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Humboldt State Climbing Team
Humboldt State Climbing Team

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27-Feb-2012
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What do they pump through the cabins of commercial airplanes? Within 15 minutes of leaving the ground your mouth drops open and you sleep like a stoned koala. It happened to me recently. I dreamed I was landscape. I didn’t have to work. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t have to write about myself. I felt, but didn’t need. I was like a cliff or a mountain.

Then I woke up.

From 30,000 feet the hills of the Sierra Madre were striated, pumped with green muscles, boned by the Huastaeca canyons of Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Twenty years ago, Alex Catlin, an 18-year-old student at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas, followed a troop of Mexican Boy Scouts from the Huasteca to El Potrero Chico, a ring of mountains 40 minutes west of Monterrey, and found what some people have called the best winter rock-climbing destination in the world. Other people have called El Potrero hot, chossy and slabby, but to a kid who’d learned to climb by biking 30 miles from his prep school, Choate, to Sleeping Giant State Park in Connecticut, these 3,000-foot limestone walls looked pretty damn good.

Days after he found the cliffs, Alex and I met on the concrete slab at the base of the Jungle Wall, and huddled into a windy concrete curb to get some sleep. The cliffs hunched over us, blotting out big chunks of starry sky. We guessed the walls were 300 feet tall, off by a factor of 10. Unknown to us at the time, we’d picked a prime local party spot as a campsite and soon enough a Suburban pulled up. The headlights fell directly across us. The revelers seemed oblivious to the people sleeping on one corner of the slab. They probably thought we were dead drunk and lucky to have the fancy bags we’d crawled into. They cranked some Selena and started pitching tamale husks out the window. The wind picked up the greasy wrappers and piled them over Alex and me.

The next morning we woke up early. I offered the skinny kid some of my egg-and-bacon tacos but Alex just shook his head. He’d been training with Todd Skinner at Hueco and was only eating shredded wheat and protein powder. He looked at my taco like it was a plug of septic sludge.

“How did you sleep?” I asked.

“Great,” he said. “I don’t think I turned over once.”

It was true. The fine blond hair was plastered to one side of his skull. His eyes were like navy blue blazers, and they froze me. He was only 18 years old, but his eyes somehow suggested that I would never know as much as this kid already knew. I felt like this was the type of guy who gets something in his head, like curing cancer or inventing a machine to manufacture chicken breasts, and he’d be at it till he got it right. Someone who had the smarts and wherewithal to do something major, to make a big difference, and I was right, except instead of medicine or business or law, Alex was into climbing.

As we loaded up our gear after breakfast, Alex quoted Nietzsche: “Whenever I climb I am followed by a dog called Ego,” and I thought, “Who is this arrogant Yankee egghead?”

 

==

I’m That Guy // When Boone Speed, 42, smiles he flashes both sets of teeth, tops and bottoms. The smile is in the eyes, too. Boone’s eyes are like green rocks. His thinning hair stands up on his freckled pate. He seems professorial, artistic and self-possessed: dressed in fine fabrics, slightly Euro, and built like a 6-foot string of jerky and gristle.

The girl at the airline counter was really trying to help. She had stayed calm the first time Boone appeared in front of her, just an hour before his flight to Mexico and realized that he had forgotten his passport. He cursed and hopped around like a carpenter who’d dropped his hammer on his foot.

“Look,” he’d said, lifting his leg awkwardly and pointing to a hole cut in one side of his green Croc. “I’ve got a Staph infection in my toe.” She looked closer, and yes, there it was, an angry red canker on the joint of his big toe.

“I can’t run,” Boone said.

“You’ll have to try,” she said.

Now Boone was back. She saw him hobble to the front of the line and push his way in. People grumbled, but he turned and spoke to them.

“I’m that guy,” he said.

And then he was standing in front of her again, frantically searching his pockets. Apparently he had raced home and grabbed his passport, but in the interim, somehow misplaced it. Word was communicated down the line and people searched the floor.

