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El Potrero Chico Day 6: Sayonora!

All in all the trip was amazing. The climbing was committing and smooth on rock larger than anything we had ever been on before. It was humbling and empowering. The running joke throughout the trip was that we would come home, share the stories, and that no one would believe us. Thanks again to Sal for the accommodations, all of the food and beverage recommendations, and really making it a breeze for us to have a good time in Mexico. Another huge shoutout to Ivan as well, without him the cuatro mijos would have probably been eaten by a chupacabra or attempted a route protected only by rusty bolts.

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We flew home. It snowed while we were gone. Gross.

El Potrero Chico Day 5: Climb On

Pretty sure it was Monday since we knew we had to leave on Tuesday, and the weather seemed to be matching our moods. Gloomy. Saltillo was covered with a heavy layer of fog and everything was wet to the touch. We were still up early, caffeinated, and our way to EPC, but there was a somber silence in the car. The closer we got, the more rain there was. I know what you’re thinking, pretty shitty right? Weather kicks us in the ass and sends us home down a day of climbing.

Oh wait! Not only is there pristine multi-pitch climbing, there is also some great bouldering. We hiked/scrambled for about a half hour thru loose rock and landed at the Plutonia bouldering area. You also may start to notice some flair on the cowboy hat. Fear not, if you can’t see it well enough now, it only gets better. 

Ivan showed us Motor (V4) that had a nasty overhung and double pinch start, but there was an indirect version (V2) that were able to have a little more fun with. Full of lefty heel hooks it had some great hands, big moves, and a cool finish. We were able to post up and get some great pictures here, stay outside, and remain dry. Matt even is established his own problem and yelled down to Dane to let him know it was ready to be added to the guidebook.

After some bouldering we put on our exploratory hats and took off down into the cave to see what wonders lie within. This may have been mostly an excuse to use our headlamps, but regardless, it was nice to scope out some areas we wouldn’t have otherwise come across. I didn’t venture in too deep, and my adventurous spirit was killed when Esteban nearly backed into a 15 foot deep crevice. Tim and Esteban enjoyed the chance and getting creative for some long exposure photos, but I crawled out of the cave and let everyone else enjoy it’s wonders.

After tearing up our hands bouldering and getting covered in a dirt/sand conglomerate from the cave we made the scramble back down to the car. It had been raining the entire time we were in the Plutonia area, so we scrapped the idea of attempting anything big before we returned to the states. It was rough saying goodbye to this majestic area, but thoughts of returning kept our spirits up. We thanked Ivan for being such a stellar dude and showing us around EPC, and of course, exchanged Facebook info. The rest of the day flew by as we went to another market, sampled more local snacks and had coffee at a little cafe. We all thought it was great except for Matt. His coffee was weak. Boo hoo. 

El Potrero Chico Day 4: Rest Day

The past two days were pretty intense for climbing, and we had our eyes set on some longer multi-pitch routes for our last day at EPC, so we used this opportunity as a rest day to stay fresh. Instead of getting up around 6, we started rustling around a little before 8. Even before the coffee pot had been drained, Times comes out of the house smiling: “Cervezas?” And so it begins. We started drinking while Matt shared stories from his outdoor adventures including climbing, mountaineering, and kayaking. In the midst of Matt talking about City of Rocks or the Dolomites, this butterfly makes it’s way over and perches near Esteban. Not wanting to stiff a brother, Stebs tilts his drink the butterfly goes in full force taking in as much as his (or her, I’m not a lepidopterologist) little body could handle. Now I know that butterflies don’t typically fly in a straight line, but this one just may have been hovering back and forth a little more than normal. It took about 3-4 hours of Tecate light combined with the souther sun to send us all inside for some nourishment. 

