Saturday, June 5, 2021

El Gigante - Standing on the shoulder of a giant

 Standing on the shoulder of a Giant

Hidden deep within the sierra of Chihuahua, Mexico lies a rock wall known locally as “El Gigante”. Emerging almost 1000m from the valley floor, it is the focus of myths and legends. Great fields of marijuana were rumored to grow at its base, and accessing it required days of difficult hiking through cartel controlled lands. It's weather fluctuated at a moment's notice. From 90 degrees and sunny one day, to minus 10 degrees and snowing the next. It both intimidated and captivated me. I called to recruit my friends Will Saunders (a talented photographer) and Sergio Almada (a big wall veteran) to undertake the expedition with me. Equally excited for such an adventure, we immediately booked our flights and a few weeks later, found ourselves in a small mountain town in Chihuahua, Mexico.


My climbing partner Sergio Almada,better known as “Tiny” to his friends, knew the town well. He had frequented this part of the Sierra in the years prior, establishing friendships with the locals who rarely saw visitors, especially gringos. During the early 2000's, this region of Chihuahua had earned a reputation of being dangerous as Cartels and the Police battled for control. After years of bloody clashes in which thousands of people died, normality had gradually returned to the town, but the violent stigma remained.

Entering the small town of Cajurichi, we pass by cattle grazing the shoulder alongside the rough country road, closely followed by children on horseback who usher them along. Shortly after entering the town, we pull over at a small concrete home with a crudely painted blue exterior where Tiny hops out the car and makes his way inside.  

Following him inside, he is greeted with smiles and open arms from the home's occupants. They're overjoyed to see a familiar face from beyond the Sierra and warmly welcome us inside their home which cameo’s as a small store or “Tienda” selling convenience items such as coca-cola, cigarettes and packaged sweet breads.

We're here to seek out the help of a local rancher by the name of Valentine. He is a friend of Tiny and in the past, he has helped shuttle climbers back and forth along the difficult mountain road to the summit of El Gigante, our climbing objective. Under normal circumstances, you would simply call ahead and arrange a time and place to meet, but here, deep within the mountains of copper canyon, there is no cell service and most people do not own a phone. Instead, we deploy the old style way of searching for people which in this case, involves a stop in at each of their family members houses to ask who saw him last. People rarely travel far from home here and it's often just a matter of time until you bump into whoever you're looking for.

The family members inside are eager to hear news from outside the mountains and after a brief catch up of the previous years events, Margarita (Valentines wife) joins our now extra stuffed Toyota Rav4 for a drive through the village to search. We pay a visit to the homes of various family members until finally we arrive at the house of Bertha, Valentine’s mother. A faint voice calls to us from a dim lit doorway, “Buenas tardes muchacho's”. As we exit the car and approach the house, a small lady in her 80's emerges. 

She informs us that Valentine is in the woods close by harvesting lumber. Piling back into the car, now with both Margarita and Bertha, we make our way down the narrow and bumpy 4x4 roads in search. Arriving at a small abandoned house in a clearing, we exit our cramped rav4 and listen for the sound of chainsaws but hear nothing. Margarita has a hunch to his location and takes off on foot into the woods. Not wanting to get seperated (or lost), we hang around the abandoned shack and hear stories from Bertha about life in the Sierra whilst we await for word from Margarita. 

An hour or so passes and we begin to wonder whether to send out a search party for Margarita when suddenly she appears from the dirt road. “Yo eschuchar los moto sierra, pero es un poco lento, vamos a manejar” She informs us that she can hear the sound of chainsaws but we would have to drive down a difficult 4x4 road to get there. Regrouping, we squeeze back into the car and slowly scrape our way down the small forest road until we are forced to stop by a horse in the middle of the road.

Just past the horse, we find Valentine along with a group of men rolling giant logs down a hillside onto a vintage flatbed truck. They don't have any fancy machines for the job, just gravity and ingenuity to save their bodies from the laborious work. After exchanging our customary greeting, Valentine agrees to help us in our endeavor and we arrange to meet at his home later that evening to pack up our equipment and prepare to leave the following day.

