On-Duty on the Mexican Peaks

Cliché goes: Mexico is a land of many natural beauties, rivers, lakes, mountains and food. Not that it’s not true, but there is much more behind the scenic screen-saver-like photos on Instagram. Specifically, the Trans-volcanic axis or Eje Volcánico Transversal, in Spanish.

This chain of active and inactive volcanoes ranging from East to West at the center of the country -including three 15000+ft summits- is an outdoors enthusiasts must-see, must-visit, must-climb. Two of these peaks are linked together to make one big national park:

Izta-Popo, the 108,000 acre park encompassing active volcano Popocatépetl (Popo, for short) and glaciar-topped, inactive Iztaccíhuatl (ease-ta-see-watl or Izta) is only a 90 minute drive from Mexico City. As a capital-based outdoors enthusiast and volunteer Search & Rescue member, this is me and my team’s playground.

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Search & Rescue Mexico is a volunteer organization that -among other activities- covers weekend security alongside the Mountain Police, Park staff and other volunteer organizations. This means, we ride out to the volcanoes in our 4x4s, rescue pickup trucks and sometimes, whatever people carriers we can get our hands on. The past two shifts I’ve been Jeep-less for one reason or another, which has lead us to use a 2015 Toyota Highlander XLE, or, as I like to call it the momvan.

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This 3.5 liter V6 7-seater is usually revving up and down the streets of Mexico City as an Uber Black or Uber SUV, but I got my friend to lend it to us while he finds a new driver. So, we pack up, and head out to Paso de Cortés, the lowest place between the Popo’s summit and the Izta’s range. It got its name thanks to Hernán Cortés, the (in)famous Conquistador, since this was the western-bound path he took from Cholula (Puebla) to Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). This site now boasts a cabin-like structure that doubles as a shelter and an information center. Outside, on the dirt parking lot, we come across some Jeeps, tour guide vans, ATVs, the Mountain Police trailer mobile command center and today, unusually, a European-license-plated Mercedes-Benz Sprinter camper.

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This overlander with German plates and subtle, yet very well crafted and thought-out modifications catches my eye as it is dwarfed by the summit of the Iztaccíhuatl in the background. Here I meet Paul and Anita, a friendly German couple who are nice enough to show me their rig and tell a bit about their trip down from Canada, into the US and now Mexico, and who I forgot to email the confusing directions I gave them verbally to get to the beach (sorry about that, guys).

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Meanwhile, my team sets up camp since we’ll be covering Paso de Cortés for the night, which is pretty anti-climatic. Paso de Cortés is the most touristy part of the park. With light, power and running water, as well as families in minivans and crossover SUVs driving in and out from Mexico City and Puebla, and at the lowest elevation in the park, its safe to say, it won’t be very busy night for Search and Rescue. Having foreseen this, I opted to not carry my trusty REI tent since the tiny trunk space of the 3-row Toyota was already packed, and in “Paso” you can always crash inside the visitor center next to a nice chimney. Much to my surprise, our Chief says we’re camping outside, so, momvan to the rescue.

My EMT friend Pablo had also counted on the cozy visitor’s center lounge for lodging tonight, so we decide to turn the Highlander into our own version of the German Sprinter. Seats folded down, sleeping pads in and sleeping bags laid out, we leave the engine running for 10 minutes with the heater on before turning off the truck (am I allowed to call it a truck?) and getting some sleep, only after we roast marshmallows, train with some ropes and go over basic knots and have a good time, basically the chillest Search and Rescue shift we’ve EVER had. Marshmallows! That’s NEVER happened. Even in some of the most laid-back, best-weather shifts we’ve had up here, we still get poured down on rain at 3am, woken up 6am to attend to some hiker who was lacking oxygen or just got hit by rain and snowfall mid rappel training ourselves. Marshmallows, you cant’ beat that.

So, after our kumbaya-like camp and Japanese SUV overnight accommodations, I can only say: Sorry REI, I love you but the Highlander wins this time, perhaps because it wasn’t even that cold outside at Paso, I wouldn’t want to camp inside a one ton metal-and-glass box at -7 degrees Celcius anywhere higher than Paso.

