Unlike most mountaineering adventures, mine started with 2 weeks of backpacking around the Caribbean coast, through the jungles of Chiapas and onto the Pacific coast in Oaxaca. After 2 weeks “de-acclimating” at sea level, I flew into Mexico City and shortly after was in a rover on my way to the mountains.
Mexico’s five highest summits are four inactive and one (very) active volcanoes. Looking to climb over 15,000ft, I set my sights on:
Nevado de Toluca – 15,350ft
Iztaccihuatl – 17,160ft
Pico de Orizaba – 18,490ft.
My first summit trip was Iztaccihuatl. The amazing Izta-Popo National Park takes only a few hours to reach from Mexico City. The road winds up through a huge forest to the saddle between the volcanoes. Settling in to La Joya basecamp at 13,000ft you can really appreciate the scale of both Izta, “the white woman” and Popo, “the smoking warrior.”
Legend has it that Popo was a great warrior who went off to war. The princess of their tribe, Izta, was told that Popo died in battle. She then died of sadness. When Popo returned, he was so heartbroken that he carried her to the top of the mountain and then died beside her. Flying over these mountains, Itza resembles a woman on her side while Popo routinely erupts steam and smoke.
As with all big mountains, climbing Itza begins with an alpine start. There’s no better way to climb than under the brilliance of the stars. Nothing but our headlamps guided us as we moved up the mountain cautiously over the steep terrain. Several hours into our climb - fighting off altitude headaches with little more than water and well wishes - the sun began to rise. The sunrise created a silhouette of Mexico’s highest mountain off in the distance. It’s easy to tell why they call this route “La Arista de Sol” or “The Ridge of the Sun.”
This route is a long, psychological climb full of false summits. At the full mercy of my poor acclimation strategy, I was exhausted and running on sheer willpower. Every time I managed to peel my eyes from the ground and look around, I was filled with the joy and reward of this challenge. My favourite part of the climb was an easy low-angle snowfield crossing where I strapped on crampons and trotted along.
After 2 weeks of beaches, being back on the snow gave me the surge of energy I needed for the final push toward the summit. I had never been at this altitude before and the feeling climbing up onto the summit block was one I’ll never forget. One thing I also never forget is that the summit is only halfway! After a short, emotional break, hugging and taking in the view, we turned around and started the much less glamorous trek home.
15+ miles, 4,000+ ft of elevation, and 15 hours later I came to a stop back at our basecamp. There was an overwhelming feeling of success. During the descent my head felt better as my legs felt worse. We gave out high-fives, hugs and tears as we ate and drank hot tea. Packing up and heading home, I knew that I was now addicted to high altitude climbing.
Written by Stephen Underhay
See more of Stephen's adventures on Instagram: @stephenunderhay