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Ascent of Volcán Iztaccíhuatl on 2012-01-13

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Duane Gilliland
Rob Woodall
Collin Kamholz
(Ryan Courtney)
Date:Friday, January 13, 2012
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Volcán Iztaccíhuatl
    Location:Mexico
    Elevation:5220 m / 17126 ft

Ascent Trip Report

Thursday, January 12:

Rob, Duane, Adam, Collin, Ryan and I had a relatively leisurely morning today, since most of us were tired from our Orizaba hike the day before. We slept in a bit in the Servimont hostel in Tlachichuca, and made our own breakfasts in the downstairs hotel common room and got our gear organized—most of mine had dried out overnight. Our plan today was to drive to Amecameca and get in position to climb Iztaccíhuatl (“Izta”) tomorrow.

So we finally packed up and made plans to caravan to Amecameca, about a three-hour drive west from Tlachichuca towards Mexico City. It was hard to keep our two cars together in Mexican traffic, so we agreed to rendezvous at the high pass on the freeway north of Izta, and then caravan to Amecameca.

Collin, Ryan, and I got in our car and headed out. We immediately got lost trying to leave Tlachichuca, and my attempts to navigate by steering away from the landmark of Orizaba did not work well. We finally found the wide palm-lined boulevard leading west out of town, but Duane, Adam, and Rob likely had a big head start.

We drove west to Route 140, and turned south for about 45 minutes of the usual excruciation of Mexican roads—slow trucks, “topes” (speed bumps), crowded towns, and crazy drivers. At Acatzingo we got on the toll freeway and made good time through the Puebla area and up towards the Popo-Izta mountain ridge. Popo was belching out more smoke than usual, clearly letting us know we would not be attempting its peak this trip.

Collin, Ryan, and I were surprised when we came to the high pass on the freeway and did not see the others, given how lost we got earlier. They showed up 20 minutes after us, having taken the roads through Tlaxcala, fearing Puebla traffic. After getting some snacks from the nearby stalls, we caravaned downhill into the Valley of Mexico, I following Duane on the freeway. At Ixtapaluca we exited the freeway and had to turn left, but were caught up in a massively ugly traffic jam due to interchange construction and nearby shopping mall traffic. Our cars got totally separated as we spent over half an hour crawling slowly, jostling for position with massive trucks and too many other cars. What a nightmare.

Eventually Highway 115 cleared out of traffic and it was clear sailing southeast on sections of freeway mixed with good two-lane roads all the way to Amecameca. But the Zocalo downtown was another traffic nightmare—I drove around it twice before somehow finding a parking lot at the southeast corner, paying 10 pesos, and then finding Duane, Rob, and Adam (who parked on the street) and heading for the National Park office.

The helpful lady at the cramped park office sold us wristbands allowing us to be in Popo-Izta national park for 2 day each, plus a night at the Altzomoni hostel near the Izta trailhead, all for 81 pesos total each. I paid for us all, and then when I asked for a good restaurant, the woman nicely guided us two blocks away to a pleasant sit-down establishment where we had a hearty lunch.

After buying some water in a convenience store, and getting some gasoline at an extremely chaotic, tiny, crowded Pemex station at the northwest corner of the Zocalo, we finally headed south of town, ready to head up into the mountains again.

It was not far to the left turn heading uphill to the Paso de Cortés, and the road was quite pleasant as it went through a couple villages and then through pine forest on a very curvy track before reaching a roundabout, monument, and visitor center at the pass. We stopped and looked at what I heard was the only monument to Hernán Cortés in all of Mexico, and browsed in the spartan visitor center for a minute, and then went to the gate blocking the dirt road heading towards Izta. A man checked our wristbands, took my driver’s license as a security deposit, and gave me a key to the Altzonomi hostel, telling us it was 8 km up the road.

