Two weeks of committed aid climbing on El Gigante’s fractured andesite.
It took me a year to find Mexico’s El Gigante. Carlos Garcia and Cecilia Buil, the first-ascent team, made a point of keeping its whereabouts a secret. Fueled by the mystery, I searched maps and interrogated people until I discovered its location. When I finally set eyes on El Gigante, I couldn’t blame Carlos and Cecilia for keeping it a secret.
El Gigante is not your typical monolith; it’s for the adventurer. It demands a certain respect, a grudging admiration. Jungle-like vegetation blankets its walls. Flora armed with spikes and blade-like fronds stand ready to strike. Flocks of stink beetles hide in every crevice, and make a distinct crunching sound when you bury your fingers in cracks. And the rock is loose. Not rotten, like some desert sandstone, or flaky like the gneiss of the Black Canyon, but fractured and loose. Razor-sharp edges of andesite stand poised, ready to pounce on unsuspecting rope. On both trips I’ve made to the area, lead ropes have fallen victim to rockfall or edges.
We experienced only moderate success on our first trip to El Gigante. Gareth Llewellin (Australia), Jakub Gajda (Czech Republic), and I (U.S.) were hoping to complete the longest route on the mountain, the Nose. Conditions were brutal (see above). Jakub nearly died in a rope-cutting lead fall. Gareth almost succumbed to hypothermia. And I came close to dislodging a quarter of the mountain and burying us all. We were lucky enough to hammer out the first line on the west face, but unfortunately the summit of the route rested on El Gigante’s shoulder, far right of the beautiful, spire-like summit. When we ran short of time, we agreed to return one day for another shot at the Nose.
It took two full years to recover from the beating El Gigante unleashed during that trip—if not physically, then mentally. And now we were going back. Yippee! “Going back?” asked Jakub warily, with an ear-to-ear smile. “Not sure I’m ready.”
“Oh, come on,” I pleaded. “It won’t be that bad this time...we’re wiser.” Jakub loves adventure, and it wasn’t long before I had him excited about returning to complete our original objective. Gareth, on the other hand, hadn’t been heard from since the end of the trip. We reckoned he was spending his days on some Brisbane beach, having given up the silly notion of climbing rocks.
This time our third team member would be an adventurous climber from South Africa, Alard Hüfner. I was excited to have him along. We got along just splendidly, as we should, since he’s just like me: pleasant, smart, a great climber... and almost as good-looking. Living in South Africa, he has had the opportunity to do some adventurous first ascents right in his own backyard. He was no stranger to Vega-climbing or loose rocks.
Committing to the wall would be a huge priority, as to siege such a massive feature would be withholding the respect it deserved. We established the following ethics in recognition that this was not some limestone wall on the outskirts of an overcrowded European town. This was a fractured pile of andesite in the mountains of Mexico. Our system would fix only three ropes, leaving the tag line specifically for its duty. The extra lead line would stay in the haul bag unless needed. Bolting would be kept to a minimum. We were here for adventure, not to cater to the masses. If a pitch couldn’t be free climbed on-sight, then it would be aided. If a bolt had to be placed, it would be earned by drilling on lead with a hand drill (a reminder that if you don’t work with the rock, then the rock will work to destroy your shoulder).
Finally, it was time to start. We decided that I would solo the first pitch while Jakub and Alard hauled loads and carried water. The first few moves quickly reminded me of what we were in for: tree-root pull-up here, grass mantle there...oops, grass failed, lunge to that loose boulder...ahh, finally I made it to the base. To the left of our route was a string of bolts a half-mile long. They were no more than eight feet apart, snaking up and out of sight. The line reminded me of one of those connect-the-dot children’s books. I wanted a giant pencil...or a chisel. It made me stop and think about what this place might become. Was this the future? Was I going to be one of those crotchety old climbers who banter about how wonderful El Gigante was before they built log cabins with hot water at the base? With a route like that, any Tom, Dick, or Harry could pack a couple of ropes and a handful of draws, take a leisurely hike down the canyon and blast right up...probably in a day. It is this kind of convenience that has made El Portero Chico the talk of every sport cragger on the continent. What would it do to this place? Is this where climbing is headed? Perhaps someday everything will be “sport bolted.” Perhaps aid climbing will be illegal, like base-jumping. Well, I hope I’m dead by then.
