Nevado de Toluca

January 1-2, 2019


Mexico State, Mexico

At elevation of close to 4700 m the complex massif of Nevado de Toluca (Xinantecatl) is the 4th highest peak in Mexico and stands taller than everything in the “Lower 48” of America, or BC/Alberta in Canada. It is therefore a very significant summit on the continent of North America even though the standard route offers next-to-nothing technical challenge from the climbing perspective. There are several commonly used routes and the most aesthetic is by a complete rim traverse of the sub-summit of Pico de Aguila (3rd class with exposure and route-finding). What Lily and I did was the mere standard east ridge route that also goes at “class 3” but is a lot less complicated. The reason of choosing this route over the loop traverse was because of a time constraint to catch the 3pm truck ride combined with the fact I also wanted to ascend the nearby Pico de Humboldt. A lot of international climbers choose to ignore Nevado de Toluca to opt for La Malinche because of the logistical issues. Nevado de Toluca is located on the south-west side of Mexico City and that’s on the completely opposite direction versus the combo of Orizaba/Iztaccihuatl/La Malinche. This is very unfortunate because this peak is much cooler than La Malinche and worth a trip in its own, in my opinion.

As mentioned above the real crux is getting to the trail-head. The Mexico City airport is located on the western edge of the city which means one needs to drive across the gong show of Mexico City. The roads in the most populated city of North America were poorly planned that one pretty much has to drive into the center of the show in order to do a E-W crossing. After experiencing a bit of the Mexico’s traffics I almost cancelled the plan but on the morning of Day 7 I made a spontaneous decision to keep the original plan. With the primary objectives – La Malinche, Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl successfully down I knew this would be my one and only shot on getting Nevado de Toluca. I probably wouldn’t plan another visit to this country, at least not in the near future. Lily was not helpful on the drive so for me the decision was to either man it up, or to chicken out, and of course I picked the former…

Ascents of Nevado de Toluca and Pico de Humboldt. GPX DL

On the morning of Day 7 I somehow managed to drag my poorly-rested self out of the hotel in Ixtapaluca and then we had a decent brunch in the nearby Walmart. I was mentally exhausted from the past week’s pushing through but if I wanted to complete my goal of this trip then I had no excuse to play the laziness game.. Without second-guessing my decision I started the engine and directed the Google Map app to Nevado de Toluca’s trail-head. It showed we needed ~4 hours to get there. I turned on the phone’s data (12 dollars a day) just to get a live traffic update while driving in the city. I mentally convinced myself to deal with the worst of gong show in one’s lifetime today and I guess it was the mentality that turned this travelling day into a very enjoyable outing. Westwards along Mexico 150D I was surprised to see very little traffic for a long while. I remember doing a few tricky exits/merges in a roll and then we were on the infamous Viad. Rio de la Piedad. The traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting with fluent flow throughout the core of Mexico City. Before realizing we had already exited the city ascending steeply towards the 3150-meter pass separating Mexico City with Toluca. This is it??!! I could not believe it, but I certainly was not complaining. The traffic in the city of Toluca was quite easy to deal with as well, and the next thing we were already on the winding highway leading to the base of Nevado de Toluca. Meanwhile we filled up the gas and the communication was again done entirely on Google translation. At this point we were getting used to the process and nothing seemed surprising.

After driving through the village of Raices we turned onto the gravel road, and another 5 km or so later we arrived at the park’s entrance at Parque de los Venados (3750 m). The original plan was driving all the way to the upper trail-head at ~4150 m elevation but thank to the New Year’s Day’s tourism gong show the park decided to close any vehicle access on the holiday… We spent about 2 hours wondering around the small village in search for the rumoured “climber’s hut”. We found three buildings that looked like a “hut” but none was open. I threw out the idea of just sleeping in the car or randomly pitching a tent outside but then a couple European climbers warned us that they had been robbed to nothing while camping in this village, with locals showing up with their guns. The locals did not look unfriendly to me but with no local knowledge nor the ability to speak even just a little bit of Spanish we chickened out this time. The alternative plan would be finding a hotel in the city of Toluca and then making a 1-day assault on the peak on the following day. Despite the increase in the expense I agreed. Lily was patient enough to search for and compare a couple hotel options on her cell phone with hardly any continuous services. We settled on Microtel Inn & Suites on the eastern side of Toluca. I did not like the position of it because that meant I had to eventually drive across the downtown of Toluca 4 times in total, but the other hotel options were all in the middle of the city. Based on the experience we had in Amecameca I had absolutely no desire in leaving the main roads again while driving across the city’s downtown area… Once the decision was made we had to hurry up because I also didn’t want to drive at night again. It was scary as fuck. We managed to make to the Microtel by around 4 pm and to our surprise the service was even better than some of the North American motels. They even had a English speaker and offered a shuttle service to the nearest mall. We needed no shopping but we did appreciate the ability to have a proper dinner this time, instead of cooking the Mountain Houses… It turned out that we even found Chinese food in the mall with very cheap price (but very good quality)..

This is the small village of Parque de los Venados at the base.

This was the first time in the trip that we could finally have a decent night of sleep and needless to say I was greatly looking forward to it… The next morning the alarm went off at around 6 am. My original plan was to wake up at 5 am in order to beat the rush hour’s traffics but the hotel’s free Mexican breakfast was too hard to pass. I think by this point I was getting soft with the primary objectives all down. The breakfast was indeed worth the later-than-expected starting time. The drive across the city of Toluca went fluently and I felt the second shot was much easier because I already knew what to expect on each stretch. The drive to Parque de los Venados went without event neither. The upper road was still closed for private vehicle access so we quickly geared up and piled ourselves into a commercial truck. The price was very acceptable for this type of services. The ride was much faster than on Pico de Orizaba because the road was also much better. I think the car could have made it had they allowed us to drive up.

