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North America, Mexico, Chihuahua, Basaseachic Waterfall National Park, El Gigante, La Conjura de los Necios

El Gigante, La Conjura de los Necios. As we boarded the plane for Mexico at the beginning of November, we had one desire: that this trip would not turn into another epic. The goal was El Gigante. It was late at night when our seven-man team reached the village of Basaseachic, setting up base camp at the San Lorenzo Ranch, a few miles from El Gigante—as the crow flies. The only thing missing was a sign saying “Welcome to Climbers’ Paradise.”

The next morning Kurt Albert, Hans Martin, and Mariucz set off down the canyon to the base of El Gigante, equipped with bivy gear and a video camera. By the next afternoon they were back. Hans Martin put the camera on the table, and we peered at the monitor. We could make out Kurt in front of a thicket of bushes. Slowly the camera swung upward, and the thicket was replaced by a jungle. Bizarre cactuses and palm trees towered overhead. Lianas were draped over them like snakes. “Terrific plants,” commented Holger, “and where is El Gigante?” The camera swung farther upward, and Kurt explained dryly, “That’s El Gigante.” A vertical jungle. We thought of opting for an easy escape, maybe a cute little first ascent at the entrance of the gorge. The discussion was ended by a secret poll the next morning. Kurt put his helmet on the table. Everyone wrote “Yes” or “No” on a slip of paper. Not even Steven Spielberg could have produced more suspense than our voting procedure. The first three slips said “No,” the next three, “Yes.” The last slip would be the tiebreaker. And the winner was…El Gigante! This last vote sealed our fate. No relaxed climbing, no floating up immaculate, sunny rock.

Everything then went downhill, literally. Kurt’s suggestion had sounded exciting back at the ranch—that we rappel to the base beside Piedra Volada, Mexico’s highest waterfall, with a 1,600-foot drop. First we would tie together 500 meters of caving rope (also our rappel line) and lower our 300 kg of haulbags in one big bunch. As I leaned cautiously over the edge, I realized that this might be quite serious. Only a few feet below the face curved away in a huge overhang. The canyon bottom was hidden in mist. Kurt was hanging at the belay by the drop-off, the wind blowing his hair upward. He looked like the devil himself at the entrance to his preserve. It was dark by the time the baggage, Mariusz, Holger, Klaus, and I reached the floor of the gorge. Hans Martin wanted to toss the rope and come to our gorge base camp with Gunda via the more conventional route the following morning. The next day before Kurt started rappelling he wrote Hans Martin a note and left it at the belay: “Hans Martin, it is 7:00 a.m., and I’m starting down. Please don’t cut me off. Cheers, Kurt.”

Wielding machetes Klaus and I cleared a way to the start of the climb. Instead of the customary missiles, the leader sent down a bizarre selection of plants. But we couldn’t leisurely swing from branch to branch up the wall. On the contrary, the climbing was hard from the start, with lots of sections of 5.11 and 5.12. Except that here the leader first had to unearth holds, while dirt poured onto his face and into his clothes. He soon looked like a miner. I asked myself which was worse, sailing through the stormy Drake Passage or climbing these hanging gardens. After cleaning and protecting each pitch we climbed it free. Believe it or not, the hard pitches offered the best climbing. The days were short and it was dark by six o’clock. We never did more than three pitches a day. Until we were halfway up the wall, we rappelled back to base camp every evening, leaving fixed ropes. The next day another team jugged up and struggled a little farther. Only after a week of hard work was the haulbag up at half height.

It couldn’t go on like this. One morning Holger, Kurt, Klaus, and I ascended the ropes with a minimum of gear, food, and water for three days, wanting to go for the top alpine style. While we tried to escape upward, Mariucz, Gunda, and Hans Martin took down the fixed ropes and packed gear out of the gorge. The climbing became worse the higher we got. The rock was dangerously loose. Kurt was leading a body crack when a pillar the size of a phone booth he was leaning against suddenly moved. Instinctively he swung to the other side, and only a pillow-sized block whizzed past Klaus, Holger, and me. If it had been the phone booth, we would have joined its downward trip. We were engaged in a war of nerves. Night was coming fast as we traversed around a leaning pillar the size of a church tower in a near-vertical hanging garden. Kurt crawled behind man-sized palm trees jutting from the face. Their leaves, sharp as knives, cut our hands and arms. We rigged a rope bridge from the tower to the garden and hauled our packs and haulbags across to a bivy spot. Holger wedged himself behind a palm bush, and Klaus huddled on a sloping grass shelf, while Kurt and I wedged ourselves between a tree and the rock. The situation might have fulfilled a botanist’s dream, but for us it was a nightmare. Our only goal was to get off this face as fast as possible. Holger crawled up the next pitch, done in from the bivy. Loose rock crumbled under his feet. Five pitches below the summit we came upon Carlos Garcia’s route and followed it up the only logical line through the headwall. When we topped out just before dark, after nine days on the wall, El Gigante had its first free climb and the madness a name: We called the route La Conjura de los Necios—The Conspiracy of Fools (880m, 23 pitches 5.13a).

Stefan Glowacz, Germany