The First Mountain Ascent in North America

Publication Year: 1941.

The First Mountain Ascent in North America


THREE and a half centuries before Whymper made the first climb of the Matterhorn and four of his companions slipped to their death; and more than 250 years before Dr. Paccard ascended Mont Blanc—here in the new world the bold and daring Spanish Conquistadores climbed the fifth highest peak of the North American continent—Popocatepetl—towering 17,888 ft. in altitude. They did it without crampons or ice-axes, and while Popo was in the most violent eruption it has had in the last four centuries.

What led them to make the ascent? Well, the first attempt was for the same reason that leads you and every mountain climber to make an ascent and was just about as abstract to explain. A spirit of adventure, curiosity, a desire for accomplishment, and the statements of the Indians that “It can’t be climbed” were all part of the motives that led to the climb. Later, when the crater of the peak was successfully attained, there was the additional motive of obtaining sulphur, a necessary ingredient for their gunpowder.

Bold adventure was not strange to these conquistadores. Cortez landed near the present site of Vera Cruz, March 4th, 1519, with “fifteen horsemen and three hundred foot as well accoutred for war as my resources and the short space of time would permit” and conquered a nation of hundreds of thousands. When the Spaniards arrived at Cholula in October, 1519, Popocateptl was in eruption. This was an evil omen to the Indians, whose tradition had it that the noise and fumes were caused by the agonies of tyrants who there underwent purification before they could enter final rest.

Cortez, wishing to show the Indians that no achievement was above the dauntless daring of his followers and desiring to satisfy his curiosity as to the “secret of this smoke,” sent Diego Ordaz with nine Spaniards and several Tlascalan Indians to undertake the ascent. In his letter to Charles the Fifth, King of Spain, on October 30th, 1520, Cortez states:

* * Eight leagues from this city of Cholula there are two marvelously high mountains whose summits still at the end of

August are covered with snow so that nothing else can be seen of them. From the higher of the two both by day and by night a great volume of smoke comes forth and rises up into the clouds as straight as a staff, with such force that although a very violent wind continuously blows over the mountain range, yet it cannot change the direction of the column. Since I have ever been desirous of sending your Majesty a very particular account of everything that I met with in this land, I was eager to know the secret of this which seemed to me not a little marvelous, and accordingly I sent ten men such as were well fitted for the expedition with certain natives to guide them to find out the secret of the smoke, where and how it arose. These men set out and made every effort to climb to the summit but without success on account of the thickness of the snow, the repeated windstorms in which ashes from the volcano were blown in their faces, and also the great severity of the temperature, but they reached very near the top, so near in fact that being there when the smoke began to rush out, they reported it did so with such noise and violence that the whole mountain seemed like to fall down: thereupon they descended, bringing a quantity of snow and icicles for us to see, which seemed a novelty indeed, it being so hot everywhere in these parts according to the opinion of explorers up to now: especially since this land is said to be in the twentieth degree of latitude where great heat is always found. On their way to this mountain, as it happened, they came across a road * * * it led to Culua, and

* * it was a good road * * *.

two days after leaving Cholula we climbed the pass between the two mountains which I have already described, from which we could discern the province of Chalco belonging to Mutec- zuma * * *.

Early the next day I struck camp for a town two leagues further on called Amecameca, capital of the province of Chalco, which must number more than twenty thousand people, including the villages for some two miles around it. In this town we lodged in some excellent dwellings belonging to the chief ruler of the place * * *.

All historians do not agree with Cortez as to the lack of success of the first party. Gomara1 and Bernal Dias give credit to Ordaz for having made the first ascent. Since Ordaz had been a bitter opponent of Cortez, and since Cortez was somewhat wont to play down some of the exploits of his contemporaries so as not to detract attention from himself, it is quite possible he did not give Ordaz full credit. At any rate the King of Spain recognized the achievement of Ordaz as successful and allowed the family of Ordaz to commemorate the exploit by assuming a figure of the burning mountain on their escutcheon.

On July 2nd, 1939, La Legión Alpina of Mexico City erected a plaque on the summit of Popo commemorating the exploits of the Conquistadores and giving credit to Diego de Ordaz for the first ascent and to Francisco Montaño for the first descent into the crater.

The exploit of Francisco Montaño was truly spectacular, and was authenticated by every historian of his age and indeed takes its place in mountain climbing records.

Over two years after his first letter, Cortez, on May 15th, 1522, again wrote the King of Spain speaking of the success of Montaño’s climb:

I informed your Majesty in my previous letter that close to the provinces of Tlascala and Guajucingo there is a circular very lofty peak from whose summit a continuous stream of smoke arises as straight as an arrow into the air. The Indians gave us to understand that it was a very evil place and that they would die if they ascended there. I accordingly dispatched certain Spaniards to climb the mountain and examine its upper slopes. At the time of their ascent the smoke was being ejected with such a rumble that they neither dared nor could arrive at the mouth of the crater; and later I sent other Spaniards who twice climbed right up to the mouth of the crater from which the smoke emerges; they found it measured some two bowshots across and some three-quarters of a league in circumference; it was so deep that they could not see the bottom of it; they found, however, a certain amount of sulphur lying nearby, which is expelled by the force of the smoke. On one occasion while they were there they heard a great rumbling noise and made haste to descend, but before they were half way down an infinite number of stones began to rain down on them which put them in no slight danger. The Indians considered it a great enterprise to go where the Spaniards did.

