Luis Medina must be one of the happiest men alive.
“This is my office,” he says with a broad smile and a sweep of his arm toward the mirror-like pool in front of him, the basalt formations all around and the forest beyond. We’re in a place he’s dubbed “Naturaleza Mistica” or “Mystical Nature,” where water has carved these crystalline pools into the rocks all around.
It’s a place that invites contemplation, inspiration and renewal. Birdsong ricochets from tree to tree in the stillness of the afternoon; the water drips from pool to pool, and a cricket chirps from a nearby crevice. I can’t imagine a better place for an office. Luis is the founder of Eco-Tours Guadalajara, the area’s first tour company dedicated to outdoor adventure. Now he and his 10-member crew lead adventures in rockclimbing, rappelling, ziplining, mountain biking, scuba diving and canyoneering. Today he leads a group of travel writers, in Guadalajara for the SATW convention, through various degrees of terror and exhilaration on the first three, beginning with a rappel down a 50-foot sheer wall and a clamber up another one, followed by a leap from a cliff on a zipline.
On a recent El Diente tour, travel and outdoor writer Bob Sehlinger makes the first descent.
Now we’re following him through a grassy field to a rocky forest as he interprets the geological and biological wonders of this place.
It was a leap of faith that brought Luis to this place in his life. He was an excellent secondary school teacher – so good that he was promoted to school principal. He enjoyed education, and his wife Lucinda taught there, too. But something in Luis kept calling him to the great outdoors, to the wilds of the mountains that encircle Guadalajara.
“Finally I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I needed to be outside, in nature.”
So after 11 years in public education, he and Lucinda left their jobs and founded Eco-Tours, taking their teaching skills to a new audience. Now their pupils learn to overcome their fears and bond with the natural world around them.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. Luis approached local tourism officials for support, but they were skeptical.
“Ecotourism in Jalisco? There’s no demand for it,” he was told. But he persevered, and now business is booming. His is one of four ecotourism companies in the Guadalajara area.
“We have one of the most spectacular sites in the country for ecotourism – excellent walls for climbing, beautiful landscapes, amazing canyons, and all just 45 minutes from Guadalajara,” he says. “This place is a natural for ecotourism.”
Most climbers tackle their art with a passion that could only be called contagious. I exposed myself to that particular virus this spring, carried by veteran rock climber/writer/attorney Jamie McNally, and I suppose that’s why, as I prepare for a week in Guadalajara, I’m packing my climbing gear.
One of the menu of outings offered by the Society of American Travel Writers in its pre-conference lineup was “Eco-Adventure in El Diente,” and with a name like that, how could I resist? Especially with the excellent training provided by Jamie, who nearly killed me in my first exposure to rock climbing this spring. It wasn’t until I went online today and googled it that I realized that where he failed in May, he may have succeeded in October.
El Diente (The Tooth) is about to bite me…
My account of my May adventure will appear in the Dallas Morning News this fall (posthumously, perhaps) so I asked Jamie to provide a few tips for beginners as I prepare to punish myself on the cliffs of El Diente. (El Diente pic compliments of Marc and Kristi, who climbed there a year ago and made it sound like a piece of cake in their excellent blog… Thanks, guys!)
OK, so after reading Marc and Kristi, and after going through Jamie’s tips (below, for the very brave), I’m feeling better about the climb. Honestly, it’s the mountain biking that I’m kind of freaked out about. I’ll keep you posted – if I’m not in traction.
Read on for Jamie’s excellent tips. And if the climbing bug bites you, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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.