I’m lost in a sea of tiny edges, fighting desperately to keep my balance and composure. The hot Mexican sun beats down on my bare back, and my feet are on fire inside tight sport shoes. I’m 20 horizontal feet from my last bolt, with only a few more moves to the anchor. Nothing exists in my world except two small edges. God, I hope they don’t break...
We are on the last day of our trip to El Gran Trono Blanco, and I’m on the last hard pitch of a route called The Giraffe. I’ve failed to free-climb this pitch once already. My skin is starting to wear through, the sun is getting hotter, and I probably don’t have another try in me.
Our trip had begun a week ago, in the parking lot of Mesa Rim Climbing Gym in San Diego. Will Stanhope, Paul McSorley, Andrew Burr, and I met up to carpool down to this 1,000-foot granite wall, hidden away just across the Mexican border in Baja. Paul and Will had been to “the Great White Throne” four years ago to try the Pan-American Route. This 10-pitch line up the east face had been put up in the early 1970s, and then, with some added bolts, freed by Paul Piana and Heidi Badaracco in the mid-1990s at technical 5.12+. The bolts were later chopped, and Will had tried to free it using only trad gear for pro. He hadn’t quite succeeded, and now he wanted to go back and send it—and hopefully also free The Giraffe, another old aid line on the wall. Andy and I are always keen for an adventure in Mexico, so we all headed down to see what we could do.
We set out into San Diego’s rush-hour traffic, and even though we were only 50 miles from the border and probably less than 110 miles from the objective, it felt like we would never get there. Our three-lane on-ramp merged onto a six-lane freeway; some of the congestion was caused by road construction that was adding even more lanes. I was struck by the folly of it all. How many more lanes would we build before realizing that there must be a better answer?
During the week before the trip I’d been reading the book The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, which outlines his thoughts on how globalization is making the world a smaller and more equally competitive place. I had a hard time accepting his ideas because they hinged around an economy that grows forever. How can you have infinite growth in a finite world? But his ideas were provocative, and thoughts on growth and the unequal distribution of wealth around the world would color my thoughts the whole time I was in Mexico.
An hour and a half later, we were ushered across the Mexican border without so much as anyone looking at our passports. We spent the night in Tecate, home of the very large brewing company by the same name. As we walked around the centro that evening and again the next morning, we couldn’t help but marvel at how different things are south of the border— all the more striking because you could see the huge fence that separates the U.S. and Mexico weaving across town. In San Diego, everything looked shiny and new. Here, it all looked used. Yet everything here was functional: There were roads, stores, gas, schools—anything you needed. Maybe this is what the whole world will look like as the global population catches up, Friedman-style, to American living standards. When every person in China and India owns a car and lives like an American, there won’t be enough of anything to keep it all looking showroom-fresh.
We headed out of Tecate and drove the few hours to Gran Trono Blanco. From the dirt roads that lace the desert above the canyon where the wall hides, it’s hard to believe that such a big face exists out there. Even from camp, all you can see are small crags and piles of granite boulders reminiscent of Joshua Tree.
Since Will and Paul had been to the elusive wall, we had no trouble finding it. We spent our first afternoon humping loads out to the top of the formation. The plan was for Will and me to free climb the Pan-American Route the next day, with Andy and Paul rapping the whole wall from the top so Andy could jumar near us and take photos. We would all set out early the next morning: Will and I to negotiate the epic descent down a boulder-choked gully and circle around to the base of the route; Paul and Andy to rig the 1,000-foot wall.
Though there is very little published info about Gran Trono, I had read accounts of the heinous approach. Will recalled it not being so bad, but by the time we’d finished sweating our way down the interminable gully and contouring around to the base of the route, he had a new opinion. We both already felt exhausted, but we could see the other guys rapping down the wall, so we started climbing up to meet them.
When Paul and Heidi freed the Pan-Am in 1993, they added many bolts to the crux fourth pitch, the “Brown Dihedral,” with the thought that it would make the route safer and more fun for future ascensionists. Later climbers, however, had different ideas about the retro-bolting. When Will and I arrived at the base of the pitch, we found only one bolt remaining, its hanger smashed, plus another piece fixed in an old bolt hole.
I was nervous as I started up the pitch. Thin laybacking is my least favorite style of climbing, especially with blind small gear. I could appreciate people’s commitment to traditional gear instead of bolts, but it’s hard to say how the pitch was in any way improved by leaving empty holes and smashed hangers. Regardless, I led upward on sporty gear before finally slipping off the crux moves, massively pumped; I then redpointed the pitch second try. Will fired it on toprope, and we continued much more easily to the top of the wall. It was late at night before we got back to camp, but we were all happy with a good start to the trip. Paul whipped up the first of what would turn out to be nightly fiestas of delicious Mexican food. The long evening extended into a lazy morning; we all needed a rest after such a big day. We lounged about and soaked up the sun, enjoying the complete silence of the Mexican desert. About twice a day a plane would fly over, no doubt heading to Tijuana, but the brief noise only served to remind us of the quiet.
I hiked back out to the summit in the afternoon to rap in and check out a 12-pitch aid line called The Giraffe. Put up in 1975 by John Long, Billy Westbay, and Hugh Burton, The Giraffe following a beautiful system of shallow corners connected by A3+ hooking, and capped by an impressive roof. The name stems from how far the team stuck their necks out while hooking through the blank sections. We hoped to free climb the route, and had already talked to John Long about the possibilities. He warned us of the blank sections, but said that the wall was extremely featured, and that surely we could find a way. He also said it would be OK to add bolts as we judged necessary—although we hoped to avoid any new bolts directly on the aid line. The next day, Will and I rapped the rest of the route, replacing some old tat and anchor bolts, and adding four bolts to protect two face-climbing variations.
