When I first booked this trip to Mexico a few months ago, I was looking forward to spending some time in a place I love with some people that I love. I was also in deep need of processing some emotions about leaving this beautiful country a year and a half ago and to acknowledge that we can have multiple homes, without having to spend every minute in that home. Mexico has become a second home for many reasons: the beautiful people and landscapes, the various cultures, and the deep and spiritual connections to the environment and food within many of those cultures. However, one of the reasons I especially love this country is because of who I am here: happy, thoughtful, self-reflective and connected to the environment and humanity in a way that I have not yet found elsewhere. I didn’t realize when I organized this trip that I not only needed to reconnect with Mexico, but that I also needed to reconnect with myself. Because I do my best thinking when hiking, I realized this need for self-reflection while standing at roughly 15,500 ft on the side of one of Mexico’s majestic volcanoes, Iztaccíhuatl.
Iztaccíhutal (Izta) is the dormant half of Mexico’s two central volcanoes, her partner being the active Popocapepetl (Popo) volcano. Generally, according to legend, Izta was a beautiful princess and deeply in love with Popo, a strong and brave warrior, both members of the Tlaxtaltecans and enemies of the Aztecs. Prior to an upcoming battle between the two groups, Izta’s father promised her hand in marriage to Popo if he came back successfully from battle. While away, a jealous rival of Popo, wanting Izta’s love for himself, lied to the princess, telling her Popo died in battle so he could marry her himself. Instead, and because of her extreme love, Izta died of sadness upon hearing of Popo’s death. Upon his return, Popo was of course devasted, and after mourning for some time, he decided to carry his love to the top of a mountain and lay her to rest, where he gave her a final kiss, and remained holding a torch to watch over her body. Snow eventually covered the two, and they became mountains themselves to remain for all of eternity. And when Popo remembers his eternal love, his heart trembles and smoke emits from his torch.
These two volcanoes watch over central Mexico, and I would see them on clear days as I drove to work at CIMMYT from Mexico City, and we would occasionally find ash on our vehicles emitted from Popo’s sadness. Wanting something to distract myself from a failed relationship at the end of 2016, I had declared 2017 the year of the volcanoes, and that I would try and climb as many of Mexico’s climbable volcanoes as possible (I don’t know why this had to be the distraction, as opposed to, say, visiting a bunch of beaches, but we know I have an extreme personality). Shortly after, I took a job in Arizona and my plan was foiled as I dealt with an international move and starting a new job. Nonetheless, of all of Mexico’s volcanoes I’ve remained obsessed with climbing Izta ever since, as she is so present in central Mexico (Popo is still active, and people are no longer permitted to climb him). With a maximum height of 17,160 feet, I wasn’t even certain the level of effort needed to scale the princess is within my wheelhouse, but I was at least interested in trying.
After I left Mexico, I did not have a strong plan as to when I would be able to accomplish these high elevation feats. Luckily, one of my outdoorsy friends (Miles!) was looking to join me in Mexico for New Years, and willingly agreed when I asked—i.e., strongly suggested—we climb Izta (to all the worriers out there, we went with a guide!). His entire time in Mexico (3 nights/days), would then effectively become absorbed with hiking at extreme elevations (Mexico City is at 7,200 feet and causes high elevation headaches in many visitors), but he was a willing companion, nonetheless. Miles had never visited Mexico City, so his first day here I toured him around my old neighborhood and fed him some of my favorite foods (Quesadillas Vero!), then we had a very brief New Years Eve celebration before retiring early for our 8 AM departure the next day for the volcano.
Popo and Izta are protected as a national park, with the headquarters situated in the Pasó de Cortés (11,150 ft), where Hernán Cortés reportedly crossed the Sierra Nevada as he battled his way across Mexico. I had previously hiked from the park headquarters to Izta’s base camp (12,926 ft), which was in itself extremely challenging in part due to the elevation. When Miles and I arrived on our first day, we set up our base camp, took a nap as we would start our ascent at midnight, then took a hike around Izta’s base to acclimate ourselves to the high elevation (and likely for our guide to determine if we should even engage in this activity). We then loaded our backpacks with all the gear necessary if we would make the summit (crampons, harnesses, helmets, snacks, water, extra jackets), carb loaded, and took another nap.
At 12:01 AM on the dot, our guide woke us up (“Ariel, es tiempo”); as an insomniac with a tenuous relationship with sleep, and having not slept well in the hours and days prior to this adventure, this is the point at which I seriously reconsidered my decision to attempt this climb. But, not one to back down from a challenge, I pulled on my big girl snow pants, jumped out of the tent, pounded my peanut butter and jelly (hardcore adventure food right there!), and Miles and I started our journey with Pedro and Margarita, our faithful leader and companion. The hike went something like this:
1:00 AM – OK, we are starting, I got this.
2:00 AM – I am a volcano queen! I have massive volcano flow!
3:00 AM – Why the fuck am I doing this?
4:00 AM – What is this garbage I am walking on? Where do I even put my feet on this scree!
