I’m sitting perched atop a rocky ridge 1,200 feet above the surrounding Mexican desert. It’s hot, and I’ve gulped down 3 liters of water and applied countless layers of greasy sunscreen while climbing the 13 pitches of vertical rock below me. Time for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My partner is occupied with investigating the summit register, an army-green metal box, slightly rusty but holding up quite well thanks to the dry desert climate. Inside: one G.I. Joe action figure, one small notebook with golf pencil, rolling papers with filter tips, and one hand-written, faded love letter in Spanish. We dutifully record our names and the date, and donate 50 pesos to the summit cache – about 3 US dollars.
From up here there’s a stellar view of the cliffs directly across the canyon. If you look closely, you can make out dark streaks meandering vertically up these sheer rock walls: the hand and footprints of countless climbers following classic routes up the cliffs. Cacti and succulents have cleared a route for travelers as well, with bare rock illuminating the path to the summit.
We reorganize our gear and start the descent – a series of 5 rappels which will take us about 2 hours. Sounds bounce around the canyon in unpredictable ways, and the descent is mingled with cries of “on belay” from climbers out of sight, rustlings from cliff-dwelling birds, and loud strains of mariachi music drifting up from the locals tailgating down below.
Welcome to El Potrero Chico, one of the greatest sport climbing destinations in the world.
I had been wanting to climb in El Potrero Chico for over a year, ever since some stranger on an online climbing forum informed me that the cliffs were 2,000 feet tall and could be climbed in a day. Unreal.
Climbers travel from all over the world to visit these sharp limestone cliffs in northern Mexico. Dan, Steve, Vanessa, and I started planning our trip as soon as the cold winter took hold of New England and snatched away our sunny weekend days of adventure. Time to head south. A little light research revealed countless classic routes, sure to demand creative movement and reward us with outstanding views atop unique rock formations.
One route couldn’t help standing out: a climb called Time Wave Zero, the longest and tallest in the park by far. The climb rises 2,300 feet out of the valley, spans 23 pitches, and is assigned the stout difficulty rating of 5.12a. Not a small undertaking.
When climbing, distances are often described by the number of pitches. One climber, the leader, ascends the cliff, clipping her rope into steel bolts set permanently in the rock. She climbs until a full rope distance extends between her and her belayer, or until she reaches a natural resting point close to that distance. The leader stops here and anchors herself to the rock. The second climber – or follower – climbs up to join the leader: one pitch. The pair continue to inchworm their way up the mountain for as many pitches, or rope lengths, as it requires. On established routes, each pitch is given a difficulty rating between 5.0 and 5.15, and the climb as a whole is rated by the hardest pitch required to finish it. The climbing is always more difficult for the leader, since the first climber has the added task of securing the rope to bolts during the ascent.
In the case of Time Wave Zero, the most difficult pitch does not arrive until you have already ascended 1,900 feet. The 21stpitch earns a rating of 5.12a, an “easy” 5.12. The hardest anyone in our group had led was 5.11a, and I had never led harder than 5.10b. Still, the climb had an irresistible pull on me and remained in my mind during the long months of training and preparation. Eventually, the cold January day of our departure arrived.
Day 1: An early-morning Uber to Boston’s Logan Airport through light snow flurries, a couple airplane movies and crosswords, and before we know it we’re happily greeting our Airbnb host, Julio, in sunny Monterrey, Mexico. It is an hour’s drive to the park and the small cabin where we will be staying. As the Mexican countryside flies by, Julio tells us about hidden caves leading to underground rivers nearby, and how you have to jump from the edge of a cliff trusting that there is water below, and about the best place to get tamalesin town. At the property, he introduces us to his partner Carla, who has prepared a spread of wine and sweet bread for us, and his dogs, Franco and Francise, who for now are too young and wild to join the other 19 dogs at his property in Monterrey. We are eager to get a taste of the park, even though it is late in the day, so we quickly gather our gear and set out to explore.
The cliffs rise steeply on both sides of the valley and form jagged peaks enclosing a protected inner sanctum. In the old days, caballeros used the geography of the valley to protect their herds, and so they called it potrero chico, “little corral.” We have no trouble finding a spot to get our hands dirty, and happily spend the remaining hours of daylight climbing short routes on the edge of the park.
Day 2: We wake early the second day and set out for Mota Wall, the same cliff where we had climbed the day before. We had made a plan to climb Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a 5.10c that was 7 pitches long. Dan and Vanessa start up first, with me and Steve following behind using our own rope. Unlike the first day, this time we really cover some vertical distance! The 5.10c pitches are interesting and tricky – Vanessa is the only one of the group that makes it up the entire climb without falling. A satisfying first full day on the rock.
