The weather in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ca) wasn't as warm as Elaine Kerr and I had been expecting: it was about fifteen degrees Celsius and overcast. To the east we could see the lower foothills of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca but the tops of the higher mountains were permanently shrouded in clouds that looked like they contained a high percentage of moisture. There was one particular mountain that we were interested in climbing - Cerro Zempoaltepetl. This is a sacred mountain of the Mixe (Me-hay), the indigenous Indians of the area, and is known as 'the mountain of twenty heads.' At 3,395 metres it was no where near Mexico's tallest but from what I could establish it is one of the highest in the range.
At this point in our travels in Mexico we were in a state of what I called 'ruined', that is when you are totally saturated from visiting ancient Aztec, Toltec, Zapotec or Olmec ruins. We were getting to the point where we were visiting the ruins just to say: "been there, done that but didn't buy the T-shirt." It was time for the mountains.
After asking around and reading through books, we could find no information on Cerro Zempoaltepetl. I knew roughly where it was but didn't know the best place to begin climbing it from, whether it could be done as a day trip or what to expect from the weather.
"Si hay o no hay mucho lluvia en las montanas ahora?" In my Spanglish this was the best I could do to find out about local weather conditions in the mountains for November and of course the answer was always: "No hay lluvia. El tiempo esta bueno." At least that is what I thought they were saying. So off (in the general direction of the mountain) we went. First of all we caught a bus to the old village of Mitla and then after waiting an hour we caught a camionette (minivan) to San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla. Our driver, Speedy Gonzalez, knew exactly what speed to take the corners at to get us as quickly as possible to Ayutla via the windy and in places, narrow road. Initially the weather was good but the further and higher we got, the more rapidly the weather began to deteriorate. By the time we arrived in Ayutla it was raining and the mist limited visibility to about one hundred metres. Ayutla's altitude was 2,060 metres (about the same as Mexico City's). We found a friendly family Casa de Huespede for the night and began weighing up our chances of climbing Zempoaltepetl.
Next morning saw no change in the weather and after talking to the local school administrator, we found out that this weather was normal for this time of the year. We asked about the mountain and found out where the trail began and that it was a three to five hour climb. He informed us that Zempoaltepetl is rarely climbed but if we wanted, he could find a guide for us. We thanked him for the information and advice then packed up our gear and caught the next camionette back to Oaxaca. Climbing Zempoaltepetl would have to wait for another trip.
When we first arrived in Mexico City in early November 1998, we contacted the Club Andino Mexicano to find out what trips they had scheduled and whether we could go on them. They were pleased that we were interested and showed us a program of their trips. The coming weekend they had a trip to Citlatepetl (Pico de Orizaba), the highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North America, but on a previous trip to Mexico I had climbed this mountain as well as Popocatepetl. Elaine and I were interested in Ixtaccihuatl (the third highest) and Xinantecatl or Nevado de Toluca (the forth highest mountain). We noticed that on the last weekend of our stay, they had a trip up to Ixtaccihuatl. Their excursion wasn't to climb the mountain but was an instructional trip up onto the glacier. They said we could go with them and share the cost of transportation. This appeared great as it would save us a lot of hassles. We wouldn't have to worry about transport to and from the trailhead and then we could leave our equipment in their bus knowing that our gear would be safe and secure. Unfortunately, it is no longer safe to leave gear in your tent while climbing up to the summit. We got their phone number and said we would call them in the week before the trip so we could make our necessary arrangements. It looked as though everything was falling into place and we would have an easy time.
After arriving back in Oaxaca, we took the train back to Puebla and once there we called the Club Andino. To our surprise they had cancelled the trip to Ixtaccihuatl due to the volcanic activity on the neighbouring Popocatepetl. 'Popo' was living up to its name - 'Smoking Mountain.' For the last couple of years 'Popo' was closed to climbers because of the constant activity in its crater. Volcanologists hadn't been too concerned about an eruption but were playing it safe, however, in the last week there was renewed activity on the mountain. They were thinking they may have underestimated the extent of the mountains activity and were hypothesizing that the mountains resting period of forty to fifty years may be over and warned that the volcanoes activity could foreshadow a major eruption. Plumes of ash were belching up to four kilometres into the air and showering nearby towns and at night glowing rocks could be seen exploding from the summit. Surrounding villages were preparing evacuation plans in the event of a disaster and the military were increasing patrols to keep climbers and hikers at least seven kilometres away from the mountain. The Club Andino was making a discretionary call in cancelling the trip. They had no backup trip for the weekend but luckily for us we did - Nevado de Toluca.
