“Over” the volcano

March ’91. We’d relocated to Mexico a year before. I worked at an Ad agency, and had decided to “brush up” my scant German. (No relationship whatsoever). So I took classes at the Goethe Institüt. During breaks we talked between classmates. I told about my climb of Mont-Blanc in ’89. As it turned out, Manuel was a mountaineer. He said: “Why don’t we climb the Popocatepetl?” See above.

Training. L. to R. Manuel, yours truly, Carlos. The “Popo” is an old volcano (24,000 years) and the second highest mountain in Mexico, at 5,425 Meters or 17, 800 ft. Always more impressive in ft. Mexico city is at 2200 meters or 7,200 ft. Starting from Mexico city altitude meant a good 3,000 meters climb. Whatever it is you decide to do, you can probably do it. BUT. Never forget training. We trained for several week-ends before the climb, on nearby hills. Trai-ning. Trai-ning!

The “Popo” has, or had snow on top during winter. There were two ways of access. Left, via “Tres cruces”, which is basically a long hike. Right, see the pointy ridge with no snow? That is the Ventorillo. Lots of semi-rotten volcanic rocks. Technically much more difficult. Casualties every year. We chose left. No point in being stupid. Mont-Blanc had been enough for me. (See the White Mountain)

4 AM, at the Amecameca refuge. Part of the Mountaineering theatre is getting up at 4 AM. After a bad night in the refuge. Makes you feel the “Adventure”. Also avoids the later blaring sun… Left, Carlos. Centre, in a red sweater, Federico. Amecameca is about 70 kms away from Mexico city. You drive the night before, have a light dinner, try to sleep at the shelter. And off you go. 4 AM. Way too early.

The Moon at dawn. Mountain top is to the left.

Two mountains at dawn. In the centre, the Ixtaccihuatl. Name means the “White woman.” Plenty of snow in the winter. The shape as seen from the side resembles a sleeping “Princess”. The “Ixta” is slightly lower than the “Popo”, but much more difficult technically. Our “own” target summit is to the right. The sensation that day was unique. The silent mountains. Not a noise. No city rumble. Peace. And watching the sun rise. Back on your feet folks. Still a few thousand meters to climb.

There’s our volcano. The Popo, seen from Tres cruces. Look at the three crosses to the right? It is said that Cortes crossed here on his way from Tlaxcala to Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico city. That snowy peak was our destination. A good hike.

The Ixta again, later in the day. To the right on the horizon is the peak of Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain. And up we go. Again.

Now the “fun” begins. It is daylight. Climbing in volcanic sand. “Sand” for lack of a better word. Basically grey pulverized lava. Slope is fine, one just zig-zags up the mountain, but the terrain is treacherous. The sand is soft. Mountain boots sink in a couple of inches. And sometimes you feel you go up two steps, and back down one. Keep breathing steadily. Breathing is the key. One step at a time. Going up to the right.

And to the left. And to the right. And to the left.

And the wind started to blow. Lifting the tiny particles of grey sand. Blowing in your face when you go left. In your back when you climb right. Obviously you cover your nose and mouth on the left hike. Can’t wait to turn right and breathe. Here we took a short break, behind rocks. I ended up with sand in my teeth.

“Captain oh my Captain”, is that the end?”.

“Nope, we’re going around to the left.”

(Scheize!) (We weren’t taught that at the Goethe but it felt appropriate to the situation)

Well, we made it to the top. L. to r. Carlos, Federico’s girlfriend whose name escapes me (my apologies), and yours truly. What lies down below?

That, my dear friends, is the volcano’s crater. With a small lake at the bottom. Green with sulphur. The mouth of Hell I guess. Sulphur gasses emanated form the crater. Not enough to be dangerous, but we all went home smelling of the Devil. Literally.

That sight is unique. None of us expected it. There were no aerial views of the crater then. Too risky to fly a plane above maybe? So this view is our very own personal treasure…

We made it to the top and back. Safely, the entire team all in one piece. 5,272 meters high on that side. My highest ever. (I have no interest in “doing” Everest”. 17,000 feet plus change is fine for me.)

I did go back “solo” to the “Popo” a coupla times, but that, “Best beloved”, is another story. A few years later, the sleeping volcano erupted and is now fully alive. Can’t climb the Popocatepetl “no more”.

This is what the “Popo” looks like now. Taken from the Ixta. (c)ourtesy Karen. I didn’t climb the Ixta. She did. With my mountain boots. (At least my boots did the climb) 🧗‍♀️ . Ashes from the “Popo” sometimes reach Mexico city. One gets them on the windshield

Thank you for hiking with Equinoxio Travels… Thank you to Malcom Lowry for the title. What will your next mountain be?

131 thoughts on ““Over” the volcano

  1. Marvellous!
    I get vertigo climbing a ladder so a climb of this nature is out of the question.
    BTW ….For some reason I am not getting email notifications and missed the last three posts.
    Where is your email subscribe widget? Can’t see it for the life of me.

