A Muerte in El Portrero Chico, Mexico

El Potrero Chico, Mexico, is a big wall sport climbing paradise with short approaches, a tight community, and the world's best and biggest margaritas. When Editor Julie Ellison set off on her own life-list trip south of the border, she had no idea that the experience would change her as a climber forever.
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El Potrero Chico, Mexico, is a big wall sport climbing paradise with short approaches, a tight community, and the world's best and biggest margaritas. When Editor Julie Ellison set off on her own life-list trip south of the border, she had no idea that the experience would change her as a climber forever.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of our print edition.

The author nears the top of the 13-pitch 5.10b version of Yankee Clipper. Photo: Alton Richardson

The author nears the top of the 13-pitch 5.10b version of Yankee Clipper. Photo: Alton Richardson

There are a million reasons to visit El Potrero Chico: You can climb 20 pitches of quality limestone on a fully bolted big wall, in the middle of winter in a T-shirt, basking in the Mexican sun. You can camp five minutes from a 1,200-foot route, or rent a huge casa for a week with a group of friends and pay less than the cost of your monthly utilities. You can eat like a king for dollars a day—spicy elote (corn on the cob rolled in spices and crema), melt-in-your-mouth chicharrón, aka fried pork belly in a variety of tortilla configurations, and five-shot margaritas served in a Styrofoam bucket. So, I rallied seven of my closest friends to buy plane tickets to this bucket-list destination, and we were all in—a muerte—a phrase that literally means “to the death” and is a spirited and passionate Spanish saying used to cheer on climbers.

El Potrero, or “little corral,” features more than 650 sport climbs of all types, from 12-pitch 5.10s to a 23-pitch 5.12 to single-pitch 5.13s and everything in between. It’s a limestone paradise ideal for climbers of all ability levels, the type of place that you can redpoint at your limit or develop a lead head for big walls on moderate terrain while relying on the safety of bolts.

Potrero was developed in the early 1990s by a handful of climbers from Colorado and Austin, Texas, which is about a six-hour drive away. In the more than two decades since it came on the scene as a climbing destination, there have only been two recorded deaths: one the result of a free-soloing fall and the other caused by rockfall on an “illegal” route that wasn’t maintained by area climbers. As far as international climbing trips go, Potrero is relatively easy, meaning travel isn’t too long or overwhelming, you don’t need a car, everything is cheap, and all visiting climbers are centrally located in a few campgrounds clustered together right outside the gates to the canyon. It’s truly a climber’s utopia in the middle-of-nowhere Mexico—long, fun routes, a sense of community, and the best damn food outside of my mom’s kitchen. That’s what I went for; that’s what I dreamed of for almost two years. But that’s not what I got.

Photo: Julie Ellison

Photo: Julie Ellison

Janosch is dead. This was the news that had trickled through the close-knit climbing community on our fifth night in Potrero. The next morning, about 50 climbers sat on plastic chairs in La Posada’s communal kitchen, where it still smelled faintly of the homemade tortillas, spices, and eggs fried up on the dozen gas burners. We watched as Frank, usually a merry prankster and self-appointed seasonal mayor of Potrero, somberly delivered the account while wearing a fake fur coat, which had been funny before but now seemed inappropriate.

A 28-year-old German climber named Janosch Sedlacek had died while rappelling Time Wave Zero (5.12a), a 23-pitch route that is one of Potrero’s main attractions. Janosch and his climbing partner of four years had simul-climbed a good portion of the line, summited around 3 p.m., and were starting the first rappel. Their rope was 80 meters but had been chopped on one side, so Janosch adjusted it to compensate. He went first, and one side of the rope didn’t reach the anchors. Since there were no knots, he went off the end and fell about 300 meters to the large bivy ledge on pitch 12. It was reported that he hit another climber who was leading the route as he fell, but the climber did not sustain any major injuries.

