Bronwyn Hodgins on Resurrecting a Forgotten Classic in Mexico
A new film by Savannah Cummins dives into the mystical history of “El Gavilan” (5.13a, 9 pitches) and Hodgins’ multi-year mission to bring it back to life—and then climb it.
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The First Ascensionists
On a misty winter morning 25 years ago, Jeff Jackson and Kevin Gallagher arrived at their jobsite in Austin, Texas, glared up at the wet roof on which they were supposed to spend the day, and decided to run off to Mexico. On a spare piece of tile they scribbled a message to their boss, Barry Wilson, who was running late. “Hey Barry,” the message read. “It’s raining. We have to go to Mexico. Sorry. We’ll see you next Monday.” They propped the tile on their water saw and fled across the border, hoping that Barry, a climber himself, would understand. Their destination: a then-unclimbed 1,000-foot limestone cliff called La Popa.
Once in Mexico, Jackson and Gallagher changed dollars to pesos, bought a week’s worth of supplies, and drove to the tiny village of Los Remotos, where they contacted a hermit living in a cave carved from the wall of an arroyo. The hermit’s name was Luciano Espinosa, and he lived a subsistence life in the desert. He had a windmill that hoisted water from a well. He arranged flower pots around the mouth of his cave. He spoke in a strange guttural Spanish, and his hands had dried into the scaly consistency of a rattlesnake.
In exchange for ten dollars in pesos and a few fresh oranges, Luciano loaded his burro with a week’s worth of water and gear and drove it for three hours up the cactus-guarded talus cone at the base of La Popa. (Jackson and another friend, Benji Fink, had offered him beer on a previous visit, but Luciano, a properly soulful denizen of the desert, just mumbled, “Oh God, we’re thirsty and they bring us beer?”) For the next ten days Gallagher and Jackson camped at night among the boulders and pushed their route, El Gavilan (5.13a; nine pitches), higher up the wildly overhanging wall.
Back then—before his illustrious career as an award-winning author, the editor of Rock and Ice, and (his current gig) creative writing professor at the University of Hawaii—Jeff Jackson was a route developer. A prolific one. After a brief attempt at a law career, he had realized that his true calling lay in yoga and yurt living and establishing big wall first ascents in places like El Potrero Chico. Indeed, it was during one of these trips, while gathering peyote in the desert on a rest day, that Jackson and his friend Benji Fink first caught a distant glimpse of a gigantic prow-shaped cliff in the distance and decided to check it out.
But despite their experience as developers (Jackson and Gallagher had FA’d numerous big lines including the ultra-classic 15-pitch 5.12+ Sendero Luminoso in Potrero) they “didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” Jackson told me. “We were just making it up.”
They’d picked their line largely because it was the shadiest line on the wall. And they equipped the route ground-up not because it was “an ethical choice” but because “we were too dumb to think about going in from the top.”
Bolting steep routes on lead in this era (before removable bolts became widely used) involved a lot of sketchiness—i.e. free climbing dirty 5.12 and 5.13 terrain between tenuous aid placements. They owned just a single Chouinard skyhook, which was only rarely useful on the route’s overhanging terrain anyway, and relied instead on tri-cams (in pockets) and, when nothing else would work, homemade aid devices they called “boat hooks.” These were basically heavy-duty marine-grade garage hooks that they found in the hardware store and altered with a bolting hammer. They’d climb to a stance, frantically drill a half-inch hole, slide a boat hook into it, and then carefully hang on it, feet dangling over the void, while they prepped and drilled a proper bolt. “It was a scary process,” Jackson remembers. They took a number of very unexpected falls.
Jackson and Gallagher didn’t send that trip. Indeed, equipping, cleaning, working, and sending the route took Jackson and a rotating group of partners six or seven week-long trips over a four-year period. But once Jackson and Gallagher did send, in 1997, a legendary route was born.Section divider
The Long Wait
After their ascent, Jackson, who became the editor of Rock and Ice in 2006, spoke and wrote glowingly not just of the route’s steepness and sustained hard climbing (eight of the nine pitches are 5.12 or 5.13-), but of the Naguales—shape-shifting horse people—who legend (and Jackson) place in high concentration in the La Popa area, and of “the little green men” who according to local garbage collectors (and Jackson) frequent this section of desert.
But thanks to La Popa’s remoteness, and the labyrinth of cactus guarding the approach, and El Gavilan’s fast-deteriorating 90s-era hardware, the route sat largely untried for the next two decades despite Jackson’s mythologizing and the famous photos that Cory Rich took of the climb . The chalk disappeared. The bolts rusted. The holds grew dusty. Cactus grew like concertina wire across the approach trail. Boone Speed and Andrew Bisharat made a brief attempt but were halted by heavy winds and their mistrust of the route’s hardware. Alex Honnold and Josh McCoy made a fast second ascent in 2013, yet their success did nothing to boost the route’s popularity. It sat largely unattended for the next six years. And Jackson half believed that his route was doomed to oblivion.
