Saturday, December 6, 2008

Climbing Mexico's Nevado de Colima volcano

Nevado de Colima volcano. Several of my regular Tuesday hiking group decided on short notice to climb this 14,240 foot (4220 meter) inactive volcano, located north of Colima just inside the Jalisco State line. I was a little reluctant to go at first due to the short notice but also because I am subject to altitude sickness (more on that later). However, my Canadian friend Gerry prevailed upon me and his enthusiasm is hard to resist. (Photo by Tom Holman)

Nevado de Colima is inactive and is one of two volcanos in this area. The volcanos lie inside a national park about three hours southwest of Lake Chapala. The other volcano, Volcan de Fuego, is active and has erupted 40 times since 1576, most recently in June 2005. Volcan de Fuego, the smaller of the two at 3960 meters, lies within sight of Nevado de Colima. No climbing is allowed, for obvious reasons. I was told that climbing is also prohibited on the peak of Nevado de Colima, but this restriction appears to be generally ignored by the local climbing community. Given the remote location, such a prohibition would be difficult to enforce in any case.

You may notice that an unusually large number of the photos displayed here are by others, and that I appear much more than in my other postings.  The reason is that my friends Tom Holman and Gerry Green are talented photographers, and also because the mountain cold killed my camera batteries part way up the climb. So, for once, I get to be a visible actor in one of these little blog dramas. I did my best to identify the photos taken by others.

Getting there

The fun begins even before the hike. Getting to our base camp from Ajijic was easy until we left the highway and started up a seemingly endless and very rough dirt road. We drove several thousand feet up the escarpment to the broad plateau on which Nevado de Colima stands. As we climbed higher the road became hardly more than a mule track. Gerry's 4-wheel-drive Honda was the only one of our three cars to make it all the way to the camp. Gerry had to ferry people, supplies, and equipment up from where the other two cars gave out.

Mexican bikers and hikers take a breather at the park gate. At the top of the escarpment we stopped at the national park gate.  A local official collected our entrance fee and gave us paper name bracelets similar to that which you are given as a patient at a hospital. When I asked someone about the bracelet, I was told it would help identify my body. I'm still not sure if they were pulling my leg.  (Photo by Gerry Green)

Water for a thirsty mountain biker. My friend and fellow Oregonian Tom kindly supplied some fresh water to a tired biker. This young Mexican and his friends had pedaled all the way up the 9,000 foot escarpment. This rugged trek had taken us over an hour by car. While we waited our turn at the gate, more bikers kept arriving. When we finally left two days later, we passed still more bikers coming up, some just beginning to pedal up in the late afternoon. We were astonished at this because it meant they would certainly arrive long after dark. Lacking camping equipment, they would face a pitch-black ride back down. We couldn't decide whether this was amazing commitment or sheer insanity. Each to his own. (Photo by Gerry Green)

The peak of Nevado de Colima from the park gate. This was my first good look at our goal. It was beautiful but sobering. We still had many miles of increasingly treacherous road to our planned base camp. (Photo by Gerry Green)

Settling in at our base camp

Keeping up a roaring fire was a major preoccupation. Gerry left me at the campsite with most of our gear to head back down for the others. The sun had dropped below the ridge and I felt like I had stepped into an icy meat locker. I pulled together as much fallen wood as I could and started up the campfire. We had to work at keeping the fire going, because much of the wood on the ground was damp and caused a lot of smoke but little flame. As the night went on, the temperature kept dropping. I don't know how low it ultimately went, but it froze the water in my canteen and the batteries in my camera. We had camped at about 12,000 feet.

The official food taster. The next order of business was stirring up some hot food. Here, Tom has me try out the result of his efforts. I  am always surprised that a rather unremarkable menu of hot food assumes gourmet proportions on a cold night after a long journey. As you can see, we had quickly changed from our shorts and t-shirts into more suitable attire.  (Photo by Gerry Green)

Plotting the climb. Robert, in the red jacket, discusses routes and methods with Gerry, who is seated on his "throne". In his hands and behind him, Robert has rock climbing tackle. He is our resident rock climbing expert, and gives lessons to Mexicans and Gringos alike. The Mexicans who joined us in our camp and on the climb were Robert's hiking friends from Guadalajara, where he lives with his Mexican girlfriend. Gerry had a hard time hanging on to his throne Every time he got up, someone slipped into it behind him. It was much more comfortable than an old crumbly log, if I do say so myself.

