El Potrero Chico

Where to start? I’m not even sure. Start at the beginning—that’s usually a good place.

I met H. through friends of friends on a climbing trip. He was looking for a partner and so was I, so we plotted together and met in person for the first time the night before we left, to load my car and shake hands. I remember thinking, as we leaned against our cars in the late summer night, ok, this guy seems ok, we seem comfortable enough. The space between us has an interesting shape, but isn’t heavy or uncertain. The next day, after work, I met him at his office and we headed off for the hours-long drive from Seattle to Smith Rock. I’ve been in many cars with people I don’t know, but I think this was the first time that it was only myself and one other stranger.  We sang to the radio, we chatted, we drove—we made it to Smith under cover of stars and spilled into the rented house to join our friends.

I can write about that weekend, but this isn’t about the weekend in Smith.  It’s about my secret words (Do you want to climb?) and what happened next.  H was already planning a two month climbing trip—first to Mexico and then to Thailand.  A week after we met we were sitting on pillows in a tent in the middle of SeaCompression when we started talking about his upcoming trip.  You should meet me in Mexico.  I paused.  Are you serious? The tent was cozy with people and pillows and smoke. Do you want to climb with me in Mexico? A week later I’d booked tickets.

There are many reasons this was a foolish, impulsive thing to do. I’d known H. for two weeks. I know absolutely no Spanish. El Potrero Chico is known for its long mult-pitch routes, and the longest thing I’d ever done was two weeks before, with H. at Smith; 5 pitches, 5.9 at the hardest, and I didn’t lead anything above a 5.8.  Instead of cancelling the tickets, I bought the El Potrero Chico guidebook, I bought gloves for the long raps down, and thought—ok. This is a terrible terrifying idea. Let’s go.

I am the girl who lowers, step by step, into cold water. I am not the girl jumping off of the bridge into an icy river. I am the girl who makes lists and plans and has exit strategies. I need someone else to startle me into adventure, to hold out a hand and say, come with me.   I fret and worry and have Band-Aids in my wallet and flashlights in my glove box.  I bought a ticket to a place I’d never been to meet a man I barely knew to climb things I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish.

The plane landed in a grey and chilly Monterrey Mexico.  I made my way through customs, picked up my luggage and followed the direction of traffic out into the terminal to find H waiting at the gate.  Sleepy and dazed, all I wanted to do was jump up and down. I’m in Mexico. I’m in Mexico. I’m in Mexico. We drove through back to Hidalgo, stopping for food and then heading to La Poseda, the climbing camp at the edge of the canyon.  It was slightly after noon, and in short order we were gearing up and heading to El Potrero Chico.

Clouds still hung low in the sky and caught at the tops of the spires.  It looked like something out of a legend—dark rock towering over the desert. My body felt heavy and tired and looking up made my head spin.  We were headed to Will The Wolf Survive—a 4 pitch climb, 400’ with a 10a for the final pitch.  The first pitch was the easiest, but I didn’t know the rock yet and didn’t want to lead anything quite yet.  We tied in, checked our knots, and started.

Will the Wolf Survive From the moment I started to climb towards H, I was in love. The rock—I don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t climb.  It made no sense and it made complete sense.  Like a kiss you suddenly find yourself in the middle of and falling into.  My whole body felt like it was made of laughter and the kind of waking-up you get when you jump into a glacier lake.  As if you’d been sleeping for years and only now, for the first time, found out how to stretch.  The climb went smoothly, if cold.  H kept leading, I kept following.  We huddled together at the top, hiding from the wind, took a photo, rapped down and hiked back to camp. 

Another friend from Seattle was also at camp, renting one of the rooms.  We met up with her, drank tequila and pineapple juice, showered and headed into town for dinner.

I woke the next morning to the sound of a pack of dogs barking and roosters crowing, wind moving around the tent.  Voices floated out of the morning and gear clinked as other parties gathered their things for the day.  The camp kitchen door slammed shut. Laughter.  More wind.  We made breakfast and instant coffee and geared up. Estrellita.  12 pitches, 11b with variations that bring it down to a 10b.  1200 feet. We were planning on linking a few pitches and alternating leads but I was still nervous.  Even on the longest cragging day I’d never come close to climbing 12 pitches. 


rapping off of EstrellitaThe climbing isn’t difficult, but it’s a long day.  We alternated leads and did the easier variations to the route and made it to the top in four and a half hours.  There’s a palm tree on top, and a metal box with odds and ends and a folded piece of paper instead of a log book, with a rock on top instead of a lid.  We signed the paper, took some photos, and began the descent, walking back into camp before dusk.  My body was sore and tired but buzzing with joy.  That night we gave L. a ride to her hotel in Monterrey and headed into town for hambergessas and drinks.  As we waited on the porch three other climbers from camp came up and joined us.  We sat for a few hours, laughing, eating, drinking beer.  The night grew longer around us and eventually we all headed back into camp.  H and I rejoined a few folks in the camp kitchen and outside grupera music kept a steady beat.  We eventually made it to sleep.