The lower section of the wall turned out to be much steeper than I had anticipated. The climbing was hard, it was hot, and our skin got shredded—we got worked, but we managed to do all the moves. Now it was just a matter of whether we could redpoint the route during our three remaining days in Mexico.
I took my first full rest day, much needed after days of hiking out to climb or recon. I finished The World is Flat and started in on Less than Zero, a 1980s Bret Easton Ellis novel about cocaine-fueled overindulgence. The two books provided an ironic contrast: The World is Flat focused on how the rest of the world is striving to obtain our comfortable American lifestyle; Less than Zero finds such a materially comfortable lifestyle so alienating that people turn to excesses in drugs and sex to find meaning in their sad, isolated lives. And both books stood in stark contrast to the reality of the Mexican desert, where I slept out under the open sky each night. We spent many hours in bed simply because it got cold and there was nothing else to do, which gave me a lot of time to watch the stars move across the sky and wonder what modern life was really all about.
Will decided he wanted another day to rappel in and work the crux pitches on The Giraffe, so Paul and I decided to climb the Pan-Am again, so we could do a variation finish we had spotted and hopefully climb the whole route a little more smoothly than Will and I had. We didn’t bring a pack or a tag line, opting instead to get up early and climb fast, and hopefully avoid the midday sun. The plan worked perfectly, and we were at the final variation so early that Andy almost missed his photo op. The variation—one pitch of tricky 5.10 and another of hard 5.11—turned out to be great climbing, and completely avoided an unpleasant section of chimney climbing on the original line. We were glad to have improved an already great route.
When Will rejoined us in camp that evening, we knew he’d had a rough day. He said he still couldn’t do some of the crux sections, and that his skin was completely destroyed. He was demoralized, but we only had one day left before we had to start back north, so Will and I decided to give it a good redpoint attempt the next morning.
After a quick meal of instant oatmeal, we began our hike in the dark. The long days, long nights, and miles of hiking were taking their toll. I was tired all the way through and looked forward to heading home. But first we had to finish the route.
We rapped to the base (much easier than hiking), and Will took the first lead, getting us to the first crux before the sun had reached the wall. The pitch above, one of our face climbing variations, boiled down to a seven- or eight-move V8 boulder problem. I tried once and fell, disappointed but not entirely surprised. By then the sun had swept down the wall. Miraculously, I managed to claw my way through next try, and I felt a surge of optimism.
On toprope, Will freed a different version, bypassing my boulder problem but straying far to the side and facing a potentially dangerous swing. Even though he was climbing well, he was now completely worked, and he switched into support mode for the rest of the route, carrying our food and water and not worrying too much about free climbing everything.
The next few pitches passed smoothly, though turning the “Giraffe Roof”—which I had renamed the “Great Roof of Mexico,” due to its similarity to the famed feature on the Nose of El Cap—involved some of the most desperately thin footwork I’ve ever accomplished. Long after I had resigned myself to falling, I managed to stay on the wall, move after move, until I finally reached an amazingly placed jug above the roof and manteled to safety.
That brought us to the base of the final hard pitch, a long corner capped by a big, blank face. The aid line crossed the face by a bolt ladder, then a pendulum to a corner far to the right. Our intended free version would climb partway up the bolt ladder, then, where the wall eased back to more of a slab, traverse straight right on a faint dike system. My first attempt ended on the last move before the traverse. My skin was seeping, and the afternoon sun felt crushing on such technical slab climbing. As Will lowered me down, I knew that I had to pull it together.
On my next attempt I managed to get myself established at the traverse. Only 25 feet of horizontal climbing now separated me from the corner systems that would take us to the summit. I clawed at the wafer-like crimps as hard as I dared, worried that the tiny flakes might break. For the first time that day I forgot Andy was shooting photos above me. I forgot about everything except the sea of small edges.
By the last few moves I was facing an enormous swing if I blew it, but my biggest fear was not being able to send the route. As I made one final tricky foot move into the corner and stepped over to the anchor, I was overcome with elation. We’d done it! And, more important, I could now take off my over-tightened, sun-heated climbing shoes. We romped to the summit, linking pitches and having fun in every way except for the pain in our feet.
As we hiked all the ropes back to camp, I was genuinely proud of us all for accomplishing what we’d set out to do. But I was also strangely emotional after so much time in the desert. The desperately tenuous climbing, the heavy and contradictory books, the crazy San Diego traffic juxtaposed with the solitude of the Mexican desert—the whole experience had pushed me somewhere new. My head swam with uncomfortable, conflicting thoughts.
Back at camp we cooked up one last Mexican feast, sorted gear, and packed up the cars. We were on the road by late afternoon. We passed several wind turbines on the drive out, part of a Mexican energy project. As we headed back toward the 14-lane freeways of San Diego, I wondered what our “real world” really offers. Does progress just mean that you can buy more things at the mall and spend more time stuck in traffic every day? Is that really what the world is striving for?
And yet I was dying to get across the border so I could check email on my phone.
Beta The road to El Gran Trono Blanco heads south from Highway 2 near La Rumorosa, about midway between Tijuana and Mexicali in Baja, Mexico. At least eight established routes, averaging 10 to 12 pitches, ascend the broad east and south faces. There is no guidebook, but a few topos and other beta can be gleaned from online searches. The usual warnings about travel in northern Mexico apply.