Finding Peace in Potrero

By Fallon Rowe
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Finding Peace in Potrero

“Mikki, ROCK!” I yell as yet another chunk of limestone goes sailing down the giant face for hundreds of feet. I readjust on small footholds, close my eyes, and force myself to take a deep breath. The last bolt is a few body-lengths below me, on a route that seems to be a nonsensical, endless choss pile. What am I doing here? I worry about Mikki, suddenly thankful we both brought helmets on a sport climbing trip.

Since I don’t trust the rock on any particular section, I decide not to bail off a single bolt; the only safe way out of this is to continue up to the next anchor. Sweat rolls off my forehead in the Mexican desert heat; it’s one of the hottest days of the trip. I move as delicately as I can with my clunky reconstructed ankle, carefully picking my way up the rills and ridges of the light grey limestone that makes up the massive Zapatista Wall on El Toro. Seriously, this is a load of crap. Why is there so much loose rock, and big runouts? This was supposed to be casual!

I grab holds that break off in my hands, which I then chuck out into space as far from the route as I can. I ‘garden’ to expose holds and cracks covered in dirt and plant matter. Don’t fall. Focus. Slow and steady. My frustration fuels me to the top of the pitch, where I find a giant ledge littered with loose boulders and debris. All I can think about is getting us out of this situation.

“Off belay!” I think that was the spiciest lead I’ve ever done. Whoa. I build an anchor and bring up Mikki. She seems equally annoyed at this route, and we are confused by how the route description could be so inaccurate compared to what we just experienced. We’re both spooked by the loose rock and runouts, especially with other parties below us. I try to lighten the mood by playing “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé on my old iPhone, and we have an impromptu dance party hanging on the anchor, laughing nervously before we start rappelling. It’s a bonding moment, one of many in our decade-long friendship built on climbing, adventure, and outright silliness. 

The rappels turn out to be freaky as we inadvertently knock off more rocks, get the rope stuck in hostile cacti and plants, and arrive at the knots in the ends of the rope just within reach of each anchor. We communicate with the other parties on the descent, warning them that the route does not get better with the coming pitches—everyone decides to bail after us, as we all dodge rocks zipping past through the air. Touching back down on solid ground brings a huge wave of relief.

Later that day, we found out we were not on the intended route at all. It turns out that a few days earlier, someone had bolted a new multipitch right next door, and did not mark it or note any information about it online. The other parties had blindly followed us up the wrong climb, and fortunately no one was injured. We’d gotten our taste of adventure for the trip and managed to avoid a full-on epic.

This experience shaped my three weeks in El Potrero Chico, and gave me a giant confidence boost for the remainder of my climbing. Now, the bolt spacing felt casual on other routes. Now, the rock felt super solid on every other climb. I figured, if I can get through the hell that was that unnamed route (now called “UNSAFE AND !!! NOT EXCALIBUR!!! 5.10c R” on Mountain Project), I can climb all of these classics without a worry. The comparison gave me perspective, so I was able to fully enjoy the rest of my climbing without fear.

After a couple years full of shoulder and ankle surgeries, and then a dysautonomia diagnosis, I had recently felt extremely unsure of myself and my climbing. I’d despaired over my body and thrown myself into training and coaching at my local gym leading up to the trip. Now it was empowering to feel so confident in myself after a long road of medical struggles. My climbing finally reflected the strength that resulted from overcoming everything I’d endured. My lead head was back and better than ever. I took my biggest falls since ankle surgery and was totally fine.

I felt like myself again for the first time in years, and that was a victory.

The limestone and climbing community both welcomed me in Potrero. On the wall, I found myself climbing my best ever:  a combination of 17 years of experience, an encouraging crew of friends, good weather, and an infinite supply of psych built up from all the months of not being able to climb due to my surgeries. Every climb, regardless of its difficulty, brought me joy and satisfaction. My friends poked fun at me for saying “best route ever” on almost every climb I did. Some of my favorites were:  Pancho Villa Rides Again, Fat Boy Slim, and Salty Dog.

The crew for this trip was fantastic, a mix of new and old friends from all over the place:  Maddie, Jonah, Mikki, Rachel, and Ledvi (and later joined by Nick, Adam, and Ken). We played with the many dogs that roamed the dirt roads of Hidalgo, threw back liter-sized margaritas at La Posada, gorged ourselves with guacamole, strolled through the vibrant street markets twice a week, and had deep conversations late into the night at our hostel, Rancho El Sendero.

Waking up each day to the sun beaming through magnificent canyons and towers of rock, we’d make the small trek to the climbing areas, craning our necks to gaze up and imagine the possibilities. Passing by locals blasting music from their cars and Mexican vaqueros riding horses in the bottom of the canyon, we got an up-close taste of the culture. I practiced my Spanish with vendors and Mexicans who asked about the crazy climbers, watching from below. Ledvi, who is fluent in Spanish, was kind enough to give me feedback to speed up my learning.

