COATEPEQUE LAKE, El Salvador – The palms are swaying restlessly in the electric darkness, waiting for the storm to arrive. Lightning flashes over Santa Ana Volcano on the far side of the lake; just a few minutes ago I was walking along the shore with Elmer, catching the last bits of sunset over the lake.
He sensed the storm coming before I did. “Ya viene el agua,” he said. Literally, “Now the water is coming.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; rainy season notwithstanding, El Salvador gifted me with a blue sky my first full day in the country, perfect for visiting the pyramids of Tazumal and Casa Blanca, then catching a bus to this sparkling expanse of blue amid the volcanoes. Continue reading →
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.
ENCHANTED ROCK STATE PARK – Deep in the canyon between the two pink granite domes that give this place its name, there’s a world parallel to the one most of its thousands of visitors see.
Jamie McNally and Kit Garcia, two veteran climbers from Austin, were my guides into the world of the climber, where this place is known as ERock. Climbing is a pastime I’ve been eyeing from a distance over the years, with various friends inviting me to accompany them. I’d always wanted to; I’d just never had the time. But now, as I approach the five-decade mark, I realize there’s no time left to procrastinate. It’s never going to get any easier. I’m never going to have any more time than I do right now. So I dropped my friend Jamie a line. And now, as I stood in borrowed climbing shoes, harness and rope, facing this near-vertical slab of granite, there was no going back.
A rope stretched from the knot at my waist, upward to an anchor somewhere beyond my view, and back down again to Kit’s waist. She was belaying me, pulling in the slack as I climbed, and gradually letting it loose as I worked my way down. She’d be my counterweight if I fell. Still, while the rope provided safety and psychological comfort, it wasn’t to be used as a climbing aid. For that, it was just me and the rock.
“You guys have heard about gravity, right?” I quipped, tipping my head back to assess the situation and stalling for time.
“These shoes are anti-gravity devices,” Kit reassured me. “You’ll see. It’ll be easy!”
I heard a titter behind me and looked back. A girl and a boy, both under the age of 10, awaited their turn. Great. Now I had no excuses.
“But… where do I put my feet? I mean, there are no stairs here,” I pointed out, somewhat lamely.
“Here, you can start with your left foot here. Then you swing your right foot up to this ledge,” Jamie pointed to a tiny black knob protruding from the pink granite. “It’s huge!”
I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me. Nonetheless, I placed a tentative foot on the left ledge and another on the right, holding with my hands onto the rock in front of me for dear life. But there was nowhere to go from there. I was sure that if I lifted one of my feet, I’d slide down the face of the rock, shredding my exposed skin. I was stuck.
“Once you get up just a little further, it’s easy,” encouraged Jamie.
The onlookers urged me on. Clearly, I had become the center of a spectacle. There was no way to go but up.
I saw another place to step up, but only by using my right knee – a no-no for a climber, and I quickly discovered why as I left layers of skin on the rock. But I had gained ground. And suddenly, I realized he was right. The shoes were holding me fast to the rough face of the rock. I saw another ledge further up, then another, and soon I was clambering up like a 5-year-old.
“You’re a natural!” Jamie called up to me, encouragingly. “Keep on going!”
I stopped to catch my breath and looked down. Below me, Kit, the kids and their father cheered me on. Above me was Jamie, who had shimmied up by another route and was waiting for me at the top.
Gradually, as I began to relax and trust the magic shoes – and more importantly, my body’s intuition – I began to notice something strange. Gravity didn’t have quite as much power over me as I’d thought it had. It didn’t feel quite so absolute. I worked my way up to where Jamie awaited like a proud coach, snapping photos of my first baby steps as a climber.
“You know what?” I gasped, taking my eyes from the rock to look up at him for a moment. “My body’s not as heavy as I thought it was!”
That’s not to say it was easy. The next route we climbed, called “Jacknife,” was more than twice as tall as the first one and required negotiating an inwardly sloping wall. Jamie coached me to straighten my legs and lean back, keeping my body’s weight over my feet. Fear of falling generates a tendency to hug the rock, which paradoxically causes the body’s center of gravity to shift forward, taking weight off the feet. This makes your feet more likely to slip out from under you. You have to let go of the fear to let your body work with the rock.
It was perched on a tiny shelf of rock atop the Jacknife, breathless, bloodied and bruised, that I began to understand why people endure what they do to enter this world. I looked across the canyon at the tourists toiling up the side of the main dome’s gentle slope and realized I had changed. What had once seemed a perfectly lovely, even strenuous outing climbing the dome now seemed — well, pedestrian. For a brief instant, I had become one with the rock. Now I realized that nothing would ever be the same.