Space Boyz, Potrero Chico
By: Mark Schraad | Climbers: Mark Schraad, Jason Halladay |Trip Dates: March 22, 2002
Photo: Gary Clark
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Donde estan mis pantalones? Quiero mis pantalones!
The light from the back of the truck cast a yellow glow onto the road. I shuffled through the remaining climbing gear under the dim, indistinct light; making sure that I had everything that I would need for the day. I had already forced down a poptart, but for the first time all week my nerves had my stomach churning and my mouth pasty and dry. The small loaf of bread that I had planned for the main portion of my morning meal would have gone down like a brick of sun-baked mud. I considered forcing the bread down too, but eventually left it sitting in the truck with the unneeded gear.
There still was no sign of first light, but against the stars, I could make out a rolling line of clouds directly overhead and trailing off to the southwest. We had been in the Potrero for a week of climbing; mostly under clear skies and warm temperatures. But this morning had a different feel to it. It was cold, dark, colorless, and dull. A swirling breeze at the base of the cliffs added to the chill. I felt different too - anxious at finally getting on the one route that I had come such a long way to climb.
I made a line in the dirt next to the truck and found a plastic soda bottle that had been left in the weeds along the side of the road.
"Hey Jason, come over here."
With a quick flick of my hands the bottle went spinning up into the air and out of the light of my headlamp. In an instant, it flashed back into the light and landed spinning on the ground. When the bottle came to rest, the cap was pointing to Jason's side of the line.
"I guess you get the first pitch."
As usual, I had researched the route before I had left Los Alamos, but I had not memorized the pitch-by-pitch ratings. When Jason and I had agreed, the night before, to team up for an attempt at Space Boyz (III, 5.10d), we also had decided not to look at the terse route description and pitch ratings provided by the guidebook. We didn't want someone else's impression of the route, or the expectations that would naturally develop from this impression, to hinder or help us. We just wanted to climb the route as we found it. I did recall Bill saying something about whichever one of us did not get the crux would get the other three 5.10 pitches, but we didn't yet know who would get the crux. At this point, all we knew was that Jason would take the odd-numbered pitches, that I would take the evens, and that the route was primarily made up of steep 5.9 and 5.10 face climbing for over one-thousand feet.
Gary, Lynn, and Bill had driven up to the Potrero with Jason and me and were gearing up for an attempt of their own on the equally popular, seven-pitch Snott Girlz (5.10d). A little figuring had me wondering if their twenty-one team pitches would go any faster than the twenty two that Jason and I would climb. The unsettled nervousness, the figuring and the wondering, and the casual, early morning routine ended suddenly when we saw more headlamps making their way up the road. Jason and I quickly left the others without a word and dashed over to the base of the route where we had already stashed our gear and flaked the rope.
Two young Mexican men soon approached. They were already in their harnesses, and I could hear their quick draws clinking against one another as they hung dangling from loaded gear loops. It didn't take long to find out what these two were after.
"Are you ready?" one of them asked directly and with an air of impatience that made me uncomfortable.
"Yes," I lied, "We'll be going in just a minute."
The popularity of this classic, combined with stories of loose rock up high and a few holes in the roof of the park pavilion at the base of the route had me ready to defend our right to be the first team to take off. But I knew that nobody was going to wait more than a few minutes for us to get going. While I prepared to climb, my actions were flustered further by the realization that we would be starting this climb in the dark. As I slathered sunscreen on the back of my neck, I asked Jason if he was alright with the idea of climbing the first pitch by the light of his headlamp. He offered that he was with a casual confidence to which I had become accustomed - a confidence that assured me that he meant exactly what he said.
After about ten minutes, at approximately half-past six o'clock in the morning, Jason and I were ready to go. It was still too dark to see anything, but I knew from the observations that I had made over the course of the last week that the first four pitches took a direct line up a near-vertical wall of limestone, along a cleared path through an otherwise heavily vegetated wall. Another party approached, and I became really anxious to get going, but also a little apprehensive about the lack of light. I knew that the most difficult climbing was clustered around the middle of the route, so I was anticipating that the first several pitches would offer a good warm up - provided that we could find the holds. In spite of the darkness, I wanted to get off to a good start.