With a plan now formed, we head back into town to drop off the family members who had assisted in the search and use our free time to purchase essential items from the local stores. Selections are limited in the sierra, and so our main food source for our planned 6 days on the wall will be a combination of tortillas, frijoles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Completing our underwhelming food shop, we make our way to a small concrete house atop a hill that overlooks the town where we rendezvous with Valentine. Pulling up outside, his warm smile greets us from the doorway. We unload the car and arrange our bags into manageable loads which we plan to leave strategically at ledges along our 1000m descent of El Gigante. In my mind, this is one of the most  critical tasks in climbing a big wall. For anyone who has had to empty the contents of their bag to access something buried in the bottom, you'll understand how difficult that task becomes when you have nowhere to place the contents and thousands of feet of air all around you. My preferred set up for handling this situation is to place three liter bottles filled with water at the bottom, evening and breakfast food on top of them, sleeping equipment on top of that, then snacks and one bottle of water at the very top should we run out of what we have currently out in our climbing backpack. Once happy with our haul bag layer cake, we lift them onto the back porch in preparation for the morning and make our way into the kitchen to talk with Valentine.

Crouched alongside a cast iron stove, Valentine places kindling into it's sooted doorway, the flames licking at his hands. Gesturing for us to come in, we each take a seat around the dining table. Margarita serves us homemade tortillas whilst Tiny and Valentine catch up on life. A native of Chihuahua, Tiny is well known by the locals. Though born and raised in the city some 200km away, he has spent more time in the Sierra than anyone I know from the outside. He is in tune with their way of life, their humble demeanor, and subtle mannerisms which often say more than their words. He has frequented this area for years, establishing new routes on the walls of copper canyon, often with assistance from friendly locals such as valentine to accomplish these feats. Valentine is a farmer of sorts. He has lived in the Sierra his whole life, planting crops (sometimes less than legal ones) and harvesting lumber. He is quietly spoken and humble. Living in a small house perched upon the hill, he lives a modest life for Mexico. Tiny and Valentine talk for hours whilst Will and I welcomely devour the steaming hot tortillas that Margarita keeps conjuring. Tired from our travels, I announce I am going to bed. The others soon follow suit and we settle into the small back room of Valentines house. Climbing into our sleeping bags, we goof around with excitement and anticipation. Tomorrow, the adventure begins.

At 4.00am, the alarm sounds. Peering over the lip of my sleeping bag, I can tell from the slow rustling of the others that the morning came sooner than any of us were ready for. Climbing from the bed, I make my way to the back porch. Looking out over the dimly lit town, the night is still. Roosters can be heard crowing in the distance, welcoming the impending sunrise. As I begin maneuvering our bags onto the old ford truck, the others arrive to help and we load them strategically in the back. Valentine informed us the night prior that the road is rough and the journey will take around 2 hours to drive.  From where we park, we would need to hike a further 2 hours across a ridgeline to reach the summit. Making a final check to ensure we haven't left anything behind, we head out into the dark.

The old ford truck grumbles along the bumpy dirt road. Tiny rides up front with Valentine and his son Octavio whilst Will and I ride in the back with the haul bags. The road seems to wind endlessly through large open fields, sparse pine forests, and up steep rock. After several hours of being tossed around like a salad in the back, we arrive at a small clearing in the woods from where we must continue on foot. Octavio jumps out the cab and assists us with unloading the bags. They’re heavy. Some of the bags weighed more than we did and lifting them onto our backs was a team effort. Though not ideal, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Just about every expedition I've ever embarked upon has involved some level of grimness with overweight packs. It's the adventure initiation.

We scramble down through some pine tree’s and out onto the open ridge that leads to the summit. After around two hours of bushwhacking and load shuttling up steeper sections, we arrive at the summit of El Gigante just in time to witness the sun rise over the canyon walls. The view from the summit was magnificent and the moment surreal. You see, normally you spend days or weeks hanging off the side of the mountain in order to enjoy the summit view. It is in many ways the only reward for your endeavor. But for the first time ever, we were approaching the mountain from the top and rappelling more than 3000ft down to the ground in order to begin. Though not a traditional approach to big walls, the alternative option involved a multi day hike with even more gear which no one seemed keen to do.

Collapsing to the ground under the weight of the 145 litre haul bag which felt as though I'd just carried a small elephant, I removed my equipment and laid it out in front of me for inspection. From this point onwards, we would all live day and night in our harnesses. Once we made our way over the edge of the wall, it was untreatable. The only way out was up and any equipment forgotten could be the difference between returning to the summit or becoming stranded in space. Racking the gear to my harness and uncoiling the ropes, we make a final group check to ensure we’re all ready. I thread the anchor and toss the rope down the face. Clipping the haul bag to my harness, I nod to the others and take one last look over the canyon before making my way over the edge.