But then a pivot: UK climber and developer Jacob Cook—who, according to his wife, Bronwyn Hodgins, “is a bit of a climbing history nerd” and was “totally captivated by Jeff’s story”— made an exploratory visit to La Popa with Canadian Tony McLane in early 2019. Like Bisharat and Speed, they were appalled by the rotten hardware, so they settled for an aid ascent of El Gavilan before going on to establish a new route on the wall.
When Cook returned to his home in Canada, however, he told Hodgins that the cliff was “just as incredible as I imagined.” And Hodgins, an elite wall climber who’s freed El Cap’s Freerider and Golden Gate, “got excited through his excitement” and decided to take it upon herself to resurrect Jackson and Gallagher’s route.Section divider
Back from the Dead
This attempt at resurrection—paying homage to a previous generation’s cutting-edge vision while creating a safe new route for climbers of the future—took Hodgins two trips to Mexico. During the first, in late 2019 and early 2020, Hodgins often toiled alone on the wall, struggling to find partners willing to drive the hour-and-a-half into the desert from El Potrero Chico. Returning in 2021, she brought her friend Kelsey Watts—with whom she rebolted, cleaned, and eventually made the first female ascent of the route—and the photographer Savannah Cummins, who documented the process. Cummins has now released a short film, El Gavilan, which you can watch only by attending any one of the American Alpine Club’s Craggin’ Classic events, which are coming up in the New River Gorge, Smith Rock, Devil’s Lake, Shelf Road, Moab, and Bishop.
Enthralled by the route’s history and deeply impressed by Cummins’ film, I sat down with Hodgins to chat about the route, the re-bolting process, and what it was like for Watts to do her first big wall 5.13 in the remote desert.Section divider
Climbing: Why are there so few routes on the wall?
Hodgins: I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. There could definitely be a lot more development on that cliff. The rock quality is pretty incredible. There’s a band of poor rock around the base—basically the first pitch or two—but after that it’s a lot better. The top half of the wall is amazing limestone. You could have some incredible rap-in, climb-out routes, but I guess most people doing first ascents are looking for the full top-to-bottom line. And it was hard to get to in the ‘90s. But in current times, while it’s still adventurous, you can drive there in an hour and a half with a good vehicle. It’s a two or three hour hike up the backside, but there’s actually kind of a trail. You’re not just thrashing through cactus.
Climbing: A couple of very strong teams have gone down to La Popa to try El Gavilan. Do you know what turned them around?
Hodgins: It was the hardware, really. When Jeff was putting things up in the ‘90s they didn’t have access to the hardware we have. They were basically just hammering chain links to the wall. And they were putting it up as an adventure route, ground-up. But as climbing has grown into a larger sport, there’s more onus on developers to think about the community when they’re developing routes, so those routes can last and remain safe for future generations of climbers. So, yeah, the bolts were really scary, and the bolts were rusty. When Boone [Speed] and Andrew [Bisharat] went to try it, they said they were freaked out by the anchors. Then my husband Jacob went down in 2019. They got to the top of the route, but they were climbing very tentatively and didn’t want to take falls on the bolts. Basically it just needed some cleaning up.
Climbing: Now that it’s been re-bolted, do you think it’ll get more popular?
Hodgins: For sure. I mean, back in the 90s it was a cutting-edge route. But with training facilities, the level of your common rock climber has gotten so much higher, so it’s now really within the reach of a lot of climbers. It’s a cool sister challenge to Sendero Luminoso, in Potrero, which was also put up by Jeff. Sendero is a 15-pitch 5.12d, and it’s vertical, techy slab climbing; El Gavilan is pretty much the same difficulty, one grade harder but two-thirds of the height, but it’s basically the antistyle, with overhanging tufa climbing.
Climbing: Can you walk me through your process on the route, from learning about it, to the first trip, to eventually finding a partner and sending?
Hodgins: Jacob is a bit of a climbing history nerd. He’d heard about this route years ago and was totally captivated by Jeff’s story of this cliff. He visited in 2019 and tried to repeat El Gavilan, but found it scary and dangerous, so they put up a new route [Super Blood Moon] on the wall ground up. And he came back from that trip just like, “Wow, it’s just as incredible as I imagined.” And I got excited through his excitement.