Thanks to the feast the night before we were able to have some delicious leftovers before heading off to Arteaga. Sal hinted at there being cowboy hats and tasty treats, so we were hooked! Before getting to the market tho, there is one thing you should know about the height of the average Mexican in the area (purely observational). They aren’t very tall. Maybe 5’6” on average. When Sal, Stebs, Tim, and I slid out of the car, it’s not terribly noticeable. I mean, we’re definitely the minority. But it’s cool. But when Matt steps out of the car, the little Mexican children fled for the hills. Walking into the market set the tone for the rest our duration there. Matt walks by 2 Mexican women who whisper to each other, but loud enough for Esteban to hear and immediately burst into laugher. After calming down he explained as the women walked by, they looked at Matt with their growing eyes and said: “That’s a HUGE gringo!” 

After doing nearly a full loop of the market, I started to get nervous. I hadn’t seen ANY cowboy hats. A cowboy hat would pull this trip together perfectly, especially if I could use it to hide my blanco face and blend in. Multiple vendors walked up with boxes of puppies, but still no cowboy hats! The search was in full swing now. Sal was asking the locals for any beta on how we might be able to find these precious commodities. And then! Off in the distance… like a fair maiden tempting you to rush that way, we found them! A cozy horseshoe of display with hats galore. There were almost too many hats, this would be an undertaking where I don’t want to slip on a poor foot and fall into the abyss.

So I ease left and slowly extend my hand to this great hat. You could wear it for days. It wasn’t quite the hat I was looking for , so I slid my feet over and bumped up to another hat. Then another, and another. I stopped and reached for my chalk, er, wallet to see what I had available to keep pressing on. Finally, I found it. Made in Mexico. All natural palms. This hat was perfect. Maybe a little plain, but anything could spruce it up. I’m pretty sure everyone knew I fit in now, because way more people were smiling at me. Some even laughed a little, it was wonderful to feel so welcome. The combination of the newfound cowboy hat and the tasty grilled corn on the cob treats has left me hankering for more Arteaga.

Thinking the excitement from the day was complete, we retreated to the SUV and back to Saltillo. This is when Esteban turned around with a surprise for us all: tops! These are “battle tops” of sorts, where everyone spins a top, you encourage them to collide, and the last one standing is the victor. This lead to more than one too many Tecates and a jaw injury (from an overzealous attempt at causing a collision), but still made for a wonderful time. Day 4 was in the books and big things were coming for day 5, so we turned it in for the night. 

El Potrero Chico: Day 3 (part 2)

After hiding the evidence of the discard clamatos, we turned back to EPC and headed up into the Virgin Canyon. This area had a very interesting approach thru what looked like an abandoned resort type area, but it turns out it is just out of commission during the winter season. 

Samwell and Sal joined us with a cooler filled to the brim with the perfect balance of Tecate and Gatorade to keep us going. Have I mentioned yet how rough this trip has been? The hike was a little more than we relayed to them before joining us, as everything prior to this hadn’t been much more than 5 minutes, but they still made it to the wall and enjoyed spectating.  Here we hopped on 2 routes:

  • Gracias Mi Amor 5.7 - This was a great route with a lot of variation in the climbing. The anchors were hidden from the ground, but made for a great standing ledge when you reached the top. After climbing up and bringing his camera along, Tim anchored in and took pictures from the top since they turned out so great when Esteban did it. Tim also may or may not have snuck a Dos Equis into his camera bag… 

  • Chicaboom Nights 5.9 - 90 feet. 5 bolts. I don’t think it needs much explanation to know that this route was runout. Ivan and Matt lead up, while the Esteban and I topped it, a little anxious of the distance between the bolts. None of the moves were that difficult (I say that after topping it) but there were at least 2 moves I know I would have done differently had a I been on lead.

While in the Virgin Canyon, a guy walked by that Ivan immediately hit it off with, like they were old buddies. After failing at La Posada to acquire a guidebook, this guy yells up “Ya’ll still want guidebooks?” In unison, Matt, Esteban, Tim and I yell “YES!” It turns out this guy happens to be Dane Bass, the author of said guidebook. So we met up post climbing with Dane, hung out for a few minutes while he signed our new guidebooks, then we were off. Be sure to ask Tim what Dane wrote in his book that was different from the rest of ours.

