Mexico No.4: Nevado de Colima

This is an amalgamation of two trips to Nevado on successive months: 2nd – 4thApril and 2nd – 4th May. Some of the events occurred in April, some in May. I’m revisiting Nevado as promised in this blog post here

It is four o’clock in the morning when the regular hum changes to a whine that rises and falls. At a time when the whole of Mexico should be asleep, there are three people awake inside our small refugio. One of us opens a door to briefly illuminate a room full of screens; then enters, shutting it fast behind him. Another opens the front door. Outside it is six degrees above freezing, and the night appears black as smoke. Within a few seconds, however, my eyes have adjusted to the darkness. The stars are fantastic here; it is always easy to pick out Orion, standing watch. In the middle distance his fallen friends twinkle in an orange puddle: Colima. Despite the throbbing activity of the lights down there, I am sure that most of the 160,000 people in the state capital are asleep. It’s a quiet city town, after all, where nothing ever happens. Nothing is what we are looking for now. The orange puddle is cut off abruptly by a great, vast darkness, an enormous mass that blocks out half the rift valley. If I wait, and squint my eyes in the cool air, I can see a black plume unfurling from the summit, gradually blotting out the stars. This is the silent source of the alarm: Volcán de Colimais erupting.


Colima city lazes at 600 metres above sea level. In May we are nearing the rainy season, and every day brings more heat. As I wrote this at seven p.m. in the park near my house, temperatures had cooled to 30°C; the swings creaked, women chattered, people were starting to wake up. Life there is swimming in a hazy mist. The refuge at Nevado, meanwhile, squats proudly at 4000 metres, in such a different environment that it seems another continent entirely, or another world. Surprising that only 40 kilometres separate the two. At Nevado, spires of pines rise to thirty metres in height, then fall away to stunted wisps as they near the tree line. The face of the mountain is bare and uncompromising. The air here is stainless and sharp, and a pristine crisp blue that stands in contrast to Colima’s faded skies. I breathe in great fresh gulps of alpine air, and imagine that I am cleaning myself from the inside out.


Of course it takes a while to get up here. If you pay attention on the drive, it’s possible to see the world change around you. We begin at toll road 54, and cross the state boundary into Jalisco. Continue on towards Ciudad Guzman, and then towards a dusty, forgotten town called El Grullo. Just beyond it begins a track 25 kilometres long that will take us to our destination. The first few hundred metres are so deeply rutted and pitted that it’s a wonder anyone can get up the road, but get up it they do: Nevado de Colima is a popular national park, and the lower slopes of the mountain are dotted with picnic benches and campsites. We are going all the way. There’s three of us in the truck today: James and Alex and I. I’m not driving, fortunately, because this allows me to see the scenery evolve around me. On the lower slopes there are avocado farms, the trees’ trunks painted white and tufty grass growing between; in the middle, massive and dignified oaks hang drooping moss from their branches, creating a dappled shade; these give way at high altitude to tall and fragrant pines. The flowers don’t thin as we climb, but their colours change. The lowest slopes had many growing with the avocados, a bouquet of red hibiscus and starry yellow and enormous pink trumpet-flowers. At 3700 metres there are star-petalled white flowers, tiny like edelweiss, hidden between the rocks. Around here the road splits. You can turn right, down to el Playon, the saddle between the two mountains, with its pine forest and access to the parasitic domes of Volcancito. Alternatively you can go left, up to the refugio. There’s only one kilometre to drive, but the road is narrow and slippery, and the last four bends make a hairpin seem generous. In this field trip we forgo the bends, and leave our truck parked at the bottom of the split, while we labour up with our equipment. Usually we radio through to Ciudad Guzmán in advance, to let the headquarters of the Protección Civil de Jalisco (PCJ) know that we’re coming. The message is rarely passed on, however, and true enough, when we knock on the refugio’s front door, it is opened by an enormous, red-headed Mexican who regards us quizzically. His expression doesn’t clear when we tell him that we have come to stay for two nights. For a second I worry – we’re here with three boxes of equipment that we’ve lugged up, is he really not going to let us in? – but eventually he smiles charmingly, and opens the door. His name is Aaron, and he’s a bombero, a fireman who works with the Civil Protection of Jalisco state and is posted up here occasionally for duty. Aaron is a typical bombero: amiable, curious, full of fun. When I tell him my name he responds, ‘Like the movie, Frozen?’.


We left Colima at half-past eight and arrive at Nevado at one o’clock. From now we have exactly 48 hours of monitoring to perform. Throughout the night there are generally always three of us awake: two CIIV students and a bombero. The PCJ maintain a permanent presence at the refugio, as a team of three do a 24-hour shift, changing over every day at 11 a.m.. In the mornings we see the team of incoming bomberos rolling up the track towards us, their compact 4×4 making light of the less-than-hairpin bends. The CIIV presence at Nevado is less frequent. We come up here occasionally, hopefully once a month, and our team is of three, too (if we’re lucky) or two (if we’re not). The two-team is brutal, because the night shifts are so long. The bomberos have a relatively easy time during the night: they have a series of infrared cameras, with many monitors, so all there is to do is watch the live feed in the room of screens, and radio Ciudad Guzmán if there’s an eruption. CIIV has rather more to do. We have a thermal camera and a visual one, the former of which is a primadonna and our main reason for being up at this ungodly hour. Thermocam is very particular about the SD cards it accepts, and taking photos every 3.5 seconds eats up memory. The result is that the memory card only lasts 25 minutes at some time, and someone must be on hand to change it. The visual camera needs its own TLC, with regularly changed batteries; there is also the weather sensor and notes to take in case of degassing activity or eruption. I must admit that there is something fantastic about an eruption in the dark. That alarm that is a constant soundtrack to your time here, that one-note hum, its monotony changes: the undulating wail of the siren is your call to arms. Generally the volcano itself is silent, although I know that back in January there were spectacular explosions and volcanic lightning. I like to watch the eruption unfold through the LCD display of the thermal camera: the volcano, unfamiliarly rendered in Technicolour tones, lets loose a dramatic curl of ash and gas, a glamorous cigarette. The first instant of the eruption is hottest. A white spot on the screen, a burning coal. Temperatures recorded by the camera are relative and have to be corrected for, but a measurement of 240°C is the highest I’ve seen.


