American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

El Gigante

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

El Gigante

A chronicle of early climbing on the giant of Parque Nacional Cascada de Basaseachic, Mexico.

Luis Carlos García Ayala

In the state of Chihuahua, a small corner of Tarahumara land conceals countless wonders, some of which have only recently been revealed. Many more await discovery Between 1994 and 1997 the GEEC—the spelunking and exploration association of the city of Cuauhtémoc and a government agency of Chihuahua—organized a series of expeditions aimed at exploring the Barranca de Candameña. The purpose of these expeditions was to document the canyon and then promote its natural attractions to the world of adventure sports and to the development of eco-tourism. Carlos Lazcano Sahagún, a noted Mexican geologist, explorer, and spelunker (whom we thank for sharing his findings), led the expeditions.

The explorers discovered many attractions, in some cases immediately upon the start of their travels. One of these is the important Duraznos River; its waters plunge to earth at the Basaseachic Waterfall, the starting point of the canyon. This became an expedition objective, and expedition members rappelled its full height, recording it at 246 meters.

They likewise rappelled another waterfall, the Piedra Volada; with its freefall of 453 meters it is the eleventh highest in the world. Near Piedra Volada they discovered the impressive Peña del Gigante (or Rock of the Giant) and, to add spice to their explorations, they decided once again to descend on rappel. To this end they set up rappel stations using natural anchors and Hexentrics and other nuts. All of this was done with respect for ethics and style; they recovered their ropes and left few traces of their passage on the wall. They recorded a descent of 885 meters, making El Gigante the highest known cliff in Mexico.

The explorers of the GEEC brought back important information about the site, as well as obvious evidence of its enormous potential for adventure sports. At this juncture Carlos Lazcano set out to find a Mexican climber interested in making the first ascent of El Gigante.

The Meeting

Higinio Pintado and Bonfilio Sarabia have been my friends and climbing partners for a number of years and have helped guide my development as a climber. Higinio has climbed on El Capitan and in other big-wall venues. Bonfilio, the younger of the two, was invited to participate in his first big- wall experience, including the logistics accompanying this project. They made up the second rope team gathering to challenge El Gigante.

Cecilia Buil, from Huesca, Spain, and I first met in Mexico City, where we climbed together. Soon after, we resolved to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, and so we made the pilgrimage to the famous park. In a month’s stay we climbed three routes, Mescalito, Zenyatta Mondatta, and Lurking Fear. Through this we became solid as a rope team, as well as learning a great deal about protection, style, logistics, and ethics of both free and aid climbing on big walls.

On our return to Mexico City we heard rumors circulating within the small climbing community about the existence of an as-yet unclimbed big wall in Chihuahua; we were captivated by the prospect. In mid-February of 1998 we traveled to the city of Chihuahua. Once there we were welcomed by Carlos Lazcano, who briefed us on the logistics of accessing the now-famous Barranca de Candameña. Finally, we gathered the necessary food and equipment and saw to last-minute details.

We left Chihuahua and headed toward Hermosillo, Sonora. At kilometer 272 we came to Basaseachic, at 2,160 meters in the Sierra Occidental. As mentioned earlier, the town is known for the famous waterfall that forms the beginning of the canyon.

The Approach

Six kilometers before the town of Basaseachic lies the sparse settlement of Las Estrelllas. This place marks the beginning of a paved road leading to the ranch of San Lorenzo, a beautiful spot owned by Sr. Fernando Domínguez, who dresses like a rancher from high up in the hills. Don Fernando welcomed us and put us up in two of his comfortable cabins. He was put in charge of transportation, lodging, porters, and communications.

Within two days we were on our way down from a gap that opens out from the village of Huajumar. Soon we were stuck by our first view of the enormous rocky hulk of El Gigante. Although the view from this spot is misleading and makes the colossus seem smaller than it is, it still manages to stand out tall and proud in hues of brown, orange, and yellow.

Some 15 porters led by Don Santiago Pérez and our climbing foursome soon arrived at the foot of the Giant. Our base camp was established near a spring, in lush woods. There, we all gathered around a huge bonfire to nervously celebrate our coming together to pioneer the first virgin big wall in our personal experience.

While constantly stoking the fire, our porters related many legends about this place. One of these was of the famous “Sierpe,” an aquatic snake that inhabits the depths of the river. Whenever anyone crosses the river too close to it, the Sierpe coils itself around the victim in order to drag it to the depths, where it is devoured.

After studying the wall Cecilia and I decided we would climb up its center. Higinio and Bonfilio, meanwhile, decided on the section of the huge wall to the left of its prominent rib. It was time to go into action.

