Chasing the high: El Potrero Chico and El Salto, Mexico

Words and photos by Derek Cheng

Published in The Climber, April 2019.

“Rock! Rock! Rock!”

Six hundred metres up a steep rock face is never a good place for laziness to set in. 

We were on Time Wave Zero (5.12a/24), the classic 23-pitch climb at El Potrero Chico in northern Mexico, and had just spent a calm 30 minutes at the highest point in the canyon. But the prospect of so many rappels and the sting of the sun meant we didn’t linger for long.

My toes were already pummelled from hours of climbing, so I eased them into my shoes and let my heels breathe as I started the third rappel. Predictably, as if to make an example of my laziness, my foot caught a plant and my shoe was jettisoned into the ether.

It was a natural reflex to cry out ‘Rock!’, but I didn’t want to unnecessarily alarm anyone, so I immediately added: “Shoe! Shoe! Shoe!” 

(I had similarly dropped a Birkenstock from the top of an Indian Creek climb while taking photos, and shouted: “Birk! Birk! Birk!”)

Down and down and down it floated, through the thick Mexican heat-haze, falling some 10 pitches without hitting anything before diving into something on the route’s bivvy ledge.

To my utter delight, I managed to salvage it from a cactus plant as we rappelled down, my precious La Sportiva TC Pro—the key footwear for climbing the tiny edges of vertical limestone that are the predominant feature of this magnificent canyon. 

I had arrived a few days earlier in El Potrero Chico, meaning ‘the little coral’, a destination famous for two unrelated yet equally alarming events: the mega-long, mega-hard multi-pitch El Sendero Luminoso (meaning ‘the shining path’) that Alex Honnold free-soloed in 2014, and the 18 people that were murdered and thrown down a nearby well, apparently by drug dearlers, in 2013.

These were not factors in my decision to head there, nor were enticing tales about sky-scraping cliffs, lazy siestas in hammocks by the pool, or colourful markets selling every variation of taco, burrito, quesadilla, fajita, gordita or sopes for little more than pennies. The only thing I desired was warmth, having been subjected to my first taste of ice climbing—and the brutality of belaying in -30C as snow and wind pelts you—in Canada.

Respite from the cold was not immediate. Freezing, snowy conditions followed me like an unshakable depression cloud as I drove some 4000km through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado … it even snowed as I passed through northern Texas. 

When I reached the border town of Laredo—blessed warmth, finally!—there was no sign of the billion-dollar drug highway that has seen street violence apparently become routine. The only item Mexican customs officers seemed mildly interested in were my chalk bags. 

Potrero, a few hours’ drive south from the border, sits at the edge of the town of Hidalgo. Southern Americans developed the area for climbing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alex Catlin, one of the original developers who still lives in Mexico, regaled us with tales of weekend missions from Texas, stumbling into the canyon in the early hours of the morning and bivvying under their projects. But they would be woken in the night by a gaggle of locals partaking in some sort of religious ritual that involved lighting fires just a stone’s throw from their sleeping spot.

The early pioneers’ obsession with the canyon is obvious. It is impressively vast, offering rock walls up to 600m high on dramatic features—one wall is a series of giant vertical fins, stacked on top of each other. Most of the routes involve technical face climbing on rock that varies from the slabby to the vertical. Today, there are over 600 routes of all grades, and new ones are still being put up by those hardy enough to fend off cactus plants while drilling bolts. 

Each wall has unique offerings: the technical moderates of Virgin Canyon; the harder, longer enduro crimp-fests of Club Mex wall; the overhanging tufa-climbing in Surf Bowl and on the black and golden-streaked Outrage Wall. But Potrero is chiefly known for its multi-pitch sport climbs. Where else in the world is there such a high concentration of long routes with the relative comfort of bolts? 

In between burns on single pitch projects, we gleefully ran up easy multi-pitch classics on Mota Wall and La Selva. This approach soon morphed into trying the many excellent, harder multi-pitch climbs, from the four pitches of The Shroud (5.12b/25), which busts through a short roof, to the five pitches of Zapatista (5.12a, 24), which demands a series of punchy, powerful moves.

A cool glass of margarita from the dirtbag trailer at the canyon entrance was a perfect way to soothe stiff, swollen fingers every evening on our way back to Homero’s Ranch, one of many accommodation sites a five-minute stroll away. Homero’s soon became more of a home than simply a place to sleep. The campground full of tents and dirtbag-mobiles has a more rustic feel than its prissier neighbours. The kitchen is simply a bunch of gas stoves in a giant shed with large, open tables. 

After the first few nights, most of us had abandoned making separate meals for ourselves in favour of huge pot-luck dinners that featured the classics—salsa, guacamole, salads involving copious amounts of mango and avocado—and the more experimental, such as beans and banana rice. 

Crowding the dinner table was a typically great band of misfits, many of whom I’d already met at some other crag on the dirtbag circuit. There was Canadian Sam, who calmly went for a three-hour jog after we finished Time Wave Zero. There was Colorado-based Peter, who split his days between climbing and high-lining. There were Aussies Kenny and Charlotte, the accidental climbers who had started their North American trip in Squamish before dirtbaggery consumed all their travel plans.

