© November 1996 Adam Helman

In the central valley of Mexico lie three volcanoes which are rooted in the history of the Maya and Aztec peoples. Located some fifty miles to the southeast of Mexico City, Popocatepetl (17,787 feet) and Iztaccihuatl (17,343 feet) sit along a north-south axis with a separation of twelve miles. Ninety miles further east lies Citlaltepetl (18,700 feet), known also by the Spanish name Orizaba.

Hernando Cortes passed through this region in the pursuit of gold and conquest during the sixteenth century (El Siglo de Oro, the "golden" century of Spanish history). The Indian culture was essentially laid waste, and, whoever was fortunate enough not to be slaughtered outright by his soldiers, fell prey to diseases carried by the white man.


The allure to American climbers of these mountains is that they are the most accessible peaks whose height exceeds that of the tallest available in the 48 contiguous states. They are relatively non-technical climbs, at least by their standard routes, with a modest degree of experience required in use of ice axe, crampons, and other climbing gear.

Six years have passed since I traveled to Ixta-Popo National Park to climb the two giants visible from Mexico City on a clear day. I failed to ascend Popo because of a severe headache almost certainly brought on by eating the wrong foods. I succeeded on Ixta, the more complex and difficult of the two peaks to climb. With this background I was bent on attempting Popocatepetl with Orizaba to follow two days later. No chances taken - ice cream and dairy products off limits, no raw vegetables or unpeeled fruit, and all water either boiled or sterilized with iodine.

This year, traveling with Edward Earl, the two of us would meet up with his brother, Jim, and Jim's girlfriend Tiffany, the latter two having spent nearly two weeks in the state of Taxco at a relative's home prior to the arrival of Edward and myself.

A chief goal of the trip for Edward was to reach 18,000 feet - the altitude which, in a "standard" atmosphere, pressure is reduced to one-half its sea level value. We had failed in this effort while attempting Serkhe Khollu (cf our trip to Bolivia) owing to a perceived avalanche threat. Since I had climbed Kilimanjaro this summer (19,340 feet) with my brother and his girlfriend Dana, I had no such immediate goal. Furthermore, although Jim and Tiffany enjoyed climbing immensely (he has scaled the vertical faces of both El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite Nat'l Park), neither had been above the elevation of Mount Whitney (14,495 feet), highest mountain of the 48 contiguous United States.


After an uneventful flight from San Diego we checked into our hotel room in the historic district of Mexico City. Edward and I walked about the Zocalo, or central square, hunting for bargains to take home. At about 4:30 P.M. a man grabbed my black handbag from behind and ran across the street into the crowds. For about one and a half seconds I wondered if this was really happening - it was inconceivable, true? Somewhat impulsively I pursued him for some three or four city blocks with Edward keeping pace. Seeing that I could not gain on the thief, and noting that my shouts of "ladron" - "thief", fell upon deaf ears despite thousands of holiday shoppers, I gave up the chase.

Part of the zocalo, or central square, within the historic section of Mexico City.

The list of stolen items was nearly all-inclusive: airline tickets, credit cards, about $US190, blank checks, California Drivers license, and "minor" items such as magnetic entry card for MSI and social security card. Not to mention my passport. Hence this section's title.

I decided it was essential to stay calm, walk back to the hotel room, and begin making phone calls, both in Spanish with the local operator, and in English once a stateside person had been reached. The entire evening was consumed with cancelling credit cards, filing a report with the "Tourist Police Station" (so as to obtain a document, presentable to the American Embassy the following Monday, to allow entry into the United States), and generally feeling like a scared rabbit.


The following morning Edward and myself took the subway in an effort to file a new application for my airline tickets. While entering one subway car after a transfer from another line, a very dense crowd of people pushed us into the car. A few minutes later Edward noted his credit cards and money had vanished. Plus my money - and all had been in our FRONT pants pockets. In truth the bulk of money on Edward's person had been mine: my brother had advised me before departure to split my cash evenly among us. The only funds remaining were in our shoes.

I called my mother from the airport and asked for money to be sent via Western Union. Much later that day Edward accepted the cash, some $US500, on our behalf. The money had been sent by my mother to Edward since only he had a passport photograph for identification purposes. We were determined not to let these admittedly severe setbacks ruin our vacation completely. I dragged Edward to my favorite restaurant in the city (I had recalled its fine fare), and a swell dinner it certainly was.


On Monday morning I obtained the required documents at the American Embassy and we took a bus to the town of Amecameca near the bases of Ixta and Popo. The plan was to have met Jim and Tiffany at high noon - but that was before any need to visit the Embassy. As it turned out we all met by 1 P.M., with everyone, particularly Ed and Jim, exceedingly glad to see one another. We did some shopping in the Indian market since it was both a cultural experience and ridiculously cheap. For example, a half-kilo of corn tortillas (just over one pound) for one peso (about 13 cents).

