Climbing Mexico's El Potrero Chico

Bolting South
By Justin Shipman
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Imagine tossing a penny into the air. Instead of aiming for a well, you shoot for a dry region of northern Mexico. You close your eyes and clench your fists and wish as hard as you can for a climbing paradise, a limestone oasis teeming with sport and trad routes. When your penny lands, it doesn't make a little plunk into water but sends a splash of mountains rushing thousands of feet into the air instead. The desert dust settles, and you stand before towering fins of rock, bright and still against a perfectly blue sky. At the center lies a gorgeous valley. The air is dry and warm, and the beer flows at 60 cents a bottle.

Then stop imagining. Just open your eyes.

The wish-come-true quality of El Potrero Chico is precisely why people from all over the world gather here to climb, and why it's quickly becoming a wintertime climbing and cultural mecca. The variety of climbs, heavily featured limestone, and the beautiful fins could keep you busy for years. Hidalgo, the closest town, is untouched by corporate America or the tourist bureau. And the clear sense of community among the climbers — as well as their harmony with the nonclimbers — is a refreshing sensation.

When we first arrived at the Potrero, it was 5:30 on the morning of December 30, 1999, and pitch-black. Six of us had made the nine-hour drive from Houston to take part in the festivities, and we added our tents to about 20 others on a camping site called Homero's Ranch, on the valley's lip. We had come for the New Year's party, the"Gringo Disco," and it was to be the party of the century. For a few years now the holiday was earning distinction among climbers and revelers alike, and we wanted in. There was also, at the time, the added drama of Y2K — it was two days before the world was supposedly going to end. But standing in the desert night, with gargantuan walls of rock looming over us, it seemed like the world was just getting going.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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