You know it could possibly be an addiction when it hurts so bad it feels good.
View from Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
You know it could possibly be an addiction when it hurts so bad it feels good. That pretty much sums up how I felt at the end of this thirteen and half hour climb up Iztaccíhuatl (pronounced “ee-tsak-CEE-watl”); Mexico’s 3rd highest mountain topping out at 17,160 feet or 5230 meters. Legend has it that this dormant volcano is the burial grounds of the most beautiful Aztec princess who died from sorrow after hearing (untruthfully from a jealous suitor) that her lover, Popocatépetl, died in an epic battle. When Popocatépetl returned from battle and learned of his lovers fate, he perished along side her and still remains an active volcano that billows ash and smoke as a representation of his everlasting love for her to this day. Iztaccíhuatl, also affectionately called Izta, is in the form of a woman lying down: you climb the feet, the knees, cross the belly, summit the breasts and look over the head. So perhaps it is under the guise of this epic love story that I fell hard for the pursuit of climbing mountains.
Driving to Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
The Night Before
The night we arrived the wind was piercing cold and was relentless as we set up at the base camp lot at 13,000 feet. It’s the kind of cold that makes your hands sting and fingers numb after brief moments of exposure. Base camp has a dilapidated old concrete metal style hut, an open air pit toilet and a few tents ragged from permanent exposure. We learned a guy lives here, but we never saw a living trace of him. It’s hard to believe anyone would want to actually rough it up here on a permanent basis. The weather is harsh and unforgiving and the closest supply of food is an hour’s drive away.
It was right before heading to bed that we saw a rescue vehicle and a dozen sirened emergency vehicles pass by on the path above. Rumor has it a climber was being extracted; not sure if dead or alive. We checked the Garmin weather report and it was not looking out for us as rain and snow were predicted for our summit day. Touché. We finished packing and cozied up in Peso for the night.
Base Camp at Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Day of Reckoning
Alarm clocks are relentless. It’s 3:30 in the morning and it’s below 20 degrees outside. I start to rise from a dead sleep and check the weather report: snow and clouds predicted for the day. Colin is reluctant to wake as he has a tight chest and sore throat; the beginnings of a chest cold only surely to be made worse after the climb we are about to attempt. Second thoughts take over and we debate on whether we should attempt the summit today. After a quick cold pee outside, I see that the sky is clear, no clouds in sight and the moon is brilliantly bright and full. Garmin’s weather report is a not matching the reality on the ground. It’s amazing at this hour and definitely wicked cold, but also exhilarating and exciting. With this weather revelation Colin decides it’s a go and we get ready to leave.
After some sleepy, lengthy decisions of last minute gear to bring we depart at 6:00am; two hours later than planned. Better late than never. We try to guzzle a liter of water before we ascend the first 1000 feet because we did not drink enough on the last high altitude climb. The altitude sickness hangover is real folks and it does not relent. The ground is slippery and muddy at the base, but as we ascend it becomes ice hard and crisp. Traces of the rescue team from the night before are evident in the frozen ice glittered mud. The seriousness of the climb intensify as we see the tracks of the rescue team continue higher and higher. We learn later that this was a rapid evacuation of a young climber who fell the day before and sadly died during the evac from the mountain.
The full moon is bright enough to lead the way; my shadows are climbing the rocks ahead of me. The first part of the trail proved to be the hardest for catching a rhythm to our our breathing and for getting all our shit situated. Let’s be honest, this is my first attempt at a mountain of this magnitude and it a takes a little bit to get all the gear comfortable and my body energized. We also don’t have a topo map and are relying on cell phone images of a cartoon trail map in the dark. Between the base and about 14,500 feet the trail ascends with very small nearly non-existent switchbacks. Who’s sick idea was it to make the trail go straight up the mountain?
The Feet at Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Valley below Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
As we make it to the Feet of Izta, the sun is starting to rise and gently uncovers the top of Popocatépetl, also called Popo, with brilliant light and a rainbow colors. We are clearly above the cloud line and the view is magnificent. Popo is an active volcano across the valley that smokes ominously with a summit of 17,250 feet. It’s snow covered cap is breathtaking.
View of Popocatépetl, Mexico
Morning light on Popocatépetl
After the Feet on Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
We stop for a snack of very gooey PB & J and some snacks about two hours into the climb. It’s instantly rejuvenating and energizing. The next couple of hours are a steady climb to the Refugio; a camp at about 15,000 feet. We pass a couple of climbers on their descent from the Refugio, a camp at about 15,000 feet, and they warn us of the snow and ice. They didn’t bring crampons or ice axes so they abandoned their summit attempt. It’s about 9:00AM when we arrive at the Refugio. It is a mess and I couldn’t imagine sleeping overnight here. People do it, but honestly I would rather add the additional 5 hours to the hike to avoid sleeping in that space. It’s an old bunker with urine ridden sleeping bags strewn across the ground, trash and lots of old broken abandoned gear.
The snow line starts here and we don our crampons and begin the winding technical ascent to the Knees. This is physically the hardest and most technical part so far. There is a steep scramble up a scree field that is covered in snow and ice. It’s here you have to take 2-3 steps, wait, breathe. Take 2-3 steps, wait, breathe. Take 2-3 step, wait, breathe. And then finally when you get to the ridge that looks like the summit of the Knees, we find we have to scramble over more steep rock fields and more ridges to get to the top just shy of 16,800 feet. There is an abandoned hut (rather wind blown and skeletal) at the top of the Knees and the views in all directions are incredible. You can see for miles and it feels like you are floating on the clouds.
