Saturday, November 15, 2008

Estarillo - 12 pitches

Potrero Chico is known for it's classic multipitch sport routes. Climbs that would be relatively impossible for all but the best, or craziest climbers are open to just about anybody willing to take a lead fall onto a bolt. Looking into the canyon, you can see parties spread out all over the limestone, hundreds of feet off the canyon floor. Meanwhile, herb collectors ride past on their donkeys, and stray dogs who've befriended climbers sleep at the base of routes waiting for the climbers to return with some goodies. It's hard not to become a better climber once you've come here. The majority of the fear experienced when doing a multipitch trad route disappears when there is an anchor already there waiting for you, so limits are easy to push, and consequences are low. Rockfall is the most dangerous part of climbing out here, a few days ago I was staring up into the sun belaying a climber on a seldom climbed route, and as I watched him, ready to catch a fall, I was nearly knocked cold by a pebble that he'd kicked off from over a hundred feet up. I didn't see it coming until it was only inches from my face. I swear my brain didn't even register that I'd seen it until I already felt the pain. It hit me square between the eyes. An inch left or right and I would have lost an eye. I barely held on to consiousness and managed to switch belays with another climber before I walked over and sat down, my face reeling with pain. I have a dent in my nose now, it's not visible, but ask me some time and I'll let you feel it.
Yesterday, Sean and I decided to give Estarillo a shot, it's a 12 pitch climb with many pitches as hard as 5.10 b and c. The truth is that I was pretty nervous, I've never been that far in the air without wings, and dangling from a thin yellow rope attached to bolts hooked into the rock feels less and less strong the higher you go. That said, Estarillo is now one of my all time favorite routes, it ascends a prominent dihedral on the right side of the ridge line. And even though at times you're insanely high off the ground, it's easy to keep your wits about you with the well placed anchors, and ledges that afford great rest spots. Still though, pitch 11 was the hardest I was going to lead, and it was also the most exposed. Moving from a perfectly good rest ledge, and climbing out to an overhang which suddenly pushes you out over the full 1100 feet of nearly overhanging rock below you isn't something that the body always takes lightly. I've found that I'm in fact afraid of heights. Not so much in my head, but in my body. I feel fine mentally, I feel stable, able to think, and at times Sean and I were even joking around. But then when it comes time to tell my body, "ok, lets climb that overhang" suddenly I end up feeling a little week, and my feet only move in small, tentative steps. The view from the summit though was one of the most rewarding places I've ever been. A palm tree shades a roomy ledge, The canyon is laid out before you, and the dessert of Nuevo Leon stretches out to the right. It's a climb that I highly recommend to anyone. Just watch out for the rattlesnakes, they like this line too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Climbing in Potrero Chico, Mexico - Day 1

The moon was nearly full as I arrived in Potrero Chico, Mexico, but the rock walls were still only a shadow against the night sky. After a month of planning I knew little more about the place I was going than I did when I was first told about this place. Web searches yielded little information, and photos were scarce, but from the stories I was told the place was legendary. I pitched my tent, and a restless night left me dazed when I finally emerged from it in the late morning. Climbing out into the grass, my eyes where blurry, and I couldn't quite focus, the rock was still just a shape. As things came together and I rubbed my eyes to clear the night away, I was sure that I had still not seen correctly. But there it was, thousands of feet of Limestone stacked vertically, looming over us, a distinct skull shape peering out of the rock.

I am here to climb multipitch sport routes. I'm a trad climber, which is somone who climbs with the necessary equipment to create your own anchors and protection as you climb. Sport routes have been bolted already and all you need to do is clip in as you climb. On my first day, myself and my friend Sean joined two of the best climbers from Costa Rica, (aparently there are 10 of them) to ascend a route named, "Will the Wolf Survive." It was as I was leading the second pitch which was rated 5.9 that I realised that hights where scary regardless of wether or not you were placing your own gear or taking advantage of pre-placed anchors. Either way, falling is scary, but an easy grade like 5.9 allows for some relaxation since it's unlikely that you'll be falling anyways. We had climbed a few pitches to warm up before setting our teeth in to "Will the Wolf Survive" and already i'd climbed more on Day one than I'd climbed in a few weeks. By the top of pitch three, I was starting to feel "it" you know, that tired, I don't want to be 300 feet of the ground, feeling. Regardless of how I felt though I knew that I'd feel better once sumiting, so I swallowed my complaints and was the last of the four of us to start on the fourth pitch.
It would have been easy only two feet off the ground, but under no circumstances is it comfortable to move from a perfectly good ledge 320 feet off the ground out into an overhanging and technically demanding face, especially while wearing two backpacks.

As I stepped out onto the climb, I couldn't see the other three of my team sitting above me, but I could hear their laughter and joy that comes from having reached the summit. It was right about then that my hands cramped up so bad, that I couldn't even let go of the holds I was on. I yelped in pain, and warned them that I was about to fall, which I of course couldn't do because of my hands. Eventually I pushed myself off of the rock with my feet, and began biting at my fingers to try to pry them open, hopeing that it would stop the pain. Letting go of the rock 320 feet above the ground is never easy. Eventually I stretched my hands untill the pain left, but I was sure that nobody would believe me about the cramps. If I were them I would assume that I had simply had a tough time on the rock...
We made it down just in time to set our feet on the ground before dark, and walked back to town with dinner on our minds. I'm anxious to get on more of these climbs where you can climb higher and harder because of the extra security of bolts, hopefully the nervousness that comes with distrust of trad gear will go away, and I can get as comfortable as my friends who have already been here for a week. For now though, I'm just happy to have the option to spend 10 days in Potrero Chico, Mexico!