Crossing the Border Into the Unknown (El Potrero Chico, Mexico)

Outrage wall is the colorful overhanging wall in the center

Many days of these past few weeks were spent in the cold from ice climbing to mountaineering. From cold sleepless nights to psychological leads on the ice. I admit I did miss the rock climbing. I am more of a cold weather person and love the cold and also love ice climbing more then rock climbing. My schedule was getting intense with not really any sleeping.

Leading Guppie (5.12b)

 This passion and love for climbing I have really does get in the way of every day life sometimes. Four or five days before I left for Mexico I had slept for 15 hours altogether. I was trying to get all the climbing in I could. The catch was none of them were successful, from a winter attempt of a 14er that turned out to be 14 hours and miserable trail breaking with an all nighter. Then two nights later, another all nighter was pulled for the drive to Telluride to attempt the “best” ice route in Colorado only to be stopped by my partner putting diesel gas in my car. We were stuck for hours. Even AAA could not do anything.

One of my climbing partners invited me along to El Potrero Chico in Mexico a couple weeks ago and I agreed to come. It is world class climbing and perhaps the best sport climbing in the world. It also sports the longest sport route in the world, Time Wave Zero. Time Wave is just about as long as the Half Dome in Yosemite. It is 23 pitches and almost 2,500 feet of climbing, all bolted. Though its 5.12a, most of it is in the 5.10 range, all of which was basically edging and friction climbing.

Our plan? We were going to drive as a team of four all together. Mexican border towns are having big problems right now with the drug cartels. Monterrey is a dangerous place to be right now. A day before we crossed the border, an older missionary lady encountered a fake checkpoint. She noticed and did not stop only to get shot in the head. A shoot up a couple days before that happened at a school and 15 people were injured of killed. Car hijackings are happening daily along with problems at the airport. We discussed this all with two others that lived in Monterrey and they told us they did not recommend going over as it’s dangerous right now. I will not share any more stories as they are some of the most gruesome murders I have heard of. I will say that this was the scariest drive I have ever experienced. I got packed the night before after doing some ice climbing. We started driving at about 10 A.M. and were soon escaping the cold snap Colorado was getting only for the drive to get very serious. The small Subaru was also very crowded.

We encountered a massive blizzard driving through New Mexico. It was so bad and so much snow that we were the only ones on the road with no where to pull off as that would be more dangerous. We could not see more then five feet in front of us. Maybe around 30 cars were crashed or rolled over and three 18 wheelers were jack knifed or rolled over. We spun out a couple times and almost crashed. We were all scared. If we stopped we would be stuck in a blizzard for a couple days. We kept on going and somehow made it to Albuquerque later that night. We had to take a different route and the snowstorm added over 6 hours to are already 22 hour trip. We kept on going and switched drivers. Many hours later we finally arrived at a checkpoint by Juarez and got interrogated again and again. When there are 4 guys from Colorado going “rock climbing” in Mexico you’ll get searched over and over. Every bag was checked and my pillow smelt like a dog from the K9 jumping all over it. My chalk was also questioned. It’s not cocain! We had another checkpoint a couple hours after that in Texas. Again, everything was searched, and it was hard to pack everything back in!

We arrived in Laredo, Texas where we planned to cross the border. We grabbed a bite to eat while many warned us about conditions in Mexico right now. We crossed the border quite easily as its stricter getting back in the U.S. Right when we crossed the border, I was in instant realization that I was in another country. Soon, we were lost and freaking out. We did not know where we were. We were trying to get our permits and insurance but made a wrong turn and were soon, without knowing it, crossing the border back into the U.S. We had to pay another fee along with getting searched and then pulled a U Turn to get across the border again to Mexico. We made the right turn and soon were getting all that we needed. There was a very generous lady that let us follow her to the highway that would take us to Sabinas Hidalgo, where El Potrero Chico is, so we thought. Ends up we read the guidebook more thoroughly and found out where the place was. There was Hummers with grenade machine guns everywhere along with rocket launchers. We were very tense as we did not want to encounter any problems. We took all the toll roads and honestly encountered no problems. We arrived at our destination after over 30 hours of driving. Pitched a tent and were ready for warm weather.

Mexico was in a cold snap. The next day, Andrew and I climbed the classic Yankee Clipper. A 15 pitched route in 45 degree weather with a bit of wind. It was cold. The next two days were followed by 30’s and 40’s. I was upset with this cold weather in Mexico? One thing about the sport climbing in Potrero is the bolts are more spaced then you’re used to, about 10 feet usually.

Yankee Clipper (5.12a, 15 pitches) is the center line/streak

We followed this up with another 13 pitched route (Estrellitas) where we had 60 mph winds and cold temperatures. By this time, Andrew, my partner was screaming how much he hated multi pitch climbing. He was not enjoying it. Our plan was to climb Time Wave Zero the next day. I wondered how he would handle that. The climbing was cleaner on Time Wave so I figured it would not be a problem.