On the hour drive back to the house, we began to notice the hunger pains making themselves known. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the 12 hour day of climbing, or the Tecate/Clamatos combo, but whatever it was, we had worked up an appetite. Sal made it known why he was the sultan that night. We ate like kings…. er, sultans. Between the steak, pork, and abundance of fresh guacamole and other toppings that we were cramming into our burritos, it didn’t take long for the food coma to set in. 

El Potrero Chico: Day 3 (part 1)

At this point I officially had no recollection of what day it was, just whether or not we were getting up early to climb. And believe it or not, today we were climbing. Ivan showed up at 6:30 and we took off for EPC in similar fashion as the day before. Today’s mission was to tick a few 100’ sport climbs that were conveniently lined up right next to each other. The co-mission for the day was to try and get some good pictures and make every attempt to do the majestic area some sort of justice for those who could not attend. The routes for the day went as follows:

  • I Believe I Can Fly 5.8 - This route was hermosa (beautiful). As far as slab is concerned, I feel pretty confident in saying this had occasional sections that you could refer to as “juggy slab”. Reminiscent of the red, it felt like we were back in Kentucky cruising up this route. Matt was lowering off the route as the sun was rising which made for an excellent start to both the mission and co-mission.

  • Caguama Queen 5.9 - Esteban lead up this route and there just happened to be two sets of anchors at the top. So he posted up on one set of chains and took pictures as everyone else lead up the route. This was not only an amazing perspective for photos, but it was an awesome climb as well. It had a nasty (sharp) mono, with a wasteland of no feet. Digging into that tiny pocket, smearing my feet, and hoping they stick is something I will never forget. 

  • Emilio’s Posse 5.9 - Very sustained climbing, but it did require some route finding technique. There were 2 (depending on the route you took) out and back traverses that lead up to some juggy pockets that were trying to rival I Believe I Can Fly. On his way down, Matt was all smiles as he talked about the “ladder climbing” just past the crux.

We broke for lunch and decided to go into Hidalgo to Cafe u Son Restaurant for enchiladas and a coke to get refueled for the rest of the day. On the way out of the cafe, Esteban, Matt, and Tim were swayed to a popsicle establishment for a dessert of sorts. I was hankering more for a beer at this point, and Ivan was too, and this is where he introduced us to Clamatos. Ivan has yet to steer us wrong, so what the hell! Let’s go for it. 

So when you walk up to the lovely stand, the guy’s first question throws me off a little. Tecate or vodka? Knowing we’re going back to the wall, I vie for Tecate as I need to be at least slightly coherent.  He pours the Tecate into a liter cup, then it starts to get interesting. The cup is covered in a chile pepper/salt combo, then he proceeds to add lime juice, tomato juice, and then the icing on the cake: dried shrimp. Yum. After what seemed like an eternity of puckered sipping, I managed to have enough to know I was pouring the rest out.

El Potrero Chico: Day 2 (part 2)

After rapping down and celebrating our first multi-pitch climb with some water, we trekked over to the spires.

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This was much more of a hike/scramble than the short approach to Las Chimuelas with plenty of loose gravel and rock sliding every step. At the base, Ivan decided he would join Matt and Esteban, so the 2 of them would go up, get the last person on the 2nd pitch, then Tim and I would head up separately behind them. Matt lead the first pitch, followed by Ivan, then Esteban.

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Matt then began to lead the second pitch when we hear a dis-concerning shout: “I’m out of draws!!!” Everything stops. Matt had lead up, and according to the guidebook, there were 5 bolts and chains on the 2nd pitch. It turns out that was slightly less than accurate. Matt was able to anchor off between 2 bolts and belay Ivan up, who then lead to the peak. Matt followed, then Esteban, and when Esteban took off, Tim and I started up the route. 

