Johnnies Conquer Volcano

January 16, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

Tristan Janes stands on the side of Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.
Tristan Janes stands on the side of Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.

St. John’s College students Tristan Janes and Will Kinum were in a race against time.

It was January 2, and the Johnnies were high atop a dormant volcano in central Mexico. The day was winding down. A fog was rolling in.

Janes’ guidebook said a hike to the top of Iztaccihuatl, more than 17,000 feet above sea level, would take two days. Janes (A17) and Kinum (A17) were determined to do it in one.

As the pair stood on a glacier high up on the volcano, they could see the summit. But the Johnnies knew their time was limited. They didn’t want to get caught up there after dark.

So they pushed onward and upward, across rocky paths and icy ridges. And before the day was over, the Johnnies would accomplish their goal.

They reached the summit of Iztaccihuatl joyous, relieved and a bit lightheaded.

“It is the best start I’ve ever had to the new year,” Janes says.

Janes first attempted to summit Iztaccihuatl with his father, Jason, while in high school. The pair didn’t quite make it, which Janes blames on the altitude. The air is thinner and harder to breathe at higher altitudes, which can lead to lightheadedness and sickness.

But Janes was determined to try again, and recruited Kinum to join him.

Following the end of the fall semester, the pair left for Mexico, arriving in Puebla on December 19. The city is one of the largest in Mexico and sits at about 7,000 feet in elevation. Annapolis, by comparison, is just above sea-level.

Over the next two weeks, Janes and Kinum enjoyed their winter break, relaxing and checking out the sights. Janes’ grandmother lives in the area, and the pair stayed with her. His father eventually joined them.

Those two weeks also gave the Johnnies an opportunity to get used to the altitude, something Janes believes contributed to their eventual success.

Hikers trek along Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.
Hikers trek along Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.

Early on the morning of January 2, the Johnnies departed for the Iztaccihuatl trailhead in Paso de Cortes, over 11,000 feet above sea level. While Janes and Kinum had trained for their trek, they quickly realized how difficult it would be.

“The beginning was pretty tough because it was basically a straight climb,” Janes says.

But the Johnnies were able to “power through” the stretch, he says. They developed a system where they would take a five-minute break whenever they crossed a ridge. Eventually, the trek got a bit easier.

They enjoyed stunning views—an active volcano named Popocatépetl was smoking in the distance—and camaraderie among the other hikers they passed on their journey. They encountered a variety of birds, and even came across a group of cows wandering on a hillside.

The Johnnies had figured out how much time they would have from the beginning of the hike until sunset. But when they arrived at a hut where hikers can spend the night—allowing them to split the trip into two days—they decided to keep trekking toward the summit.

What had been a trail quickly turned into a rocky escarpment, and the Johnnies had to use all four limbs to continue their ascent. It took them 45 to 50 minutes to traverse about a half-mile.

At about 14,000 or 15,000 feet, the climb got easier, though it still had its share of climbs and descents, Janes says. Then they arrived at the glacier.

While the duo had been enjoying relatively warm weather at lower altitudes, they were suddenly faced with snow and ice.

“The first time I saw snow this winter was in Mexico,” Janes says with a laugh.

The Johnnies put on their crampons and continued up the glacier.

One of the more interesting features about Iztaccihuatl is that it is made up of a series of peaks. The Johnnies traversed each of them, getting a good look into the crater of the volcano, and finally made it to the summit. They had achieved their goal.

“I think I might have screamed,” Janes says. “I’ve done a lot of hiking, and I think this is the hardest hike I’ve ever done.”

Will Kinum hikes on Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.
Will Kinum hikes near the summit of Iztaccihuatl.

The pair spent about 15 minutes on the summit before heading back down the mountain, a trip that took a fraction of the amount of time as the ascent. They arrived at the trailhead as the sun was setting to the west, and celebrated with Janes’ father, who was waiting for them.

It was a 13-mile trip, and it took them more than nine hours to complete it.

Looking back, Janes enjoyed the experience. He and Kinum met other hikers from San Francisco, British Columbia, Colorado and Mexico. He had great coffee, saw interesting sights and spent time with family. And he accomplished a years-old goal with a close friend from St. John’s.

“It was an immense amount of fun, and it was a good way to relax and let loose after the first semester of senior year,” he says. “It was a great time.”