Once there was a sleeping giant in the Mexican desert.
First ascended by barnstorming climbers but long forgotten, it hulked above the cactus-choked chaparral, towering so high that if you stood atop it, you’d often see above the clouds.
Getting to it, legend held, involved undertaking a series of supernatural travails that could be as difficult to prepare for as to complete. Confounding light shows seemed to materialize in the sky from nowhere. On the ground, lantern-carrying shadowy figures with giant heads skulked in the mist.
This was La Popa, home to El Gavilan, one of the hardest multi-pitch routes in Mexico — and one of its most mysterious.
Jeff Jackson, Ben Fink, and Rick Watson first faced off with the route, returning to relative civilization in 1999 with tall tales and survival stories.
For a long time, few dared to challenge the desert that guarded it, with its menacing phantasms.
Then Canadian climber and guide Bronwyn Hodgins caught wind of it. Always up for an adventure, Hodgins immediately singled it out and resolved to visit. But she also spotted a task more straightforward than prior penitents described: rebolt what had become a deplorably janky sport climb.
Thus began Hodgins’ resurrective saga on El Gavilan, which she chronicled on film with help from co-director Sav Cummins. It’s a lively presentation with plenty of historical commentaries, tool usage, rock dust — and peerless technical climbing by Hodgins and her climbing partner Kelsey Watts.
The film goes live on YouTube today at 11 a.m. MT.
The adventure picks up with Cummins prospecting for a partner. She’s casting around campsites in (the far more popular climbing area) El Potrero Chico, trying to drum up psych.
El Gavilan (“The Hawk” in English) will only call to a certain kind. Supernaturally inclined or not, visitors also need strong tolerance for many hours of steep hiking through cacti and tendons of steel: many of the route’s numerous cruxes take place on awkward crimps and ugly pinches. And it stays steep all the way to the top.
There’s also the relative quality of the stone. Anything as big and exposed as La Popa that’s also limestone and relatively cantilevered will hemorrhage rock as a general rule.
Well-traveled climber Boone Speed, who was part of a 2007 repeat attempt along with Andrew Bisharat, makes an appearance in the documentary.
“I’ve never seen so much rock yarded off on lead in my life,” he recalls of the effort.
By all appearances, Hodgins feels right at home in this fast-exfoliating vertical environment, among the rusty fixtures that at first offer the only protection in it.
If there’s a texture to the documentary, it’s the unyielding consistency of Hodgins’ casually positive take on events. She’s nonplussed by the “3 hours of 45-degree cactus-whacking” it takes to walk up to the cliff. She’s comfortable reequipping the route and confident she’ll find the right partner to climb it with.
She is also evidently not flustered by El Gavilan’s demonic reputation. In fact, Hodgins never really alludes to or acknowledges it. Directorial choices leave it to prior ascensionists to describe. Whether that indicates Hodgins wasn’t impressed by it in the first place — or that she elected to evade the topic for some other reason — is beyond the pale.
At the end of the day, Hodgins and Watts stand happily atop La Popa with the first female ascent of El Gavilan under their belt.
Don’t tune out before it’s all said and done, though — after Jackson, Speed, Bisharat, and others all offer their take on the spectral nature of La Popa. Guess who gets the last word?
That would be Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold, who snatched the route’s first repeat in 2013 and, in this appearance, justifies his well-worn moniker.