Space Boyz, Potrero Chico
By: Mike Sofranko | Climbers: Mike Sofranko, Mark Neubauer |Trip Dates: January 1, 1999
Photo: Gary Clark
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What is a big climb? What is a hard climb? The thing about climbing is that the answers to these two questions are different for everyone. One thing was clear: Space Boyz would be a big and tough climb for Mark and me. The biggest and toughest either of us had attempted, as a matter of fact. We were both horribly out of shape from not climbing much of anything for the 3 previous months, and I honestly didn't know if we could do it. This was a neo-classic trade route-to-be in one of the most hyped new climbing areas in North America. 11 pitches of bolted limestone, the first 5.8, the rest a mix of 5.9 and 5.10. 1000 feet of sustained climbing. I wanted the route real bad.
Space Boyz had been looming large in my mind ever since I read about it in the magazines and talked Mark into going to El Potrero Chico for a winter climbing vacation. After arriving at our destination as limestone and sport climbing neophytes, we ticked 3 days worth of warm-up climbs, insignificant pitches in the shadow of Space Boyz. We climbed no single pitch graded as hard as the crux of Space Boyz. We climbed no route longer than 4 pitches. It came down to the last day of climbing. I had placed more than the usual "must onsight" pressure on myself. From my point of view, nothing less than the success of the trip hung in the balance.
On New Year's Eve '98, a big party was shaping up back at Homero's. A DJ was setting up, a pinata was hung, and people were getting rowdy. This had no effect on our plans. At 12:30 the pinata met its demise. The party started to tail off around 1:00am, except for the occasional stray bottle rocket. I was awake in my sleeping bag until at least 3:00am, and starting to get worried about functioning when I had to wake up in 3 hours. The next thing I remember is the alarm going off at 6:00, and jumping out of my sleeping bag.
It took us a solid hour to get to the base of the route. It was dark, so we weren't in that much of a hurry. Once there, I put my headlamp on, and we began flaking the ropes. Since the climb consists of 100 foot pitches, and we had one 50M rope and two 60M doubles, we were climbing with the doubles. Right as I was ready to climb, I decided that it was just bright enough to forego the headlamp, so I quickly stuffed it in my pack, and headed up at 7:15am.
I hadn't been able to find the first bolt from the ground, so I knew it must be high up. After at least 25 feet of solid 5.7 climbing, I saw the bolt one move higher. The move ended up being the crux of the pitch, and I was greatly relieved as I clipped from a less than ideal stance. Nothing like a little runout off the ground first thing in the morning. After that, I just cruised on up. After 100 feet I was at the first belay, and elected to continue on through the next pitch. The weight of the double ropes was starting to pull on my harness, and I was startled at how high up I was as I reached the top of the second pitch. I quickly clipped in and put Mark, exactly 200 feet below, on belay.
We did the next two pitches singly, and they both went by in a blur. I remember thinking that I was in the "zone" but made myself stop so I wouldn't let my guard down or get too cocky. It felt as if my upward progress didn't stop at all, like I just clipped the bolts as I climbed by without a pause. As I neared the top of the fourth pitch, I heard two guys who had bivied there the night before. I was at the top of 400 feet of climbing as the leader of this group was reaching the top of the fifth pitch, 100 feet above. Mark reached my stance quickly, and stepped up onto the ledge itself and belayed me up. A quick check of his watch showed that we had reached this point in an hour and a half. We had momentum, and my confidence was building.
However, with the group ahead of us, it was time to wait. They were going through some major contortions on the narrow belay ledge above, and taking a ton of time. At least half an hour passed before I started up, more than a little impatient and already planning on passing them after two pitches. I was cold from the wait, and the 10a pitch seemed pretty difficult. I eventually reached the belay, and soon discovered what had taken the previous group so long. It was kind of difficult figuring out the logistics of the next lead, so I brought Mark up before we attempted to solve the problem. Our momentum was effectively killed.
We ended up moving the belay to the far right bolts, and I clipped into the first bolt of the next pitch as Mark got comfortable. I then took a deep breath and headed up into the crux corner, not entirely certain what would happen. I was immediately stemming, with a little jamming in the crack thrown in for variety. The bolts were extremely close together, which was nice for a change. Soon I was clipping the belay on a small ledge, elated to have dispatched the pitch in fine form.
Mark went through some interesting contortions while seconding. At one point he had a crazy back and foot chimney move going on between the shallow corner and a crack off to the side. I thought for sure he was coming off, but he stuck there somehow and managed to untwist himself and get himself through the pitch.
The next pitch continued up the corner, and then appeared to move onto a face before angling up left to the next belay. Soon I was stemming and clipping away. I found myself staring at a blue tie-off through a hanger in a bulge right in my face. I clipped the bolt and tried to find a rest, but couldn't get comfortable. I tried moving up several times, but the holds felt too small, and I couldn't see what I was going for. I began thinking that this may be it, the onsight is over. I finally decided to go for it. I pulled on strenuous pockets, but couldn't get any good footholds due to my floppy shoes. I fought to clip the next bolt, certain that one of my feet would blow and I would be off the rock. However, the friction proved adequate, and although I was getting a little pumped I continued on and soon made the anchor.
From this point on I was mentally exhausted. The thought of four more pitches was almost too much. I couldn't get an adequate rest at each hanging belay before it was time to climb again. The seventh pitch had almost done me in due to the fact that I wasn't mentally prepared for the lead after the temporary high of successfully climbing the supposed crux sixth pitch. Upon reaching the hanging belays from this point on, my first action after clipping in was to wearily plunk my helmeted forehead onto the rock in front of me and try to mentally recover in a few seconds before I put Mark on belay.