5:00 AM – My arms feel weird. Is this altitude sickness or my stress induced irritable bowel syndrome? I guess other women have babies to feel alive1, this is like that, right?
6:15 AM – (at 15,500 feet): HOLY FUCK THAT’S THE SUNRISE! IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL! I AM A VOLCANO QUEEN!
6:20 AM – OK, I’m cold, going in that shack to rest
(Interlude while we napped in the Refugio, a shack with platforms on which hikers can sleep)
8:30 AM – Guide (in Spanish but translated for your ease of reading): “Ariel, do you want to continue, we are about a quarter of the way done.” Me (calculating that it would be another 6 hrs to the summit and about 8 hrs down, for a total of 20+ hrs of hiking, and with only about 1.5 L of water with me): “I saw the sunrise and climbed the highest I’ve ever climbed. I don’t need to conquer the rest of this scary mountain right now.”
9:00 AM – (As we start our descent): Well, it’s a bummer I didn’t make the summit, but I feel good about it.
10:00 AM – This hike is kind of terrifying with that cliff next to me, I am so glad we went up in the dark.
11:00 AM – (As we finish our descent) I AM A VOLCANO QUEEN!
Of course, I spent a lot of time thinking about a lot of other things while on the side of that mountain. Most importantly, I reflected on how fortunate I am to have the time, finances, and able body and mind to put myself in ridiculous situations like climbing to 15,500 feet. Too, I realized that since I left Mexico, I had become distant from the person I am when here, especially the part of me that is self-aware enough to realize how fortunate I truly am. Many people on this planet are born into some kind of privilege, be it monetary or otherwise. I may not have been born into financial privilege, but I was certainly born in the right place to achieve it. And while where one is born in the US certainly has a huge impact on your future level of “success”, at least US citizens can easily migrate within the country to achieve a solid financial future if few opportunities exist in one’s hometown. Obviously, the ability to move and the opportunity to move are two very different things; not everyone in the US can easily pack up to take advantage of new opportunities, and a different job in a different place may not result in financial wealth. Nonetheless, if one has the time and money to move within the US, at least they are not faced with a terrifying journey that many undergo in the rest of the world. In many places the lack of opportunity, violent crime, war, etc. in one’s home are far worse than potentially dying to reach some other place to achieve some other life.
I had in part been reflecting on my privilege due to a tough conversation I had earlier in the week with another dear friend. One of my main goals in life right now is to pay off my student loans as fast as possible; I’ve been carrying that burden for almost 15 years and we know how frustrating and impactful debt can be for various individuals. In the last year, somewhat bored and depressed in suburban Arizona, my single-minded focus on frugality for the sake of paying off that debt—so I could then free up that money to do something else with myself—kind of turned me into an asshole who can’t recognize how lucky I am to even take on that debt. Despite how annoyed I am by how long I’ve been paying for it, higher education provided me with a wealth of opportunities and the networks necessary to go on to achieve many of my personal goals and dreams. My time at Davis was so fantastic and important to me, that helping others improve their livelihoods and have access to the type of opportunities I was so lucky to have was one of my primary reasons I chose my career path. Yet, I couldn’t even recognize how distant I had become from my values in the last year; my friend had pointed out my white privilege and how on one hand I was complaining about needing to pay off my student loans because I grew up poor, and on the other expressing my excitement about climbing a volcano in central Mexico. Income inequality in Mexico is ridiculous, and few people can visit other Mexican states, let alone pay a guide to take them up a volcano or visit other sites with cultural importance. Meanwhile, I have the time and financial freedom to be able to visit two Mexican states in two weeks; we often carry the burdens of our youth with us through life, but poverty is one that I am lucky to have moved past. I should be using that privilege to help others, and not complain about how hard my life is because I’m trying to pay off the debt of higher education.
It was a reminder I needed, as it was almost too easy to forget my values surrounded by relative financial wealth in Arizona. Unfortunately, because the US is so hyper-focused on capitalism, we often vote with our dollars; I may not be in a position with my work to directly address poverty alleviation anymore, but I can certainly support companies (like Nutrifuerza), who are themselves dedicated to helping the rural and urban poor and mitigating climate change. Likewise, one of the reasons I continue to use my privilege to visit beautiful places in the world is to remain connected to my values; it may be contradictory to discuss flying to a place and environmental conservation in the same paragraph, but staying in touch with the people and habitats I love is so important for me to continue to dedicate my time and money in whatever ways I can to try and help the world in some minimal way. It seems so, so silly to have to climb a volcano to remind myself of that, but what are extreme activities for if not to process through our various mental health issues?
In the new year, I am looking forward to continuing these deep reflections and reconnecting with my values; let me know if you want to join me on a hike some time to chat about it… there’s plenty more volcanoes to climb in Mexico and elsewhere!
1 I realize climbing a volcano is nothing like childbirth and the ensuing years of parenting. High elevation does weird things to the mind, so please disregard any ridiculous comparisons.