Weekend Warm-Up: Alex Honnold Free Solos on Limestone Razors in Mexico

There’s a sport climber’s paradise in verdant northeastern Mexico. A stone’s throw away from the bright lights of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, a labyrinth of 800m limestone shields punches skyward from the arroyo. Garlands of yucca, palm, and cholla hang richly from the formations, which also teem with wildlife in the form of snakes, scorpions, millipedes, bats, and tarantulas.

Every couple of hundred metres along the towering walls, clean ribbons of pale gray stone lead to turrets and summits. Those long, strikingly vertical paths are the signature sport climbs of El Potrero Chico.

 

Of course, if you’re Alex Honnold, you don’t go to Mexico to go sport climbing. If you’re Honnold, you go there to — what else? — free solo. In the case of El Potrero Chico, you go there to free solo the hardest, most coveted route in the place.

The Potrero: a hard-won sport climber’s paradise

“The little corral” first drew rock climbers to its enticing vertical terrain in the mid-to-late 1980s. Ragtag groups of outlaws, drifters, general malcontents, and a visionary climber or two arrived from Austin, Texas, focused on first ascents.

That would prove significantly hard to do. The obvious, straight tracts of clean limestone that today lead to the ridgelines did not get there on their own. Instead, climbers arduously and dangerously landscaped them into cliffs through processes requiring months — sometimes years on a single line — of brutal manual labor.

The result, though, is world-class. Each autumn, hopefuls from around the world flock to nearby Hidalgo and head up to the canyon to test themselves against pitch after sprawling pitch of solidly-bolted sport climbs. The crown jewel is Jeff Jackson et al’s “El Sendero Luminoso” (5.12+/7c+, 455 m, 15 pitches).

el potrero chico

The author below ‘El Toro’, El Potero Chico’s standout formation. ‘El Sendero Luminoso’ takes a vertical line toward the summit at the centre of the frame. Photo: Julian D. Tapia

 

The complicated, reachy crux moves on pitch two routinely handcuff highly capable climbers. Retreats from the bolt just below the protean holds are common, following leader fall after leader fall.

Honnold skips every bolt

During his 2014 visit, Honnold would not enjoy the safety margin of a whipper, or any safety margin at all, on El Sendero. Instead, he’d face the notoriously thin crimps and wrinkles that constitute the route’s only purchase without a rope.

First, he and perennial buddy Cedar Wright roped up to climb the line to the top, quick and dirty. That was so they could spend a few days scouting and cleaning the holds from the top down.

In Wright’s documentary of the effort, he says transparently that the reason he’s toothbrushing dirt out of the holds so meticulously is that he does not want to watch his friend die.

 

Points for honesty. On the other hand, there’s Honnold. Rehearsing the hardest sequences with ropes for protection, he at one point shudders through a long, tenuous reach to a hold overhead, feet smeared on featureless vertical surfaces below.

“Little bit of a ‘thank god’ moment right there, right?” Wright asks from behind the camera.

“Little bit,” Honnold agrees, and briskly (you might say “conspicuously”) changes the subject.

Watch the man who came to earn the nickname “No Big Deal” cut his teeth in the early days of his legendary career here. Vertigo-inducing drone shots both show off the vast, steep hanging gardens of El Potrero Chico and bring scale and drama to Honnold’s solo effort. Sweeping panoramas and sickening exposure — plus a persistent, visible breeze on sending day — make the film a can’t-miss.

But don’t sleep on the glimpse behind the scenes that Wright provides with his footage of the prep work. It opens a unique window into the craft of free solo climbing, and insights into the bond between the two boon companions.

And if you ever find yourself in the Potrero, walk up to El Sendero Luminoso and try the first couple of pitches. Then think about trying them with no way out but up, and certain death if you peel off.