Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


100% success in Mexico! All 10 climbers reached the summits of all 3 mountains during this 2 week trip.

Mexico's four highest peaks are all volcanoes and all lie close to Mexico City. The second highest Popocatepetl (5452m) is currently 'active' and has been closed to climbers since the mid 1990's. The remaining three are all interesting climbs and our plan was to climb the 4th and 3rd highest as acclimatisation peaks before attempting the highest, Pico Orizaba (5610m).

After a long flight from the UK the team assembled in Mexico City and had a day of sightseeing before driving southwest to the city of Toluca. We drove to a private mountain hut at 3700m on the lower slopes of Nevado de Toulca, the country's 4th highest peak. From this base we climbed a subsidiary peak, Pico del Aiguila 4620m, on the 17th. The next day we used a different approach to climb to the highest point, Pico del Fraile 4704m, enjoying fine views over the surrounding landscape before the clouds blew in. Both these climbs stared with a hike through grasslands before encountering more rocky terrain closer to the summits. We saw no other climbers on either day.

Following a hotel night in Metepec, to get cleaned up, we drove to Amecameca, southeast of Mexico City. From here we could see Iztaccihuatl 5220m and Popocatepetl 5452m, separated by the Pass of Cortes. This was the route used by the Spanish invaders in 1519 as they marched inland from the coast to attack the Aztec capital. The pass now houses the National Park office that issues climbing permits. We had a brief stop here to complete formalities and continued to the roadhead at 3990m. From here it was a short hike to our campsite at 4450m. We were the only people camping at this spot and the weather was fine apart from a brief hailstorm. After dinner an inquisitive coyote came to eat our leftovers.

The ascent of Izta was a long day as the route joins the summit ridge some distance from the top and passes over (up and down!) several subsidiary summits on the way to the highest point. From the campsite to the top is 6.1km with almost 1,000m of ascent. We awoke at 02.00 and started out at 03.00. Climbing in the dark we reached the ridgeline by 04.00 and had completed the steepest section reaching 5000m by 06.00. We crossed a wide, level glacier as dawn broke and we saw the sun rise in the east. By the time it was light at 07.00 we could see the summit a short distance ahead of us. The first members of the group were on top 10 minutes before the others and by 08.00 all 10 climbers and 5 guides were on the summit for a team picture. On the descent we were able to appreciate the spectacular views from the long ridge that we has ascended in the darkness.  Nearby Popocatepetl had been smoking gently all morning but released a large puff of smoke and ash as we watched.

By the time we had packed up camp and descended to the roadhead it was 13.30 and everyone was feeling a little weary after 11.5 hrs of effort. Several fell asleep on the short drive to our hotel. All were pleased to have hot showers and a good meal even if the surroundings were a little strange. The hotel seemed to be a curious mix of spa, theme park, and zoo. We had two restful days to recover before attempting Pico Orizaba and spent these in the charming town of Puebla, with colonial era buildings and a renowned cathedral. This was one of the places most affected by the recent earthquake. Some of the older historic buildings showed signs of damage but the vast majority of the city was functioning normally.

Following this period of rest and behaving like 'tourists' it was time to set off for our final climb. We drove to a 'climber friendly' hotel at the foot of Pico Orizaba owned by a local mountain guide where we were well entertained and well fed. The following morning we drove along a rough road for two hours to the Piedra Grande Hut 4250m. We enjoyed an afternoon hike to 4600m and retired to bed early.

Summit day started with a 02.00 breakfast and a 03.00 departure. The weather forecast had been poor but we were lucky to enjoy a day of bright sunshine and moderate winds on the mountain. The surrounding valleys were buried under a mass of thick cloud. Two hours hiking over loose volcanic scree led to the snowline. A further hour of snow filled gullies led to the start of the summit ice-field. This continued in an unbroken sheet for 700m to the summit. It started out gently angled but soon steepened reaching over 35 degrees on the upper sections. In some conditions it can be a pleasant snow slope, but we found it to be hard rime ice requiring constant care and attention. Our group of 10 climbers and 5 guides split into 5 rope teams with everyone reaching the top between 10.00 and 10.30. We had good views of Mexico's other peaks that were now familiar sights to us (Popo, Izta, Malinche) but the low cloud cover prevented us seeing the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Descent by the same route saw everyone back at the hut between 14.00 and 14.30, and 2 hrs later we were back at the OMG hotel. A celebratory meal with a few drinks brought a long day to a close. The next morning we drove back to Mexico City and enjoyed a day of relaxing and sightseeing before the evening flight back to the UK. Our Mexican guides; Ricardo, Alfredo and Daniel had been wonderful hosts and all added to the team's enjoyment of the trip.

It remains a mystery why Mexico's highest mountain is not better known or climbed more often by foreigners. It is the 3rd highest peak in North America; only Denali in Alaska and Mt Logan in Canada are higher. It is the highest volcano in North America and therefore one of the '7 Volcanic Summits'. The climb itself is not without interest and variety. In fact it is very similar in character to Ecuador's Cotopaxi, which is climbed by many more people each year. Perhaps this is best explained by the fact that most people don’t regard Mexico as a mountaineering destination.

Mexico does not enjoy a good international reputation, and news reports in the UK and USA focus on violence, drug trafficking and illegal migration. However we discovered a self confident and prosperous country with friendly, welcoming people. Beautiful colonial era cities were full of spectacular buildings and had a very relaxed atmosphere. Examples of attractive, well maintained museums and art galleries were everywhere. We used hotels of different sizes and styles but the standard was uniformly high. We enjoyed great food everywhere, from street stalls to upmarket  restaurants.

Most of the team flew home from Mexico City on the evening of the 27th, but three people remained in Mexico for a few days to witness three unique events: a Mexican wrestling show on Friday evening, the annual Day of the Dead parade (Dia de Muertos) on Saturday, and the Mexican F1 GP race on Sunday, where Lewis Hamilton was aiming to win his 4th world championship title.

It's certainly worth travelling to Mexico to climb the country's highest peaks. Despite sharing volcanic origins the 3 peaks are very different; Nevado de Toluca is an old crater rim composed of rock and scree, Izta is long complex ridge with sections of snow and sections of rock, and Pico Orizaba is a classic conical volcano with a steep glacier leading the summit. In addition to the climbing there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate the country's rich history and culture during the trip, but if you can spend a few extra days at the end there is lots more to see and do in Mexico before returning home.

This was a Jagged Globe expedition and this report originally appeared on the Jagged Globe website.

David Hamilton (26 October 2017)

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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