These were the questions the Mexican cop asked us as he patted us down with our hands on the side of Buster’s Mini-van, The Silver Bullet (TSB). The four of us, my roommate Pete, Jeff, Buster, and myself, had been driving for 23 hours from Boulder, CO without incident, and now, with the Potero just a dozen Kilometers away, it seemed our luck had run out. The cop noticed Pete’s hunting knife sticking out of the back seat pocket and picked it up. He passed it to his 2 partners in crime and they all shook their heads in turn as if to say, “thees ees very bad.”
“Tiene un permito?”
Perhaps there is a law in Mexico which requires hierloom knives to be registered with some authority, but this basically translated to “pay me or I will take your knife and arrest you Gringos.” Being the slick international traveler that I am, I already had removed some cash from my wallet in anticipation of being shaken down. I looked the cop in the eye and handed him 2 neatly folded 20 peso bills, the equivalent of three dollars and fifteen cents. Silence.
“Es no bueno?” I asked, “Que va, Que gustas?”
Suddenly the cop’s English perked up, and he answered, “Money!”
Pete whipped out his wallet which contained 2 ten dollar bills and a couple singles. He handed the cop the singles. Audacious. The cop then leaned over El Jeffe and took the 2 tens from Pete’s hand, gave us directions, and let us go, but forgot to give me back my ID and passport. Luckily he was nice enough to chase us down again and return my documents. 20 minutes later we were driving the final couple Kilometers into El Potrero Chico…
That night we were greeted by Cindy, an American mountain guide, mother of 2, and CFO of Homero’s climber ranch. Homero is a classic Ranchero who owns a ranch just outside of Potrero Chico, and under the tutelage of Cindy, has turned his ranch into a diirtbag-friendly five star resort, complete with communal kitchen, bathrooms, campsites, and hot showers.
There is also Homero’s Restaurante, with head chef Milton, who makes the best bacon cheeseburgers south of the border. We opted for the weekly special, which includes fresh cooked breakfast and dinner, and 7 nights of camping for $75/person.
That evening, as I ate my cheeseburger and Mexican cheesy fries and sipped my 30oz Tecate, I reflected on how this trip had come together. After stopping at El Potrero briefly in August on my way down to Costa Rica with Jack, I decided that I must come back when the temps were a bit cooler so I could crank some long sport routes. After getting hit by a car in early November I worried that my winter mountaineering season might be shot (I am 100% better just 2 months later), so I figured that a nice easy sport climbing trip in a warm climate was in order. About a month ago I began scrambling to assemble a crew and a vehicle to get down to Mexico. I tried luring Buster with promises of clip-and-go alpine glory, but he seemed uninterested. The only person who was as gung-ho as me, was my roommate Pete. I taught Pete to climb just 2 months ago and he was leading 5.10 his first night at the gym. Now the only issue was finding a car. With just 2 weeks to go before my planned departure date, Buster said he wanted to go and agreed to take his dad’s mini-van. Now the crew was complete. Me, the brains of the operation, Buster the ropegun, Pete the natural, and his partner-in-extreme-unicycling, Jeff aka “El Jeffe.”
After about 50oz of beer, Buster casually threw out the idea of getting on the longest sport route in El Potrero Chico, Time Wave Zero–5.12a, 23 pitches, 2100 feet. This was the route I had promised Pete I would do with him as the culmination to our trip, but I quickly decided that it would be wiser to do it with Buster the ropegun first.
The next morning we woke up around sunrise and strolled down to the restaurante, which serves breakfast around 8am, not ideal for an extreme alpine start, but good enough for the “Mexican Alpine start.(MAS)” After downing some breakfast burritos, we assembled our quiver of gear: 70m rope, 14 quick draws, 2 pre-made sliding X’s for anchors, 1 grigri, 1 ATC guide, and a follower pack with winbreakers, 3 liters of water, 600 calories of Gu, and a small digital camera.
This was pure vacation climbing. Our plan to make good time up the route was to link all pitches rated less than 5.10, but instead of taking extra quickdraws, we just planned on skipping bolts. We also decided to lead in blocks rather than swing leads, which helps maintain the mental flow required for fast leading, and allows the leader a rest rather than starting immediately after seconding. Most of the climbing on the route is 5.9 to 5.10-. Buster lead the 2nd pitch which is about 5.11- and neither of us weighted the rope until pitch 20, which is rated 5.10d, but we both agreed was harder than the 5.11 pitch. I was pumped, and in the interest of time, lowered off the 3rd bolt of this pitch and let Buster send it in style. The 5.12a comes at pitch 20 and most people simply French free, but Buster took it head on and got through it with 2 falls. After 8 hours of climbing, the summit of Time Wave Zero was ours. We simul-rappelled the entire route in 4 hours and made it back to camp in time for dinner, clocking in at 13 hours round trip, Homero’s 2 Homero’s (H2H).