Omar and Angie preparing their Mexican specialty. This young couple, friends of Robert, joined our campsite and contributed much to the evening. Omar was very easy going, spoke passable English, and had an infectuous laugh. Angie was quiet and very sweet. Her English was about as limited as my Spanish, so we felt somewhat on an equal basis. As the evening wore on, we all began to tell jokes with Robert translating into English or Spanish as the case demanded. Most of the jokes translated pretty well and we laughed our way well into the night, until the cold finally drove everyone into their beds.

That evening, and the next day, several of us began to experience altitude sickness. People can experience this as low as 8,000 feet and we were camped at 12,000. Gerry got violent headaches that first evening. Omar had severe stomach upsets after he went to bed and was up most of the night. The two sons of our Mexican climbing partners both got sick on the climb the next day and almost didn't make the peak. I felt ok at first, although a little light-headed and easily tired. However, I woke up feeling intensely claustrophobic about two hours after going to bed. It didn't help that I had squeezed into a small tent with Tom, who is a pretty big guy. I spent almost the entire night breathing deeply to calm my claustrophobia, counting my breaths for a very long six hours. It later dawned on me that the thin air was the cause of my breathlessness and feeling of suffocation. Sleeplessness is a common symptom of altitude sickness. Although most of us felt good enough to try the climb the next morning, Omar was pretty wiped out and stayed in camp. We all felt bad for him. I didn't have any further symptons, except that lack of sleep meant that I quickly began to nod off every time we stopped for a break in our climb. No one knows why some experience the problem and others don't.  It has nothing to do with age or physical condition.

Setting out

Ready to go! Heavily bundled against the early morning cold, we set out for the peak. We were joined by several more of Robert's Mexican hiking friends, along with their young sons. Many hikers carry collapsable hiking sticks resembling ski poles. These help you keep your balance and allow you to use your upper body to pull you up and take some pressure off your legs. Me, I just use an old stick.  (Photo by Gerry Green)

Misery Hill well deserves its name. The hill did not look too bad at first. After all, I could see the top just up ahead. Trouble was, once there, another top loomed ahead. On and on went Misery Hill. It didn't help that big stretches were not only steep but comprised of loose gravel and sand. Two steps up, one step back. Fortunately, the chilly air kept the warm sun from becoming oppressive. I wouldn't like to try this in the summer. (Photo by Gerry Green)

The peak looms closer. As we finally neared the top of Misery Hill, the peak of Nevado de Colima came into view. It looked beautiful but rugged, with white clouds whirling above it resembling volcanic smoke.

Lupin blossoms in the mountain clearings. Lupin is found in mountain areas throughout the western parts of North America. These Lupin were bigger than any I'd seen in the mountains of Oregon. The flowers were a lovely luminous blue.  (Photo by Tom Holman)

At the top of Misery Hill--at last! We took a long break at the top of Misery Hill to catch our breath and enjoy the stunning view unfolding below. The rocks I am sitting on form the lip of the volcanic crater. Behind me is a sheer drop of many hundreds of feet. The wooded ridge behind me forms the other side of the crater. I was startled by how much the country resembles the high alpine country of the Eastern Cascade Mountains of Oregon. (Photo by Gerry Green) 

Struggling to the Hotah

Eye level with the clouds. Gerry picked his way among boulders the size of my Toyota as we worked our way along the rim of the crater toward the peak. On the far side of the crater, you can see the tops of clouds. We were somewhere between 12,500 and 13,000 feet, actually above the clouds at this point.

Strange markings attracted our eyes. We saw these markings a considerable distance away. They only became clear after I used my telephoto and later further enhanced them with my computer.  They appear to be religious, apparently Catholic, in origin.

Sparse vegetation replaced scrub pine.  Above the tree line, the ground consisted of loose sand and gravel, with clumps of grass here and there.  We tried to walk on the grass because the loose gravel took too much effort.  

A  steep incline and no way but up.  I took this shot to show the steepness of the 45 degree slope we struggled up.  In this terrain and at this altitude, the  climb became ten steps forward, rest, and then try to make ten more.

