Space Boyz, Potrero Chico

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: December 28, 2000

Photo: Gary Clark

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It's mid-afternoon, and I'm hanging from a couple of beefy bolts on a narrow footledge two pitches up a rather smooth limestone wall. Down at the base, another car has just arrived to disgorge an amazing number of passengers. Even though salsa music already blares from one set of car speakers, the driver parks about 20 feet away and cranks up the volume on his own: dueling stereos. I've gotten pretty used to the scene by now, and just laugh as I watch numerous Tecates disappear down throats and the cans disappear into the bushes at the base of the wall. Now a third car arrives. He seems intent on eliminating what little rubber might remain on his tires by spinning donuts on the rocky road that leads through the canyon. I'd be really put off by all this, but the fact is, I'm a visitor from another country and culture, so it's not for me to judge. Just enjoy the climbing.

We're on 'Space Boyz', the main goal of an 8-day trip to Potrero Chico in North Central Mexico. We plan to do the complete climb a few days later, but on this Sunday afternoon have found ourselves with some extra time after being chased away from a shorter sport wall by the crowds. We decide to sample the first few pitches to make the later attempt more efficient. Space Boyz is the most popular long climb at Potrero. To hope to do the entire route, you must be among the first couple of parties to arrive in the morning. All others will do some of the lower pitches and rap back to the base. I had heard conflicting reports on the climb. The guidebook calls it a "classic" and others had spoken very highly of it. However, some friends said they had done the lower pitches, decided it was boring, and rapped off. At the end of our day, I understood this; the first four pitches are almost carbon copies. Almost exactly 30m each, they climb a wall of constant angle on small pockets and ledges. The difficulty is never below 5.8, nor higher than 5.9+. The friends from whom I'd received the advice "Don't bother" are solid 5.12 leaders, so this must have been a hike. However, after 9 months of inactivity due to tendon injury, I'm just now back on the rock, and although not overly challenging, I'm finding even these lower pitches interesting and fun - definitely not boring. I could be honest and admit that 5.12 is not even in my vocabulary, but with the convenient excuse of my injury, there's no reason to do that. Excuses are a time-honored and highly useful aspect of this sport. Later, we'll discover that these early pitches are only the entrance exam for the really interesting, varied, and more challenging rock above. As a total package, this is as good a route of it's type as I've ever experienced. It more than meets my criteria for inclusion in the North American Classics collection.

Since the preponderance of the audience for this report will be from more northern climes, I'll spend some time here documenting the total experience of our stay at Potrero Chico, rather than simply offering a pitch-by-pitch description of the Space Boyz route. We followed one of the most popular itineraries - fly to Monterrey, Mexico, taxi to Rancho Cerro Gordo where we had reserved a campsite, get around entirely on foot until vacation time runs out, then reverse the process. We talked to many who had driven the whole way; the distance record was from Ontario, Canada. Here are some overall conclusions:

The Climbing:

Superb. The routes we did were all "moderates" - from 5.9 to 5.10+, typically face climbing on small holds. We never encountered a poor quality pitch. Protection bolts were plentiful, anchors comforting. Rock quality was excellent, however, a cry of "Rock!" was not infrequent. As always, many of the climbers on the moderate routes were on the lower end of the experience spectrum, and tended to generate more rockfall than necessary.

The People:

Everyone we met was friendly and in many cases went well out of their way to help us in any possible fashion. We shared routes and even ropes on two occasions with Mexican teams, and both experiences were highlights of our trip. They were competent, safe, polite, and very patient with my rusty Spanish. The staff at the ranch were genuinely caring for our well-being, and clearly devoted to the cause of making Potrero Chico one of the world's premiere climbing destinations.

The Scene:

I suspect our reaction upon arriving in Hidalgo was typical - open mouthed amazement at the scale and beauty of the limestone peaks that soar above town. It appeared that our taxi driver had never been here, although only 30 miles distant from his home. His conversation dwindled to a series of low whistles and exclamations of superlatives. If you've seen the flatirons of Boulder Colorado, imagine them reproduced on a huge scale, layer upon layer. I've seen and admired peaks in Alberta similar in scale and appearance, formed when millions of years' accumulation of sea creature exoskeletons consolidate into almost pure calcium carbonate, then are tilted to near vertical by the forces of plate tectonics. Right up the middle of the highest peak (Cerro San Miguel) is a clean, obvious line interrupted only once about halfway up by a ledge formed by the top of one of the giant plates. The climber's eye is drawn inexorably to this line, which I recognized immediately from photos as the 'Sendero Luminoso' route. This is one of the masterpiece routes put up by Jeff Jackson, Kurt Smith and two others. The scale and difficulty is intimidating; at 22 pitches, 12 of which are 5.12, it's unfortunately nothing I'm likely to ever experience.

