time wave zero
escaping winter in el potrero chico, MEXICO
Words & Photos by Lincoln James
The competing sounds of drunken karaoke and the heavy bass of today’s hottest dubstep beats float through the thin nylon walls of my tent. During the past few weeks I’ve adjusted to the cacophony of my surroundings; it’s comically soothing. Around 2:30 a.m., some jackass sets off a dozen fireworks. Call me a party pooper but I’m supposed to wake up in an hour to conquer North America’s longest sport climb. Yes, I’m waking up at 3:30 on vacation. This is my idea of fun.
Twenty hours before touching down in Monterrey, Mexico, I had crammed my sleep-deprived body into a super-sized lecture hall and attempted to demonstrate my grasp of kinematics. Immediately after the physics exam, I hit the road for PDX and put the real world behind me.
Taylor—the beautiful, badass, gypsy soul who convinced me to pack my bags and cross the border—had been living it up in Mexico since early November. She picked me up from the airport and as we drove along México 53 toward the small town of Hidalgo; the moonlight was just bright enough to outline the silhouette of the mountains surrounding Potrero.
El Potrero Chico, or “The Little Corral,” is home to some of the world’s finest sport climbing with hundreds of limestone masterpieces ranging in difficulty from 5.7 to low 5.14. Over the past two decades, great exchange rates, cheap camping, delicious Mexican food, and friendly locals have made this place a not-so-hidden gem. In 2014, North Face introduced Potrero to the worldwide climbing community with a video of Alex Honnold scaling El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d) without a rope.
Increased traffic has only enhanced the Potrero experience. While climbing partners; directions; and clean, well-traveled routes are readily available, solitude and adventure are still attainable. During my time in Potrero, there were never more than 50 climbers in the area at once, most of whom were always happy to share coffee in the morning, and cervezas at night.
Taylor’s childhood friends, Jake and Jordan, joined us for the beginning of my trip. Our gang of four spent the first few days adjusting to the limestone and playing around on some of the area’s easier warm-up routes. We savored each day to the bitter end, and blistered but blissful, we returned to our campsite at La Pagoda to share the day’s successes with equally stoked and hungry monkeys.
Taylor and I took our first rest day when Jake and Jordan flew back to the States and, after some much needed R&R, we cranked up the difficulty while exploring new sections of Potrero. We decided to tackle an 8-pitch 5.11 called Supernova. We zoomed to the top, climbed the entire route without falling, and returned safely to the ground in time for lunch. Hungry, delirious, and excited, we couldn’t stop making each other laugh during the rappel. With our feet on the ground and peanut-butter-hard-boiled-egg-avocado tortilla wraps in our bellies, we concluded that another multi-pitch was necessary.
Within a few seconds, we both knew what the other was thinking; the decision was simple. The next day, we would try our luck at North America’s longest sport climb: Timewave Zero, a 23-pitch monster first bolted and climbed by Potrero legend and guidebook author, Magic Ed. We asked around for advice on the route—but to no avail. The Mountain Project online climbing forum and a topography map from Magic Ed’s little orange guidebook quickly became our best friends.
By 3:45 a.m., Taylor and I were already on our second cups of coffee. We packed our food for the day and inspected our gear one last time. Headlamps guided us as we walked through the dark canyon. Further away from our campsite, the music faded out and all that was left was the synchronized sound of our boots crunching gravel. Sweating from the 45-minute uphill approach, we reached the base of our climb at 5:00 a.m.
Emulating the psychedelic owl mascot on our El Buho t-shirts, Taylor and I soar to the top of pitch 2. As I attach myself to the next set of anchors, the sun begins to rise and reveals a real life buho perched on a nearby ridge. I’m not terribly superstitious, but that tiny owl gave me a distinct feeling of confidence.
Very little planning went into this aside from the decision to begin rappelling at 4:00 p.m. no matter where we were on the route. To climb efficiently, Taylor and I decided to link as many pitches as possible. To do so, the leader must climb a full rope length at once, which means lowering the leader back to the belay station is not possible. Once past the first set of anchors that denote a pitch, the leader must reach the next set to establish a belay for the follower. Taylor’s electric-green rope measures about 230 feet (70m), and each pitch on Timewave is at least 90 feet, meaning we could not link more than two pitches at once.
This process is smooth until the linking of the 3rd and 4th pitches, when Taylor realizes that she’s climbed past the second set of anchors by quite a bit, and I no longer have enough rope for her to continue climbing. At this point, Taylor would have to down-climb while removing quick draws, a tedious and time consuming process. Wasted time on these first few pitches would make our summit bid highly unlikely, so we decided that the best option was to begin climbing simultaneously.
If linking pitches sounds risky, simul-climbing crosses the boundary from risky to dangerous. It’s the stuff that you don’t tell your mom about. I remove my gear from the belay station above pitch 2, and begin to follow Taylor’s lead. No longer separated by an anchor, if I were to fall, Taylor would be yanked off the wall and dropped until her last quickdraw sucked her back towards the rock at high speed. The next 20 minutes are devoted to uncompromised focus. Reunited at the top of pitch five, we laugh off the sketchy experience and continue our quest upward. At the top of pitch 7, with Wu-Tang clan bumping through my cellphone speakers, I take the lead.
We continue trading off and moving quickly until the 20th pitch, where a series of more difficult climbs loom in our path. Inspired by Taylor’s words of encouragement and Ice Cube’s gangsta flow, I clawed myself to the top of the 5.11 and 5.12, only falling once amid many desperate moves. Feeling exhausted and accomplished, we continued upward along the final two pitches, a 5.8 and a short scramble to the top.
At exactly 4:00 p.m., we stand atop the summit of our longest multi-pitch to date. A hug and a selfie later, it’s time to descend. If rappelling 23 pitches sounds like hell, I can assure you that if you rappel simultaneously with the right partner, it’s more like a goofy roller coaster ride.
Our throbbing, blistered feet finally reach the ground at 8:00 p.m. Remarkably, we are relatively unscathed. We prematurely take note of our good fortune and begin to hobble downhill towards camp. Five minutes later, I lose my footing and become the little spoon to a particularly frisky cactus.
Back at camp we’re greeted by our Potrero family who are eager to hear about the day’s events. Campers reward our success with a delicious curry stir-fry, totopas y salsa, and some drinks. After dinner and much needed showers, Taylor and I walk down the road from camp in search of celebratory Margaritas.
We pause outside to look up at the silhouette of the canyon walls illuminated by the moonlight. Potrero at night is just as beautiful as the day I arrived and much more familiar now.
“We were just on top of that,” Taylor says.
“Yeah,” I respond. “Pretty badass.”
We stand there, smiling in silence and staring at the sky, content with the day’s successes. I know this won’t be the last time Taylor and I share opposite ends of a rope. The bond formed thousands of feet above the ground—responsible for each others lives—is unparalleled. The thought lingers in the air as we continue down the road.