Our start was what you might call 'relaxed'. For our first 'long route' of the trip, a mere six pitches, we had been up at six, and had to kill an hour waiting for the sun to rise. This time the route was three times as long, but here we were, shuffling around at nine. After a lazy breakfast Shane took down his tent and I applied the final touches of duck tape to the haul-bag and made sure we had all the kit packed: chalk, quickdraws, gri-gri, clipstick, water, frisbee, sleeping bags, thermarests, ascenders, wall hauler, rain gear, two toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss. Just the stuff for a couple of days bolt clipping. Finally the tent went in. We had wanted to take pillows, but space would not allow and so we would have to rough it.
Several years ago I was in the Bow Valley, Canada, looking up at Frenchman's Cap, an inpressive limestone crag which is host to the mega sport route 'Sisyphus Summits', at the time I recall someone telling me that it was the longest sport route north of the Mexican border. That got me thinking that there must be some real monsters down in Mexico, and it was not long before I read about Kurt Smith's adventures at El Potrero and mentally reserved my place.
Now it was time to go and find out for myself what this big wall sport climbing lark was all about. From the ranch where we were staying it was a short distance to the base of El Toro. The Shining Path takes an obvius line up the North Face of El Toro, a sliver of clean rock that tapers to a summit a few hundred feet below the summit proper. At half height there is an obvious horizontal break which is big enough for a party (literally) and a tent. Shane and I had already checked out the approach and left a trail of marker cairns to follow, which made a nightmare approach into a manageable ordeal of gruntwork and eventually got us to the base of the route, sweating and making us both secretly wish we'd made an earlier start. We had a thousand feet of climbing to get through in five long pitches. It was going to be a long day.
Shane took the first pitch, and got high quickly, but the pitches were long and no matter how far he climbed there was still a lot of rope still on the ground. We we using a 10.5mm and a 8mm trail line attached to a 10.5mm static line for hauling. Everything was 60 meters to reach between the belays. Usually I had used a 60m rope to do 30m pitches and lower off, using the full length was an exercise in perseverence and thumb straining clips. In the time between hiking to the base and Shane starting to climb our sweat had evaporated into the cold shady air, and we both shivered. Shane shouted down that he still couln't feel his hands, then carried on a few more moves before yanking me up off my comfy haul bag. "Foot slipped". Oh well, I thought, at least it gets rid of any pressure to get an onsight.
At the first belay, Shane pulled through the 8mm and began to tighten the static line. For some stupid reason I was surprised when the haul bag sprung to life and began inching its way up the wall. Then I was relived: it works. Everything we knew about hauling, and big wall climbing came from a book Shane had bought, and I had read on the plane. Of course it was all about how to do a nail up on El Cap rather than a great big sports route, but this could only be simpler. I slapped my ascenders onto the lead line and began the embarassingly easy job of 'cleaning' the pitch. Shane was hauling like a madman, and had the bag some while before I joined him at the belay. Ropes decorated the belay like tinsel in Santas Grotto. Shane hung in the middle of it working out how to get the haul bag off the wall hauler and onto the belay. We'd got the basic technique right, but managing the ropes would need lots of practice, but that was OK, we had lots of opportunity above us.
The next lead was mine, and I understood immediately what Shane had been complaining about, my fingers were not warmed up and the climbing was very sustained on water washed pockets, smooth flutings and cracks. The angle was very reasonable, allowing rests quite frequently, but it was still mentally tiring to be doing so much of it without getting to a belay. About two thirds of the way up the pitch I thought I was doing quite well, but that's the worse possible thing to think, and then I was face to face with technical and balancy climbing along a thin crack. I spent far too long psyching up, succeeded only in chalking up and proceeding at scewing up. I gave it a half baked effort and tried to retreat to avoid the terror of a two meter plunge onto a shiny bolt, but I fell off anyway. I deserved that I told myself, and hated myself for it. The rest of the pitch held more technical crack climbing, and revealed a fixed rope, which I selflessly took it upon myself to test at a few tense moments.
The next three pitches seemed to go more and more smoothly, with no more falls. By pitch four we were hauling like veterans, and I had learnt to jumar without looking down, which felt much safer. Shane said he thought the third pitch was the best he'd ever done during the enitre trip. I could only take his word for it was I was jumaring with my eyes locked forwards.
It was a great relief to get to the bivvy ledge at the end of the first five pitches and 1000 feet of 7a+ to 7b+ climbing. We had just enough time to put up the tent and have some food before it was dark. Below us the lights of the town spread out into the scrub and twinkled in the hard night. It was an oddly new sensation: we'd had this mad day's climbing, and now it was night, but the climbing wasn't over, we couldn't laugh and say that it was all good fun in retrospective. There was no-one around to swap stories with, we were still in the process of making the story. There wasn't a whole lot we had to say to each other by this point, and we were knackered anyway so went to bed.