To the left of the massive NW face of Cerro San Miguel is a steep-sided canyon. Water can never be denied in it's voyage to the sea, and as these mountains rose, the humble little desert arroyo cut a V-shaped groove to the level of the surrounding desert floor. The sides of the V comprise the primary climbing area. I was reminded of Eldorado Canyon - drop a carabiner from the Bastille Tower, and it might land on a car roof. Not only is there a road through the groove providing easy access, but the erosion has eliminated the large alluvial fans that would otherwise cover the lower portions of the walls. Unlike Eldo Canyon, though, after you pass through the narrowest section of the canyon, it opens up dramatically to reveal a large open valley. The climbing walls continue in both directions, but require ever-increasing approach hikes. In spite of the square miles of steep, climbable limestone presented to our view, the currently developed climbing areas are like scratches on the feet of giants. Only a handful of routes attain the skyline, but the potential is huge. I'm reminded of the middle of the last century in Yosemite, before Half Dome or El Capitan had an ascent. In that case, only a few visionaries realized the walls might be climbable. At the Potrero everyone realizes that these walls are climbable; it's just a matter of finding people with the ability, time, and budget to develop them.

The human-created environment is much less impressive. It has been a decade since I've traveled in a 'third world' country, so this trip was a harsh reminder of the combined effects of a non-functioning economy and unchecked population growth. Monterrey is the third largest city in the country, with a metropolitan population of 3.2 million. One of it's nicknames is "City among the Mountains". High limestone peaks closely surround the city, but even on a day of full sunshine, we could make out only vague outlines. Smog from industry, millions of dilapidated vehicles with no functioning exhaust controls, and unregulated burning was some of the worst I've ever seen. Potrero Chico is only 30 miles away, so naturally the air quality suffers there. The rest of the picture was predictable but saddening - plastic, glass, car bodies, parts of cars, and every nature of human refuse cover every square inch of land visible from the road from Monterrey to Hidalgo. Buildings are squat, no-frills concrete and cinder block structures, most of which appeared to be either (1) under construction (2) under demolition, or (3) abandoned and ignored. It had apparently been a while since any significant rains had fallen, since the whole was covered with a deep layer of dust.

The Potrero Chico is a designated natural preserve or park of some kind, but litter, apparent lack of supervision of any kind over human activities and easy vehicular access render it a different kind of place from the parks we are used to in the states. It was routine to watch locals mining rocks and gravel from the banks of the arroyo that passes directly beneath the walls. The park is apparently so poorly funded that construction of even rudimentary facilities like toilets is out of the question. Local tourists arrive, get out of their cars, and use the bushes at the base of some of the most popular routes.

Route development is also of a different genre here. The lower angled walls are naturally quite well covered with desert plant life - mostly of the spiny variety. The term "developer" is much more appropriate for the routes here than "first ascender". Many of the modern routes do not follow natural features; in some cases, just the opposite is true - the route developers avoided cracks, corners, and flakes to concentrate instead on relatively blank faces that produced the best or hardest climbing. Once a line was decided upon, it had to be cleared of vegetation - lots of vegetation, not just the occasional bush in a crack. In order to have any chance of recovering a rappel rope (all the routes are rapped, there are no walk-offs), the band of clearing was typically 15 to 20 feet wide. Where the larger plants had been thus eradicated, there were left large tan patches on an otherwise dark wall. One can visually locate some of the climbing areas from miles away. Most of these comments are true especially for the moderate areas, where 5.9 and 5.10 slab climbs predominate. Some of the major areas, such as the Outrage wall, are so steep as to have never accumulated vegetation. Only the overabundance of climbers' trails at the bottom mars the natural scene, but the cows that wander widely throughout the area are even more efficient trail builders.


There are several climbers' camps to choose from. The most popular by far are "Rancho Cerro Gordo (RCG)",and the "Quinta del Santa Graciela". Others include "Quinta la Pagoda", "Quinta Las Posadas", and others under development. From our limited perspective, the Rancho seemed the best alternative. While the Quinta was packed pretty much tent-line to tent-line in a large open grassy field, the staff at RCG have obviously spend a lot of time and money creating a more convenient and aesthetic experience for their guests. The campsites are discrete, semi-private areas scattered about a 20-acre chaparral area. There is a large central pavilion where guests share propane stoves, two sinks with hot running water, a large central cooking island, couches, tables, etc.. At a peak during the dinner preparation hour, I counted 100 climbers using this facility. There is also a "Deposito" (small store) offering a few basic foodstuffs but mostly lots of high-quality, cold Mexican beer. Wherever you choose to stay, you'll need to bring your own food, or work out transportation to the town of Hidalgo to buy it. Other basic services are scarce, as we found after hiking 3 miles, only to wander the streets and return almost empty-handed. The ranch also has excellent hot showers and clean flush toilets (bring your own paper). Costs were very reasonable, both for camping ($5/person/night), and especially for the beer (about 80cents).