Anxious minutes passed until the loudspeaker crackled. “Boone Speed, please come to the Northwest Terminal to get your passport.”

“I’m a photographer,” Boone told the girl. “I’m supposed to be in Mexico to shoot a story. My flight leaves in 30 minutes. I have a Staph infection.” He pointed to his toe. “I can’t run.”

He smiled, and the girl really wanted to help him. It was that kind of smile.

When we picked him up at the Monterrey airport, Alex asked Boone, “How was the flight?”

“Dodgeball,” Boone said. “I had the middle seat.”

Editorial Trip // Westafari and Minnesota Dave were two interns slaving at Rock and Ice World Headquarters. When they got wind of the “editorial trip” to Mexico—basically a chance to report on Alex’s new cache of modern sport climbs—they made a strong case for joining it, offering to tote gear and camera equipment.

“It would be invaluable,” Minnesota said, the signal Midwest accent somewhere between nasal resonance and speaking around a mouth full of marbles, “to observe the making of a magazine article from start to finish.”

==

Minnesota is 20 years old, 6’3”, and carries 175 pounds of cow’s milk on his lean frame. He has a gay Rasta trenza woven into his blond hair. He wears a lot of tie dye and he burns in the sun like filo dough under a hot lamp. He’s the nicest person I’ve ever met. Calls beautiful girls “comely” and says “fiddlesticks” when his piece-of-shit car overheats.

Westafari, 23, from Florida, is short and lean as fried bacon. He looks like a tin-type photo of a Civil War general taken toward the end of the conflict, when the officers were half-starved, sun-baked, black-bearded wild men with silver eyes. He looks exactly like one of those old generals except that Wes has a Rasta trenza, too. He favors polypro, bathes periodically and therefore smells like goat spray. Boone describes Wes as “slightly feral.” A graduate of the Citadel, Wes always wears his helmet, even on the approach.

“Safety takes no holiday,” Wes says.

“How are you planning to get to Mexico?” I asked the interns.

They were broke. I could tell that by looking at Minnesota’s car, a rust-pocked Saturn stuffed with all of  his shit: tent, bag, gear, stinky layers, bongos, a guitar, a banjo, a washboard, a frisbee.

“We’re taking my car,” Minnesota said.

The University of Buoux // After our separate, if equally epic travels, me, Boone, Minnesota and Westafari converged in Monterrey at roughly the same time and arrived more or less harried and exhausted at Alex Catlin and his wife Connie’s house in the center of the Potrero. I felt nostalgic when we drove through the gun-sight entrance to the canyon and into the basin. There was still no electricity and the stars glimmered across space like spit on a blackboard. The Catlins’ house was near the end of the road. A whitewashed wall enclosed three buildings—a master bedroom and bath, a hexagonal studio with Saltillo tile floors and ironwork windows and a kitchen with a bedroom. Landscaped gardens, a pool, storage rooms that housed climbing gear—the place was deluxe. Alex kicked on the solar power and lights blazed up.

“We’re having a big party tomorrow,” Connie said. She opened the refrigerator and revealed at least 20 pounds of steak and cases of Indio beer.

Connie Rochelle Rochon Catlin is Alex’s third wife. She’s petite, gracious and capable, taking charge of the interns, settling us all in comfortable quarters that are clearly her domain. She’s from Monterrey, studied folk dancing, and moves with the authority of someone who knows her body. Large almond eyes look out at the world and seem to enjoy what they see. Over the course of the evening I’d learn that Connie grew up fast, dated older men and broke their hearts. She’s independent, and wasn’t sure she’d ever marry—until she met Alex. Then there was an intense physical attraction. “I felt it in my belly,” she said. “We both felt it.” She looked at Alex. “Remember that day? Five times.”

==

Alex nodded, but his East Coast cool side wasn’t about to discuss multiple orgasms this early in the evening. On first glance, you might mistake Alex for an uptight preppy, but since graduating from high school, he has surrounded himself with the exotic. His first wife was Chinese, his second wife, French.