Red-eyed and exhausted after staying up all night to assist in body-recovery efforts, Frank explained this to us, ending with, “Be safe, watch out for each other, and tie knots in the ends of your rope.” Navigating my way out of the kitchen through the throng of climbers with heads hung low felt like the first page of a new chapter in the book of my climbing life. Right before the meeting, we had seen policemen with black uniforms going through Janosch’s tent 30 feet away from our own, each of them a dot in the sea of shelters spread on the large grassy field of the La Posada campground. The local officials had no idea how climbing worked, and that accidental death was a real possibility, so they were treating it like a homicide, investigating for clues and a reason why he died.

Colorado climber Paul Creme on one of the 5.10 crux pitches of Yankee Clipper. Photo: Alton Richardson

Colorado climber Paul Creme on one of the 5.10 crux pitches of Yankee Clipper. Photo: Alton Richardson

After Janosch’s death, going out to climb again felt wrong. On one hand I wanted to get back on the horse and remind myself why climbing is so great in the first place. And yeah, maybe a teeny-tiny part of me wanted to prove that this wouldn’t happen to me, that I could go out, climb, and not make the same mistakes—my ego’s idea of a sick joke. On the other hand, it felt disrespectful to Janosch and his friends. But it was our last full day in Potrero, and my boyfriend, Alton, had spent the whole time jugging lines to shoot photos, so he had barely climbed. Although we had ticked some great routes—Yankee Clipper (5.10b, 13 pitches), Will the Wolf Survive? (5.10a, 4 pitches), Aguja Celo Rey (5.10a, 2 pitches on the prominent Las Agujas spires)—we’d had unseasonably crappy weather thus far. Instead of the balmy conditions we expected, there was a lot of fog, chilly temps, and rain leading up to this last day, which was forecasted to be perfectly sunny and 70°. Alton and I had saved Estrellita (5.10d), potentially the most-climbed route in Potrero, for this last day. It would feel like sacrilege to come to this place and not climb the area’s ultra-mega-classic. We decided to go for it.

We did the approach in silence. What was there to say? The sun that we had waited for- all week warmed our skin as we scrambled the short distance from the road to the base of the climb, and the climbers waiting to start the route were surprisingly cheery, the inevitable conversation pleasant. By the time I pulled onto the featured and somewhat greasy limestone, I had forgotten about everything except the 12 immaculate pitches in front of me. I linked the first two pitches with some fun laybacking and a little jamming, and found footholds on the sharp, dimpled limestone that bit pleasantly into the sticky rubber of my climbing shoes. There was a cool breeze flowing through the canyon, and we could hear the distant belay-command yells of the climbers all around us. I belayed Alton up to the anchor and reveled in the realization that he and I were finally getting to climb and enjoy this place together.

Photo: Julie Ellison

Photo: Julie Ellison

Alton led the next two pitches, a right-angling slab followed by a traverse out left that was easy but exposed. “Ow-owwwww!” he gleefully howled when looking at the few hundred feet of air underneath him. A few other climbers across the canyon answered with their own whoops and hollers that echoed off the towering walls, shouts that communicated relief, joy, and unity. Alton and I were moving fast, already looking forward to the delicious margaritas and pizza that awaited us on the road below. After bushwhacking through the grass-covered third class section on the fifth pitch, we ran into the team in front and took a break while they navigated the pitches above us. That’s when the mechanical buzz of a helicopter quashed the previously cheerful vibe.

The noise was getting louder, and a few minutes later the chopper cruised by, about even with us on the other side of the canyon. “The bird” and its morbid mission smacked down our rising spirits with the stark reminder that this so-called “fun sport” had claimed the life of one of our own not even 24 hours before. It was sobering and planted a seed of anxiety in the back of our minds, a constant reminder—while we were climbing—that climbing can be fatal.

The fun of moving fast on two pitches of low-angle terrain brightened our darkening moods, and we completed the following four pitches of steeper climbing quickly. But as I reached the top of the 10th pitch, the psych-switch in my brain turned off. I greeted my boyfriend at the anchor with, “I’m ready to be done. I want to get off this fucking route. Now.” Maybe it was the incessant noise of the chopper, maybe it was intuition. I’ve experienced this on long climbs several times before, with varying degrees of intensity. Isn’t this the kind of fear you have to conquer in order to grow as a climber? Since past occurrences of rising fear resulted in nothing but me having less fun the rest of the day, I calmed the wriggling ball of anxiety with the help of some soothing words from Alton and we geared up for the final pitches: a hold-filled 5.10 crack and a fun, grovelly 5.8 chimney.

