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Field work with Nature Live

2 Posts tagged with the paso_de_cortes tag

Not my words, Chiara's, as we chat over a drink shortly after the arrival of our eagerly awaited Museum scientists. Seems Hugo (our man in Mexico and fellow scientific collaborator with Chiara and Dave) is a different kind of vulcanologist. His study of volcanic gases provides them with a rounded view of the outcrops we'll be visiting to collect over the next week.



A shakey shot but I was keen not to spook our weary travellers.


Barman Rudolph interrupts politely to tell us of two climbers who 'had trouble' on Popocatepetl two weeks earlier. A confusion of language or had they perished up there? Thankfully, it was a near-miss tale of being sure to inform people of your climb.


We take Chiara and Dave to a superb taco stall. On a blanket of coriander, busy lads fried indistinguishable meats. Tripe's popular but having tried it in the spirit of adventure, I cannot say why. Chiara enquires about our eating habits since arrival, 'No Montezuma's revenge yet?' We confidently shake our heads.' OK' she says, 'only it takes up to a week to kick in.' Momentarily anxious, I order another pair of tacos. We weave past a jumpy pack of dogs on our way back to base. The first collecting site is at sunrise, so it's time for heads down.



Chiara likes to make personal notes as well as scientific on all her field trips. She writes her first thoughts of Popo.


That same winding road and at Paso de Cortes, Chiara smiles and treads toward Popo. We both agree it looks forboding: so large and incredibly steep. The wind is up and it's cold too but the sun is spectacular, catching all the sharp contours of Popo and its neighbouring volcanoes. Hugo arrives and we begin a stone's throw away, clambering down to the first sampling area named Tutti Frutti because of the colouration of it's rocks.



Chiara consults a beautiful colour coded map showing Popo's past lava flows.



Chiara, Hugo and Dave observe the layers of volcanic deposits.


I said I'm hard rock, not soft - Chiara uses a gentler tool of Hugo's for an altogether gentler task.


To my surprise, absolute quiet descends. Collecting what appear to be soft rocks is a very sedate activity. Layers are numbered, samples are hammered lightly or scraped into bags and each one is carefully labelled.


Hugo and Chiara discuss how they collect and the age of this lava flow. Hugo states it happened 14,000 years ago. They visually identify those rock types they recognise and chat about the work of other collectors, recently here to study other aspects of Popo. It's clear Chiara is up to date on all that's written on Popo. If she's going to fully understand it, her own studies are made all the better for her knowing the work of others.



It's like scientific Simply Come Dancing watching Dave and Chiara collect. The sheer coordination.


Three outcrops in and we are on the roadside examining another lava flow. This time the rock is hard and Chiara raises her shiny new hammer. She's less than fond of this one: her favourite's been lost and this has a dreadful 'newness' about it. At 4ft 11 inches, appearances truly deceive as Ms Petrone proceeds to knock seven bells out of the basalt lava.



Be sure to put her on speed dial if you ever need a wall knocked through. It's seems a basic method but I'm told its a trusted one. But why hammer your way through rocks when there are so many of the same type around? 'To get to a fresher surface,' says Dave. Much more fruitful to study.



Beautiful crystals of feldspar (rock forming minerals) glimmer in the freshly exposed lava.


Three o'clock and lunchtime had arrived. I glanced up from the pistachio shells I was considering eating and we drove to Cholula, the town of 365 churches. Had there have been time Hugo suggested we counted them, but lunch was quick and we hopped back into the jeep to visit the last outcrop of the day. And what an outcrop it was.



Chiara and I, dwarfed by the gargantuan 2,000 year old lava flow from Popo.


The sheer height of this lava flow domiated our entire view and was for me, the most striking sight of the day. This is not to say I've become complacent at the sight of Popo but, for the first time, the scale at which the lava from the restless giant had once been hit home. It stood as a reminder of what it was capable of, what Chiara and Dave were hoping to one day shed some light on. Most of all it reflected the destruction it had brought to the people that once lived here.


