Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reflections on Portero Chico

Returning to Canada after a month in Portero Chico, Mexico was a shock - half welcome, half dreaded. Being back in our beautiful house in our peaceful neighborhood surrounded by forest, nature and wild animals is delightful, spending three hours shoveling frozen snow, less gratifying. Overall, however, I am glad to be back among the wild things with nature close-by, solitude at hand, evergreens sagging with snow, larch trees still holding a few golden needles in the valleys.

Already my memories of hot days spent rock climbing and wandering through the Hildalgo market are fading and I am looking ahead to the first ski days of the season. So, before my recall of Portero Chico is forever lost, here are a few thoughts:
  • Although Portero Chico is predominantly a sport climbing area (many cracks are bolted), that doesn't necessarily make it completely safe. Some routes have long run-outs between bolts, some bolts are bad, some routes are poorly bolted making falls onto ledges or the ground possible, and first bolts are notoriously high - too high for even the longest stick clip - so ground falls from 8 metres up are a possibility on almost every route.
  • Accidents happen with the usual regularity - while we were there a climber sustained a broken arm when his belayer lowered him off the end of his 60 metre rope on a 35 metre climb.
  • The high first bolts take some headspace to manage. Sometimes, the moves to the first clip are easy enough, but sometimes the 5.10 leader will find themselves pulling 5.9+ moves to get to the first clip located some 8 metres or so off the ground.
  • Once you've clipped the first bolt, the possibility of a ground fall is not ameliorated. I led at least two routes where a fall before clipping the second bolt would have resulted in a ground fall from 10 metres up. Not a happy thought.
  • There is frequently no "clipping stance" to clip from, although a stance a foot or two up or down is readily identifiable.
  • It is not uncommon to come across rusted old bolts that scarce look able to hold body weight or bolts where far too much of the bolt is sticking out of the rock. Sometimes the only safe option is retreat.
  • Simul-rappeling with a gri-gri is an efficient way to descend when you have multiple rappels to get off. We simul-rappeled almost everything except for one or two routes where the anchor bolts looked somewhat dodgy.
  • Take a headlamp, start early, follow the usual alpine climbing protocols. I watched one party that climbed too slow and started too late struggle down from a climb in the dark trying to rappel by braille.
  • Watch what your fellow climbers were doing. We saw many mistakes being made by people who had been climbing a long time.
  • Magic Ed's green book is indispensable, but "The Whole Enchilada" is really handy for quality ratings and some route photos. Just don't let Ed see that you have it.
  • Link pitches when you get. Most pitches on multi-pitch routes are 30 metres or less and time can be saved by linking pitches on the way up.
  • Carry a long sling or two. They are handy for all kinds of things.
  • Have comfortable rock shoes. We saw some trashed feet from hot weather climbing in too tight or technical shoes.
  • If the rappel route takes you down to a different location from the start of the climb and requires some scrambling on loose scree, carry your approach shoes up. This is sport climbing in good weather, your load is easily light enough to allow the addition of a pair of shoes, and you'll ruin either your feet or your knees trying to descend loose scree/talus in rock shoes - as we saw.
  • Some routes are really close together. Make sure you are on the route you think you are on. A couple of times we got on the wrong route by accident, finding them strangely hard for the grade.
  • The grades are neither soft nor hard. They are, like any other climbing area, a mixed bag. Some are soft for the grade, some will give you a real working over.
  • Have fun. After dozens and dozens of pitches, we only climbed one crappy pitch and the stellar third pitch on this three pitch climb more than made up for it. 
    Doug following pitch one of Skytop Buttress

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