This road was a bit rough and sandy in spots, definitely a challenge for heavily-loaded Dodge Avengers. As we neared the bulk of Izta ahead we came to a fork, and I turned left at a sign pointing to Altzonomi. This road became a narrow cobblestoned track that steeply wound around a hillside with a sheer drop off one side—it looked utterly harrowing but actually my car took it pretty well, since the surface had no huge holes or ruts. Up top was a parking area for a large complex of buildings housing a huge array of TV, radio, and cellphone antennas.

A large group of American climbers and Mexican guides was there, loading up a bunch of vans—I quickly found out that they were college instructors and students from Minnesota that had attempted Izta yesterday and were now leaving the hostel, located in a ground floor wing of the antenna complex building. Duane apparently was spooked by the road, and Rob had run up to see what I was up to. I finally volunteered to run down to Duane and get him to come up, since the vans were waiting for uphill traffic on the road to clear before heading down.

Eventually Duane drove up to the parking area, the three vans of Minnesotans took off, and we then had to wait a half-hour for the mountain guides who had been with them to clean out the hostel before we could go in. We passed the time in the scenic parking lot, gazing at the cloud covered slopes of Popo and Izta and taking pictures.

We were finally allowed in the hostel, a very rustic set of three large bunkrooms (each with 8 bunks with mattresses) and two primitive toilets (flushed with buckets of water), but they had electric lights and were warmer than the cold, windy outside. It was pretty clean and tidy, too. My main concern was the electromagnetic radiation levels from all the communications equipment in the vicinity. Some of us wanted to get to the highest point on this little hill, but the workers at the facility would not allow us past the main gate.

So we spent the evening in usual fashion, organizing gear, cooking up some camping food for dinner, and planning our climb tomorrow. Collin was feeling better after a week of being at altitude, and he was planning an early start for the summit to give him time to make it at a slower pace. Ryan, initially planning to hang back, decided to accompany him after the clouds cleared from our view of Izta, showing an entirely snow-free face to us that didn’t look too bad. I gave Ryan my car key and the 2 of them would drive to the La Joya trailhead at 4 AM or so, and then Duane, Rob, and I would take Duane’s car at 6 AM. Adam would hang out in the hostel all day, since he had climbed Izta many years ago. We all appreciated that Adam was hanging out with us and helping out with his Spanish skills for the last 5 days of this trip, since he had already climbed both Orizaba and Izta.

The views of the volcanoes were spectacular that evening—we could even see glowing embers reflected in the smoke coming from Popo’s crater, and the lights of the cities in the valley were spectacular, too. We all got to sleep relatively early.

Friday, January 13:

Rob, Duane and I got up at 5 AM, quickly ate some breakfast, got our packs ready, and then Duane drove us slowly and carefully down from the Altzonomi hostel and then on to La Joya, the end of the road and the usual Izta trailhead. By 6:20 AM we were hiking up the trail in the dark, soon discovering that our trailhead was actually “La Joyita” and the path led us to the real “La Joya”, no longer car-accessible. From there a narrower trail started a long traverse up the slopes of Izta. I had been on this path in 1993 (one day off from exactly 19 years ago) and tried to recall landmarks, but the fog of time was too much.

Our first notable place was a pass (the “first portillo”), where we rested and saw a memorial plaque. The path here descended briefly down the other side (and didn’t go up like I thought), then slabbed uphill on sandy, eroded braids to the next pass at 4400 meters (my 1993 turn-around point). From there the trail switched to the “left” side of the ridge and climbed up to a third pass at 4500 meters, the col between the “feet” of Izta and the main mass of the mountain. We were making OK time, and the sun was now out, but there was a strong wind and a fair number of low clouds blowing around.

From this pass the trail switched to the east side of the ridge and climbed uphill more, soon taking a steeper line towards some castle-like rock formations. These were easily bypassed with trivial scrambling, and the trail led up to the side of a high ridge before flattening out and then descending a short ways to the Grupo del Cien hut, a small white structure that we welcomed as a refuge from the wind. Ahead we saw the steep cliffs of the “knees” and thought we maybe saw climbers up high there.

