Saturday, March 12, 2011

Citlali, Monarch of Mexican Volcanoes

Pico De Orizaba, Mexico: I left Mexico city and soon was out of the smog and rising to the east toward two great volcanoes towering and snow-capped over the altiplano.  Popo and Itza, the Smoking Mountain and the White Woman, the star crossed-lovers of Aztec myth.   Popo throws up hot ash from his height at 17,802 feet as if still rumbling with anger and pain over his tragedy of losing Itza.  And Itza reposes, cold and remote under her glacial shroud.  But beyond the tragic prince and princess is the king, Citlali, or Pico de Orizaba.

Citlali means star in the language of the Aztecs and, with a vertical relief second in the world only to that of Mt. Kilamanjaro in Africa, its large glaciers can be seen shining for hundreds of miles around and even from ships coming into port in Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico.  It stands at 18,500 feet above that gulf, the highest volcano and the third highest mountain on the continent.  I wanted to receive my crown from the king.

From the indigenous village at the base I found a ride with some mountain guides up through pine forests and scattered potato fields.  We rose above the trees and arrived at a stone hut set in the icy wind that crackles down from the glaciers hanging high above.  By the time we arrived it was dark and so I saw nothing of the imposing wall of rock and ice that people refer to as the Labyrinth looming over the hut.  I listened from other climbers of extreme winds aloft and temperatures well below zero. But worry would not get me one step closer to the summit, so I turned in for the night.

I got up at 2:30 in the morning.  A few climbers were moving around in the dark, the wood frames of the bunks creaking.  I climbed down and looked out.  The night was breathless; the stars slicing down from unreachable altitudes.

I soon was packed and on the trail up the mountain, still with only an impression of where I was headed from the pale outline of the mountain in the gossamer light of the moon.  Ahead bobbed three lamps, the first three climbers out of camp.  I soon overtook them, a Californian and two Austrians, and we climbed on.  When we got to the chaotic ice and rock of the Labyrinth, cracking and sharp and the predawn freeze, we put on our crampons and took out our ice axes.

We reached the glacier at 16,000 feet, a steep sweep of ice stretching to the summit.  The others were slowing slightly and the route was now clear.  I pushed ahead and turned off my headlamp. 

The night was still and the air was rare and there was no movement on the swath of ice and for a moment I felt as if I were a polar explorer in the endless Antarctic night, the only human being on a whole continent, a flawless solitude.  And the stars also in their solitary places shone their cold light as the moon began to float downward and I moved on toward the highest pinnacle of the crown of the slumbering king.

First sun on the crater walls, looking out over the bank of clouds
hiding the tropics of Veracruz and the Gulf of Mexico.
A small light kindled in the east and with it the cold became sharper and the stars began to lose their luster.  The lights of Puebla shimmered on the altiplano like a million candles and the far below me cloud-tops took on blurred moon-shadows.  I pressed on, my breath coming faster as the air became lesser.  Soon only Venus, the brightest star in the sky, shone directly over the peak of Citlali.  The mats of clouds hiding Veracruz from view began to whiten and as I strained a few more steps up the squeaking ice to set my foot on the crest of the crater the sun burst over the cloud bank, its rays spreading as poured water fans out over smooth ice.

The intricate gilding on the King´s crown.

The monarch casts a long shadow.

After an hour of solitude on the summit, the others joined me. We celebrated our ascendancy to the throne... 

...and we descended alongside the rivers that Citlali sends down from his ice to slake the thirst of all of his peoples.

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