On our way back home, we spot an acrobatic performer who has rigged fabrics between the two rock formations known as Las Agujas, The Spires.The towers create a perfect frame to display her flips and twirls silhouetted against the evening sky.
Some local dogs greet us as we pass, and we pause to give out head rubs. We can’t linger long, though, since Julio and Carla have invited us and a dozen other hungry climbers to dinner! We arrive to find they have been hard at work all afternoon making grilled nopales (cactus), carnitas (pork), guacamole, roasted peppers, and homemade tortillas. The evening is full of laughter, good food, and battle stories. Two climbers are planning to climb Time Wave Zero the next day, and one reveals that his partner wears diapers on long climbs so he doesn’t have to try to relieve himself while hanging from a cliff in his harness. It’s not clear how serious he is about this strategy.
Day 3: In the morning, the dogs we befriended the day before are waiting patiently outside our door. “Let’s go, it’s time to explore!” they seem to be saying.
Today we are headed to La Selva, the Jungle Wall. This cliff gets early morning light, and at 40 degrees today, we can use as much Mexican sun as we can get. Another party has beat us to our climb, a 12-pitch 5.10b called Yankee Clipper, and we aren’t willing to wait around for them to get a head start. Instead, we walk a little way along the cliff and hop on Black Cat Bone, 9 pitches with the hardest at 5.10d. The dogs are eager to be helpful, and jump all over and around our ropes as we try to avoid a massive canine tangle. After many minutes of negotiation, they content themselves with lying on top of the rope in the exact spot where I’d like to stand to belay. I’ll take it.
The climbing is challenging – the boys lead the hard pitches and have to work to decipher some tricky moves on overhung rock. When we reach the summit, again Vanessa is the only one who made it the whole day without falling. She is understated in her success, but we all know she is climbing very well indeed. After enjoying magnificent summit views, we begin our rappel down into the valley, where we can already hear mariachi music beginning.
In the valley, a food truck forms the center of a party, with climbers from all the surrounding cliffs slowly trickling in as they descend from their days on the mountain. Edgardo, the party host, sells cheap margaritas and plays pop music from speakers mounted on his truck. Someone has brought in huge wooden pallets from town and is preparing to set them on fire. We happily settle in near the bonfire with a couple of Edgardo’s homemade pizzas in front of us. As night falls, climbers on the cliffs above us create moving constellations, one tiny pinprick of light for each headlamp.
We are getting ready to head home to bed when we spot our friends from the night before – the ones who were plotting a diapered ascent of Time Wave Zero.
“How was it?!” we all cry eagerly.
Jose grins. “Chris took a massive fall on the second pitch. But pretty much it was smooth sailing. Diapers worked great.” He winks.
“What about the 5.12 pitch?” I ask, totally focused on the one piece we’re not quite sure the boys in our group can do.
“You can aid the 5.12 pitch no problem. If you can do the second pitch you can do the whole thing,” he says. “Seriously.”
Interesting. He’s referring to using climbing gear to “cheat” or “aid” your way up a section of rock that is too difficult otherwise. It’s not a bad strategy when it works, but it’s only possible if the right features and gear are available. We congratulate the pair on the day’s ascent and start the chilly walk home. Our dog friends are nowhere to be seen – probably tucked away somewhere for the evening already, sheltered from the frigid evening breeze.
Day 4: When we wake the next morning, we can see our breath. This house is not made for winter, and it’s a cool 29 degrees in our cement bedroom. Tooth brushing is a nice wake-up call – brain freeze is unavoidable. The limestone will be freezing temperature for most of the morning, and our fingers will lose all their gripping power on the rock. Time for plan B.
After a hot breakfast and some frigid showers, we call Julio to see about a ride to the hot springs. About an hour from the park is a beautiful spa built around natural hot springs, the Termales de la Azufrosa. Julio’s nephew will bring us there – he has the day off and doesn’t mind making a little money to go enjoy the springs with us. He is a paramedic in the park, and as we go, he regales us with stories of crazy rescue missions he has carried out on the cliffs. The time two girls got stuck 4 pitches up a cliff in the dark with a dead headlamp battery. The time his team had to drill new bolts on a steep and technical pathway in order to safely evacuate a climber on a stretcher. On the way back, we stop at the best tamale place in town. A day of stories, food, and a hot soak for our muscles is just what the doctor ordered.
Day 5: Morning comes, and it’s still cold. We crawl stiffly out of our sleeping bags and stumble out on the porch. We try to tell each other it’s a couple degrees warmer than yesterday. (It isn’t.) We take our time over breakfast hoping that the clouds will clear and the sun will warm the cliffs. We build a nice, big fire in the stone oven and play cards.