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Crack Test Dummies laid the foundation for some of the most physically challenging climbing I have ever done in my life. Although both pitches were rated 5.8, it was a struggle the entire way. The first pitch followed a deep crack with a few face transitions. Not terrible, but we (I know I did) lost a lot of confidence on the 2nd pitch. Thinking about taking the lead on the 2nd pitch still makes my hands pour sweat. Technically speaking, yes, the route was protected. But there are in my mind 0 places that allow for a clean fall. I had little familiarity with hand and foot jams prior to this route, but by the end of it I was shoving my arms, legs, and entire body into any wedge to allow me to scrape my feet higher and wedge someplace else. Getting out of the crack there was a traverse out to a bolt: one close by that was rusty and hammered in, and the other further out but much newer. 

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Not my photo, I was in no position to stop and take a picture of the wonderful protection

Upon reaching the rusty bolt I clipped in a draw and pulled up the rope. At this point I didn’t give a shit if it was going to blow, I just needed some sort of mental edge to get me to the new bolt. From there I was able to continue the traverse to the new bolt and clip, then back to retrieve my other draw in the event I needed an extra (not wanting to end up like Matt). The remainder of the route was edging back to the offwidth, pulling a large flake, then topping out. Wrapped around the flake I managed to throw a hand up to the summit and find a good ledge. While hanging on that ledge and seeing Matt, Ivan, and Esteban perched on the summit my mind was racing! How could they be so calm while I struggled thru the non-existent feet that were supposed to bring me to the top? I scooted up to the anchors and clipped in. Success! We made it! The exposure on top of the spires was dizzying, and I could hardly sit without my legs shaking uncontrollably. 

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While I belayed from the top, Matt rapped down to the 2nd rappel station setting up both ropes. This way we could all follow on the same ropes and the last person would clean. As far as I knew, Matt’s rappels went fine, and as Ivan went to tie in, he asked an odd question: “Chris, do you have an extra ATC?” He had climbed up without an ATC to rappel with. Being the climber mind and guide that he is, he used 2 Gri Gri’s to rappel down. When we asked if he had ever done that before he smirked and replied: “No, but it will probably work.” Pretty sure my heart missed that beat as he lowered out of sight. He made it down just fine, and Esteban right after him. At this point Tim had joined us at the top and we shared nervous smiles as it was becoming our turns to rappel. I ran the rope thru the ATC, set up my prussic, then slowly began to rap down the face.

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The first rap went smoothly, and I had a great ledge at the second station to post up on while anchoring in and switching ropes to continue down. As I liked my PAS into the of the bolts, I hear Matt shouting again: “The left bolt is loose! Tighten the nut before you come down.” I was torn. 1) Thanks for the heads up. 2) FUCK! Really?????? Yea ok, let me just spin this nut with my bare hand, it’ll be pretty tight then I’ll be good to rap down. So that’s what I did. I don’t know if I can that I conquered that spire per say, but we did get both up and down safely and clean. So I’ll take it!

We needed something to get our confidence back after the spires, so we set back to the Jungle Wall. Here we lead up the first pitch of Space Boys, which turned out to be a good slab with a few forced moves.  Around one of the bolts there was 2-3 feet of blank wall, but with an undercling and sweet little throw to a ledge. It was almost like I was back in the garage bouldering. Except, you know, slightly higher off the ground.

On the way out of the canyon, we stopped at La Posada for some food and to try to get one of the local guidebooks that is chalk full of high star routes. Unfortunately, they were out of the books. But what they weren’t out of was chicken enchiladas and 1 liter margaritas (or in Tim’s case, a pina colada). Not sure if I slept the whole way home or started to look thru pictures, but as soon as we got to the house we were all out.