“Where do you guys want to climb?” Alex asked. “I can show you granite, limestone, volcanic tuff, big walls, sport climbs, trad or boulders? We’ve got it all.”

It was the same pitch he’d given me for the last three years—promoting Northern Mexico as the future of North American rock climbing, a veritable paradise of stone. Well, I reasoned, if anyone would know what it takes to make a good crag, it would be Alex. He’d been around the world—China, India, Nepal, Japan—a few times since discovering Potrero Chico in 1988, but his first trip had been to Aix en Provence in 1990, ostensibly to study French. By his own admission he’d spent far more time at what he calls the University of Buoux, the early 1990s sport climbing axis mundi. In 1995 he did his first 5.14, Le Spectre at Buoux. In 1996 and ‘97 he climbed six more 5.14s culminating in a first ascent of Greed, a route he graded 5.14b (later consensus pegged the line 5.14c), still the hardest climb in Thailand, and one of the hardest climbs in the world at the time.

In 1997, fueled by emotion following the divorce from his first wife, Elaine, he fled to Europe, climbed 50 8a’s (5.13b) in 50 days and completely blew out his elbows. He didn’t climb again until 2000, but by 2002 he was back in form and excelling at a different game—climbing big walls in Mexico ground up, onsight, without hooks. Belayed by his second wife, a French artist named Natalie, Alex put up two routes on the Chihuahuan big wall El Gigante, Man on Fire (5.11, 21 pitches) and Sueño de Gigante (5.13a, 22 pitches). At El Potrero they established Devotion (5.12c, 15 pitches).

In 2004, the tendonitis came back and grounded Alex. His second marriage dissolved. He was stalling on his thesis, translating Sanskrit poetry, and things looked grim. Then he met Connie who was more than willing to accompany him on long walks through the hills of Northern Mexico. They camped and discovered new crags and boulders. According to Connie, they also boffed like bunnies.

Alex had surgery on his elbow in 2005 and continued combing the high country, looking for rock with Connie. At the end of the year they were married and Alex was ready to start climbing again. With an appointment to teach philosophy at the University of Monterrey and a willing, adventurous companion, he became Mexico’s Johnny Appleseed of climbing. Since 2005 he has equipped around 300 pitches, with his all-time list of first ascents teetering towards 1,000.

“Tell you what,” I said in answer to Alex’s question. “Let’s debunk some myths. People say that Mexico is slabby and hot. Take us to steep and cool crags—nothing under 30 degrees overhanging or over 60 degrees Fahrenheit. And throw in some bouldering for the kids. Make it all within three hours of Potrero Chico. Can you do that?”

Alex smiled. His blond hair stuck up like dry grass and with his lopsided grin and overriding enthusiasm he looked little changed in the decades since we’d met. Now a full-fledged philosophy professor and fluent in five foreign languages (Chinese, Sanskrit, Japanese, French, Spanish), he can turn on the big brain but the kid is never far below the surface. He popped the first of the 24 beers we’d down that night while reminiscing about shared adventures and wondering how 20 years could have passed so quickly and in some ways so brutally. Two divorces, two suicide attempts. Somehow always climbing.

I took the beaded green bottle. We clinked the glass necks.

Salud,” he said.

== 

Morning Breath // Boone’s toe looked like a runny egg on an English muffin, but 10,000 acres of Nuevo Leon were burning. An arsonist had set the fire and the roads into the mountains were closed, so despite a raging case of antibiotic-resistant Staph, Boone would have to make one of the steepest and longest hikes in the Potrero in modified Crocs.

“Are you OK with that?” I asked.

“Honestly, this is what I live for,” he said. He was serious.

Westafari’s hair was wild and his eyes were puffy. He’d spent the night outside cuddled up with Alex and Connie’s puppy, Leta, a golden retriever. Earlier that morning I’d watched the dog try to wake Wes by licking his mouth. Wes didn’t even flinch so she lay down beside him and passed the time by licking her ass, then licking Wes’ mouth until he stirred an hour later and walked into the kitchen where Alex, Connie, Boone and I were discussing plans for the day.

