It’s dusk on a Sunday night, which means there are around a hundred cars below me in various states of disarray, all blasting Mexican pop and mariachi music at an astounding volume. The echos resound from the two-thousand-foot canyon walls, cascading into a wall of sound that feels like it could slam me off the rock. I’m having trouble focusing, and every time I get ready to make a move, a new boombox-volume duel kicks off below me. The position I'm in is tenuous; my hands are on a bad two-finger pocket and a small crimp. The light is fading, and I glance at the long run-out of rope below me before returning to my search for the next handhold on Gringo Disco, a forty-meter-tall sport route on the Central Scrutinizer wall of El Potrero Chico, Mexico. If I fall, it's going to be a long ride.
Much of the climbing in Potrero happens above the dormant structures of a water park built into the canyon slope. A paved road runs through the canyon, and a now-defunct public picnic area, destroyed by rockfall, abuts the start to some of the longest and wildest multi-pitch climbs in the area. There’s trash from the weekend crowds who come to the canyon to party. The trappings of civilization are all around me, to the point where some climbers would begin to consider it unethical; the majority of crack climbs in Potrero are bolt-protected. And yet, as I struggle to move upward on thin holds through the discordant noise, there’s something that feels absolutely and unassailably essential about the whole experience. This is part of the rhythm of Potrero Chico, as much as the swish of palm fronds, the ripples and cracks in the sheer gray limestone, the gentle clicking of hooves from horse-mounted caballeros, the shouts of joy and frustration from climbers questing upwards. I stop trying to shut out the noise, find my footing and make the final move into the finishing jugs.
For many of us, climbing is an escape from city life. We dream of alpine starts where the only sounds you hear are the wind and the soft bite of crampons in firm snow, the focus and isolation of venturing out on the sharp end, a campfire-sized bubble of warmth and friendship amid the trees. Visiting El Potrero is different: immersion rather than isolation. Everyone seems to know everyone, and the sense of community is infectious. Spend a few weeks in Potrero and you’ll end up hitchhiking to camp in the back of a local’s truck, swapping stories with the missionaries who work at the climbing-themed cafe in Hidalgo, and joining up with a group of soon-to-be-friends for the Tuesday street market. Depending on the hour, the breeze wafting through the canyon may carry soft bird calls and the hum of insects, or it might bring you a pulsating reggaeton anthem. If you’re lucky, one day the canyon might be full of monarch butterflies on their annual migration south, wheeling under your feet as you top out on improbable limestone spires.
El Potrero Chico takes the minimalism of climbing and wraps it in a particular brand of color, noise and chaos that you can only get in Mexico. It’s not a wilderness experience, but with the right attitude, it might be something more.
Climber and creative based out of Boulder, Colorado