  2. Wonderful post Brian! You made me feel the lava dust in my face and I could taste the sulfur. Scheisse! 🙂 In my youth we had this song about the Popocapetl, wich nobody could pronounce fluently. By the way – from what language that name origens? Aztek? Hartelijke groet, Peter.

    • Practically ruined my video camera in the trip. Sand got everywhere. The name is difficult to pronounce. Language is Nahuatl, which was the Aztecs’ language. The name basically means smoking mountain.
      Tot ziens Peter.

      • You are most welcome. The image of the hanging mist/cloud is wonderful!
        Yes, that is the drawback of technology, things become obsolete so quickly 😦 Alas, I still have Sony 8 video tapes that I did not get digitised and now I have no means of playing them 😦
        All good here but covid has finally reached our village. Pahh.

      • Zut alors. very sorry to hear that. Il faut redoubler de précautions…
        Your sony tapes can be digitized easily at a reasonable cost. Check your local “FNAC” 😉. I did that with all my 80’s and 90’s tapes. I now edit them with I Movies. relatively easy.
        best of luck.

      • They do. It is good business. So many people have so many film memories. Make sure you ask for the best quality as transfers do lose some definition. Also the magnetic tapes have not held well. Anyway you can ask the supplier their best recommendation in terms of quality/price ratio. Now since this is probably neither “essentiel” nor “impérieux you may have to wait a bit. If you have Mac you can edit the digital copy with I Movie. Not too hard. You can also ask for the best extension. I generally ask for a .mov extension. Check. Bon week-end.

  3. Some hundred years ago I spent some time in Cuernavaca and I remember Popocatepetl from the bus. And Ixtaccihautl, although it was el Popo that stayed in my mind. Thanks for taking my back there.

    I never even thought of climbing it. And if I had, I’d have thought of something else as quickly as possible.

    • Glad for the memory trip. I recall you speak Spanish? Estoy en lo correcto?
      Climbing mountains? It all started a few years before when I interviewed a junior executive in the firm I was working in. “Do you have a passion?” “Mountain climbing”. Oh! A few months later I took all my buddies for all across Europe to climb Mont-Blanc and we almost died. 🤣🤣🤣 (But did not!) We all met again in 2014 for the 25th anniversary. Cool.

    • Yes, the crater was “WOW!”. We couldn’t believe it.
      How long? Not too sure. Got up around 4AM. ‘took us about 6 hours to get to the crater. Quick lunch up there. Sandwiches. 4-5 hours back down. A dozen hours all in all? Just in time for hugs, hop in the car and back to Mexico city before sunset.

    • C’est dangereux. Il y a des accidents tous les ans. Malheureusement. Mais si on fait gaffe. On s’entraîne, et on a du bon “Matos”, les risques sont contrôlés. Mes amis Européens avec qui j’ai grimpé le Mont-blanc ont continué pendant 25 ans. Sans souci. Et ils ne sont plus tous jeunes maintenant.

  4. What a hike! And good that you did it, before it started to erupt again, a great memory, is it not?
    And super photos! I can relate, I hiked throught the Pyrenees twice, though the peaks there are not as high as the “Popo”.

    • Mountains are beautiful. So far from the “madening crowd”. And I hear the Pyrénées are very pretty. Never been that far South in France. ‘Been to so many countries in the world, and there are many parts of France I don’t know.
      Altitude is really symbolic. There can be lower summits that are a real “bitch” to climb.
      Alles gut?

  5. That is an epic hike! The view of the crater is very eerie. It really seems ancient. Too bad you can no longer hike there, but that probably makes the memories more special. I miss hiking mountains. I used to hike every weekend in the Carpathians when I lived in Slovakia. Michigan has some hills but nothing near true mountains.

    • Les montagnes ont leur magie n’est-ce pas? Well, you have your woods. Which I understand are quite pleasant.
      (The crater was totally unexpected. Like a gate to another world…)

  6. Wow. Fabulous. Thank you for taking me along on a trip that assures me it’s the closest I’ll EVER come to climbing a mountain. 🙂 That was fun. You must have had a wonderful time and now that it’s active, who knows when it will go dormant again?

  7. That was quite an adventure! My favorite line: “No point in being stupid.” The photos of the mountain are just splendid, particularly the mouth of Hell. I expect my next mountain will be Mount Washington, via the Mount Washington Auto Road, of course–or perhaps we’ll try to cog railway up the mountain.

  8. Volcanoes are amazingly powerful, and I imagine so is the experience of climbing one like you did. There is one near us but we have yet to experience it. Good story though and thanks for the inspo.

    • They are powerful. If you are inspired to climb one. Do your research, train, and train beforehand, and go with someone local who knows and the way and pitfalls. 🙏🏻

  9. I didn’t expect the terrain to be so arid near Mexico City. From what my philosophy teacher(from Mexico City) from college said, the landscape away from the northern border of the country was green and lush. Is it a case of there being pockets of semi-desert in places?

  10. Seriously impressed. 😮 What a memory and that photo of the inside of the crater is historical! How many years after did it explode? How much time in advance did they know it would? Damn! I have a bit of a fear of volcanoes and earthquakes. I know, in a wrong country for that.

