Hour 21 of my 24 hour drive from North Carolina to El Potrero Chico, Mexico.
It was around midnight when I pulled into the Walmart closest to the border, hoping to get some much needed rest before venturing into Mexico the next morning. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Much to my surprise and confusion, there was a sea of Mexicans, hundreds of them, settling in for the night as they prepared for their pre-Christmas migration back home. There wasn't a a single vacant parking spot in sight., but cars continued to funnel in, all packed to the brim, some with roof loads comically twice the size of the vehicle. I felt like I was at a car meetup, and just as I would feel out of place at a car meetup, I felt out of place there. I drove back to the next closest Walmart, found the parking lot virtually empty, and crashed for the night.
This was my second time crossing the border into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The entire process felt so much smoother this go around. I felt more than safe driving around the border town with Mexican military personnel stationed around every corner, assault rifles at the ready. I got in and out of the visa and car permit office within 30 minutes compared to the 2 hours it took the previous year. But one thing remained the same: Mexicans didn’t give a flying fuck about traffic laws. People blasted through stop signs at 4-way intersections. Nobody seemed to acknowledge oncoming traffic when passing on a 2-lane road. I had to make the first left turn on red of my life as a line of angry Mexicans honked incessantly behind me. 3 hours of defensive driving later, I arrived in El Potrero Chico without any mishaps. I’d been here before, but I was still awe-struck by my first peak at the gigantic limestone walls. At around 5pm I pulled into Lemuria, a hotel right in front of the canyon gate that lets people camp in its front yard for $5 a night. I was ready to settle in for the evening until I checked the weather forecast: rain starting at 8pm and continuing for 2 days. I peered into the canyon. The sun was going down, but I knew I would go crazy if I couldn't climb my first two days here. I stepped outside the campground gate and asked the first person I saw walking down the street if they wanted to climb something, anything. She replied no but tells me that someone at the Mota Wall would probably give me a catch. I figured out where Mota Wall was and hustled my way there with a measly rack of quickdraws, ready to take on the world. I stumbled upon an unassuming group of climbers giving each other back massages and sifted my way through the crowd until I found someone willing to give me a catch. El Grifo, 5.11a onsight.
Pancho Villa Rides Again
Carter Smith arrived the night before. Rain is pretty rare in the Chihuahuan desert, but it turned Carter’s first day into an obligatory rest day.
It stopped raining around 3pm, but surely we needed to wait at least a day for the rock to dry. We started getting a little antsy, so we went for a hike to take a look at some of the climbs on our tick lists. We arrived at Mota Wall, supposedly the fastest drying wall, and looked up. It was dry. Well, “dry.” I suggested we do Pancho Villa Rides Again (5 pitches, 5.10c).
Pancho Villa was the first route I did when I was last in Potrero Chico, spring 2016. I had only been climbing for about 6 months when I went on that trip. We were a party of 3 inexperienced climbers trying to climb this 5 pitch 5.10c in the sun in 90 degree weather. Needless to say, it was a shit show. I led the first pitch, made an anchor, and set up a top belay for the first time. Jenkins Paisley, the more experienced climber of our party, came up and asked me what took so long for them to be put on belay. “Sorry... that was my first time setting up a top belay, so I checked it like 20 times before I told you you were on belay.” He replied, “That is both the best and worst thing I have ever heard.” Later that climb, as we were taking a water break, my nose decided to start bleeding, and of course it bled right into our group Platypus. Jenkins hurriedly tried to pour my blood out, but in doing so, accidentally poured all of our water out too. So now we were slow and dehydrated. We eventually summited and returned to the ground safely. But that 5 pitch climb took us all day, and we were thoroughly wrecked by the end of it.
I suggested Pancho Villa to Carter not because it was a phenomenal climb (which it is) but because I had something to prove to myself. I wanted to see how far I've come as a climber since a year and a half ago.
We started up around 5pm. Sunset was at 6pm, so we already had our headlamps on, ready to climb into the night. Carter and I started climbing together earlier this year. We’re used to moving pretty fast on multipitch trad terrain, but we had no idea just how much faster we would be on multipitch sport routes. We blasted through all 5 pitches in a little over an hour and were back on the ground by 7pm, not at all tired. We hiked out and got stopped by some climbers at Edgardo’s food truck on our way back to camp. “Come have some margaritas with us! It’s on us.” We stopped to indulge and discuss the possibilities for the week. Edgardo brought us our margaritas: “1 is buzzed, 2 is drunk, 3 is blackout.”
Our speed ascent of Pancho Villa set the tone for the rest of the trip. Our aim for every route from then on was to climb as quickly as possible without compromising safety. Our objective for the day was Space Boyz, an 11 pitch 5.10d. It was still dark when we arrived at the base of the climb. We pointed our headlamps at the first few pitches. Still soaking wet from the past couple days of rain. “It’s probably dry up higher,” we said to ourselves as we started up the never ending slip n slide. We arrived at pitch 6, the crux pitch, to find the crux section soaking wet. “Well, we’re already here. It’s probably dry after this section,” I muttered to myself as I led the slimy, delicate slab traverse. Despite the suboptimal conditions, we managed to top out and return to the ground well before noon. We grabbed some sopes de chicharrón from town, took a little siesta, and hammered out 4 more moderate pitches before a blinding mist rolled in that evening.