Time Wave Zero (5.12a, 23 pitches) takes the skyline

Up we wake early. Our plan was to climb the big Time Wave in two teams of two. I made 15 scrambled eggs, 4 pieces of toast, and avocadoes for myself. A big breakfast and I was ready. When we approached the bottom of the climb Andrew did not seem to have interest in leading the first pitch so I jumped on the lead. The bolts went something like this, the first bolt was 20 feet up and then a bolt 10 feet above that. From there, I could not see the next bolt. I continued climbing and still could not see my next piece. Soon I looked below my feet and had over 40 feet to my last piece. I soon clipped the next bolt. It was only 5.7 and the climbing was easy but isn’t the point of bolting to make the climbing safer not deck from 70 feet up? I didn’t complain as I can’t imagine bolting a 23 pitched route and continued on by linking the second pitch which also had a bit of spaced bolts and the climbing was challenging at 5.11b. There are small holds everywhere and the next moves are never apparent.

We linked everything and kept on going, swapping leads. The other team that was with us was going slow. Andrew and I had our system down. No playing around, no rest except to drink water and eat a bar. When we got to the 12th pitch the climbing became sustained at 5.10 pitch after pitch. We still tried to link but were getting tired, really tired. By the time Andrew and I made it to the 22 pitch we were done. The last pitch before the fixed rope is 5.12a. It’s usually aided a lot as you have well over 2,000 feet before that. Even thinking of climbing a 5.12 made my brain hurt. The plan was to just aid it. It turns out the aid was not easy as the bolts were spaced. I grinned. It was getting dark, I was super tired. “What’s the point of trying to aid the last pitch?” I asked myself. “It’s not like you’re really “climbing” it anyways.” On top of that, we were low on water.

Down we go

By the time we starting rappelling it was just about dark. We had over 20 rappels to do. After a couple, there was a traversing rappel which was very annoying. Soon we met our two buddies who said they were going to bail as both of there feet were hurting very badly. I wore trad shoes and they wore painful tight non trad shoes. We joined up and start double rope rappelling to make things faster. I was tired, it was late and I was 1500 feet off the ground on a hanging belay. Times like this, I ask myself what am I doing?

Tired and 1500 feet off the ground

We finally got to the bivy ledge on top of pitch 12 of which I laid down and pretended I was in my bed 25 hours away in Colorado. A couple more rappels were made. I had my two buddies set up a few of the rappels as I was not in the mood. They were taking super long to set it all up and it seems like a rappel was made every hour. I was getting frustrated with them but found the time to laugh at our situation. It’s almost midnight, were high off the ground rappelling into the abyss on a crappy hanging slab belay. That still gives me a smile in a way. At midnight we made the last rappel to the ground and all laid down. We were so happy to be down. We had spent 14 hours on the wall. A time I’m not proud of but I was proud of the accomplishment. Andrew and I had climbed about 35 pitches in two days. (3500 feet) My hips hurt from hanging belays all day. We slowly made our way back to camp. I quoted I was taking a rest day the next day.

I woke up the next morning to everyone at the campsite wondering what happened. We explained and I stated I was going to relax. Soon a friend I just met there told me they were heading out. I thought to myself, I’d rather go climb then look on mountainproject. Soon I was pushing myself to the limit on moves and routes. No rest day today. I actually did not take a rest day for the 11 days we were there. I don’t think I could of.

Myself on lead of the crux pitch

A day later, I set my sights on the Outrage Wall. It’s the most outrageous wall there. There is a two pitched 5.12a that has made the photographs in every climbing magazine out there. (Celestrial Omnibus) Super classic and the best sport climb I have ever done and one of the best climbs I’ve had a privilege of climbing. I was told the first pitch was 5.11a but when I found myself on two mono holds and smearing my feet, I started to doubt that. Down I go, taking a 15 foot whipper when my foot popped without notice, cutting my nipple from shirtless climbing on the fall. Soon I joined my two buddies on the mega second pitch. They let me get on it second as I had not clue how I’d do on it. The first foot of it is overhanging with 200 feet below you. It was exposed. I hung a few times asking for beta on the moves. They were the coolest moves with pinches, jugs, slopers, tufas, and the alike. My advice for whoever plans to go there, get on this route!

A couple days of cragging ended with a beautiful seven pitched route at a sustained 5.10. (Satorie 5.10c) Wonderfully exposed! The approach trail was not to be found. So we made our own path to the climb. WRONG IDEA. We bushwhacked through cactuses and slabby exposed rock. The vegetation was extremely thick. I’m still pulling needles out of my legs from it.

Airy Rappel on Satorie (5.10c, 7 pitches)

A great end to a great trip, where I met many more of some very friendly climbers.

I highly recommend this area.  Conditions are bad at the border, yes, but so are conditions in Detroit and Washington D.C. Maybe this is not the right comparison but I found it safe and so did all the climbers that drove there that were there. Still, be careful for those that are traveling there soon.

Throwing for the next hold on Pangea (5.11d)

Best of travels for everyone!

About Noah McKelvin

Never skip a day of living life
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