Well, back to the climb. The first three pitches followed a crack that trended right into a major dihedral system. At the end of the third day we had three ropes hanging and were ready to say goodbye to soil. I had managed to talk Alard and Jakub into hauling the lower pitches while I soloed the fourth. Like on any wall, the first few pitches of hauling were inconceivably hard. This old mountain wasn’t helping. Everywhere the haul lines touched the rock a bombing campaign ensued. Throughout the afternoon, deep bass tones echoed and bounced off adjacent walls as massive boulders converted potential energy to kinetic energy.
I finished my pitch and rappelled, smiling as I remembered the warmth of the afternoon sun and enjoying what had proven to be a fun and interesting aid pitch. Two gaunt men with pale faces greeted me. Jakub had abandoned English and was roundly cussing in Czech. Alard was far below, battling a bush. They had had a rough day—and now it started to rain.
We set up camp and nestled under our rain flies. It was then that Jakub expressed concern about the amount of rockfall and seriously questioned our motives. By bedtime he had convinced himself that we were doomed. In the morning, despite attempts to persuade him otherwise, Jakub quit. We tied the ropes together and sent him down along with his haul bag and the extra portaledge.
His departure put Alard and me in an awkward predicament. Not only did Jakub have the good camera that was to capture our devilishly good looks; but also a three-person team is vital in hauling such heavy loads. Of greater concern was that in the event of an injury, two rescuers are six times better than one. We debated about whether to continue, but eventually decided to press on. However, before he left, we asked Jakub to wait below for a few days. That way, if we found we couldn’t manage without him, we could at least hike out together, albeit with our heads held low.
But manage we did, as we methodically picked our way, pitch by pitch. At night, we could see a lone fire at base camp. We knew it was little comfort for poor Kuby, now alone with his demons. We cracked a beer, shouted him a toast, and stuffed our faces with the food he had left behind (including some gourmet cookies his girlfriend had made).
Day seven found us at the bottom of a giant inset that we dubbed “the Eye.” Jakub was long gone, and the isolation of El Gigante had settled around us. The Eye was our middle mark for the wall. Until now, the crack systems we had scoped had connected quite nicely. But the Eye was blank. The few edges we could see looked loose, so I advised Alard to bat-hook when necessary. He acquired the skill quickly. After every eight holes or so, he would drill a 2"× 1/4" hole and slam in a solid steel rivet. Steel rivets had been a source of disagreement on our trip two years earlier. In leading a pitch near the summit, I had placed five rivets that I felt were strong enough to hold a fairly sizable fall. Gareth and Jakub disagreed. The debate continued throughout that trip, and now Alard was about to put the debate to rest. As he neared the end of his pitch, a small seam opened into a crack under a small roof. His last rivet was some distance below, and the one before that was far left toward the dihedral. As he slid a blue Alien under the roof, his mind made brief reference to a warning I had given him earlier about the nature of andesite: “It’s very hard and very slick, and sometimes cams don’t like to grab.”
Alard bounce-tested the Alien and eased on to the piece. Then, like Wile E. Coyote, he hung suspended in mid-air for what seemed forever, then plunged, squealing like a pig. But I was right: the rivet held. If I’d been wrong, we would never have finished the climb.
Fourteen days after we had strung the first rope, Alard clambered up a loose chimney to the summit. Late afternoon found us lying on the haul bags, sharing shots of homemade Czech brandy and polishing off the beers we had saved for the occasion. As the sun fell into the west, Alard gave a toast. “To Jakub,” he said. “May he cope with his decision bravely.”
“Hear, hear,” I replied.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: El Gigante, in Parque Nacional Cascada de Basaseachic, Mexico
Ascent: Faded Glory, VI 5.9 A3, Alard Hüfner and Brent Edelen, November, 2002.
Note About the Author:
Brent Edelen is a professional beekeeper in Colorado.