El Potrero Chico: Day 2 (part 1)

We’ve talked. We’ve prepared. It’s time to climb some multi-pitch! Our alarms were set for 6am, but we were too excited to sleep for that long. This time, when we wake up, it’s time to climb! We chipped away at some apples and bananas and put down some coffee, but there wasn’t anywhere near as much talking this morning. Our eyes were all bright with wild dreams of the wall, but no one wanted to spoil the moment by speaking. Ivan met us, we packed up the SUV, and took off for EPC. (One thing to note here, the customs warning prior to the trip mentioned not driving around in black SUVs, as these are typically confused with cartel vehicles) The drive into Hidalgo was very similar with the one from Monterrey to Saltillo: vast landscape and manufacturing plants everywhere. Two things became noticeable when we reached Hidalgo: They love to use speed bumps. And EPC was just around the corner.

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After allowing me a quick pee break, we pulled into the vast canyon and started the grueling 6 minute scramble to the base of the jungle wall. Here we split up into 2 groups: Matt and Esteban planned to do Jungle Boy, a 2 pitch route with a roof completing the first pitch. Tim and I roped up about 10 feet to the left and began Las Chimuelas, an insignificantly taller route, but with 3 pitches due to a longer traverse. Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we weren’t in Kansas, er… Kentucky anymore. Pumpy and slightly overhung routes weren’t going to be the norm here. Slab city. Everything here is slab. Looking up to the first bolt I wondered what lie before me, reached for some chalk, then eased my way up the wall. A big difference between slab climbing and muscling up a jug haul is really trusting your feet and placing them before you try and make a move. The rubber on the vapors did a great job of sticking to the gritty rock and allowing you to take a shot at some larger moves on the sharp end. I lead the first pitch, Tim followed the first and lead the second, then I followed up and lead the third.

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Belaying from the top was a good experience, and the view from 195 feet (the guidebook said 295, but that seemed like a typo when we were only a few feet above the 180 feet Jungle Boy chains) was extraordinary! Cliff faces surrounds us and the spires peaked off to the right, letting us know they were still there… and they needed to be climbed. 

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Mar 9

El Potrero Chico: Travel Day

Saying we were like kids in a candy shop would be an egregious understatement of our antics at the airport. Giddy for this trip I’m sure our jokes and laughter were turning heads every gate we passed. The flight to Chicago was just over an hour, after that time flew! I scribbled information on the visa as quickly as possible, hoping the plane would pick up the speed. I had decided to bring a book, Into Thin Air, but I was too excited to read more than a couple pages at any given time. Then the words we had been hoping for came over the speaker: “We’ll be touching down in Monterrey here shortly, clear skies and 47 degrees. Enjoy the remainder of your flight and thank you for choosing United.” It was a little cooler than we expected, but we were closing in on Mexico!

Leaving the Monterrey airport we removed our jackets and enjoyed the drive to Saltillo taking in as much as possible on the way. I don’t quite know what I expected before arriving to Sal’s (Esteban’s dad) house, but whatever they were they were blown out of the water upon arrival! He resides in a pueblo style gated neighborhood with beautiful exteriors and even more impressive interiors. Walking in we pass a plush living room and move into the breakfast nook and turn to reveal a stunning kitchen. To the right leads to a formal dining room suited for no less than 12. Passed the dining room you could continue to the covered patio and built in grill, or you could remain inside and continue to the family room. These were going to be unprecedented accommodations for a climbing trip, and I even’t mentioned the fridge was stocked with the finest cervezas pesos can buy: Tecate Light.

We got situated in the house and I somehow managed to land a solo bedroom. So let’s get this straight, on this trip I have to suffer thru a queen size bed, bathroom/shower adjacent, and luxuries normally afforded to the sultan? (our affectionate name for Sal) I can handle that. After some beers in the sun and a well deserved travel nap, we met up with a friend of a friend of Sal’s who has put together a small bouldering gym. Commence bouldering, heckling, and getting to know a few of the locals who were familiar with El Potrero Chico. As it turns out, these guys were more familiar than we could have hoped. While flipping thru the guidebook, one of the locals, Ivan calls the others over with a smile on his face. Turns out one of the photos is one he took of his buddy on one of the taller routes. After bouldering Sal showed us to a Brazilian steak house of the all you can eat variety. 

