Wild ChihuahuaRumors of a parallel Hueco universe lure an intrepid team of American climbers into the unforgiving Mexican desert. By Matt Segal Photos by John Dickey
Hueco Tanks, El Paso’s crown jewel, is widely regarded as the best bouldering in North America, but I’d heard rumors of an undeveloped area called Peñoles south of the border, in the middle of nowhere, with no crowds or rangers, and endless fields of sick monzonite blocks. This new area sounded promising and adventurous, and you wouldn’t have to wake up before sunrise just to wait in line for an elusive entry pass. My friend Robert Thoren and I made it our mission to collect beta on this mythical haven and quickly discovered there wasn’t much to be found. I grew discouraged that our quest for a new climbing area wouldn’t materialize, but figured at worst I’d spend a few weeks with good people drinking tequila and eating delicious tacos, rellenos and tamales in Mexico.
We rallied Will Stanhope, John Dickey and Sarah Watson, packed my van to the brim with everything from bouldering pads to trad gear, and crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico, with nothing but a vague gas-station map and even worse directions from rockclimbing.com. Even though Mexico’s border towns have recently been the subject of U.S. State Department travel alerts, we assuaged our fears of beheadings with the speculation that the American media had probably exaggerated the violence for TV ratings. Blazing down highway 45, 350 miles into no man’s land, we dreamed of five-star lines.
Eight hours and zero epics after leaving El Paso, we were in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert surrounded by gnarly desert cattle. Luckily, the dark horse of Mexican bouldering and sport-climbing, Diego Montull, had agreed to give us the tour of Peñoles. Diego is originally from Mexico City, but has spent the last five years either living in Europe or on the road in his El Camino. Diego was welcoming and showed us many established problems up to V14 and dozens of projects that were waiting for the right first ascentionist. He has been exploring Peñoles for the last three years and has ticked the biggest, proudest lines in the area, which is impressive considering that some of the boulders are massive, up to 60 feet high. We ran around with Diego like schoolgirls at a Justin Timberlake show, amazed by the climbing potential. There are three main mountains, and like Hueco each mountain is carved with many side canyons. Every once in a while you can find a nice block in the desert, but for the most part the best rock is in the maze-like chasms that scribe the slopes and keep the compact rock cool in its shady chambers.
The climbing is a blend of crimps, slopers and pockets, a mix between Hueco, Bishop and J-Tree. Getting to the boulders is half the crux – from bush-whacking through thick cactus to dodging the killer bees that inhabit holes in the rock, Peñoles is no walk on the beach. You must be motivated to climb here. When we mentioned to some locals who weren’t climbers that we were camping at the rocks, they thought we were insane; Don’t you know the area is infested with African Killer Bees and rattlesnakes and los narcos?
Though we were spooked by the locals, Diego assured us it wasn’t that bad. For starters, what few climbers are around have scared off the drug cartels. The bees and snakes are a different story. We saw plenty of both. In contrast to Hueco, the only rule at Peñoles is: Be aware of your surroundings – a small price to pay for some of the best bouldering in the world.
Matt Segal is a leading trad climber in the U.S. with ascents of Cobra Crack (5.14) and Smart Went Crazy (5.13). He lives in Boulder.
At present I would not recommend driving to Peñoles since the border towns, according to the U.S. State Department, are not safe. Luckily you can often find cheap flights to Chihuahua City, which is about three hours from Peñoles. Highway 45 South will take you straight into Jimenez, the closest town to the climbing. Stock up on food and water. Don’t forget to hit up a taco stand for some of the tastiest Mexican food you’ll ever eat.
From Jimenez follow signs to Hidalgo del Parrel, then Villa Lopez until you see Peñoles on your right. Simply weave your way through the desert on dirt roads heading towards the rock. A few pull outs are ideal for camping. Since there are no facilities, remember to pack everything out.
The best months to climb are November through February. No topos have been published, so you’re on your own. Diego marked the majority of established lines with a small circle of chalk and an arrow by the starting holds.