Saturday, August 22, 2009

Photo essay: El Potrero Chico (February, 2008)

To begin with, this trip was very nearly aborted by a turd: To fly to the Potrero from Toronto- which is where I was living at the time- Andy and I needed connect in Dallas, Texas. In the Dallas airport, he suddenly needed to go, very, very badly (this is kind of a running theme with Andy). Apparently defecation is noisy work, because he missed the last, then the final, then the really-final boarding call, and our flight took off without us. After pleading with the gate attendant for about ten minutes, he changed up our boarding passes so we could get on the next flight, but Jesus... quite close, and all for something that reasonably might have waited until we were on board. Luckily our ride in Monterrey waited around for us for the additional five hours it took us to land in Mexico. Anyway... the Potrero is a fantastic piece of rock. If you've not been, you're missing out. Here's why: 1) Hundreds of routes- some up to 2,000 feet tall- all less than 30 minutes from camp; 2) Cheap (1 USD/bottle) beer; 3) Blue skies; 4) Loud mariachi music at all hours of the day and night; 5) Good food, and 6) Cheap beer (again, because it was just that fantastic). Here's a shot of me walking towards the Potrero from camp.

The approach hike (photo: Andy McGuire)

The climbing is just fantastic, although rumours of loose rock are well-founded. For example, I remember topping out on Estrallitas, which is a VERY popular five or six pitch 5.9, to find a summit littered with jumbled heaps of boulders of every size (e.g. microwaves, baseballs, canteloupes, etc.). In fact, Andy very nearly killed the both of us high on Space Boyz (another extremely popular route) when he dislodged a giant block while tugging on a stuck line. Here's a couple shots of Estrallitas.

Andy atop Estrallitas (of note: The rat tail poking so cleverly out the back of his helmet. Andy was also the best man at my wedding, and this rat tail was his present to me. It's black here, but would be dyed platinum blonde for the ceremony. My wife was thrilled.)

Me, on top of Estrallitas (photo: Andy McGuire)

On rest days we walked into town to check out the local wares. The street market in Hidalgo is pretty fantastic. There was lots to buy, including grim reaper t-shirts for three dollars a pop, various religiously-themed salves and ointments, and this stuff, which Andy is eating, which the vendor purported to be pig face meat. Ahh, Mexico. Just wonderful stuff, really.

Andy and unidentified jerky-like product

And then there are those things that don't fit nicely in a narrative but which make the overall trip experience so much richer. For example: 1) The locals are not shy about trying to sell you cocaine; or 2) Although the rockfall risk is very real and quite serious, no one seems to think twice about partying right below the cliffs- in fact, even on 2,000 foot climbs we could hear mariachi music blasting from down below all day long. One upside of this is that there were always food vendors to buy from when we got back down- fried corn on a stick, lathered in butter, and rolled in chili sauce is one of my new favourite delicacies; or finally, 3) where else would you expect to find these little guys keeping watch over your camp?

Andy sleeps under the watchful eyes of the Nativity Posse. Freaky much?

The wise men. This picture may be a little blurry, but I think it gets the point across nicely.

All in all: Mexico definitlely comes highly, highly recommended. Oh, and you can drink the water at Cerro Gordo... which is a bonus, because there's not a ton of places in Central and South America where you can do this.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Photo Essay: Moby Grape and Whitney Gilman in a Day (Cannon Cliff, NH; June 2009)

Well, it's my first post, so let's make it a good one...

Do I look angry in this photo? Tired? Hungry? Trick question; the answer is all of the above. It’s 4:45am, and I’m waiting for my ride to arrive. I live in Burlington, Vermont- Cannon is two hours east, in New Hampshire- so an alpine start is definitely a necessity unless waiting in line is your idea of a good day out. Problem is, Nick (my ride) is late. He showed up about 5am, and we took off… and then turned around about a half an hour out when he realized he’d forgotten his ropes.

The drive to Cannon this early in the morning is eerie. I’ve been three times now, and it’s always the same: Fog, fog, and more fog, all of which somehow clears at about 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning. Until it clears, though, it can be pretty damn thick. I think- or, at least, I hope- that the moose like to sleep this early in the morning. I almost hit one coming back from Rumney earlier this year, and I have to say, hitting a moose is not high on my list of things to do.

Our goal at Cannon was to knock off three big routes in a day: Moby Grape, Vertigo, and the Whitney-Gilman Ridge. Any of these is classic and a good day out all on its own (not least of which because of the approach, which is, for all Cannon routes, about 45 minutes uphill through a massive talus- and boulder-field); all three in a day would be a pretty big coup for me, especially since I’ve been climbing less frequently as a result of the med school and all. Moby Grape- ~1,000 feet and 7-8 pitches- was our first objective, and Reppy’s Crack- a stellar single-pitch line in its own right- was the first pitch. Reppy’s is kind of a misleading introduction to Cannon in general, since it’s pretty easy to see where the line goes and it protects well. It’s also a great way to warm up for the seven pitches above. That’s not me leading- that’s Nick. I was too hosed from the approach. Funny thing- I’m pretty fast on approaches- I routinely leave most of my partners well in the dust. Nick is much, much, (much) faster. Almost embarrassingly so. And he seemed to have boundless energy when we got to the base, so, whatever: His lead.

This is the second pitch of Moby Grape, and more representative of what the whole Cannon experience is all about: Wandering lines, loose rock, and some significant route-finding challenges. You’ll notice two ropes here; that’s both to account for the wandering nature of the routes, and a bit of precaution, since loose rock- especially loose, sharp granite- has a remarkable predilection for slicing through nylon.

Check it out: Nick racking with the Whitney-Gilman in the background. We could see all of our other objectives all day long, including…


I swear to god I lead some of these pitches- in fact, minus Reppy’s I lead all crux pitches, but what can I do? Nick had no camera. Here’s Nick following P3. He’s just above a tricky little roof that I swear cannot be got around gracefully. We had no problems, but a couple of weeks later I came back with a friend and watched as a leader whipped, messed up his ankles pretty badly, and had to bail.

Here’s Nick taking off on pitch 4. This doesn’t look like much, but all of those blocks he’s so carefully slotted bits of gear behind are just loaded and ready to go…

Ahh- a shot of me. That’s the Fickle Finger of Fate above me, and the Sickle below. These two features are named, I think, only because no one can believe they’re still attached to the cliff. Getting around these entailed some of the coolest climbing I think I’ve ever done, all a good ten or fifteen feet run-out. I made a friend lead this section next time up, and I think he may have nearly made a mess of his pants.

On top- at least, the way we topped out, which I wouldn’t recommend- the angle dropped off dramatically and we found ourselves picking through blueberry brambles. Nick led the last pitch, which apparently has no anchors (as I discovered when I topped out to find him sitting on top, heels dug into a mound of dirt).

Getting down and back to the WG was kind of draining- the usual descent heads off to the main parking lot, but that puts you at the bottom of the talus slope approach, so, in the interest of time (we were still going for all three at this point) we cut back into the cliff at about half-height and bushwhacked for the base. It nearly did me in.

We headed for the Whitney-Gilman ridge, which was (as expected at Cannon) a bit sketchy, but mercifully short (the guidebook describes it in 5-6 pitches, but I don’t know what kind of masochist would want to spend that much time building anchors; we did it in three). WG is a great route with some significant history- it was put up in the ‘50s- and some of that history is still hanging around en route (for example, I clipped three or four rusty old timebomb pitons somewhere mid-pitch 1).

At about this time, three routes turned into two.

And that... is that. Nick on top; still no pictures of me. Those will have to wait for another day, I suppose.