A snowstorm in Denver was delaying our flight, so people waiting to fly there lined the walls and spilled over into the corridors.
The Houston-to-Denver flight departed at 6:30 p.m., and we touched down in Denver without further problems at 8 p.m.