“Dudes, I’m not even gonna try to do college,” the plucky 17-year-old declared to his parents. “I want to be a rock climber. I’m going to Europe—fuck it.” It was 2001 and Diego López Montull left his home country of México for Spain with 45 euros in his pocket. His return would pioneer a new direction for the sport.
México, long steeped in aid and sport climbing, needed a wild-child spirit to bring bouldering to the masses. As a teenager, Montull was known for his rambunctiousness. He was once kicked off his soccer team and out of school within the same week. When he found climbing at 14, he was trained with an ethos of “Here’s how to bolt, now go bolt your own,” a galvanizing responsibility that set him on a focused path. In Europe, Montull evolved to sponsored athlete through an apprenticeship in bouldering. He came home three years later to establish the discipline in his country.
Montull helped develop El Chico National Park, a parque known for its pioneering past. Its latest trailblazing superlative: México’s first world-class bouldering destination. There are 400 problems from V0 to V15 on the volcanic rock. Sitting at 7,500 feet in Hidalgo, it has a temperate climate that makes for an ideal three-season (all but summer) bouldering area.
When Montull reconvened en casa, there was little bouldering on offer. He and his friend Santiago Rodriguez skimmed across the country—to Aculco, Guadalajara, Bernal—looking for potential. Along the way, Montull established Peñoles, with its larger-than-life boulders, in the north, and opened the first routes at Jilotepec, now one of Mexico’s classic conglomerate crags. But, it was El Chico that brought them back year after year.
Rodriguez is the calculus to Montull’s character. The México City–based green-building consultant has been developing El Chico for the past 17 years, and cataloging new routes and FAs for almost as long. The carefully plotted cells of his decade-old spreadsheet were organized into the first bouldering guidebook, released in late 2019. All told, Rodriguez and Montull have established well over 100 problems in the park, often together, with Montull and Diego “Mutante” Álvarez-Tostado adding the lion’s share of the 40-plus V10-and-above testpieces.
“I wanted to help put México on the map,” says Rodriguez. “I’ve visited Font, Albaraccin, Squamish, Magic Wood. We have this nice place in México, but people don’t know about it.”
The rock at El Chico is carved from ancient lava flows from the Pachuca Mountains, a range of dormant volcanoes that have weathered down to form throngs of primeval spires, exposed ridgelines, and troglodyte cave systems. From afar, the area might remind you of Magic Wood, with its lush green moss and dark stone set amidst a verdant forest. Get up close, however, and you realize the rock’s not granite. “You can have soft rock—crumbling when you brush it—and hard [rock]. That’s the funny thing,” says Rodriguez.
In 2003, Rodriguez, Montull, y compañeros established the first boulders around Las Monjas—the Nuns—a group of huddling rock pillars in the park’s western portion. They are not the earliest climbers to visit the arboreous reserve—known locally as “Mineral,” for the closest town, Mineral del Chico—but they are carrying the tradition forward. After all, Mineral’s past is as layered as its volcanic stone.
Porfirio Díaz left his stamp on the country like a xylographic ink blot. In 1898, Díaz, who served as president of México for 31 years, designated El Chico as the country’s first national forest. The appellation aimed to reverse the deforestation that had begun three centuries earlier when the metalworking industry nearly swept the forest clear of trees. El Chico portended a wave of land protection: México now has 182 Áreas Naturales Protegidas and 67 national parks, covering 25.4 million hectares, a boon for outdoor enthusiasts.
In the 1930s, climbing was kickstarted in the park by an intrepid group of artisans and blue-collar workers. In 1934, male and female members of the Sierra Club summited the 100-meter El Fraile de Actopan, a gendarme that shoots out of the green-mouthed valley like a giant’s tooth. Between 1936 and 1938, Club Coyotes members scaled Fistol del Diablo, La Botella, and La Cargada Mayor, among other spires, using little more than henequén rope and homemade pitons.
The sport advanced across the country in the ensuing decades, with aid and free climbing, then a sport boom, and ultimately bouldering in places like Guadalajara (where the discipline started around 1986 with Jorge Márquez—though it didn’t catch on), Monterrey, Nuevo León, Querétaro, México state, and others. Mineral faded out of orbit.
“Some of the original routes got lost, forgotten,” says Rodriguez. “[Though] you can still find pitons.” Mineral would make a comeback closer to the forest floor, thanks to a serendipitous connection with Dave Graham.
In 2000, at the culmination of a mountaineering course at Mount Charleston, Nevada, Rodriguez and Montull celebrated at camp over beers. “[Graham] was there climbing 5.14s, and wasn’t famous yet,” says Rodriguez. Graham heard the group and joined in the festivities. A year later, on Montull’s quest to become a “rock climber”—yeah, that trip—he was hitchhiking around Spain when a familiar face picked him up. “Oh, you’re that guy. We got so wasted!” Montull recalls Graham saying as he jumped into Graham’s car. Montull traveled with a band of New Englanders that included Graham, Joe Kinder, and Tim Kemple to the premiere bouldering spots across the continent. He was hooked.
“At the beginning, I was doing V7, V8s, and he [Graham] was flashing V10, projecting V14s,” says Montull. “Dave was like, ‘If you try and try and try, you can do it!’” Back home, Rodriguez and Montull were determined to push the discipline, with Montull going on to establish the first V12, V13, and V14 in Latin America.
