We came to conquer the mountain, but Popo had other plans...
Our tale of adventure and misadventure on snow-covered Popocatépetl began with a fax from San Diego California: "Planning to climb Popo for Christmas. Want to join the expedition?"
This invitation was signed by Steve Bowen, a world class mountain climber and a friend from the days when we taught English together at Yonsei University in Korea.
Naturally, my wife Susy and I couldn't turn down an invitation like that and a few weeks later we drove off towards Mexico City with our friends Jesús Moreno the cartoonist, Brazilian computer whiz Claudio Chilomer and a ton of gear stuffed into one little Jeep. The plan was to meet Steve and his party at a beautiful hostel in Tlamacas, high up the mountainside. However, unbeknownst to us, there had been an unusual snowfall on Popo just about the time we'd set off from Guadalajara and by the time we reached Amecameca at the foot of the mountain, everyone and his abuelita in Mexico City had heard about the thick layer of snow on their beloved volcano and had headed for the very same dirt road we were now approaching.
Now, when a generous portion of the world's biggest city decides to congregate on any one spot, you can imagine the consequences: there we were, deep in a mountainous forest, pure-white snowdrifts all around us, but stuck in a long line of traffic creeping uphill at such a slow pace that people actually had time to get out of their cars and build snowmen on their hoods. During most of that afternoon we had ample opportunity to experience the daily frustration of a typical L.A. commuter. As darkness descended, word came down the mountain, car by car, that the last leg of the road to the hostel had been closed by the police -- please come back mañana.
The four of us who were jammed in the Jeep stared. We had brought along camping gear all right, but none of us had figured on staking our tents on a thick layer of extremely wet and sticky snow. Our dreams of hot-buttered rum in front of a crackling fireplace in a cozy hostel slowly evaporated as we pulled off the road and quickly discovered there was a gooey layer of thick, black mud underneath all that pretty white snow. By the time we had our camp set up, the endless procession of cars had vanished and we were alone in the woods.
We were also ravenously hungry. So we scrounged through all our backpacks and came up with just enough ingredients to make one big pot of soup. No one, however, had brought along a cook stove, so we tramped out into the darkness, hunting for firewood, but absolutely everything we found was soaking wet. Making a campfire with those soggy branches was going to challenge all our woodspeople's skills.
Several hours went by as we concentrated our efforts on getting that pot of soup to boil. Our flashlight beams were beginning to flicker and die when at long last our concoction started to simmer. "That's it! Now it's soup!" we shouted, scurrying off to find our spoons.
"Too bad we don't have any chile," sighed Susy, "but at least I'll put a little black pepper in it..." Of course by then we were operating under candle light and nobody -- least of all Susy-- noticed that the pepper box was set to the "extremely-generous-portions" opening as she vigorously shook the container over the soup pot. Just how generous a helping had been dumped into the soup became evident the moment we tasted it, but by then we were all on the brink of starvation and everyone doggedly persisted in trying to eat what they could without setting their throats on fire. This was the first and only time in my life I saw people washing their soup before consuming it. The stuff at the bottom of the pot was particularly potent and ended up being dumped in the snow. The next morning we noted that not even the birds would touch it.
At long last, we reached the refuge, met our friend Steve and got wind of his plan for our conquest of Popo.
"To tell you the truth," it's exactly wind that is intruding upon our plan," explained Steve. "There's so much of it at the top that no groups have gone up for two days..."
At this point, Claudio stood up and waved an angry fist in the general direction of the volcano: "Montaña maldita (curséd mountain)!" he shouted, plus other expressions in Portuguese that we fortunately didn't understand, "we didn't come 800 kilometers just to freeze our traseros (posteriors) in the snow!"
"I agree," calmly continued Steve, "and I think we should give it a try tomorrow morning."
To Popo climbers, "morning" means 3 AM. We stepped out into a sea of white, the moonlight casting deep black shadows over the rippling snow drifts. The mountain looming above us was cloaked in mist and the only sounds were the whistle of wind and the crunching of snow beneath our extra-thick boots.
I glanced at my companions by the light of my headlamp and decided we looked like a convention of roly-poly Santa Clauses, each of us bundled up to the ears with packs on our backs.
Steve silently turned and began walking uphill. The rest of us formed a line behind him, waddling along like ducklings behind their mother. The wind huffed and puffed at us as we climbed.
Soon the lights of the hostel were far below us, most of the hikers were far above us and the wind was beginning to howl. It was at this time we discovered just how useful were the Alpine ice axes we had been using as walking sticks. A sudden blast of wind simply picked Susy up and wafted her across the snow. By the time I reached her, she had jammed her piolet into a drift and was holding on for dear life.
I pointed upward. "I notice there's a deepish ravine coming up, right alongside the trail. Are you planning to do more flying up there as well?"
Suffice it to say that we soon found ourselves heading back down the mountain. But now we were no longer in a hurry to keep up and could thoroughly enjoy that strange world of light and shadows we had been privileged to enter and even attempt to capture it on film. Perhaps we actually enjoyed our retreat more than many others enjoy reaching the top.
Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, not even the hardiest mountaineers got anywhere near the peak of Popocatépetl. "We were forced to turn back," puffed our weary companions, a few hours later, "when the wind started picking up rocks and hurling them through the air." Weather reports eventually disclosed that the winds had reached 200 kph at the crater lip. We concluded that we hadn't missed too much. However, that one trip provided us with enough fun-in-the-snow to last many years.
We are still thinking about going back and climbing Popocatépetl. We especially think about it while we are relaxing at warm beaches in the middle of the winter. "We'll have to go do that one of these mañanas," is what we usually say.
John J. Pint
Art: Jesús Moreno
Have a look at OUTDOORS IN WESTERN MEXICO by John and Susy Pint