Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 24

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer


account of an ascent to the summit of the volcano of popocatepetl.

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interior of the crater of popocatepetl.

It is impossible to cast your eyes eastwardly over the plain, without having your view bounded by the lofty peaks of Popocatepetl—the smoking mountain," and its neighbor Iztaccihuatl—or "the white woman"—lifting their snowy heads far above the level of the wall-like sierra that hems in the Valley of Mexico. I had ardently longed to climb one of these mountains to survey the adjacent plains from its craggy crater but I was constantly doomed to disappointment. Several parties that were made up, failed at the fixed time, and the rainy season coming

click on this image to enlarge it.

the volcanoes—from tucubaya

on, I was forced to abandon the enterprise entirely. In the course, however, of my preparations for an ascent, I had enjoyed frequent conversations with Mr. Egerton, and Mr. Von Gerolt, the Prussian Chargé d'Affaires on the subject; and by these gentlemen (who have both ascended the volcano,) I was put in possession of the preceding drawing and the substance of the following account, which has hitherto never been given in our language. As I think it extremely interesting, when compared with the various published accounts of the ascent of Mont Blanc and other mountains in the Old and New World, I shall make no apology for presenting it to you in this volume. The volcano lies about 60 miles from the city of Mexico, and, after Chimborazo, is the highest peak on this continent.

At the commencement of the rainy season of 1833, Mr. Von Gerolt and the Baron Gros, then Chargé of the French Legation in Mexico, departed from the Capital on horseback, escorted by a troop of soldiers to protect them from robbers, and followed by mules and servants bearing the necessary philosophical instruments and sufficient provisions for the journey.

They sallied forth on the Vera Cruz road, between the lakes of Tezcoco and Chalco, for eight leagues, to Ayotla—beyond which they struck off in a southwardly direction, and, at the distance of five leagues more, commenced the ascent of the Cordillera, on the summit of which a table-land is spread out about 800 feet above the level of the city. On this plain they passed the villages of Ameca and Ozumba at the foot of the volcano and its neighboring mountain, and here they found the first signs of those immense barrancas or deep ravines, worn into the steeps by the melting of snow for centuries.

The southern slope of Popocatepetl appeared to offer our travellers the easiest ascent, and, accordingly, having obtained three Indian guides from the Alcaldé and an escort of two soldiers, for the wilds of the forest, they set forth on their perilous journey early on the morning of the 22nd of May. Their way led through a tangled wilderness of plants and trees. After passing a number of barrancas, the sides of which were covered with beautiful pines standing out in relief against the bright snows above them; and being compelled to cut a way through the matted forest with their swords and Indian axes, they reached, about noon, the rancho of Zacapalco. The owner was absent from home, but they found the extensive pasturages round his house filled with cattle, and protected by a guard from the wolves and lions with which the woods are infested. As there was no one in the dwelling to bid them welcome, they took the liberty to help themselves to the grazier's utensils, and dined most comfortably at the upland farm. The air was chilly and respiration had already become difficult.

After their meal they bade farewell to part of their company, and with tile Indians and two servants, continued their upward course on horseback notwithstanding the increasing heaviness of the sand. In two hours they attained the limit of vegetation, when they saw but a few pines—whose gnarled and twisted branches exhibited scarcely a sign of verdure. Some small singing birds flew by them, and the plants they had observed in the course of their ascent thus far, are mentioned in the subjoined note.[1]

At this spot our travellers found a wide desert of black volcanic sand, covered with fragments of pumice. They were soon warned of approaching difficulties. The clouds gathered in thick masses around the top of the volcano portending a storm; and, scarcely had they retreated again to their tent, when it came down on them with all the mercilessness of a tropical hurricane. For several hours during the ensuing night the surrounding wastes were lit up with incessant flashes of the most brilliant lightning, shooting from the clouds above and below them, and at times even streaming horizontally along the wastes of dreary sand, crashing the branches of the forest and rending the stoutest pines. They seemed enveloped in flame—yet they had no protection from the fury of this storm of hail and thunder but a scanty cloth, thrown over the limb of a tree and pegged to the ground!

