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.

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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.