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A guide to climbing volcano Itzaccihuatl on your own

Prior note: This ascent took 3 days and 3 nights in the mountain and was done without guide or whatsoever. At night it went down to – 8° Celsius. During the day it went up to 15° Celsius (all depending on altitude of course). Just to say that if you want to sleep on the mountain, you need a hell of a sleeping bag.

Once my assignement in Iraq finished, I headed over to Mexico for some deserved vacation (or so I thought). The last 9 months had provided me with no physical activity except the treadmill and I really did need to do something. And something I was really eager to see was a mexican volcano!

Once I had arrived in Mexico city, I bought el guia de las altas montañas de Mexico y una de Guatemala de Jorge Neyra for the map and the rutes shown. Then I prepared my backpack, rented a car, packed the food and left for the Itzaccihuatl-Popocateptl national park. It was a 2 hour drive until “Paso de cortes” (you can mark it in google maps like that, it will find it). There I left the car and had to pay an entrance fee of 30 pesos per night in the mountain (you also can drive 8 kms further up from paso de cortes to Joyita and start from there if you want to be faster). Since I had arrived late evening, I set up the tent at 3600 meters altitude and thought it would be a good way to get acclimatized to it. I ate my food and went to sleep.

One thing to know before attempting the ascent of the Itzaccihuatl is that depending on the rute taken you might or might not find rivers. On my way, there were no rivers and, thus, I had to carry all my water for 3 days, which I calculated to 6 liters.

The next day I woke up not too early and started the easy 8 kms climb to La Joyita around 10 am. It was a beautiful way surrounded by pine trees for most of it with magnificient views on the volcano Popocateptl I hadn’t seen until now due to bad weather and mist the previous day. My 15 kilos backpack was heavy on my back but I arrived to la Joyita – 3900meters – around 12.30 just in time for the mist to appear. I found it more careful to stay for the night as I couldn’t see much further due to the mist so I laid out my tent and read until nightfall.

My food was made entirely out of bread, ham and cheese put in a tuperware. I also had brought some nuts and ceral bars for energy.

On day 2, I woke up a little earlier in order to cover more ground and because the next camping spot was at 4750 meters. So I left at 8.00 and started walking with my heavy backpack. I was definetly not getting used to it and this time it was actually worse since it was way more steep. I crossed 3 passes that day until I arrived at 12.30 to the camping spot. It was covered in snow and just as I arrived, just as the previous day, mist started to cover everything. This time I went in the hut for the night thinking I might be better covered from the wind. Wrong was I when my sleep was constantly disturbed by rats chewing on some kind of plastic. I had thought that rats wouldn’t be living at 4750 meters. It turns out I was wrong.

The rute from paso de cortes until the refuge at 4750 m is very easy to follow. It is a clear path and no maps are needed for this part of the hike. But if you do want a map for reassurance then I advise you to take Jorge Neyra’s volcano maps. I bought mine in a mountain shop between Palacio de bellas Artes and the Cathedral on Calle de Venustiano Carranza in the centro historico of Mexico city.

On day 3, I woke up at 5.00 am and it was freezing cold at this altitude. The previous day was very difficult for me because of the weight of the bag, so I decided to leave my tent, my sleeping bag, my matress, some of my water and some of my food. In the end I left some 6 kilos behind and my bag felt heavenly light. I was ready for the climb. I left the hut at 5.30 and started climbing. I could see a path leaving the hut and dissapearing in the mountain so I followed it. In the dark, it was tough and cold. I had no glove, nor did I have spikes or poles. I was badly equipped and my city shoes (caterpillar) were a little slippery for the climb, although very comfortable.

From the hut to 5000 meters, it is most probably the toughest climb of this route and it is also the only part of the route where one might lose its way. To avoid that, there is a red cross planted in the ground at 4900 meters. Make sure to arrive at that cross and leave it on your right when climbing. Remember that cross for when you get back as it is impossible to get down otherwise as there are ravines.

Once I arrived at 5000 meters, it was freezing but the sun was slowly coming out exposing the magnificient Popocatepétl in the background. Yellowish fumes were coming out of it. It was breathtaking (as if I had enough breath left). From here to the top I crossed two glaciers and walked mostly on ridges where one could see himself falling easily on both sides of it. I was cursing myself for my bad choice of shoes and hoped for the best. I continued despite a few falls without gravity until I reached the top and suddenly all the hardships of the past 3 days were worth it.

It is funny how the mountain plays with your emotions. You can be cursing all you want, be at the point of quitting everything and half an hour later it can be the best day of your life and you find yourself having tears in your eyes. A good physical capacity is definetly involved in a successfull climb, but you need to be strong in your head and I would go as far as to say that the psychological side defines a successfull climb. The mountain is an emotional rollercoaster and this is what makes it so beautiful once at the top. Without hardship, there is no joy.

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