Hacienda del MuertoHacienda del Muerto ruinsThe next day was our rest day.  The initial plan was to find the petroglyphs at Boca de Potrerillos but no one seemed to know how to get there.  We went into town to the café, but they didn’t know either.  So we struck out towards Mina, with a loose idea of what road to turn onto, but we never saw it.  Instead we found ourselves at Hacienda del Muerto.  H had only seen the gate closed but it was wide open this time, and we drove in and parked. A well stood prominently in what looked to be an old courtyard and a church cut into the sky, but besides that all other walls were worn and falling back into the desert.  We walked quietly through the ruins and tiptoed through the church as the sun warmed our backs. 

Back in Mina we drove around looking for the Museo Bernabé de las Casas to ask directions to the petroglyphs. For a museum, it hides fairly well.  No one was at the gate but we could hear voices in the back and walked into the courtyard to find two men putting peanuts into bags in the lobby of an auditorium.  H. talked with them and the younger of the two men showed us to the door and told us it would be 25 pesos.  Inside the lights flickered on and displays of life from the early 20th century.  The lights were on sensors but it took a while to trip each one—we walked into a dark room and halfway through the lights would snap on and we found ourselves further and further back in history; recreation petroglyphs, fossils, mammoth skulls, dinosaur bones.  It turned out we’d been going through the exhibits backwards, from modern history towards the creation of the earth. H found a room full of geodes and minerals and we puzzled through the Spanish signs, trying to figure out what each one was.  When we were done, he went over to the office again to ask for directions to the petroglyphs and was handed a half sheet of paper with a map printed on it. 

We pulled up to the parking lot to find two pickup trucks, a dog and a man watering something. The signs were worn and sun bleached and a building hunkered slightly past the gate.  We weren’t sure if it cost anything and as we walked along the path the man called over to us.  He wanted us to sing the guest book in the building. And then, nothing.  A wave, and we continued on.

PetroglyphThe wind had picked up but the sun was still bright.  The first path off of the main road led up the hillside and within a few feet we saw our first petroglyph.  They were everywhere.  Suns, figures, shapes that looked almost like writing, shapes that were just patterns.  Fields of dots.  We hiked up and up the path and I couldn’t help but feel like a girl in a story, finding one drawing and then looking up, into the distance, to see another drawing slightly off of the path. And another.  We hiked up and back down, and then along the main path again, and back up another hill before we realized—if we were going to make it to the hot springs we’d have to head out.

The parking lot at the hot springs was empty but the pool was still open. We paid and followed the spiral down to the entrance to the pool, pushing the doors open.  Immediately the steam made me feel overdressed.  The pool glowed a white-blue and the subtle scent of sulfur drifted with the steam.  Brick pillars arced and punctuated the water’s surface and condensation dripped in uneven rhythm.  We changed and stepped into the warm water.  I can’t really do justice to the glow—to the cavernous brick ceilings, to the way light streamed through the stained glass skylights, or the way the water rippled quietly around our bodies.  The warmth soaked into my skin and everything felt electric.  After, we walked to another room beyond the pool—circular with sandy mortar along the walls, a strong brick domed ceiling and a circular skylight of a bright red sun. I lay back on the wooden bench.  My friend Nicelle told me I’d find magic in Mexico.  Skin tingling magic. Nicelle was right. Magic. 

We drove back to camp under starlight and a near full moon. The next day turned out to be my final day of climbing, Black Cat Bone.  9 pitches, 10d, 800’.  I led the first pitch and could already feel the soreness in my body.  10d. I haven’t climbed a 10d outside, let alone on the 7th pitch of a climb.  Keep going.  This is ok.  He thinks I can, so I can.  I trust him. 

Black Cat BoneI led the easier routes and H led the 10s.  The easy pitches were easy, but run out.  There was exposure and for the first time I could feel the yawning canyon at my back and a hint of what, just a few months ago, would have led to fear and panic.  Breathe, move.  The rock was sharp, but solid.  At the crux I had to rest, and I cursed; I could see the moves and couldn’t make them. I rested again. Try again. Do it. I tried again and moved through it, and found myself at the roof and moving over it.  It took 5 hours to make it to the top, but we made it. We flipped through the log book and found H’s signature from three years ago and signed beneath it. It was a long rap down and we finished in the dark. 

We woke the next day both sore and tired, with a plane to catch.  My fingertips were the red of skin a few layers down and my shoulder ached.  Climbing was over, but the day was bright and sunny, so I laced up my sneakers and went for a run through the canyon.  The wind still tasted like evening and shadow but my skin warmed quickly in the sun.  I ran along the road, through the canyon and past it, passing a few climbing parties along the way.  At the halfway point I paused to stretch and looked back at the sun warming the spires of El Potrero Chico.  There is magic in this place. 

That night, back in Seattle, I had trouble falling asleep.  I wanted the sound of dogs, the sound of wind, the sound of sleeping in a tent.  I wanted laughter and slamming kitchen doors, the stretching sound of a slack line, the metallic sound of gear being sorted and arranged.  I haven’t even mentioned the other people at camp and how kind everyone was, or the earthy camp scent that coated my body the entire way home.  It was a glimmer of a life I’ve heard about my whole life—plotting the next adventure, planning the next ascent.

I thought my magic words were Do you want to climb? I had no real idea what that meant, or how true it was.  The answer is always yes. Yes, yes, oh yes.   

El Potrero Chico