Mountains Aren’t Necessarily Mountains

February 7, 2020

You can tell a mountain is a mountain, because it’s big, and high, and probably involves exposed rock. But when you spend time on a mountain, unless you’re really up high on a barren or icy area, you’re on ground. There’s probably grass plus some small plants, and many mountains, like those around my home, have lots of trees on them. In short, they tend to be just like regular countryside, only steeper. They’re less mountainy, the more mountain-sided I am as an observer.

My ambiguity about mountains stems partly from living right under one: familiarity breeds maybe not contempt, but a certain boredom. About sixty yards back of my house, there’s a cliff that rises and recedes in stages for several hundred feet. To the right, or north, there’s a jagged area of exposed rock where a bunch of the stuff came down a long time ago. I often wonder if there’s more of it waiting for a good quake in order to come down on the house, but no-one here remembers it falling in their lifetime.

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Mountains near my home. The ridge at the rear is to the north, and rises almost a thousand feet above our village.

But my favourite view from here isn’t of the bluffs curving round to the north and across the east, with the little valley that clefts them. Nor is it the more dramatic bluffs a few hundred yards to the east, which screen the rising Sun from the village, and ascend as much as 700 ft from the village streets, which are already at 4500 ft above sea level. Rather, it’s the view to the south, where the hills and mountains are five or six miles away, or further.

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The view from my home down to the hills around Yautepec, a short time before sunset.

There, they recede in a blue haze of uncertain detail, which means they can imply almost anything: wildness, inaccessible heights, or concealed caves with giants, heroes or dragons. I don’t mean that I believe in such things, having seen no dragons nor giants, and encountered few real heroes in this part of Mexico. But the effect of seeing them calls on such ideas from deep within.

It’s this ilusion of mountains that began to fascinate me after a year or so. They are, I decided, much more interesting as ideas than as concrete realities, which means they’re much more appealing from a mile or two away. And seen from a dozen times that distance, they conjure up all kinds of fantasies and mythic whisperings.

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On a day when it has no snow, but is giving off a faint halo of steam from the summit, the cone of Popocateteptl rises over a low point in the hills east of my village.

My point is that we’re programmed for mountains to inspire us. Up close, as I said, they’re just a lot of raised ground, often hard to ascend comfortably. The best they can offer (which can be very good indeed) is a vie down across lowlands towards other mountains.

This morning, wanting to go somewhere I’d not been recently, I headed to the town of Yautepec, a few miles south of here. It nestles in those hazy blue southern hills I mentioned above, with three or four lines of mountainous slopes marching off in the distance beyond it.

Looking for a long-lost restaurant, I began climbing a street running up a hillside, and kept going as a view to the east opened up. Between my village’s mountains and the hills of Yautepec, there’s a flat area that runs for a considerable distance eastwards, and sometimes you can see the volcano in that direction. And today, the top 5,000 ft. of the active Popocatepetl and its extinct neighbour, Ixtaccihautl, were both snow-covered, while the air was as clear as it can get in the 21st Century. Coming to the summit of the hillside street, I had an unobstructed view of both these mountains over someone’s roof, and spent twenty minutes absorbing the beauty of the vista, while lamenting that I didn’t have anything with me to take a photo.

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This range of hills, south of my village and closer to the town of Tepoztlan, have their own air of mystery.  There are trails up there, but you need a guide to find them.

The full range they form is around twenty miles long, and I don’t think I’d ever seen the pair as clearly as this before. I’ve been to their foot, at Amecameca, which is still, I believe, a starting point for people climbing Ixtaccihuatl. Popocatepetl, of course, is off limits to climbers, since even if some people don’t fear scorching hot ash descending on them, the rescue teams don’t want to risk getting killed themselves, recovering asphyxiated bodies.

Eventually, I came back down the street, and took the bus back home. Coming up from the plain, I admired the smaller mountains directly ahead of me. They looked suitably steep, green and dramatic, and very attractive, more so than up close – a perspective I know well, since I live amid them. Eventually the bus, which was old, lumbered and shuddered up the road into this scenery, and the drama faded away. Once again, I was in simple rising ground, slopes punctuated by trees and rocky outcroppings … but not ‘mountains.’

