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Having spent the better part of three weeks in El Potrero Chico (EPC), I was emotionally prepared for what might have otherwise been a very disturbing discovery. Having just pulled through a thin and reachy 5.10c move, the first crux of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I became locked in the embrace of a glorious dihedral. Nestled in the corner was a perfect crack, the kind that accepts hands and #2 Camalots with unusual grace.
And next to that was a bolt. I clipped it, of course. What’s more, I was fine with that. I did it with acceptance, with a smile, as calm as a Hindu cow.
First and foremost, I consider myself a trad climber. I therefore realise that what I have just said amounts to nothing less than heresy. Right now, I can sense that Frankenstein-esque mobs are forming. They are brandishing pitchforks, lighting torches, preparing to do unspeakable things to my “pockets” with pink tricams, and plotting to make my dentist rich following acts of violence with large hexes. I pray they will hear me out, because I don’t have a dentist.
Having little experience with limestone, I based my expectations for the Mexican variety on the rock I’d climbed some years ago in Northern Spain—to wit, mostly unprotectable without stainless steel. These expectations were unfounded. From the very first day, I encountered heavily fissured routes which, for the most part, could be traditionally protected.
It wasn’t long before I realised this situation to be par for the course at EPC. The ethical zeitgeist there is perhaps best embodied by the triumvirate of uber-classics on the Mota Wall – Snott Girlz (5.10+), Pancho Villa Rides Again (5.10c), and the aforementioned Treasure of the Sierra Madre (5.10c). Each of these follow predominant crack features which, although admittedly discontinuous, are entirely bolted. If I had a penny for every time I uttered the words, “Thank god I know how to handjam/fistjam/fingerlock/ringlock”, I’d have at least 37 cents.
Why is it so? What could drive a climbing community to such madness, bolting protectable cracks, as well as widespread retrobolting of erstwhile trad routes?
Perhaps it’s true that a far greater portion of EPC could go on gear, but finding a route that could go entirely without hardware is only marginally easier than finding Bigfoot. The few routes that might form worthy candidates for traditional protection are dangerously loose in places and often located high above popular single pitch crags. Particularly notorious are the soaring ridgelines, undeniably proud and yet entirely composed of death blocks and knife-blade flakes, precariously stacked like the Sword of Damocles.
In a nutshell, trad in the Potrero is about as fun as a bear attack and almost as safe. Ergo, an ethic seems to have evolved wherein developers bolted first and asked questions later. A few innocent trad routes were lost, but this approach also gave birth to improbably epic lines like the infamous 23 pitch monster Timewave Zero (5.12a). It appears to have been a case of breaking a few trad eggs to make a sport omelette.
I realize that I am yet to provide a compelling argument, but stick with me…
On the large, flat island where I come from (Australia, for those playing at home), there are some nice rocks but not many tall ones—forget El Cap, we’re flat out matching J-Tree in most instances. As such, multipitch routes are rather prized, but our strong trad background gives rise to a conundrum—traditionally protected adventure routes tend to occupy the lower grades but involve substantially higher risk, whereas bolted multipitches are often the inverse.
With few exceptions, the modern Australian climber makes the leap to traditional climbing following an apprenticeship on bolts. The routes that are most valuable in making this transition are paradoxically those that are in shortest supply—the near-mythical moderate sport multipitch. This phenomenon can be observed around the globe, but the effect is more pronounced in Australia with its relative dearth of long routes. As a result, our bolted moderates are regarded in the same way that religious pilgrimages are. Climbers speak of them in hushed, reverent tones and pray in their cardinal direction at dawn and dusk.
If we may take one of my favourite local crags as an example, Mount Tibrogargan houses more than 50 multipitch routes. A mere four of these—trade routes that are sensibly bolted, clean, and moderately technical—bear greater than 90 percent of the traffic. The remainder are, shall we say, rather more adventurous. While still popular in certain circles, they are far less frequented because they are often loose, technically difficult, poorly protected, dangerously run-out, or all of the above. And yet, these disparate styles co-exist in harmony at the very same crag. Perhaps, if we can calm our elevated pulses and righteous indignation, we can entertain the notion that there is room for different ethical approaches at entirely different crags.
I would argue that the over-bolted ethic of El Potrero Chico fulfils an extremely valuable niche in the modern climbing wheelhouse. I don’t mean over-bolted in a more-bolts-than-meters sense, because EPC’s reputation in this regard is grossly overstated. There is plenty of well-spaced pro to be found on the towering limestone ramparts, so much so that it is not uncommon for ascensionists to carry a supplementary rack of nuts or the like. No, I mean over-bolted according to the traditional ethic, which holds that the correct amount of bolts to be drilled next to a protectable crack is zero.
Despite such transgressions, I came to appreciate the gift that Potrero has to offer. It forms a vital piece in the puzzle of intermediate climbing mastery. If you’re a 5.10/11 climber looking to move from single pitch sport into the more adventurous realms, look no further. Here’s a place where you can hone critical skills that no gym or single-pitch crag can provide. I’m talking about route finding, risk analysis, rappel efficiency, rope management, team communication, decision making, and efficiency in movement over big terrain, the so-called soft skills, which never get as much press as finger strength and kneebars.
Every night without fail, we had front row seats to a minor epic taking place somewhere in the canyon. Desperate voices and headlamp beams penetrated the night as their owners sought the next bolted anchor. But sure enough, each party returned to earth with life and limb intact, and occasionally with a powerful lesson. They say that good judgement comes from experience and that experience comes from bad judgement. Bad judgement in EPC can get you benighted. Bad judgement on more serious routes can get you dead. I think there is something to be said for giving fledgling adventure climbers the chance to make a few mistakes without dire consequences.
When civil war engulfs the climbing world, I’ll still be enlisting in the Trad Confederacy, but even so, I will remember my time in Mexico with fond memories. I think my sentiments are best expressed by a comment Matt Segal made about those scary Czech sandstone pillars in the 2007 film, The Sharp End:
“It’s pretty rad. Do I wish every place in the world was like this? Hell no.”
Ryan Siacci is on a year-long South American climbing road trip. Follow his travels at zenandtheartofclimbing.com.