Volcano Dreams: Part II (Color)

The low whine of the van's motor faded down the dirt road behind me and was gone. I stood in the desolate parking lot and glanced up at the ominous dark clouds swirling above. The immensity of the solitude closed around me. Steep, brooding cliffs guarding the flanks of Iztaccihuatl appeared and vanished in the mists. When last I came, the trailhead had buzzed with activity as my climbing partner and I gazed at the mountain above. Now, I was alone. Obsidian puddles and patches of grainy snow dotted the ground. I looked up at the clouds again. Was this where I wanted to be? Alone on an unknown mountain, far from anywhere, and under threatening skies? I started upward.

Towering above airy valleys and sweeping plateaus, the sheer relief of Iztaccihuatl is staggering. Rugged spires of black volcanic stone soar above dark cliffs and barren slopes march upward, a succession of ridges stacked upon peaks reaching toward the sky. The mountain's mass sprawls north from the trailhead at La Joya, an imposing jumbled bulk that stands in stark contrast to the graceful cone of nearby Popocatepetl.

Below me the parking lot shrank into the distance as the trail unraveled behind. I passed a saddle, where I had watched the sun sink behind the foothills on my last visit, following a familiar path. Then it vanished, a web of runnels and snowbanks, deceptive, misleading. Thick mist surged up the side of the ridge and obscured the tangle of maybe-trails. I howled with frustration. The sky cleared briefly and a yellow marker emerged. Passing my previous high point, the trail skirted a ridge and wound to a ragged promontory. Daylight seemed to seep away, and storms threatened. I scanned the slopes for signs of the refugio, anxious. I started down a seeming path, then retreated, disheartened, then scrambled, searching, down the backside of the ridge. Nothing. Again I howled. Beyond the promontory I crested a small rise, and the silvery glint of the shelter appeared.

The Grupo de los Cien refugio perches on a small outcrop below the stark cliffs of las rodillas. There were once other such shelters on the mountain, though they have burned or decayed. The passage of many climbers is evident here. Packages of ramen and empty water bottles sit on a shelf, a child's hiking boot hangs from a rafter. The heavy iron latch on the door has been worn smooth. It is quiet inside, and light streams through the tired windows and the battered white interior gleams. Outside, bolts and cables fasten the ephemeral structure to the mountain.

Silhouetted against the evening sky above the refugio a line of crosses dot the ridge like an alpine Golgotha, a cold reminder of the risks here. I attempted to sleep, but altitude and anxiety gnawed at me. To gain the ridge leading to the summit, I will have to climb through the cliffband that marks the "knees" of the mountain, and I worried about following the route. Orange lights from distant towns glowed through the haze, and a bright moon shined in the cold, clear sky. Overnight, wind roared and rockfall crashed down a nearby gulley and echoed off the slopes. The next day dawned clear and still and silent.

On top of the "knees", a new world unfolds. Naked ridges embrace yawning cirques, stretching in spectacular succession along a string of minor peaks reaching to the summit. Worn ruins of a former hut and the thin berm of the trail are the only signs of human passage in this alien landscape. The glaciers here were once bigger, and snow more common, but now it is mostly dry, loose dirt and gravel swept up into graceful ribs.

From the "knees", I downclimbed a rugged knob of rock that blocked the otherwise gentle sweep of the ridge, a soaring emptiness under my feet. Across and down, up and over, I followed the path along the crooked spine of the mountain, climbing up false summits and opening onto the glittering white blanket of the Ayoloco glacier. Carefully tracing faint footsteps across the icefield, I scrambled up loose scree, empty space falling away beneath me, wandering astray before rejoining the route. Then, the summit. Months of dreams, hopes, fears blew across the domed peak. I lingered in the sun, then, as huge white cumuli blossom on nearby crests, I scampered downward.

Back in the parking lot, fleeting bursts of sunlight poked through thickening clouds. A minivan arrives, then a sedan. Other climbers pull heavy packs from trunks and prepare to ascend. Many people come to the mountain, seeking adventure and challenge. Low on the trail, they will pass a small white rock, on which someone has scratched "animo, sí se puede", "c'mon, you can do it."

(Click for Original Black and White Version)