Thus passed the night until four o'clock. When day dawned, they found the mountain covered with snow, and the summit entirely enveloped in clouds. Nevertheless they resolved to proceed, and, with the greatest difficulty, prevailed on the Indians to accompany them.

For a league and a half farther, they advanced on horseback, but the pathway became so deep and yielding in the sand, that they were forced to dismiss their servants with the animals, and continue with the guides alone. The toil of ascending on foot now commenced, and they describe it as one of the most agonizing they ever underwent; sliding back half the distance they had made in advance at every footstep, and laboring with the increased circulation to such a degree that they could scarcely breathe. Yet they persevered resolutely for several hours, until the ill-shod Indians, whose feet were cut by the snow and sands, gave out entirely, and the Baron and Mr. Von Gerolt were forced to proceed wholly unattended. It was about this time that the sun broke out from the clouds for which (although they disregarded it then,) they paid dearly enough in the sequel.

At noon, after immense fatigue and exertions, they found themselves at the steep basaltic rook which is visible from Mexico, sticking like a thorn out of the volcano's side, and is called the Pico del Fraile—sixteen thousand eight hundred and ninety-five feet above the level of the sea—and apparently but a short distance from the summit of the cone.

Nevertheless, this was doomed to be the limit of their present enterprise. As soon as they had refreshed themselves by a little repose, they endeavored to trace a path upward from the rocks; but everything was covered with ice and snow. None of the ravines were bare, as usual at this season, when they are generally traversed by torrents on their way to the valley. All was a waste of cloud and frost.

In addition to these physical dangers—the day was far advanced; there was no place where they could be sheltered, or where they would not freeze to death during the night if they advanced. They had no food—and they were already wearied by an eight hours' march in a rarefied atmosphere. Disagreeable as was the alternative, it was resolved to retreat to the rancho, which they reached at sunset, suffering the most excruciating agony in their eyes and faces from the effects of the reflection of the sun from the brilliant snow.

After a night of pain and sleeplessness they returned next morning to Ozumba, whence they reached the Capital after a delay of a couple of days.

This unfortunate termination of their enterprise, however, did not dishearten them. In the following year they again undertook the ascent, and were accompanied on that occasion by Mr. Egerton, the distinguished artist, who was murdered last year at Tacubaya.

On the 28th of April, 1834, they departed early in the morning from the village of Ozumba, accompanied by three guides, two of whom were the brothers Paez, their companions of the previous year. They were now better prepared with comforts and necessaries for their journey, and, besides, had provided themselves with staves, some fifteen feet in length, shod with iron, to aid in leaping from rock to rock and steadying them on the slippery snow.

Reaching the limit of vegetation at three in the afternoon, they pitched their tents, lighted their camp-fires, and after making out the route for the next day, passed a few hours of comfort and repose. At two A. M., on the 29th, they were astir by moonlight, and continued the ascent for nearly an hour and a half on horseback, when, as on the former occasion, they were obliged by the heavy sands to dismount and proceed on foot. They were still, however, accompanied by the three guides and one servant, who bore their provisions and instruments. In this manner they advanced in the direction of the Pico del Fraile, veiling their faces, to protect their eyes and skin from the reflection by which they had been so much injured and annoyed last year; and thus they passed the broad belt of volcanic sand between the limits of vegetation and eternal snow.

At half-past seven the view was sublime. The immense plains and valleys were spread below them like a sea—and as the sun rose, the gigantic shadows of the volcano lay over the western levels even to the distant horizon.

At half-past eight the party had attained the Pico—and in the shelter of the porphyrytic rock that shoots upward near two hundred feet, they made a slight and comfortable breakfast. But as no promises could induce the Indians to go farther, they were obliged to leave behind many of their most valuable instruments and among them, a theodolite, with which they had designed making some interesting observations and experiments on the summit. They took, however, a barometer and a Darnell's hygrometer, and set out, accompanied by Mr. Egerton's servant (a youth of eighteen) the only person who mustered courage to accompany them.