“Sorry about the morning breath, y’all,” he said, smacking his lips.

Alex sat at his kitchen table dressed in red plaid boxers and a button-down Oxford. The south-facing cliffs of the Potrero—2,000-plus-foot walls like the Outrage and the Sense of Religion, all of them named by Alex—loomed behind a six-foot picture window. This world-class arena was his backyard.

The son of a Harvard-educated investment banker, Loring, and a real-estate agent, Susy, Alexander Havemeyer Catlin, 39, had come a long way from Greenwich, Connecticut. I couldn’t help wondering what his parents thought of his life now, so I asked him.

“It’s funny,” he said. “From what I can remember of my youth, my father spent his time working, giving time to charities, playing sports and gardening. Putting up first ascents is a balanced combination of the four. Too bad it doesn’t pay.

“I’ve lost track of what my family really thinks of me. I hoped they would better understand my life, but I realize what a tall order that is, given how strange it has been—rocks, books and living outside New England—and how incommunicative I have been. I think my parents are happy that I’m finally settling down. I know they would like me closer to them, but I guess most parents feel that way.”

Wes spread some peanut butter on a corn tortilla and showered it with white sugar. As he munched he watched with a pained expression as Boone dressed his toe. “What happened to your foot?” he asked.

“I was being a jackass, dude,” Boone said. “Leave it at that.”

“Go wake up Minnesota,” Alex said. “We have work to do.”

== 

The Whirlwind // It takes a certain kind of mind to drill 10,000 bolts. Analytical, focused, driven and slightly insane. It also helps to have a lot of spare time and a little extra money. Alex had those things while working on his thesis at the University of Texas, so he stretched out his education with its fellowships and teaching money for as long as he could.

“As far as I know, only one person has taken more time to get a PhD,” he told me with satisfaction. “Eleven years.”

Alex spent big chunks of that time in the University of Texas map room, poring over topos depicting the terrain of northeast Mexico. One treasure he uncovered was called El Remolino (the Whirlwind) on the maps. It was located on the southern rim of the Potrero, off the Mesa de las Mulas, the ancient route from Potrero Chico through the Huasteca to Monterrey. When Alex plotted the coordinates and actually walked to the feature, he found a north-facing, 200-foot wall, roped with blue and black tufas and overhanging a perfect 30 to 40 degrees. It was raining when Alex found the cave and the rain collected in a chute and funneled off the lip in a hose. The updraft spun the spout of water into a miniature tornado and swirled it back up to the lip.

“The climatic conditions actually create a whirlwind. Crazy,” Alex said, “and it could be the best tufa climbing in the park, way more extensive than the Surf Bowl, but it needs routes.”

It was tempting to load the two drills, bolts, hangers, 10 liters of water, extra batteries, food, warm clothes and camera gear into the interns’ packs, but there was no room. Wes, in particular, was carrying way too much crap, superfluous stuff like a full rack of trad gear, two quarts of Carta Blanca and a guidebook. I told him to trim his pack, a massive, brand-new Black Diamond haul bag, but he wanted “to test it out,” so I just let him go. If you’re going to be dumb, you have to be tough.

Boone carefully hobbled around the nopale, Spanish daggers, horse crippler cactus and sharp limestone blocks without complaint. Wes dropped out of sight and we had to send Minnesota back to find him. Two hours later we arrived at a cave that Boone compared to the tufa grottos in Rodellar. Over a couple of days, we established the first lines—the Tabasco Donkey (5.12c) and P Trance (5.13a).

El Remolino could become a world-class gymnastic sport-climbing area. It has the angle, the weather and the holds—but the hike’s a bitch. Old guys like Alex, Boone and me like to walk, but pure sport climbers would rather eat a plate of steaming pig shit than tromp uphill for two hours in the sun to go climbing, so as soon as the smoke cleared we plotted our course for the more palatable climes of El Puente de Dios, The Bridge of God, a 300-foot arch at 5,000 feet that is located close to the road. In fact, El Puente is the underside of the road. The approach takes five minutes (Alex actually counted the steps, 287), and it’s all downhill.