The forecast for the week looked spectacular. It was time to get to work on our bigger objectives. We started with Yankee Clipper, a 15 pitch 5.12a with the crux pitch at the very top. We wanted to send. Neither of us had ever climbed at that level so high off the deck, so this route was a bit of a litmus test for us.
With a longer climb and relatively moderate terrain up to the crux pitch 15, we decided to implement a more advanced speed climbing technique: simul-climbing with a micro traxion. For those not familiar with micro traxions, they can take a lot of the risk out of simul climbing. The leader attaches the micro traxion to a bomber piece of gear so that if the follower were to fall, the micro traxion would arrest that fall, and the leader would not be yanked off the wall as well. By placing a micro traxion every 2 pitches, we were able to link 4 pitches at a time before having to build a belay. For a 15 pitch route, this saved a lot of time.
*Make sure you know how to properly set up a micro traxion and the limitations of this device before you decide to use this technique.
We raced up the first 14 pitches in 3 hours, leaving us with plenty of time and energy for the crux pitch. We didn’t bring any water up, so it was time to perform and to perform quickly at that. We approached the pitch like a single pitch sport climb, working through the moves and lowering back to the belay for a send go. We each redpointed the pitch on our second goes. It was a rather strange process for the both of us, essentially cragging 1400 feet off the deck. Carter commented on how it was almost easier to fully commit with all of that exposure beneath you because the experience itself just felt so unreal. I agreed completely.
Timewave Zero. It was the route I came down here for last year. 2300 feet of bolt clippin’ goodness to the summit of El Toro. Despite it being completely bolted, I was naïve to think that I was ready for it back then. I had only been climbing for 6 months, and I only had 3 multipitch climbs under my belt, 2 of which were from earlier that week. On top of that, we were a slow party of 3. It was clearly a recipe for disaster, but I didn’t recognize that at the time. Take a look at my previous blog post for details of that epic. In short, I have never been more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted than I was after that climb. But it was done. I didn’t ever have to do it again.
Fast forward 1.5 years. We arrived at the base of Timewave at 5am. There was another Mexican party already there, about to take off. We chatted a little bit and mentioned that we were simul-climbing. One of them offered to let us go first. The other was a little more hesitant. “Have you done it before? How long did it take you last time?” she asked in Spanish. Carter, still coming out of his morning stupor, didn’t seem understand why she was asking that. He replied, “Yeah, Ben’s done it before. He did it in 2 days.” I tried to shut him up and pretended to misunderstand what she was saying, replying, “I think it will take us about 5 hours.” They let us go ahead of them.
It was time to redeem myself. I didn’t want to just get up this thing. I wanted to do it in style. I wanted to send it, and I wanted to get back in time for lunch. We hurriedly racked up and started at 5:15am. The sun would rise in 2 hours. There was a high of 75° today, and the wall is south facing, so we started booking it to avoid sun time. Between us, we brought up 1 70m rope (Mammut Infinity 9.5mm), 36 draws, 1 micro traxion, a couple Clif bars, and 1 L of water*. We fired the first 20 pitches in just 3 hours to arrive at the base of the 5.12a crux pitch. Last year, I had to French free (pull on draws) this pitch because we were just far too worked by this point. That wasn't the case this time. After about an hour of working the pitch, Carter and I both managed to redpoint. Carter proceeded to weave through a gratuitous path of choss to take us to the top. 5 hours. Not too shabby.
*One of my biggest pet peeves in climbing is bringing too much water. Water is important; I get that. But water is heavy. You're going to move slower. Then you're going need more of it. It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The key to becoming a better climber is knowing exactly what you are capable of and knowing exactly how much your body needs to meet that goal. No more, no less. We only carried 1 L of water because we were going to be redpointing the crux pitch in the sun. Otherwise, .5 L would have been plenty.
El Sendero Luminoso
The moment you drive into Hidalgo, your eyes are directed to the striking gendarme front and center of El Toro. El Sendero Luminoso. “The Shining Path.” This was the route I came down for. It’s 15 pitches of wild, sustained climbing up to 5.12+. Carter and I weren’t sure what to expect. Carter had plenty of 5.12s and V10 boulder problems under his belt, so I knew he could, at the very least, pull every move of the route. I, on the other hand, had never climbed anything harder than a soft 5.12a before this trip, and I hadn’t climbed sport in over a year… But hey, what was the harm in trying? Carter and I had already accomplished a lot that week, but you don’t learn from success. You learn from failure. And we were ready to do some f[l]ailing.
