Thursday, August 14, 2008

Climbing Mt. Popocatepetl

January, 1949.

I was enjoying a ‘night on the town’ one Friday evening with a group of Rover Scouts of Group VII, Mexico City when the question was posed to me “Would you like to climb Mt. Popocatepetl?” Of course I agreed immediately. A couple of the guys got on the telephone to call around to see if anyone else in the group were interested. Arrangements were made to meet the rest of the fellows the next night at midnight. That settled, then I went with the fellows to various scouts homes to gather gear for the climb. The next night German and I were at the meeting place early. Soon the bus that we had hired came along. There were to have been about 20 boys going but only 13 showed up. That meant that the expense would be greater per boy but we fixed that later.

At 3:16 a.m. we arrived at the point where the road ended. Some of us decided to start climbing immediately. The others slept for a while. There was a good path to follow most of the way up the lower slopes. It was very easy to follow in the moonlight. A Rover Scout by the name of Mateos came along side of me and said “Let’s go!” The others were already straggling behind.

Mateos kept up a steady pace which I soon found I could not follow. The climbing was very steep and the air was getting thin. I could only go about 300 feet and then had to stop for a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding. In that manner I was able to keep up with Mateos fairly well. Then I lost him. I called to him and heard his voice from above so I started climbing the slope nearby. The slope was all right for a while then it grew steeper and steeper until I had to make use of the ice ax to cut a hold in the mountain side. Eventually I got to the point where the going was easier. Mateos was waiting for me. He had gone up a slope to the left of the one I went up. It was much easier than the one I used.

We then started climbing together. The wind was very strong and at times we had to force the spike at the end of our ice ax into the slope and lean forward on it so as not to be blown over. The wind blew many stones loose far above us which came tearing down at terrific speed. They weren’t more than eight inches in diameter for the most part but would hurt plenty if we were hit. To add to our difficulties the wind would often blow some sulfur fumes from the crater upon us.

It was very cold climbing, especially at that time of the morning. I lost feeling in my feet soon after leaving the bus. We wore several pairs of socks, gloves, a woolen cap that covered the ears and chin with only the face exposed and a heavy jacket. When the wind grew so bad as to blow sand in our eyes we put on goggles. We had the ice ax in one hand. It is a tool with a hoe-like blade on one side of the head and a pick on the other. On the top of the handle is a spike which we often used in climbing. We had steel spikes, called crampons, attached to our shoes.

As we were going up we could see many towns in the distance looking like patches of light. As the sun came up we could see the towns themselves. Directly in back of us was Iztaccihuatl with its three snow covered peaks. Its name means “the sleeping lady.”

Mateos finally sat down and admitted that the conditions for climbing were worse this time than any of the four other times he had climbed Popo. He would go no further. He said it was not worth the risk. I went about 100 ft. more but was still about 300 ft. from the crater. There was a party of four hikers up there at the same time as we were. They also went no further so I didn’t feel so badly in not completing the climb. As it was, Mateos and I were two of the four out of the party that reached the ice cap. None of us go to the edge of the crater.

It was almost impossible to go down the slope we had just come up without use of the crampons and ice ax. When we were about half way down we stopped and had breakfast. It would be quite something if I could have a view for breakfast every morning that I had on that morning! That is one of the satisfactions you get from climbing a mountain, the view. Only birds and those in planes see the same thing, it is wonderful!

German and Cocolicio met us on the way down. They were the other two of our party who got to the ice but they, too, returned because of the falling rocks and the extreme wind. A swift descent brought us to the place where the bus and the rest of the group awaited us. We then started back to Mexico City. To help pay for the cost of chartering the bus the boys changed the sign from “Especial” to “Mexico, D.F.” and picked up passengers along the way who were charged a reasonable fare. Not only did they get a cheaper ride to Mexico City than they otherwise would have they soon became involved in the singing and games the scouts were playing as the bus hurtled down the mountain to the city far below. German taught us all to sing the song of the elephant dancing on the web of a spider. At the end of each verse another boy would join those already singing the song until all were singing. Then we played hat games, also while singing a scouting song.

The fellows in Grupo VII of the Boy Scouts of Mexico City did not usually make decisions to go on a hike of this nature just the day before the actual climb but they were intent on having this Gringo Boy Scout have the experience of climbing Mt. Popocatepetl and knowing that I would be 'hitting the road' soon they made a quick decision and were able to put it all together in only one day. I am glad that I was able to put on a good show, notwithstanding the high altitude and the rugged nature of the hike. After all, the reputation of the Boy Scouts of America was at risk. I had to show that U.S. Scouts also could handle themselves on mountains. Maybe those thoughts imposed a bit of pressure on me but in reality I went and thoroughly enjoyed this adventure with the guys from Grupo VII because I loved this type of adventure. I truly appreciated that the fellows of Grupo VII were so friendly and accepting of this strange kid from across the border who couldn't speak any Spanish. In the fullest sense of the word these fellows portrayed the brotherhood of Scouting.

[This story is based on entries in my diary of my trip from New Jersey to Panama in early 1949. Gfd]

Popocatépetl (commonly referred to as Popo, El Popo or Don Goyo) (IPA: [popoka tepet ]) is an active volcano and, at 5,426 m., the second highest peak in Mexico after the Pico de Orizaba (5,636 m). Popocatépetl comes from the Nahuatl words pop ca 'it smokes' and tep tl 'mountain', thus Smoking Mountain. Popocatépetl is linked to the Iztaccíhuatl volcano to the north by the high saddle known as the Paso de Cortés, and lies in the eastern half of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt. [from Wikipedia]

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