This blog post is about climbing in El Potrero Chico and how pretty darn amazing it is!
Several weeks ago a few of us at Mesa Rim decided to take a hike from the Front Desk and embarked on a journey to northern Mexico to visit the climbing paradise known as El Potrero Chico. Located just outside the sleepy town of Hidalgo in the Mexican province of Nuevo León, Potrero hosts the largest concentration of long multi-pitch sport routes in North America. While the climbing is certainly incredible the flavor of the whole experience, somewhere between an outdoorsy mexican honeymoon and a throbbing tequila hang-over, made us want to quit our jobs and stay forever.
The best way to get to Potrero if you’re living anywhere other than Texas, is by flying into Monterrey (If you opt for this route, the camping area La Posada has a shuttle that can pick you up at the airport). We’re not really about doing whats best, but we’re definitely about doing what’s cheapest, so we decided to drive. Thats right, four of us and our climbing gear in a Prius with a cracked windshield for 18hrs. Lets just say we rolled down the windows… a lot. After spending a much needed rest day in Austin, we gathered the troops, loaded up a friend’s van and headed south.
Driving south of the border can be tricky but should not deter you from the convenience of taking your own car. Stopping to get your travel visas and car registration can stall your arrival but is worth the slight detour. The website http://potrerochico.org/ has good beta on getting visas and driving down, if that’s the way you choose to go.
Crossing the border can be a jarring experience no matter which direction you’re coming from. Images of cloaked war-ready Federales standing in the back of pick-ups, dirt cheap prices at produce stands and the dogs that roam content but hopeless help to clarify the ever-increasing rift between the two countries. Fortunately our initial nerves faded into comfort the further we drove south, and we all agreed that we’d felt safe throughout the trip as we crossed back into the U.S. on the way home. Having a few spanish-speakers in our mix was no-doubt helpful in our overall comfort, but by no means necessary to travel to the climbing.
The Verdict: Driving down is doable and definitely the most cost effective option for a group (especially if you have Ferris’s Prius). Flying down is more expensive, but would maximize climbing days if you’re on a tighter schedule.
Scientists call North-Eastern Mexico’s climate semi-arid, a designation that means that the average precipitation charts somewhere between a desert and humid environment. The region has characteristically mild winters (highs around 70 F in January) and warm summers (highs around 95 F in August) with only two months of consistent rain, (September and October) each year. Winter tends to be the high season as many bearded Americans make the trek south in hopes of trading their flannel-lined Carharts and brightly colored down-armor for a tank-top, pair of summer guide pants and the all new Birkenstock approach shoes. Basically, the chances of climbing on dry rock with perfect temps are really really high from November to May.
The Verdict: Conditions in Potrero are a bit more finicky than the gym, but not by much in the winter. You can approach most climbs in your Birkenstocks.
Finding a spot for camping and lodging at the Potrero could not be easier. With three campgrounds, dozens of homes for rent, and numerous casitas all within walking distance of the climbing, finding a place to stay will be the least of your concerns. However, it seems that the La Posada campground has become the main gathering point for climbers.
Nestled just outside the small town of Hidalgo, and only a few minutes walk from climbing, La Posada is a climber’s paradise. For about $7 (100 pesos) a night you can snag yourself a pool-side tent spot that opens up to a staggering view of EPC. Only a couple yards away you’ll have access to a large communal kitchen, slackline, warm showers and decent (but over-priced) restaurant. Across the street Homero’s hosts a bonfire and local legend Edgardo pours 3 dollar margaritas (very much Ferris endorsed) and tosses delicious pizza most nights of the week.
During rest days it’s common for climbers to venture away from the cliffs into downtown Hidalgo. Despite it’s small size, Hidalgo hosts two large street markets every week where you can find hundreds of vendors selling everything from fresh produce to knock-off Abercrombie and Fitch shirts (we know you want those). And if the markets don’t catch your interest, there are several restaurants and coffee shops around town to help you waste time while your beaten fingertips recover.
The Verdict: All the cool kids are staying at La Posada. All the dirtbags are staying a hundred yards away at Homero’s while still hanging out at La Posada.
The climbing experience that Potrero offers is truly remarkable. Very few climbing destinations allow you to climb 2,000 feet of rock with nothing more than a handful of quick draws. The combination of massive walls, little gear to carry, and a generous bolt count that characterize the area allows an average party to cover lots of ground in very little time. And to top it all off, the majority of these long climbs have an approach time under 10 minutes.
While long clip-ups are certainly Potrero’s most unique offering, the single pitch cragging is remarkable in its own right. From thin, super technical granite-esque slabs to massively over-hung Sharma-style roofs, the diversity of crag is seemingly endless. The orientation of the canyon and variety of walls means you can climb all day in sun or shade or time it right and get a bit of both.
