Going Solo in El Potrero Chico
As the plane descended toward the setting sun in Monterrey, I felt my first pang of fear and loneliness. Going climbing alone in Mexico had seemed casual until this reality-check moment, and now doubt was creeping in. I’m really here. I’m doing the thing. I took some deep breaths and reminded myself to take it one step at a time. I thought of my last visit to El Potrero Chico, and the familiarity with the area gave me the confidence boost I needed.
Last time I visited, I met up with a big group of friends for a three week trip. This time, I only had 8 days to climb (bookended by travel days on each side) and I didn’t know anyone who would be in Potrero. I had coordinated with a photographer from Joshua Tree through Instagram who was already here with a friend, and I was stoked to at least have my first day of climbing lined up—that would buy me time to meet more partners.
My hostel, El Cubil, was a quiet getaway nestled right at the base of the canyon below all of the climbing. Upon arrival, I was immediately greeted by the local owners and friendly climbers from all over the world. Any apprehension remaining in my mind melted away as these kind strangers welcomed me, and I looked up at the dark ridgeline of limestone looming a couple thousand feet above my head, feeling ready to climb.
In the morning, I stepped out of my room and was surprised to find that the imposing face of El Toro looked so remarkably high even though I’d seen it before. I was expecting it to seem smaller than on my previous trip, but it was just as impressive with its complex face of ridges and ledges rising vertically out of the valley floor.
I met up with Connor and Matt from Joshua Tree at the Potrero Chico entrance gate, and after watching Matt give burns on his project “Hombre de Rifle”, we headed over to crag at Virgin Canyon. The guys let me choose the routes, which was a real treat on my first day. I was full of eager energy and excited to see how much I’d improved physically and mentally since my last visit. I’d had some recent tweaky injuries to my ankle and shoulder, but thankfully neither of them bothered me during the trip, which was a massive relief.
For my first route of the trip, I cruised up the ultra-long classic “Selam” (5.10a/b) with an unstoppable grin on my face. It felt amazing to be moving on this incredible limestone. I followed that up with a few more onsights of nearby routes, including “Mexico in Flames” (5.11c), a real techy masterpiece. Then, Connor shot photos of me working on “El Balota”, a cryptic and slippery 5.12a that ascends a double corner with bizarre moves through an arete and dihedral. My tips were raw, my calves were pumped, and my heart felt full and satisfied. For the rest of the day, I watched the guys on their projects, and enjoyed the local music and food in the evening with new friends at my hostel. A successful first day set the tone for the trip and I was feeling more psyched than ever.
The next day, I linked up with Connor and Matt again to climb “Celestial Omnibus”, a classic second-pitch 5.12a that follows a tufa system up an overhang on the Outrage Wall. Connor had a vision for shooting photos on it, so we took turns while the sun dipped in and out of the clouds, casting shadows. I enjoyed the novel challenge of the steep tufa since it was a style I’d never gotten to try before.
After that, we hiked over to El Fin de Semana Wall to try some hard routes. I gave my first burn on “Cosmic Intelligence” (5.12d/5.13a), and was pleasantly surprised to free all the moves without too much trouble. One clip in particular gave me grief though—I’d find myself compressing on side pulls up the blocky feature, with no good foot options, feeling unable to take a hand off to hang the draw or clip without pitching off the sequence. I was face to face with the bolt, but struggled to find a stance, so I took the whip a few times. Eventually, I figured out an absurd, high left heel hook that allowed me to remove a hand to place the draw and clip. It was a fun challenge, and such a cool route! I can’t wait to return someday for the redpoint.
A steak dinner at La Antojeria was the perfect cap to the day, and as we ate, we saw the Super Bowl on the restaurant’s TV, blasting in Spanish. None of us had known it was the day of the Super Bowl before seeing it playing unexpectedly, and we laughed at being oblivious in our own little climbing world.
A full rest day filled with new friends, journaling, reflection, self care, and food left me feeling rejuvenated for climbing the next day—Valentine’s Day. Recently single, I tried to focus on my love for rock climbing and all it has given me over the last 20 years. We went up to Club Mex to try some of the classic routes, and I flashed “Fear of Flying” (5.12a) in a perfect moment of flow up the fun crimps. I projected “Blazing Saddles” (5.12c), onsighted the first pitch of “Battle Royale” (5.12a), and flashed “The Sword” (5.11d) to round out the session. That night, I got dinner at El Crux with some new friends, and there was one point where every person at our table was from a different country (USA, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, France)! El Potrero Chico is truly a melting pot. Going on this trip solo forced me out of my comfort zone in a good way that led to many new friendships.
I snuck in a few pitches with Connor the next morning before some extreme heat came in that afternoon. While cleaning a route at the TNT Wall, I glanced over across the canyon and witnessed a giant rockfall in Virgin Canyon (which thankfully didn’t hit anyone). It was a sobering reminder of how much is outside of our control when climbing. Connor and Matt flew home that day, so I partnered up with other folks for the remainder of my trip. The day after that was very windy, but I got to crag with some awesome friends I made from Slovenia/Bosnia, Juliana and Robert. I ran single pitch classics at Mota Wall with them and enjoyed some sunshine while exchanging stories about our lives.
The following day, Juliana and I got an early start and climbed “Yankee Clipper” (15 pitches up the Jungle Wall, ~1500 feet). We linked pitches and swung leads up the large formation, and the terrain passed by quickly below us, with only short breaks for dance parties at anchors during our transitions. Moving in large blocks over hundreds of feet of limestone at a time is one of my favorite things about climbing; my mind shuts off and I just lose myself in the joy and rhythm of the continuous movement.
At the 14th pitch, the wind picked up and we turned a corner into the shade. Juliana encouraged me to try the crux 15th pitch, knowing that I would regret it if I didn’t at least try. My fingers were bleeding profusely from scrapes on the sharp rock, my comfy multi-pitch shoes weren’t cutting it on the tiny holds, and the wind was roaring on the exposed face to the summit. My attempt on the razor thin calcite crimps and pockets was taking too long with these additional stressors, so we happily bailed from there.
My goal was to onsight the first 14 pitches and descend before dark, and I was successful! Our rappels zipped by efficiently and without incident, and we found Robert waiting for us at the bottom to congratulate us. He cooked us dinner and we all stayed up celebrating life, travel, and climbing. It was rewarding to complete the climb with Juliana since I rarely get the opportunity to climb with other women. We bonded quickly and became fast friends; her beaming smile after the climb made my heart soar.
For my final day in Potrero, I wanted to get wrecked and make the most of my remaining time. I partnered up with Mike from my hostel to climb two classic multi-pitches in a row: “Satori” (5.10c, 7 pitches) and “Excalibur” (5.10a/b, 6 pitches). It was a chilly morning, and we were the first people up to the wall. We linked pitches and savored the awesome features and clean rock. Both routes top out on a narrow razorback ridge with dramatic drop-offs and outstanding views. Climbing these 13 pitches so quickly with Mike was an ideal way to end the trip, and he ended up being an efficient and fun partner for the objective.
Memorable climbing, pushing through fatigue, and topping out the wild ridgeline in two different spots gave me exactly the end experience I was seeking. I left Potrero feeling satisfied and fulfilled, and far more confident than my last trip with my strength and mindset. Going to Mexico alone was a gamble—with my previous small injuries, finding partners, weather, etc—but thankfully it all worked out safely. I am deeply grateful for my time there, and the friends I made and shared a rope with along the way. Until next time!