Photo: Alton Richardson

Photo: Alton Richardson

We topped out and stood on the summit for a few minutes with the pair of climbers we had been tailing all day. Everyone but me was laughing and chatting after having finished such an enjoyable and classic route. I’ve never been one that can truly enjoy a summit; the whole time I’m mentally gearing up for the descent, especially if it involves rappels, and this day was no different. Another truism that clangs around my brain on long climbs is that most accidents happen on the descent. You’re tired (check), and you just want to get down (double check). Every second spent on top is another second that the dread grows and infiltrates my mind. Estrellita’s summit is famous for having a single palm tree that you can see from the road, so we took the requisite summit palm tree shots. Alton shouted “Cumbre!”—Spanish for summit—into the void surrounding us, and we started our way down.

The sun had shined on us throughout the climb, but the rappel route goes down the other side of the humongous fin that Estrellita is on, and the chill and darkness of the shade hit us hard as we started to rappel. The first rappel went smoothly, and I met a young man named Carlos at the top of the second rappel. He was in a group of four that had climbed in two parties of two. He was very friendly and in good spirits, chatting with me about how his group had a spectacular day. It was a welcome spot of joy in my solemn “just get down safely” mood. This is what climbing in Potrero is all about, I thought, a sunny day of clipping bolts with good people.

Carlos went down, and I tossed our rope across the extra-wide ledge and through the goal posts of rope-eating palm trees; this was a notoriously tricky spot to keep your rope from getting stuck. Lo and behold, one of the strands hopelessly wound itself around a tree, so I went down to the ledge to untangle it. Alton sat at the anchor above as I walked across the ledge, tied a knot in the brake strands, and carefully unwound the rope. Right as I freed it, I heard “Oh shit!” followed by the thundering CRACK-CRACK-CRACK of what I thought was rockfall bouncing off the vertical cliffs.

Two rappelling-accident deaths in two days took its toll on the climbers of Potrero. Photo: Alton Richardson

Two rappelling-accident deaths in two days took its toll on the climbers of Potrero. Photo: Alton Richardson

“He fell! He fucking fell!”

The words clattered around in my skull, my brain unwilling to absorb what they actually meant. This could NOT be happening again so soon, right? A longstanding platitude flashed like a blinking road work sign in my mind: Climbing mistakes result in injury; rappel mistakes result in death. We’re at least 300 feet off the ground, I thought, this is bad—really, really bad.

Taking action was the only way to stop my brain’s roller-coaster ride to a dark and paralyzing nowhere. I yelled down to the team below, “Are y’all OK?” One of them replied that their friend had fallen and he wasn’t responding to their calls. I replied, “Stay calm, keep breathing, double-check each other’s setups, and go down as slow as you need to. I’m going to call for help.”

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the only emergency number I know: 911. That connected me to someone who answered in Spanish, and I explained the situation in English: “My name is Julie, and I’m climbing in El Potrero Chico. A friend has fallen a few hundred feet to the ground, and we need emergency medical services immediately.” I was forwarded on twice, finally reaching a woman who said an ambulance would be coming. I got off the phone and relayed the info to the party below, telling them again to get to the ground safely.

After finishing the second rappel, Alton joined me. We tried to reassure each other that it would be OK; if we just moved slow, double-checked everything, and took our time, we would not suffer the same fate. Getting down the rest of those rappels was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I started clipping into the anchors with three connection points, checking my rappel setup 10 and 12 times, and asking Alton repeatedly if his setup was correct. We were both on edge, and the tensest moments left us snapping at each other and quickly apologizing.

At one point I looked down to see the first member of the other party finish the rappels, see where the victim was lying, then take off sprinting down the steep and slippery trail to get help. When the second climber was on the ground, I saw him looking at the body, which was just out of my view, while removing his rappel device in an unhurried manner. Even from 200 feet above, I understood his body language. Hurrying wasn’t necessary; his friend was already dead. Then he pulled a black jacket out of his backpack and laid it over the body.

