It all began with a new job. My partner Senja took on a new role at the Mountain Equipment Co-op head office, a position that unfortunately granted her time off only in the dead of winter. There would be no more autumn road trips to the Red River Gorge or Indian Creek. The only places it would be warm enough to climb were in the gutter-south USA, where the Saguaros grow huge, the roadside diners serve steak and eggs to stoned rockers and Confederate flag flap on the mud-flaps of pickups. This wasn’t such a bad thing, really, as we’d always wondered about driving to Mexico. After all, once you get as far as Joshua Tree, Cochise or Suicide, why not hop the border? Apparently the burritos are way better.
We found plenty of articles about El Potrero Chico, with its soaring limestone walls and legendary mechanical-bull sessions at Homero’s Ranch that attract hundreds of drunken Gringos. This was a place we simply had to visit at least once. We wanted to visit other areas, like El Salto, but there wasn’t much information available about them.
Plan ‘A’ was to hit Indian Creek and clean some skeletons out of the closet, then southern California granite and then go to Mexico. A little desert crack action sounded like a good start for late November. But I was less than excited about twisting my troubled ankles into fat cracks, then burrowing into my sleeping bag at 4 p.m., fully clothed, as darkness descended. I wasn’t looking forward to the cold, wet, road life, but Senja remained optimistic.
We stuck to Plan A: Indian Creek first, southern California granite next. We would chase the sun wherever it was warm enough to climb. The following days were desperately cold and short. Then it dumped eight inches of snow overnight. Thankfully, we had run into some old friends, and as usual, the Creek was a home away from home, if not a frozen wonderland. Token Frenchies, Calixe and Alain, inspired me with their mission to ride motorbikes all the way to South America, cragging and surfing along the way. I perked up when Chris Kalous pulled out a guitar at a campfire and we burst into a nice little jam. At least we had great company.
In lieu of our lean budget, we didn’t stay in plush hotel rooms with satellite TVs, room service, and Heineken lining the door of the in-suite fridge. We don’t rent fast cars, and there are no Champagne-fueled rooftop parties. Like many dirt-bags, for me it’s usually a sleeping bag on a bouldering pad for a bed, Rubbermaids lining the interior of the van, doubling as tables for laptop movies or windy-night pasta or rice dinners. Showers are a weekly indulgence and laundry waits until I get home. The only luxury I afford myself is quality American micro-beer. No exceptions.
But this road-trip model doesn’t work well in the middle of winter. After a few days battling conditions, we fled the Creek for warmer temps in St. George, then Red Rocks, then Flagstaff, then Cochise Stronghold, following the promise of decent weather, but landing nothing but cold, wet and occasionally snow.
Our friends Jeremy and Mandoline from Squamish were planning a two-week Christmas vacation to the Potrero. The timing could not have been better. We planned to meet them and crash at the casita they’d rented at El Rancho Gordo, a comfy climbers campground ten minutes from the cliffs.
Freshly stoked, we hatched Plan ‘B': Mexico or bust. We began our direct journey across New Mexico and Texas to Laredo, the asshole of America, the gateway to Nuevo Leon, and finally El Potrero Chico.
Skirting San Antonio late in the evening was simple, but nerves began to sizzle as we realized we would be crossing the Mexican border first thing in the morning. Were we ready? I’d been practicing my Spanglish as we sped along, but nothing could prepare me for Nuevo Laredo. Rural farms zipped past as the morning mist loomed, then we passed the last Wal-Mart and Kentucky Fried Chicken before officially arriving at Laredo, Texas.
The USA/Mexico border is likely the only place in the world where the first- and third-worlds collide so abruptly. The minute you cross the Rio Grande, there is culture shock and chaos. Enthusiastic locals bum-rushed tourist vehicles, roads and buildings became dilapidated, garbage was everywhere, pollution was rampant and scruffy dogs scrounged for scraps amongst merchants, beggars and vagabonds.
Our first stop was the Department of Motor Vehicles, where we had to pick up a vehicle driver’s permit. From here, we were ushered through a series of totally confusing lineups, eventually piping us into Mexico.
We bombed along the Mexican interstate for about two hours before we arrived at Hidalgo, the teeny hamlet that ushers you towards El Potrero Chico, officially a Mexican National Recreation Area. No one paid attention to the speed limit. Cars went way above and way below the limit, and we drove on the shoulder to allow passage, taking care not to hit any massive potholes or other bits of debris.
Once in Hidalgo, we found the route to El Potrero Chico pretty obvious, making a series of lefts and rights through quaint residential streets, eventually passing a large cement plant. The final stretch into the park took us past numerous oversized speed bumps and Depositos selling cheap beer, tequila, and snacks.