At 4150 m we could still feel the thin air even though we were both fully acclimated by this point. The gearing up took a while but soon we joined the hordes plodding towards the crater rim. The half-mile slog to crater rim took over half an hour and once there the view suddenly opened up. I did not find the scene to be that spectacular probably because I had visited so many cool places… There’s a substantial stretch of elevation loss descending to the shore of the smaller lake. The lake was very clear but we had little time to do the tourisy thing. We had a time constraint to catch the last (3 pm) truck ride back to Parque de los Venados. The ascent onto the east ridge proper of Nevado de Toluca was very scenic. We caught up with a solo European climber at just where the scrambling was about to start.

The vast grassy landscape at the trail-head

Lily plodding up towards the crater rim at the beginning

Upon cresting the crater rim we got to see the snowy peak for the first time

The rim wall of Nevado de Toluca is impressive

There’s a bit of elevation loss to the shore of those two lakes

The shore of Laguna de la Luna

Upwards again this is Lily slowly plodding

Looking back at Laguna de la Luna with Pico de Humboldt behind

Lily hiking with Pico de Humboldt behind

This is the trail cutting across a field of snow, to gain the east ridge proper

Upwards and onward.

A lot of Mexicans come here just to see snow…

It’s a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another

Looking down at Laguna del Sol

The first buttress appeared imposing but the scrambling was “class 3-” at the hardest. The route ascended out climber’s left following some weaknesses and then made a diagonal ascent back onto the ridge crest on the south side of the rim. There were paths and cairns everywhere so route-finding was easy. There were numerous short cliff bands to attack head-on once getting back onto the east ridge proper along with some boulder-hopping. The true summit spire required a few solid 3rd class moves with considerable exposure, and this explains why most tourists opt to stay at the lakes. On this particular day only three separate groups of scramblers made the summit.

This is the first scrambling buttress. I would rate this part as lower end of 3rd class

Lily and the Slovenian hiker scrambling up

Another shot of Lily and the solo Slovenian hiker marching up

The route traverses on the south side of crater rim for a while

The terrain was mostly boulders

Lily with Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl behind on the horizon

Me approaching the summit pinnacle. Photo by Lily Q.

More about the complex east ridge traversing

At the base of the summit pinnacle, looking up – solid 3rd class

Lily ascending out of a loose gully

Approaching the summit.

Summit Panorama from Nevado de Toluca. Click to view large size.

A closer look at the rim traverse to Pico de Aguila

Looking over the top of Pico de Humboldt into the plain by city of Toluca

Volcan Iztaccihuatl

Volcan Popocatepetl

Me on the summit of Nevado de Toluca

Another photo of me on the summit of Nevado de Toluca

One last photo of me on the summit, with Laguna del Sol behind

With the aforementioned time constraint we lingered no time on the summit, and after taking the obligatory photos we started the descent. The upper route required some tedious work because of the scrambling terrain that we could not shut our mind down. Some degree of concentration was required on descent. Once off the east ridge we took a long food/water break before plodding back down into the lakes inside the crater. At this point we had to make a decision. I had wanted to bag both Ombugo and Humboldt but it seemed like we might not have enough time for both. After evaluating our options I decided to skip the bump of Ombugo to opt for Pico de Humboldt. With enough prominence to quality a separate summit this “peak” is the 37th highest in North America so I had to press on. Lily went straight back to the parking lot to make sure we definitely would catch the 3 pm truck ride. I rushed up and over the summit of Pico de Humboldt (~200 m elevation gain) making a loop hike, and then rushed back to the parking lot. The crater and the trail was such a gong show in the afternoon… There were a shit ton load of tourists doing everything.

Lily descending the complicated east ridge

Me enjoying the sky walk. Photo by Lily Q.

Descending that 3rd class buttress

Back to the (gated) road now. I went ahead to tag Pico de Humboldt

This is the bumpy ride. ~8 people were squeezed in the back of the trucks.

In another 20 minutes we got everything sorted out and piled into a very overloaded truck. A total of 7 or 8 people were ferried on the back of the truck and needless to say the ride was not comfortable at all. It also seemed like they probably wouldn’t stop the services at 3 pm due to the mass number of tourists up there.. Whatever to me, as all I cared at this point was getting back to the hotel (and better, having dinner) before dark. The ride back down to Parque de los Venados costed another 100 pesos for the two of us. The drive back down into, and across the city of Toluca went without incident, but on this day the hotel no longer offered that free shuttle services. Given the time of the day we decided to immediately head for the mall in order to have everything completed before dark, and the plan worked out well. The short drive to the mall required several very intense merges that I had to ignore all traffic rules in order to reach my destination. Getting out of the mall was another shit show due to our language barrier. Apparently one needs to pay the parking fee at the machine, get a exit ticket before driving out. We knew nothing and were expecting to pay at the exit. The staff spoke no English and this added about 15 minutes of frustration. Lily had more experience with the city life gong show and at one point she suddenly realized what the heck that guy meant… More frustration later we got ourselves (and the car) out of the mall and another 10 minutes later we were back in the hotel.

The following day (Day 9) would be our last day in Mexico. The plan was making an ascent of Cerro Ajusco, driving across Mexico City for car-return near the airport, and then taking a taxi to visit the city center eating tacos, before taking another taxi back to the airport to wait for our flight (2 am).