Mountains of the World Mt. Popocatepetl

About the history and height of Mt. Popocatepetl, the smoking mountain of Mexico, account of expedictions and climbing adventures.



The North American continent's fifth-highest peak, Popocatepetl (Nahuatl for "Smoking Mountain"), is located 45 mi. southeast of Mexico City and dominates the horizon from the capital on clear days.

A symmetrical volcanic cone, it rises from a base forested with oak and pine to a snowcapped summit 17,887 ft. high. Though dormant since 1802, it has occasionally shot out smoke and sulfurous vapors, notably in 1921 and 1965. It was once placed on sale by the Mexican government. There were no buyers.

It was the site of the first mountaineering exploit in North American history, when, in 1523, soldiers from Cortes's conquering army climbed it to show the local Indians that no feat was beyond white men. In doing so, they established a world's altitude record which endured for almost 300 years, until the early days of Himalayan exploration. The Aztecs, however, felt that their sacred peak, affectionately known as "Popo," was profaned by the conquistadores, who used its sulfur to make gunpowder.

According to legend, Popocatepetl and its sister volcano, Ixtaccihuatl (now extinct), were giant lovers who displeased the gods and were turned into mountains. The woman was killed, but the man. Popocatepetl, was given eternal life to gaze forever on his beloved. At times in his agony he is convulsed, shaking the earth and uttering fearful groans.

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