The first bolt was high - about thirty feet off of the ground. As Jason surveyed the face for hand holds with his headlamp, I made every attempt to assist him by aiming my light at the features I thought might be useful for his feet. He made it to the first bolt without a problem, and hung his pack there. As he continued, I wondered what it must have looked like from across the canyon, as his small lamp, and the circle of illumination that it provided, darted across the face in search of holds and slowly snaked its way up the vertical wall. Jason was making quick enough work of the first pitch, and as he approached the first belay, I noticed that the sky was getting light and that I could now make out enough of the larger features without the aid of illumination. I gladly stuffed my headlamp in my pack, along with the rest of the gear that I would not need for the climb, and waited for Jason to reach the anchor and put me on belay.
"Off belay Mark."
"O.K. ... belay's off Jason." With that, the remainder of the rope was pulled upward.
My feet were stiff and sore from six straight days of delicate edging up limestone walls, so I laced my shoes loosely. I grabbed my pack and prepared to take off.
"Mark, on belay."
"O.K., climbing." And with that, I was off.
I was on the route. The main purpose for my trip to Mexico was to make an attempt at Space Boyz. I had spent all week becoming accustomed to the limestone and the style of climbing that it demanded. I also had spent this time attempting to get my comfort level on lead somewhere near the 5.10d level that it had never been, but that it needed to be for this route. It was our last full day in Mexico - my last chance to reach the summit of the one climb that I had established as my primary objective. I had put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was feeling it. But at least, for the moment, I was on the route.
The first pitch brought me past the first bolt, where I left my pack hanging next to Jason's. I continued straight up a near-vertical wall of pockets and edges to the first belay where Jason was hanging comfortably. The pitch felt like an .8 or a .9 - a good warm-up pitch. I knew that the two Mexicans would be right behind us, so I tightened up the laces on my shoes, grabbed the three or four remaining quick draws from Jason, and took off up the second pitch. It felt good to be on lead, and the pitch went smoothly and quickly. The second pitch offered another continuous line of pockets and edges and seemed about as difficult as the first. Jason also followed quickly and we swapped the lead again.
Now it was getting light. The clouds continued to roll and swell, but to the north and east the skies were clear and had turned to a washed-out, early morning blue. The limestone cliffs towered above us, but the fins and the spires and the deep canyons and recesses still hid their details of texture and color in the mixture of early morning shadow and shade. The route above us was a swath of gray rock through a garden of cacti, yucca, and other desert plant life that had found fixture on the wall.
Jason led pitch three, which was perhaps a little harder than the first two pitches, and I took pitch four, which again, seemed like the typical Potrero 5.9. The climbing was continuous in both style and difficulty and allowed us to get into a nice rhythm. We were taking very little time at the belays and dispatching each pitch in a reasonable amount of time. Jason's quiet, laid-back attitude and apparent self confidence was infectious. I didn't concern myself with the route as a whole or the overall rating, as I usually do, but rather with the few moves immediately before me at any given time. I was taking the route on bolt by bolt. As I approached the fourth belay, Gary yelled from across the canyon; giving instructions to climb past the first set of anchors that I had found and to belay on the next ledge, which was a little higher up and against the main wall. I followed Gary's advice, and was rewarded with the most comfortable belay stance of the entire week.
Four hundred feet of climbing had brought us to a nice, spacious ledge, where I could actually stand comfortably and flake the rope on the rock at my feet. Everything so far had been very straightforward. It seemed that the morning was just now breaking, and Jason and I already had a third of the climb below us. We looked over to the Moto Wall, where we could now see Gary, Lynn, and Bill at the first belay of Snott Girlz. I knew that they had waited for first light to get going. But we had climbed eight team pitches to their three, so I felt like we were moving well.