By mid-morning we are tired of waiting, so we head out in search of an area called the Dihedrals. The approach, or hike, to the Dihedrals is pretty long and steep, so we’re hoping we’ll warm up a bit before the climbing even starts. It also happens to be immediately next to Time Wave Buttress, where we can size up the legendary Time Wave Zero.
The climbing at the Dihedrals turns out to be fantastic, with beautifully smooth rock coming together in fun corners and cracks. After a couple short climbs, it starts to snow. Definitely the coldest conditions any of us New England climbers have ever chosen to climb through, but we’re still enjoying ourselves. The smooth cracks leave nothing to grab onto, and we are forced to wedge knees and fists into dark stone slots to continue moving upward.
The boys decide to climb the first two pitches of Time Wave Zero because, after all, if you can climb the second pitch you can climb the whole thing, right? And there’s a decent chance we’ll be climbing the second pitch in the dark if we get an early enough start to finish the whole climb.
While they get to work on this project, Vanessa and I work our way up a 5.10b immediately to the right. We are watching their progress with sideways glances even as we muscle our way up difficult rock. Dan leads the second pitch. A little grunting, but he makes it without falling once. Dan lowers down and Steve climbs it – a short pause at one point while he figures out where to go – no problem.
“It’s not that bad,” Dan calls to us. “Do you want to practice it while we have the rope up?”
We are working pretty hard on our own climb at the moment. “I’d like to, but I really want to get this one. Don’t wait for us,” I call over.
Dan practices the 5.11a/b pitch one more time for good measure, and they pull the rope down. We finish up as well and everyone is ready to make a big fire and GET WARM.
Day 6: The wintry conditions continue…maybe today it’s 40 degrees? Barely an improvement. Steve decides to sit this frosty day out, so Dan, Vanessa, and I will climb as a party of three. We head back to the Jungle Wall, hoping for a second chance to get on Yankee Clipper. It’s wide open – unsurprisingly, there aren’t very many climbers out.
We have a chilly but very rewarding day, and are even able to use our walkie-talkies to inform Steve that we are in the process of rappelling and would like dinner ready in 1 hour, please. He obliges with a raging fire and a veritable feast of tamales, beans, spicy chicken, and local squash.
Day 7: One week in and the cold snap is finally relenting. We have two more days to climb. It is too late in the day to begin an attempt on Time Wave Zero, but there are some long routes on Mota Wall that we are interested in trying. For the first time, we pair off for the day by gender. The boys want a chance to try something hard together, and Vanessa and I don’t really mind losing the comfortable assurance that they can bail us out if we get into something beyond our abilities. We know we are a strong team.
We are interested in attempting Snott Girlz, which begins with three difficult pitches in a row, then slowly eases up in difficulty for the final four pitches. The first pitch is 5.10d, which is consistent with the grade we have been climbing when following the boys this week, but neither of us has ever led harder than 5.10b. There is another party on the first pitch, and they are not making it look easy, with loud grunts and yells.
We move some distance down the cliff and find a nice 3-pitch 5.10b to warm up on. It takes focus to find the hidden cracks and holds that make this climb possible, but we are dialed in and determined. We enjoy a sandwich while dangling in our harnesses from the summit anchor, and are grateful to be pleasantly warm for the first time in four days.
After rappelling down and hiking back up to Snott Girlz, it is already two o’clock in the afternoon. I agree to try to lead the first pitch, a 5.10c/d. It begins with small holds on a flat face – something to make your forearms burn. About halfway up, the climb forces you to move left to stay on good holds and a big crack opens up above you, big enough to wedge your body into. Inside the feature you can feel around to find comfortingly solid hand holds as you work your body up the crack, until finally you are forced back out onto the face before your next opportunity to secure the rope to a bolt. I climb up and down this feature four or five times, resting between each attempt and trying to convince myself to go for the big move out of the crack. The potential fall looms large in my mind, and I exhaust myself practicing the sequence of moves required but never quite reaching that next bolt, the next protection from falling.
Exhausted, I finally tell Vanessa to lower me back to the ground. I couldn’t finish the first pitch. Since I never reached the anchor, I was forced to leave my expensive climbing gear on the cliff to hold me as I was lowered down. Vanessa is skeptical of her chances of success, but agrees to try to lead the second half of the pitch. Normally she would climb with her backpack on, but instead she puts a couple snack bars and warm layers in my backpack and abandons the weight of her pack.