Our days were filled with brilliant sunshine, lizards darting in and out of sight, lazy snacking at the base of crags under palm trees, and of course, lots of laughter and climbing. Some days were spent sampling single pitch routes and whipping over and over again at Club Mex and Virgin Canyon, while other days were reserved for multipitch routes on Mota Wall, requiring earlier mornings and more planning. The group thrived, and every person contributed to the success and enjoyment of the team with the changing partnerships for each climb.

On one misty day, I climbed “Pancho Villa Rides Again” with my new friend Adam, a Kiwi journalist who’d been living in Canada. He was newer to climbing, and I’d reviewed some multipitch skills with him a couple days prior. He didn’t have crack climbing experience, so he learned on the fly by climbing “Pancho”, cursing his way up the cracks like a determined fighter. While he savored following the face climbing sections, I was thrilled to fly up the cracks, feeling right at home with each jam. He got to practice his newly learned multipitch skills, and told me at the summit of the climb that it was the tallest route he’d ever done. I congratulated him, and we had a requisite dance party at the final anchor, soaking up the incredible 360 degree views, proud of our teamwork. He asked me about the geology, so I gave him a crash-course lesson on the formation of the mountains and cliffs while coiling ropes for the rappel. Being a mentor is one of my priorities in climbing, and I was thankful I got to share this fun day with him.

On rainy rest days, we all walked into town to resupply at the market, hang out at El Buho Cafe, and scheme for the next routes we wanted to climb. Occasionally, we were able to hitchhike on the backs of trucks to return to the hostel.

The community was inclusive and fun, which made every day seem like a party full of friends united by common goals and lifestyles. I was uplifted by the other ladies on the trip, as I hadn’t done a trip with a girl crew before. Maddie especially reminded me of how remarkable women climbers can be, and I reveled in her humble tenacity, poise, and unapologetic strength. We pushed each other in our climbing, taking turns on hard projects, and we discussed at length what it means to support other women and build healthy friendships.

Although I ached and felt exhausted from all of the climbing and walking, I was still overwhelmed by a sense of total rejuvenation. Something about Potrero breathed life back into me, and I was so grateful. I broke off from the group frequently to find quiet spots to take in the view of the Sierra Madre and write poetry. One of these times was at the Termas de San Joaquin hot spring, which we visited on a rest day. After enjoying the sauna-like warmth in the ethereal underground domed pool, I wandered the grounds alone, contemplating the barrenness of the open desert, and appreciating the variety of unique plant life. I was at peace, and I wanted to remember that I could be happy and free even while carrying my traumas.

Towards the end of the trip, I was eager to climb some of the routes remaining on my to-do list. I partnered up with a guy I met at the hostel, an engineer from the Midwest named Isaac, to climb the classic “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. We started early, but we were still behind one party, who were gracious enough to let us climb ‘through’ them, passing them a couple pitches up at a briefly-crowded belay.

Isaac and I turned out to have a good partnership (which is not always the case when I’ve climbed with strangers on trips!), and we linked pitches the whole way up. These double-pitches were the longest leads of my life—rope stretchers even with a 70 meter rope. I danced up crimps, aretes, and cracks, feeling like all of my years of climbing had prepared me for the skills required on the route. Deep breath in. Your ankle is holding up fine. Your shoulder is repaired now. The runouts are super mild. The rock is solid. You can do this. My internal dialogue and endurance had both improved vastly over my weeks in Potrero.

We raced the sun to the top of the climb, trying to stay in the shade as long as possible. The sun hit us on the final pitch, and we rallied to the summit, celebrating and chugging water. The summit block I sat on was full of invertebrate fossils from millions of years ago. I traced them with my hands, remembering how short a human life is; as a geologist, this gives me a sense of freedom and motivation to do what brings me happiness while I have the chance. Views of the outrageous grey walls rose around us, with El Toro slicing the sky as the dominant feature of the range, punctuated by palm trees and agave clinging to the cliffs.

We looked across the canyons at other parties high on routes on the Jungle Wall and Las Estrellas Wall, breathtaking expanses of rock. I marveled at the lifetime worth of climbing in El Potrero Chico, and realized I will have to return someday to sample more of it. On the summit, I danced around, the wind playing wildly with my hair, dreaming of the next climb. I took in a deep breath of the fresh air, and I smiled.


by Fallon Rowe-

Fallon is a climber, highpointer, geologist, and Cypher Climbing Ambassador. She started rock climbing in December 2003. As a kid, she was on various climbing teams in Idaho, and competed through USA Climbing’s youth circuit from 2004 to 2014. As soon as she could drive, she began climbing outside more seriously. Recently, Fallon has been living in northern Utah, where she earned her Geology B.S. at Utah State University. Now, she is hoping to go to grad school for geology and keep climbing as much as possible!

May 15, 2020
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