 

==

Get A Dog // It occurred to me while watching Minnesota awkwardly trying to converse with a group of young Monterrey fresas that I was looking at a facsimile of Alex and myself 20 years previous. The Yankee and the Southerner: one was a few years older but the younger was more mature; both were silly with the romance of climbing. Wes and Dave were skilled, smart and willing. Get rid of the metrosexual hair weaves and they could do anything, be anything. But just like us, all those years previous, these kids had a monomaniacal love of climbing. Would their lives be built around this quixotic sport, drilling bolts and puzzling out sequences across spans of rock? When you turn 40 you tend to look back critically, but there are worse ways to spend two decades. Are there better ways?

The real benefit of age is resilience. Anyone who makes it to 40 probably won’t need the emotional walls that youth builds for protection. By 40 you will have endured enough heartbreak and loss to confront pain head on and absorb it until it dissolves like an Altoid under your tongue. That might be why old guys don’t mind walking uphill. The corollary, of course, is that you can’t party like you used to.

At least 60 people milled about the fire in Alex and Connie’s yard—Germans, Austrians, Mexicans, Canadians, Texans, scruffy Wyoming beard-holes and beautiful girls. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Alex and Minnesota Dave. We pulled T-bones off the grill with our bare hands and gave them to people who ate the meat, also with their bare hands. My friends from Austin were there and they fed me margs made with Tito’s vodka. The hours passed. At one point Minnesota turned to a Belgian and asked, “My God, how do you people get up and go climbing in the morning?”

The Belgian, blond, short, built like a bulldog, smiled and said, “If you ever live in a van, and your van has all your shit in it, man”—he slapped Dave on the back—“get a dog.”

It sounded like nonsense, but later I realized that the Belgian had not only answered Minnesota’s question, he’d answered every question. Like the Zen master who, when asked to explicate the dharma, simply answered, “Sweep the floor.” In other words, address what needs to be done right now and the morning will take care of itself. The best we can hope for is a life of attention.

I jammed for a long time in the six-sided room with my guitar-playing partner Patrick O’Donnell, who’d flown in from Seattle. Ya, a buddy from Colorado, blew on his flute, Wes strummed the mandolin and Minnesota alternated between the banjo and the washboard. I thought we sounded pretty good, and, as if verifying my assessment, the band broke up one by one, each musician heading off with a good-looking woman until it was just me, standing in front of a sink of dirty dishes, listening to Willie Nelson and thinking about my 1-year-old son, Kai, and his mama back home.

== 

Time Will Tell // In a stroke of brilliance, Connie had ordered a box of 50 burritos, and like an angelic vision, she passed them out the next morning to the horde of climbers who lay about the place in various states of indispose.

My head felt like it had been stepped on by a Clydesdale, but we were stoked to check out the Puente, so we packed quickly and steamed up into the mountains, through the aspens and pines, past a Mexican ski resort, to the high-country town of Galeana, a friendly puebla crowded with cowboys and kids running through the shady zocolo. El Puente de Dios was just a couple of miles outside the town and it proved to have everything a young tweaker could desire—25 ridiculously steep routes that climb out an arch the size of the Astrodome, a constant cool breeze, no sun, shelter from the rain, great bouldering and zero approach.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Boone asked. “This is it, right? This is paradise. I just wish Chris (Sharma) and Dave (Graham) could see this. Why are they in Spain, when they could be here?”

I sampled the rock over the next couple of days and found it to vary between perfect and sub-par. The lines that flank the cave couldn’t be better—5.10s, 11s and 12s that monkey out jugs on bullet stone. The steepest lines, however, like Church of Satan (5.12d), need traffic to become ultra-classic. The potential is staggering. Picture the steepest sector of the Arsenal in Rifle, but three times as long, with better overall rock quality. The rock is karstic, riddled with pockets and huecos, and the climbing is gymnastic—big pulls, drop-knees and dynos. The streambed bouldering is even better than the climbing, and despite the relentless hangovers and thin skin, we bouldered every evening until well after dark.