    • About 4-5 years later. Though it hasn’t exploded (yet?) there is just permanent activity and smoke and ashes. The lake in the crater is gone. And one cannot climb because of lethal gasses.
      Earthqueakes in Italy? yeah. They can be frightening. here too. Buona Domenica.

    • Remember the Bene Gesserit Litany of Fear? One has to face one’s Fear. Not always easy. But it works. Thanks for the visit and comment. All well? You did have a close call with the virus, correct? All well?

      • All well, yes thanks. The snap lockdown effectively shut down any community transmission of the virus. No cases now, bar 2, that were already in hotel quarantine. We wore masks for 2 weeks following the lockdown, so I attended a wedding wearing a mask, but we have the all clear and no longer have to wear masks now!
        And yes, to really live, we do and should face one’s fears!

    • Yes it was. Astounding. The caldera. The sulfur. We all came back smelling like rotten eggs. 🤣
      And the grey sand is indeed volcanic ash. Not too easy to hike. foot dips in a bit.

  11. Thanks for sharing your impressive hike. It looks grueling. The highest I’ve ever been is around 11,000 feet. I was young and drove up, then started hiking around without acclimating. I was extremely fatigued but doing that today would probably kill me.

    I showed your photos to my husband, Andy, who summited Mount Rainier (only 14,400 ft) in 1995. He loves that mountain and has visited it almost every year since our first trip in 1992. There is a trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier that is about 100 miles long. He’s done that too many times for me to keep track and I’ve done it twice and parts of it on other occasions. We backpack over several days, carrying our tent, food, and other gear. I have no desire to walk to the summit but in circumnavigating, one actually climbs a total of 29,700 feet and descends (of course) the same amount.

    I haven’t visited that mountain since 2011 but I’m hoping to go this summer. It’s an absolutely gorgeous environment in the middle of one of the U.S.’s most scenic national parks. I wish we had an organized photo library to point you to online. Here is a summary, however, of Andy’s hike to the top. (BTW: if you navigate around on his blog, every new page banner is a scene that he shot at Mount Rainier.)


    • 11 or 14,000 ft are quite decent. But one does need to prepare. For Mont-Blanc, I’d walk across half of Paris every evening for 3 weeks before the climb. (And some are affected by altitude: our youngest daughter, when she leaves Mexico city for some time, needs a few weeks adjustment when she comes back.)
      Mount Rainier looks very nice. Another blogger is planning on going this summer.
      I will hop to Andy’s blog. A+

  12. I’m glad I saved this post. What a fantastic adventure and such beautiful photos, too. Bravo, Brieuc! Glad you got to climb the Popo before it became a Nono!

      • Chais pas du tout, en fait. Pour moi, en Français c’est un terme d’affection. En général pour une personne plus jeune. “Salut mon grand”! Si c’est un homme. Encore qu’aujourd’hui, les Français, hommes, peuvent se saluer d’un !”salut ma poule”! (Mais ça peut prêter à confusion.)

      • J’imagine. Encore que les Français “de France” deviennent un peu compliqués avec le language. Donc, parfois, je fais gaffe. En plus, les sens peuvent changer radicalement. Bonne soirée, ma “grande”. 😉

  13. Man, I commend you and your friends for having the courage to climb a mountain that high smh whew😅and I thought climbing the blue trail at Sleeping Giant was intense…well, it’s not even comparable to what y’all did 😂

    • The altitude is just a number. The mountain itself was not even hard, on the way we chose. There was another way, South much more technical. And dangerous. We took the easy way up. Which is fine. and the Sleeping Giant I’m sure is a unique experience. Where is that?

  14. This must have been scintillating, Brianji! Love the account of your trudge up the slopes of the volcano and the view from the top. That lake at the bottom must have seemed like the prettiest thing in the world to your eyes. The cloud of ashes rising off the Popo is so photogenic. 😉

    • Oui, je me rappelle, tu avais mentionné ton vertige. (Pourquoi pensé-je à Bashung?) Même en montagne à vache? Tu montes sur un tabouret et ça tourne?
      C’était une bonne grimpette. Rien de difficile à part le vent et le maudit sable. Bon Dimanche ma grande. Avec ton bar dans ton jardin. 🍷

    • Celle-là je la connaissais pas. J’apprends toujours plein de choses avec toi ma “grande”. C’est toujours un plaisir. Le moral est bon? Biz à toi aussi.

      • Oui… je commence à penser la même chose. Pour tout un tas de raisons différentes. Je viens d’avoir un épisode… délirant avec le Consulat. Ça devient du délire. (Donc, historiquement, ça va péter…) Biz ma grande. (Garde-toi à gauche, garde-toi à droite, comme disaient les fils de “Colin-Maillard)

  15. Wow…wow! What a view into the crater, what an awesome day to spend with your son!
    Lava dust..ground pumice..it’s worse than sand. I do not think I could hike on that surface..and airborne it will lodge in your lungs and eyes. Still..an awesome, other-world experience, oddly so close to millions of souls but so isolated and far away. Volcanoes are cool….as long as we’re safe.

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