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PAN AM Route El Trono Blanco in Mexico

Submitted by rob_hynes on 2006-10-28 | Last Modified on 2010-03-26

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by Rob Hynes

It all started a few months before the actual ascent of the Pan Am route on El Trono Blanco in Mexico. I had tons of climbing experience at 24 climbing in J-Tree and Taquitzs/Suicide but had never done a lick of aid climbing. My climbing partner Bart Berry said lets do a wall this summer. I said sure, but you will have to teach me some aid climbing. As he was an old experienced guy, almost 30, with several big walls under his belt and a real job, I was counting on him to school me. At the time I was just some punk kid in college climbing every weekend and living on the cheap in San Diego. No problemo said Bart, get some aiders, haul bag, daisy chain, ascenders and a portaledge and you will be fine. He walked me through techniques for hauling and jumaring and turned me loose to get some experience on my own. Oh yea he said, aid climbing is easy, its just like lead climbing except you get to weight the gear. I spent the next few months collecting cool aid gear, bashees, copperheads, birdbeaks, hooks and some of the infamous RURPs (realized ultimate reality pitons). I read everything I could get my hands on and grabbed a couple of my regular, young punk climbing partners, in their early 20s, and started climbing short aid cracks at bouldering areas in San Diego. We climbed clean aid slotting nuts and friends at first then used a few rurps and even a few bashees, xx them then sniff them that’s what the books said about bashees. It seemed to work as they held body weight.

As time drew near, my climbing partner spent a long weekend climbing in Joshua Tree. Sitting around the campfire with some of the local hardmen he said that we were heading down to do Pan Am in Mexico. Let me stop here and say be wary of taking advice from people who are stoned, not always a good idea. This fellow said, no names to protect the guilty, that’s a great route, do you know the shortcut to get to the main face. Bart explained that he had been there before but it was a good 5 hours of boulder hopping and hard work when toting haulbags around the right side of the rock to reach the main face. No no, said stoner says, go around the left side from the camping area and take the long gully. You will be there in under two hours. When things sound to good to be true they usually are.

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The Rack
Bart Berry
Cleaning the Pitch. Photo: Bart Berry.

Next weekend we loaded up the Mystery Machine, that’s what I had dubbed the old Chevy van we were driving south from San Diego. The van was about six feet longer than a regular van and had four wheel drive and was lifted for added clearance. This baby could go any where. Oh yeah you wanted to keep the windows down on account of the exhaust leak. We crossed the border at TJ and headed east along a two lane paved road headed for La Rumarosa. We started seeing a lot of crosses on the side of the road and wondered how people died while driving on a straight road. We soon found out, as the locals love to pass whole lines of cars in a shot and they do it while driving straight at you in your lane. Holy Sh$#& these guys are crazy, it must be some machismo thing to see how long you can drive straight into oncoming traffic before someone pulls out of the way. Anyway, that is why the crosses grow like agave bushes along the highway. We finally make our turn down the dirt road that leads to the camping area and it must have been at least another hour of the craziest dirt road I have ever seen and I grew up on dirt roads in Georgia. The road just meandered around and trees ands splits a hundred times. Luckily, Bart was savy with the road and we made it without to much trouble although I could never repeat the drive by myself.

We arrived at the campsite around 11am and spent an hour prepping our gear. I had my brand new A5 haul bag with 80 pounds of gear and Bart had a big pack with what I am sure weighed less but I was just the apprentice and he was the Jedi master. We decide to take the short cut that he got the beta on vice the normal way to shave off several hours of approach. I won’t start cussing here as this is a family friendly web site but lets just say that we scrambled, dragged, threw, and crawled over and down boulders the size of a small houses until dark. We set up camp on a huge boulder and passed out. The next day we started at daybreak and tried to conserve water and food as we only brought enough to last for a five hour approach and three days on the wall. As the day wore on the temp reached over 90 degrees and we were feeling it.

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Bart Leading the Crux Pitch
Rob Hynes
Bart Leading the Crux Pitch. Photo: Rob Hynes.

We finally arrived severely dehydrated at the base of the climb around mid-day with my new haul bag looking like it had seen 20 walls. It had worn spots and small holes but nothing big enough to leak our rock climbing gear. We had stopped sweating about 10am that day and were looking at heat exhaustion if we didn’t tap into our wall water. We then debated about stashing the gear and heading home for a try at the Pan Am the following week. I am starting to wimp out as the wall look really, I mean really big and maybe I bit off more than I can chew but Bart says no way dude we are going for it. He then points down the valley and says, see that stream down there and I look down into the desert valley about, oh I don’t know, several miles at what appears to be a small stream but I can't tell if it is dry or wet. Bart says, lets drink all we can and you go down and fetch some water and I will start soloing the first pitch. By the time you get back I will have the first pitch fixed and we can start. OK, I say not looking forward to the trip but what about food I ask. We are going to run out. No problemo, says Bart, I found a can of spam here at the base. We can eat that to get us through. I look at the can and one side is completely white from the sun but the other side says in bold letters “SPAM”. Lets eat I say, as a Georgia native your just said I found a rib-eye steak. We both proceed to drink a gallon or so each and wolf down this can of spam. For the record Bart hurls his spam about five minutes later but I keep mine down. I load up with all the empty bottles we have and a few we find at the bottom of the climb and take off.

