A Winter's Tale: The depths of Mexico

While the 'Weeping Warrior' roars, tackle the 'Sleeping Woman'

Popocatepetl roared last week, shooting gas and ash into the thin air of Mexico. If the tallest volcano is off-limits, then I strongly recommend a climb up its near-identical twin, Iztaccihuatl (hereinafter, happily, referred to by its universal nickname, Izta). Popocatepetl (5452m) means "weeping warrior"; Izta (5286m) is "sleeping woman". You wouldn't want to climb "Popo" right now, even if the government allowed it (which it doesn't), but Izta is there for the taking. And December is the month to tackle it.

Popocatepetl roared last week, shooting gas and ash into the thin air of Mexico. If the tallest volcano is off-limits, then I strongly recommend a climb up its near-identical twin, Iztaccihuatl (hereinafter, happily, referred to by its universal nickname, Izta). Popocatepetl (5452m) means "weeping warrior"; Izta (5286m) is "sleeping woman". You wouldn't want to climb "Popo" right now, even if the government allowed it (which it doesn't), but Izta is there for the taking. And December is the month to tackle it.

The climb can be a precarious business - and people have died in the attempt - but it is the most exhilarating trip in Latin America, and easily accessible from Mexico City. This is how it was for me.

The first couple of hours of the ascent seemed relatively easy, but after El Refugio de Republico, things became much worse. It took an hour to scramble up the small but sheer face of loose volcanic scree. For every 5m climbed, I slipped down 3m. Only by planting the pickaxe and using it as a mini pole-vault was it possible to climb this part at all.

After the wall of scree, the terrain became better but steeper, and then the breathlessness began. It is humiliating and agonising to find oneself crawling and floundering like a baby, gasping for air.

The ice ridges up to the top would have made simple climbing but now my limbs were weary and the air very thin. The tropical sun was hot but the wind was dry and icy cold. At every stop my heart pounded and my head throbbed to its rhythm. Without proper sunblock or gloves, I could feel my exposed skin and lips being frayed by the elements and screaming for shelter.

Finally, the summit came. I forced myself to drink, but I had mild altitude sickness and a rapid descent was imperative. But for a moment, all of Mexico was mine. I was determined to use my camera's self-timer to prove that I really had been to the top of the world. Gingerly, I lined up the shot with the camera laid on the ice, trotted into position, span round and went flying backwards off an ice ridge and landed 6m below in a puddle of icy water. The only damage was the ripped seat of my trousers, a gash from a crampon spike through my calf and a deep sense of foolishness. The photo did show me on the top of the world... falling headfirst towards the bottom.

* Day-trippers beware: weather conditions can change rapidly and altitude sickness is a real danger. Inexperienced climbers should not climb alone, and hiring a guide is advisable. Essentials: crampons, boots, pickaxe, jacket, gloves, lots of water, torch, food, sunblock... and fitness

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