Popocatapetl, the hill that smokes, in the Mexican language, the huge mountain clothed in eternal snows, and regarded by the idolaters of old as a god, towers up nearly 18,000 feet above the level of the sea, and in the days of the conquest of Mexico was a volcano in a state of fierce activity. It was looked upon by the natives with a strange dread, and they told the white strangers with awe that no man could attempt to ascend its slopes and yet live; but, from a feeling of vanity, or the love of adventure, the Spaniards laughed at these fears, and accordingly a party of ten of the followers of Cortes commenced the ascent, accompanied by a few Indians. But these latter, after ascending about 13,000 feet to where the last remains of stunted vegetation existed, became alarmed at the subterranean bellowings of the volcano, and returned, while the Spaniards still painfully toiled on through the rarefied atmosphere, their feet crushing over the scoriae and black-glazed volcanic sand, until they stood in the region of perpetual snow, amidst the glittering, treacherous glaciers and crevasses, with vast slippery-pathed precipices yawning round.
Still they toiled on in this wild and wondrous region. A few hours before they were in a land of perpetual summer; here all was snow. They suffered the usual distress awarded to those who dare to ascend to these solitudes of nature but it was not given to them to achieve the summit, for suddenly, at a higher elevation, after listening to various ominous threatenings from the interior of the volcano, they encountered so fierce a storm of smoke, cinders, and sparks, that they were driven back half suffocated to the lower portions of the mountain.
Some time after another attempt was made; and upon this occasion with a definite object. The invaders had nearly exhausted their stock of gunpowder, and Cortes organized a party to ascend to the crater of the volcano, to seek and bring down sulphur for the manufacture of this necessary of warfare. This time the party numbered but five, led by one Francisco Montano; and they experienced no very great difficulty in winning their way upwards. The region of verdure gave place to the wild, lava-strewn slope, which was succeeded in its turn by the treacherous glaciers; and at last the gallant little band stood at the very edge of the crater, a vast depression of over a league in circumference, and 1,000 feet in depth.
Flame was issuing from the hideous abysses, and the stoutest man’s heart must have quailed as he peered down into the dim, mysterious cavity to where the sloping sides were crusted with bright yellow sulphur, and listened to the mutterings which warned him of the pent-up wrath and power of the mighty volcano. They knew that at any moment flame and stifling sulphurous vapor might be belched forth, but now no cowardice was shown. They had come provided with ropes and baskets, and it only remained to see who should descend. Lots were therefore drawn, and it fell to Montano, who was accordingly lowered by his followers in a basket 400 feet into the treacherous region of eternal fires.