Over the next 15 days, we fixed five difficult pitches. We thus became acquainted with the rock’s hardness and quality, the difficulties awaiting us, and the likely time frame for completing the ascent. But our food ran out and we decided to come out of the canyon.

In the meantime, Higinio and Bonfilio also abandoned their objective because their chosen route consisted mostly of rotten rock; they also lacked a few pieces of hardware needed to continue.

We made our way up the river toward the Basaseachic Waterfall. As we gradually put distance between the colossus and us, we gained the perspective of our five rope-lengths as mere scratches about the heels of the Giant. Our trek along the Candameña River took us past huge walls and blocks of orange-colored stone. In all, it took us nearly seven hours to walk back to Rancho San Lorenzo, where we spent five days resting among its meadows.

After agreeing with Don Fernando to make radio contact every third day, we headed back to our base camp with a porter and his two sons.

We began climbing our fixed ropes very early and ended the day by sleeping on pitch five under the shelter of an overhang. At daybreak we heard a great thundering and not far from us watched a huge block fall to earth, shattering at the base of the wall.

We decided to climb in capsule style and set up bivouacs under overhangs. We adhered to Yosemite-style ethics, respecting the rock and establishing our route from the bottom up. For belay anchors we used natural pieces, but we also drilled 16 bolts and 64 rivets altogether, counting both aid placements and anchors. Our route, Simuchi, was 1,025 meters long, and we rated it VI 5.1 lb A4; it took 16 days.

The rock on the Giant is hard and offers few crack systems but abundant hook placements. It yields a type of climbing different from that demanded by granite; it is a different style, sustained and of high difficulty, and requiring greater care in choosing and placing hardware.

We set up seven bivouacs over sixteen days on the wall, and when our food and water ran out, we notified Don Fernando. When we least expected it rescuers appeared before us, having rappelled in order to (in their eyes) save us. We did not want to leave the wall and merely requested that they stand by. They informed us, however, that we were 300 meters from the top, so we understood that we had no choice but to get off the wall. All of this created a modest scandal and was the source of alarmist reports by the media, which served only to worry our families. Later, we observed sadly that we had been only four pitches away from topping out, or some 150 meters.

The rescuers left their rappel ropes in place, so the next day we went back down to finish our route by climbing and to retrieve our gear, a bit disappointed at the way it all ended.

We left Chihuahua feeling grateful for the support of all those who motivated and allowed this adventure, and we vowed to return some day to tackle another big wall.

Return to Candamena

In 1999 we again found ourselves in Chihuahua with the aim of exploring Sinforosa Canyon in the district of Guachochi, on the hunt for a new rock formation. This time Cecilia and I brought with us a friend from the U.S., Chris Giles. As a professional photographer, he wanted to document our ascent.

Once in Guachochi we began by verifying the information we had received from Carlos Lazcano; then we contacted all those who might prove helpful in a reconnaissance of the area. We chartered a light airplane and, in our flight over the deep canyon, were able to see that the wall in question didn’t reach even half the height of El Gigante. We therefore abandoned the area and proceeded again to Candamena, with the intent of putting up another big-wall route.

We organized our porters and other support personnel for our descent into the beautiful canyon. This time we chose a different spot for our base camp, once again situated next to a spring and abundant tree cover. Next, we studied a potential route on El Gigante that followed a beautiful yellow spur via a good crack system. We also planned Chris’ role, making clear to him where on the wall our route was to take us. We fixed a couple of pitches and got our haul bags packed. In the meantime, Chris headed out of the canyon and toward the top of our cliff in order to set up a series of rappels that would allow him to intercept us during our climb.

We began our route on the left side of the Giant. The first pitch was a mix of horizontal cracks and blocks. The second was a beautiful horizontal traverse with 250 meters of exposure. We christened it El Paso del Águila, or Eagle’s Step.

The third and then the fourth pitch were climbed, and then it was time to bivouac. The next day, as Cecilia worked with the drill, it malfunctioned (we used the drill only for belay anchor bolts and for placing occasional rivets). We decided to go back down and we let Chris know as much. Very early the next morning we were on our way to Rancho San Lorenzo, which we reached in eight hours.

After a five-day rest we returned to the wall. We found the pitches on this route to be sustained, well defined, and enjoyable. The bivouacs, in particular the last one, were very exposed. We had a couple of scares on pitch 13: a rivet hanger anchoring our bivouac broke, causing us to fall five meters but without incident. The next day, after making three placements, Cecilia placed a pin that shattered the rock and sent down a rather large block.

In all, we placed around 50 rivets and 10 bolts, having climbed a total of 750 meters over 10 days on the wall, which we rated VI 5.10d A4+. The route is called Yawira Batú, or “budding corn” in the language of the Tarahumara.