I can tell she is working hard by watching her climb, but she never once pauses as she progresses all the way up to the anchor. Thanks, Vanessa. We’re back in business. We make it through the following 5.10b, 5.10a/b, and 5.9 pitches. “That’s the best 5.9 I have EVER led,” she informs me by walkie-talkie as I begin to follow her up the fifth pitch. “Lydia, it’s so fun!” From elsewhere in the canyon, Steve’s voice comes over the walkie-talkie. “We just got down to the ground. We’re heading back to the house.” The sun is setting as I work my way over rock bulges and into an almost-cave, leaning forward on my toes to keep my balance with nothing to hold onto. I move to my right out of the cave, and a horizontal crack appears on an otherwise blank rock face. It’s just wide enough for my fingers to slot in, and I work my way hand-over-hand to a flake, the first chance to brace my feet against something solid.
A huge limestone block juts out just to my right, and I can see that I will have to climb up under and over it. A crack leaves just enough room to jam a fist in and pull my body up onto a ledge, where Vanessa is happily belaying and shouting encouragement.
“So fun,” I pant.
“Yeah.” Vanessa sighs, “I realized I forgot to put my headlamp in your bag at the base. Do you think we can climb the next two pitches to the summit before it gets fully dark?”
One headlamp between us potentially leaves the second climber belaying and climbing in the dark. The light is fading fast, and we both pull our extra layers out to ward off the cold. The next pitch looks like easy climbing, but I don’t love the idea of climbing in complete darkness. “We won’t get much of a summit view in the dark anyway. I think we’d better go down,” I say. I know rappelling the fifth pitch will be difficult because of all the horizontal movement required to reach the anchor below us. Vanessa reluctantly agrees. Both of us would like to add this summit to our list of accomplishments, and the hardest part of the climb is behind us. Still, with only one headlamp it would be foolish to go on.
We remain together throughout the descent, using an advanced rappel technique in which we counterbalance one another on the rope, enabling us to descend side by side. With my headlamp as our only guide, I have to alternate watching my own feet to navigate cacti and boulders and glancing over at Vanessa to light her path.
When we are finally reunited with our packs on the ground, the night has gotten cold and we are eager for dinner. Back at the cabin the boys have cobbled together a sad meal of rice, avocado, a couple eggs, and some trail mix, and carefully rationed out portions for each of us. We are coming to the end of our trip, and food supplies are running low. It turns out the boys have had a long day, too. After fighting their way up a difficult route, they got their rope stuck twice while rappelling. They were forced to re-climb sections of the route twice in order to free the rope and continue descending. They are ready to take a break from stressful climbing for a while. They announce to us at dinner that they are planning to play around on some hard single-pitch on their final day – no Time Wave Zero for them.
“We think you girls should do it without us,” Dan proclaims. “The second pitch really wasn’t that bad! I think you both want it more than us.”
Oh boy. In all of our dreaming about this route, we had always assumed the boys would be there to take care of the 5.11a/b lead. We were nervous enough just thinking about following it!
“Why don’t you guys wake up at 4am, climb the first two pitches with us, then we’ll finish the rest?” I propose half-seriously.
“No.” Steve definitively answers.
“Let’s do it, Lydia.” Vanessa interjects. “We can do it.”
“What if we get a rope stuck when we are 15 pitches up and can’t climb up to retrieve it?”
Steve responds seriously. “If you get in any kind of trouble, we’ll have our walkies. We’ll climb up and get you if we have to. But you guys will crush it.”
I sigh. “I guess we have to try,” I say to Vanessa. “I can try to lead the second pitch. We should probably try to get to the start of the second pitch at first light.”
“I can lead the first pitch in the dark.” Vanessa responds.
Dan and Steve are thrilled. “You girls should get a whole fried egg each,” Dan says, transferring his half-egg ration to my plate.
“And bedtime is 10pm sharp,” Steve adds. “Finish your food and organize your gear. We’ll clean up.”
I have a feeling they are just trying to make it harder for us to back out, but I’ll take it.
Day 8: I wake to Vanessa’s whispered voice calling my name. It’s 3:45 in the morning. We brew coffee and split the last banana in our bowls of cereal. Part way through breakfast we realize that through some miscalculation we woke too early and it will be too dark to climb the hard second pitch. We crawl back into our warm beds, shoes still on, and immediately sink back into slumber. After 45 minutes of blissful sleep, we put on our harnesses and backpacks, and hit the road. The approach is long and the path is confusing and periodically blocked by enormous cacti that force us to find a way around. It is hovering right above freezing, but with the steepness of the approach, we are down to tank tops and sweating by the time we reach the base of the cliff
As promised, Vanessa leads the first 5.8 pitch in the dark, and I follow her up as the sky lightens around us. The sun peeks out as I reach the top of the first pitch, and we can see that we are already way above the valley with an incredible view. But there’s no time to hang around and enjoy the view – it’s time to get down to work.
