Standing proudly at 17,160 feet (5,230 m), Iztaccíhuatl boasts the third highest peak in Mexico. Like some of the largest mountains in Mexico, such as Popocatépetl and La Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl is a volcano (now extinct) in the center of the country. It is one of the few remaining mountains in Mexico to have a peak covered by snow and glaciers year-round.
Iztaccíhuatl’s name comes from Nahuatl and means “White Woman.” This is a reference to the blanket of snow and ice covering its feminine peaks: at the north is the Head (Cabeza); then the Chest (Pecho), considered the main summit; the Belly (Panza); the Knees (Rodillas); and the Feet (Pies). Sometimes, Iztaccíhuatl is referred to as La Mujer Dormida, “The Sleeping Woman.” But don’t be fooled; Iztaccíhuatl is not just another mountain whose formation is said to resemble a person. There is a story within her curvaceous ridge.
According to legend, the woman in the mountain is Iztaccíhuatl herself, the daughter of an Aztec emperor. When Izta fell in love with a warrior named Popocatépetl (Popo for short) her father sent Popo to war hundreds of miles away, telling him that when he returned he could marry Izta. So off Popo went, entering battle with the motivation of a man in love. Convinced Popo wouldn’t survive the fighting, the emperor was smug in his belief that Izta would remain single. He put the cart before the horse and told Izta that Popo had died in battle. Upon hearing of the passing of her dear fiancé, Izta died of heartbreak. But Popo endured the fighting and made the journey home to Tenochtitlan. When Popo returned from battle, very much alive and ready to marry Izta, his heart sank when he learned of his beloved’s death. He carried her body away from the bustle of Tenochtitlan, where he knelt down next to her, distraught. The gods took mercy on the young couple, separated by the gossamer veil between life and death. Izta and Popo were turned into mountains so that they could be together forever, and the gods covered them in a blanket of snow.
Today, Iztaccíhuatl is a popular mountain among hikers, who travel from near and far to scale the Sleeping Woman. Although not a technically challenging hike, with a prominence of 5,120 feet (1,560 m), the total altitude reaches more than three times as high, creating a physical challenge for those not accustomed to the altitude. If you are traveling from away and plan to make it to the summit in a single day, then take the time to acclimatize. There is plenty to do in the towns and cities in the area as your body gets accustomed to the altitude.
Most hikers take the Arista del Sol trail, which is an out-and-back route beginning at about 13,040 feet (3,975 m) and heads gradually up the mountainside to the ridge, which traverses the Sleeping Woman from feet to head. In some places, you may need to use your hands on the scramble, to varying degrees. The summit is snowy, which means that you’ll need crampons at the very least, in order to traverse it safely. The hike can be a particularly reflective one, especially when ascending to the ridge.
For many, going to the mountains is like going into battle for one’s love. The trek can be difficult both physically and mentally, a solitary experience even when accompanied by others, and if not executed carefully, it can be fatal. But it is our love of the mountains and the adventures they contain that pulls us upward and onward, creating memories that stay with us forever after.