The scream pierced the cool night air accompanied by the screeching of metal against pavement. The picnic table I was leaning against shifted under my weight as several men jumped and ran toward the scream. I followed the Mexicans into the night, wading through the pile of Tecate Blanco cans at our feet. We walked down the steep driveway and away from Ariel’s Chalet. Chris, Dave, Trevor and I came across the scene shortly: a late 90’s Dodge Neon with two wheels balanced on the edge of the driveway and two overhanging a drop into the brush below. Everyone seemed to be OK, so we sat on the sidelines while a flurry of men took turns pushing from behind and stomping on the gas. The result was a cloud of smoke as the wheel with purchase burned into the driveway.
“Gringos, empujamos!” one of our hosts called from the driver’s seat. We acceded to the request for help and took up positions. Dave jumped on the hood of the car just over the spinning wheel while the rest of us tried to push from behind. We gave it a few more tries, giving up once we realized the critical place to push from was directly underneath the overhanging rear wheel. Thankfully, a truck appeared in the driveway before we were implored to give that a try. We walked back to the chalet confident that our drunk friends would soon have the Dodge Neon back on the driveway. Just another wild night in Mexico.
It was our first full day back in el Potrero Chico. The last time the four of us had been here was just over two years ago, and even though Mexico felt as wild and raw as it had before, a lot had changed between that first trip and now. When I arrived last time, I had only been climbing for 6 months and my ambitions were appropriately low. I topped out one of the small towers and generally just soaked in the atmosphere of my first international climbing trip. On that same trip, Trevor and Chris planned an all-out assault on a route called Timewave Zero. Timewave Zero ascends the southern face of el Toro, and conveniently enough was mostly in view from where we were staying in Ariel’s Chalet. Two years ago, I stood in awe of their achievement – climbing the 23 pitch, 2,300 foot monster in a single 26 hour push. The climb is bolted and mostly moderate, but has a 5.12a near end that really puts a sting at the end of a long day. As we listened to their progress over the radio from the comfort of the Chalet that night, I remember my one friend saying that we should have tried it too. I don’t recall my response, but I was fairly confident that I would never be able to go up something so large and intimidating.
Fast forward through the past two years and a lot of climbing, I felt more than ready to give Timewave a go. As we drove into the park on the first night, we were looking forward to less than 4 hours of sleep if we wanted to try Timewave Zero. I didn’t want to push Chris into anything because he was fighting a cold, but the minute we laid out our beds he started sorting out gear.
“What do you think man?” I asked as I watched him rack up the necessary draws to link long pitches.
“We’re doing this!” Chris responded with the excitement of a kid on Christmas Eve. Our companions just laughed as Chris and I got more and more amped at the prospect of barely sleeping and tackling 2,300 feet of climbing first thing in the morning.
Dave was happy to sit the big climb out, and Trevor had already done it and knew the pain involved with climbing Timewave. Trevor was also a little skeptical of the plan: do the biggest wall in the park, with minimal sleep, with a beginner (me). Trevor is one of Chris’s closest friends and I think it made him uncomfortable to think about Chris’s safety being in someone else’s hands. Dave broke the tension with a friendly bet: what was the over-under on a door-to-door climb of Timewave? Trevor and Dave settled on 18 hours and offered up 100 pesos each. “Let’s make it competitive – 16 hours,” I said as I finished stowing our water, food, and gear.
I think the bet made Trevor more nervous. “There is no reason to go fast up there guys. Just be safe,” he said as we lay down for the night.
The alarms went off just as I felt the pull of sleep, and Chris and I wolfed down some food and set off for Timewave. The first half of the climb went by quickly with Chris and me swapping leads and linking pitches. On easier terrain, we simul-climbed to reach an improbably comfortable palm tree belay jutting out of the sheer cliff. We had climbed the first 14 pitches in 7 leads, and the responsibility shifted to Chris as we were coming to the harder pitches. I was confident in my ability to ascend all but perhaps the 12a, but time was the big factor now. We were looking good to maybe have the rappelling done by dark, and sitting down for dinner in the Chalet sounded very appealing. And when you want to go up fast, you hand the sharp end to Chris. Chris shot like a rocket through the overhanging limestone and let me have the honor of ascending the last little choss pile to the summit.
After enjoying the views and taking our time to down most of the rest of our food, Chris and I simul-rappelled the route and made the dash back to the Chalet with plenty of time to spare, 9:30 pm. We collected our 100 pesos and joined the party already in progress. Chris and I luckily had the chance to down a few beers and tacos before the Dodge Neon careened halfway off a cliff.