Remolino wasn’t fated to become a destination area, but given enough love and a few hundred bolts, El Puente de Dios would be a stop on the international circuit. Its 300-foot roof could hold the kind of friendly, endurance-dependent big numbers that today’s elite climbers are looking for. But it would take motivated individuals willing to spend hours scrubbing dust out of the pockets and sinking metal into the rock. If that happens, the Puente will be epic. Only time will tell.

The wind picked up the next morning and blew pulverized cow shit into our coffee. The powdery manure dusted Boone’s Staph infection as he was changing the dressing. We were camped in a cow pasture and had been subsisting on meat tacos, coffee, beer and Connie’s burritos for three days. Connie had business in Monterrey with a deadbeat, and we were all ready to re-supply so we drove into the posh colonia San Pedro Garza Garcia and hit up that stanchion of civilization, Starbucks.

 

Starbucks // After only one traffic ticket, which Alex promptly paid with a 50-peso bribe, he maneuvered his Tundra into a spot between two Mercedes and parked in front of a Lacoste store. The posters in the window depicted pale gringos dressed in preppy outfits, jumping.

Starbucks was jammed with dark faces in suits and buzzing with chatter. Alex explained that the guy meeting Connie owed her about $300 for gear she’d fronted him on credit. She was the sole dealer of Marmot in Mexico and it was sometimes hard to get customers to pay their bills.

“So I told her about the time you went after that guy with the hockey stick,” Alex said.

“That little shitsack, Kitzmiller?” I asked.

==

“He lost your drill.”

“I should’ve broke it off in him,” I said.

“If the punk doesn’t pay up, we want you to intimidate him. Can you do that?”

“Like an enforcer?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“Wes just ordered a double chocolate frappacino,” Boone reported. We all turned to watch as the interns waited for their change.  The well-heeled patrons were giving Wes the stinkeye. We were going on three days without a shower and the kid was as ripe as roadkill.

Over the past few days Wes had almost bitten dust half a dozen times—by slipping at the edge of canyons, walking in front of cars, going for it when he should have been backing off, taking giant whippers with the rope under his leg, and so on.

“The kid is careless,” Boone said. “I’m worried about him.”

Boone’s a father. His son, Nicolas, is 7 years old. Now Boone couldn’t stop watching Wes with the vigilance of a parent.

“Check this out,” Boone said. “See the little hole in the lid of Wes’ frappacino? He’s going to stick his tongue through that hole and lick the whipped cream.”

Wes looked at the cup. He stood impatiently for a moment, then brought the cup to his mouth. Boone whispered, “Yes!” as Wes poked his tongue into the tight hole, mashed the plastic dome down flat with his beard and licked the whipped cream. The people frowned, but Wes was oblivious.

Luckily, Connie’s client paid up and I didn’t have to kill anybody.

 

Why Climb? // There’s an undeniable frivolity in all this traipsing about looking for rocks since the underpinnings of “the road” are made of money, and the trip ends in decrepitude and death. What is it, then, that makes us give up so much—time, relationships, income, muscle and sweat—just to climb? Alex is the smartest guy I know, so on the way to the last crag, I asked him a few questions.

“Why climb? That is a complicated question,” he said. “We are such tricky creatures and any activity that reaches all the way into your center is bound to reflect all of your complexities. Climbing has meant so many different things to me over the years and its meaning continues to shift with my life. The layers add up yearly and none of them has ever fully disappeared. What does climbing mean to me? You might as well ask, ‘Who are you, who have you been and who do you want to become?’ Sport, philosophy, religion, love and friendship: climbing is connected to all five, and all five go right to the center.