The next two pitches were both sustained, but relatively unmemorable. In my weary state I merely focused on getting the job done rather than enjoying the climbing. I remember stepping right onto a wall that cutaway below me with amazing and immediate exposure. The last two pitches got rather loose and blocky, and I linked them. Large blocks had barely discernable red X's on them, warnings that they were loose and not to be used. I inadvertently pulled hard on one, not seeing the X until too late. Luckily it held, and I continued on. The last 40 feet of the climb followed a corner with a wide crack. I stemmed and arm and foot jammed up it, all the while looking at the nice face climbing off to the right wishing I had the energy to give the 5.10+ish looking climbing a try. However, I was also preoccupied with not touching the loose blocks, all of which would have been great holds in other circumstances. Soon I was on the top, finally catching the two guys who had bivied at the top of the fourth pitch.
After Mark reached the top (almost exactly seven hours after I had started climbing that morning), we had the other two guys take photos of us. They only had a single 60m rope, so they figured that they would be slow relative to us on the descent, but I assured them that it wouldn't be a problem. I was thinking that we would mostly do single rope rappels also to try to avoid getting a rope hung up. We were in no hurry, and it was a beautiful day. As the other two guys headed down, Mark and I snacked, drank the last of our water, and signed the summit register. I looked for the other cliffs that we had spent time at in the previous days. I was able to get a photo of a party on El Cielo Rey on the Spires far below, just as the leader stood on the tiny summit and stretched his arms out. I was amazed at how small and inconsequential the Mini Super Crag looked from our perch 1000 feet above. However, for us this week, that small cliff was a crucial step in reaching this high point.
Slowly the reality that our day was only half finished began to register in our weary yet happy minds. After the other group had a two-rappel or so head start, it was time for us to begin the descent... After what seemed like an eternity, I finally touched down. I took myself off rappel and yelled up to Mark, then turned around to check out the festivities.
A Mexican man immediately confronted me. He was over by a small plastic table, with a lady I assumed was his wife, an elderly man, and a couple little kids running around. I was confused at first, and thought he wanted me to take his picture, but eventually I walked over. Before I knew it, he had a plate in hand, and was offering me all kinds of food. He pulled over a plastic chair for me, and loaded me up with tortillas and veggies and meat and sausage. Then he reached into a cooler and pulled out an ice cold Carta Blanca and handed it to me. I was totally taken aback, and kept repeating one of the few Spanish words I know, "Gracias, gracias, gracias." It was pretty obvious to him that I didn't speak much (any) Spanish, but luckily he spoke a little bit of English. So we had a little overlap, and could get through some basic communication. I admit though, I was mostly concentrating on eating.
At 5:40, Mark reached the ground grinning as he saw what was happening. He didn't need a second invitation to join me, and soon he had a plate and beer in hand, the ropes still hanging from a point 200 feet above. Every time our plates got half-empty, they piled more food on. We talked with our new friends, Abram and his brother David, and ate until we were stuffed full. The kids were all very interested in our gear, so I showed them some carabiners and they tried our helmets on. We got out the cameras and took a couple pictures, and Abram took some pictures of Mark and I posing victorious at the bottom of the climb. After pulling the ropes and coiling them, we talked some more. I went to the car and retrieved a couple Spanish/English phrasebooks and dictionaries for more advanced communications. They wanted to know where we were from, so I drew a map on a concrete step with a charred stick, and pointed out Vermont and Maryland. We explained what we did for a living, and I found the name 'IBM' readily recognized. As it was getting dark, it was time to part ways. We took a couple final pictures, and after many repetitions of "Si" and "Yes", we agreed with Abram that we were friends. With a wave and a toot of the horn, we headed back to Homero's, both of us beaming from the excellent experience.
Back at the ranch, I bought two 20-ounce Coca Colas because I felt really dehydrated. By all rights, Mark should have been the dehydrated one, as I basically drank all his water through the course of the day. We bumped into our friends from the summit as they were eating dinner. We had to laugh as they said, "Man, those people just watched us walk by after we reached the ground." Since we obviously didn't have to cook anything, we sat on the porch and just relaxed and reflected back on the climb and the day. A Jane's Addiction bootleg was playing in someone's tapedeck, and the night was clear and the full moon was rising. Mark decided that he was ready for sleep, but I was wide-awake, probably because I had just consumed 40 ounces of Coke. I wandered around visiting some of our acquaintances from the week. I desperately wanted to share what an incredible day I had experienced, but found myself unable to find adequate words. I headed back to the tent.
I strategically placed my duffel bag of clothes at one end of the railroad tie in front of our tent, propped my head on it, and stretched out. The massive bulk of El Toro loomed overhead, brightly illuminated by the moon. I could see the tiny summit of Space Boyz on the left side, barely a third of the way to the summit of El Toro, seemingly insignificant and hardly worthy of notice. I knew better. I closed my eyes, and relived the day. I reclimbed every pitch, re-solved the cruxes, felt the exposure, and took in the views. I relived our amazing return to terra firma and the generosity of Abram and his family. Suddenly I awakened with a start. The caffeine had worn off at some point, and the temperature finally dropped enough to chill me in my light fleece and wake me up. The moon was another third of the way across the sky from where I remembered it, and the bright planet I had been watching earlier had disappeared behind El Toro. With a longing regret, I accepted that a magically perfect day had ended, and it was time to crawl under my sleeping bag.