There is nothing quite like stepping out into the abyss. Regardless of how many times you do it, tethered by a single strand of rope above 3000ft of air, it is a daunting feeling. We began rappelling down the face, systematically leapfrogging for time efficiency. Arriving at the “Critter Bivvy” at the top pitch 18 some hours later, we strategically stash one of our haul bags which has enough food and water for 2 days. The amount of time we anticipated it would take to go from this ledge to the summit. With gear securely fastened to the ledge, we continue down to the “Tower of Power” where we plan to spend our first night. After several hours and one hairy haul bag traverse, we arrive at the ledge at the top pitch 8 and unfold our portaledge. If you’ve not seen one of these before, it’s a kind of collapsible camping cot that hangs from the wall. It’s barely wide enough for two people to lay down and standing on it feels a little like surfing a giant kite. It takes a plethora of circus tricks and often physical persuasion to unfold whilst hanging in the air but once ready, it’s like living on a magic carpet. Now comfortable on the portaledge and Will sitting directly on the large ledge below, we settle in to make dinner and peer down over the hundreds of feet of wall that we must rappel and climb in the morning. The wall below doesn’t seem so bad in terms of climbing difficulty. Eight pitches no harder than 5.11c (F6c), a goal fairly non-chalant for someone climbing this route. Switching our glance from below to above, the wall leading to the summit was both huge and intimidating. From where we were, we would need to climb a further 2000ft feet of consistently difficult, sparsely protected and strenuous 5.12 and 5.13 began. This was where the true challenge lay. Not wanting to get too far ahead of ourselves, we finish up dinner, climb into our sleeping bags and turn on our customary Bob Marley playlist. His songs have become somewhat of a big wall anthem for Tint and I during our adventures, and there is not a morning or night that goes by without his positive vibrations. Settled into my sleeping bag, I gazed up into the sky. I had never seen so many stars. With the absence of light pollution from nearby towns or cities, the night sparkled in brilliant beauty. 

The familiar ring of my alarm shakes me awake. It’s 10am and a light breeze circulates around the wall. Today, Tiny and I will rappel the 8 pitches to the ground and then climb back up to our portledge. Will is going to stay on the ledge and shoot images from above. Motivation is high. After weeks of planning and travelling, we’re finally going to get a chance to try ourselves against the wall. Fishing the Jetboil from the hualbag, Tiny begins our morning ritual of coffee, a smoke, and of course Bob Marley music whilst I begin breakfast. Options are limited on the side of a mountain and you won’t find any gourmet meals. After availability, taste comes 2nd or possibly even 3rd to calorie value and density. There's also a finite amount of space available for food and on this expedition, breakfast was the school yard favorite peanut butter and jelly accompanied by a handful of sour chilli candies. Not exactly a Michelin restaurant experience, but that’s what we could find. I hand out sandwiches to the boys and we enjoy the sweet, gummy food experience washed down with coffee and candies. Making the last hard swallow, I rack up our gear for the day and prepare to descend to the ground with Tiny.

Arriving at the base of the wall, the smell of Marijuana permeates the air. “The rumours must be true” I think to myself. Not wanting to miss out on uncovering the truth, I take a short walk from the base, following my nose until I can see the fields. They’re small plots, maybe a ¼ acre in size dotted around the valley floor. It was something to behold and gave a strange sense of being inside some kind of hollywood movie. I decided to not stick around too long for fear of drawing any unwanted attention and returned to the base to begin the climb. I uncoiled the rope on the floor and double checked my gear one last time. From this point onwards, our only way out was 3000ft above. We had just 5 days to get there or risk missing our flight, or worse, running out of water. Tieing into the rope, we exchange our customary fist bump and I begin to climb the wall.

The features of the rock are fragile and the protection spaced. I try my best to maneuver purposefully and efficiently up the rock, not wanting to waste energy or take a giant fall. Reaching the first anchor, I fix the belay and Tiny climbs up to join me. “The bolts are really spaced dude!” he tells me. “That was fucking scary” I reply. Though the climbing wasn’t technically difficult in the scale of things, the potential for a big fall was very real should you have any troubles. With the tone of the route firmly scarred into our minds, Tiny sets off on the next pitch. We continue upward and onward, alternating who leads until we arrive back at the portaledge some hours later to find Will preparing dinner.