Sport Climbing

We again returned to Chihuahua in 1999 to give the official report of our climb and to present our new project: to put up sport routes in the area of Rancho San Lorenzo. We received the needed support, so we began working our routes. Our chosen style was to work from the bottom up, free climbing on the lead and hanging from skyhook placements in the excellent huecos and flakes in order to place bolts. This style was very helpful in accessing certain areas of the rock and establishing further routes.

The rock is a bit porous, with abundant huecos, and the wall is overhanging for the most part. In two and a half months we put up 50 routes in 8 separate sections. Their difficulty ranges from 5.8 to 5.13b, with 5.10s and 5.11s predominating. There are also many bouldering opportunities in the numerous rocks scattered in the lush woods. The camping area lies nearby.

Basaseachic Falls

One year later we were back at Rancho San Lorenzo. This time we wanted to climb the waterfall solo, meaning that Cecilia was to put up her route and I my own, separately. We made the necessary preparations and descended the waterfall, putting our base camp on its left bank.

Both routes begin from the same slope, some 300 meters from the waterfall. La Danza del Sol, or “Dance of the Sun,” traverses left to a niche and follows a crack system to the top, while Lluvia de Plata, or “Silver Rain,” takes a straight line over beautiful overhanging slabs, presenting a high degree of difficulty.

After fixing three pitches, we began our respective climbs. It took me three days and two nights to complete seven very beautiful pitches of free and aid climbing. I rated La Danza del Sol, V 5.9 A3+.

Cecilia ran into problems and I had go down to her position. I brought batteries for her drill and placed a couple of bolts, which she subsequently used as a belay anchor. Cecilia’s route, Lluvia de Plata (V 5.9 A4) took her six days and five nights on the wall and thus became the second route to be established on the waterfall.

Conclusion

The state of Chihuahua is the largest in the Republic of Mexico. Its varied geography offers great contrasts between a tropical zone, desert areas, and mountains. It is rich in indigenous cultures, among which the Tarahumara are most prevalent in the highland areas.

Many more canyons await exploration and the search for climbing areas goes on. The potential for the development of rock climbing in all its forms is great, be it in the form of bouldering, sport climbing, multi-pitch sport climbs, or big-wall aid routes. The rock in the state of Chihuahua includes the volcanic variety, limestone, and others.

The stretch of the canyon of Candameña between the village of Basaseachic and the municipality of Ocampo boasts rock walls ranging between 300 and 900 meters in height. Along with these, it is notable for its three striking natural features, namely the Basaseachic Waterfall, Piedra Volada, and the big wall of El Gigante.

This beautiful place has now, thanks to the vision of a few, come to be a matter of public knowledge. The climber’s charge now becomes that of respecting the land as well as the work and the ethics that guided its development. For this reason we have taken care to adhere to the ethics practiced in other areas that have set current standards for climbing style, such as Yosemite, Peru, Patagonia, and Europe. We have made ascents that were clean, imaginative, and carried out in a style that adhered to world standards.

Mexico and other Latin American countries, in their desire to contribute toward the evolution of the rock climbing lifestyle, deserve to be respected. The classic style in climbing is to go from bottom to top, such as is done on the great rock formations of our planet. This presents the greatest challenge.

It with all of this in mind that I extend an invitation to climbers to come and contribute to the development of this area with respect and with consideration for the ethical concerns voiced here, and to enjoy the magic to be found in Chihuahua. We eagerly await your visit.

Translated by Oriol Solé-Costa

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Parque Nacional Cascada de Basaseachic, Chihuahua, Mexico

First Ascents: El Gigante (first ascent of the wall), via Simuchi (1,025m, VI 5.1 lb A4,16 days, Buil-Garcia, 1998. (AAJ 1999) Yawira Batú, 750m, VI 5.10d A4+, 10 days on the wall, Buil-Garcia, 1999. (AAJ 2000) Fifty sport and gear climbs near Rancho San Lorenzo, 5.8–5.13b, Buil-Garcia, 1999. Basaseachic Waterfall, La Danza del Sol (V 5.9 A3+), Carlos Garcia Ayala, solo, 2000. Basaseachic Waterfall, Lluvia de Plata (V 5.9 A4), Cecilia Buil, solo, 2000. (AAJ 2001)

A Note About the Author

Born in Mexico City in 1967, Luis Carlos Garcia Ayala now lives in the little town of San Luis Ayucan, outside the city. Single, he works as a carpenter and climbs as much as he can. In addition to his exploration of remote walls throughout Mexico, he has opened roughly 200 sport routes, “more or less from the ground.” He loves nature, the sea, the desert, the forest, but his “wonder is to work in a team for opening big walls.” His favorite route is Yawira Batú, with the best bivy he has ever done, one pitch below the summit.

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