The tent hadn't quite fit onto the ledge, it stuck out by about a foot on one side. Shane had already rigged a safety line into the tent, and volunteered to take the side with the under floor cooling system. I agreed. For a few hours I just lay there trying to imagine the physical consequences should Shane decide to roll to his right, the best case scenario would have my bodyweight providing enough friction to prevent the tent from crawling over the edge, the worse involved us hanging by a thread with the tent still surrounding us like a cucoon. Shane slept, I pondered.
Adrian in the tent at 1000ft (note belay point)
The only time of day the North Face of El Toro gets any sun is the very first thing, when the first rays glance the face and pick out its features. This morning, we were one of those features. This morning was not to be so relaxed as the previous one. After packing up most of our things (we left the tent in case of a storm, plus it looked pretty cool), it was time to deal with the business of the morning. We had packed toilet paper, but had got no further in our thoughts. Eventually I found a flat rock which I decorated and threw off the ledge. I don't know what Shane did, I didn't ask. Then we we climbing. If felt good to do the first pitch about the ledge, exposure levels were back to manageable and my climbing was boosted noticeably, even though it was solid 7b at 7am it was good solid face climbing. From here on were were going light, the second took a small daypack with water, a little food, headtorches, and a belay jacket, the leader wore the 8mm second rope on his back. We seconded all the pitches and alternated leads for the most part. The climbing was more interesting than the first half, with more vertical lines to follow, and some welcome easy pitches which we linked together to save time. The third pitch above the belay ledge was my lead, the topo called it Homero's Finger, and for good reason, it was a clean finger of rock, impossibly stuck to the side of the mountain. Moving up to the finger is a committing series of moves, followed by the mother of all reaches around the overlap that is the bottom of the feature, from here progress looks horrendous, but the holds are all there, and good ones too, making an excellent pitch, and my favourite.
We had originally planned for the crux, 12th, pitch to me my lead, but by this point we we both quite tired and I had just got pumped seconding the previous pitch. I was about to take the lead, clipstick in hand, and ruthfulness in absence, when Shane volunteered to give it a bash, which he did with a huge effort getting to the next belay with only one rest, seconding the pitch, I found it was as desperate as Shane had made it sound, and bold at one point with the line going away from the bolts making for some really hairy clips. With only three more pitches, and no harder than 6c+, we knew we'd broken its back. Spectators down at the Ranch told us later they had watched us through binoculars getting towards the top, then suddenly we were coming back down. That was pretty much how it felt, we had got into the mode of thinking that we were no longer doing moves, but just going all out for the top, pulling on bits of rock just to get there. Three easy pitches glided by and then we were at the summit, adding our names to the book of honour.
There was one thing I had to do before going back down. A month previously, in Yosemite, I had watched a friend of mine solemnly pack his bags and leave Camp Four after a failed attempt on The Nose. Just before he made that final walk to the car park, he passed me a green frisbee and said "do me a favour, Ade, if you get up there, let it go, for me". I promised, but then I never did do the Nose, and I had been dragging that damned frisbee around with me ever since. Well I let it go, and it soared through the sky, then banked steeply to the right and dropped straight down as if it had found a hole in the air. Then we too, were on the way down.
It was a relief to have made it to the top in one piece, but we knew that there was as much left to go wrong, we were tired, it was getting late, and there was a lot of abseiling to be done. The first abseil was an ominous start, the rope jammed utterly. Shane volunteered to get it, and re-climbed the top two (easist) pitches to sort out the knot. He later told me that he volunteered to sort out the rope because it was going to be the easiest possible one to fix, if the rope were to get stuck on any other abseils, I would be my turn and a real nightmare seeing as we'd left the ascenders on the bivvy ledge. As it happened it was quite smooth getting to the bivvy ledge, the unthinkable consequences of a cock-up made us (and me in particular) very careful not to get the ropes stuck. Back at the bivvy ledge we stuffed the tent into the haul bag, and I slung the lot onto my back. From here it was a bit more cumbersome, and I quickly learnt why haulbags are called pigs.
Getting to the ground was a bit of an anticlimax. But was soon as we had the ropes coiled and made our way back down to the Ranch, the experience began. Whilst we were up there doing it it, we were too busy thinking to actually experience the route, only on the walk down, stopping every now and then to turn our heads to look up at the wall in fading light did it really begin to happen to us. Our excitement grew and we couldn't help running the final section down to the flat, haulbag and all.
Getting closer to the Ranch I couldn't help wondering what I'd say when people asked 'what was it like?', I think I said it was pretty good fun, then put Shane onto them for some more in depth gushing.
The route was El Sendero Luminosa (The Shining Path) 2000ft 7b+ V 15 pitches. (7a+,7b+,7b,7a+7b,7b,7b,7b,6c,6b,7b,7b+,6c+,6b,5).
First ascent by Kurt Smith, Jeff Jackson, and Pete Peacock.
It is to be found at El Potrero Chico, an extensive limestone area near the town of Hidalgo, just north of the Mexican city of Monterray.