The Road to Penoles


As the sun’s rays peek over the mountains, almost all of Penoles, Mexico is illuminated in a blanket of warmth. The pigeons begin their morning coos, the climbers rustle in their sleeping bags. The large granite mountains dominate my view, but once removed from the rocky masses, I see that Penoles is an anomaly. Small, rock-free hills, cat’s-claw bushes, and cacti spread out in all directions of this Mexican ranch land. The roads are made of dirt; a car is rarely seen.

In every direction from my campsite, massive granite rocks in shapes of eggs, blocks and cylinders surround me. Some can be easily hiked up, while others are larger than office buildings and require a rope to be safely ascended. Beautiful turquoise rocks are littered throughout the area, and distinct rock art is found painted on various boulder faces. The only people you see are climbers, and the only animals you encounter are cows. As though a different planet, Penoles provides a beautiful oasis with a peaceful, quiet seclusion that is difficult to come by these days.

The rock climbing area of Penoles, Mexico

Penoles Boulders. Photo by Alex Kahn

I traveled to this remote area in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico for a three-week climbing trip, where I am filming a six-episode series for epictv.com. Unlike my usual climbing trips, which are equally divided into climbing and filming my fiancé for his climbing sponsors, this trip was a work assignment: to film five climbers every day, throughout the day, for three weeks.

Dave Graham, Paul Robinson, Diego Montull, Daniel Woods and Jimmy Webb are about to try this never-before-climbed boulder

Dave Graham cleans a new boulder as the other professional climbers look on. Photo by Alex Kahn

This new climb was found and cleaned by Jimmy and Paul Robinson was the first to climb it, naming it "The Prince"

Jimmy Webb on a new climb that was established during the trip. Photo by Alex Kahn

I am used to carrying film equipment through the talus fields of Colorado and the sandy paths of the southwestern desert states, but Penoles is new territory: mostly unexplored, and rarely seen by human eyes. Trails are scarce; cow patties, sticker bushes and breaking rock is plentiful.

There are two ways to maneuver through the area: up and over the rocks, or through the desert. Traveling over the rocks is difficult, with crumbling pieces and intimidating scrambling, while traveling by ground is just as hard, with dangers like cactus, cat’s-claw, rattle snakes and scorpions. Shade is rare and the direct sun brings swarms of bees, flies and wasps.

This is the closest town Iturralde where we went for water, showers and food.

Chihuahua in Chihuahua, MX. Photo by Alex Kahn

There is no water source except for a nice local woman’s hose in the small village, four miles away by dirt road. The only shower is also at this woman’s house, where she charges $1.50 for a warm shower in a dark shed, which has been slow-heated through a wood burning stove connected to water pipes. The showering process is tedious, so the average climber goes without bathing for the trip’s entirety, or uses wet wipes on their body. There is no way to refrigerate food, meaning that most food must come from a can or box. There is legitimate fear of the local Mexican fresh food, which promises outcomes like gas and dysentery. As there are no toilets, avoiding the excessive need for one is preferred.

This is one of the larger boulders found but it was never climbed during the trip.

Dave Graham cleaning a new boulder. Photo by Alex Kahn

While the average temperature is around 75F, seemingly enjoyable to most humans in January, professional rock climbers hate the heat. Heat causes excessive sweating, particularly in the hands, which then causes the skin to soften and makes it more susceptible to rips, peeling, pain and failure. The complaints are frequent, and the duration of climbing sessions is short. We are tired, hot and constantly thirsty, making the whole process difficult for the filming crew and nearly impossible for the climbers.

Days are spent exploring or resting. We occasionally venture to the closest cities in search of supplies and snacks, while avoiding the narcos who run the towns and military officials who patrol with multiple guns visible. The evenings are reserved for climbing because darkness brings promises of cooler temperatures and breeze. An array of headlamps replace the sun, crash pads are set up, and “now or never” bouldering sessions begin.

Hot daytime temperatures provided for climbing at night by headlamp

Paul Robinson making a nighttime ascent. Photo by Alex Kahn

Each day concludes with a large circle formed around the crackling fire. The entire group participates in wood collection, as the fire is the only source of heat and the primary way to cook. Some people eat pre-packaged meals brought safely from America, while others gamble with Mexican items and make quesadillas, burritos, or vegetable pasta dishes. Cooking is a lengthy waiting game; patience is constantly put to the test during this trip in a variety of ways. In a mesmerizing daze brought on by the bright, crackling fire, stories from the day are shared and plans for the next day are made.

Desert life is simplistic, allowing one to find enjoyment from elementary activities, such as rock collecting, journal writing, and reading. Time is spent in reflection and relaxation, and nothing is hurried.

The roads in the distance were our only way around the vast Mexican ranch land

Penoles surrounded by Ranch Land. Photo by Alex Kahn

A variety of elements constantly test our patience, dedication, and wellbeing. Life in the desert is difficult and exhausting: days are long, and the cold, windy evenings lead to huddling in sleeping bag cocoons in isolation.

As the trip comes to an end, the group eagerly anticipates their escape from the everyday hardships of the Mexican desert. Regardless of the obstacles, difficult climbs are repeated, new boulders are discovered and climbed, and new lines are found and committed to memory for future trips.

As the cars are packed and campsites cleared, we drive away in search of the next adventure.

On the last night of the trip we were rewarded with the best sunset

Last Sunset. Photo by Alex Kahn

Author: Alexandra Kahn

Growing up as an only child in the suburbs of Baltimore, MD, I was fortunate enough to be born into a family who had a passion for travel and adventure. Both of my parents have always shared a love of reading, writing and photography and throughout my life, I have be taught that with every trip and adventure, one must write about it and document it through photos. I moved to Boulder, Colorado for college to study Marketing and Digital Media but continued to pursue my love of writing and photography when I would travel on school vacations and during my different studies abroad. Upon graduating, I moved abroad with my boyfriend to pursue another passion: rock climbing. I found that I could make a career around filming and photographing rock climbing, so I continued to hone in on my skills, while writing about my travels in my spare time. I continued to travel between America, Europe, Africa and Central America for the next few years and my love of travel writing and photography only grew stronger. Now I am back living in Boulder and work a few freelance marketing and media jobs, always trying to plan my next adventure. You can view my media and links to my writing on my website, alexandrakahnmedia.com

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3 Comments

  1. What a great introduction to the bouldering life, and so thoughtfully depicted. The views are breathtaking, and the description appealing. Kudos, and I look forward to more!

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    • I really enjoyed reading your piece and seeing the spectacular photos. I felt transported away from my desk and all of this snow and ice.

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  2. Oh, thank you very much for posting this! It is gonna help me when I am thinking about going to Sun Ray Cinema in Jacksonville! Magnificent!

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The Road to Penoles