A few rock samples were broken, bagged and again carefully labelled. Having Dave onhand meant at a glance, the gaps in the Museum's collection could be accurately filled. Hugo too, had sampled throughout the day, so as to duplicate what was collected. Tomorrow our plan was to climb higher and as we juddered violently in the jeep en route back to the hotel, a blinding red sunset appeared.


After a 24hr door-to-door journey from London, Lee and I secure our hire car and take on the streets of Mexico City. The traffic carries us along as it weaves and bobs haphazardly; the pavements are alive with switched on, purposeful looking residents. We’re roused from our jetlag by the hustle and bustle of the roads but crash back down to earth the instant we reach the hotel.



It's bumper to bumper, the vehicles have indicators but I've not yet seen one lit.


There are approximately 24 million people living in Mexico City (that's almost 4 Greater Londons!) and it’s impossible to prepare for the field work ahead without considering the impact this volcano has had on the people that live in its shadow. 15 eruptions have occurred since the Spanish arrived in 1519 A.D. with an unknown quantity before. Then, after fifty years of quiet, in 1994 a series of earthquakes signalled that eruptions had started.


A cloud of ash could be seen over its peak and it fell on the nearby city of Puebla. Civil defense evacuated 19 villages (a population of 31,000 people) east of Popo. By Christmas of that year, the total number of evacuees reached 75,000 and a ban on climbing the volcano for non-scientific visitors has been in place ever since.


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A local squeezes through traffic.


We make an early start and drive to Amecameca, the town we’ll use as our base from which to climb Popo. Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ and breakneck-speed Spanish pumps from the radio as we tackle the GPS and the ‘soup’ of traffic. The map and the actual roads don’t always match but wrong turnings show us more of a landscape I already love.


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Municipal buses don't come any cooler.


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Gentle hustle on the busy streets.


Popo was visible from Mexico City but as we travel out in our car, the built-up scenery subsides to be replaced by quarries and swathes of red earth as the volcano begins to dominate our view. If Lee climbs like he drives he’ll conquer this giant, no problem. I stare in awe at the smoke plumes rising from its summit and think, ‘Will my climbing boots melt up there?’



View from our car on the 115 to Amecameca.


Checked in at our base in Amecameca, we explore the town and gaze up at Popo. You find yourself wanting to see it from wherever you stand.


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The bar at Hotel Fontesanta, with neon palms and cutlery timepiece. Oh, and Popo on the horizon. 

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Sunset from nearby town San Pedro Nexapa


We’ve arranged to meet National Park official Agustin, to gain access to the park and get closer to Popo. Lunchtime’s late in Amecameca and by 16:00 we’re greeted by a hulking great man with a warm demeanour and an unhurried efficiency. Gabriella and Gisella run the education programme and agree to an escorted drive part way up Popo. Lee and I depart for lunch. You’ve never seen two people eat cactus quesadillas so fast or with so much excitement.


A winding 3,600m drive up to Paso de Cortes, our breathing begins to feel heavy, our heads light. In the thinning atmosphere, I feel oxygen rich and starved all at once. Coordination feels clumsy but our sight is fixed. Lee has climbed further to grab some establishing shots of Popo and has been noticed grinning uncontrollably by one of the rangers. 'Emotion' he says knowingly as he gestures toward him. Chiara and Dave arrived Friday night and the sampling begins on Sunday.


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Popocatepetl: Don't hold your breath, you'll need it.


We arrived here by car and this is the closest view non-scientific visitors see. From here, another 300m drive up is Tlamacas and from there, the ascent on foot begins. It’s been so valuable to take in the landscape before the science begins, to spend a little time at altitude and with the people who live with this volcano.


‘It’s exciting to live so close to Popo’ says Nacho, one of the park rangers with an incredible smile. We smile too and whether this is in agreement or the lack of oxygen to our brains, I cannot say. One thing’s for sure, the next 9 days are going to be pretty wild.