El Potrero Chico Wolf Survive Rock climbing

The author on a happier day climbing Will the Wolf Survive? (5.10a), her first route in Potrero. Photo: Alton Richardson

Falling to the ground has always been my biggest fear in climbing. I have played the scene over and over in my mind, for some reason thinking that this form of self-torture would have the same effect as exposure therapy—if I think about it enough and try to face it as a reality, then maybe I won’t be so afraid of it. Or at least I can control the fear enough to continue pursuing my passion. I always wondered: What does it look like when a body falls a few hundred feet to the ground? What does it sound like to hear a body fall? And the one question I still can’t face fully: What does it feel like to free-fall, knowing that your demise is only seconds away? For a moment it was just me and the victim there on the ground (the fourth climber in their group couldn’t bear the scene and left). I stared at the mound of tangled rope and limbs sticking out from under the jacket. I had the answer to one of my questions.

A few seconds later, my good friend Hale came sprinting up the trail. He saw me and relief washed over his face, which struck me as odd. He helped me untangle a knot that was preventing me from unclipping my rappel device, and standing close to me, he was breathing hard from the sprint uphill. I could smell tequila on his breath. He removed the jacket from over the body. It seemed to scream, “Look at it, Julie! Look at what climbing can do to you!”

Andrew Poole, a healthy 26-year-old from Arkansas but living in Austin, was on his back, his torso and neck folded into a position that no living human could ever withstand. The impact of a 300-foot fall to the ground had rendered his face unrecognizable, to the point where his closest friends wouldn’t have been able to identify him.

A few other climbers with medical training, mostly expired WFRs and an EMT, came up to help. Alton reached the ground, and it was then that I saw the blood trail starting at about 40 feet up the rock. We yelled to the parties above us to stay put in order to prevent rockfall hazard for the rescuers. We stabilized Andrew’s head, neck, and spine, and slowly moved him to a flat spot, then the medically trained climbers took over checking vitals, trying to perform CPR, and figuring out what to do. As Hale checked for a pulse, I saw blood covering his hands and forearms, and I looked down to see blood all over my own hands and body. A few dozen more climbers came up, including a group with a litter from the ambulance, and responsibilities were divvied up: A few of us would stay to gather gear and make sure the parties still rappelling got down safely, and the stronger folks would hand-carry and short-haul the litter to the road. The group decision, led by the folks with the most medical training, was: None of us are doctors, so nobody can pronounce him dead. We should still consider this a rescue, not a body recovery.

Leslie, another close friend on the trip, had come up to help, and when the body was out of sight, I asked her, “Can I have a hug?” In that moment, the adrenaline left me, and I felt the deep exhaustion of climbing 12 pitches combined with such a traumatic incident. Leslie then relayed to me her experience. Our friends had been at the margarita truck waiting for Alton and I to get down from the climb so we could all celebrate our final night in Potrero together. The ambulance had driven up and down the canyon trying to figure out where to go, and in that confusion, the emergency responders told my friends that “a 20-something American girl had fallen on the route Estrellita.” A few things were lost in translation during my 911 call, and some of my closest friends thought I was dead.

“But I knew you wouldn’t do that,” Leslie said. “I knew it couldn’t be you.” But that’s the scariest thing: It could easily have been me. It could have been any of us.

Several hours later, we reached the road and were met by dozens of gathered climbers and the flashing lights of a fleet of cop cars, both local and federal. It was cold outside, and we huddled together for warmth and comfort. Hugs and individual experiences were shared while Andrew’s body lay in the litter, covered in a dark wool blanket. There was an invisible barrier between all of us and that litter, 20 feet of empty space that seemed insurmountable to cross. Not a single Mexican official even lifted the blanket to verify that he was dead. Two deaths in two days in this canyon, and the Federales were convinced there had to be foul play, so they quarantined us until they could question everyone involved—there were at least 40 of us—in the rescue efforts: What part did you play? Who took his pulse? If it was an accident, why did you move the body? After much hasty translation and confusion, the Mexican officials released us. We all went back to the kitchen to have a beer and decompress. I looked around at the people with whom I had just shared the worst experience of my life and felt a nugget of pride to be part of such a capable and compassionate group of people.

