La Carretera Alta, Part 3 – Margaritas and Multipitches

Mota Wall, El Potrero Chico
Imagine, if you will, the following scene…

Having spent the entire day climbing Mexican limestone, you rest your weary body on a tattered boulder pad, surrounded by monolithic walls awash with fiery sunset hues. Someone hands you a margarita with colours to match. It is strong and spicy, the rim of the plastic cup encrusted with a mixture of chili, lime and salt. Jim Morrison’s husky baritone blasts forth into the desert twilight. High above, a climber is working the moves on a 5.11 testpiece, tonight’s entertainment. Surrounded by friends, you recap the day’s events and make plans for tomorrow.

This, my friends, is what they call paradise. It’s almost as close as you can come to absolute bliss in a world such as this. It’s the earthly equivalent of Heaven, Nirvana, Zen, Xenu or Valhalla, depending on your taste, geographical persuasion and degree of sanity. This was our life in El Potrero Chico.

Up high, the lone climber is thrutching. He’s mere centimetres from clipping the pre-hung draw, but he’s in trouble – Elvis legs, the shakes, a couple of pitiful whimpers, the works.

“Take the whip, man,” says Edgardo. “Take the fucking whip.”

The climber grabs the quickdraw. It’s a party foul, but the crisis has been averted.

“Disappointing,” says Edgardo with a sigh.

It might seem morbid and voyeuristic to watch our fellow climber during his intimate moment with terror, and perhaps it is. But in another way, it’s kind of an act of solidarity. We’ve all been there, we can relate. We’re trying to egg him on to go a bit harder and push a bit further…. Who am I kidding? We’re watching for the same reason that people watch NASCAR. We want to watch that dude take a screamer, and if he isn’t cool with that, he shouldn’t have climbed on the aptly named Scrutinizer Wall.

Edgardo’s is an institution, a feature so integral to El Potrero Chico that it is listed on Google Maps despite being an entirely portable structure. Most nights, Edgardo parks the dishevelled blue trailer somewhere near Scutinizer, nestled within the narrow canyon that divides two towering limestone peaks. This is the beating heart of EPC, the epicentre if you will.

La Carretera Alta, El Potrero Chico

Most of the climbing in EPC occurs within a surprisingly restricted area given the vastness of the terrain. Translated, El Potrero Chico means “The Little Corral”, alluding to the circular formation of the mountain range. The canyon, carved by the intermittent flow of a stony arroyo, forms a passage which connects the interior of the Potero with the outside world. A road runs through this passage, and as such, the lion’s share of routes can be found there also… because it’s sport climbing and who could be arsed walking? Approaches here rarely exceed the five-minute mark.

One would never guess this to be the case from first glance. Those twin peaks with their broad and towering north faces dominate the skyline as you approach from the nearby township of Hidalgo. One would naturally assume that these faces house the bulk of the climbable lines, but in reality, there are a mere handful of routes to be found there. Among them is undoubtedly one of the world’s proudest sport lines – the formidable Sendero Luminoso, made (in)famous by Alex Honnold’s solo ascent.

It was with this majestic backdrop that we rolled into Homero’s Ranch, another EPC icon. Señor Homero was an O.G. in the early climbing history of the region, being the first of the local community to approach the gringo climbers and offer them hospitality. Although he passed away recently, the ranch remains a mainstay of the EPC scene. That doesn’t mean it’s in good shape though… the place is as Mexican as Pancho Villa feeding a taco to a Chihuahua, replete with dilapidated buildings, uncut rebar, stray animals and concrete as far as the eye can see. But you get a sense of character and history there which seems missing in the other accommodation sites.

Homero's Ranch, El Potrero ChicoWe ended up at Homero’s somewhat by default, mainly because my good friend Kevin was staying there. He is similarly engaged in a nomadic, climbing-centric, van-borne lifestyle, but everyone needs a shower sometimes, and Homero’s seems to strike the balance between decadence and destitution with aplomb. The Wi-Fi is decent, the water is drinkable, and the owners couldn’t be any more relaxed if they were in a coma. We availed ourselves of these pleasantries on weekends when the entire town has a fiesta in the canyon and camped within the Potero during the week.

Soon after arriving, we hit the crag and launched into the classic multipitch, Snott Girlz. The first pitch was both steeper and more difficult than I had assumed from the ground, and I don’t mind telling you that I downclimbed from the crux and lowered off. Having climbed very little in the preceding months, I suppose I was a little ambitious in warming up on a 5.10d with an unfamiliar style, an unusual rock type, and a substantial run out. I let Kevin do the heroics that day, and in doing so we eventually reached the summit as a party of three.

Snott Girlz was the first of many classic (and some not so classic) multipitch routes we sampled over the next few weeks. EPC has a reputation for being overbolted and soft, but this is a generalisation and a massively overstated one in my opinion. Rather, the reputation should be one of inconsistency. Some routes are indeed stitched up, but others are disturbingly run out with bad fall zones. Irregularities in grades occur often, particularly on multipitch routes such as on Dope Ninja where the 5.9 pitch was harder than algebra and the 5.10b was significantly, inexplicably easier.

Perhaps the best example of this inconsistency is the all-time classic Pitch Black, an aesthetic line which enjoys great popularity due to its eternally shaded position. The crux pitch is a pretty stiff customer at 5.10d, but although the moves are thin, technical and very sustained, they are well protected. Later, Pitch 4 begins with more bolts than metres, but when the holds begin to disappear, so does the protection. The pitch culminates in a moderate throw for a positive-ish sloper above an unnecessary run out, which I didn’t particularly enjoy. The final two pitches are given 5.10b but only deserve the grade if you’re missing a hand.

Estrellita, El Potrero ChicoThe upshot of all that technical jargon is this – forget the hype and never mind the bollocks because EPC is a mixed bag.  There’s a pretty good reason that some folks opt to carry a supplementary rack of wires for those Hail Mary moments.

All that being said, we truly enjoyed our time at EPC. If you like the idea of clipping your way up a few hundred metres of Mexican limestone every day, you will too. We climbed 36 routes, which doesn’t seem like many, but those routes totalled no less than 2500m in a little over two weeks. For those playing at home, our recommendations are the following routes: Will the Wolf Survive, Pancho Villa Rides Again, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Snott Girls and Pitch Black.

And did I mention that those margaritas are a mere $4 AUD? Or that avocados can be purchased for about $1 for a bag of ten or so at the Tuesday market? I told you it was paradise.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
April 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?