With the morning finally dawning in earnest, I noticed a chill in the air that hadn't been present all week. The wall of thick, dark clouds that hung over the mountains to the southwest seemed ready to boil and burst. Weather was something I hadn't yet worried about on any climb in the Potrero, but the commitment required on this eleven-pitch route had me worrying about it now. I knew that somewhere in the middle of the route we would encounter several 5.10 pitches, and as Jason began leading the fifth pitch, his deliberation and care told me that we had arrived at the first section of more difficult climbing. After several awkward looking moves low on the pitch, Jason began making quicker progress; reaching the next belay soon enough and in fine style. As he put me on belay, I tightened the laces on my shoes a bit more. The moves felt more awkward to me than Jason had made them look, but I slowly solved the puzzle and reached Jason on a large flake atop the fifth pitch. "Nice lead," I offered; always thankful for a partner that tackles tough leads with a calm, heady reserve - as opposed to those I have seen go forth quickly, without thought, and with much whimpering and whining. I was silently hoping, and quite sure at this point, that the last pitch had included one of the more difficult sections of rock that we would encounter on the route, and that we were now into the serious climbing. I checked the clouds - they hadn't changed - and prepared to tackle the next pitch, which traversed across a flake and around the corner to our right. I balanced my way along the flake; the wall above providing nothing much to grab. I simply pressed my hands against the rock, fingering the irregular texture and wishing for something more positive. When I reached the corner, I threw one hand around and grasped for anything that would allow me to remain in balance and help me get my feet around to the rock on the other side. Finally, I was able to maneuver into a fairly comfortable stance with one foot stemmed out to the right.
As I peered around the corner and up along the rock that made up the pitch above, I knew exactly where I was. I had seen a picture of this pitch - it was the crux. I yelled back to Jason around the corner, "I think this is the crux pitch." I think? I knew it was. The climbing looked manageable though, and the bolts were plentiful enough to store up my confidence. I knew there was no chance of getting hurt on this pitch - provided that I reach the first bolt, which was still beyond my grasp. A slightly interesting sequence of moves brought me fully around the corner and up to the first bolt. "Click." I then continued, working my way up a short dihedral, past several more bolts, "Click, click, click," reaching a small roof. The roof, and another dihedral above, looked difficult. I examined what was available and continued with an added measure of caution; working right and out above the roof on good holds.
"I can climb .10d, I can climb .10d, I can climb .10d." It became my motto as I headed into what was the most difficult section of rock that I had ever attempted on lead. With my left hand high on a good, positive hold, my left foot stemmed out and into a comfortable pocket down low, and my right foot smeared against the smooth wall directly below me, I was in a stable position. With my right hand I grabbed a draw and clipped it to the bolt that was now at waist level. I grabbed the rope and brought it up to the draw. "Click."
It is amazing what the simple sound of a closing carabiner gate can do for one's mental attitude. Like saliva from Pavlov's dogs, no small measure of calm and relaxation surged through my body as a conditioned reflex to the sound of the carabiner gate snapping shut. A secured rope, another step closer to the next belay, zeroing out the fall potential; these are all represented well by the sound of a snapping carabiner gate. My brain new this - and my body responded automatically; relishing an instant of calm experienced hundreds of feet up a sheer rock wall. The next move required leaving the big bucket holds for one small, fingertip crimp for my left hand and not much of anything for my feet. I stemmed right to a tiny edge, and with my right hand, groped around another small corner for anything that would get me into the next dihedral and closer to the next bolt. I moved my left foot out of the comfortable pocket and onto a matching stance on the small edge alongside my right foot. I palmed the corner with my right hand to stay in balance and on the rock.
I immediately found it difficult to maintain this position, and I didn't see what to do next. I reversed the moves and went back to the big holds that I had just left. I tried to rest briefly and then attempted the sequence again, but it didn't go. I stretched and contorted and tried everything within my climbing repertoire to make the moves. Finally, in desperation, with forearms about to blow, I grabbed the draw.
The rope went tight, "I got you."