The 5.11a/b pitch begins up a dihedral feature, with smooth rock forcing me to push instead of pull my way up, slowly working my feet higher as I progress. The walls begin to get steeper and a series of tiny ledges allow me to work my way over to a section where it looks like a big boulder fell out of the cliff several millennia ago. The wall is slightly overhung, and the sequence of moves required is very specific. I fall three, four, and five times, but each time from a little higher. I am memorizing the exact location of the next hand hold, practicing the best angle at which to hold my hips to put less strain on my tired muscles. On the sixth attempt, I make it to the next bolt. I work my way up to the anchor without falling, and clip in. I can’t believe it. We made it past the hardest pitch. There won’t be another pitch rated above 5.10d for another 1,700 feet.
There’s nothing stopping us from reaching the 21stpitch now except time. The most pitches we have ever completed in a day is 13. We will have to climb 2 pitches every hour for the next 10 hours, and if we want to finish the route, we’ll need to follow that up with leading a 5.12a. Then we’ll have about 10 rappels to get back to the ground. We knock out the next 5 pitches in record time, totally focused on efficiency, and barely slowing down for the 5.10a lead on the fifth pitch.
Crawling over the top of the seventh pitch, we find ourselves in a beautiful garden. A dirt path leads forward through the trees, and we coil our rope, no longer relying on it to hold us for the first time in hours. It is 10am and the desert sun has been beating down on us as we climb totally exposed on the cliff face. We follow the path some distance until we reach a good tree, and relax in its shade. I am still high on enthusiasm and eager to push forward without losing too much time, but Vanessa is exhausted. She knows she needs to shelter herself from the sun and hydrate before continuing the long ascent. We take off our harnesses and use the opportunity to relieve our bladders, satisfied that we did not come equipped with adult diapers despite advice to the contrary. We eat a snack and share some electrolyte tea. We have finished approximately one third of the climb.
Up until now, I have led the more difficult pitches. Vanessa is tired but takes the lead on the next 5.9 with the idea that I will lead the 5.10b that comes after. She cruises up her lead without a problem, but I fall and struggle trying to follow her up. By the time I reach her at the anchor, I am certain I will not be able to lead the next pitch.
“I’m ready to be done.” I say as I clip myself into the anchor. “I’m satisfied with finishing nine pitches.” I am completely exhausted.
“Nooooo!” Vanessa exclaims. “We have to get up to the bivy ledge at the top of pitch 12!”
I laugh. There is supposedly a big ledge at the top of the twelfth pitch – big enough to spend the night on. When we first started planning this trip, we talked about bringing sleeping bags up and camping, or bivying, on it so that we could spread the climb over two days. “But you said you were ready to be done an hour ago!”
“I feel better after the rest. I can lead the 5.10b,” she responds.
Deal. This next pitch looks tricky. We are on a rock pillar now, and the climbing has great exposure, making you feel like you are really hanging by your hands over nothing but empty space. She has to work for it, but Vanessa makes it up without much fuss. I fall once following her, and the pitch feels much harder than the 5.11a/b earlier in the day. There’s no way I could have led it.
We’re now two pitches from the bivy ledge. I’m going to lead both the eleventh and twelfth pitches in one rope length to save time. They are rated 5.9 and 5.7, and they feel really hard. Rather than climb the obvious route straight up the rock face, I find myself making detours to the right and left to seek easier rock, and being punished by sticking my hands in holes filled with cacti and placing my feet on slippery and dirty ledges. The final 20 feet of this lead are so easy I should be walking fully upright like I am strolling down a path, but in fact I am on all fours, dragging my body across the hot rock towards the anchor. I feel a little delirious from the heat, and as I belay Vanessa up behind me, I look longingly at the shady tree growing on the enormous bivy ledge to my left.
We are 1,200 feet above the valley, and there is a nice little dirt clearing with a permanent clothesline rigged up for you to hang your gear if you plan to spend the night here. We have both had plenty of climbing for the day, and I am pretty certain I will not be able to make it up the relatively easy pitches ahead of us. We radio the boys that we are starting our descent, and begin the long hours of rappelling down the way we came.
We didn’t make it up this epic climb, but at least we scouted a good spot to camp for our next trip to Mexico…
Post by Lydia Glenn
When Lydia isn’t leading tours for Great Freedom Adventures, she can be found biking, climbing, hiking, diving or learning even more about the magnificent creatures that inhabit our planet.