Target:  The Hotah.  On the left side of the peak above there is a notch about half way down. The loop of this notch resembles the loop in a J, called hotah in the Spanish alphabet.  Our route will take us along the base of the cliff wall of the peak, avoiding the sandy gravel if possible, and through the Hotah.  Once through, the trail continues around behind the peak and then up to the top.  Due to the remaining effects of our altitude sickness, Gerry and I agreed that we would try to get through the Hotah and then decide whether to join the others for the final 500 foot assault on the peak. (Photo by Tom Holman)

A sheer wall of volcanic rock.  Finally, we reached the base of the peak, which rises hundreds of feet above us.  The peak consists of the rock remaining from the volcanic eruption, which solidified and resisted the erosion around it.

A careful route.  We picked our way through the rocks and grass clumps, staying as close to the wall as we could, and avoiding the cross-shaped sandy patch in the middle of the photo above. The tracks you can see bisecting the sand from top to bottom are those of climbers coming down, not going up.  You can almost ski down through this loose sand, a much more amusing activity than slogging up through it. (Photo by Tom Holman)

Our advance party.  Robert, Tom and the Mexican climbers were far ahead of us, as seen through this telephoto shot.  They had left the sand behind and were only a couple of hundred yards below the Hotah.  They will be tough yards, though.  

Roiling clouds obscure the peak.  Cloud banks roiled around us, sometimes completely whiting out our surroundings, sometimes opening up far vistas of the valleys below us.  The temperature changed from warm and sunny to freezing cold and back again in moments.  As we neared the Hotah, we had to scramble over huge rocks. (Photo by Gerry Green)

A moment's breather near the Hotah.  I paused so Gerry could get this shot.  You can see how steep the terrain has become just below the peak wall.  What appears to be bright sky behind me is actually white clouds sweeping in.  (Photo by Gerry Green)

A tricky scramble through the Hotah.  Gerry took this shot as the clouds covered us, giving it an eerie, misty look.  The Hotah, which looks broad and inviting from a distance, actually closes in to an extremely narrow passage that requires some rather tricky rock climbing.  Off to my right is what I call The Void, dropping off hundreds of feet into empty clouds. (Photo by Gerry Green)

A close-up of some fancy footwork.  Gerry's photo captured me struggling through a gap so narrow I had to remove my pack to squeeze through.  It would not do to miss one's footing here, with sheer drops close at hand.  Even a twisted ankle would cause a major problem in getting down.  There would be little or no hope of a helicopter rescue and I would face a long hop down on one foot. (Photo by Gerry Green)

Made it through!  I picked my way carefully over a narrow cliffside trail, having just come back through the Hotah.  I was heading down at this point. Gerry and I decided that at 13,500 feet, we had made a  good effort but that was enough. Next time, I'll go for the peak.  It was a wonderful climb as far as we went though.  (Photo by Gerry Green)

Others made the final push to the peak

Exhausted.  One of our Mexican climbing partners shows the numbing exhaustion of climbing at that altitude.  One's attention becomes very narrowly focused on the next step, and one's goal is just the next few feet in immediate sight. (Photo by Tom Holman)
View of the upper crater.  This  photo shows the part of the climb I did not see. The trail here winds around to the right and then up. Notice the twisted volcanic rocks on the left. (Photo by Tom Holman)

Victory!  The ones who made it, including Tom who took the picture, celebrate the victory of the summit.  Robert is in the center holding the American flag, while the Mexicans hold their flag, and one of their sons spreads the skull and bones.  I have no idea what the pirate flag was about, but kids being kids, they probably had their reasons.  (Photo by Tom Holman)

That's it for our volcano climbing adventure. Hope you enjoyed seeing it as much as I enjoyed doing it.  Someone once asked a man who was pounding his head with a hammer why he was doing  it.  He responded "because it feels so good when I stop".  There you have it.


  1. Your adventure is inspiring. I'm contemplating a future leap to Ajijic. I would appreciate very much the opportunity to follow up with some questions about your experience via email. I hope you would agree to this exchange.
    Many thanks and best regards,

  2. Ivonne- you didn't give an email address, so I hope you see this. My email is I'd be glad to answer your questions. Jim

  3. wow, I hope I get to see all of this once I can take the time to go back to my home state, Guanajuato. I'm from the vicinity of Celaya,but I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex right now though. Very interesting adventure.

  4. Hi - my husband and I are interested in hiking at least part of this trail - we live in g'jara. would love more information on how to access the trail - and hike part of it without camping - we would stay in Guzman, I imagine. Is December/January a good time to go? Thanks so much - c russell


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim