The Aztecs called her Iztaccihuatl—the white woman—for the permanent glaciers that covered her peaks. But today, she is usually called la mujer dormida—the sleeping woman—maybe because she’s less white than she once was.
She lies on her back overlooking La Ciudad de México, Mexico City, Tenochitlán. At her feet kneels her lover, always watching, his undying torch a constant reminder of his vigil.
Before she was a volcano, Iztaccihuatl was an Aztec princess who was in love with Popocatépetl, one of her father’s young warriors. They wanted to get married, so her father made a deal with her suitor. “Go south and conquer my enemies. If you return victoriously, then you can marry my daughter,” the emperor told him.
So Popocatépetl went south, and he was gone for a long time. Eventually a messenger arrived and told the emperor that his army was victorious, but that Popocatépetl had died in battle. Iztaccihuatl was overwhelmed, and the heartbreak killed her.
But Popocatépetl was not dead. A rival had sent the false message to trick the emperor and his daughter. When Popocatépetl returned home and learned that Iztaccihuatl was dead, he was inconsolable. He ordered his men to build a tomb on a nearby hill and he laid her body inside. He lit a torch, knelt at the feet of his dead lover, and never moved again.
With time, snow and dirt and ice slowly covered the couple, until they became the volcanoes that surround Mexico City. Popocatépetl’s torch still burns as he watches over Iztaccihuatl.
We huddle around the steaming tamale cart, sneaking occasional glances at Iztaccihuatl and drinking a hot corn mush to ward off the cold.
We drive to a dirt parking lot between the two volcanoes and arrange our gear. Ice axe—check. Crampons—check. Helmet—check. We begin to hike, pine forests and granite walls quickly replacing the skyscrapers of Mexico City.
The sun starts to set and we climb through thick fog to the last source of water before the summit. Popocatépetl’s crater glows bright orange in the dark. The lights of Mexico City form a flickering web that fills the entire valley below.
The Spanish built the city right on top of the old Aztec capital of Tenochitlán, and I wonder what it would have felt like to see the valley from the same spot centuries ago.
The Aztec respected and revered the volcanoes, but that’s not to say that they avoided them. There may have been an ambitious soldier who wanted to test his strength against the mountain, or a priest who wanted to get closer to his gods.
In any case, we know that the local people were deeply involved with the peaks. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar from Spain, wrote that indigenous people still made pilgrimages to the summits all the way into the 16th century.
When Hernán Cortés arrived in México in 1519, the indigenous people living in the city now called Cholula told him that he wouldn’t be able to reach the peak of the erupting Popocatépetl. But Cortés was unintimidated—or at least he pretended to be—even though he could see the smoke exploding out of the crater. He sent a group of men to investigate the smoking mountain.
In a letter to King Carlos V of Spain, Cortés wrote that the men set out to climb the mountain but couldn’t reach the top “on account of the thickness of the snow, the repeated windstorms in which ashes from the volcano were blown in their faces, and also the great severity of the temperature, but they reached very near the top, so near in fact that being there when the smoke began to rush out, they reported it did so with such noise and violence that the whole mountain seemed to fall down.”
In his defense, Diego de Ordaz—the Spaniard who led the expedition—claimed that he did reach the summit, but his version doesn’t make it sound any easier. In a first-person account, a fellow Spanish soldier named Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote that as the climbers neared the summit, “the volcano began to throw out great tongues of flames…and that the whole mountain range…[was] so shaken that they stopped still.”
Whether or not the Spaniards actually made it to the summit, the mountain admirably stood its ground. It pushed back the explorers with ice and ash and fire. The mountain wasn’t conquered, not yet, not really.
It’s tempting to say that Europeans conquered the mountain a few years later, when Francisco Montaño and four other men went back to Popocatépetl to extract sulfur from its crater. They needed it to make the gunpowder fueling the Spanish conquest. This time, they did reach the summit. The men drew lots to decide who would enter the crater. Montaño went first. The other men lowered him into Popocatépetl several times, maybe in a basket or maybe with just a thin rope tied around his waist. He returned each time with a load of sulfur.
They were able to extract plenty of sulfur, but in the end, Cortés determined it was probably easier to source it from across the Atlantic Ocean.
“In the future this method of procuring it will be unnecessary,” Cortés wrote in a letter to the king. “It is certainly dangerous and I am continually writing to Spain to provide us.”
The mountain remained unconquered.
We make camp below the mountain peak, but it soon becomes too dark to see. I make pasta on a tiny camp stove and we feast. Jose Ignacio sets up the tent and Sergio sits on a rock near the stream, meditating. The wind rips at our tents all night long. I worry that a storm will come in the next day and I hardly sleep at all.
My alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. and I crawl out of my sleeping bag. It’s still dark outside, but against the silhouette of Iztaccihuatl I can see tiny strings of lights slowly traversing across the mountain—groups of hikers already making their way up to the peak.
It takes Jose Ignacio almost an hour to get out of his tent, and then we hit the trail. We join a group of hikers and I turn on my headlamp, transforming into one of the points of light I saw ascending earlier that morning.
It took a while for us to melt the sleeping woman’s glacier, but eventually we got it done. We made a light bulb and a system to keep the light bulbs on. We burned coal to produce electricity. We made cars and highways and jet planes. We chopped down forests and put cows where the trees used to be. Bit by bit we changed the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere until it trapped just a little more of the sun’s energy and made everything just a little warmer.
It’s not something that you could feel. But you could see it. You could see it on the summit of Iztaccihuatl. We chipped away at the whiteness of the white woman, until she was the white woman no longer—merely a sleeping woman.
And then I stand at the bottom of the last white part of the white woman. I strap the crampons onto my boots and dig my spikes into the snow. The slope is steep, maybe 45 degrees, but the spikes make it easy to climb. I have to adjust the straps on my boots a few times, but I make it to the top of the ridge.
It’s even less white here. The snow is only a few inches deep, and there’s a line of climbers preparing for the last stretch before the summit. Their footsteps mix the white snow with the brown earth beneath.
I sit down next to an older man to take my crampons off.
“This used to be all white,” he says, waving his arm in front of him. “When I was younger, we used to rappel into the crevices before we hiked to the summit.”
Now there are no crevices in the ice, just brown patches where the sun has melted through the snow.
I begin the final ascent. The air is thin and the soil sandy, but I put one foot in front of the other and reach the top. There’s a group of about 20 other climbers already there.
But I don’t feel like a conqueror.
How much more satisfying would it have been for the ambitious Aztec soldier testing his strength against the volcano, or even for the old man who explored the crevices in his youth? What would it have felt like to take on the mountain in its prime, when it still had the glaciers and crevices to fight us off?
The top of the mountain pokes out above a layer of clouds stretching as far as I can see. Popocatépetl, Iztaccihuatl, and Pico de Orizaba—Mexico’s tallest peak—seem like islands of rock in a sea of white.
But I know what the cloud layer hides. Millions of cars, miles of highways, skyscrapers thousands of feet tall—one of the largest cities in the history of mankind, constantly moving and constantly pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Like the Spaniards, we pushed forward with technology. We wanted progress, to tame new lands. And in a lot of ways the world became a better place. But we forgot the white woman in the process.
And we finally conquered the mountain.
Author: A biologist by training, Matt Blois chased jaguars in Mexico and condors in California before pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana. In another life, he would’ve been the lead singer of a rock ‘n’ roll band. He still sings for fun. Lover of radio. Easily distracted by colorful birds.
Photographer: Alejandro Zamora Esqueda goes to as many concerts as possible. In 2015, he attended more than 70 gigs, where he photographed more than 150 bands and had the chance to interview some of them. Before taking his first steps in music journalism, he worked as a taco maker in Toronto and played accordion on the streets of cold Québec City.