Gear for Adventure: El Potrero Chico, Mexico
Frank Madden, author of the guidebook to El Potrero Chico, offers up his two cents on the critical gear you’ll need for a trip across the border to experience big-wall sport-climbing at its finest!
My first time visiting El Potrero Chico was back in 2014 when I was passing through on my way to Brazil for the World Cup. I can still remember the feeling I had when I first saw those 1,000-foot walls. I’ve been returning to northern Mexico for the past five years now, and I still get that same feeling every time.
Located just under an hour outside of Mexico’s third largest city, Monterrey, the Potrero is a beautiful desert environment that has massively towering walls, providing one of North America’s greatest winter climbing destinations. Below the walls of Potrero Chico, sits a great set of campgrounds and casitas operated by local families that have been catering to climbers and locals alike for years. The small town of Hidalgo sits downhill even further. With roughly 20,000 people, it is a bustling place and has everything visiting climbers—who have been frequenting the area since the early 1990s—need, with plenty of restaurants, grocery stores and markets.
Before I dig into some of the great gear you will need in order to make the best of your climbing trip, let me give you a few basic tips that’ll help you plan and carry out your climbing trip in Mexico.
NUMBER 1: Don’t forget your passport! Although it seems obvious, I know more than a few people that have tried to drive down to Mexico without their passports, only to be turned back. Don’t make the simple mistake of forgetting that you are traveling to a foreign country, even if it’s our wonderful southern neighbor..
NUMBER 2: Are you driving or are you flying? If you are flying, it’s simple: Book the plane ticket, and book a taxi ahead of time with any of the campgrounds or local businesses that offer shuttle services. If you feel a bit more adventurous and speak decent Spanish, you can use the bus system to get from Monterrey to El Potrero Chico, but it takes much longer.
If you are driving down, you will need to go through the process of getting a vehicle permit. You can do this online. It’s an easy process, but does take a little bit of time. It usually takes a week or two to get the permit in the mail. The following website has a good bit of information on how to do this. Mexican vehicle permit. The other, more common way to get a Mexican Vehicle Permit, is at the border. Either way, you will need a passport, driver’s license, vehicle title or registration (if you car is leased or has a lien you’ll need a notarized letter from the lien-holder that gives you permission to drive the car in Mexico, with the travel dates), and a credit card or bank debit card. You will want three copies of each of these documents. If you don’t have copies they will make you pay for them at the border crossing office.
Also, if you are driving, get Mexican car insurance! I can’t stress this enough. Even if your own car insurance company says that they will cover you there, having Mexican car insurance will save you major headaches in the event that you have an accident.
If you want some killer driving directions from the Laredo border crossing in Texas, you can get those here.
Now, finally, onto the climbing gear!
Having a Quad in the Potrero will make your life so much easier. All anchors are bolted, so it entirely takes care of your anchor building situation.
To build my quad anchor, I use 7-millimeter cordelette, since it’s nice and durable, copuled with two Black Diamond Positron screwgate carabiners.
I also like to take some alpine draws for when I’m linking pitches together on the bigger routes, to help prevent rope drag as much as possible. For that I use Black Diamond’s 10mm Dynex runners with a couple of Black Diamond carabiners.
I’m a big fan of the Black Diamond Momentum DS harness. It beats out their regular Momentum harness in my mind because it has a double buckle, giving it that much more adjustability. That equals greater comfort at hanging belays.
Protect that noggin! Whatever helmet you choose, wear it! For years I have used the simple and comfortable Black Diamond Half Dome helmet.
While rock climbing in Potrero, helmets are a must. I wear mine even when I’m single-pitch climbing, because in a lot of cases the single-pitch climbing is situated underneath some other multi-pitch climb—and climbers can sometimes send down rock fall. (Be wary of those climbing above you!)
The Sterling Helix provides the lightweight you want when you’re up on the big walls, and is still durable. The bi-color makes rapping all the more easy with a clearly defined middle point.
70 meters is s must! Let’s be real: this is what every climber should be buying at this point. 70 meters is long enough for every pitch in Potrero. And even then, there are just a few pitches here that require the full 70 over a 60— but you definitely don’t want to miss out on those climbs.
La Sportiva TC Pros (for multi-pitch) / La Sportiva Miuras (for single pitch)
My go to shoe line up consists of TC Pros for multi-pitch and Muiras for single pitch. There is quite a bit of technical face climbing here in Potrero Chico, and I find these two pairs of shoes capable of doing everything I ask of them on that terrain.
I want to be comfortable while climbing long days high up on the walls—hence the TC Pros—but when I’m projecting hard single pitch I switch over to my Muiras. They give me the good control and precision that I need on the steeper lines.
Most important of all is the guidebook. (Disclaimer: I am the author!) Despite its relatively small geographic expanse, there is a crazy amount of climbing in the Potrero, spread over many walls. Mountain Project just doesn’t cut it for the Potrero. It’s easy to get lost. In EPC Climbing: A Climber’s Guide to El Potrero Chico, everything is laid out as clearly as possible.
The second edition is out now and it covers all of Potrero Chico as well as a few other outlying areas. It is full color, with more than half of the routes shown in topo images. The multi-pitch topos also have pitch-by-pitch breakdowns.
Although I’m a big fan of La Sportiva climbing shoes, I really like the Scarpa Gecko approach shoe. The Gecko is what I have been using for years here in Mexico on all the rappels from the big multi-pitch climbs. Essentially, none of the big wall routes here have walk-offs (which these shoes would also be great for), but it’s nice after 10+ or 20+ pitches of climbing to slip these shoes on for the long descent back down the route.
Comfort is the most important quality to me, but these shoes are also great for swinging around on the wall and maneuvering in the event of a stuck rope.
I’ve even done quite a bit of climbing in these shoes here, too. They are a must for climbing in Potrero.
For the big wall climbing here, you should probably be bringing some sort of small climbing pack. Everyone has his or her favorite, but you really don’t need anything all that high tech, just something about 10 to 20 liters in size. I just use Osprey’s small Daylite pack. 15 or 20 l. It’s super small, durable, and more than spacious enough for my water and favorite climbing snacks (tamales)!
Because all the routes here are bolted, there isn’t really a need for a climbing specific pack to haul extra gear. You won’t be needing any of that.
While all the campgrounds offer rooms or small houses, camping is a great way to keep the cost of your trip down and gets you the true Potrero experience.
This Tiger Wall UL2 is the tent I have and I love it. It is super lightweight, which is important if you are flying and trying to keep your weight down for that big gear duffle bag. It also packs down pretty small. Just right for two people on a climbing trip.
The weather in Mexico can be finicky. Sometimes it’s really hot out and other times the nights get pretty cold. Even though it tends to be warmer during the days of the main climbing season, for a couple weeks each winter the temps can get really chilly. I plan for this with the sleeping bag I bring. I use the Mountain Hardwear Lamina 30 degree bag, which is warm enough to keep me toasty all night long on those really cold nights, but not so heavy that I’m sweltering hot during the warmer ones.
Sleeping pads in Potrero are usually pretty necessary since the ground around all the campgrounds tends to be desert like with a decent bit of rock. I have been and probably always will be a fan of the Thermarest ProLite sleeping pad. I get the full-length version because the half size tends to give you sore knees, since your knees end up just resting on the ground.
Feature Image: The classic view of El Potrero Chico. Photo: Neil Skilton.
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