A spur of rocks which strikes upward from the Pico del Fraile impeded their progress in a direct line, and it became necessary to strike off eastwardly through a deep ravine formed by one side of this spur or crest and a similar spur that descends in that direction from the summit. This ravine faces the south, and through its comparatively warmer bed the melting snows discharge themselves into the vale of Amilpas. They continued ascending over the bottom of the barranca at an angle of thirty-five degrees, finding but little snow, although the eternal limit of it was two or three thousand feet below them. After three hours of difficult and dangerous labor, on the sharp and slippery surface of the rocks, they reached the upper end of the gorge where it terminates in the solid lava forming the dome of the volcano. Thenceforward their path was constantly over snow, and, although they frequently sank through it up to their waists, they describe the difficulties as less than while passing the slippery rocks and sands of the washed barranca. Over these snows they zig-zagged for a while longer—stopping at almost every step to gather strength and breath, until, at half-past two, they stood upon the lofty summit.

Until that moment they had observed no symptoms of a crater;—but the vast gulf now burst upon them at once, yawning at their feet, filled with curling vapors that rose to near the edge and mingled with the clouds.

The highest point of the crater is described by Mr. Von Gerolt as lying to the westward, and the lowest to the east. Its shape is that of an irregular ellipse, the greatest diameter of which is between the NE. and SE. This he estimates to be nearly five thousand feet, while the shorter is about a thousand less, making the whole circumference of the crater therefore, nearly a league. Its rough walls plunge to a depth of a thousand feet, and the bottom (although of the same shape) has not the same huge dimensions as the upper rim.

As the sun penetrated the lowest depths of the crater, our travellers distinctly saw its base, from which two fountains of sulphur constantly poured forth a whitish smoke that rested on the rocks of the steep walls and deposited its residuum among the cracks and crannies. The base and sides disappeared to be entirely crusted with sulphur, and they judged that the narrower dimensions of the base are altogether owing to the immense accumulation of that material for centuries. On the upper edge of the crater, the snow—drifted by the winds—curled over the sharp ledges, but there were no indications of sulphur on the nearest rocks. Yet, in various parts of the rim, there were circular vents, from two to five inches in diameter, whence a sulphurous steam issued with a roaring sound, intermitting at intervals in strength and volume.

In order to examine these valves more closely, Mr. Von Gerolt descended about sixty feet into the crater, over masses of red porphyry. These contain much vitreous feldspar and approach the character of porous lava, while the immense wall of the opposite side seemed to be composed of different rock,—and, through the telescope, appeared in color of a violet gray, deposited in horizontal strata, resembling the material of the volcanic hill near Ayotla.

Our adventurers discovered no place by which they could reach the bottom of the crater, nor could they continue their examinations on the summit for any great length of time, as their sufferings were intense from the rarefaction of air, expansion of blood, a continual aching of their eyes and brows, and excessive debility. They conclude, from these facts, that the story related by Cortéz in his letters to Charles V., that Francisco del Montaño had descended into this gulf and "obtained sulphur from which they made their powder," is entirely inaccurate.

The silence at this immense height is described by Mr. Von Gerolt as "sepulchral," broken only at intervals by a subterraneous roar, like the sound of a distant cannonade, and the rattling of stones and masses of rock falling from the walls to the bottom of the crater. A similar sound is said to be frequently heard, even in the city of Mexico, in the direction of Popocatepetl. The frequent earthquakes that are felt in the Republic, heaving the whole land from the Gulf to the Pacific, from east to west, like the undulations of the sea, and manifesting themselves at all the points where there are indications of volcanic action on the surface, can only be accounted for by the hypothesis, that at a great depth, all these volcanoes (separated near their summits by transition and volcanic rock,) have a general communication over some vast central furnace, where the elements are in continual ferment.

