Getting to Potrero Chico, Mexico from Hondo, Japan involved a four hour drive to Fukuoka City, then three hops by plane to Osaka, Dallas, and Monterrey, then an hour’s taxi ride from Monterrey airport. It was hard to keep track of how many hours this took altogether; the trans-Pacific segment was 11 hours so altogether it could have taken a whole day. Looking down from the plane at Awaji island near Osaka, the neatness and meticulous attention to detail in the Japanese land planning is obvious. Winter snow is rare on the plains around here, but the colors are telling of the season.
A looser approach to land management can be gleaned from this view of Monterrey. Beautifully situated in the embrace of tall mountains, this, Mexico’s third largest city, is home to 3.5 million people. Only a few hours by highway from Texas, its sprawl contains numerous American factories exploiting it for cheap labor, making it Mexico’s richest metropolis. The more or less permanent blanket of smog seen here is one of the many ways the city’s thriving economy manifests itself.
The Sierra del Fraile is a tight group of mountains a little to the northwest of Monterrey; composed of two adjoining, eroded anticlines it has the very unusual topography of two mountain rings (potreros, or corrals in Spanish) which open up on opposite sides of the range in two deep and narrow canyons. The canyon of Potrero Chico, vaguely visible in the right extremity of this picture, contains a large quantity of reasonably solid rock and has become over the past 15 years one of the most famous rock climbing areas in the world.
The town of Hidalgo, a typical north Mexican town with a population of 15,000, is seen here from top of the area’s tallest cliff, the 900 meter tall north face of Pico El Toro. The town has benefited somewhat from the influx of hundreds of climbers during the winter season. Because of the searing summer heat the climbing season is limited and the town will probably never be sustained by tourism; instead, its economic mainstay is the massive concrete factory that can be plainly seen near the town’s center. With the mountains made up completely of limestone, raw material for concrete manufacture will never run short.
Hidalgo is located in a climatic transition zone. To the east across the plains lies the distant Gulf of Mexico, and moisture reaches this first rampart of the mountains. However, the mountain-peppered plateau to the west is a desert, which continues uninterrupted all the way to the Pacific. Beautiful 2,600m high Cerro Tia Chena, part of the great gateway to the desert, greeted us every morning as we staggered out of our tent. Mountains in this area are trail-less and defended with plentiful cactus and agave; it is possible to climb them and the views from the summits are awesome, but the price is an all-day bushwhack and a bloodied, spine ridden body. During our previous stay we ascended a couple of these giants, but Tia Chena, involving an especially long, sideways approach, has so far eluded us.
The winter stars shine brightly in the night’s wee hours; Orion boldly dwarfing the high walls of El Toro. Though these precipices are the area’s most awesome, reaching nearly a kilometer in height, their steepness and poor rock quality has resulted in routes that are either too difficult or much too dangerous for the run-of-the-mill climber. Most shun these cliffs for the relatively friendlier rocks of the nearby canyon.
The attractive main wall of the Virgin canyon, which remains out of reach of the hot sun all day, demonstrates the popularity of climbing in the Potrero Chico. Climbers of many countries and levels of ability match their skills here in the relatively safe sport-climbing environment, with strong reasonably spaced bolts ensuring a degree of safety. It was unusually hot during our stay and climbing in the sun was not possible except in the morning and late afternoon, so this wall was always quite busy.
Our new friend Peter (aka Pedrissimo) from Massachusetts climbs a route on the delicious, skin-friendly orange rock of the overhanging Outrage Wall. The routes here have just barely enough holds to get by. These are often marked white by the sweat-absorbing chalk left by previous climbers, leaving a kind of map for those who follow: if you are lucky, the route will feel slightly easier because of this – unless you follow the marks of some poor soul who got it all wrong in the first place!
Pedrissimo reaches the 5.12b crux – the most difficult move of the route. Grimacing in good style from the pain in his fingers and toes, he grunts through the grim moves and clips the next bolt. Another route is in the bag; there are about 400 more here to try.
We were delighted to have Leanne’s parents, John and Ruth, come over to see us from Canada for a few days. John, an adventurous type, even cut his teeth on the rock. He bravely ascended about 5 meters before the going got a bit too difficult for his loafers, which began skidding around on the rock. But his technique, both ascending and descending on the rope, were admirable for a beginner.
After every full day of climbing, we relaxed under the camping pavilion, joined by our Mexican friends and dog (Thunder). These were relaxing, good times, reminding us of when we spent nearly a year here, fully acclimated to the Mexican pace of life, in full harmony with our environment. For dinner we roasted up quesadillas or chicken, and washed it all down with excellent, cheap Mexican beer. After days like these, who would want to be anywhere else.