“How was it?” Will asks. “It’s runout and spicy” I reply with a giant grin. He laughed, he knew I got a kick out of it. Removing our climbing shoes which by this point felt like foot bindings, we spend the remainder of the evening discussing what was ahead. Dinner that night was a little more appealing than breakfast. Whole wheat tortillas with frijoles, chilorio de soya and salsa. Not bad for a kitchen 1000ft in the air. We ate like kings with our burrito feast and sang Bob Marley into the night, finally turning in around 8pm. Earlier in the evening, Tiny confessed to me that he might not be able to free climb the pitches above. Due to having a full time job prior to the expedition, he hadn’t had much time to train adequately and found some of the lower pitches difficult. I appreciated his honesty and reassured him it didn’t matter. We were a team and I didn’t care who did what, just that we did it together. That night, I meditated on how the next few days would unfold before finally drifting off to sleep.

The alarm sounds at 5.30am. Scrambling to find my phone which somehow made its way to the bottom of my sleeping bag in the night, I hit the dismiss button and sit up. The air is cold and although it is still night, a faint glow emanates from over the canyon walls. I begin our morning coffee ritual and try to decode the movement of the rock above us. Today we must climb and haul all our equipment over 1000ft up the wall to our next camp at the “Critter Bivy”. There are 10 pitches of climbing to get there, 7 of which are 5.12b (F7b+) or harder and one which is 5.13a (F7c+). A difficult task for any climber when not on the side of a big wall. I feel tense with doubt but choose not to share my apprehensions with the others. I know that I am the strongest climber in our group, and as I look to them for help with hauling, they look to me to get us through the harder sections. It would serve no good to share and would more likely diminish morale. The nerves accompanied by the coffee fire up my bowels, it’s time for my first poo on the wall. This delicate act involves holding a double lined paper bag as close to your bum hole as possible whilst hanging in your harness and avoiding making a mess on your hands. I call this endearing adventure, “a poo with a view”. First time air squatters often struggle with bag alignment and it is well worth practicing at home with the luxury of hand sanitizer than on the side of a mountain where if you’re lucky, you’ll have wet wipes to clean up any unfortunate mishaps. 

Completing the process, we pack up the portaledge and ready our equipment for the day ahead. The plan is for me to lead the harder pitches and Tiny will lead the remainder. Tying in to the sharp end, I begin to climb.

The wall above is technical and considered the most difficult part of the route. Grasping to the small edges, I maneuver my feet back and forth around the tiny edges. The day begins well, I manage to climb the first two pitches free and Tiny takes the next 2 pitches to the top of the “Lichen Traverse”. Four down, six to go. Taking the duct tape laden nalgene from the haul bag, I take a sip of water and inspect the next pitch. It’s another hard section and I'm feeling spent. The day is growing hotter and the sun's rays beat down on us. My fingers are sore and my muscles ached. Feeling this drained so early in the day was not a good sign when we were less than half way to our goal. I push the thought to the back of my mind and we execute the next 4 pitches. Arriving at the belay at the top of pitch 15, I clip the chains and slump onto the anchor. Between climbing and hauling, I’m destroyed. It’s getting dark by now and i’ve not eaten much since breakfast. When the boys arrive at the belay shortly after, they can tell I'm not doing so well. “How’d you feel about camping on the portledge tonight?” I asked. “I think it would be better to continue to the next rock ledge so that we can all sleep well” Tiny replied. Will agreed. “I need to rest and eat, who wants to take the next pitch?” I asked. No one seemed keen. It was a desperately hard pitch and we were all tired. Movement had become painfully slow in the darkness with the increased difficulty of route finding. After some deliberation, Tiny decides to take the lead while I rest. Deploying an assortment of climbing tricks, he reaches the next anchor in complete dark and we climb up to him. The temperature has dropped greatly and we’re beginning to shake. I pull out my down jacket and finagle it under my harness. I’m still feeling too out of it to lead, and borderline hallucinating with tiredness and fatigue. “I’m sorry boys, but you might need to lead the pitches to the ledge” I tell them. They know I’ve given everything. “We got you mate” Will replies. I smile. We eat some snacks and take a minute to rest. The moon lights up the canyon around us and everything is silent. Not wanting to sit too long for fear of getting cold, Tiny and Will execute the final pitches to the “Critter bivvy”. Progress is difficult by headlamp and we arrive at 2.30am, some 21 hours after beginning our day. Unfolding the portaledge and readying our sleeping equipment, Tiny and I climb onto the bed and Will takes the rock ledge below. We don’t talk much. The day had been a long one and all of us are completely spent. Tomorrow would be here soon, and we needed all the rest we could get.

