Take it to the Top: Ten Great Alpine Adventures

Three Miles High: Climbing Mexico's Volcanoes
  |  Gorp.com

Many a mountaineer has gotten his initiation into high-altitude technical climbing on this well-known trio of snow-capped volcanoes in central Mexico. Popocatepetl (17,887 feet) and Ixtaccihuatl (17,343 feet) lie within sight of each other (and of Mexico City on a rare clear day). The highest of the three—and the third highest peak in North America—is 18,850-foot Orizaba, 100 miles to the east, toward Vera Cruz.
Make no mistake, these are "real" mountains, with steep icy slopes, the potential for bad weather, and enough altitude to severely affect climbers. Many people have been killed on them. On the other hand, they require only basic technical skills—the use of crampons, ice axe, and simple rope techniques—that most any fit and adept person can learn quickly. As such, they are an ideal first taste of big-time mountaineering and springboard to more difficult peaks like Aconcagua or McKinley.

Each mountain takes just one day to climb—a very long and exhausting day, to be sure, starting well before dawn—from base huts accessible by motor vehicle. (In most cases, however, it's a good idea to spend a day or two acclimatizing to the altitude at the huts.) Vertical gain from the huts is approximately 5,000 feet
Unfortunately, the Mexican trio has been a duo for the last seven years. Popo has been erupting off and on since 1995, and the mountain is currently closed. (In 1996, five climbers who defied the ban were killed by an explosion at the summit.) Volcanoes are notoriously fickle, however; the eruptions could subside at any time.
Practically Speaking
Only veteran expert climbers should attempt any of these mountains without a guide. Independent climbers will need their own vehicle to get to the base huts. (Orizaba, the most remote of the three, requires a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle to reach the hut.) There is no local climbing community near the mountains, so renting equipment is difficult or impossible. (You'll need double-plastic mountaineering boots, crampons, an ice axe, and high-quality outdoor winter clothing. And bring along some Diamox for altitude symptoms.)
It makes far more sense to go with one of several American climbing companies that run organized trips. On the current two-mountain schedule, expeditions typically take from 7-12 days and cost $125-$150 a day, including transportation, meals, and guides. Trips typically depart from Mexico City, and include some accommodation there. Most companies require no previous mountaineering experience, although there are some exceptions when more difficult routes are followed.

David Noland is a full-time professional freelance writer specializing in adventure travel, sports, and science. His book, Travels Along the Edge , published in 1997 by Vintage Books, is now in its fourth printing.

Published: 11 Oct 1999 | Last Updated: 20 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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