The weathering process of Potrero’s limestone has created one of the most diverse arrays of holds we’ve ever seen. While most limestone climbing areas seem to take on a distinct style, be it blocks and edges, varying pockets, or somewhere in between, Potrero’s limestone is by far the most diverse and exciting we’ve seen. Its not uncommon to start climbing on rails, make moves through pockets and jugs before finishing with finger-locks and jams in a crack. Feet are often smeared on micro water runnels or pasted onto sharp rubber eating edges if not being stuck into a pocket or crack.
The Verdict: The climbing, it’s good. Like really, really effing good.
After all we experienced during our time in Potrero, it has proved quite challenging to pick an overall highlight from our trip. Between all the steep routes, good friends, cheap avocados, and Pat’s Instagram posts, it was a week we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Nevertheless, as we departed Mexico, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking of the last route we climbed, Time Wave Zero.
Time Wave Zero is a route that is synonymous with El Potrero Chico climbing. Standing 2,300 feet tall, this 23 pitch route packs the full Potrero climbing experience into one long day. We originally had little hope of climbing the route since the weather forecast during the last few days of our trip promised cold rain and high winds. But as the end of our trip neared, a few of us couldn’t stand the thought of leaving Mexico without going for what many local climbers described as the “MUST DO” route. So as the sun set on our final rest day, we set our alarms for an early wake up call in hopes to wake up to some better weather.
As our alarms sound we can hear the rain against the side of our tents. Bummer. It seems as if every sign was telling us to just call it quits and stay in our tents. The wind was howling, the rain was frigid, the ground was saturated, and our tents were slowly collecting water. Despite the terrible conditions, all four of us grabbed our packs and prepared for a cold approach. The morale of the group was pretty low, but committed. Nobody wanted to be the one who bailed, worried that it would be calling it quits for the rest of the group as well. So after eating a quick breakfast, the four of us set off, pretending not to notice the wall of clouds and fog that had blanketed Potrero.
A few days prior we were told by some of the original route developers that the weather on Time Wave Zero was unlike anything in the other canyons. We were told that even during the worst weather the climb can remain dry due to it’s unique location in Potrero. Unlike a majority of the big wall routes that lie within the wind corridor, Time Wave Zero climbs through a huge headwall far from the canyon pass. With this being perhaps the only hope we had for climbing, we continued to hike through the corridor and up some steep terrain to the base of the massive wall. As we reached the base of the route, we were shocked to find that the rock was dry. It was as if the climate had completely changed from one side of the canyon to the next. But we weren’t sold yet; fog continued to mask the pitches above us and it was too early to tell how the weather would develop into the day. Not sure of what to come, we hope for the best and rope up to climb.
The first several pitches showed us that we were not prepared for such an early start. Our fingers and toes were growing numb and our pace was not set for 23 pitches. This was disconcerting to say the least since we were on the easiest pitches of the route. Skeptical of our mental and physical state, we continued up the wall, wondering if we would see the sun would ever come out. The fog would occasionally break apart just enough for us to make out the valley below.
After several hours, our luck finally came. By the time we reached the anchors atop pitch 8 we were looking down at a fog filled valley and a promising summit above. Within 15 minutes, the atmosphere of the climb went from a cold Canadian alpine start to a mile high tanning salon. We stashed our jackets, thawed out our toes, and finally started to climb. The position on the route improved with each pitch as the exposure behind us grew. Stitching pitches allowed for each person to climb roughly 400 feet at a time; following for two pitches, stopping briefly at the anchors, and then leading two more. This pace not only allowed us to make the summit before sundown, but rewarded each of us with an unfamiliar rhythm that none of us had experienced before.
Pitch after pitch of excellent bolt-clipping brought us to the summit, where an obligatory 2-hour gawking session ensued. The views made any moment of suffering earlier in the climb worth it. The narrow canyon of El Potrero was the cut off point between the empty skies and the sea of clouds to the north, creating a kind of a cloud dam that you had to see to believe. Day quickly turned into night and we realized that we had 23 rappels to do. Our relaxed mind-set on the summit had to quickly turn into focused and precise gear and rope work in order to get us down safely. We were well aware that many accidents in climbing happen on the way down and two horrible examples of this (one being on this exact route one month prior) were very present in our mind. Needless to say, we rapped like champs and made it down just in time for our friends to ditch their plans of coming up to save us. The rest of the night was filled with friends, burritos, and Carta Blanca.
Blog contributers: Ferris Kilpatrick, Patrick Heddins, and Kemper Brightman
Photography: Andrew Adkins (@andadki)