I wake reluctantly around 1pm. The sun has crested over the horizon and the rising temperatures are cooking me inside my sleeping bag. Climbing from my bag, I dangle my feet over the side of the portaledge and look to see if Will is awake. Shaded from the sun underneath the portaledge, he’s still enjoying the rest. My movement wakes Tiny up and he sits up alongside me. Preparing coffee, we joke about how fucked up yesterday was. We had both surpassed a state of tiredness and fatigue which few people have the pleasure of enjoying in such remote circumstances. And though neither of us said it openly, I secretly knew yesterday was what we came for. We wanted a challenge, and that was what we found. 

Smelling the aroma of coffee, Will emerges from his sleeping bag. Today we’ve decided to stay at the ledge and rest. Thanks to the haul bag we had stashed here on the way down, we now had an abundance of food and could afford to eat a little better than the days before. This meant we now had the luxury of two moisture sucking pb+j sandwiches instead of just one. On the upside, we now had two bags of sour chilli sweets which I later found quite filling if you ate enough. Climbing down off the hanging bed onto the ledge below, I huddle in the shade with Will. Tiny fires up our Bob Marley playlist and we discuss what the plan of attack will be to reach the summit over breakfast. We figured it would take another two days to reach the top. Not wanting to haul any weight further than needed and to give ourselves more time to rest, we decided that tomorrow we would climb just 4 pitches, fix lines back to our ledge and haul half the gear to the high point. The following day we could then climb to the top of our fixed lines and continue up the final 7 pitches to the summit. In doing it this way, we hoped to grow a little skin back on our fingertips and distribute the efforts evenly. With the plan decided, we went about our rest day as we pleased. Confined to a ledge no wider than 2 people and roughly 15ft long, our activities mostly involved sleeping and eating. I took the time to jot notes in my diary and dream up elaborate expedition ideas, a thought experiment I quite often get lost in. As night arrived, we made burritos and set to bed early. Just two days to go, and we would reach the top.

The next two days went by quickly. Feeling replenished from our day lazing on the ledge, we woke early in the morning and executed our plan to fix lines before returning to the portaledge for a fairly mellow evening. Though the day was largely uneventful with the exception of being regularly terrified by the fall potential, it was another day on the wall and for us, another day in paradise. Tomorrow would be the final push to the summit, and I could finally eat something that wasn’t the texture of turf.

On the morning of our summit attempt, we woke before sunrise and packed away our equipment. This would be our final day on the wall if everything went to plan. During packdown we realized we had a surplus of food remaining. Rather than hauling the extra weight out or chucking it down the wall, we decided to pound as much as we could and save a marginal amount should shit hit the fan. Now buzzing from the ¼ pound of strawberry jam and a powdered double latte, I shoot up the fixed lines and haul the equipment up to me. By the time the haul bag arrives, Tiny and Will have reached the belay. Tying in, I execute the pitch above and Tiny and I begin exchanging leads to the summit. Things go smoothly and we’re moving fast. Arriving at the belay for pitch 24, we assemble our gear and take a moment to snack. This is the final hard pitch before the summit. If we can climb this, we will sleep on solid ground tonight. Chalking up using the crumbs left in my chalk bag, I climb what might be one of the best 5.12b (F7b+) pitches anywhere in the world. A hanging arete more than 2000ft off the ground, devoid of texture and with just a handful of pockets that tie it all together. It was perfectly my style and the exposure below made the experience all the more exhilarating. It was as though climbing through a wall of braille. Clipping the chains, I give out a “HEEWWWWDEY HEEEEEEEW!” to the boys so they know we’re out of the thick of it. They cheer!  I fix lines and they join me at the anchor with giant smiles. We all know that from here, we can make it to the top. With our biggest fear now firmly overcome, morale is at an all time high. We climb the final pitches to the summit with ease, arriving at the top as the sun begins to set. 

We scream, we hug, and we scream some more. I want to puke with relief. We had overcome something which we all secretly doubted possible at one point or another. The experience had tested us mentally and physically. It had forced us to expand our limits, problem solve and push through our fears.

As the last rays of light disappear over the horizon, we watch in awe as the sky illuminates with hues of purple, red, and blue. The view was a fitting prize for our struggle, especially from where we were.


Standing on the shoulder of a giant.

Fortitudine Vincimus - Through endurance, we conquer

El Gigante survival kit:

25 quickdraws

2 x Jumars

1 x Lightweight ladder

1 x Petzl Connect Adjust lanyards

1 x Petzl Grigri

80m dynamic rope

200m fixed ropes

3 liters of water a day

Wet wipes

Toilet paper

Toilet bags



Food + Snacks


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