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Mummified Bodies Found Atop Mexico's Highest Peak Buried Again After Fresh Snowfall

After disturbing the snow, climbers found a second mummified body atop the snowy Pico de Orizaba. Authorities are not sure when — or if — the bodies will be recovered.

by Andrea Noel
Mar 18 2015, 6:14pm

AP Photo/Israel Mijangos Q.

The discovery of two mummified corpses on Mexico's highest peak has sparked a frenzied effort to recover the remains, but three weeks since the find, authorities said the operation must be halted due to a snowfall that has once again encased the corpses in snow.

Mountain climbers found the first of the two mummified and deteriorating corpses on February 28 atop the Pico de Orizaba on the border between Puebla and Veracruz states, poking out from the snow just a few hundred meters shy of the dormant volcano's soaring 18,490-foot peak.

"There is a lot of certainty [the bodies] may belong to a group of alpinists from 1950," interior secretary spokesman Gonzalo Ponce told VICE News. "But there are also people in Germany and Spain who are saying they could be their relatives."

According to Ponce, only one man, Luis Espinosa, has come forward saying he belonged to a group of climbers who were caught in an avalanche on the peak decades ago. 

It is not yet known if there are others in the group still living, but Espinosa claims that three of his friends were engulfed by the snow during a climb more than five decades ago and never reappeared. The story is not officially verified.

"[Espinosa] said he recognized his friend's jacket from the pictures, the color and everything," Gonzalo said. "There are only two [corpses] visible, but they say there is another one buried there that we haven't seen yet. We won't know until we recover the bodies."

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Photo courtesy of the Municipality of Chalchicomula, Puebla.

The interior secretary released a statement last Thursday, saying the joint rescue effort, involving federal and state authorities, has been postponed indefinitely.

An interdisciplinary team of more than a dozen men was set to climb the mountain, also known by its Nahuatl name Citlaltépetl, to recover the decades-old corpses last weekend, but harsh weather and more snow impeded the ascent.

"The recovery will not take place this week," spokesman Pedro Gonzalo confirmed on Tuesday.

There is no set date as of yet, he said, but the effort will not be rescheduled until the weather improves.

"When it's someone who has already been dead for fifty years, there's no point mobilizing everyone and putting people at risk," Jose Maria Aguayo, president of the Mexican Alpine Club, told VICE News in an interview.

Photo courtesy of the Municipality of Chalchicomula, Puebla.

A group of three mountaineers happened on the first of the corpses during a routine expedition to the top of the peak on February 28.

"At first we thought it was a coconut, which seemed a bit absurd for this place," Israel Mijangos, the first person to photograph the corpses, told VICE News. "As we got closer we realized that it had eyes and teeth and a hand."

'They may just have to stay there.'

"Then we immediately knew what it was," Mijangos said. "You could tell that it was really old, but it didn't smell or anything. It was more like a tree or a branch than a human body."

Mijangos said he managed to take three photographs, before his uncle "had a little slip" about 500 feet down the face of the mountain, and their attention then shifted to his rescue and returning safely to a base — especially, he added, considering the fate of the person they had just seen.

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The following week, on March 5, experienced climbers from an alpine rescue brigade went up to the site, which rests about 16,000 feet up the mountain on a 70-degree incline. After disturbing the snow slightly, they discovered a second body clinging to the first, in a decades-long embrace.

The rescue effort is now in the hands of the federal government, but the state of Puebla has been tasked with identifying the corpses.

"We'll have to be careful to get them out as intact as possible," Gonzalo said. "Once the bodies are identified, if there are relatives, we'll see what they want to do with them. They might decide to bury them."

"If they aren't identified, then that'll be a different story, and we'll see then what we should do," Gonzalo said.

A cold front that blanketed much of Mexico this past weekend with snow and rain has reportedly buried the bodies in more than 15 feet of fresh snowfall, further complicating upcoming recovery efforts.

It is unclear when — or if — the bodies will be successfully recovered.

"If a body is fused to the snow, it would be very difficult to remove," Aguayo said. "You would have to completely break it into pieces. They may just have to stay there."

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Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk.