The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 105, July 2001 - April, 2002 Page: 550
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
uncounted numbers of would-be conquerors to their deaths. Although
not technically difficult to climb in the Alpine tradition, these snow- and
ice-covered Mexican mountains reach such heights that altitude sick-
ness, especially pulmonary or cerebral edema, presents a serious prob-
lem and has halted many a determined alpinist.
It was during the Mexican War that American soldiers in Gen. Win-
field Scott's Army of Occupation successfully reached the summit of the
third- and fifth-highest mountains in North America. The fifth-highest,
Popocatepetl, was climbed on two separate occasions within a three-
month period. Even more spectacular was the fact that a party of Ameri-
cans may have been the first to reach the true summit of Citlaltepetl or
El Pico de Orizaba, the third-highest mountain on the continent. The
Americans were certainly not the greatest or the most courageous of
mountain climbers, but their accomplishments give them a unique place
in the early history of mountaineering.
El Pico de Orizaba, more than four thousand feet higher than the
highest of Colorado's Rocky Mountains or California's Sierra Nevadas, is
the monarch of Mexican mountains, exceeded only by Mount McKinley
in Alaska at 20,320 feet, and Mount Logan in Canada at 19,850 feet. At
18,701 feet, the mountain is also known by its Nahuatl name of Citlalte-
petl, meaning "Star Mountain." Rising abruptly in the east from the rain
forests of Vera Cruz, Citlaltepetl's awesome, frozen, and wind-swept sum-
mit lies less than eighty miles from the tropical and palm-lined beaches
of Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico.2
Rising steeply out of the dry central plateau, more than one hundred
miles to the west, is the second of Mexico's giants, Popocatepetl, whose
pointed, volcanic, snow-capped summit at 17,887 feet, is less than forty
miles from Mexico City. Mexico's third-highest mountain, Iztaccihuatl,
at 17,342 feet, lies only ten miles from Popocatepetl, across the historic
Paso de Cortes.
Ascents of the three highest Mexican mountains are possible several
months each year on the ice- and snow-free southern slopes without the
use of technical equipment, and for this reason, the Aztecs and other
natives may well have reached the summits of the towering sentinels.4
2 One explanation of how the mountain got its name was the fact that two years before Cortds
landed in Mexico, a comet appeared in the eastern skies. Winston Crausaz, Paco de Ornzaba or Ct-
laltepetl: Geology, Archaeology, Hzstory, Natural Hnstory, and Mountaineering Routes (Amherst, Ohio:
Geopress International, 1993), must be considered the definitive study of the mountain. The re-
sult of a lifetime of devoted study, this book details all the documented ascents of the mountain in-
to the early 2oth century
" Mexico also boasts of other mountains: Nevado de Toluca (Xinantecatl), which is over 15,000
feet in height, Nevado de Colima, La Malinche (Matlalcueyetl), and Confre de Perote (Naucam-
patepetl), all more than 14,000 feet in elevation.
4 Crausaz, Psco de Orazaba, 45. There is evidence, Crausaz beheves, that Chalchmuhtzm, an Aztec
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 105, July 2001 - April, 2002, periodical, 2001; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101222/m1/606/: accessed October 17, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.