Refugio below the Knees Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Lucia at the Knees Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
First ridge of the Knees
Old hut at the Knees summit
16,800 feet at the Knees
It is just after this point that we see impressions in the snow where the evacuated climber fell. It is definitely a class 5 scramble over ice and snow. It was tricky and slippery. We approached it with steady cautiousness. The next push is up to the glacier, also known as the Belly. There is a lot of exposure on the ridges as you ascend, but the snow is hard and the crampons held really well. At the top of the ridge as you enter the glacier, you can see a beautiful glacier lake and blue crevasse on the east side. It is stunning. It’s my first time crossing a glacier of this magnitude and elevation. It was incredibly sunny and clear, except for the thin cloud layer below us. This created an illusion of entering a complete white and blue world. Everything was blazing, sparkling white and off into the distance we could see our final destination.
The sun has been out all day. My eyes (even being covered) are feeling the intensity of the sun and my lips are chapped and burning from the wind. The views in all directions are stunning. I have never been this high; 16,800 feet. We make the push to cross the glacier and it’s much easier than I thought (probably because it was more down than up; this I sadly realize on the way back). It’s pretty steep, but the snow conditions are good. I used my trekking poles to steady myself as I made my way across. The south facing slope was the hardest to get up because the snow was quite soft, but we we managed to get to the ridge to continue. At this point it's 1:00PM and we really want to turn around by 2:00PM to descend. The weather has been holding out, but we don’t want to push it in case the Garmin weather report actually lives up to its forecast. The summit is still easily ½ mile away. A half mile in your mind seems like a cinch, but a half mile at 16,800 feet with 400+ more feet of elevation gain is a marathon.
Before the glacier - Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
View of the glacier
Descending into the glacier
Opposite ridge of the glacier
Pushing the Limits
Colin is having a harder time breathing with the onset of his cold so we are going at a slow steady pace. The ridge before the Breasts was the most risky part of the climb all day. The exposed rocky ridge is covered with wind blown ice 2-3 feet across and had been in the sun all day. The exposure on both sides was serious and one wrong step could have been trouble. Quite literally, I had an inch of solid rock to place my crampon as I gingerly twistered my way across a five foot section while delicately steadied myself on the ice crusted rocks. Once we maneuvered past this section it was a steep ascent to last ridge before the summit. This was mentally pretty tough for me. I really wanted to be done and felt the pressure of turning around by 2:00PM. I didn’t think I had it in me to continue, but I just kept pushing forward 2-3 steps at a time. This section was challenging because we couldn’t see the trail, there were no cairns to mark the path, the snow was slushy and the rocky ground below was soft.
We made it to the top of the ridge and traversed to the south summit with haste as we wanted to turn around as soon as possible. Distance is so deceiving at this altitude and is so much slower than you think. I laugh now, but it took everything I had to keep going. When we finally go to the summit, it was bittersweet. All I wanted was to sit and rest for a while, but it was just past our 2:00PM deadline. We touched the summit, immediately turned around and started the descent. I learned a lesson of importance with mountaineering: earlier you start the better. It was disappointing to not hang out at the summit to celebrate, but perhaps celebrating at the summit is premature; remember you have to go back down! It wasn’t until we reached the lower false summit ridge that we realized we hadn’t even taken a summit photo. We stopped there and took a couple shots and started down again. Little did we know that the descent was going to be just as hard and tiring as the ascent.
Icy exposure Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
En route to the summit Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Colin post summit Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Lucia post summit Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
This was definitely a test of my mental and physical endurance. I can’t tell you how many times we passed a section of trail that I forgot we ascended. In my mind, base camp and Peso were just down around the bend and I tell you now that is the worst type of mental trickery. Eventually, we made it back to the Refugio even with a wrong turn on a tricky technical scramble down a rock ravine in the Knees.
From here we knew we had at least 2.5 hours to go as it took us 3 hours to get to this point on the ascent. It was 4:30PM and we were definitely optimistic of what lied ahead. I can look back and laugh at I my optimism now. We learned that the last hour is definitely the hardest; out of water, out of food, sun is setting, everything hurts and we’re exhausted! Every corner promised the arrival to base camp, but each time it was just a little further and we always had to go up a little before going down. I don’t remember it being this long on the way up. It was a mental game for sure, but we didn’t really have a choice. We also had the fear of finding Peso in ruins or gone for that matter since we had been gone all day long and the base camp is unattended. We’ve heard of horror stories, be it rumor or not, of climbers returning to an empty lot after being on the mountain all day. With our mental tenacity weakened and oxygen deprived it wasn’t hard to let our imaginations run wild.
On the final stretch as we approached the base camp lot, I could not hold back the tears for accomplishing this personal feat and the fact that Peso was there waiting for us with food, water and a warm bed! We had watched the sun set and it was now dark and bitterly cold again. We unloaded our gear, boiled water for some MRE’s and tried to eat. I was so exhausted I could hardly lift my spoon to eat. We had a celebratory bourbon toast and found our pillows with great relief and weariness. Sleep was not hard to find this night.
We summited Izta on October 23, 2018. It took 13.5 hours. At the end of the day I was physically exhausted, sunburned, lips chapped, wrists sore, hungry, and cold, but without a doubt it was the most exhilarating feat I have ever done. I can say positively that I am addicted. I want to climb more and I want to climb higher.
Lucia on the descent Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Colin on the descent Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Onward to the Knees Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Sunset Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Finished! Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Best views Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
Gear We Use
La Sportiva Trango TRK GTX Boots (Lucia)
Lowa Renegade GTX (Colin)
Petzl Actik Core (Lucia)
Black Diamond Spot (Colin)
Petzl Meteor (Lucia)
Black Diamond Vapor (Colin)
Patagonia Nano Puff Vest (Lucia)
Western Mountaineering Flight Series Vest (Colin)