El Potrero Chico: Sport Climbing the Sierra Madre

Recently, Eric Genty and I took a climbing trip down to Potrero Chico, Mexico.  Eric is a good friend and return client and it was exciting for Aspen Expeditions to run its first trip to this world-class climbing venue.  

Getting down there is pretty easy.  We flew through Dallas straight into Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon.  We were picked up and taken to the small town of Hidalgo, where we shopped for groceries before driving out the dirt road to our room at the mouth of the canyon.  

Our home for the week was the El Dorado Inn – a white apartment-style stay at the base of the climbs with small kitchenettes.

We settled in quickly.  It was Friday night and there was a local bar out front on the side of the street that was fairly rowdy.  We were a little nervous the party and music might go all night but it dropped off once we turned the lights out and before long we woke to the 5:30 alarm for our first day on the rock.  

Each morning, we started off right with eggs, avocado, tomato, and coffee, before hiking the short approaches to the routes.  Our hosts had provided an old black and white guide book of the routes and we had the Mountain Project app; I also ended up downloading the full guide book, available on the Rakkup app and using it on my phone.  It worked really well in the sense of breaking down the climbing into zones and giving us more of the big picture layout.  It even has a GPS locator with mapping that shows where you are situated relative to the walls and trails.  I would highly recommend it.

Day 1 we headed out at dawn and it was pretty cool and windy. I climbed mostly in jeans and at most a light base layer top and a super thin breathable soft shell with a hood.  Early morning in the shade we needed these layers but climbing in the sun ended up being hot!  Late morning in the shade I was often in a t-shirt when it warmed up and this was perfect.

Our first climb was the classic 10c on the Mota Wall: Pancho Villa Rides Again.  The Mota wall faces south and has a good selection of 500 – 700 foot classics in the 5.10 range.  In February it’s a good idea to start early on these routes so the bulk of your climbing is done before sun hits.  You can move fast in Potrero.  It is well facilitated bolted climbing and a 70 M rope will almost always allow you to link pitches and descend.  Eric and I swapped leads on the route and finished with a worthwhile 11- variation on the last pitch that felt like some work in the sun.  We also met a cool Canadian Couple en route, who had travelled the world climbing for a year and were just about to head home to Canmore.  Serendipitously they had climbed in South Africa which is an area that Eric has been interested in, so we were able to meet up later and get beta for him on the climbing there.

When we rapped off it was mid day and hot so we specifically sought the shade for a few more pitches.  We ended up climbing on the North faces of two small spires across the valley in the afternoon.  They had cool alpine-style top outs on thin needles and they are relatively small features compared to the rest of the walls.

When we met up for dinner with Mike from Canmore, to get the beta on S Africa climbing, he planted the seed for the big classic Time Wave Zero and that became the plan for Day 2.  

Time Wave is a 2300 foot S facing route, with mostly moderate climbing peppered by a short 11b crux on P2 and a few 10+ pitches up high leading into a 12a or aided bolt ladder near the top.  We looked at the weather the night before and luckily the forecast called for cloud cover.  We started the day at our standard 5:30 wake up time, and by 8am Eric was leading out on P1.  The route is not committing in the sense that you can always spin and rappel.  We made good time and effort on the route linking pitches and swapping leads until we were high up on the butress.  However the cloud cover and wind was not quite what it could have been.  We linked two steep exciting 5.9 pitches to the base of the upper 5.10 pitches and decided to turn and start heading down at 1:30pm. We must have been around 800 feet from the top still.   With plenty of time to descend we decided not to bother with simul-rappelling and we were at the base of the route at 5pm.  We will have to head back for this one to put it to bed!  We made it back to town in time to catch a full-value local Saturday street party, with trucks, loud music, beer, and cowboys and cowgirls on horseback.  

In this photo Eric leads a traversing rappel off Time Wave where he had to clip draws into the bolts along the way to guide him into the next descent anchor.  Sometimes there are rappelling shenanigans such as this in Potrero.

 …and here is a young girl of Hidalgo hanging out near the entry to the canyon for the Sunday festivities. 

On Day 3 we went back for another classic on the Mota Wall called Snot Girlz.  A lot of the crux pitches on the Mota Wall are right off the ground on really solid rock.  This route in particular has an awesome 10d crux off the ground with solid continuous climbing throughout the pitch.  The route continues up from there with fairly moderate climbing and then near the top of the route the money pitch is a wild exposed traverse and arete climb at 5.8, which I thought was one of the coolest pitches of the trip.  It climbed like a fantastic gym problem way off the deck, exposed and with interesting moves but great holds.  Really fun.  We were a little tired from the previous days effort on Time Wave so we ended the day with a little rope skills practice at the apartment.  In this shot Eric practices transitioning from a rappel to an ascent on the rope in the case of missing an anchor while rappelling.  

On Day 4 we decided to chase the shade on the Zapatista wall; we got up a bit earlier and approached in the dark to make sure we were the first ones on the route.  The GPS function on the Rakkup app was nice for this 35 – 40 minute approach because we had not done it and we were moving pre-dawn.  This next shot is of Hidalgo at sunrise from the base of the Zapatista wall.  

Starting early paid off because we were able to link two routes on the wall.  We started with the classic Satori, which climbs a fairly steep alpine-esq feature with a fantastic roof pull up high on the route into more moderate terrain to the finish.  We rapp’ed off to a big ledge two pitches up on the route and then we broke left and climbed a variation called Off the Couch, which has a more sequency face crux on solid rock on the final pitch.  Linking these two routes made for an awesome day.  We thought the Zapatista wall felt fairly alpine, thus began our running joke about jungle-alpine / tropical-alpine climbing.  All the bolts sure allowed us to focus on the movement though.

That afternoon, we went on a long trek into downtown Hidalgo to find some “street corn” that we had been told about by some other travellers.  We also restocked on water and coffee for the final day.  

On our final day of climbing we were back to the reliable Mota Wall for the classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  We started early again to ensure shade and solitude, and we were rewarded by a beautiful sunrise at the base of the route.  

The route has a fantastic sustained mid-10 crux pitch on P3 and then another short steep roof pull higher up that takes a little sequencing.  The quality of the movement will not let you down.  We ended our final cragging in the shady oasis of Virgin Creek, which is accessed by walking through an old hotel and pools built into the mouth of the canyon; stone stairways lead up into the slot canyon and on to the cragging.  It has a cool feel because of this, almost as if you are entering some sort of temple.  In this photo Eric enters the Virgin Creek canyon through the old hotel.

We finished with some fun pitches including the super classic Don Quixote, which I was able to put the rope up on but alas it remains a project for me!  We will have to return one day to put it to bed, too!  That night there was a cool outdoor BBQ hosted by the neighbouring hotel and we got to hang out and chat with other travellers and climbers over dinner. In the morning we had a pick up at 6am out front on the dirt road and we were swept away through dark and dawn to Monterrey.  

A fantastic trip to a fantastic place!


Britt Ruegger

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