Our plan was to make a one day ascent of the route by freeing every move but not necessarily sending. Swap leads, follower carries a light pack. The approach was supposed to be 25 minutes, but we took the wrong set of cairns and ended up bushwacking through cacti and scree surfing in the dark for 2 hours. We should have bought the guide book… So much for an early start.
I took the first lead. 5.12b, techy slab with a dash of crack climbing. I had never climbed 5.12b before, so I was expecting to do a lot of hangdogging. It was a long pitch, and I was pulling on some of the tiniest crimps of my life, but… I never fell. I was stoked out of my gourd, so stoked I barely even noticed how painful the hanging belay was... or the next one… or the next one… We made it to the top of pitch 5 before Carter confessed that he was feeling a bit sick. We bailed.
Even though we didn’t summit, I felt like I learned more from this attempt than from any other route we did that week. In particular, I was reminded that climbing just wasn't fun unless all members of the party were having fun. And climbing in Potrero Chico was about having fun.
El Sendero Luminoso, Part II
Carter left on Christmas Eve. With Carter gone, I looked to Facebook to find another partner equally psyched on Sendero Luminoso. I linked up with a Peter Schwamberger. Austrian, easygoing, strong, and stoked, Peter and I were on the same page about getting up the route without regards to sending. We arrived to find two parties ahead of us, a change of pace from the solitude that Carter and I experienced just a few days ago. It's kind of nice, having competent parties ahead of you on a tough climb. There's a bit more waiting around, but it's really encouraging to see other parties go through the same struggles that you're about to go through and push through them. It makes an intimidating climb feel much more approachable.
It was around 9am by the time we got started. Because we were at the back of this climber train, we didn’t really feel any pressure to go fast. The first 5 pitches to a bivy ledge comprised the majority of the route's hard climbing. We opted to have the follower climb with a pack, which was fine for Peter, but I was struggle busing to climb multiple 5.12s with a pack. I was drenched in sweat and panting uncontrollably by the time I reached the bivy ledge. Peter still looked fresh, so I tried to compose myself. I munched on 1 of 2 mint chocolate Clif bars, drank some water, and put on my big boy pants to start the push to the summit.
We ditched a rope and most of the pack weight at the ledge. Most of the hard climbing was past us, but there was still a lot of ground to cover until the summit, including another 5.12d crux pitch. All parties continued moving at the same pace, feeding off the line leaders’ steady progress. At the top of pitch 10, we ditched the pack completely to make our final summit push. There were only 5 pitches left, but it certainly wasn't over: 5.12, 5.12d, 5.11, 5.10, 5.7. We were getting pretty worked by this point, but the summit was within reach, so psych was pretty high. Pitch 12, the second 5.12d crux pitch, was my lead. I had low expectations after witnessing some struggle above us. As soon as I started, though, I was in the zone. I was feeding off the communal cumbre psych, the revitalizing exposure, the transcendental experience of climbing something so aesthetic, so improbable. I climbed at a steady rhythm, making sure not to lose my momentum through the delicate slab start. As I transitioned to the roof crux, I let out an uncharacteristic grunt, trying my damnedest to stay on the wall. Just as I made it past the crux, a foothold broke on me, but there was no way in hell I was letting go at that point. I fought the pump for a few more moves, made an uncertain dyno to a loose flake, and clipped the chains. Ya está. 5.12d! My hardest climb to date, a flash 12 pitches off the deck. I carried that psych with me to the cumbre and down. I was thrilled to discover what I was capable of. On our hike out, Peter asked me, “So, are you still wanting to come back and redpoint it?” I was pretty destroyed at that point, so I told him probably not. We'll see...
“There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.” – Kurt Hahn
El Potrero Chico Beta
- Check out http://potrerochico.org/ for your logistical inquiries.
- Always wear a helmet. There seems to be rockfall every time you blink.
- Always saddle bag. There's almost always a crack, tree, bush, cactus, or yucca plant to get your rope stuck in.
- Don't plan to climb any classics if you're going between Christmas and New Years.
- Look out for sketchy climbers. There's plenty of them. All the climbs are bolted, which leads inexperienced climbers to think they are ready to take on much longer routes than they are used to. I saw someone belaying from a Grigri with no hands on the brake, someone setting up an ATC in guide mode with the rope backwards, and someone with like 4 different personal tethers. I'm not necessarily disparaging inexperienced climbers. I was guilty of being inexperienced my first trip here. We all start somewhere, and Potrero Chico is a fantastic learning ground. That said, with so many inexperienced climbers packed together in one place, it makes for a very dangerous climbing environment:
- There is more rockfall because people don't know how to saddle bag.
- There is a lot of bottle necking on popular routes because one party is moving super slowly.
- People don't know how to make their anchors simple. I saw way too many anchor setups that were ridiculously over complicated, which is dangerous when there are often multiple parties at one belay station.
- Eat some sopes and grab some coffee at El Búho (all proceeds go back to the Hidalgo community).