The Climate:

This is high desert environment, similar in feel to Red Rocks in Nevada. However, there is an important difference - clouds and humidity routinely pour across northern Mexico during the winter, so chilly temperatures are reinforced by humidity and a steady breeze. Don't expect to catch a lot of rays on the rock at this time of year - you might get lucky for a few hours at midday, but for the most part, and particularly for the longer routes, you must plan around keeping warm as a priority. Many climbers carry a down jacket for the belays. We got by with several warmth layers and a wind jacket instead. The ideal seasons for climbing here must surely be fall and spring. The winter season is highly popular only because there are so few other areas available, and vacations coincide. Summer provides very hot mid-day temperatures, but climbing is still possible early and late in shaded areas.


There are two guidebooks. Jeff Jackson, a Texan climber instrumental in early development of the modern sport area, authored a book called "Mexican Rock." It includes sections on other crags in Northern Mexico, and is a commercially published bound book with black and white photos. (Available at the Ranch or on The other book is "Potrero Chico" which covers only this area. It is published by "Magic Ed," an expatriate American who has been very active in route development at Potrero as well, and who now lives there full time. That book is available (to my knowledge) only at Potrero, either directly from the author, or at Quinta Santa Graciela. Both books are rudimentary. Although far superior in production values, the Jackson book is very spare in information. An example is the Mota Wall, which now offers around 40 closely spaced routes. They are simply numbered from left to right in the Jackson book with very little description of features to help you locate them - you start counting, and quickly become confused because new routes have been sandwiched in between the documented ones. Recently written addendum sheets help some, but this is an awkward solution at best. Hopefully future editions will provide good line drawings or photos of all the cliffs with routes more clearly identified.

Magic Ed's guide has an advantage in that it is published on a home-computer in small lots so it can be kept more up to date. It also has some topos of the longer routes and a few more line drawings, but the Space Boyz topo and other diagrams we tried to use were very poor - short on information and sometimes simply wrong. The history of these guides is one of controversy. Jackson and Smith believe that most of the information is their intellectual property, having collected it in loose-leaf form in anticipation of publishing the first guide. Ed believes the information was essentially in the public domain. I'll maintain some journalistic detachment and leave it at that. Buying both books might be the answer - both sides in the dispute will profit, you'll have all the information in print, and the money might go toward further development of routes. If it weren't for Jeff, Kurt, and Ed, there would be only a fraction of the routes, and bolts aren't cheap.

Back to Space Boyz:

By Thursday, we had gained enough familiarity with the limestone (a relatively unfamiliar medium for us) and with the ratings (which we thought quite standard) to feel ready for the main event: Space Boyz. Kurt reinforced what we already knew: we had to be there first, or risk spending the day waiting for belay anchors to clear. We arrived at the base at 7:15am; a laughably late time for a true "alpine start," but the facts were that it was barely light and quite cold. We uncoiled the ropes and got ready to jump on the route immediately in case anyone arrived, then tried to force down some of the meager and unappetizing breakfast we'd brought for the base. I barely got two bites of an energy bar down before two climbers arrived. One pointed up the route and said in bits of English and pantomine "Can we start first?" "Well, I'd rather we'd start first," I replied. They accepted this politely, although they were clearly disappointed. After a few more comments, I decided to switch entirely to Spanish - although rusty, I've had enough formal training and practical experience to get by pretty well as long as the context of the discussion is clear. I explained that I'd prefer that we start out, and they could follow on our heels. If they turned out to be "mas rapido", we'd gladly let them pass. With that agreed upon, I jumped on the route and completed the first pitch in about 10 minutes. Although the first and second can be combined with a 60m rope, I decided to stop at 30m to bring Lynn up; this way our new friends wouldn't have to shiver too long at the base. I tried combining the next two pitches on lead, but came up one bolt short! Fortunately the bolts are big and shiny, so I didn't worry much about belaying from a single pro bolt until Lynn could climb up a couple bolts, tie off, and belay me to the real anchor. We only had a single 30m pitch left to pass our previous high point. I arrived on the only real ledge of the route at about 8:30 - 4 pitches in the bag, with only an hour invested! By the time Lynn arrived, the sun was just making it around the corner of the massive peak that dominated the view to our backs. We were finally warming up, having a great time, and feeling good about our chances for a summit.