We quickly spotted the enormous canyon walls of El Potrero Chico silhouetted against the late afternoon sunset and dominating the entire skyline. We grabbed some Tecate beers and took a short drive through the paved canyon road to check out the crags. Barely ten minutes later, we arrived at the far end of the canyon and pulled over beneath the impressive Outrage Wall, one of the largest and most beautiful walls in the Potrero. At well over 250 m tall, it hosts many brilliant tufa-laced classics such as Devil’s Cabana Boy 5.12d, Mothership Connection 5.13a and Celestial Omnibus 5.12a.
Then I heard someone call my name. It was Mandoline. She and Jeremy arrived the day before and were just getting acquainted with the local limestone. I was amazed how short the canyon was. It only took about ten minutes to drive through it. The walls were enormous – 2,000 feet to the summits, with countless soaring knife-blade arêtes sporting adventurous multi-pitch routes up wandering daggers of grey limestone.
My dog, Daisy, glad to be free of the confines of the van, charged up the steep hillside to reunite with her human compadres. I was keen to stretch and gladly took a top-rope. The bubbly orange- and coral-coloured rock was beautifully streaked with black and gray watermarks. Palm bushes and cacti peppered the ledges. It felt wonderful to navigate pockets and pinch little tufas.
As the afternoon aged, Jer and Mandoline escorted us back to El Rancho Cerro Gordo, the most distant campground at the end of the long, pebbled road. Our little pink cement casita was basic, but Senja and I were happy to have running water, a sink, showers, evening light, a stove and plenty of room for six people to enjoy a cozy gathering. Within a couple of days, Evan and Jasmin arrived from Squamish, completing our posse. We all spread about the casita like it was a luxurious base camp, and raised a toast of El Jimador. Finally, we had sun, warmth, rock and Tequila.
The Potrero is very well set up for the visiting climber. At least five campgrounds are nestled near the entrance to the park, and all are within a few minutes of each other. Most offer showers, tent sites, basic casitas and some food for dinner. Internet and laundry is available and the atmosphere is one of an international climbing haven. At any of the popular restaurants the air was filled with accents not only from Mexico, but also America, Germany, Sweden, Canada, France, Chile, England, Australia, and many other countries. Clearly, Potrero is one of North America’s premium winter climbing destinations.
We spent the first couple of days conditioning, climbing lots of pitches of moderate rock and getting used to the new stone. I was right off the couch, which felt odd, given that I’d been on a road-trip nearly a month already. It was finally time to bring on a pump.
On the West Side of the canyon, Senja and I warmed up at two little spires that hold a handful of quality climbs. The others were already tearing up the 5.12s. The routes were so good that we lost all interest in the many five-star multi-pitch lines.
Over the next few weeks, we discovered many great walls with plenty of climbs in the 5.11 to 12+ range. Other than the Outrage Wall, we climbed at the Mileski Wall, Mota Wall, Club Mex, Fin de Semana, Virgin Canyon, and one particular cliff that grabbed our attention, the unique Surf Bowl. The Surf Bowl is one of the few cliffs without a 500 m route above it. Remember that being surrounded by giant walls can make you vulnerable to rockfall, even on short routes. Loose rock abounds in the Potrero and most days we witnessed naturally and human-triggered rock-fall that was potentially fatal.
The relatively small Surf Bowl only has about five routes, but they are all excellent, climbing overhanging rock that was flawless and full of tufas. We were hooked. The signature climb, Surfarosa 5.13a, became an obsession that we relentlessly threw ourselves at, day after day. I secretly enjoyed the strenuous march up the steep, twisty trail full of dust, loose debris, spiders and sharp pokey vegetation.
Soon we fell into a slower pace marked by siestas, roadside tamales, evening cocktails and the best chicken burritos one can imagine. Checos restaurant, on the main road into the canyon, was the busiest spot and surely had the best grub in the neighbourhood. Each meal began with endless baskets of warm taco chips, fresh salsa, and usually a giant bottle of El Sol beer. Ten minutes drive away, in Hidalgo, there are numerous other hot spots with local flare which we explored on a rest day.
One Hidalgo anomaly was Luigi’s Pizza, neatly tucked away in the heart of downtown Hidalgo, behind the bank machine in the town square. One can only eat so many enchiladas, so it was intriguing to see a pizza restaurant. Inside, hundreds of pictures hung from the walls, showing Luigi, often at a racecar track, surrounded by luscious Latino ladies in tight Tecate outfits. I even stumbled on a picture in which a couple of Canadians posed with Luigi – Mike Doyle and Steve “Manboy” Townsend. The pizza was excellent.
