El Potrero Chico: The Giant That Gives Gifts

Healing from an injury is daunting, physically and emotionally draining, and possible.

By Crystal Maison


“Twelve pitches?” I echoed to myself as I rubbed my hip, as if asking it, “Will you let me do this? Can we do this?”

See, I obtained some injuries in 2017 that I am still dealing with today. While endurance used to be my strength, now it, along with certain movements, even weighting my harness or right leg for too long are now obstacles. So, the idea of doing a 12-pitch climb–twelve pitches of hang belay, and then rapping–well, the climber in me deeply wanted to, but I truly didn’t know if my body would let me do it.

If you have ever had a serious injury before, one that impacts your ability to do things the way you used to, well, it almost feels like you’re in someone else’s body. You have to learn how to do things all over again or in a completely different way than you did before. You have to rebuild your strength or strengthen completely new areas to accommodate for the injured areas. You have to fight your head both due to having been out of the game for awhile, but also just fighting your emotions and the memory of what you used to be able to do–comparison, whether to others or to yourself can sometimes be the hardest opponent to beat. It’s quite character building, but to be frank it’s difficult as well.

I have been blessed with a fairly optimistic personality and many incredible, uplifting friends, but I would be lying if I said it has been sunshine and rainbows the whole way. I still struggle sometimes with being patient with myself, but I am finally at the point where, though I am nowhere near able to do what I want to do (yet), I am on the journey toward a different type of strong me and I am so grateful to be back on the wall. And my time in El Potrero Chico this past February taught me something I had lost in 2017: appreciation of my body and mind in its current state.

When my friends invited me to Mexico for a climbing trip, I didn’t really expect much of myself to be totally transparent. Not in a negative way, just a realistic one. Between my injuries, school and work, and just learning how to balance it all, climbing has kinda been on the back burner for me. I knew my lead head and strength wouldn’t be too bomber, but I was stoked to just get outside and give it a go anyway. Being on rock with good friends was going to be amazing no matter what. Plus, pictures of El Potrero Chico just makes a climber salivate, so who in their right mind could pass that up? Not me.  

We spent four days at the gorgeous giant that is El Potrero Chico, and oh my gosh, I don’t even know how to describe how darn beautiful it is. The rock practically cradles your fingers and toes, and its humongous peaks cut through the sky like daggers. Nah, even that doesn’t describe it well. Just know it is majestic, breathtaking, and if you get a chance to climb there, don’t hesitate to do so.

On day three, one of the crushers in my group, Gabe, suggested we attempt Estrellita, a 12-pitch multi. Even at my peak years ago, my max multi was five to seven. I had no idea if I could do it, but their stoke inspired me, my roper’s heart was willing and my stubbornness was stronger than my worry. We started out at 8-isham, and didn’t hit the ground again until 8:45pm. Estrellita is made up of 12 glorious pitches; some had gnarly run-outs and others that had committing moves careening so high up that the people below looked like specks. This wonderful line had a mix of everything! There was some technical face climbing where you weave back and forth across the wall, hand jam and off-width cracks, arêtes, compression blocks, slab . . . it had it all! It was delicious.

When we finally hit the ground, it was already dark and the scent of tacos from the nearby shop was in the air. My partner Dehnis and I were dehydrated, hungry, and crazy happy. Gabe and Will, the other team in our spunky crew, felt the same (except they were hydrated; they brought enough water. Smart fellas).

Back at the hostel, we shared a feast of tacos, burritos, and burgers, and couldn’t stop grinning as we talked about how we all conquered more than any of us had ever done in a day! We discussed our opinions on the routes, our favorite sections, and basked in the sheer psych of our accomplishment. It was glorious. It was perfect.

My ankles were so swollen you couldn’t see my ankle bones for about a week after; my anasazis blown out so gnar they look like hand puppets. And someone snatched my rope bag, Will’s shoes and Dehnis’ socks (they had dragons on them) from the base of the climb, but we were all so stoked on our victory that we didn’t care. Nothing could shake our stoke. As a group, we accomplished something magnificent together, but for me, personally, there was added sweetness. All I could think was “I just did 12 pitches. In this body. This injured body did more pitches than I ever did when I was solid, even when the moves scared me. I did it.” And I haven’t been able to shake that feeling of pure gratitude ever since. It was one of the best climbing trips, best routes I have ever been on even with the sketchy, committing, runout sections.

I have the deepest appreciation to my friends for inviting me out, encouraging me, and helping me to gain a new perspective of myself I didn’t realize I needed. As I continue to heal and get stronger, I will accomplish more and more with gratitude in my heart.

The reason I wrote about this trip in particular, besides it being an epic experience, is because I feel it is important to address that often we don’t talk about how deeply we are affected by things like injuries. We (myself included) don’t want to appear weak or of negative mindset to others and I wanted to share what I learned from this experience in hopes it might encourage anyone else dealing with the same issue. The truth is, it is hard and impacts you on a deeper level than just surface frustration–especially if it takes a long time to recover. So, from one healing climber to another: Be patient with yourself. Take it slow, rebuild, appreciate the process if you can, and when you are ready and it is safe for you to do so, take a chance and blow your own mind at what you are capable of achieving by conquering your own Estrellita (or Estrellita itself; highly recommend).

Even in the process of healing, you are still the crusher you have always been, and this process can make you stronger both in ability and psyche if you let it. Keep your chin up, hands chalked, and heart stoked!

See you on the wall!