Iztaccihuatl: How We Almost Accidentally Hiked the 8th Highest Peak in North America

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November 24, 2015 | Posted in Estado de Mexico, Hiking, Mexico, Puebla | By

Logistics for touring cyclists wanting to do this hike are at the bottom of the post.

How I plan our cycling routes is simple: enter where we are in Google Maps and where we are going and get the highway route; see if there is a lighter-shaded line that also goes there. There is a mountain range between Mexico City and Puebla. There is one major highway connecting the cities, and then there is this squiggly grey line to the south, my obvious choice. It didn’t take long to realize there was a huge volcano next to the pass, so clearly I wanted to hike it. It’s erupting, so that one was out. I learned that it’s sister peak, Iztaccíhuatl, is open. Sold!

Iztaccihuatl dominates the sky above conical upright stacks of drying corn stalks, typical of central Mexico

Iztaccíhuatl as we approached Amecameca

We had a nice, flat ride out of Mexico City and got our cheapest hotel yet ($8) in Amecameca, at the base of the road to the Paso de Cortes. The next day was only 16 miles of riding, but it was a tough 16 miles. We started out at 8,140 ft (2,480 m), which is about the same as the highest point in our very difficult Sierra Gorda crossing a few weeks ago. Brandy was for some reason lacking energy and in a poor mood, so the 7.7% grade took its toll and we stopped every half mile or so. The poor air quality in the Valley of Mexico probably didn’t help. We spent the entire day climbing through the pine forest and finally topped out around 4:00 PM at the Paso de Cortez at 11,150 ft (3,400 m). We were planning to camp at the pass and then hitchhike the five miles to the trailhead in the morning, but we met some awesome hikers from Veracruz, Viktor, Omar and Cristina at the park office and they agreed to give us a ride, laughing and joking the entire way.

Lower mountains appear to be wrapped in gauze as the sunset colors pink above.

We were treated to an epic sunset and views on the bumpy road up.

We were pleased to find a structure that provided us with some shelter from the wind where we could set up the tent with a view of the twinkling lights of Mexico City far below. The Veracruz crew would hike in the dark to a hut halfway up so they could get an early summit run. There was also a pair of hikers from Los Angeles camping at the trailhead. They had already been at the hut, but were overcome by the altitude and went back down to Amecameca to recover. They had returned and would make a summit attempt at midnight. Everyone was so serious; we were just going for a hike. Actually, I was pretty excited because this would be the highest I’d hiked by at least a couple thousand feet and I was interested to see how it would affect me.

After a failed attempt to get a decent fire going with the wet sticks available, we got to bed early and slept soundly aside from some barking nearby. A stray dog had taken up residency at the trailhead and served as nightly protection for campers. His barks echoed wildly through the valleys, painting a picture in our minds of the vastness of the space we occupied. Brandy reported hearing coyotes in the night, but Rover must have kept them at bay. Other than that it was utterly silent.

I managed to get up before sunrise (Brandy did not, of course) and was greeted by frost glistening on the ground. Despite being beat from the previous day, we managed to get on the trail by 6:45. The trailhead starts at 13,040 ft (3,970 m) and I could feel the elevation in my legs and breath right away. Everything felt heavier and we proceeded more slowly than we would have lower down. I had a bit of a headache and although I attributed it to us idiotically not hydrating enough the previous day (I really cannot understand how we are so conscientious of our health, but somehow still routinely fail to drink enough water when riding), I remained alert to further altitude symptoms. The morning started out clear and we had great views of Popocatepetl, the erupting volcano.

Popocatepetl sticks above incoming clouds with smoke coming from its summit

Popocatepetl

The views got better and better throughout the morning, but soon the clouds started pouring over the ridge above us. Other clouds rose up the valley to meet them. They produced some interesting effects, but before long the entire summit was closed in and eventually we were completely surrounded. The rest of the climb to the shelter was a surreal landscape of shifting white mist and barren rocks. It was windy and cold whenever we were on the Puebla side of mountain. We decided to push up to the shelter and decide from there whether to complete the summit.