Armed with fresh groceries and rested arms, we were back in the park the following day with plans to check out a secluded crag with 25 routes known as Culo de Gato. This out-of-the-way cliff is reached by driving north through the town of Mina, then turning off into the desert.
We found a beautiful 5.12b here called Los Cuervos, which ascended a long wall full of sharp little edges and small pockets. Jeremy sent Virasana 5.13a, on his second try. Daisy emerged from the cacti with a badly swollen face. We were deeply concerned, wondering whether it had been wasps, a spiders or a scorpion, but the swelling slowly went down. It was a reminder that poisonous critters lurk in the bushes.
As Christmas approached, the population of the Potrero exploded. Thus far, it had been an abnormally slow year and we seldom lined up, even at popular crags. But suddenly, the Potrero was packed. Strangely, we treated this influx as a sort of invasion. After all, we had had the crags to ourselves for the most part, and now we were looking for a reprieve.
Eventually, the time arrived for Mandoline and Jeremy to head home, leaving Senja and I looking for a change of scenery. We’d heard about El Salto, and were psyched for a side trip. The rumours of steep cave climbing and a massive wall full of tufas were all we needed to hear. El Salto is about four hours south of El Potrero Chico. Navigating construction detours in Monterrey proved a small epic, but we bumbled our way through the city with the help of our Colombian friend Wolfgang’s fluent Spanish. Continuing south to El Salto, we stopped only at Wal-Mart before reaching El Cercado, our turn-off point. I was given a Tabasco T-shirt for purchasing two large bottles of the spicy sauce. Gotta love souvenirs.
From El Cercado, the road twists and turns up an insanely steep mountainside, arriving at a tiny village far above Monterrey. Memorials to motorists who perished on the road line every switchback and we dodged potholes and speed bumps as we snaked our way uphill, wondering if the van had the power to pull it off. As the road finally flattened out we rolled into the truly third-world town of Cienega.
Just beyond, a gravel road leads you into the canyon of El Salto. We pulled off the jeep track to camp about a ten-minute walk from the incredible Las Animas Wall. This cliff rivals any major limestone crag in Europe, and features over 30 long pitches from 11+ to 13+. Farther down the canyon lies the even steeper, yet shorter, Tecalote Cave, similar to the Tonsai Roof in Thailand. Standout climbs here are Limestoner (12b), and the amazing Nosferatu (12c), a gymnastic journey up a series of filing cabinet-sized tufas.
El Salto is simply huge, with untapped potential for adventure big-wall climbing. The canyon goes on for over 30 km and looks like a limestone Yosemite. The challenge is accessing the walls. To explore the walls would take four-wheel drive vehicle and a week’s worth of water and supplies.
In El Salto, we enjoyed the camaraderie of a tight-knit group of Mexicans with a few Gringos thrown into the mix. The camping was remote, with fewer comforts than the Potrero, the altitude is much higher and the temperatures cooler. We huddled over our camp stoves to cook, then dove straight into sleeping bags for much needed rest and warmth. In the mornings, we casually strolled down to the Las Animas Wall where some folks were camped, and climbed a few pitches until the afternoon sun hit the cliff and it was too hot to climb.
A major problem with this location was the overwhelming number of ticks, which were less of a problem for us humans than they were for Daisy. I would painstakingly extract about fifteen bloodsuckers from her each evening before dinner. Eventually, we took her to a Vet in Santiago for a haircut, during which the doctor removed twelve more.
After nearly a week in El Salto, we were practically alone. A couple of days of rain forced most folks to escape. But we had left draws on a project at the Las Animas Wall, and hoped to send it before the rain set in for good. We awoke the next morning to drizzle, but there was a 5 m dry patch between the wall and the rain. I decided to warm up and give it one last try and sent it. Now we could leave El Salto with a sense of completion.
Back in the Potrero, things were different. We no longer felt the desire to climb. We sampled the nearby hot springs and toured the ruins of La Hacienda del Muerte. We roamed the streets of Monterrey and felt at home in Hidalgo. But somehow it felt like our time was up, and we began to pack up our belongings.
We wished our friends well, and began the long drive back to Canada. Still with a few days to kill, we chose a scenic route rather than the interstate. Heading straight for Los Angeles and the beach, we drove the entire California Coast, twisting and bobbing our way along Highway One. Massive waves crashed relentlessly into the rugged shoreline, and storms brought flawless sets in for the many surfers who flocked the beaches.
It felt wonderful to see and smell the ocean once again and I felt like I’d been away for a year. I didn’t mind the rain now and thoughts drifted to snow and the slopes we’d be skiing in a few days back home. As we slowly drove along one of the most beautiful highways in the world, I was suddenly struck by a burning desire for chicken burritos.
Rich is a photographer and journalist based in Vancouver.