We enjoyed a full rest day, resting our numb feet, cactus scratched calves, and sore muscles. It felt great to have the big goal in the books and just enjoy the beautiful scenery. After a quick visit to town, we drove back through the wild Mexican Easter celebrations to get ready to cook dinner with Ariel and his wife Chely.
Ariel, the owner of the Chalet, is almost always found with a smile on his face, and has the ability to make everyone lean in when he speaks. And when he speaks, he talks passionately about his love for his friends, his family, and the land. On this particular trip, we talked about the difference in family culture between the United States and Mexico. It is quite clear that Mexican families are a lot closer, both physically and emotionally. It would be easy to attribute that to the US just lacking family values, but Ariel had a deeper insight. He spoke of the areas around el Potrero and the dangers of the drug cartels. El Potrero lies a few hours from the American border, and in years past, the closest city of Monterrey was the backdrop for many deadly battles as the drug cartels waged a brutal war. Ariel speculated that this is why families are so close knit in Mexico. The lack of security in Mexico has led Ariel to keep his family as close to home as possible. In fact, Ariel’s son and his grandson were travelling to the beach that weekend and you could see how much it weighed upon Ariel.
Talking with Ariel, I was reminded of a conversation I had in a Zydeco bar in New Orleans a few months before Hurricane Katrina. Sitting down to eat, an old man who acted as if he was the manager of the dive bar sidled up next to us. I suspected he was just a guy that liked to get drunk and talk to people, so we indulged him. I remember him saying, “We all under water in Nawlans. We know one day a storm is gonna come take all this away. And that’s why we keep living each day like it’s the last.” Talking with Ariel felt like the conversation we would have had after the hurricane. When Ariel talked about his worries they felt more than just a distant future, they felt as if they had already been at his doorstep.
After two days resting and messing around, we had one day left to climb before we had to leave Potrero. With temperatures getting up to 95 degrees, we picked out our route on the shady side of the mountain. Trevor, Dave, Chris, and I scrambled through the scree and brush to gain the base of our chosen route and broke into two groups of two. This way we could make it up and down with plenty of time to get gas, groceries, and enjoy one last dinner in Mexico.
I partnered up with Trevor for our first multi-pitch together. Trevor took the first pitch, and I followed up, reaching a roomy belay. Trevor left me on belay as I started up the offwidth pitch. The rope was running through the master point, which was very close to Trevor’s belay stance. Before continuing, I took the rope off the master point and clipped into the highest bolt on the anchor to give Trevor more room to belay. Trevor was incredulous. Why in the world didn’t I just clip the high bolt first before unclipping the master point. He had a point; either one requires the same amount of steps, why not do the safer thing.
The tension was palpable and I felt as if Trevor really didn’t trust me to keep us safe. I set off on the next pitch to escape the anxiety. Luckily the tension relieved as we started linking pitches and in no time at all we were at the top. After enjoying our last summit view we started the rappels to get back to our Easter Sunday dinner. I was getting ready to rappel, and I set up a prusik knot, as I always do. As I was wrapping the knot around the rope, Trevor had a good laugh at my expense. He wanted to know why in the world I used a backup. I was surprised to hear this from the person I thought was the most safety conscious in our group. As I descended the route, my wheels were turning. Safety, climbing, prusik knots, crashed Dodge Neons, and the Mexican drug cartels. What was the real danger?
Waiting for the flight back to America, Chris and I talked about the relativity of safety. Chris is often made to feel like the “unsafe” one in the group because of his unbridled zeal for climbing. And even though a little criticism can be healthy, Chris is certainly not what I would consider a dangerous climber. After the discussion, I am not sure we settled the issue of who was safe and who wasn’t.
Everyone responds to fear by trying to exert some control over the situation. Whether you are afraid of drug cartels or of plummeting from the top of a cliff, the fear flows from the lack of control. Ariel prefers that his family lives close and remains nervous when they travel without him. And Trevor was OK with rappelling without a backup but didn’t like it when I was in control of a similar situation. And when the plane’s wheels left the tarmac in Monterrey, I sat next to the window so I could see what was going on outside. As I always do on takeoffs, I was looking intently, as though I could act if I saw something go wrong as the plane accelerated across the runway.
It is hard to say when the control we seek actually makes us safer. But that visit to Mexico reminded me that the control I have over my life is a luxury. So instead of looking intently out of the airplane window, I leaned back into the seat and slid the window shade down as we shook and roared down the runway. Sometimes you just need to let go of that control and concede.
Authored by Andy Munas
Notes for those travelling to el Potrero: I never once felt unsafe while in Monterrey, Hidalgo, or el Potrero Chico. And to be a climber and to miss out on this place for the sake of safety would truly be a shame.