Photo: Alton Richardson

Photo: Alton Richardson

Coming home to Boulder, one of the meccas of climbing, with a job that revolves around climbing and a group of friends who are all climbers, was not comforting. It was gut-wrenching. Everyone excitedly repeated the one question I didn’t want to answer: “How was your trip?!” Oh, I don’t know, two people died in rappelling accidents and I saw one of them happen, so yeah, what do you think?

I saw people at the gym and felt hatred mixed with jealousy. How dare they laugh and have fun while participating in a sport that is so serious? They hadn’t seen what I had seen; they didn’t know the brutality of watching someone fall to their death. Alton, my best friend and the only other person who understood what I was going through, was dealing with his own emotions, and it strained our relationship. I was depressed and couldn’t even turn to the one activity or the one person that always lifted my spirits. Family and friends tried to console me, but the only person who had experienced such tragic loss was my brother, a former Army captain.

He did two tours in Iraq and faced the senseless death of his friends and fellow soldiers every day for months on end. “Are you going to stop climbing?” he asked. I answered no without a second of hesitation.

“Well, that means you’re going to have to rappel again,” he said. “You will have to face exactly what you don’t want to face. It might be in a few weeks, or a few months, but, trust me, that will be the moment you take your life back from this trauma.” He explained that he and his buddies dealt with death during the war by accepting that there’s either a bullet out there with your name on it, or there’s not. You can do everything possible to mitigate risk, but in the end, there’s still a certain amount of fate that’s already written and in the books, so you have to live your life the way you want while you can.

It’s still not 100% clear what happened with Andrew’s incident, but one of his climbing partners reported seeing the rope whip through the chains, so it’s suspected that he went off one end. In the nine months since the accident, I’ve had many fellow climbers reach out to me to share their experiences with death, how they dealt with it, and how they came back to climbing. Eventually I pulled out of it, stopped listening to sad music, got my psych back for climbing, and have done a handful of longer routes—rappelling included. I came back to climbing with a renewed vigor and even managed to reach personal bests in my sport, boulder, and trad pursuits.

Just as thousands of climbers’ hands round out the biting edge of a sharp crimp, time has softened the abrasive, unsettled feeling I used to get when I thought about Potrero. I can look at pictures without feeling like I’m going to puke and even chuckle at silly things that happened. I think about the good parts: how wonderful my fellow climbers are, how everyone pulled together to try and save a member of our tribe, as futile as it might have been. Climbing has given me my career, my friends, my partner in life, my health, and almost everything that I hold dear. And that’s why I will always come back—a muerte.

Photo: Julie Ellison

Photo: Julie Ellison

El Potrero Chico Beta

How to Get There

Fly into Monterrey and take a taxi from the airport. Walk outside, hold up a quickdraw, and most of the drivers will know exactly where to take you.

When to Go

November through early March is ideal, with the biggest crowds during Christmas and New Year’s.

Where to Stay

La Posada is the main climber’s campground with a communal kitchen, bathrooms, pool, tent camping, private rooms, power outlets, and Wi-Fi. Homero’s and La Pagoda are campgrounds with fewer amenities, and there are several inexpensive casitas and apartment options nearby (potrerochico.org).

Where to Eat/Drink

Nearby Hidalgo has plenty of small grocery stores and a twice-weekly outdoor market with street food, vegetables, meat, and souvenirs. The town is an easy 1.5-mile walk from the canyon, or you can hitchhike, which is standard for locals. Making your own authentic Mexican food is a highlight of any Potrero trip, but Eduardo, a local climber, makes unbelievably delicious pizzas and margaritas out of a food truck that doubles as a gear shop. He parks in the canyon almost everyday, but doesn’t have a set schedule. There’s also a world-class Mexican food truck that shows up a few days a week. Both of these are extremely inexpensive (about $5 for a pizza that feeds two hungry climbers) and not to be missed.

Money

Get pesos from the airport for the whole visit. Plan on spending about $200 per person for food, taxi, and camping for a week. There is an ATM in Hidalgo, but it’s far from the center of town.