A Visual Guide to Summiting Mexico’s Highest Volcanoes
Hard-learned insights into climbing Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, with 35mm film highlights
Fuji GA645i Medium Format, Contax RX 35mm
Kodak Portra 160 + 400, Ilford HP5
As the clock struck midnight and brought the central time zone of the Americas into the new year, a handful of weary souls were doing their best to rest while camped on the edge of a dirt parking lot 30 miles or so east of Mexico City. My climbing party and I were among them, and I was not succeeding in sleeping.
Within the first two hours we were out of our warm sleeping bags, hastily preparing in the chilling cold of high camp to summit Iztaccíhuatl, the third highest peak in Mexico. At 17,160ft, the peak requires much more way-finding and a longer approach than the country’s two higher conical peaks. The year prior I’d scraped my plans to hike this formidable peak due to illness, so this time around I made an attempt at Izta a priority. However a lack of sleep and mysterious rumblings in my gut had me questioning if I was in over my head at a much higher altitude than the low-slung mountains of New England I was familiar with.
"On the summit of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak at 18,491ft, I was among the highest people on the continent at that moment."
Nevertheless, we made it to the first summit of Iztaccihuatl. After the taxing ascent, we ditched plans to explore further along the ridge that makes up the iconic outline of the mountain, instead opting to save our energy for what still lay ahead. A wise move it turned out to be.
A few days later I was on the summit of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak at 18,491ft, likely among the highest people on the continent at that moment, as Denali and Logan are all but impassable during winter. I had first stumbling upon Orizaba while researching potential trips in 2013, and though I found myself strangely drawn to it, I filed it away as beyond my skill level. This year though, produced a successful summit.
After a swift decent from Orizaba, choking on scree dust and packing up base camp with my head pounding, all I had to do was wait for an arranged ride back to Tlachichuca. A few hours later my efforts were rewarded with all the beers and tacos I could handle.
Years of dreaming and researching, and two trips to the region, have left me with some useful firsthand knowledge of climbing Mexico's highest peaks. The following are a handful of key things I’d tell all would-be alpinistas to make sure you have before setting of into the highlands.
Six Essentials to Consider When Attempting to Summit Mexico’s High Volcanoes
1. Sleeping Pad: The first night back in my reliable REI Half-Dome 3, I woke up in the middle of the night to find myself on hard, cold earth. The thick, cushy sleeping pad I had been using on backpacking trips for the past year had mysteriously stopped holding air. It’s not easy to find a replacement in the highlands east of Mexico City, and the next few nights of camping were quite miserable after all attempts to patch the pad failed each day (later I determined there were no fewer than 9 tiny holes in that pad). I’d recommend carrying a hard pad, like a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite-Sol as a backup. I’ve also since invested in a Exped MegaMat Duo for car camping and it will be coming along with me next time.
2. Binoculars: A must-have on any outing for me now. I found them especially useful on Iztaccíhuatl, with its winding boot-paths, multiple ridges and energy-sucking scree (as well as for a better view of the active Popocatépetl mountain, which is visible in the distance). I've got a cheap pair, but investing in a quality pair from Zeiss seems like a good next step.
3. 4x4 Rig: This year I opted for a beefier rental car after cheaping out and thinking I could get by on country roads with a minuscule stick-shift from an airport car rental company in Mexico City on my previous trip. I did some research and got a Nissan X-Trail from Asua in Mexico City, which was able to handle the harrowing drive up and down Paso de Cortez. The dirt road is the roughest road I’ve ever driven—the 25 mile stretch took us a couple hours each way. The holiday traffic certainly didn’t help either, with every kind of pickup, party bus and box truck barreling up, down, and around every bend, passing us on blind curves.
4. A Legit Guide: We didn’t use a guide for Iztaccíhuatl but employed one for Pico de Orizaba through Servimont, the climbing hostel and outfitter that’s served the area for decades. When we met with our guide, Ulysses, he informed us that it had been an extremely dry season, and the Jampa Glacier—our intended route—was basically a 45 degree ice skating rink. Teams hadn’t been successful in summiting and there had been multiple injuries, and if we went on that route the likelihood of summiting was basically zero.
The other option was the Ruta Sur, which is not glaciated, but essentially a giant slog up a scree covered slope, which we weren’t too keen on after finding a similar situation on parts of Iztaccíhuatl. Long story short though, we would have been totally screwed without our guide. He kept us on pace, in high spirits, and on the right path (in the dark) to make a successful summit bid, even if it wasn’t on a glacier.
5. Earplugs: Mexican campgrounds are loud. Especially over the holiday season, when families and friends roll up to a “Centro Vaccional” for an outing. At Malinche, a common and pleasant acclimatization hike near higher mountains, this campground serves as a convenient basecamp for hikers. However, most people aren’t there to get up at 4am and go for the summit, they’re just coming to hang out in the woods, and there aren't the same kind of quiet-time rules as your average American campground. Even the Piedra Grande hut on Orizaba has outfitter staff who spend their nights cooking and playing cards while you’re anxiously trying to get a few hours of shuteye before a big summit day. You’ve been warned.
6. Small Pack: This area of Mexico is relatively safe, but any time I’m traveling I try to keep my valuables close and organized—for convenience as much as anything. Alternating between living out of a pack, a hostel, or the car, it was essential to have one place where my most valuable items could stay together. The Tillykke Sacoche was the perfect bag to keep everything close while I was on the road and on the mountain.