“Anywhere higher than Paso” means La Joyita or “The Little Jewel” in English, basically a mountain parking lot nestled at over 11,000 ft above sea level, where you can find awesome pork and beef tacos, Boing juice (yeah, there’s a Mexican juice brand called Boing) and café de olla, or really awesome coffee with cinnamon and spices made in a clay pot over slow fire. La Joya is where you start climbing up Izta if you arrived by car. Most people also camp here to get acclimated to the high-altitude, low oxygen environment.

After Joyita, there’s La Joya “The Jewel” a lookout on the west face of the Izta, where the real fun starts. The most commonly used trail to climb Izta starts here.

Fast-forward 3 weeks, my team and I are again on Izta, this time covering 4 different posts, so we’re spread out. We are covering Joyita, the First and Third “Portillo” or checkpoint on the trail and the Refugio de los Cien or “100’s Shelter” a tin-can like shelter where  those who want to summit overnight stay and sleep. While the First and Third checkpoints are located on the top of different slopes leading to the summit, the Shelter is embedded on high-altitude part of the West face of the mountain, right above a 30 degree slope and covered in snow about 3-4 months a year.

I am again Jeep-less this time, not that it matters since this time my team and I are assigned to the Third Portillo checkpoint. A rocky, flat top of a slope at about 13,600 feet above sea level. From here we can see a couple other peaks of the Volcanic Axis: The Nevado de Toluca, the Malinche and the Pico de Orizaba (Mexico’s highest peak). Basically we have a 360 degree view that spans over half the country East to West. Along with the breathtaking view, are the tent-taking winds. Basically, up here you’re catching winds from the Gulf and the Pacific so, we have to make sure our tent is properly anchored.

Being the design-focused individual I am, I find a half-built rock wall of sorts and continue to build upon it, enlisting my fellow search-and-rescuer Luis and my friend Justine to but layer after layer of rock and snow, in order to at least attempt to create a barrier between the winds that will hit later that night and our tent, again my REI favorite.

Luis is in his forties and is tall and full of advice. I haven’t worked with him a lot but he turns out to be a pretty great guy, helping guide my friend Justine, a French national living in Mexico who I used to work with. Being a holiday weekend she enlisted herself to come to a cold, windy mountain with a bunch of crazy Mexicans instead of hitting the beach somewhere. Respect.

Another part of our team continues on to the Shelter, where we’ll meet the next morning. For now, it’s just us, the snow and the view up here. We pop out our stoves and make some tea and coffee as we meet some new neighbours, an overly-energetic and overly-prepared man from Mexico City called Edgar who plans to summit Izta the next day, as well as two college students from Pennsylvania who didn’t bring a tent and are rescued by Edgar and his spare tent. Seriously, this guy had enough supplies for a week in his backpack, lucky for us, he was all about sharing. This specially came in handy when at 3:30am we heard a couple of  guides from Mexico City deciding what to do when one of the three American climbers they had injured her knee. This meant two things: a) getting out of bed at 3:30am from our warm little tent and sleeping bags to the cold wind and freezing weather outside, and b) assessing the situation at hand.

Turns out the only dilemma was: Do they keep going without her or not? Does she turn back or stay here at the checkpoint? Queue Edgar, as he was just getting up and ready to start his climb to the summit we enlisted him to assist us and we enlisted poor, knee-injured Tracy from Colorado to house-sit his tent while her team climbed to the summit as well. All good and everyone happy.

Except for my friend Justine who was probably hating me at that point. Freezing weather and being woken up at 3 in the morning? In her words: WORST NIGHT EVER. But the rewards of beneath-comfortable sleeping are pretty good, as we woke up and saw the sunrise with three of the highest peaks in the continent right before our eyes. After that, we made tea, coffee and set out to the Shelter as the snow started to melt thanks to the dozens of climbers going up and down the mountain. As we made it to the shelter we came across foot-deep snow and incredible views that never seize to amaze.

After enjoying the sun and snow at the Shelter I was unable to convince her to keep climbing to the top, so we headed back down with Luis, took down camp and arrived back to La Joyita for some much needed tacos and Boing.

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