POTRERO CHICO, Nuevo Leon, Mexico – Less than half an hour from the crowded metropolis of Monterrey, the mountains rise in a spectacular series of limestone peaks that have come to be known as a world-class climbing destination. It started as a municipal park with a swimming pool and barbecue pits, but it didn’t take long for climbers to discover the pitted limestone face of these towering walls.
Today at the base of the mountains there’s a cluster of businesses catering to the climbers from as far away as Australia and Japan. We chose the cozy Posada Potrero, a picturesque retreat with houses and rooms for rent, grassy places to pitch a tent under the trees, a commodious pool with hammocks and a big communal kitchen that at night becomes a lively community of climbers from all over the world.
We arrived at about 6 p.m., leaving San Antonio at 9:30 a.m. and stopping at the border to buy Mexican car insurance and get car and tourist permits. We’d seen the mountains for an hour or more on the approach, but the hazy blue in the distance gave little clue as to what we’d find: a dramatic series of vertically layered cliffs, pointing heavenward like vast curtains of limestone. I couldn’t imagine myself scaling them, ever. But German and Marco had promised me there were beginner climbs, so I didn’t panic.
There was time for one climb before dinner, so we packed our gear and made our way up to the area known as the Wonder Wall. It was so tall and so vertical that my neck ached from watching German make his way up, leading the way in placing the rope at the very top to secure us as we climbed. I tried not to think too much about it as I stepped into my harness and borrowed shoes.
Unlike Enchanted Rock, where I first learned to climb, Potrero Chico is a sport climbing site, where thousands of routes have been marked and bolted. The bolt fastens a hanger, or a steel loop, that allows a climber to insert a hook attached to his rope, securing his way as he goes.
German had reached an impasse in the climb, and he was retracing his steps to seek another way. I couldn’t see how on earth he was going to make it to the next hanger; it was two body-lengths up a sheer wall, even for a giant like German.
“This doesn’t seem like a beginner’s pitch to me,” I countered. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a way up.”
“There’s always a way,” Marco said, as German felt his way along the wall. “It’s just a puzzle, and you have to figure it out.”
Figure it out he did, and the next up was me. Face to face with the rock, I found my friends’ words to be true. This stone yields its secrets to those who persist. I climbed five pitches during my three days here, working my way up to a 5.9, an advanced beginner pitch, and this with an arm injured in my previous week’s beginner climb.
My guides were Andres and Karla, two young climbers from Monterrey who seemed as much at home on a rock face 100 feet up as they did on the ground. Andres began climbing at 12, and by the age of 19 had scaled most of Potrero as well as Argentina’s Aconcagua, the second tallest peak in the Americas. Karla, at 27, is the single mother of Samadhi, a winsome 6-year-old who carries her climbing gear in a little pink pack decorated with teddy bears. Samadhi’s name is taken from the Hindi word for enlightened consciousness, or, as her mother says, concentracion — an appropriate appellation for a child who began learning to climb before she learned to walk.
With the same care that she coaxed her young daughter up the limestone wall, Karlita coached me up a 5.8 and halfway up a 5.9, meaning I’ve progressed to the level of advanced beginner.
Samadhi and her mother taught me a great deal. After our day on the wall, I feel I’m coming to a sharper focus and a greater mastery of my fear — poco a poco.
Climbing is about more than having a good time, as Karla taught me. It can change your life.