Gondwana, Papi! Climbing Mexico's La Peña de Bernal
At the centre of the Mexican republic sits a town called Bernal. Casting it's shadow is “La Peña de Bernal”, standing tall as the world’s third highest monolith. What brings people to this area is the mountain of rock that has been developed for camping, eating and particularly, climbing. With a height of almost 300 meters, its amazing walls have not yet been exploited, and only a handful of easy multi-pitch routes climb its southern face.
Camping between boulders in this deserted area has a mystical feel. Over the centuries, the rocks have fallen from the west side of La Peña, making the climb over the huge rocks a challenge. La Peña's eastern face has an overhanging top wall that presents a classy challenge for any climber. The size of La Peña always captivates my attention. This climb sat high at the top of my bucket list.
While I continued on with everyday life and training for athletic high altitude climbing, I dreamt about climbing La Peña. I spent my time climbing high above sea level on icy walls and loose rocks. It wasn’t until I was able to open a climbing gym at Mexico city that I started to consider bouldering La Peña. Now, I know that the stronger I can boulder, the safer I am climbing high above the clouds.
And so it happened, we heard news of hard-core climbers doing their first climbs of a route on La Peña. Being named “Gondwana", rumor says that it had not been free climbed before. When my best friend and climbing partner suggested we should make an attempt, I thought it was time for an adventure, to make that nearby familiar piece of rock an unknown challenge, giving me the feel for travel and discovery.
My friend Rene and I started training every day for a couple of months until my birthday. I'd scheduled a big party at the boulders of Bernal with all of my friends, regardless of whether or not they climbed. The idea was to get them out of their comfort zone and introduce them to the world I love, and at the least, share in some party fun by the rocks. The idea of climbing Gondwana came at the perfect time to celebrate life and to share my interest in adventure with my friends.
Psyched about climbing high overhanging rock, we trained like crazy at the campus boards and when one needed motivation we yelled “Gondwana, Papi!” (Gondwana little father), reminding each other of the challenge ahead of us in a friendly, respectful manner.
Bernal is usually a warm desert place. We decided to walk slowly to the base, avoiding the burning sun as much as we could. We planned to be summiting by sunset and descending via the normal routes at nightfall. Saying goodbye to the ground isn't east but we never doubted ourselves. We made sure we had the tenacity to get through.
After encountering some tedious sections, we had spent five hours on the wall. By this time, the weather threw a curve ball. It was cold, and we were only wearing shorts and lots of sunscreen. The wind chill felt so cold as it swirled beneath the overhang. We reached the cool part, a long 40-meter pitch overhanging at over two hundred meters from the ground. I started leading but the climbing was especially difficult. Having my feet flying above the desert ground made me feel some of the most beautiful yet scary emotions.
With the tiny amount of grip I had on the rock, I had never felt so vulnerable. Loose rock destabilized our climb, we slipped and fell several times. The crumbling rocks would take between 6-8 seconds to hit the ground floor. Lucky we were tightly secured! Rene was coming second. The free climb and falling took a big toll on his energy. The sun began to set and the cold became worse. With my now numb fingers and toes, I tried to encourage Rene, yelling “Vamos papi!" (come on, little father!). I was crying my pain away, but I knew Rene was also struggling by himself down there.
When Rene reached the belay it was dark and we couldn’t see the bolts that followed. Rene is one tough dude, but he was the most tired I've ever seen him. He didn’t want to lead the next pitch, so, without hesitation, I went first even with no sensation in my fingertips. We continued - my legs did a huge pendulum into to the darkness and I screamed, pumped with adrenaline. In the darkness I climbed on a giant slab. If I slipped I would be hitting the rock continuously until the rope stopped me.
We got to another anchor, but the summit was one pitch away. With the temperature almost down to freezing point, I entered the alpine mode of suffering and kept belaying. The wind was so strong and the night so dark I couldn’t see or listen to Rene, and his rope only moving 1cm a minute! I shouted to Rene "keep climbing or we'll freeze!". Suddenly both of us stopped. After a few minutes of silence, Rene asked me: "Diego, sing to me bro", so I did. I'm not a great singer, but it kept me warm and seemed to encourage Rene to go further.
The terrain started to ease off. I began to recognize the Peña summit. I got to the anchor and pulled Rene on to me. We made it! We shared a big hug, some meaningful words of friendship, a quick picture and then continued towards the normal route rappels.
After a quick and smooth descent, we walked back to the camp. My best friends awaited us with beers and a blanket beneath the stars and La Peña glowing in the dark night sky. I continued to party all weekend with my closest friends, enjoying a huge fire with beers and guitars.
The climb and the party allowed me to consolidate my friendship with a dude that is unbreakable. Rene gives me energy to climb and motivates my training, a true friend I can go into the unknown with. I also spent quality time with friends and my girlfriend, who all share the same passion towards life as I do.
Even though La Peña isn't the hardest multi-pitch climb, it still makes for an incredible adventure. Climbing in crazy weather, on a special day with special friends makes it one of my most memorable adventure experiences.
Written by Diego Montaño
Diego is a thisworldexists Adventure Ambassador. See more of his adventures on Instagram: @diegomountain