Some of my best climbing experiences have been on the limestone walls of El Potrero Chico in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. I have been there six times and each time was a memorable experience. This is about one trip in particular that took place in January of 1999. I wrote about it in my journal at the time.
Jerel and I left on Friday Jan 1st 1999 for Mexico. We slept in Laredo, TX and had no trouble the next day getting across the border. Yesterday when we arrived here in El Potrero Chico we did the Spire route [Aguja Celo Rey, 5.10] and Pangea [5.11+]. Today we woke up late and didn’t have any real plans as to what to climb but as we entered the canyon we saw that no one was on “Black Cat Bone” 5.10d, 9 pitches, so we got on it. We both flashed all the pitches. I did 3 of the 4 ,5.10 pitches including the 5.10d roof pitch. It was fun but was VERY cold. We debated about coming down after the 7th pitch but decided that we’d go on. The wind was blowing and the sky was overcast, it was not your typical day in Mexico. At the belay of the 8th pitch I thought about warm places that I would rather be.
We made the summit and signed our names in the summit register. Then headed down quickly. We didn’t have any real rope problems – everything went smoothly.
When I got back to camp I took a steaming hot shower.
A New Line.
Among the other climbs we did we decided we’d break from the norm of climbing well-established, well-bolted, relatively safe routes and try our hand at putting up our own.
Yesterday we spent the day looking for a new line to bolt. It was quite a day. I aided up this steep bolted climb to the top of a fin but when I climbed past the anchors to the top the rock was very loose. I was scared to death and I scrambled for anything that I could grab just so I wouldn’t fall off the side. I kicked a few large blocks off and quickly decided that I needed to go down. I made it safely back to the anchors and lowered down. The rest of the day was spent eyeing various lines but never finding anything that we really liked. The sun came out later in the afternoon.
After surveying possible places to establish a new line we settled on a lesser-known feature unaffectionately named El Bobo (aka The Dunce). Named for its dunce-hat-shaped stature, it sat near the mouth of the canyon-proper and should hardly warrant a second glance by most climbers on their way to real objectives. But The Dunce, albeit short by measure to surrounding walls which towered over it, would still present a challenge in its own right. For, the quality of the rock was much less solid, much more broken, and the cacti unmolested by human touch until now.
I would be the leader and Jerel the belayer – in retrospect, his was perhaps the more dangerous of the two roles.
I racked up with what I thought might serve well; pitons, angles, nuts, cams, and of course, the Hilti hammer-drill in tow along with assorted hardware.
With no more than a general direction of “up,” I began promptly, balancing my way up an ever-steepening assortment of loose chunks making up the slab, inspecting as I went. The climbing, by all accounts, might have been relatively easy – technically speaking – but on-sight leading, establishing a new route ground-up is never a light task or a simple romp.
Fueled with exhilaration and the prospect of contributing to the burgeoning catalog of routes within the Potrero, I found a stance and hammered a rickety medium angle into an obtuse limestone pocket. Then realized, this was a first. I’d never done this before. Would this piton hold? Seems wobbly. Who knows. Just don’t fall.
I tugged the hammer-drill around, drilled the first hole, and wrenched in the first bolt. Now we were getting somewhere! This route would be a classic for sure.
Looking up, I realized – I didn’t really have a plan. I hadn’t considered the path, where to go or what the end product of this route was going to be. Not exactly the way you want to set off into the unknown – and certainly not the way you want to put up a new line. I’d figure it out, just had to keep moving.
Making my way further along, a cam here, a stopper there, some scrubbing of dirt and cacti. Jerel continued to pay out the rope. This was grungy work and scary at that. Here, I entered the all-consuming no-fall zone.
Along the way I probably should have placed another bolt but instead elected for a healthy Potrero runout. “Make ’em climb a little bit,” was the thought. Save the hardware, the climbing is easy. Right.
Making my way to a large chunky feature – a true piece of the mountain, if you will. This wasn’t a mere handhold, no, this was a huge section of rock – maybe four feet tall. My recollection is, and maybe it’s skewed, is that I didn’t intend to pull it from the wall – it just kind of happened. Because, you know, sometimes in climbing, things just happen. Not all rocks are solid. Not all mountains are solid.
Clearly, I was the dunce.
When a rock of such mass releases from the wall, there’s a certain level of, shall we say, discomfort, that immediately follows. For some, it’s a sinking stomach feeling. For others, maybe more of a wetting-the-pants feeling, or worst of all a flash of death. Whatever the case, it’s not a good feeling.
Thankfully, Jerel – now the matador – was off to the side – out of the way prepared to dodge the onslaught. The collection of stone ricocheted off the wall and bounded, bounced, tumbled, and thrashed down the steep hillside and directly towards the community pool area, thankfully void of people and closed for the season. A section of rock pummeled the concrete boundary wall and one piece shot through the sheet metal roof of a pavilion (so that’s what all those holes are from).
The smell of ozone, a by-product of rock-on-rock collision wafted up. What remained in place of the recently excavated piece was remanent dirt and scrubby cacti spines. I cautiously brushed the area and charted the remainder of the route.
I don’t have a recollection of how much further I climbed but at some point, maybe it was fear, maybe it was lack of time, maybe I’d run out of viable options for gear – but I decided “here” was a good stopping point, and lowered. Looking back, I hope I put two anchor bolts in – and feel like I probably did – but don’t recall for certain. So if anyone is ever there and wants to explore the line – maybe push it a little further up the wall, or possibly to the top of the dunce hat – let me know what it looks like up there. No guarantees you won’t find a few more bits of loose rock. Just be careful.
Today is Friday and we are leaving tomorrow. We climbed several routes today including a 11d, the Shroud 5.12, and the beginning of Space Boys.
The day before we put up a new route on El Bobo called El Matador…
As memorable as the climbing, it’s really everything else that goes along with visiting El Potrero that makes the trip. The graciousness and hospitality of the people, the food, the culture, even the language barrier, make Mexico a special place.
In those first few trips we always camped at Homero’s place. Homero was always welcoming and he remembered me each time I came back. Back then, it wasn’t the best camping – a concrete pad under a pavilion – but it wasn’t terrible and truly it was everything else that made it the place to be.
Jerel recalled that before going to Mexico he wasn’t really a fan of guacamole but after visiting the market and eating fresh avocados it became a favorite and something he remembers about the trip.
For a rest-day activity, visiting Monterrey was a fun excursion and a good escape from climbing for a day.
If you are interested in visiting El Potrero Chico there’s good information on Mountain Project.