Running (well, scrambling) up 4,000 Ajusco volcano in Mexico [Report & photos]

First published at (and cool - at least I think!, photos on) :smile:

When was the last time that you were totally out of breath, scrambling at the back of a pack and getting increasingly dizzy?

In my case, it had been a little while. Actually, I can only really think of two instances: once, when I was about 10 and was slower than every single kid in the PE class’ time trials including the somewhat chunkier ones. The other time was when I was roughly 13 and, having sprinted away from school with all the fast kids, there was zilch chance of me keeping up on the return leg so … I got the bus back (and may have panicked the teacher for a while when he thought he’d lost a kid. Oops.).

This time, there were no chubby kids – only two very toned mountain runners and me, and there was certainly no public transport to save me: the nearest manmade object was probably about 3 kilometres away and we were 3,500 meters up a volcano. And, right then, all I could think was: how the hell will I survive to be able to write a hilarious blog about it? (or something like that)

Anyway, rewinding the clocks…Having zig-zagged (seemingly literally) at 6am through back alleys of the city, we eventually emerged into wilderness and started driving up increasingly steep hills. Although the Ajusco volcano is 4,000m above sea level, we would thankfully be starting at 3,000m – this would, clearly, have otherwise been slightly more of an adventure than a day-trip.

As we got to within a few kilometres of the beginning of the official trail, Andy – mountain goat #1 and serious fell runner – pointed out that we’d reached the start of the trail route he’d downloaded online. The map looked pretty believable so, blind trust in full swing, we jumped out of the cab, stripped out of our jeans and hoodies, made sure our Garmins were beeping and set off into the dense oak and pine forests.

Within 20 metres, I was ready to have a heart attack. Later, I’d find out that the other two’s hearts were similarly jumping out of their chests. For now, bravado and sussing each other out would keep us going and pretending that this unnecessarily fast sprint up this dirt path was barely a warm-up.

Thankfully (?), this path ended almost immediately which gave us a breather. We then did a U-turn, then another U-turn, before we all settled on a 2 inch wide ant trail crawling up some thick, particularly sticky bushes. After about 100 metres of ‘running’, we were up to our genitals in undergrowth (never thought I’d get to type that) and stopped to reconsider what we were doing. I was happy to be Mister Sensible / Scaredy-cat and suggested we’d be better off going back to the main road and running along it for a few kilometres up to the actual trail, rather than get lost deep in a foreign country’s forest. At the time, I think Andy and Rasmus (mountain goat #2) had mixed feelings – later, they admitted it was probably sensible.

The road was, unsurprisingly, MUCH easier. Although we were higher up than I’d ever been, the altitude wasn’t having too much of an impact and my heart was only skipping beats on the particularly sharp inclines.

Soon, we left the tarmac for the trail and headed into the woods with Andy in the lead. We followed the ‘Lodge Route’, which was apparently the slightly more difficult of the two ascent routes. However, the route was very clearly marked and, reassuringly, it’d now have taken a fool to get lost on the heavily weathered volcanic flank.

Almost immediately, we reached a mouldy rope-ladder bridge. ‘Decrepit’ barely did it justice: one side had no hand rail support left, the first 4 beams were missing and the rest were either mouldy, thinning or missing too. Because we were adventurous/stupid, we stopped running briefly and took a few photos to pretend we were running across it while holding veeery tightly onto the handrail before heading up a different path. [However, as we’d discover later, the return journey would force us to very very gingerly cross the river using that bridge. One. At. A. Time. Please.]

As we climbed, the path got narrower and narrower and steeper and steeper, with an increasing number of felled trees requiring some climbing. Up front, Andy and Rasmus were powering on.

After about another 15 minutes, I was starting to lag behind and was feeling increasingly dizzy – maybe this altitude sickness is real after all? I was utterly utterly knackered – akin to post-marathon feelings of exhaustion, and alarm-ringing chemicals were being sent around my body ad nauseam (nausea being the operative word…).

Both guys kindly stopped and waited for me 20 metres up the slope but I genuinely couldn’t fathom the energy to hop over this tree trunk and join them. They came down, made me take a rest, gobble an energy gel and, possibly a bit concerned, suggested that we call it a day once we get over the tree-line and see the view which wouldn’t have taken us much longer. I would now lead, so as to set the pace.

And, suddenly, witchcraft and all that: everything was fine! It wasn’t the altitude that was the issue: it was Andy (‘s pace)! We carried on, at a much easier pace – partly enforced by the ruggedness and steepness of the path and partly enforced by me, and, although the effect of altitude could definitely be felt, I was no longer concerned I’d be left as food for the eagles.

Once we cracked the tree line, the view got increasingly stunning with every step upwards and every newly visible valley. In the distance, you could look back and see Mexico City peering up under a thick blanket of smog. On the other side, clear valleys provided a sharp contrast to the grotty human pollution.

We carried on scrambling, occasionally jogging and took a few posing running photos on our way. Obviously. If it’s not on Instagram, it never happened…

After about 2 hours, we made it to the top and to the cross which marked the 3,986m peak. In ancient times, this was apparently a place of worship for the Aztecs. Now, there’s … a giant drawing of a cock. Google Translate charmingly translated what I could decipher as “this is the English cock with a beak and feet [something something] in the arse”. Ha? Philistines!
Once we’d decided to look at the rest of the view, we could truly appreciate the peculiar geography of Mexico City: a huge sprawling patch of reclaimed land on old marshland/lake surrounded by a circle of volcanoes. Some are ‘small’, like this one. Others, like Popocatepetl, are huge and stand over 5,500m high.

All, however, are bloody exposed and, after 20 minutes at the top in shorts and tshirts, it was time to get moving and we started jogging along the crest and down the trail. Being less experienced at this type of running, I took my place at the back. Mr Sensible again.

A couple of hours and a few minor slips later, we had survived the bridge crossing and made it back to the start of the trail. The real adventure now began: how the hell do we get home? Despite having 4 phones between the 3 of us, none had any signal. The local restaurant didn’t have a phone line either though, thankfully, they understood enough of my pigeon Spanish to get the gist of our intentions and kindly offered to drive us down (for a fee) to where buses and taxis occasionally pass by about 8 or 9 kilometres away. We’d initially talked about running there but were bloody grateful for the lift now.

Unfortunately, there was more tumbleweed than taxis or buses where we got dropped off so we were still a little buggered. Eventually, we decided just to jog for a bit in the general direction and hope that either a taxi or phone signal would appear. The latter did and, as in the best movies, an Uber was quickly on its way. Reconnecting with nature was great but reconnecting with mobile data sadly won hands down at that point!
'Around the world in 80 runs' - Runner ¦ Blogger ¦ Traveller
Instagram & Twitter: @80_runs


  • If i have been living and training at high altitude say 2-3000m for a number of months and my race is at sea level. Should i go down (live/train) to sea level 2-3 weeks prior to the race to readjust for speed track work say and will i still retain the training effect of altitude-training or would the previous months altitude training have been diminished after a few weeks of soley being at sea level again?. If that is the case should i still be staying at high attitude until a few days before the race at sea level? Bit of a chicken and egg question. Hope it isn't too confusing, would be interested to know what you guys think. Many thanks
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