"Damn it!" I cursed aloud, but primarily to myself. The clean ascent was gone. I hung from the last bolt that I had clipped; only half-way up the pitch.
O.K., so I can't climb .10d - it was a good motto anyway. A short rest and a relaxed examination of the rock and the available features had me confident that I could make the moves that I had just attempted and that I could get up this pitch without aiding off of the draws.
"I'm at the crux," I informed Jason - as if he didn't know. "I can get this," I continued, reassuring myself as much as my partner. "I just have to figure it out."
Finding a critical, but still tenuous edge for the tip of my right foot, I finally made the crux move and reached the next bolt. "Click." Another chance to relax. I continued up the dihedral, clipping closely spaced bolts, and arrived at a comfortable stance at the next belay. Despite hanging at the crux, I had pulled all of the moves on the pitch - at least the free ascent was still intact. I breathed a small sigh of relief at the thought that the crux was behind me, and I knew that Jason wouldn't have a problem following the pitch. As I brought up the rope the sun broke over the cliffs on the other side of the canyon and brought the first rays of light to the rock we were climbing. The clouds were expanding, however, and now that the crux was over, I knew that the only thing that could stop us was the weather.
As Jason followed the sixth pitch, the sun went intermittently in and out of the clouds, and with it the rock around us went from streaks and patches of white and bright yellow, and then back to a dull, sullen, monolithic gray. The wind had picked up, and even with the periods of sun, I was cold. I started to shiver, and I worried about a long rappel in the rain. In the quiet solitude of my belay stance, my mind started to wander and I began to question the choices I had made regarding appropriate clothing for the day.
Both Jason and I were wearing shorts, and the clouds and the cold seemingly had turned my legs the same sullen shade of gray as the rock. "Where are my pants?" I wondered why I had left them in the pack. "I want my pants!" Jason arrived at the belay ledge and broke my meditation. "Nice lead," he returned; having no clue that I was now more impressed by the size of the goose bumps on my legs than in any semblance of climbing ability that I may have feigned on the last pitch. With Jason rejoining me, however, I forgot about my discomfort and immediately refocused my attention on the task at hand. We re-racked the draws, and then he began work on pitch seven.
Again, deliberation and cautious movement brought Jason through some interesting looking moves. At about fifty or sixty feet out, he struggled to find the easiest passage over a large bulge. He paused for a moment; examining the moves required to take on the bulge directly, but he eventually opted to make some moves to the right and tackle the bulge from the side. Jason's careful study, patience, and final commitment to a course of action were impressive, and he made the climbing look pretty straightforward. As I followed, however, I knew that this was another 5.10 pitch, and I started to reconcile what we had climbed with what I remembered about the route description. When I arrived at the seventh belay, I told Jason that I suspected that we had made it through the most difficult climbing.
It was at this point that I noticed the dark gloomy clouds beginning to break up and loose their ominous appearance. The day started to brighten, we were two thirds of the way up the route, and I had shaken off the cold. My confidence began to soar, and only then did I realize how much fun I was having. I took off up the eighth pitch and made quick work of what must have been another 5.9. After the previous three pitches, it seemed very easy. We were on a direct line toward the summit again. Jason followed my lead and then quickly made his way up the ninth pitch. A little harder than the eighth; the ninth pitch still offered straightforward climbing up vertical rock with positive edges and pockets.
At the ninth belay, I easily could see what remained of the route. The pitches seemed shorter, and the character of the rock changed from a near-vertical wall of limestone to broken blocks, with big ledges and corner systems. I led the short tenth pitch, and Jason followed quickly. At the belay we looked over to the others on Snott Girlz. Bill had topped out, and Lynn was half-way up the final pitch.