Rob, Duane, and I sat inside the hut for a while, ate some food and warmed up. I went out after a while to see if the climbers were Collin and Ryan, but instead head Spanish voices and saw a pair of climbers descending a large scree slope from the top of the knees. A bit later I went out again to greet the two Mexican climbers, who soon joined us in the hut. They were tough hombres who had spent last night in the hut with no sleeping bags. They did not recommend their route for us, since it was hard to find without the detailed knowledge of the mountain they had.

We took off again, and I thought the Mexicans had told us to go up to the ridge with the crosses on it above the hut. But my poor Spanish had led me to misunderstand them—we needed to stay low on the sand at first on the obvious trails, then head for the rocky ridgecrest. They yelled at us until we were on the right path. This was the longest sustained climb on Izta, a meandering path that went up sandy slopes and rock outcrops, and faint yellow paint spots marked the route. Up higher, there was some easy class 3 scrambling around a large metal cross.

The top of the “knees” was a somewhat pointy peak, with ruins of an old hut, at over 5000 meters. We were excited because we thought the hard work for this climb was done, but ahead loomed several false summits, and we didn’t yet realize that the real top was not even in sight yet. At first we cruised along the crest of a high ridge with minor ups and downs to a windy high point where a large snowfield had to be crossed. Here we saw Collin and Ryan for the first time, heading across the snow. We three took a rest, put on our crampons, and descended icy snow for a bit and then did a long flat crossing of the crusty glacial remnant to the other side, where we finally caught up with Collin and Ryan.

Now a five man party, we cached our crampons and climbed up some rocky/sandy slopes uphill towards another false summit. I was a bit winded from the altitude on this stretch, and Ryan was lagging a bit, too. I followed others to the left side of the rounded peak but this was sketchy terrain with loose scree—on the way back we found it was easier to go over the top. Up here I waited for Ryan while the others dropped down a nice snowy arête and headed up the next rise. Once on the false summit Ryan told me he was turning back—he was lagging, and had already smashed his old personal height record (we were just over 17,000 feet), and he was worried about being slow on the descent.

I followed the others down the arête and then up a short slope of about 100 vertical feet to our last false summit of the day, a rounded top one might call the South Summit. Ahead was another huge flat field of snow, and the snake-like ridge on its far side appeared to be the real summit. So the four of us, led by the energetic Rob, trudged crampon-less across this expanse, up the east end of the little rocky ridge, then along the crest for 150 horizontal meters to a high point crowned with some small metal crosses—the summit at last! It was about 1 PM.

We took a bunch of photos and had hearty hugs and congratulations all around—Duane, Rob, and I were especially happy for Collin, making his first climb of the trip since he was hit hard by the altitude a week earlier on Toluca, and in the process setting a new personal highest point. The wind was pretty strong here, though, so after our photo session we decided to go back along the ridge and find some rocks to sit in the lee and take a rest and eat.

After a snack and a nice rest basking in the intermittent sun and the happiness of reaching the summit, we headed down the little ridge and decided to make a detour over to a hump one could call the West Summit that looked just as high as both the cross-marked North Summit and the South Summit we had already been too. The West Summit was a bit icy and tricky without crampons, but we traversed it and then back to the South Summit. Our GPS units read pretty much the same elevation on all three humps, so we felt good about being thorough in hitting all of them, but the presence of crosses and cairns on the North Summit likely means that was surveyed as the highest.

The descent was fairly long and tiring as we dealt with all the false summits, just as they had worn us out on the ascent. We caught up with Ryan pretty quickly, as we were crossing the large snowfield where we used crampons once again. He was pretty tired, though, and needed extra time to descend the steep rocks and sandy scree of the big slope above the hut. We stayed with him and made sure we all made it to the hut safely, where we took a nice rest. The weather had been improving, and it was now wind-free and sunny, so we didn’t bother going inside the hut—the rocks outside were very pleasant resting spots.

