Friday, December 5, 2008

Potrero Chico

Climbing is what brought me here to Potrero Chico, Mexico, but for me it only supplements the rich culture and dramatic landscape. This is not the "American" vision of Mexico, it's no "spring break Cabo San Lucas," or Puerto Vajarta couples resort though at the same time it is not the poor gunslinging Mexico fictionalized often enough in Movies. It is in fact one of Mexico's richest provinces and is home to many of the major corporations that have come out of Mexico. At the same time, there are still herb collectors that travel into the mountains by burro filling sacks with plants collected from high in the canyon. Finding those plants relies on knowledge passed down through generations and at the moment, the only practitioner in Hidalgo, the town nearest Potrero Chico is a 75 year old man, and he alone has the knowledge required to fill his bags with herbs, when his time comes, there will be nobody to take his place, and the art will be lost in this place. The divide in culture here extends beyond the Mexicans and foreigners, it's easy enough to see a generation gap in the local people on your average weekend, the Mexican Holidays and weekends bring an assortment of visitors. On weekends the quarter mile walk into the canyon from my campsite saw hardly a step because I was more often than not picked up by either techno thumping teenagers in nineties era sports cars, or a pickup truck with Jesus stickers and cowboy hats on the dash. The sounds from the canyon floor echo off the high walls and bring a constantly changing soundtrack to climbers a thousand feet up. From the ground sightseers look up to the peaks around them and though the climbers are nearly too small to see, the bright colors of Patagonia windbreakers and flashy helmets swing from hold to hold far above. The show goes on into the night, as the late summiters don headlamps, illuminating spots of the wall that seem to float in the dark. The thousands of feet of rock attracts different sorts of people but a mutual appreciation marks a commonality between everyone. Language is not a barrier as the sightseers ask to have their pictures taken with the rope and gear toting climbers.

My background in climbing is mostly traditional, setting my own protection in cracks and relying on my own abilities to get vertical. This has kept me modest as there is little room for error and climbing routes over ones head usually does just that, it gets you in over your head. Since that's not the best situation to be in when high on a rock wall, I've generally stayed in my grade and pushed my limits by learning how to be more efficient, and to place solid protection. In the soft limestone out here in Potrero Chico, traditional climbing placements are rarely "bomber" because of hidden air pockets hiding just below the surface of the rock, and weak rock that still can tumble from above on even the most frequented routes, as can be attested to by the new dent in my nose. Because of the brittle stone, the majority of the climbs here are by default all sport routes, and the hundreds of bolted routes stretching multiple pitches into the upper reaches of the walls offer a new sort of challenge for me. Now I can climb at my limit, 5 pitches off the ground or more, something usually reserved for the first hundred comfortable feet of rock. Here a 5.11 sport climber who's never trad climbed can feel the rush of a hanging belay, and he can put all that unused gear knowledge to good use. Most of the people I met in Potrero Chico's version of camp 4, a hotel and camping area called Pasada El Potrero Chico, had never been more than a single pitch off the ground before coming here.

Climbing at your limit 500 feet off the ground is actually more difficult than it is 50 feet off of the ground. The fall is the same, the rope is there, but as I experienced, even when the mind isn't afraid, the body's reactions are dulled by an instinctual fear of falling from a great hight. The rope seemingly gets thinner every pitch we climb.