On October 15th, 1524, when Cortez wrote the King his fourth letter, in telling him how the conquerors had managed to provide themselves with cannon and gunpowder, he stated:

As for sulphur, I have already described to your Majesty the mountain in this province from which rises a great column of smoke. A Spaniard was let down into the crater some seventy or eighty furlongs on the end of a rope, and succeeded in gathering sufficient for our needs up to the present: in the future this method of procuring it will be unnecessary: it is certainly dangerous and I am continually writing to Spain to provide us: * * *.

The other historians give us other details. Francisco Montaño and four others set out for the mountains amid great acclaim. As they approached the volcano their train had swelled to thousands of sightseers, filled with excitement about this assault upon the infernal regions, which promised to be far more daring than the first. Many built huts or lean-tos near the foot of the mountain to watch and await the outcome.

The ascent began about noon. Indian porters carried ropes, bags and blankets hung across their backs and secured by tump- lines across their foreheads—the most ancient back-packing device of the Americas. When night came, the climbers, high on the slope, dug out a cavity to shelter themselves from the cold, but the sulphur fumes drove them out, and they stood around shivering in the dark. Clouds and smoke obscured the starry sky. As they moved around in an effort to keep warm, one of the Spaniards fell into a crevasse. He managed to catch himself on a huge icicle and the rest of the party got him out. Thereafter they stayed closer together.

At dawn the party started upward again. In half an hour an eruption shook the mountain and sent the party scampering for shelter of a few rocks. The blast was not without its compensation, however, for a heated stone was thrown out and rolled down to them, and around it they gathered and warmed themselves. (Climbers today will not find the mountain so accommodating.) After stopping, one of the party was too exhausted to proceed and he was left there until the return trip.

As the party neared the rim of the crater, another eruption took place and sent the party on a fruitless scramble for some kind of shelter. When the bombardment of ashes and stones subsided they proceeded on and reached the summit.

We can well imagine the party standing there on the rim of the crater. These four men were duty bound to return with a supply of sulphur, and their reputation for bravery and accomplishment was at stake. Nevertheless, they probably shivered not only from the cold windy blasts but from apprehension, as the earth rumbled beneath their feet, as wisps of choking fumes, smoke and steam swept over them, clearing only for a moment to reveal the seething masses of lava in the crater below, where one of them must descend. Perhaps some secretly wished themselves back in the warm sun of a Mexican plaza or in a comfortable adobe house, lying across a grass-woven sleeping mat served with tortillas and sauced fowl by a round faced Indian maid. Perhaps another remarked that if they were going to do anything they might as well go ahead and do it. The extent of their apprehension is apparent from the fact that the party cast lots to see which one of them would make the descent into the crater. The lot fell to Montaño himself. With a rope tied around his waist and played out by the men above, according to his own statement, he descended into the crater for a distance of several hundred feet, with swimming brain, oppressed by fumes, and in danger from eruptive substances. We do not know much of the quality of his “climbing” rope. It was probably a very flimsy affair of short ropes woven by the Indians and tied together. Montaño himself regarded it as an extremely slender support which might at any moment break and send him into the hell-fire beneath. After delivering a bagful of sulphur seven times, he was relieved by one of his companions (said to be Juan de Larios) who made six trips. As a result of the efforts of the two men, a total of about 300 lbs. of sulphur was obtained. This was deemed sufficient and, in a hurry to escape from their uncomfortable and uncertain position, they began the descent, which they made with some difficulty, burdened and poorly equipped as they were. They managed to thread their way around and through the crevasses, although they slipped several times on the snow-covered surface and several times broke through the crust into a crevasse. Occasionally they collided against some sharp projection, or loose-lying rocks.

As they approched the camp at the foot, the natives came forth with enthusiastic cheers to bear the adventurers on their shoulders. Their journey to Coyuhuacan was a triumphal march, and Cortez himself came to welcome them with an embrace.

Montano was too humble an individual, however, to receive the same attention as Ordaz, who used his less valuable performance, magnified by “political pull” in Spain to obtain a coat of arms and grants. An encomienda, scanty even for his ordinary services as participant in the conquest, and wholly insufficient for the support of himself and his family, and a two-year term of office as corregidor with a salary of two hundred pesos was all that his repeated appeals to the king and counselors could secure.

Because of the dangers no further ascents were made by the Conquistadores, after that of Francisco Montaño.

Thus, the adventure of mountain climbing, born in the New World in the breast of these boldest and bravest Conquistadores, perished. For three centuries, and until 1827, no one again looked into the steaming mouth of Popo. What a different history might have been written for mountaineering if there had not been new worlds to conquer upon new continents; and if those Conquistadores should have been compelled to find an outlet for their love of adventure in the mountains of the world—as we of this day and generation must do.

1 According to the account of Gomara, the entire party of Ordaz and nine others proceeded to the mountain. They had climbed a short distance to the cooler region when the quaking ground and raining ashes caused the party to halt. Ordaz and two of his men continued, scrambling with some difficulty over the stones, boulders and frozen sand which fringed the snow line. At one time during a bombardment of ashes and heated stones the party was obliged to seek shelter for about an hour, after which they continued their climb turning past the projecting rock now known as Pico del Fraile, near which they almost lost themselves in the ash-covered snow and finally succeeded in reaching the summit. The crater was nearly half a league in width though not deep, and presented the appearance of a caldron of boiling glass, as says Gomara. After securing some ice and snow as trophies, the men returned as fast as possible, and were received by the natives with great exultation and admiration, the Indians regarding the deed as something superhuman.