==

“I started climbing as a lonely 14-year-old. I loved it because I didn’t suck. In retrospect, I can see that climbing allowed me to form a more solid sense of self. Sport climbing is such a perfect activity for people with narcissistic needs: Everyone gets their turn to shine. For a few minutes, it really is all about you. I would guess that the numbers game served much the same purpose for me. The downside of using a sport to fill in this type of childhood gap is the arrogance that almost always springs up.”

“You should have been a psychologist instead of a philosopher,” I said.

“Philosophy is a perfect place for overly intellectual people with emotional problems,” Alex said. “It gives you the illusion that you are going to discover the way out by pure mental force.”

“What about Buddhism?”

“A teacher at Choate introduced me to Zen at about the same time I started climbing. There was a meditation room at school and a little library of Buddhist classics. It gave me a dream to cling to at that time—ironic, huh? I mean, I thought if all else failed, I could go to Japan and become a monk. It was like having an ace in your sleeve. Only, of course, it was nothing but a pipe dream. I have always been too uncomfortable with myself to sit much. Not that I haven’t tried.”

“A lot of climbers would say that climbing is meditation,” I said. “What does the future look like for you?”

“None of my desires have ever really died. I would love to climb 5.14 again, I would love to put up more long routes, and I would love to travel around looking for new crags. However, other desires are stronger. I want to be a better husband. I want to continue my intellectual pursuits, develop a home in Monterrey and raise a family.”

“What’s the best climbing area in the world?”

“Nothing can beat the northeast of Mexico for me, but I am not like everyone else. I love perfect new cliffs, no crowds, warm weather, adventure, and exploration. I would love to see Nuevo Leon become a center of North American climbing, as it obviously deserves to be, but I know I need to work together with hundreds of other motivated climbers, hopefully more Mexicans, and I realize now how much of the responsibility lies with us foreigners.”

We drove through the burned-out zone torched by the arsonist, the charred pines and ground cover a study in black and white, up toward El Salto, way above the Monterrey hubbub and spent the evening bouldering out a classic line that traversed a prominent, marble-perfect, streambed block. The hourglass-shaped pockets staggered across the 10-degree overhang and the long sticks felt hard, but we’d been climbing for eight of 10 days, so who knows? Maybe V7?

==

The new crag was located up the Boca, at a wall Alex had found and equipped with his friend Ralph Vega just two weeks before. He called the crag Sabrosa, which means “delicious,” and it served up the best climbing yet. The established climbs follow seams and drips and we tried La Venenosa, a 100-foot 5.13b that Alex had sent a couple of days prior to our arrival. It starts on coral-textured, hand-thick tufas to a pair of jugs at 30 feet where you can shake. The crux is a big toss to a sill and another rest. The last 60 feet are pumpy 5.12b climbing on a 30-degree overhang.

Boone’s foot was finally healed enough for him to pull on his climbing shoes and tie into the toprope Alex had hung on Hijos de P (5.12b) in the Boca earlier that day. Westafari and Minnesota had been working the line for hours. Now it was cool and shaded, and Boone, one of the first Americans to establish 5.14, floated through the moves like a grass snake slipping through a bullet hole.

Dave had persevered through the hottest part of the day and his back looked like somebody had been using it for a snare drum. “Sweet sassafras!” he said. “How did you hold onto that crummy little crimp when your leg was all kitty wampus?”

Boone smiled with both sets of teeth. “Dude!” he said. “That was like a 10-minute orgasm. I couldn’t be happier, man. Camping in the dirt, climbing on the best stone. Honestly, this is what I live for.”

He looked around at all of us, still flashing that 50-dollar grin but suddenly sincere. “You know what I mean?”

I recognized the longing, the years of searching behind the question, the routes etched across the rock like one of William Blake’s poems cut into a metal plate, a Song of Experience.

“It just doesn’t get better than this,” he said. “Does it?”

Jeff Jackson is the editor of Rock and Ice. Check out rockandice.com under exclusive online content for an extended photo feature by Dave Costello and Wes Walker about their trip to Mexico, and an online guide to Pueñte De Dios.

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