The bomberos are a friendly bunch, and because their shifts rotate, over the course of our two days here we’ll meet nine of them. It is interesting to see how they interact with each other, and with us. Some are playful, like a group of schoolkids on a holiday – the second shift gleefully hold burping and farting contests, and drag their mattresses around the fire sleepover-style. These cool kids are exceptionally warm, and turf us out to the screen room under the pretence that it is comfier there. I would argue with them – except that they maintain the wood-burning fire, which presumably means that they can lift pine trunks and handle an axe. Moreover, some of the bomberos are in a bad mood. They can’t hide their disgruntlement at being here (it’s a mandatory part of their work) and spend all day hunched in an armchair, watching The Walking Dead on tiny iPhone screens. Still other bomberos are very curious. One takes an interest in me being Scottish, and tells me about a guy called John Stevenson who used to work with Nick at CIIV and played the bagpipes. The firemen may not be interested in volcanology, but they are good sports.


What I enjoy most at Nevado is that there are always surprises. Even when monitoring for 48 hours constantly, sharing responsibility between three people means that there is only 16 hours of work each for every day; and so when we are not marking time, we’re killing it. Alex’s pack of Monopoly Deal, played in never-ending rounds, goes down like a storm; I sketch the mountains and write about what we’re doing, which surprisingly amounts to a couple of thousand words of text. On a craggy ridge the refugio is isolated but we can wander around: to the weather station on the nearby hill, to our infrasound that we have set up below, and of course there is the mountain itself. Only three hundred metres higher than us – surely it can’t be that difficult to summit?

James and I begin at 3 p.m. of our second day, lathered in sunscreen and carrying only water. Alex is left to take care of the equipment, and we promise to return in three hours. Our trip up the mountain guarantees him the same time off duty the following day, should he wish to take it.

The first part of the route is a difficult scramble up behind the refugio, with a stack of enormous aerials ahead of us. The knife-ridge is narrow and windswept and made more treacherous by the distractingly beautiful views to both left and right – left, into Jalisco, with Ciudad Guzmán in the bottom of the rift valley and pine trees in the foreground; and right, into Colima, towards the city and home, with Volcán de Colima standing proudly in front. We clamber our way among the rocks and scramble down a mighty cliff, not falling but landing, quite anticlimactically, on soft, powdery earth. We have hit the ash fall.

There is a faint thread of path through this lunar landscape and we follow it towards the hulking behemoth of rock. In mid-afternoon sun the western face of Nevado is made rugged and handsome. After we reach the footwall of rock our path dies out, and we must create our own. We run into two other hikers, a couple of Americans who are studying in Guadalajara, and we exchange chat – all of us are mystified as to where we’re supposed to go to reach the summit. They’re tired and James and I leave them in the dust, carrying on ahead to God knows where. Suddenly, there it is: just under a rocky shoulder, a cairn, and a couple of straight poles of bamboo. That must be a sign. We ascend the final part of the mountain by these strange markers, and the top marks the same: a metal crucifix, with crumpled bracelets tied round and the tattered remains of a Mexican flag.

The view at the top is breath-taking, in many ways. At 4286 metres, the air is reed-thin. The final hundred metres of ascent were steep, and we take a few minutes to catch our breaths. The altitude has caught us, but the view makes up for it. In all directions we can see, into two states simultaneously, towards the sea to our south and to both sides of the rift valley, east and west, and even to Guadalajara, to our north. The distant hills are a uniform shade of blue, as finely cut as glass at the summit, but rubbed out to an indistinct white near the base. The sole summit untouched by the heat is the volcano to our south. Not five minutes after we have topped out, a plume of smoke streams out from the top. It’s perfect.

James and I return to the refugio, famished. It’s near the end of our second day so there isn’t a lot of food left to eat. I remember that we brought up a bag of marshmallows to toast on the fire, and wonder idly where they are. Next afternoon, just before leaving, the truth is revealed. I am doing a final sweep-round of the refugio for leftover possessions and/or tequila, and decide to check the screen room. I find two of the bomberos on the leather sofa, cuddled together under a blanket, watching an episode of Friends. Just as I ask them about the marshmallows, I spy a crumpled polythene bag on the counter, clearly recently enjoyed. I tell them they’ve eaten my candy. Their looks of dismay are almost sincere. There’s something rather sweet about thinking of bomberos snuffling bombónes.


It’s three o’clock on our third day, and beyond time for us to go. We load our equipment into the back of the truck, and head down the narrow track to our ordinary world. We are swelled with our success, with 48 hours of successfully gathered footage, a mountain summited, and a fair few laughs. The sun shines and we bounce along the road, singing along to music on Alex’s phone. A few small divots on the road ahead – only minor potholes. We roll over them, spring up and sag down, and the Toyota makes the strangest squelch. The cab keels. We go out and inspect the route. Only a minor pothole, but it has sheared our axle clean off! We’re 14 kilometres from proper civilization, and the cell phone reception is patchy. As we try to contact our friends back in Colima, we prepare ourselves for a long wait; out comes the Monopoly Deal. It’s been an intense 48 hours of adventure here at Nevado de Colima, and it appears that there is more to come. 

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