This Is What Happens When You Can’t Stop Climbing Volcanoes
OK, I’m coming to terms with the fact that this will be the coolest picture ever taken of me.
Now I might as well quit Instagram. Or change my account theme to butt selfies.
I was descending at sunset from the summit of Iztaccihuatl (17,160 ft.). And suddenly Popocatepetl (17,802 ft.), the second tallest mountain in Mexico, blew its effing top.
What a way to end a crazy year of mountaineering.
Now. I can’t guarantee that if you hike Iztaccihuatl this will happen to you. (Though I certainly hope it does.)
But I think either way, you’ll really love this mountain. It’s high but super hike-able, with no fancy glacier skills required.
So here’s a little write up of the La Arista del Sol standard route. Feel free to email me with any questions, and happy climbing.
Iztaccihuatl Hike Details
Iztaccíhuatl is located about 35 mi. from Mexico City in Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl National Park. You can also access it from the east via the city of Puebla. A permit is required to reach the parking lot and trailhead (see “Getting There” below).
The best climbing weather for Iztaccihuatl usually falls from December to March. The photos in this post are from a climb on Nov. 24, 2017.
Some useful facts for hikers:
- Elevation: 17,160 ft. (No. 3 in Mexico)
- Distance: ~9 mi.
- Elevation Gain: ~4,100 ft.
- Difficulty: Class 2–3, with some short scrambles, scree, exposed spots, and a moderate snow traverse.
- Recommended Equipment: WATER (there’s none on the route), headlamp, helmet, trekking poles, foot traction, ice ax, warm clothes (it’s cold up there!)
- Hike Time: 10–12+ hours (some groups overnight at the Grupo de los Cien Hut)
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The Legend of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl
Popo and Izta are separated by a single pass and sit close enough to share an eponymous national park. Their obvious “relationship” has inspired imaginations throughout the ages.
According to myth, Iztaccihuatl was a Nahua princess who fell in love with her father’s chief warrior.
Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t happy about the match. So he ordered Popocatepetl to lead the troops against a brutal enemy with a much larger force.
Then, figuring Popo was a goner and out of the picture for good, he started arranging a more suitable match for his daughter.
When Izta learned of her father’s deceit, she died of a broken heart (or stabbed herself with a dagger, in some versions of the story).
But soon after, Popo returned alive from battle only to find his beloved dead.
Devastated, he carried her body high into the mountains, hoping the cold would wake her. And there he froze to death himself.
The gods took pity on these star-crossed lovers, covered their bodies with snow, and transformed them into mountains.
Today, angry Popocatepetl still watches over Iztaccihuatl, who lies peaceful and covered with snow. (Seriously, you’ll feel him watching the whole way up.)
In an alternate version of the story, Popocatepetl battled Xinantecatl (Nevado de Toluca) for Izta’s hand by hurling fire, rocks, and ice. Popo triumphed be decapitating his opponent, which explains the rounded shape of Nevado’s summit.
The trailhead for Izta’s standard route is located at La Joya in Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl National Park.
To reach La Joya, you’ll need to stop at the ranger station at Paso de Cortes during business hours to purchase a climbing permit. The La Joya gate house is staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., so time your arrival accordingly. Once at La Joya, many parties camp out and start the hike early the next morning.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can hire a taxi or private driver in Amecameca (west side of the park) or San Nicolas de los Ranchos (east side) to drive you to La Joya. You can also take public transportation as far as Paso de Cortes, then catch a ride up to the trailhead with another hiker or picnicker.
Alternately, hire a guide service to arrange logistics and transportation. Our trip was organized by Nómada Mexico.
The Four Passes
After recovering from our Orizaba climb at the Grutas de Tolantago hot springs (recommended), we headed back to the volcanoes.
Iztaccihuatl means “white woman” in the Nahuatl language, and the mountain is often covered in snow. From certain angles, the locals say the ridge line looks like a woman sleeping on her back. I kinda see it, how about you?
Courtesy of Nomada, we slept on the floor of the national park’s nature center, then left for the trailhead around 3:30 a.m.
At that hour, it was so cold that the windshield of the van was completely frosted over! Because ice scrapers aren’t a thing in Mexico, the guide started the drive to La Joya with his head out the window.
The hike starts at an elevation of about 13,000 ft. and climbs through a series of four passes (pasillos). We passed through No. 1 in the dark, so I don’t have much to say about it.
At Pass No. 2 is a memorial to Stacey Leavitt.
Stacey was a Canadian teenager who fell in love with the Mexican volcanoes while studying abroad. She actually attempted Izta but turned back due to bad weather.
Sadly, after returning to Canada in 1995, Stacey was struck by a car while jogging and died at the age of 18.
Her family returned to Mexico to place a blue box at Pass No. 2 containing a book of her poetry and many messages of remembrance from her friends and family.
