Saturday, November 5, 2011

El Potrero Chico PSA

Jaime Bohle on the exposed 5th pitch of Snot Girlz, 5.10d, 7 pitches
Hanging out at the base of a limestone crag at Potrero Chico, I look down into the gravel wash, what qualifies as a road in this part of Mexico, and see two pickups with soldiers in the back driving upstream.  A few minutes later, having turned around, I look again and see them driving downstream.  And then they are gone – no flying bullets, no blood-filled gutters, no square groupers.  I look up at the rock, see two other people on the wall, and decide with the crowds and all its time to find some peace and quiet.  In 5 minutes, we’re in the wash – in 10 we’re in the Virgin Canyon with dozens of classic routes all to ourselves.  Over the course of two weeks, that’s the only time we see el ejercito (the army) – but we wake up each morning to solitude, sunny weather, and a candy store filled with the sweets of climbers’ dreams. 

            Although the drug wars have been percolating in the borderlands for several years, the violence erupted in Monterrey this past summer.  In July, a casino bombing rocked this historic city, killing more than 50 people.  The mainstream media ran with the story, writing piece after piece about gang violence, shootings, murders, and disappearances.  A country once known in the United States for Oaxaca, Cozumel, the Copper Canyon, and, in climbing circles, El Potrero Chico, now made people cringe in fear when hearing its name. 

            Kristin and I usually ignore overhyped warnings of disaster and violence, but we couldn’t help wonder just a little bit about what we would find in dangerous Mexico.  Weeks before the July bombing, we were sitting in our house lamenting the fact that our Spring climbing trip had been scuttled by historically awful weather.  We drowned our sorrows in a bottle of wine and started reminiscing about the memories we brought back from our April 2010 trip to the Potrero.  By the bottom of the bottle, my persistent wife convinced me we should make a drunken, spontaneous decision to drop some miles on a two-week plane ticket to Monterrey.  Goading me, she said, “Seriously, when was the last time you regretted pulling the trigger on a climbing trip?”  I couldn’t tell if the wine had lowered my defenses or if I was swayed by her bullet proof logic . . . and golden locks.  “Alright baby,” I said, “let’s go to Mexico! (wink wink)”   My fingers manically massaged two free plane tickets from the internet before we called it a night. 

            The hangover wore off by the next afternoon, but doubts about the trip floated around in my head for weeks.  We tried to recruit friends from Portland to join us in the land of drug lords, machine guns, and border busts.  We tempted them with tales of thousand foot routes on perfect limestone, cheap beer, and friendly locals.  We tried everything, but nobody would bite. 

            Finally, we found two suckers – Jaime and Jodie.   I fed them every BS story I could come up with about how safe it is, how great it would be and how much fun we’d have.  Much to my amazement, they believed it all!  “Awesome,” I thought, “I’ll have someone else to give me a belay during Kristin’s rest days.” (All joking aside, we were super stoked that they came with us - awesome travel companions.)

            When we deplaned at the Monterrey airport, we walked out the doors of the international terminal, and Magic Ed was there as promised.  Shaking my hand, he offered to grab a bag and led us out the door, past some bored looking soldiers, and into one of what seemed like a dozen beat up old cars we saw him driving over the course of the next two weeks.  An hour or so later, after listening to tales of unclimbed walls, the history of the Mexican currency, and the latest reports on the 5 or so gringo climbers currently in the canyon, we arrived at La Posada.  Transport complete – hassle free.  The local climbers were gettin’ down on a Saturday night, so we walked 100 ft to the local mini-super for a large bottle of Carta Blanca (the caguama) – cerveza!  Welcome back to Mexico!

Esterlita and Estrellas Canyon, Mini-Super Wall, TNT Wall, and the Wave
            The next morning, Sunday, we went climbing, and saw a few locals.  The day after, we did the same and saw nobody.  On Tuesday we went to the market.  Then we climbed some more. And again.  And again.  There were, literally, four of us climbing in the entire park for the first couple of days.  Then a few more Canucks arrived, and with their “eh’s” and “you knows,” it seemed like freaking rush hour (but they were all super friendly and cool).  

Mamma perro
            On Thursday afternoon, Magic Ed pulled into La Posada once more and dropped off Jaime and Jodie.  Stepping out of the car, they looked up at 2000 ft walls of limestone, then they looked around at an eerily empty La Posada, and then they sat down in what looked like a state of shock.  Weirdness.  Yes, its true, we have this entire place all to ourselves – we’re the only ones here.

An unknown climber on an unknown route on the Mota Wall
            For the next 10 days, it felt like we were looting the drug store.  We did anything and everything we wanted.  One day, the girls picked some lines to lead in the Virgin Canyon.  The next day we climbed classic multi-pitch lines on the steep and shady walls of the front side.  By the time we touched down, Jaime and I still wanted more, so we casually walked over to the Ripped Wall in the Virgin Canyon and plucked one of the best lines in the park.  The next day we went climbing with Magic Ed (great guy!), another story for another time, laughing at the flurry of hand clippers and trimmed bushes that marked his progress up the long forgotten project.  Each night, the four of us would cook up an awesome meal from the local market, drink a bunch of beer and make plans for the next day.  By the end of the trip, my toes, my fingers, my feet – it all hurt.  A satisfying pain. The pain of fulfillment.

Kristin on Tortilla Flats, 5.9, TNT Wall, El Potrero Chico
            So here’s the PSA.  It’s safe!  Don’t believe the hype!  El Potrero Chico is still amazing, and, in fact, it’s better now then ever before because there’s nobody else there!  The asylum is empty! 

            What are you waiting for?!  Get going already.  The locals need your money and you need to go climbing.  They’re good people, and you’re cheap, dirtbag climbers.  It’s a match made in heaven.  Now hurry up and get down there so you can start spending peanuts on the best climbing vacation of your life.  In case you needed any other motivation, check out some of the images we brought back and drop me a line if you need some beta.    


The Sword, 5.12a, Estrellas Canyon
Photos by Jaime Bohle

Kooters and Scooters, 5.10d, Wonder Wall

Death of a Tradman, 5.9, Mota Wall

Snot Girlz, 5.10d, 7 pitces, Mota Wall

Hey Buddy Nice Shirt

Off the Couch, 5.10d/5.11a, 7 pitches Zapatista Wall

Photo by Jaime Bohle
 Permanent Vacation, 5.11, Mileski Wall

Tortilla Flats, 5.9, TNT Wall

Yankee Clipper, 5.10b, 13 pitches, The Jungle Wall

The Jungle Wall - Scrubbed Lines from Right to Left - Black Cat Bone, Space Boyz, Yankee Clipper, Jungle Mountaineering

Don Quixote, 5.11d, Virgin Canyon

Pancho Villa Rides Again, 5.10c, 5 pitches, Mota Wall

Unfinished Business with Magic Ed, Ungraded Route, Undisclosed Location


Friends at the Market


First Tine in 20 Years They've Seen Bears in the Potrero


  1. Sorry for my late response to your comment on chossclimbers guys...we were climbing in Potrero last week & did not see it. Wanted to mention that your site was the inspiration for our trip there. Indeed an AWESOME place! Many thanks & keep posting climbing ideas :) cheers. radek

  2. Nice! Glad to hear you guys had a good trip. I'll look forward to checking out some pictures.

  3. dude that was a nice post i enjoyed it and i look forward to hitting it up this year with a few good dirt bags. Got any pointers for the trip as far as navigating the area etc.