Illusion gone.

I’m glad Popocatepetl is off-limits, and I can never go on it. That means it will retain its mystique. It will stay a mountain.

The Giant Next Door

June 8, 2019

The summer rains have started, but erratically. Today I woke to clear blue skies, and two hours later, Popocatepetl was still visible from the high point that the combi into town passes.  A sighting, for me, feels like a good-luck charm on the day.

I understand why people feel threatened by volcanoes. They occasionally explode, or more usually erupt in half-a-dozen less nasty ways, and they also make threatening noises at times. They sit atop fault lines that produce earthquakes, and of course there’s the idea of buried Pompeii and Herculaneum to caution us that sometimes the things can get very nasty.

I don’t care. I like being (relatively) close to a volcano, even though from my village it’s invisible. Perhaps if I didn’t have the mountainous shield that I do, plus a 20-mile space-cushion, it would make me more nervous.

Its legend, of a warrior who wanted to marry the princess Ixtaccihuatl, is well-known. Popocatepetl was cheated out of his bride, and now he watches over her eternally, for she is the volcanic mountain to the north of his, though she has been silent for many centuries. He has been emitting smoke (his name means “Smoking Mountain”), and quite often more than that, since 1991. Sometimes, the ash is so bad, flights into and out of Mexico City have to divert, and we find a brownish-grey grit to sweep up on our patio.

The mountains around here run to between 6,000 and 10,000 feet in altitude. Popocatepetl is 5,450 metres in height, or 17,880 ft, so that it dominates the surrounding scenery. It is Mexico’s second-highest peak after Pico de Orizaba.

I always look for it when the skies are relatively clear. The ideal sighting comes after a rainstorm, because despite the fact we’re in the Tropics, at that altitude the rain falls as snow and the great cone is entirely white.

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The volcano after rain that fell as snow, from the village of Huilotepec, 25 miles from the summit.

It easily disappoints. I took two friends to see it up close some years ago, and all I could show them was a huge cloud-bank. This afternoon, I went to Cuautla, a town to the south of the volcano, and while it had been clear at 10.00 am, by 1.30 it was completely concealed. Sometimes, it can still be seen from downtown Mexico City, as it usually was until fifty years ago, but this is increasingly rare. Malcolm Lowry’s famous novel of a man’s disintegration, Under the Volcano, is set in Quauhnahuac, the city called Cuernavaca today. I once glimpsed the cone from there a few years ago, but otherwise, it’s been invisible at that distance. I’ve never seen it red and glowing at night, as some photos show it to be during major eruptions, though I have seen a massive grey cloud ascending from it in the daytime. Naturally, I had no camera on me at the time, so here I’ve poached an image of a rather smaller ash-cloud.


The volcano erupting in July 2013, seen from the west.

In 1901, the British mountaineers Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley ascended it, later inviting a sarcastic Mexican journalist to join them, then glissading with the alarmed man all the way back down to the bottom. The British sense of humour was always very dry, and the periodista was suitably subdued after the experience.

Centuries earlier, an Aztec emperor sent warriors to investigate the summit, and they came back down with lung damage from the high altitude. In 1520, Hernan Cortes mined sulphur from up near the cone to make gunpowder when he fought the Aztec empire, so presumably he chose men for this who’d had experience with great heights.

Today, though, the mountain is off limits because it’s simply not safe to ascend. It’s a sight to see, not to touch, and only webcams offer close-quarters access to its activities.

To say a lot about Popocatepetl is to miss the point. It’s so overwhelmingly itself, so dominant and majestic in the landscape, that it produces more silence than commentary in anyone who sees it.  It has produced highly fertile soil for agriculture, as many volcanoes do, but it can just as easily turn on that sort of enterprise.

My own affection for it stems in part from the fact that there’s no currently conceivable technology that could contain it. Monitoring has improved, but nothing can block a few hundred thousand tons of magma on the move. There are Ruta de Evacuacion signs all around it in the nearby communities, but that’s the only option if it does go full-on. You leave, or you die. It won’t stop to argue.

It’s a god, for sure. A proud one, a noble one, and a beautiful one.