El Potrero Chico means “The little corral.” Various geological forces conspired to form The Potrero. The area surrounding the industrial city of Monterey was once submerged below the sea. Plate tectonics folded a ring of ocean floor upward. The weaker rock in the center of the ring eroded at a faster rate than the ring of uplift itself, and as the sea level dropped, the water drained through a narrow slot on the ring’s northern end leaving drastically exposed limestone rock walls and an impenetrable–save for the drainage–cirque of madly vegetated mountains.
In order to pass through the drainage itself and enter The Potrero proper, one must pass Noberto the gatekeeper. The official take on Noberto’s role is as follows. Much of the area inside the Potrero is a “protected zone” (NOT a national park), a legal classification of little actual consequence. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the land within the park was divided amongst the townspeople as per the Ejido system. This means that the town Ejido commission currently owns and controls 99% of the climbing, and according to head chef Milton, has appointed Noberto as the gatekeeper responsible for collecting the hefty sum of 10 pesos (currently about 70 cents) from each person who wishes to pass over the cattle guard and into the Potrero. To ensure that a would be Potrero-goer pays the sum, Noberto has set up a small trailer next to the cattle guard and a fence spanning the roughly hundred meter opening of the Potrero drainage. He is usually laying down inside the trailer reading porn, waiting for people to come by. There is a small sliding window in the trailer through which he can mumble at people and collect the entrance fee, which I speculate goes towards porn and booze. I payed Noberto 2 out of the 7 days we were there and the other days we sneaked through the bushes while Noberto called us “bendejos” and threatened to call the police.
The climbing in el Potrero Chico is all on hard and often sharp limestone. Most of the long routes climb through sections of slab where the first ascentionists must have had a very fun (read: punishment = glory) time clearing the most unfriendly vegetation one can imagine, from death Yuccas to horrific cacti.
There are several overhanging areas where the rock is naturally clear of vegetation and often featured with tufas, most notably the Outrage Wall and the Surf Bowl, both home to many hard sport routes in the 5.11+ to 5.13+ range. If you are looking for pristine backcountry climbing complete with solitude and quiet, Potrero no bueno mang! As with the rest of populated Mexico, there is trash everywhere. While climbing Space Boyz (5.10d, 11 pitches) on New Years Day, Buster and I were forced to listen to shitty Mexican quasi-polka music blasting from car speakers below and the sound of some asswipe throwing firecrackers off the opposing walls. Luckily Space Boyz was one of the most quality sport routes I have ever climbed. The 5.10d crux pitch feels like something out of the high Sierra and could probably be climbed completely on gear.
Space Bpyz went down in under 5 hours H2H, and helped get rid of the massive hangover incurred during the previous evening’s festivities. New Years Eve at Homeros was a fuckin’ shitshow…Mexican stylie! For ten dollars I got four 30oz beers, a fresh pork roast dinner, and unlimited rides on the electric bull…yes, the electric bull. Then came the horrible trance music provided by DJ Mang. 1am saw me stumbling around camp smoking too much until I finally crawled into my tent and stuffed in my earplugs. Props go to Pete for successfully riding his unicycle through the raging bonfire, onsight. He then tried to repeat this feat for Buster’s camera and fell into the fire causing him to climb with bandages and Neosporin the rest of the trip.
The people staying at Homero’s ran the gamut from Boulder extreme-hippie to smelly Euros (they all smell funny), a couple of pros, and some local Mexicanos on vacation enjoying the slightly less dirty reprise from the big Mexican cities. The weather was perfect, with daytime temps around 70-80 degrees and cooler night breezes, making climbing in the shade ideal.
Other climbing highlights from the trip included running a 3-man team (me, Pete, and Buster) up Yankee Clipper (5.12c, 15 pitches), Buster redpointing a couple of 5.12’s, and a final-day ascent of Satori (5.10c, 7 pitches), which Pete and I climbed swinging leads, and Pete onsighting 5.10-, 5 pitches up after climbing for less than 3 months.
I think that a Potrero trip should become an annual New Years tradition, and I personally plan on heading back next year, and encourage my friends to jump on board. Its cheap, its glorious, its Mexico baby!
Check out this awesome compilation video Buster put together:
Also check out my new photo website: http://www.mountainroadphotography.com/
you can view all the pics from our trip under the climbing section