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A two-hour drive north from México City brings you to the magical mining village of Mineral del Chico at the outskirts of the park. Mineral was founded after the Spanish conquest, in the late 1500s, and the area has since produced an estimated 6 percent of the world’s silver. The wealth was minted into stonework buildings capped in cuprous red roofs, terraced gardens, and meandering pathways that lead to the forest. But Mineral’s grace pales compared to the park’s beauty.
Driving through El Chico, the spires of Las Monjas immediately catch the eye. “The first time I arrived, I thought, ‘Wow. This is amazing,’” says Rodriguez. “It’s all covered in moss, all overhanging.” And it was all untouched. Carlos “El Mac” Garcia, one of the country’s most respected wall climbers, had spotted the boulders during a scouting trip and shared the beta with Rodriguez: “[Carlos] showed me the rocks below Las Monjas … and I immediately climbed one without cleaning it, I was so excited.” Rodriguez and Montull returned with silvery dreams of unmined potential.
Since 2012, Rodriguez has spent most of his free time in Mineral. Every weekend, for nearly eight years, Rodriguez, Montull, Álvarez-Tostado, Pablo Fortes, Emiliano Fernández, and Julio Fernández, among others, have scouted blocks and established new lines.
“The average grade is probably V4 to V6 because you have all these decent holds. But it’s tricky,” says Rodriguez. “You need imagination.”
Movements are brawny, brainy, and explosive. The boulders are big, steep, and featured, with lines that are surprisingly hard to read. Holds—while numerous—are positioned at odd angles, contorting the body into all ranges and sequences of motion. This makes it popular with the gym crowd.
Most Méxican climbers are first introduced to the sport inside. México City has about 15 climbing gyms, almost all bouldering only. Prized Mineral problems like El Rey del Pulque (V8), an overhanging throwfest, and Trucha Feliz (V12), a funky, sloping lip traverse, both established by Montull, are referenced, discussed, and dreamed about indoors. Franz Weber, the owner of Bloc-E, one of México City’s first modern bouldering gyms, estimates there are around 7,000 climbers in the city, up from 3,500 or so when he opened in 2014. Bouldering’s ease of access, along with affordable local crashpad companies like Cyrus Gear, Ultra Climbing Gear, and ÍGNEA bouldering, are ushering gym rats outside. Climbing has become popularized in the media, too. The beloved podcast La Mera Beta; an upcoming documentary about the sport’s history in México, Sueños de Altura; and the celebrated Freeman Film Festival—like a smaller Banff Mountain Film Festival—all help raise stoke and shine a light on access issues.
Land ownership and oversight are complicated matters in México. During the Porfiriato years of 1876 to 1911, the President enacted mass territorial and economic reforms that would thrust the country into tumult. One of Díaz’s most contentious maneuvers was altering land-ownership laws that led to territorial concentration with foreign-owned agricultural, mining, and ranching enterprises. The result was a loss of land for about 95 percent of villages. By the end of the presidency, México’s territory was majority-owned by foreigners. Unequal ownership became a driving force for México’s Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century under the rallying cry of “México for the Méxicans.” The movement for redistribution led to mixed results, and land remains a contentious topic.
In Áreas Naturales Protegidas, regulation and usage differ in law versus practice. Illegal deforestation, mining, and other illicit activities have been an issue for years in parks like Copper Canyon and in Michoacán, west of México City. “There are not enough resource s … to ensure these areas are properly protected and sustainably used in compliance with their classification,” says Rodrigo Ramos Aranda, the co-founder of Fundación México Vertical (FMV), a national climbing-advocacy and conservation group. “What we see is widespread illegal logging, settlements, and collusion with organized crime, [with] a lack of substantive incentives for local communities to take conservation efforts into their own hands.”
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“Venga, venga! Let’s go!” caw crowds of boulderers from México City, Puebla, Pachuca, and Querétaro. A typical weekend brings about 40 people in, with groups cheering, chilling, and congregating around main sectors like Salamandra and Trucha. The increased use is already showing up in the form of exposed roots on trails and occasional scattered trash.
In Mineral, most of the bouldering is on private property at the park’s edge. Rodriguez and FMV worked with the landowners to develop trails, signage, and a water-filtration system to reduce bottle waste. The bouldering boom has also brought in money to nearby businesses. Doña Lili, la dueña of Rocabosque and the landholder of the bouldering in question, has grown her once rarely visited restaurant onsite into a thriving establishment and campground catering to boulderers.
The hope is that the success of Mineral—with its public-private partnership and economic benefit—can offer a blueprint for other areas. “With our example, people are starting to realize the potential in the country, so they are starting to develop more,” says Rodriguez, who estimates that only 20 percent of México’s rock has been explored, with greater than 50 percent left to be discovered in Mineral for bouldering, and additional potential for roped climbing.
Their efforts have inspired others, including the gym owner Franz Weber and María “Almendrita” Almendra, the first Méxican woman to climb V11. They have both put up problems in places like Mineral and Peñoles. “It is changing the mentality,” says Almendra. “Latin Americans can make great things. It is part of our culture to find a way to make things happen.”
In March 2020, Mau Huerta established the first V15 by a Méxican—Júpiter in Mineral. Deep in the woods of Hidalgo, the pioneering spirit is alive and well.