A certain Spanish adventurer was under a lot of pressure in the summer of 1519.
He and his men had forfeited their lives by mutinying in order to go seek their fortune in the New World. After arriving there, he had scuttled the boats to thwart an unhappy faction that wanted to turn back; and now enemies surrounded them on every side while up ahead were the Aztecs–skillful fighters who wore elaborate constumes, launched attacks with screeching skull whistles, and would carve the heart out of your living chest or kill you in some other cruel way if they won.
Also, gunpowder–the Spaniards’ only hope of staying alive in the New World, let alone conquering it–was running low.
Despite all this, Hernán Cortés had to pause and describe for posterity something wonderful he had seen:
[E]ight leagues from this city of Churultecal are two very high and very marvellous mountains . . . at the end of August they have so much snow or something else on top that, if not snow, looks like it. And out of the one that is highest comes many times, day and night, a huge column of smoke, like that from a big house, rising from the mountain up into the clouds, as straight as a vein, with so much force as it emerges that, although up in the mountains the wind [is] always very strong, it cannot twist it.
— Hernán Cortés, quoted here, translated by Google Translate and me
While momentary awe is always welcome, Cortés still had urgent practicalities to attend to. Recognizing an active volcano when he saw one, he sent a team under the command of Captain Diego de Ordás up to the summit to collect sulfur for making more gunpowder.
Here is what the crater of that “smoking mountain”–Popocatépetl, in the ancient Nahuatl language–looked like in 2013 when its usually icy and snow-covered slopes were dark with ash after some eruptions.