How to study (and why) the last glacier in Mexico at 5,350 meters

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It is dusk at an altitude of 5,350 meters and the shadows cast on the ice begin to stretch in the opposite direction to that of the morning. You can’t even see the last rope that has tried to reach the top, three little black dots in the middle of the target that, perhaps with some acclimatization problem, passed near Memo Ontiveros with a very slow pace but, after shouting that they were fine, the glacier disappeared under. Now, Ontiveros —often, a somewhat sharp black beard, burned skin even though he says it doesn’t burn— is the person who is at the highest point in all of Mexico, and he has barely picked up his gadget, which is not exactly a backpack. . He has been working on the glacier all day with his helmet, polarized lenses and crampons, and he says he does not want to know the time. But it’s half past four.

PHOTO GALLERY | A day on the last glacier in Mexico

“Whoops.” Let’s go. It’s very late.

Memo and seven assistants have spent the day on the Jamapa glacier, in the Citlaltépetl or Pico de Orizaba, a latent but active volcano that with 5,675 meters with little consensus is the roof of the country, and the descent can be complicated if it gets dark, even more so with the tamalera behind your back. Those who seek the top leave the Piedras Grandes refuge (4,260 meters) before dawn, even at midnight, and to have a safe descent they try to reach the top at noon, no matter how dark the sky is. But neither Memo nor the Colombian foundation team White Summits has come to summit. He is one of the few Mexican glaciologists and has agreed to collaborate with this organization that tries to make visible the last tropical glaciers. But in Mexico only this one remains, on the north face of the Pico, and Memo, who cannot choose, hurries the day until four thirty. And that is very late.

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5,100 meters

When Marcela Fernández Barreneche read that interview in Medellín, probably in short sleeves, he learned many things: that Colombia, his country, had glaciers, that there were more but there were still six left, and that there were glaciologists. Or at least one, Jorge Luis Ceballos. At 30, she — also short, long hair and full of energy — had already sold sweets at school, tried to export coffee, set up a responsible tourism company and promoted PazAbordo, a multicolored caravan that, full of activists, toured 8,000 kilometers through convulsive regions of Colombia promoting dialogue. In 2019 he contacted Ceballos and founded Cumbres Blancas. And although it is not clear that the Pico glacier is fully tropical, after acting in others in Colombia, Venezuela or Ecuador, she knew that it shared characteristics and urgencies. That is why he wrote to Heidi Sevestre, a well-known French glaciologist, and she to Memo Ontiveros. And they invited Mexican experts and mountaineers, including Himalayan Elsa Ávila, ice climber Ixchel Foord or specialized photographers Alfredo Morán and Enrique Barquet, among others, they joined the project.

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This morning, after four days of preparations, Memo has not gotten up that early. He has camped at the foot of the glacier and, already with light, ascends a few meters above the crunchy morning ice, reads 5,100 on his hand-held altimeter and says that the first stop of the tamalera is there. The tamalera, a steam cooker, is actually a drill that works like a gasket, a heater that, connected to the gas network, would allow a hot shower. This, also on gas, receives snow from above, melts it and obtains the steam with which, pointing a hose and an applicator, now the volcanologist Juan Ramón de la Fuente is slowly opening a vertical hole of eight meters. Memo says that it was bought by the team of Hugo Delgado – mentor of his generation, former director of the Institute of Geophysics of the UNAM and coordinator at UNESCO-, which was made by a Norwegian and is not the only one, because his Andean colleagues use similar ones.

Beside him, Marcela and another assistant take snow samples to measure the carbon that comes from the cities. Today, chemical studies complement radars and digital aerial photogrammetry, which allow calculating the frozen mass, but Memo insists on drilling to insert beacons, series of five thin PVC tubes that, tied with nylon, will add up to ten meters each. In a specific way and then extrapolating data, they will allow to read, whenever one goes up here, the centimeters of ice lost.

—Each instrument is for different things. In Europe you can handle a drone quite well at 4,000 meters, and although some fly at 6,000, here we have problems with the density of the air. The beacon tells you how much is snow and how much is ice, and that is not given by a remote method.

5,200 meters

Another very fast point has just passed the glacier above, with just a couple of poles, trying to reach the top and go down to the town of Hidalgo in four hours. It is Santiago Carsolio. Your colleague Max Álvarez, trailrunner like him, he appears dressed like someone who trains on the beach. He has gone up as support and observes the team’s work, but immediately says goodbye because his friend flies down the mountain. “I think running mountains is my way of living with them,” Carsolio said the day before, in a hut in Hidalgo. “But the change in the glaciers is shocking. I just went to Iztaccíhuatl (5,215 meters) after six years, and the Ayoloco did not recognize it ”.

Some experts also do not recognize Ayoloco, the Iztaccíhuatl glacier, because it no longer moves, and they have degraded it, like that of the Chest, to the category of simple ice. That is why Jamapa’s is going to be the last in Mexico, if it isn’t already, and in Hidalgo they are only adding evidence. Juan Guarneros, the only guard of the Pico de Orizaba National Park, remembered the glacier that he climbed for the first time as a teenager, in 1987.

“About three-quarters of what we knew about is missing.” I don’t know when it will end, but I think it will be very soon.

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5,300 meters

The tamalera is heavy, and more so at this altitude where the slope has been steep. Everyone helps carry equipment, there is no drone here, although Hugo Delgado once got support from a helicopter that barely allowed 5,000 to jump off a landing. Now, at 5,300 meters inclined, the urgent thing is to anchor the material and restart the tamalera. An assistant attaches a new gas cylinder and another fires after opening the hatch, but it is costing horrors.

“And is it not because there is less oxygen, or because of the pressure of the altitude, which costs more?” One of them asks.

“Sure,” Memo replies, “but surely the Norwegian didn’t take that into account!”

At this hour, life happens downstairs. All that appears on the glacier ice are butterflies, or broken butterfly wings. The wind lifts them up, knocks them out of their way and they freeze to death. Sometimes corn husk remains also fly. To the east, the Veracruz jungle is a complete sea of ​​clouds, but to the west, Puebla is a plain ocher of dusty fields where eddies still visible from here emerge. They call them little devils. Further afield, the horizon darkens over its capital and some forests still surround La Malinche, an extinct volcano. The only thing that exhales is the unmistakable column of a fire.

The known threat are the ‘loggers’, loggers linked to organized crime, but when arriving at the Pico National Park, there is no one at the sentry box to charge entrance, and once inside you can see herds searching among black, smoky and dusty earth. next to scorched pines

The known threat is logging, loggers linked to organized crime, but upon reaching the Pico National ParkIn the sentry box there is no one to charge entrance, and once inside you can see herds searching among black, smoky and dusty earth, next to scorched pines. Juan Guarneros, who is also a community watchdog, says that there are unsuspecting visitors, but that shepherds often set it on fire, they even know who, and thus, with little vigilance, they obtain new shoots and avoid growing fodder. And of course, the glacier does not have much left, but without trees there is no rain either. He, who has reforested a lot next to the Park, believes that there are solutions, but they lack means and he feels that they are winning. “We fear that the water will run out. As a result of climate change and fires, it is impressive how much has decreased. My mother lives in Tlachichuca, at her house she falls [sale] every 20 days and if you do not have how to store it, you will suffer. We are already going through, but I wonder what my children will suffer when the water runs out. Here, if it ends, we will never draw from a well if the aquifers are not recharged ”.

The descent

We left the tallest beacons nailed at 5,350 meters, next to a crack a foot wide that escapes between penitents, pointed shapes that remain when the radiation is such that the surrounding ice passes directly to gas. Memo says those cracks are not dangerous. Instead, in his doctoral thesis he predicted that the glacier would split into three: the upper part would melt, the lower part would shrink and in the center, encased in a channel, there would be another mass that would no longer be a living body that loses and recovers ice and moves subtly. His forecast: 2039. That, of course, as long as the volcano does not reactivate because then, remember De la Fuente, the glacier it would melt like that of Popocatepetl and could cause torrential thaws. What is sought when predicting how and when glaciers will disappear, in addition to associating it with our carbon footprint, is to prepare for change, such how is Peru doing with its cochas, ancestral pools for water catchment. Another source from the Park will explain that its budget is lower than that of other parks and has no signs of going up, that the law does not deter the shepherd either, although he hopes that, in a few years, four million Pinus hartwegii will emerge already ingrained, many still hidden among grasslands. For Memo, the regional governments that have best reacted to the retreat – they have created institutes and trained glaciologists – are those that depend the most on that water, and this is not the case in Mexico.

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Once, late as it was, his flashlight rolled down the glacier and Memo squatted all night, almost tucked into his backpack. Now the last one comes down, meditating, and his elongated shadow continues to stop to measure old beacons from previous campaigns. He, a scientist, appreciates the lucidity that the mountain gives him when they are alone, although he knows first-hand that, for many villagers, intruders only anger the volcanoes. In Colombia, some glaciers are in indigenous, sacred and restricted territory, and in Iceland they dedicated a funeral and carved a plaque to Okjökull, their lost glacier. Days after, Hugo Delgado will invite Memo to place another plaque in Ayoloco, while Marcela proposed another funeral in the Zócalo of Mexico City.

It is very late, even the first clouds appear, but it is also the key moment. Walking back a glacier that has been absorbing sun for hours sounds the same as posing, at each step, ten metal points on a sparkling sea that has turned to glass. When you stop, you can also hear streams like dozens of rattles in an immensity in which, absurdly, the largest human is hardly more noticeable than a butterfly. Memo comes down suspiciously slow, worried about coming down with a tamale that weighs more than ever. But he, who reads in centimeters, will also say that he cannot be satisfied as long as the glacier continues to shrink. Extrapolated to two decades and all its sunsets, that constant rumor is equivalent to saying goodbye to the last glacier.

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