Jason took off up the eleventh pitch; a meandering line around loose rock and up a final short corner to the summit of a small rounded spire on a continuing fin of rock. I just barely heard Lynn yell "On belay Gary" from across the canyon. Her command echoed off of the limestone walls just seconds before Jason put me on belay. Always the competitor, I bolted off quickly, with the intent of beating Gary to the summit. I immediately altered my course of action, however, with the sight of the loose rock around which I had to navigate - not the best time to be reckless. I made it up the final pitch quick enough though, and our two parties topped out on our respective routes within ten seconds of each other. Spectacular timing! We hooted and hollered and snapped photographs across the canyon. Having both parties on the summits of the two most popular routes in the Potrero was the perfect cap to end the climbing week.
Jason and I had achieved a height above the tops of the vast majority of climbs in the Potrero, but limestone walls still towered above us on every side. I marveled at the wealth of rock and imagined routes much longer than the one we had just climbed. I looked across the canyon and surveyed the different walls upon which we had played over the course of the week. And with the skies now clear, and the sun now directly overhead, I soaked up the contrast of the thin fins and banded towers of yellow limestone against a sky ever deepening in shades of blue. For a brief moment, I simply enjoyed my view of another part of the world, from a perspective that only my climbing exploits could provide.
Jason and I didn't take a long time to relax on the summit. The eleven rappels we had below us, and at least one party through which to rappel, had me interested in beginning the descent. The Mexican team that had come up behind us had been out of sight for some time, so I was planning to get the first two rappels out of the way in the hopes of getting them in sight and rappelling through them without any delay.
The anchor atop Space Boyz left a little to be desired, so I rearranged some of the webbing and the one rappel ring. Jason tossed one end of the rope over the edge, and then the other, and I started down the route. One rap apiece had Jason and I anchored in to the tenth belay just as the leader of the Mexican team reached the top of the ninth pitch.
For some reason, the Mexican climber felt it necessary to use all four anchors instead of just the two that he needed. So Jason and I were forced to hang at the tenth belay, while he brought up his partner. We then watched them casually re-stack their rope. The original leader then took off on the tenth pitch, and finally his partner followed. The skies had completed their turn to blue, and the temperatures had warmed enough, however, that I didn't let their sloth-like speed or lack of climbing etiquette bother me too much.
With the Mexican team out of our way, Jason and I rapped pitches ten through seven fairly quickly. On the sixth belay we caught sight of another team on their way up. They had just finished the fifth pitch and they offered to let us rap through before they began the sixth. So we tossed the rope again, and Jason made his way down and around the corner to the fifth belay. As I arrived behind Jason, the other party suddenly decided to retreat and head back down as well. I wasn't sure why, but I suspected that the crux that lay ahead of them had something to do with their decision.
This other team rapped pitch five ahead of Jason and me, but they bungled up their ropes on the fourth belay ledge, so Jason and I were given an opportunity to rappel through them as well. The last four rappels then went very quickly and came with some added amusement from the team above, who seemed to possess the rope-management skills of Laurel and Hardy. They continued to toss double ropes far out into the wind, as Jason and I watched the sidelong gusts grab their ropes and take them sailing off into the thorny bushes and scrub on either side of the route. Jason and I simply snaked the rope down the wall before each rappel, and thus rapped the final four pitches - with one rope - in the time it took one member of the other team to make one double-rope rappel.
We touched down at approximately half-past three o'clock in the afternoon. We had taken almost six hours for the ascent and about three for the descent, with an hour of the descent time spent waiting for either of the other two parties. It felt good to be back on the ground, and the realization that I had accomplished my primary objective for the week started to sink in. I also was tired - happy, but tired - and all I could manage was some quiet self adulation and a weak pump of my fist. I am sure that Jason was as happy as I was in our success, but our elation was somewhat subdued and, for the most part, non-verbalized. Apparently, seven days of climbing had taken its toll. My body was exhausted, my strength gone, my feet were cramped and numb, and my hunger for climbing had been satiated. For the moment, I was happy enough reveling in the fact that we had been successful, but it suddenly occurred to me that our week in the Potrero was over.
We quickly packed up the gear and made our way over to the truck. Ten minutes later had us pulling into Rancho El Sendero and stumbling into the yard where we again met up with Gary, Lynn, and Bill. I walked into the casita, and started packing for the long drive home.