The next problem was less immediate but more insidious - Popocatepetl had been closed to general access owing to frequent release of smoke and ash. The road was roped off and we were compelled to camp near Iztaccihuatl instead. This was particularly disappointing to me since I really did not care to climb it a second time.

Camp was established at the roadhead (13,100 feet) on Monday afternoon. We arranged with a driver to retrieve us on the afternoon of the summit attempt, Thursday, the three days being deemed adequate for acclimatization purposes.

Popocatepetl releases steam and ash as viewed from our base camp on Iztacchihuatl.

The north side of Iztaccihuatl from the 13 thousand foot level.
The higher, glaciated slopes are not visible from this angle.


Tuesday included an acclimatization hike which ended up taking us to 15,300 feet - fully one half of the altitude gained for the summit. Wednesday I decreed a day of rest, while at 2 A.M. Thursday morning we arose for the summit attempt.

Stated briefly I did not have the desire to climb. And so after some 800 foot elevation gained I said goodbye and turned back to sleep. THE MOST CRITICAL REQUIREMENT IS TO HAVE THE RIGHT ATTITUDE!!!!

Edward, Jim and Tiffany continued upward. Later in their climb, they smelled sulfur and observed a light dusting of ash (at first wondering if it was snow, except that the sky was clear) settling all around them. Both of these could only come from Popocatepetl. Later in the climb, as they crested the summit ridge above 16,000 feet after sunrise, they observed a large gray cloud occasionally accompanied by a mushroom-shaped plume, emanating from the crater of Popocatepetl and usually obscuring the summit. This was happening at literally the same hour we would have been climbing Popocatepetl had we not decided to climb Iztaccihuatl instead.

Although there were a few crevasses, hard ice conditions rendered crampons and roping up unnecessary. Just above 17,000 feet, Tiffany decided to wait because of her cold and some difficulty negotiating the rocks and scree. Edward and Jim, after scaling the final steep part of the summit ridge, continued across the broad, flat summit snowfield and reached the summit itself at 10:10 AM. The weather on top was pretty nippy - 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a 25 mile per hour wind. The descent was uneventful.

Edward on the broad, flat summit of Ixta. The view is south towards Popo.

By around three o'clock everyone had returned to camp. I was pleased for all of them and in light of the Thanksgiving Day, we shared a pumpkin cheesecake prepared that afternoon.

We broke camp and drove east towards Puebla, a city famous for blue tiles and its mole sauce - the thick, spicy accompaniment to turkey, with chilis, ground nuts, and unsweetened chocolate. We took a motel in Cholula, a suburb of Puebla, and ate an enormous meal at one of the better establishments. Jim and Tiffany each had a large "entrada" (appetizer), then ordered "sopa" (soup), followed by TWO main courses apiece. Not to be outdone I decided to follow suit, and, when everyone else had taken a taxi home owing to the hour (they had been up since two, recall), I barely managed to finish a dessert of peaches in rompope liqueur. I had enjoyed, among other items, both chicken in mole AND chicken "pipian verde" - a famous spicy green pumpkin sauce. My "sopa de medulla" was interesting (brain food, quite literally), although Jim's "sopa de ajo" (garlic soup) was tastier.


We were now accustomed to travel by bus, a remarkably inexpensive matter, such that we arrived at Tlachichuca by mid-afternoon on Friday. This small town is the staging point for climbs of Citlaltepetl ("Mountain of the Star"). A virtual monopoly on getting to the base camp exists in the company of Sr.Reyes - for $US50 a head you get an enormously bumpy ride in the open space of a hardy four wheel drive road vehicle up to the Piedra Grande hut at 14,000 feet. In the states such a venture would be both illegal and well beyond the safety restrictions of our overzealously health-conscious society: there were metallic protrusions within the open cab which promised time and again to give us severe back injury should the bumps in the road impale us on one of them.

Citlaltepetl, at 18,700 feet, is the highest mountain in Middle America.

At around 1 the following morning we arose to begin our ascent. Tiffany turned back at our first rest, about 14,900 feet, owing to a worsening cold with an ominous wheezing sound. Jim following her down while Edward and myself continued.

By around 4 A.M. Edward and I reached a small patch of ice and we sat down to don crampons on our boots. By miraculous good fortune (nothing less can describe it) Jim showed up! He is doubtless in superb condition. The good fortune arises because Edward had neglected to adjust the size of his crampons to a new pair of boots, and the tool to make the adjustment had been left at camp. Without crampons it would have been far too dangerous to climb higher. Furthermore, without Edward it would be too risky for me to proceed alone. However Jim had the appropriate tool and we three continued onto a boulder field in order to reach the Jamapa glacier.

