Category Archives: Travel

Popo Spouts Off

Popocatepetl Eruption Continues in Oaxaca

Children in a village on Pico de Orizaba/ Citlaltépetl
Children in a village on Pico de Orizaba/ Citlaltépetl – Wilbur Norman

Popocatepetl is a stratovolcano, or composite, volcano near Puebla, Mexico. These types of volvanos are built up of many layers and often have that cone-shaped mountain profile. They sometimes blow their tops in massive explosions that slump areas or crack off the cone and send debris flying, leaving a caldera (see a previous entry where I briefly describe Valles Caldera.)

Archaeological evidence shows that Popo (smoking mountain) has had many violent eruptions in the not-too-distant past, well… recent past if we are using geological time as our frame of reference. There have been major Plinian eruptions in the last 5000 years and an event 23,000 years ago where a whole flank of the mountain collapsed à la Mount St. Helens. (Plinian eruptions are named after the Roman historian and agriculturalist Pliny the Elder. He died in the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., probably of an asthma attack aggravated by his enormous bulk.) These eruptions, also called Vesuvian, eject columns of gas and ash high into the stratosphere. They also produce enormous amounts of cascading lava in pyroclastic flows. Their eruptions can resemble the photographs we have all seen of the cloud that develops from the detonation of an atomic bomb. The airborne ash may circle the globe for years, even affecting global weather. Depending on the season, Popo’s ash would first fall on the city of Puebla (winter, spring) or Mexico City (summer or autumn.)

Popo (5,426 meters/ 17,802 feet and 5th highest mountain in North America) is one of three mountains with year-round glaciers in Mexico. All three are popular destinations for mountaineers. Mexico’s third highest mountain is Iztaccíhuatl (in my day spelled Ixtaccíhuatl, 5,230 meters/ 17,160 feet) and is quite a slog as the mountain is more like a spine than a cone.

Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl (5,636 metres /18,491 feet), is Mexico’s tallest peak and the third highest in North America. It is very impressive as, like Kilimanjaro, it juts up from a plain and is visible long before one actually arrives at its base.

Our climbing team on the ascent of Mt. Orizaba. Note the curvature of the horizon in the distance.
Our climbing team on the ascent of Mt. Orizaba. Note the curvature of the horizon cloud in the distance. Dec. 1980.

Above is a photo I took of our climbing team on a trip one December long ago. My then-girlfriend and I drove our khaki-tan 1979 Toyota Landcruiser all the way from Philadelphia and everywhere the Mexican police would stand around and marvel at the vehicle as it looked so militar. To get the above photo I exhausted myself scurrying across the glacier (ca. 16,500 feet) to get this perspective of the team we hooked up with on the mountain!