In the words of Stacey’s dad Ned:
I put this box with your book at this place so those people with strength and courage who pass this way will know of your great strength and courage. I love you so deeply, words are not enough and I have to express my love with deeds. — Daddy
Ned went on to climb Iztaccihuatl in Stacey’s honor. You can read more about Stacey, including some of her poetry, here.
At Pass No. 3, we were treated to a sunrise.
About 2.5 miles from the trailhead, just after Pass No. 4, we reached the Grupo de los Cien Hut at 15,500 ft. Here we took a break to put on helmets and gear up for some scree scrambling.
By the way, don’t be fooled by this hut’s name. It’s a tiny little thing. You’d be lucky to squeeze a grupo de 20 in here. But if you’re looking to break the climb up and acclimatize, this would be a beautiful place to spend the night.
Scree Fest ’17
For the next few hours above the hut, we climbed steep scree. And climbed, and climbed …
Psychologically, this was the hardest part of the climb for me. It’s not super exposed, but there are places where a fall could be painful. We also had to be careful about rockfall through this section.
About a third of the way up the scree section, we took a break beside this cross. It’s a memorial to a group of local teenagers who perished on a school trip to the mountain.
The kids and their guides lost their way in thick fog during the descent and ended up spending the night at 16,000 ft. Tragically, several of the students died of exposure.
We finally topped out the scree slope on a rocky ridge and celebrated with a snack break. The weather was beautiful and windless, and other than feeling more tired than usual, it was hard to believe we were over 16,000 ft.
Until we saw this. It used to be a hut until one day … a big gust of wind came, ripped it off its concrete and rebar foundation, and hurled it down the mountain. This is all that’s left.
From here, we had a stunning (and slightly daunting) view of the summit massif. See where the trail cuts across the shoulder of the mountain? Looks pretty steep, eh?
While we were having lunch, some climbers approached on descent. From this angle, it certainly looked impressive!
Up close, the traverse wasn’t quite as steep as it looked from a distance. But the loose dirt kept us on our toes (and butts, a few times).
And then, thank jeebers, we regained the ridge. From here, there were a few more loose spots, but nothing too troublesome.
Crossing the Glacier
So from the next pass, the summit ridge comes into view. (It’s in the top left of the photo.) However, to get there, you need to traverse the glacier in the foreground.
We were told that we didn’t need ice axes for this section. And the slope angle in this next photo is a little exaggerated by the GoPro. Some folks might feel comfortable doing it in microspikes and poles. However, I personally would have liked an ice ax, especially since conditions were a bit icy.
This photo shows a more realistic look at the slope angle. The climbers are on the return trip with the summit block in the background. There’s really only one short steep section, and it’s directly behind Gale (the climber in blue).
The 3 Summits
After the glacier, the trail follows a beautiful, airy ridge toward the summit. The views of Popo are spectacular. But this is where some of us really started to feel the altitude.
And suddenly we were on the first summit! We felt like we deserved fireworks. Instead, Popo just farted out some ash (visible in the photo). He was like, meh.
Here’s a look at the summit crater, which is filled by a glacier. There are three high points on the crater rim, and it’s disputed which one is the true summit.
We took a jaunt over to the pointy summit on the left, but passed on the third, because it looked pretty far.
Between you and I, after studying some other beta, I actually think that third one on the right is highest by just a couple feet.
But shh. It’s our secret.
Tick, Tick, Boom
So all that scree I’ve been complaining about? Now we had to hike down it. Definitely save some energy for this part!
The scree fields just above the hut were actually a lot of fun. They were so deep, you could “ski” down them. That is until you hit a thin spot or a random rock and fell on your ass.
After the hut, the descent was pretty chill. The sun began to set, casting beautiful golden light everywhere.
And then, just below Pass No. 3, we heard this big rumble, like thunder. And everyone started freaking out and shouting, “POPO!!”
We ran (as fast as one can run through a talus field) down to Pass No. 2 (Stacey’s Pass). And that’s where we saw this.
All day, Popo had been kind of farting out little bursts of steam. I was actually half convinced that was all it did.
But while we were watching, it threw up four huge, black, roiling clouds of ash.
I’ve watched a few volcanic eruptions before, but never one this big and dramatic. Really, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
We joked that David must have paid a fortune to set it off for us in the perfect golden hour lighting, or that he was controlling it with some sort of remote.
But honestly, my money’s on Stacey.
We were standing right beside her box taking these pictures. I think she wanted to see the look on our faces.
After tearing ourselves away from the Popo show, we headed down toward the vans. At Pass No. 1, I turned on my headlamp. We’d left the trailhead before sunrise and would return after sunset. (Note: pack a headlamp and extra batteries.)
All told, our climb of Iztaccihuatl took over 12 hours (including a 30-minute unplanned stop to watch the Popocatepetl do its thing).
So there you have it. My big fat trip report on the Iztaccihuatl hike.
I seriously hope you get to check it out for yourself! It was definitely one of the most interesting volcanoes I’ve climbed. And I totally felt that way, even before the fireworks at the end.
Happy climbing! xx