About an hour into my descent I am feeling light headed and a little giddy, then I realize I am probably in prime mountain lion country with all these caves and boulders around. My neck is on a swivel and I am starting to worry. I suddenly hear this thump thump sound and freeze in my tracks thinking I am going to die and no one will find my body. I look to my left and a magnificent ram with a full curl to his horns dashes up a ravine and turns to give me the eye. I just stand there like, yea, I am impressed and he walk over the ridge. I decided that the ram would be my totem for the journey and that I had been blessed by some mountain spirit. Like I said I was dehydrated and feeling light headed. I finally reached the water and it was about 2 to 10 inches deep with lots of moss and things growing in it. I immediately stripped down naked and lay in the water for about 20 minutes cooling down my core temperature in the 95 degree heat. After walking upstream I filled all the bottles and made my way back to the base of the climb without incident.

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Cleaning the Pitch
Bart Berry
The Rack. Photo: Bart Berry.

I see Bart about 60 feet up standing on top of this dihedral. He says, this looks wrong I don’t see the route. I look to my left about 150 feet and see several bolts leading up the wall. Bart, I say sheepishly, I think the route starts over here. I pull out the topo and confirm it and he curses like a sailor on leave. After rapping back down he says he is to tired to lead anything and I say I will give it a go.

We set up at the proper start and I start free climbing the first pitch as the sun is setting. Things are going pretty well until the hooking bit and I have to tuck my tail between my legs and rap off in the dark. Bart says not to worry we will get a fresh start tomorrow. On day three we are committed and Bart makes short work of the first pitch and we swap leads for a while. My memory is rusty on the sequence of the pitches but my first crisis came at the pitch that required hooking through two shallow hook placements across a blank face. Right off the belay were these tiny hook moves made for someone 6ft or better and I am 5’ 8.5 on a good day, not a day after hauling an 80 lb pig around. I placed my first hook and started walking up my aiders. I was almost there when I here this ping and find myself hanging upside down. That’s it I said, I can do this. I yard back up to the belay and stick the hook again and with all the finesse of a dancer on one of those new reality shows I step up to the top step of the aiders and place my second hook. With new found confidence I move through and we are on our way.

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Side view of El Trono
Bart Berry
Side view of El Trono. Photo: Bart Berry.

Bart and I work our way up through stellar climbing when we reach the most gorgeous dihedral that I have ever seen. Luckily this is Barts lead since it looked really thin. We both stare up at the corner and say, you know some day this will go free. But how are you going to place the pro. Well a few years later it did go free as you know and it must have been a boot shaker. Bart leads the pitch with small nuts and RP’s and we move on.

After sleeping under the portoledge in the hammock, Bart got the ledge proper as he is the old man, we wake to a glorious morning. The climbing has never been better. Towards evening we reach the Maw pitch which is mine. I start out and enter the Maw which looks like a dragons mouth made of granite. It must have been a huge inclusion of softer rock that eroded away over time and left this cave like opening with jagged teeth on the lip. I exited the maw and traversed across the face on horizontal holds to the next belay. I have to say that I have not led many long traverse pitches and since I was a little gripped I ran it out. As Bart followed the Pitch and looks out of the Maw at me, he shouts “hey how about a little gear for you second next time. I can see he is mad but its to late now and he has to free it over to the belay. Lesson learned.

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Heinous Approach
Bart Berry
Heinous approach. Photo: Bart Berry.

We spend the next night on the wall with Bart in the portoledge and me in a crevice. Again I slept like a rock. For the final push we thought it is just a few more pitches to the top and at the end of each lead the second would yell, “are you there yet” and the answer would always be no. The last dicey part was on one of the final pitches, I must have been off route but here I was climbing this water run off crack with a full rack on my hips and double A5 bandoleer loaded for bear. The top pitches are not so steep so I was going full bore free climbing the water chute when I realize that I have not placed any gear for about 40 feet since it was pretty easy and the crack was almost non-existent. It was all fiction and stemming. I reach a steep section with no positive holds and no gear for ages and no place to set a belay. I ask Bart how much rope I have left and he says 30 feet. I can see a tree up ahead but I am looking at a desperate move way run out. If it were 10 feet off the ground it wouldn’t be so bad but we had some altitude and my rack weighed a ton. Its time to pull out the bashee, I thought. The crack was so flared that it wouldn’t hold an RP so that was all I had. I pulled out the biggest bashee that I had, my chisel and A5 rock hammer and plastered that baby in, xxed it and sniffed, just like the books said. Well I really did not smell anything different but it appeared to hold. I gave it a few gentle tugs to see if it was in there and it held so I pulled the move and went for the tree.

After reaching the belay I took a few minuets to gather myself and look around. This is it I think, climbing just doesn’t get any better than this. Bart followed the pitch and after a few more pitches we were on the top. Success has never been so sweet. After an arduous hike over the top to the van we made our way back to the border. I realized as we were in line at the boarder crossing we were about to get the Midnight Run treatment by the border guards. Here we were, unshaven, dirty, smelly and driving this old Scoobie Doo van. The guard just asked “did you have a nice stay” we said yes and he waved us through.

If you ever get a chace for adventure, don’t turn it down. Now its 15 plus years later and Bart and I are going to start bagging as many of the 50 classic climbs of North America as we can. We already have the Salathe wall and Lotus Flower Tower and several other Yosemite classics under our belt. We are going to Pingora and Wolf Head aręte in the Winds of Wyoming and perhaps one of the Tetons routes next July. I am only 40 and it only gets better.

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Bivy with Hammock underneath
Bart Berry
Bivy with hammock underneath. Photo: Bart Berry.

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2 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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Cool report, and nice job on the climb.

Maybe you know by now that the "sniff 'em" part of the famous heading instruction is merely the first half of a joke. The punch line is "If it stinks, get off it."

Cheers and thanks for the good tell.
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Can't really comment on the conditions of the N trail to the Pan Am wall but I was shown the trail and in turn did a good day's trail clearing and maintenance on it a couple of years back... with bags it is about 2 hrs if you can find it... but c'est la vie, where's the adventure in a trail?

The route is indeed beautiful :)

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