It is related that, in the great earthquake of March, 1834, at half-past ten at night, the phenomenon was announced by regular oscillations of the earth from east to west, augmenting gradually until it became difficult to stand erect, while hundreds suffered as from the nausea of sea-sickness. The arches of the aqueduct, by which water is introduced into Mexico, (running in an easterly direction,) were split in their centers, while the one that comes from the north remained uninjured. This earthquake was experienced nearly at the same moment in Vera Cruz, St. Andres Tuxtla, Huatusco, (a village eight leagues from the volcano of Orizaba,) Jalapa and Puebla; but, singularly enough, it was not felt three leagues north of Huatusco, or at a few leagues both north and south of the city of Mexico. Proceeding westward from the Capital, it was perceived again in Morelia, and it became so violent in the direction of Acapulco, that it destroyed houses, cracked the earth, and finally plunged into the sea, whose waves rose and swelled as under the influence of a violent storm. During its continuance of nearly five minutes, there were no meteoric phenomena worthy of note, no subterranean noise, and no perceptible change in the altitude of the barometer, in the city of Mexico.

Standing on the summit of Popocatepetl and looking over the immense panorama—which now lay spread like a map at his feet—Mr. Von Gerolt compared his repeated examinations of the geology of the valley and of the adjoining departments, and he came to the conclusion, that both the volcano and the vale owe their origin and present condition to some violent eruption, by which the actual surface has been raised from the interior to its present level, through the primitive and transition rocks; and that in the mining districts of the states of Puebla, Mexico and Michoacan, the rich veins, manifested in slaty formations, or in metallic porphyry, are but the trifling remains or islands, as it were, left rising above the plain, after the fiery deluge that swept over portions of our Continent.

But (turning to the prospect around them, from the examination of the crater of that vast stack, which pours forth the smoke and vapors of the central fires, and acts, perhaps, as the great safety-valve of a large part of the New World,) the travellers speak of the immense picture that lay before them as indescribably sublime.

The day was remarkably clear. Few clouds, and those very high in the air, appeared against the sky, which was almost black with the intensity of its azure; and, as far as the eye could reach, in every direction) there was one uninterrupted waving of mountain, valley and plain, until (almost without a horizon) the earth and the sky blent in vapory blueness. In the midst of the eastern plain, the tall cone of Orizaba stood up in bold relief against the sky, with its snowy peak glittering like a point of flashing steel. Below them, near two thousand feet, lay the summit of Iztaccihuatl, covered with snow, and exhibiting not the slightest evidence either of crater or volcanic action.

After enjoying this splendid panorama as long as their enfeebled condition would allow them, erecting a flag-staff, and making the sketch I have placed at the commencement of this letter;—the travellers, at four o'clock, began a descent, which they describe as not the least difficult portion of their enterprise. If they complained of the toilsome slowness of climbing, they could now with equal justice complain of the dangerous swiftness of their return. The day was far advanced; the cool wind of the evening had already frozen the surface that melted under the noonday sun, and, passing over the sands and snows at a sharp angle, they were often violently precipitated either against masses of rocks, or to the very verge of precipices, from which they only saved themselves by the firmness of their nerves and the strength of their iron-shod staves. At length, however, after several very narrow escapes, they reached the limit of the forest, and in a few days returned to Mexico in excellent spirits.

By the failure of the Indians to ascend with them to the summit, they were unable to make many experiments, for which the great scientific acquirements of Mr. Von Gerolt so highly qualify him. In addition to this, the barometer, which had been slung on the back of Mr. Egerton's servant, was broken by a fall; so that (as far as measurements were concerned,) the expedition was entirely fruitless. I have, however, compiled from the notes of two other parties, the following statements, which are interesting, as affording the most accurate dimensions of this remarkable volcano:

