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My described the climbing aspect of the world-renowned canyon of El Potrero Chico. While not nearly perfect climbing (it tended to be somewhat chossy and was certainly dirty and vegetated with some of the most painful cactus imaginable – agave, the so-called “cowboy killer” comes to mind – waiting silently to impale your legs or desperately reaching hand during a trip), it certainly had its unique pros: warm and reasonably dry weather during the winter, hundreds of climbs, and huge multipitch sport routes that towered into the heavens. But the climbing alone is not what made this truly special! So what else is there?A lot!It sometimes was easy to forget that I was not in the United States. Most of the climbers were American (thought certainly not all – I met people from all over the world) and there was little need to be fluent in Spanish. Leave the tiny gringo bubble of the campgrounds, however, and it immediately became clear that I was not home.El Potrero Chico lies just outside of Hidalgo, a smallish town with a population of about 20,000.
Farmers markets every Tuesday and Friday provide some much-desired Mexican culture. There are your regular grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, a school, a police station, and essentially anything you would need to live. A small gringo-run coffee shop called El Buho (which is Spanish for “the owl”) seems to cater mostly to climbers and provides a cool place to relax on a hot day. Right down the street from El Buho was the Carniceria la Mexicana, a small grocery store that I frequented. Walking back from town (about a 1 mile walk) was always an adventure because I would typically hitch a ride with the ever-friendly locals – one time a group of us got a ride on the back of a flat bed truck!
Farmer’s marketFarmer’s marketEl Buho, the coffee shopThe grocery storeCemex plantCemex plantPolice stationMy favorite tamales placeLunchIce creamA creepy-looking busZombie?Truth be told, Hidalgo isn’t much to look at! There is certainly not a lot of money among the general population there and, aside from a few exceptions, most of the houses were quite small and simple. Also, it becomes clear while walking around that there is not nearly the same amount of restrictions and building code to follow as in the United States.
It seems as if anyone is allowed to pretty much do or build anything – potentially hazardous construction would happen with no safety protection for passerbys, serious road damage existed with no signage to warn vehicles, and concrete staircases seemed to be hand-built with little or no support and appear to be on the brink of collapse. Still, life goes on and I took it as a testament to just how overdone things have gotten in the States. Petrina found a boyfriend.What is Kale looking at?Towards the end of my Mexican adventure, the climbing at El Potrero Chico got a bit stale and I wanted to shake it up. I got on board with a group of people headed to a different crag a few hours away called El Salto. What a good decision! While I had been climbing chossy and somewhat slabby limestone for weeks, the rock at El Salto tended to be much more vertical or overhung, far cleaner, and was all around excellent climbing. The accommodations there, on the other hand, were much more basic.
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There were no swimming pools, restaurants, or wi-fi. There were toilets but the plumbing rarely worked which required the user to dump water from a garbage can into the bowl to get it to flush – a process that I was sure would lead to giardia or worse.
The campground kitchen was small and cramped. All of this led four of us to rent a cabin for a week with the promise of hot showers, comfy beds, and our own kitchen. Too good to be true, the house ran out of water (water was stored in a large tank and the entire town was not getting re-supplied for some still-unknown reason) which meant no showers. Further, without water, we couldn’t clean the dishes without hiking back and forth from the campground – which did have water – with a 2-gallon jug we had. Still, I’m glad we rented the cabin because heavy rain soaked the area for a few days and we at least remained warm and dry. Again, though, we were here for the climbing and were not disappointed!
Witnessing some crushers sending hard 5.12 overhung climbs, crawling out of a tunnel on one of the most adventurous routes I’ve ever done, cleanly leading my first cave climb (a 5.11c/d), and taking one of the largest falls while struggling for a 5.12a send (which, sadly, I didn’t get) are just some of the high points of this little excursion. The rented cabinPetrina, Kale, and Nick resting.BrianKalePetrinaMe belaying KaleColumColumDerekKaleAfter hundreds of words and dozens of pictures, I have only alluded to the real magic of El Potrero Chico. While certainly part of the equation, it’s not the huge bolted routes, the simple life, or the nearby adventures to be found that makes the place special. All of this could disappear – all of it – and it would still be an amazing place. Climbers are a rare breed who are almost always truly happy.
Quick to throw smiles, offer help, or simply chat with a stranger, they do this thing – that is, climb rocks – that gives them no material satisfaction and no fame or glory other than during campfire chats later that night. Instead, it gives them cut fingers, strained tendons, and a depleted bank account from all the required gear and loss of income due to days off of work. They come from all walks of life. I met lawyers, engineers, and teacher, as well as ex-lawyers, ex-engineers, and ex-teachers. I met folks who went from full-time desk jockey to full-time dirtbag.
I met young kids fresh out of school who haven’t worked a day in their life and retired kids who worked all their life and are just now starting to truly live. Everyone has their own story, and every one of these stories is worth listening to – I truly hope they keep getting told.It was these people that I spent hours upon hours interacting with – cooking dinner with every night, sipping coffee with every morning, and climbing with nearly every day.
We played card games and dice games. We drank tequila, light beer, and home-made Mescal (a smoky liquor distilled from agave).
We ate so many cheap mangoes and made so much guacamole. There were spontaneous dance parties on the dirt in Leo’s taco stand next to camp (which insisted on playing American club music circa 2010 very, very loudly!) and much-hyped rave parties up in the canyon. We had bonfires with singing and story telling and improvised jam sessions in the kitchen (I played the salsa jar). We laughed, learned, and lived together.Sadly, I took very few pictures of the many, many people I got to know this winter – a sad but true effect of being a part of the story rather than a photographer of it. It’s a balance I have yet to find, but I hope to in the future. I did manage to obtain a few pictures from other people. The Superbowl party!The late night crewA Valentine’s Day hangover picnicA picture of a Valentine’s Day hangover picnicOne of my best friends of the trip.Hanging out at Leo’s (AKA the Meat Cage)The El Salto crewI’m unable to come up with words to wrap up this post in an appropriate manner.
Looking through these pictures has sent a torrent of memories through my head and my brain has resorted to writer’s block while it tries to sort through them. As such, I’ll simply copy and past the Facebook status I posted on my last day in El Potrero Chico:I can’t think of a better way to spend my last day in Mexico than sending the awesome route Inglorious Bastards (5.12a)!What started as an on-the-whim decision to spend a couple of weeks climbing through the winter until it warmed up in the States instead turned into an awesome adventure of fantastic climbing, great food, and a bit of a glimpse into the Mexican culture. There were cheap avocados, huge mangoes, and cheese that simply wouldn’t melt; stray dogs and weird cats f or days; wicked dirty (literally) dance parties and spontaneous jam sessions; deadly bugs and plants that try their best to kill gringos; and probably too much beer, tequila, and mescal. Most importantly, though, I’m so grateful for the truly amazing people I’ve met – friends I certainly hope to see again. There’s too many to list, but you all know who you are!
The rock musician Warren Zevon (1947-2003) had been diagnosed with lung cancer and made his final appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in a tribute show (no other guests were booked for the hour) on October 30, 2002. Letterman asked Zevon what life was like living with a terminal disease.