Climbing the Sleeping Lady
During our first high altitude experience, we battled cold and technical conditions with little equipment, felt the rush of going to our limits and our British friends almost froze to death.
The exchange semester in Mexico has finally come, marking the beginning of 8 months of traveling and hiking in Latin America. My younger brother Markus and I are both studying in Mexico City and our little sister Eva just decided to join us to learn Spanish. One reason why I chose Mexico for my exchange semester are the incredible volcanos around Mexico City and all over Mexico.
Our adventure begins on the 21st of January, we have chosen to climb the volcano Iztaccihuatl, which rises up to 5286m above Mexico City. From the city the mountain looks just like a sleeping lady and is therefore also called La Mujer Dormida. We are going to take a route called "La Arista del Sol" over all her body parts to reach the summit – her breasts.
The Ascent to High Camp
Our goal is to climb Iztaccihuatl unguided. We often do our hiking unguided, which requires some more planning and gear, but helps a lot when traveling on a budget.
At the last minute two British friends of my brother and sister, George and Lawrie, decide to join us. After a bus and a collectivo ride (Mexican group taxi), we start walking from the Paso de Cortés at almost 4000m. With that the trailhead is already higher than Markus and Eva have ever been before.
The air is thin and our backpacks weigh heavy on our shoulders, but it is not very steep yet and so we reach the first possible campsite, La Joya, in about two hours. Since it is still early enough, we decide to tackle the first steep section of the route and to set up camp on the third saddle just below the feet (Los Pies) of the women. This part is a lot harder, because on the slippery scree slopes you have to be careful not to slide down at every step you go up. An hour before sunset we finally reach the third saddle at 4500m.
In High Camp – Sunset on a Mexican Volcano
Luckily there are some rock walls built by past climbers, that we use to shelter our two tents from the strong winds. This also shields our camping stove from the wind, while we cook our much needed dinner of Chinese Ramen Noodles.
We enjoy an amazing sunset over the Mars-like landscape and on the other side the lights of the city Puebla start illuminating. It gets unbearably cold outside and we will have to get up early in the morning hours so we start preparing for a rough night.
This is the highest altitude any of us has ever spent a night. The wind is already shaking our tents. We brought sturdy expedition tents to Latin America specifically for this purpose and Markus and I are also equipped with very good sleeping bags and isolating pads, Eva’s gear is at least decent. George and Lawrie, however, do not have sleeping pads and their sleeping bags are made for summer vacations only. As even Markus and I – with the best gear – feel the cold creeping into our bodies, we expect a tough night for the other three in the tent next to us. After midnight the first expedition teams pass our camp and feel the need to take a break right next to our tents, waking us from our light sleep.
The Climb to the Summit of Iztaccihuatl
At 3:30 am the alarm rings and we reluctantly get out of our sleeping bags, get dressed and try to force down some cereal bars. At altitude, your appetite decreases dramatically, especially when you are not used to it, and it is sometimes hard to eat enough to keep your body going.
When we get outside Eva tells us that George and Lawrie could not sleep at all and were moaning in pain all night, which is rarely a good sign. Admirably, they still want to continue and so we start scrambling upwards into the dark night, only pierced by the beam of our headlamps. I am carrying all of our water and food, because we want to leave some backpacks in camp.
Wind is one very important factor when climbing mountains, since it makes all the difference for perceived temperatures. This night the wind gusts are strong and they cool down our bodies quickly, even though we are wearing multiple layers plus a down jacket and a wind jacket. Lawrie doesn’t have gloves and it amazes me how he didn’t lose any fingers; I know I would have. Still way before sunrise we reach the tiny shelter hut called “Grupo de los Cien” at 4800m, where we squeeze in between some other climbers, desperately trying to get a short rest from the wind.
Right after the hut, the crux of the ascent starts, a steep face of boulders and scree that leads to the knees of the women. Half way up the sun finally rises and slowly illuminates the Altiplano below us. We expect it to get warmer, but the sub-zero temperatures do not rise at all.
We continue upwards and the intense struggle, the pain and the wind bring tears to my eyes. Although you feel weird for tearing up it somehow gives you strength, your determination gets even stronger and later Markus and Eva tell me they experienced the same. At last we reach the knees at 5020m. George and Lawrie look battered and pail, it is incredible that they made it this far with this little gear and training. But they are delirious and at the brink of exhaustion and so they decide to turn around. Markus, Eva and I are determined to attempt the summit.
A long ridge line with a lot of ups and downs is still ahead of us. One of the difficulties of Iztaccihuatl is that you reach 5000m early and then have to stay above that altitude for about four hours because the summit is so far back on the sleeping woman. We did not have enough time to get fully acclimatized and are really feeling the altitude. It starts with a pulsing headache at every step along the ridge and leads to a feeling of sickness and the urge to vomit – we continue. After one of the hills on the ridge we reach the small glacier, the belly of the women.
Another group puts on crampons but we have decided to cross it without any gear. There are no crevasses, only one short steep part and the wind battered ice gives sufficient grip. On future climbs we often did use and need crampons though. This glacier is probably the reason why many people don't want to climb the mountain unguided, but it really isn't very technical with the conditions we are looking at. During the traverse of the glacier, the wind is the strongest and at the end of the glacier the left part of my face is completely frozen.
We think we can see the final part to the summit ahead of us. Every step is hard, the air has less than 50% of sea level oxygen up here and we still need to climb higher. When we reach the perceived summit, it turns out to be a false summit and we are devastated. I tell Markus and Eva that I am ok with turning around if the next peak is also a false summit. When I get to the final ridge I can see that the true summit now really is ahead of us. There is no way to express these incredible feelings that you have on the last meters to the summit. I drop my backpack and Markus and I go back the last couple of meters to support Eva to the summit. We did it! We are standing on top of the third highest summit in Mexico at 5286m, what a climb!
The views are amazing, ranging from Pico de Orizaba (the highest mountain of Mexico) to Puebla and Mexico City and dominated by the huge volcano Popocatépetl just on the other side of Paso de Cortés, where we started. We need to eat something to refuel but we barely manage to force down some crackers – we just feel too sick.
The Descent and Return to Mexico City
Although this place is beautiful we have to start going down soon so we can recover at a lower elevation.
At this altitude the sun is ruthless and we have to cover every little part of our bodies, using a bandana for our faces. Your eyes always have to be protected by sunglasses or you risk turning snow-blind. We try to get back over the glacier and to the knees as fast as possible but the ups and downs are really slowing us down.
After the knees it starts getting incredibly hot and the sun further dries our dehydrated bodies. From our campsite the descent is not technical but it becomes a question of endurance. After several hours we finally get back to Paso de Cortéz, exhausted but really happy. We find a ride back into the City and receive a message that our British friends have already safely returned home. University continues on the next day. It was very tough, we had to suffer to climb this mountain unguided and up there you sometimes feel like never wanting to go through this again. But sitting in the lectures the next day, I can already feel the strong desire to go out there again.
And so on this day I decided to climb Pico de Orizaba – the highest peak of Mexico and the third highest in North America. Stay tuned and subscribe to the Newsletter if you want to hear more!