But I think what drew me to El Gavilan in particular is that it’s so steep. Even the less-steep pitches are still overhanging. It’s continuous, endurance limestone, which is more typical of single pitch routes, or shorter multipitch routes coming out of limestone caves. To have that on a nine or ten pitch route sounded really unique. But I didn’t really want to do it in the state it was in. So if I was going to try the route, I was going to have to put some work in
Climbing: Your first trip you spent a lot of time looking for a partner?
Hodgins: It’s pretty close to Potrero Chico, so I went down there with this big goal in mind but didn’t have a partner. I thought I would be able to find people who were psyched in Potrero, but it turns out that the majority of climbers on their sport holiday are not looking to go replace a bunch of bolts on this huge cliff way out in the desert. [Laughs.] It’s a little bit more of a holiday / party climber scene. But I did get a handful of people out there. I’d convince a group to go out for like three days, but then I’d have to go back to Potrero and find a new partner and figure out how to get back the next week. It just meant that everything was quite slow to progress. I just kept losing momentum.
Climbing: How far did you get that first year?
Hodgins: We finished about half the pitches, plus all of the anchors and rap rings. The joke was that we bolted all the hardest pitches first. We were like “It’s fine! Just don’t fall on anything easier than 5.12+.” I did have a last-ditch effort, four days before my flight home, trying to send in its half-bolted state. I had been working on it for nearly two months and really just wanted to try the climbing. I ended up freeing the crux, but I fell on pitch seven and didn’t have any energy left. I planned to go back the next fall but postponed because of COVID. So we came back in December 2021.
Climbing: Tell me about Kelsey. There’s a funny section in the film where she says El Gavilan has “been a steep learning curve, but that’s kind of how I thrive—and I think Bronwyn knows that, because she’s done this to me before.”
Hodgins: [Laughs] Yeah, totally. I love that line. Kelsey and I go pretty far back. We went to canoe camp together in Ontario, so we saw each other every summer through high school. We bonded quite well because we both were hardworking and liked stressful outdoor environments. But we kind of lost track of each other after that. I moved out west. She stayed in Ontario. But later, when she moved to Vancouver and then Squamish, suddenly we were both passionate about rock climbing and living in the same place, and we climbed together all the time. I showed her around the Chief and started getting her into trad and adventure climbing. And eventually, when she’d done a couple 5.13 single pitch routes and was pretty good at multipitch systems and exposure, I invited her to try El Gavilan. I was like, “This is bigger than anything you’ve done before. It’s going to feel pretty hard. But I think there’s a good chance you can pull this off.”
Climbing: That’s amazing that she’d only done only a handful of 5.13s and now suddenly she’s redpointed the grade on such a big wall.
Hodgins: For sure. We had the benefit of projecting the pitches. Kelsey was pretty nervous about being able to do it, so we rehearsed a lot. We had sequences for every pitch. In hindsight I think we could have pulled it off with one or two fewer days of practice. We had holds ticked and sequences written down in her notebook. During the rehearsal phase we came in from the top because it was easier to access the top of the cliff than the bottom. And we also had fixed ropes on the cliff for the bolting process, so we could Micro-trac the pitches on the fixed lines.
Climbing: Is Kelsey hooked on the adventure stuff now?
Hodgins: Oh yeah. I actually just got back from the west coast of Greenland where we were putting up first ascents. And Kelsey came on that trip. She was psyched. We put up a 500-meter trad route rising out of the ocean. It was a 48-hour push with a shiver bivy. Definitely a step up from a nine-pitch sport route in Mexico.
Climbing: You and Kelsey claimed the third ascent—and first female ascent—of the route, after Jeff Jackson and Alex Honnold. Was going there with an all-woman team a major part of this goal?
Hodgins: I didn’t design it as a woman’s trip at first. But going into my second season, I realized that if I wanted to make it happen, I needed a team of devoted people. Savannah [Cummins] had been there for parts of the first season and was interested in staying involved. And that felt like the beginning of a female crew. So then we decided to look for another woman. It just seemed like the obvious thing to do. But I should add that the three of us had a huge support crew. We had probably ten people out there at various times, both dudes and girls. But the core team was Savannah, Kelsey, and I. And that did feel cool. The cliff had never been climbed by a woman, and we’re still at a point in this sport where more men than women do this stuff. So it’s good to inspire other women. I like to promote that progression.
Climbing: Do you see yourself going back to try other routes on the wall or establish another one?
Hodgins: Oh yes. Jacob and our good friend Drew spent all of January and a bunch of March out there, putting up another route. They ended up establishing a line called Los Naguales (5.13b; 10 pitches), after the shape-shifting horse people. It’s basically a parallel system, just to the left of El Gavilan, equally steep and sustained but slightly harder. They put it up top-down, so they were able to do a really good job cleaning and making it the same kind of quality route that El Gavilan is now. I’m really excited. Next time I’m in Mexico I’ve got to make a trip out there for sure.