At 4:00AM on January 2nd just North of the Mexican border, Jordan Cannon and I woke up in the back of my cramped Prius cluttered with enough climbing gear to see us up the biggest wall in North America: El Gigante. Our objective was a route called Logical Progression (5.13 28 pitches 1,000m). This route had been a dream of mine since first hearing about it in 2015, and we were finally about to make it a reality. The moment we opened the door of the car we knew something was wrong. There was six inches of snow on the ground, when on average it snows less than one inch per year. I’m not one for superstition, but that sure felt like a bad omen. Unfortunately, it was very indicative of what was to come.
After a brief mishap at the border crossing where Jordan and I accidently drove the opposite direction on a one-way road across the Mexican Border (we couldn’t tell because of the snowy roads), we finally started making some headway. As we drove through the Mexican countryside that day, we passed hundreds of taco stands and met loads of friendly locals. Although we had been warned that we were travelling through the heart of the Cartel’s territory, we encountered nearly no animosity from people that we interacted with. We were reassured multiple times by locals that the threat of the Cartel is practically null. Nevertheless we kept our guard up and continued our journey through the interior of Mexico for nearly 15 hours until we reached Basaseachi National Park.
The following day we negotiated a ride from a park ranger named Alfredo to drive us to the summit of El Gigante (the easiest way to approach). From there we would begin rappelling the route and climbing our way back to the top. Finally, after years of thinking about this moment, Jordan and I were bouncing around in the backseat of a dilapidated Ford Expedition on the gnarled 4-by-4 road towards our objective.
We spent the first night of our adventure sleeping on the rim of the canyon in which El Gigante sits, waiting for the sun to creep over the horizon so that we could start our long journey to the bottom of the wall. With the first light of the morning, we tossed the ends of our ropes over the edge of the wall and made our way down. The moment I started zipping down our ropes, the weight of the exposure and the grand scale of the canyon spilled over me. Enormous walls up to 1,000 meters towered all around, and little spouts of water poured over the edges of the walls towards the river far, far below.
Most of that day was consumed with pulling ropes, diffusing tangles, and trying avoid sending rockfall down on the each other. Rappelling has always been one of the most stressful parts of climbing for me, so as we pulled our ropes for the final time after 20-something rappels, the sound of them landing on the jungle floor was a huge relief. From here, we only needed to climb 8 pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 to get to our first stash of food, water, and bivy gear. We had been warned that all the pitches on this route were full value; that even the “easy” pitches weren’t a giveaway. This held true as we tiptoed through the slightly runout and delicate lower pitches of the route. Each anchor came as a relief and a reminder that we were slowly chipping away at this huge undertaking. Just as the sun went behind the horizon, we climbed up to our first bivy and settled in to our sleeping bags for a warm meal and a long night of sleep.
Day 2 on the wall was spent lazily recovering from the previous day’s effort, and climbing pitch 9 and 10 which were the first two hard pitches of the route at 5.12c/d and 5.13a/b respectively. I was able to send both pitches on my second effort, and belayed Jordan as he sent pitch 9, and came painstakingly close to sending pitch 10, falling on the last hard move of the pitch. We fixed our ropes, and went back down to our bivy ledge for another night of rest. Day 3 was where things really took a turn for the worse. I was woken at sunrise to the unwelcome sensation of light rain on my face. At this point we had diminished our food and water rations so that we would have just enough to make it to our next stash. We quickly packed up camp, jugged our fixed ropes, and Jordan gave one last effort on pitch 10, falling again on the same move as the previous day. With the rain intensifying ever so slightly as the day wore on, we had no choice but to move to our next stash of food and water at the top of pitch 17. Still, the rain came in harder and harder. As mid day approached, Jordan was doing battle with pitch 14 which is only graded 5.11a on the topo, but in such wet conditions was nearly impossible to climb.
As I joined Jordan at the anchor, both of us realized how serious the situation was. We had nearly no food, very little water, we were still 200-300 feet below our next stash of food, the rain was getting heavier, and our clothes were saturated with water down to our underwear. At this point, I decided to stick clip my way up the next pitch so we could continue upward progress. Still, it rained harder and harder, and after reaching the anchor, several microwave sized blocks were blown off the wall from above and narrowly missed both of us. This close call put the fear of god into us, so to speak, and Jordan frantically started climbing the next pitch, only to be turned around by a long runout over 5.11 terrain that was impossible to climb in this terrible of weather. With the option of going up being out of the question, our only other options were to stay put in the line of fire for rockfall, or go down the wall 1,500 feet and somehow find our way back to the rim of the canyon. Given our options, and the creeping fear of becoming hypothermic, we reluctantly decided to stay put. As we pulled out our portaledge and rain fly, everything became soaked in the now pounding rain. It is challenging to find words to describe how hard it is to assemble a portaledge in this kind of weather, but I’d imagine it’s similar to assembling a piece of Ikea furniture in an ice cold shower all while sitting in a harness. To mitigate the potential for being hit with rockfall, we positioned our haul bag horizontally between two bolts above us, hoping that it would offer a little protection.
Even after we were both inside the portaledge, we didn’t find much relief. The rain fly, like everything else, was saturated with water, so it did very little to protect us from the raging storm outside. We both put on all of our clothes, and shared Jordan’s synthetic sleeping bag as to keep mine dry in case the storm didn’t let up. I kept my sleeping bag in it’s stuff sack up against my body in an effort to keep it dry, and woke in the middle of the night to find it gone. Somehow in my delirious state of consciousness, I had shifted in the portaledge and dropped it to the jungle floor thousands of feet below. Now, with no food, nearly no water, and one sleeping bag between both of us, we absolutely had to reach that stash. It was literally our only option. That night was certainly the longest, coldest and most terrifying night of either of our lives. We shivered uncontrollably and spooned each other for warmth as the storm raged all around us.
Sometime early in the morning of day 4, the clouds cleared, and even though the north facing wall didn’t receive any sun, we were graced with a warm breeze that felt akin to the world’s largest blow dryer. We slowly began our way up the wall with a hunger fueled motivation to make it to our stash that was so tantalizingly close. With waterlogged shoes and no chalk, we climbed the following pitches by any means necessary, pulling on bolts, standing in slings, and stick clipping. In a few short hours we were bathing in the victory of full bellies, and refueled psych.
Because of our state of exhaustion, my lack of a sleeping bag, and the now soaked wall, we started climbing the route by any means necessary trying to reach the top in a single push. After our previous nights experience, we were so drained, that all we wanted was to be off that damn rock. The remaining pitches to the top of the wall went by without too much fuss. We kept the motivation to reach the top alive, and were eventually standing on the summit around 16 hours after we had left our miserable bivy site that morning. I spent that night in all of my layers, wrapped up in our rain fly, and slept better than ever before. There’s no substitute for the peace of mind that you won’t be killed by rockfall in the night.
Even though we had spectacularly failed at our goal of climbing Logical Progression, our walk back to the pick up point was euphoric. Something I’ve taken from all my adventures and misadventures over the years is that coming home safely is the best style in which you can climb a route. The 24 hour drive back to Salt Lake City gave me plenty of time to reflect and reconsider my ambition for these types of adventures. For me, in the end, it really boils down to sharing whatever the experience is, good or bad, with a great friend. By that definition, I really couldn’t have asked for a more successful trip, or a better partner to share it with.