Mr. Berbeck, who ascended on the 10th of November, 1837, gives the elevation of Popocatepetl, above the Valley of Mexico, at 10,382 feet.
Mexico is above Vera Cruz, according to Humboldt, 7,470
Whole height of volcano above the sea, 17,852
Mr. Glennie, who ascended 20th April, 1887, gives the elevation of Popocatepetl, above the Valley of Mexico, at 10,413 feet.
Mexico above Vera Cruz, according to Humboldt, 7,470
By a series of observations, made at Vera Cruz in 1828, the opinion is, that the true height of Mexico above Vera Cruz, or in other words, above the level of the sea, is 7,548 feet, which, added to their elevations above the Valley of Mexico, will give us, for
Berbeck, 17,980 feet.
Glennie, 17,961
While Humboldt, (who gives his by trigonometrical observations,) 17,715
The limit of all vegetation, according to Glennie, is 12,698
Pico del Fraile, 16,895
Limit of pines, 12,544
In November, 1827, the thermometer, at the summit, was 22° of Fahr. and in April of the same year, 33°.
At the limit of vegetation, Mr. Von Gerolt found, at 6 p. m., the precip: of moisture, by Daniell's hygrometer, 36° Fahr. on the interior thermometer; and at 50° in the atmosphere. Water boiled at 194° Fahr. Barometer, 19.12, English. Temperature, 48° Fahr. Corresponding observations, made in Mexico, gave 23,071 English inches, from which we deduce a height of 5,144 English feet.
To which add 7,548
which is within one foot, it will be perceived, of the height assigned to this spot by Mr. Glennie.

I present you with a sketch of the outline of the mountain, on which the different elevations are marked, so that the whole of these measurements will be at once mapped out before you.

click on this image to enlarge it.

outline of popocatepetl[2].

  1. Salvia, three species.
    Baccharis, Cineraria, four species.
    Céstrum, two species
    Asclepias, do. do.
    Iresine, do. do.
    Arbutus, do. do.
    Eupatorium, do. do.
    Hedyotis, three species.
    Viburnum, do. do.
    Cororpais, do. do.
    Myositis grandiflora, do. do.
     do flor. alb. do. do.
    Stachys, do. do.
    Lobelia, three species
    Stavia, do. do.
    Leonia-salvifolis, do. do.
    Œnotera, do. do.
    Achyrophorus rossus
     Those nearest the limit of vegetation were:
    Chelone, gentianoides.
    Amaryllis, minuta.
    Ribes, odoratum.
    Aremaria bryoldes
  2. This is a difficult word to pronounce, but it is easy in comparison with many of the Indian words you may hear uttered every day in the markets of Mexico. "Nothing", says Humboldt, "strikes the European more in the Aztec, Nahuatl, or Mexican language, than the excessive length of the words. This length does not always depend on their being compounded, as in the Greek, the German, and the Sanskrit, but on the manner of forming the substantive, the plural or the superlative. A kiss is called tetenuamiquisliztli; a word formed from the verb tenuamiqui, to embrace, and the additive particles te and listli. In the same manner we have tletelena, to ask, and tetlatelanitiztli, a demand; tleahiouiltia, to torment. To form the plural, the Aztecs in several words double the first syllable: as miztli, a cat: mimiztiz, cats: tochtli, a rabit: totechtis, rabbits. Tis is the termination which indicates the plural. Sometimes, the duplication is made in the midst of a word; for instance, ichpechtli, a girl; ichpopechting girls; telpochtli, a boy; telpopechtin, boys. The most remarkable sample I have met with a real composition of words, is found in the word amatleuilolitquitteatiaztlenauitlis, which signifies, the reward-given-to-the-messenger-who-carries-a-paper-on-which-is painted-tidings. This word, which forms by itself an Alexandrian line, contains amatl, paper (of the agave;) cuiloc, to paint, or trace hyeroglyphs; and tlaztlahwitli, the wages or salary of a workman." The word netlazemahuizteapizcatzin which signifies, venerable-priest-whom-I-cherish-as-my-father, is used by the Mexicans in addressing the priests. In the Aztec language, the letters B,D,F,G, and R, are wanting."—Humboldt's Researches, vol.ii, p.256. Fol. Essay vol. i. p. 129.