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Dateline: A particularly frigid part of the State of Mexico

El Nevado de Toluca, located in the State of Mexico, reaches up and jabs the sky at an altitude of 4,680 meters, or 15,350 feet, more than double the height of Mexico City. It ranks as the fourth highest of Mexico’s peaks, after Pico de Orizaba, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, and one of the few places in Mexico where you can see snow. Even in the summer, it’s not a warm place by any stretch of the imagination. My ex, Lorenzo, and I climbed it in June of 2016, well bundled up. The temperatures were in the mid-30s Fahrenheit, and without the strenuous hiking, we’d have been freezing our asses off.

According to Wikipedia, the last major eruption of Nevado de Toluca occurred about 10,500 years ago, as the volcano erupted a total estimated volume of 14 cubic kilometers of lava, rock, gravel, and ash for a volcanic explosivity index strength of 6 (comparable to the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo). The eruption deposited five feet of pebble-sized pumice in the City of Toluca region and roughly two feet of medium to fine sand in the Mexico City region. Technically speaking, it was a helluva blast. Personally, I don’t want to be around for the next one.

To get there, we took the metro out to Observatorio. From there we got onto an intercity bus, which took us to Toluca. After that, we got onto a combi (basically a van), which took us to the small town of Raíces, Mexico, a tiny, hardscrabble place which ekes out a living feeding and accommodating tourists such as ourselves. I paid 10 pesos for the privilege of using the bathroom in someone’s house. Let’s just say that it was extremely humble. The toilet appeared to be home-made, out of concrete, and the rest of the accommodations were incredibly basic. There were a few scraggly patches of corn among the concrete block buildings, and of course it was incredibly cold. Especially considering it was mid-June.

Restaurant in Raices, EdoMex

I’ll say we did do some rudimentary planning for this trip. But to say that we had a specific and complete itinerary planned would be an overstatement. Once in Raíces, which was the end of the public transit line, we were at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed next. But in Mexico, everything works itself out, so we managed to hitch a ride in the back of a truck to the base camp. Our driver turned out to be a park employee. This worked out well, in fact so well that we didn’t have to pay admission.

Apparently it can snow any time, though there’s little precipitation in the winter.

Base camp sits at approximately 12,000 feet. That’s where the truck dropped us off. Though I had been living in Mexico City (7,200’ ASL) for approximately six months at that point, running several miles 3-4 times per week, doing pushups, sit-ups, and other exercises in the park at the end of my run, the lack of oxygen was noticeable.  But nothing would prepare me for the aerobic challenge of El Nevado.

Where the going begins to get tough

From the base camp, it’s a mile-or so hike out to the main crater. From there it’s another 3,000-ish feet of steep, rocky, craggy terrain to surmount the crest. Though it’s not a mountain that requires ropes, pitons, crampons, ice axes, supplemental oxygen, Sherpas, or other esoterica of mountain climbing, it’s no walk in the park either. While it’d require some degree of clutziness to fall down the mountain, it’s not impossible. To get to the top, you need to hike up a narrow ridge with a fairly steep drop-off on either side. The lack of oxygen makes it a real challenge. We’d hike up 50 feet or so, and then I’d beg Lorenzo to stop and let me hyperventilate for a few minutes to recover my breath. We’d then set off on another 50-foot climb, rinse and repeat. It probably took us about an hour and a half, perhaps two to reach the summit. During our ascent, a light drizzle intermittently rained down upon us, and stiff breezes pushed us around. It’s a truly different climate up there.

What the path turns into. Wheelchairs not advised.
Magnificent view from the summit. Well worth it!

Once atop the summit, we celebrated. What an amazing view and experience! El Nevado de Toluca is the Doublemint Gum of volcanos, with two (two!) craters, each filled with a small lake, Lake of the Sun, and Lake of the Moon, respectively. While the terrain is mostly barren, at least from a distance, the twin craters of the volcano are streaked with bands of color varying from reddish to greenish. At the summit, you’re in the clouds, so mysterious bands of shifting fog kept obscuring and then revealing parts of the mountain. It was a truly mystical experience.

The way down provided some beautiful examples of plants well adapted to the harsh environment. These plants are growing in a gravelly pumice that appears to be several feet thick. Click to enlarge.

More breathtaking views on the way down:

Crater with a glimpse of one of the lakes
Mysteriously smoking crater lake
More beautiful, rocky fields with mountain backdrop
Shrouded in foggy mystery
Waterfall of subtle color
Bidding a fond goodbye to the mountain before we head back to the base camp

So how did we get back? Well, amazing good luck continued. When we arrived back at base camp, a young lawyer offered to give us a ride back to Toluca in his minivan, accompanied by his 7-something year-old son, baby, and wife. I was amazed he’d let two strange men accompany him with his family, but thankful too. When we got to Toluca, we did a little touristing, and then headed back to CDMX, exhausted but inspired by this wild, wonderful, and dangerously beautiful place.

This is an amazing hike, but you need to be in good shape to do it. I’d imagine that if you’re not already living at altitude the lack of oxygen could be a real challenge. Still, if you’re up for the challenge, I’d highly recommend it. Saludos!