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Iztaccíhuatl: Third Highest Mountain in Mexico

Fast Facts About Iztaccíhuatl

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The mountain, a shield volcano, has several distinct summits and subsidary cones.

Iztaccihuatl is usually climbed up the long southern ridge to The Breasts, its highest summit.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Elevation: 17,126 feet (5,220 meters)
Location: East central Mexico
First Ascent: First known ascent was by James de Salis, 1889. Archeological evidence indicates it was climbed much early, probably by Aztecs.

Fast Facts:

  • Iztaccíhuatl, also spelled Ixtaccíhuatl and shortened to Izta or Ixta, means “White Woman” in the Nahuatl language. The name at first glance appears to be a tongue-twister but is easy to learn to pronounce. Pronounce it phonetically, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, as istak siwatɬ. Using my phonetics say, ish-tak-si-wattle.
  • Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third highest mountain after Pico de Orizaba and Popocatépetl and the seventh highest mountain in North America. The Paso de Cortés separates Iztaccihuatl from Popocatépetl, its neighbor to the south.
  • Iztaccíhuatl, in the Cordellera Anahuac, is located 35 miles (55 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City. It is often visible from Mexico City on clear days.
  • Iztaccíhuatl, a long mountain on a north-south axis, has four distinct peaks, which, when seen from a distance, resembles a sleeping woman, hence the native name “White Woman.” The Spanish names for each of the woman’s features are: La Cabellera (The Hair); La Cabeza (The Head); La Oreja (The Ear); El Cuello) The Neck); El Pecho (The Breasts); La Barriga (The Belly) or La Pansa (The Abdomen); Las Rodillas (The Knees); Los Pies (The Feet). El Pecho (The Breasts) is fittingly the mountain’s highest peak.
  • The name of the mountain, along with nearby Popocatépetl, comes from Aztec mythology. Several versions of the myth exist. One of the most popular relates that during the ancient days of the Aztec empire, Iztaccíhuatl was a princess in love with a warrior. Her father sent him off to war, promising the daughter for his wife if he returned. Later Iztaccíhuatl’s father told her that he had been killed in battle. The grief-stricken girl died. When Popo returned and found his love dead, he killed himself. The gods then turned the pair into mountains and blanketed them with snow. She became La Mujer Dormida, The Sleeping Woman, while he became a fiery volcano filled with rage and fury.
  • Iztaccíhuatl, lying in the Trans-Mexico volcanic belt, is a huge dormant stratovolcano. The volcano began forming about 1.7 million years ago. It grew in two phases. The older phase built a shield volcano topped with a caldera and additional cones on the sides. The younger phase, beginning 600,000 years ago, bulked out the mountain with lava flows from the summit and vents on the volcano’s flanks. The volcano ceased to erupt 5,000 years ago.
  • A small glacier, called Ayoloco, covered 25.1 hectares on La Panza near Iztaccíhuatl’s summit in 2000. A study indicates the glacier fills a crater near the summit and spills down the upper slopes. Geologists are studying Mexico’s glaciers, lying at an inter-tropical latitude, on its three highest peaks for indications of global warming.
  • The February 2007 issue of the Journal of Hispanic UFology reports that on January 27, 2007, flight mechanic Enrique Morales Piedras recorded on his cell phone an unknown silver metallic object. He was on a Boeing 737 aircraft at 9:23 in the morning in the skies over Iztaccíhuatl. Other passengers and the plane’s captain also saw the object, as well as on-board collision avoidance radar which warned of possible danger.
  • Most climbers ascend La Arista del Sol, The Ridge of the Sun, which is the standard route up Iztaccihuatl. The route, beginning from the south, traverses the mountain by crossing the feet and knees, and then across the stomach to finish atop the breasts—the highest summit. The route is relatively easy with its greatest hazard being altitude sickness and its complications. Local climbers do it in a day, starting before dawn and reaching the summit by noon. Visiting climbers usually spend a couple days acclimating to the high altitude before climbing the peak. Best climbing conditions are in winter.

View an astronaut photograph of Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl Volcanoes taken from the International Space Station Earth Observatory.

Buy a Climbing Guide to Iztaccíhuatl: Mexico's Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide by R.J. Secor.

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