The canyon was empty but for climbers on weekdays, but every weekend the locals would use every available space of tarmac to showcase the inadequacy of their car stereos. The most popular method was to blare their favourite accordion-filled Norteño songs through a weak system that transformed the beat into a series of distorted punching-bag thuds. There was mutual astonishment; locals would point in wonder at the antics of these crazy climbers, while we would shake our heads in amazement at what passes for local amusement.

Twice a week, climbing became an afterthought as we all headed to the local market in Hidalgo. I could never make it through the gauntlet without stopping for ceviche, tamales, and spicy corn on the cob. The afternoon would conspire to see me end up at ElBuho, the gringo missionary cafe that served excellent affogato and offered the only reliable WiFi. 

No sign of anyone throwing anyone else down a well. 

This was, indeed, the easy life, but the very reason that had drawn me here ended up chasing me away. It became too hot. Afternoons in the sun by the pool turned into whole days in the shade by the pool. Talk about cooler destinations soon materialised into a convoy of cars heading along windy, rural roads to El Salto, an enormous 30km-canyon a few hours’ drive away that’s part of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range. 

Most of the climbing development in El Salto, meaning ‘the leap’ and referring to a local dry waterfall, took place in the last 10 years. While the canyon walls are tall enough to lend themselves to giant multi-pitch routes, most of the established ones are single pitch climbs at four main crags. 

The chief rub—or appeal, depending on your point of view—was that you had to climb at least 5.12 (24 to 27) to really enjoy the place. The gently overhanging, tufa-filled wall called Las Animas, the area’s most popular crag, had a number of classic lines starting with a 5.11c (22) warm up. Other routes had unique challenges; a swarm of thirsty wasps gathered every morning at a moist tufa under the crux section of Unga Bunga (5.12c/26), and we resorted to lashing the tufa with a long sling to drive them away long enough to climb through the crux.

An hour’s hike further up the canyon is Tecolote Cave, featuring the thrill of overhanging 3D climbing including the tunnel-through section of Culo de Merlin (5.10-/18). Harder classics include the all-points-off dyno of La Violencia(5.13a/28), the horizontal roof-climbing of Tecolote (5.13a/28), and the knee-bars and heel hooks that unlock the goodness of Nosferatus (5.12c/26). 

The canyon entrance is at the edge of the tiny village of Cienega de Gonzalez, which, at 1300m above sea level, was mercifully cooler than Potrero, but with the same relaxed, laid-back vibe. We revelled in the familiarity and comfort that quickly emerged in a tiny bubble of 30-odd climbers. Dona Kika’s backyard was similar to Homero’s: rustic, open and homely. Rest days were spent lazing in rivers, hiking to the top of the canyon—and scoping out newly-developed crags—and driving to nearby markets.

But I was haunted by the vision of the proud prow of El Sendero Luminoso. In Potrero, I had gazed up at the striking line every morning and then whimpered at the mere thought of trying it. With 10 pitches of 5.12 (24 to 27, though many pitches could probably be downgraded) up a steep, unrelenting face to the top of the canyon, it seemed way out of my league. 

It took a stronger partner to convince me otherwise. Chino was a local crimp-master who had designs on onsighting the whole thing, and with a smile impossible to deny, we headed back to Potrero for one final mission.

Nerves were difficult to ignore as we approached the cliff well before dawn, but they soon evaporated when the climbing demanded my full attention. The first five pitches are each up to 50m long, with perfect face-climbing on a steep shield of rock. The first pitch, a 5.12b/25 wake-up call, offered a wonderful gift: with the dreaded pump taking hold, a beautiful crack delivered perfect jams to the anchor, so long as you were willing to leave the line of bolts.

The next four pitches on the shield were sustained and thoughtful, with a plethora of crimps, edges, and sharp, shallow pockets. It was immaculate, glorious. So engrossing was the movement that it mattered little when the first crux pitch spat both of us off.

We settled into a rhythm, swapping leads and removing shoes while belaying to preserve our toes. Energy levels inevitably started to slide, and I grabbed a draw on a bolt when pitch six threw me an unplayable curveball. The traverse on the following pitch required calm nerves that took me a few breaths to establish. I lowered my defences and wearily sat on the rope at the overhang on pitch 11, and was surprised to climb as high as I did on the second crux pitch that followed before resorting to French-freeing.

But the halo of climbing goodness remained unscathed. The quality of the rock and movement never faltered until the final scramble up less-than-perfectly stable blocks to the summit. It had been a day of impeccable climbing in a wild, wind-swept position high above the valley. 

It was dark again by the time we returned to Homero’s, and though we had each taken our share of whips, we were utterly elated. Climbing success is often defined in terms of sendage, but El Sendero Luminoso had been a perfect example of how a superlative, memorable experience isn’t always about the send.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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