I had noted that Hugo and Nico had been moving very well; their abilities were clearly up to this climb and would not be holding us back, although the opposite might be true. We decided to take a nice long break on the ledge and invite them to pass. Part of my reasoning for this decision was noting the photo opportunities that would be presented by having them lead above us for the rest of the day. Nico was leading the entire climb. When he arrived he jumped at the opportunity to lead through. Soon he was up the steep and smooth 5th pitch (5.10-), perched atop a flake that provided a 4" foot ledge right on the skyline. This is the most spectacular point on the climb, and just above is the crux pitch: a dihedral leading to a hand-traverse to a crack, then a short steep open chimney (5.10+). This looked very much like a granite pitch in Yosemite from below; a distinct contrast to the open slabs of highly textured rock now well below us.

By the time I arrived at the stance, Hugo was just above, struggling with the crux. I peered around the corner to see him dangling on the rope, then pulling on the plentiful draws to make upward progress. Nico had apparently led it without difficulty. Our performance was somewhere in between. Now came some corners and cracks that lead back onto a monolithic slab for some continuous delicate 5.10 edging. A higher pitch was also rated 5.10, but by utilizing natural features just left of the bolt line, I encountered nothing harder than 5.8. I thought it was the easiest pitch of the climb, but Lynn didn't exactly agree, so details of route finding are apparently important. I noted chalk on some very small face holds directly up the bolt line in several places, and wondered why anyone would choose those holds over the big flakes and cracks I was on a few feet to the left.

We had slowed considerably through the 3 (or 4) 5.10 pitches, and could now see Hugo and Nico waving from the summit. Nico had said they would wait for us there rather than rappelling down while we were on the final pitches, reputed to be full of loose rock. I wanted to hurry, so decided to combine a couple of pitches again. At about 45m, I was out of draws. A line of old, rusty, bolts drew my eye out to the right. I moved up and cinched one with a sling, figuring that if there weren't many more, I could either pass them or jury-rig protection with carabiners and slings. From above that bolt, I could see around the corner that (1) the climbing looked hard, (2) the bolts were poor, and (3) I didn't have enough gear to use them in any case. I backed down, pulled my sling, and put in the best belay I could at the next lower bolt. Lynn was freezing below while I wasted a lot of time with this, since the sun had long since moved around to put us back in shade. While I belayed her, I finally spotted a modern but almost hidden bolt straight above. It was on a steeper line, but the holds were good and the bolts much more comforting during the 30' remaining to the real anchors. This section and the next pitch are called "loose" in the guides. I found that term to be highly relative. By alpine standards the pitch was bomber solid. There was some rubble on the ledges, and a few loosely jammed boulders in a chimney, but these were easily avoidable, with good solid holds all around. The final pitch was a short one up a vertical chimney with excellent stemming moves to both sides. I pulled over the top to the congratulations of Hugo and Nico, who had been basking in the sun on the summit rather than shivering as I had feared. Soon we were taking each other's pictures, looking at awe at all the walls around us, and agreeing in both languages that it had been an exceptional climb. Nico and Hugo were from Guadalajara, where there apparently are places to climb, but nothing on this scale or quality.

Rather than mess with retrieving two sets of ropes from the spines and needles of countless plants all the way down, we all rapped together. The only thing remaining was to get back to the Ranch and take care of priorities: "Una cerveza, por favor," then a shower, and finally some food (the first all day - we never did get around to that breakfast). As good a cragging day as I've ever had.

The next day we took off from climbing. We took cameras, lenses, binoculars, and a sketch pad to a high vantage point across the canyon from Space Boyz. A new route topo will be the result. Although admittedly not so valuable for route finding on a well traveled and generously bolted route, it has several time saving bits of information that may help. Indeed, while sketching the new topo, I watched a leader get suckered off onto the abandoned bolt line high on the 10th pitch. Fortunately he didn't fall.


  • Helmet
  • Harness
  • Shoes
  • Warm clothing in winter season including gloves and a wind shell!
  • Ropes (2); 60m ropes make for fewer rappels, and allow combining pitches (see topo)
  • Quick-draws: 12 for traditional pitches, 24 if you plan to combine pitches

Spanish phrasebook, digested for the needs of climbers:

  • Beer: cerveza (the z is pronounced like an "s")
  • How much is a beer? "Quanto cuesta una cerveza?"
  • A beer, please: "Una cerveza, por favor"
  • Thank you: "Gracias"
  • Off belay: "Libre"
  • Rope: La Cuerda
  • Rapell: Rapel

Postscript, March 2002:

After bitter dissolution of the business partnership with Emilio (Mel) Guttierrez, departing partner Kurt Smith is reporting widely that Rancho Cerro Gordo is now closed. This is not the case. The web site is no longer useful for obtaining information or making reservations, but they are working on bringing up their own web site, and in the meantime one can simply show up without reservations and be sure of having plenty of space. With the negative publicity, there is a strong chance the Rancho might close for lack of patronage. This would, in my opinion, be a shame, because it is a nice facility, Mel is an excellent host, and the other camps will not be able to handle peak demand.