Climb-it Change Down South: Fire Ecology and Climbing Beyond Borders

Despite the end of the field season, the adventure of the Spotted Saxifrage continues. On November 15th, I departed Bellingham with a group of 3 other students bound for San Antonio, and ultimately ended up summiting limestone spires south of the border. Together we make up the Western Washington Students Association for Fire Ecology (SAFE) chapter, and all share a mutual respect for the nature of fire. Donal O’leary is a fellow graduate student at WWU and specializes in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) remote sensing to better understand the relationship between snowmelt timing and wildfire. Essentially, he is interested in the question: do bad ski seasons correlate with subsequent large fire years? Kate Harrison and Bennet Murch V are undergraduate students who work nobly as wildland fire fighters for the US Forest Service each summer.


The WWU Fire Ecology Club in their element!

On Sunday we arrived at the 6th International Fire Ecology and Management Congress, a conference attended by over 600 students and professionals. This was an amazing opportunity to sit in on dozens of presentations and learn the current state of research revolving around wildfire. It was also an invaluable opportunity to network with other students and scientists from across the globe. On Wednesday I gave a 20-minute oral presentation outlining my project and results to a room packed with eager experts. The presentation was well received and I was greeted with many intriguing questions. Although I was nervous at first, I put forth my best effort and delivered a professional explanation of my research, revealing that the Spotted Saxifrage, and likely many other alpine perennial plants, are not well adapted to increasing fire in the alpine. Unfortunately the combined impacts of wildfire and climate change threaten the extinction of many high elevation species. I urged the fire ecologists present to consider the broad biodiverstiy of plants, beyond just tree species, when considering future conservation strategies.


True to the Climb-it Change expedition and so close to the border, we had to indulge in a mini epic adventure to the climbing capital of Central America, El Potrero Chico: “The Little Corral” named for the round shape of the lush valley surrounded by a fence of 2km high cliffs. And what an adventure ensued. The border crossing was smooth, or at least by Mexico standards. Only 1 of 4 in our crew had to bribe the officials, Navidad (Christmas) is coming up, and such a situation is only to be expected by our neighbors to the South. Beyond the $40 incentive, everything else was a breeze. The Greyhound Bus from San Antonio to Monterrey was brand new, laced with leather seats, wifi and plugins. In no time at all, we arrived at the station in Mexico’s 3rd largest city. Outside, Donal our trusty guide who had previously lived in El Potrero Chico, found us a kind taxi driver eager to take us all the way to our final destination. Pancho was a fine man, a good driver, and talked our ears off about his recent experience with guardian angels.


El Potrero offers limitless views!


Just 20 miles outside of Monterrey, the splendid spires of El Portero Chico stab upwards through thin desert clouds. Perfect remnants of an ancient calcium carbonate biome, carved by water and the immense power of time. Upon these cliff faces, thousands of bolts carefully placed several meters apart lead adventurous spirits towards knife-edge summits. Pioneered most notably by a man simply referred to as “Magic Ed,” a native of Mexico City who established myriad 4-star routes hanging precariously from “sky hooks.”  El Potrero Chico, may very well be the world’s best multi-pitch sport climbing destination.


Leading the 5th Pitch of Super Nova (Crux 5.11a)

Climbers from all over the world travel far and wide to tackle up to 25 consecutive pitches of pristine face climbing. In 2014, Alex Honnold stunned the world when he free-soloed El Sendero Luminoso, 15 pitches of sustained 5.12 climbing. Leading upwards alone and without a rope. We took a much tamer approach, and climbed to our hearts content for 4 consecutive days. We ended each climbing day with a fresh squeezed margarita by Edgardo’s food truck at the foot of the virgin canyon. His set up was fantastic, a tiny colorful trailer full of good drinks and pizza, and a sound system that echoed classic tunes through every valley in Portero. As the sun sets, climbers rappel down from each direction and meet at Edgardo’s fire to share stories from their day pinching perfect limestone crimps and jamming vertical crack systems, riddled with palm trees, blossoming yucca, and the occasional rattle snake.


Our Costa Rican amigos!

A true paradise of climbing, Potrero is a mecca. Four days was hardly enough time, and I aim to return. Further, This trip to Mexico reminded me of the critical need of conservation beyond borders. Many developing countries have little to no systems in place to preserve their precious natural resources. Perhaps one day I can give back. Alas, our crew departed Ariel’s Chalet, our quant hostel nestled at the base of the cliffs, at 2am and began a long journey back towards Bellingham. Everything has gone smoothly in reverse, and our plane will land any minute now. The realities of a week’s worth of missed work are beginning to weigh on me, yet my head is still in the mystical clouds on the spires of Potrero. Work hard, play hard. Life is too short to forgo adventure.


Bennet is stoked!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s