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When we reached the shelter we were reunited with the Veracruzanos who were still planning to summit. We also met three French hikers who had been tailing us for the last half of the hike; each time the mist would lighten, their dim outlines would emerge a couple hundred feet below us. After eating lunch we decided that we’d head down. We were quite exhausted, Brandy was chilled, my headache was worse and accompanied by slight nausea (a sure cue to descend) and the clouds were thick – no point in beating ourselves to get to the top for no view.

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We got down fairly quickly, with a few stops to appreciate the views that opened up below the cloud line, and then caught a ride down to the Paso where we’d camp before riding down to Puebla and back to warmth the following day.

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This little fella followed us all the way up and was rewarded with some delicious spaghetti from our Veracruz friends at the shelter. He was peppy until we neared the end when he started whimpering a lot and laying down whenever we showed the slightest hint of stopping.

This little fella followed us all the way up and was rewarded with some delicious spaghetti from our Veracruz friends at the shelter. He was peppy until we neared the end when he started whimpering a lot and laying down whenever we showed the slightest hint of stopping.

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Plenty of nice flowers along the trail, at least outside of barren rock, Mordor zone.

Plenty of nice flowers along the trail, at least outside of barren rock, Mordor zone.

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This hike revived our desire to get off the bikes and into the mountains from time to time. We have also been inspired to do more high-elevation hikes though with a bit more preparation next time so we can actually get to the top and have a view. It seemed a bit ridiculous that we were just tra-la-la-ing around on this mountain going for a nice hike when there were all these people decked out in helmets and other gear, some of whom had flown halfway around the world to hike this peak. One of the reasons for the trip is that we have the freedom to stumble across and take advantage of epic opportunities that would otherwise require significant advanced planning and expense. We are quite lucky to be able to have these experiences.

This was a really beautiful hike and was a good intro to high-altitude hiking because if its non-technical nature. I recommend printing the trail description from http://www.summitpost.org/iztaccihuatl/150193. I added some notes in the comments section.

Notes for cyclists:

We spent the night in Amecameca in the very affordable Hotel San Carlos ($130 pesos 2 ppl, 1 bed) on the main square next to the market. The market is open until 8:00 PM and is especially flush with cycle-friendly snacks. The vendors are quite liberal with samples. The road up to the Paso was paved and in great shape with little traffic. Another option is to take a combi or taxi up there from Amecameca. The road down the other side to Puebla is hard-packed dirt with lots of runnels for the first half and then deteriorates into a bumpier rocky surface with several patches of sand.  We had the ride the brakes the entire way.

Park entrance fee: $30.50 pesos per person/day

Camping:

–       At Paso de Cortes for $30.50 pesos per person/day

–       At La Joya (trailhead), presumably for free. There are a couple sheltered spaces with nice benches but they’d likely fill up on the weekends. There are also a couple sheltered “kitchen” areas with concrete counters with grill pits built in.

–       There are several decent camping spots along the trail up to the shelter and the shelter has space for about 12-18 people in large bunks.

We were able to store our bikes and gear in a back room at the park office at the Paso de Cortes (open 7:00 AM – 8:00 PM, daily) free of charge and felt safe with that option. You could ride to La Joya and lock your bike to a sign there, but then your gear is still out. We considered doing that and putting our stuff in our tent. It seemed like it would be a fairly safe option. The ride from the Paso to La Joya is a five-mile climb on a rough dirt road. There is sand in several places and the entire way is riddled with runnels. We had no problem finding a ride on a Wednesday afternoon, although if they hadn’t been able to take us, we’d have been stuck. Mexicans are very friendly and will help you out if they can.

One-liter bottles of water are available at the Paso for $15 pesos.

Camping at La Joya

Camping at La Joya

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