None of us had planned upon "bouldering" at night, at some sixteen thousand feet, with a sheen of ice on half the footholds and handholds. I had particular trouble since Edward and Jim are more adept at rock climbing than myself. I refused to make a move which Edward and Jim had succeeded in - it was deemed too risky by me without a rope. So an alternate route was found and, through what is described by sheer willpower, I managed with them to make the glacier's base. I wanted badly, very badly, to make the summit: and only loss of limb would prevent me from it.

We rested, ate and drank (ice cold water is very hard to swallow when you are allready cold), and threw pebbles at a fat two-inch mouse that took a fancy to my climbing boots.

Dawn was beginning to break in the east. It was quite cold and would remain so until old sol shone directly on us. Edward said he thinks we will make it all the way. I too had guarded optimism.

We eventually made it, essentially without rest, to a nearly level spot near the crater rim at around 18,100 feet. I had set the pace for about the last thousand vertical feet since Edward had done so lower down after leaving camp. He queried Jim and I for the natural logarithm of 1: immediately responding with "zero", we both passed this test of our ability to think at this altitude. However I did feel (as I had on Kilimanjaro around 19,000 feet) as if my perception of reality was dulled: was this a dream or are these guys really talking to ME?

The summit was approached via a counterclockwise path around the crater rim. Noting the significance of the moment for Jim and Edward (they had climbed many, many peaks together but never one quite so high), I suggested they reach the summit simultaneously. This we all did, and, after a three-way embrace, we became absorbed in photographs, including one of Popo and Ixta to the west, while finding a small shelter from the wind. Another climber kindly captured all three of us on film, with the summit crater as backdrop. I enjoyed a sandwich of avocado and Greek kasseri cheese as my fingers, despite three layers of gloves, became progressively colder. The temperature was estimated at 15 F with perhaps a steady wind of 40 miles per hour.

Popocatepetl (left) and Iztaccihuatl (right) from the summit of Orizaba.
They lie roughly eighty miles to the west.

Summit photo with the crater of Orizaba in the background.
From top left moving clockwise are Edward, Jim and Adam (kneeling in the turquoise parka).

We carefully descended the Jamapa glacier, eventually reaching its base where Tiffany was found sunning herself amongst a throng of some dozen climbers that day. It is unfortunate that her cold had not improved sooner. After another tortuous descent in the open cab, we took a cheap pair of rooms in Tlachichuca for the night. Dinner had been a simpler affair since no fancy restaurant existed.

Descending the Jamapa glacier at around the seventeen thousand foot level.
Edward is closest with Adam slightly higher.


The following day, Sunday, was spent returning by bus to Mexico City via Puebla. After hurredly leaving Tlachichuca after suspecting that someone was shadowing us, the bus drives were (for me) highlighted by numerous ice cream treats from the vendors which got on the bus at one stop and exited at the next. I had even enjoyed a "main dish" taco salad the previous night: not on the menu I described it to the owner who was unaware of such entities. Apparently the concept that a large salad, laced with cheeses and meats, can suffice as an entire meal, has not entered Latin American heads.

We had arrived later than anticipated to our hotel, and were somewhat dissapointed to learn that Chapultepec Park, with its famous Museum of Cultural Anthropology, had allready closed at 5.

We took a taxi to the Torre Latinoamericano - at forty stories the tallest edifice in Mexico City. From the observation deck a panorama of the city sprawled beneath us at dusk. I was consumed with chocolate cake filled with caramel fudge, served with both vanilla and chocolate ice cream in a banana split serving platter.

Dinner was at my favorite place and was yet another tummy buster. Even Edward tried delicous nopales, that is, tender cactus in a vinegar marinade, as appetizer. He enjoyed the famous Huachinango Veracruzana, red snapper in piquante tomato sauce, while I had Chili en Nogada - a very large green pepper stuffed with ground beef and raisins, encased in a sweet cornmeal crust, and the whole thing drenched in a nogada (nut) cream sauce with ground nuts and pomegranate seeds.

The flight home the following morning were uneventful. Indeed, the most hair-raising moment occurred when Edward accessed the San Diego Credit Union via his home laptop, to learn that his checking account had been cleared out: balance of zero. Apparently, even though he had notified VISA within 24 hours to cancel his card, illicit transactions had been made on his card by the perpetrators of our second theft. Since VISA had a computer record of his cancellation request, he will redeem all funds lost except for a $50 deductible.

I personally had enormous fun after the first weekend. Jim and Tiffany were a pleasure to get along with, in particular since Jim is well versed in science and mathematics (he is going to Bolivia this January as a geologist, which makes me somewhat jealous). Furthermore Tiffany's climbing skill is unmatched by any woman I have known, with the exception of some professional guides.

Edward finally got above the "magical" 18,000 feet and, for some fifty minutes, three of us were, with almost certainty, the highest people in North America. This is the stuff my dreams are made of.