From the hut we headed down the well-marked path, with its crossings of the ridge on passes and occasional short uphills, as the afternoon turned into evening. We knew we would be pretty late in getting down, so we tried to call Adam a few times on Collins cellphone to let him know we were behind schedule, but we had connection problems—I think he got the general message, though.

At the 4400-meter saddle we let Rob and Duane go ahead so they could get to their car and pick up a likely bored Adam from the Altzonomi hostel, while Collin and I stayed back to make sure Ryan got down safely. I felt sorry for Ryan, trapped on a trip with some very fast hikers—at his own pace, he could have made the summit and maybe spent the night at the hut or gotten down super late but still safely. But our current plans meant we had to get down tonight, so he bravely slogged on down. The rocky braided trail section below the 4400-meter saddle was actually pretty difficult to hike heading down, too, even for experienced hikers like Collin and I.

The sun set as we made the long traverse down from the final saddle, and eventually Collin and I took off to get to the car and start the process of loading it up. It got dark, though, and we missed the path to La Joyita and had to bushwhack across the grassy tussocks to our parking lot at the end. We arrived back around 6:45 PM.

As I neared the car, a voice in the darkness asked if I spoke English and if I was an American. As I answered “yes” and approached the guys, I saw it was Blair and Vlad, the San Diegans we had met on Orizaba. They had a rented truck and driver, and were planning an Izta climb tomorrow, before their afternoon plane flight! I told them about our trip and emphasized that it was a long and tough climb with all the routefinding and false summits, and wished them well. (I later found out they did not make it, when Blair “ran out of gas” at the Cien hut).

At the car Collin and I loaded up our packs and waited for Ryan, who made the same route-finding error as we did and also had to bushwhack in the dark down to the car. At 7 PM we drove the 2 km up the rutted dirt road to the Altzonomi turn-off, where Duane, Rob, and Adam were waiting for us. I insisted that we arrange our stuff for a few minutes—our car had all Adam’s bags in it and there was hardly any room for us at all. So Adam got his things out, and I retrieved my sneakers from Duane’s car to make driving easier, and we were soon off, headed back to the Paso de Cortés.

After a somewhat harrowing drive down the roughest road of our trip in the pitch darkness, we came to the gate at the pass, where the gatekeeper let us out and told me I could get my driver’s license back at the visitor center—I was happy about this, since I was a bit concerned given the late hour. Soon we were on the road back to Amecameca, agreeing to rendezvous at the El Marques Motel north of town I had seen on our way in yesterday.

We successfully got down the dark mountain road into Amecameca, and at the El Marques I pulled in and found the others negotiating for a room. However, the prices seemed high, and we noticed the place advertised its “garages”—we had heard this was a Mexican code word for a motel that rents by the hour for trysts. Indeed, the rooms had little private parking spots with curtains, presumably so a wife would not notice her husband’s car parked there. We decided to leave this place and instead go to the Hotel San Carlos, on the Zocalo next to the national park office.

This hotel was cheap, spartan, quiet, and clean, and we got two triple rooms. The main hassle was parking outside in front, and lugging all our gear upstairs, in our case three flights. But we were soon set up, and we took our showers and then went out to find a restaurant. Unfortunately, it was now 10 PM, and the town was deserted. Adam had wanted to eat before we got rooms, and was overruled by tired hikers, but he was certainly right. After wandering around the dark Zocalo area, Collin and I decided it was a wild goose chase and bailed, buying some snacks in a convenience store to eat in our rooms.

Ryan had not come with us, and he showered late and read in an open room next door to us while Collin and I crashed out, very tired after a long but productive day.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1469 m / 4823 ft
    Extra Gain:99 m / 328 ft
    Distance:20.8 km / 12.9 mi
    Route:South Ridge
    Trailhead:La Joyita  3949 m / 12959 ft
    Grade/Class:Class 3
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons
    Weather:Cool, Windy, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:6 Hours 40 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:5 Hours 15 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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