We bused into Mexico City to our friend's place where we were storing most of our climbing equipment and then went out and bought what we would need for the weekend. The Club Andino was very helpful in giving us the necessary information about getting to the mountain, the climbing routes and where the huts were located.
Saturday morning we were dropped off at the Poniete Bus Station where we caught a bus to Raices, the little village at the base of the mountain. After the bus dropped us off, we began walking up the dirt road towards the lower hut on the mountain but we soon got a ride from an American who lived in nearby Toluca. He offered to take us up to the hut and if we wanted, would drive us up into the crater for a look and then drop us back at the hut. For about forty-five minutes the road wound its way up and around the mountain into the crater. At 4,000 metres we stopped for lunch and admired the view of the mountain from within the crater. Nearby were two lakes: Laguna de la Luna (moon) and Laguna del Sol (sun). At the smaller Laguna de la Luna we found some divers who had just come out of the lake with some ancient artefacts that they thought were about 2,000 years old. Here we were gasping for breath at this altitude having basically come up from sea level a week and a half ago and there they were swimming around at the bottom of the fourteen metre deep lake, in water that was seven degrees Celsius, as though they were at sea level. Figure that out!
There are two huts on the mountain: one is lower down in the forest at 3,500 metres and the second is at 4,000 metres. We got dropped off at the higher hut, a hut with twelve bunks and a propane stove. In the hut we found three Mexicans so we asked if it was okay if we stayed and then we asked if they were there climbing. It was okay with them if we stayed but then they informed us they were not climbers but marathon runners. Two of the runners (guys) were living up there for three weeks and were training for a marathon in the United States in early January while the other (a woman) was up there training for a week. We started talking about running and soon found out that the two guys were 2 hour 14 minute marathoners. Every morning (except Sunday) they run the marathon distance of 42.2 kilometres in - 2 hours 51 minutes. I couldn't believe it! Here I am a sub 3 hour runner (at sea level) and here are these guys running the distance at 4,000 metres while training and at a pace faster than my best time. They even asked me if I wanted to go on a 12 kilometre training run with them later in the afternoon but I had to decline the offer and went outside and puked. I think I saw some of my lungs in amongst the mess! I just wasn't use to the altitude the way these Mexican divers and runners were. We settled in for the afternoon and occupied our time by going for a short hike up onto the ridge and talking to the runners. Dinner wasn't very appealing to me tonight!
Next morning Elaine and I were up at 5:30 a.m. and away by 6:00 - first light. There was a well worn trail up onto the ridge above the crater and then we began to follow the ridge crest that led up to Pico del Aguila. Some easy scrambling brought us onto this secondary summit in an hour and three quarters. Off in the distance we could see 'Ixta' and the smoking 'Popo' which was still belching out huge columns of ash. Some 4th class scrambling to get down off the peak and then back onto the crest of the ridge. In places we had to traverse under crumbling volcanic rock towers while in others we had to climb over them. Nothing very technical but it made for pleasant climbing. An hour later we stood on the highest point - Pico del Fraile at 4,558 metres. We spent twenty minutes on top before we continued along the ridge on our traverse.
A short distance passed Pico del Fraile we dropped off the ridge and descended 600 metres down a scree slope to Laguna del Sol. We decided we didn't need to continue along the ridge crest any further as the summit was in the bag and we might as well head back to the hut. From Laguna del Sol we skirted around its shore and through the narrow causeway to Laguna de la Luna. From the laguna it was a short climb back onto the saddle on the ridge where we had begun earlier in the morning and then down to the hut.
Later on in the afternoon we were back in the smog-laden capital of Mexico, gasping for fresh air but delighted at being back in the relatively lower elevation. We didn't have time to climb anymore of the volcanoes but we had one day left to see the most incredible ruins in Mexico - Teotihuacan.
a big, diverse country and still has many untapped natural features to
be discovered by the traveller and climber. Whenever I return to the country
I find new places to visit and more interesting mountains to climb. Of
course there are the old favourite volcanoes to climb, but in the remoter
mountain ranges to the south there are unknown and possibly untrodden
summits to be explored.