While at dinner, per another Sal recommendation, we had a refreshing new alcoholic beverage. They take lime juice and add it to the glass while salting the rim before pouring over a modelo. Not a bad way to kick off our trip. 

Mar 9

El Potrero Chico Preparation

When Esteban mentioned that his dad was going to be working in Mexico for 2 or so years, our eyes lit up and we immediately started researching with the hope there would be some climbing destination nearby. As it turns out, El Potrero Chico is a multi-pitch hotspot within 1 hour of Saltillo. Painful right? A whole hour drive to one of the best sport crags we’ve ever heard of. I guess we can suffer thru. Disclaimer: I am sarcastic. If you don’t enjoy or detect sarcasm enjoy the pictures. After much deliberation (sarcasm, we we’re going) we grabbed a few beers and sat down to book the trip. Huddled around 3 laptops, Esteban, Tim, and I selected seats next to each other and confirmed our reservations. We were going to Mexico! United does have this little nifty feature tho, where flights on different days happen to have the same flight numbers. So Tim managed to book the wrong day to depart. After one phone call and 2 beers he was back on track on the appropriate flight. We were going to Mexico!

The weeks (or months for that matter, time flew by as we prepared) before Mexico were now packed with learning. We had never climbed multiple pitches before, and we weren’t sure we had the knowledge to do so. It was time to enroll in a course so we wouldn’t be in over our heads. Mark from Urban Krag put in some time with us giving a great tutorial on hanging belays, belaying from the top, what to do without a belay device, rope management techniques, anchor building, and above all: safety first when on the wall. Keep a level head and don’t try to rush anything. From here on out, we poured through the guidebooks we could get our hands on to find any beta on rappel stations, the weather, and anything that could impact our trip. 

One night at Urban Krag, we must have been smiling pretty hard as we closed in on the trip and started chatting up about the plans. Within minutes, we had another member signing up for the trip. Matt had to check his availability, but from the sounds of it he’d be joining us. After a week or two of no contact, we figured he couldn’t make it, or we’d be seeing him in the airport the morning of. Next thing you know, the text message arives: “MEEEEEXICO!” Now 4 of us were going to Mexico!

I meticulously planned out the gear that I would be bringing on this trip, then upon further analysis I’d remove unnecessary items from the list and start again. Weight and size of our gear was a major concern as we planned to check 2 bags each so as to not risk losing any checked gear. I went back and forth between one of those black rolly things with an extendable, but my rope just didn’t feel at home there. So I crammed the following items into my 35 liter North Face Terra pack:

  • Clothes - 3 pair boxers, 3 pair socks, 2 tanks, 2 tees, 1 long sleeve, 1 pair of shorts, rain jacket
  • Climbing Gear - 70m 9.8mm rope, helmet, harness, 8mm cord, 7mm cord, 6 lockers, 12 quick draws, ATC, Gri Gri 2, 4 biners, Vapor V’s, chalk bag (shamans were pictured but not brought)
  • Toiletries - deodorant, tooth brush

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My second carry on had the following gear:

  • Clothes - 1 tee shirt, 1 pair pants
  • Electronics - Nexus 5, Samsung NX1000, 20-50mm lens, 50-200mm lens, spare batteries, 8 and 32GB SD Cards, chargers, headlamp
  • Personal - Wallet, Passport
  • Water - 2 liter camelbak bladder

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I had slowly dwindled out my laptop, replaced it with my tablet, then removed the tablet altogether. Normally I haul around luxury items when we go to the red since it’s such an easy approach, but all of these unnecessary items would have to go for this trip. One last dry run in the garage managing the rope solidified our confidence with the gear and technique. We were going to Mexico!

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