Written by Bronwyn Hodgins

Photos by Savannah Cummins


In December 2021, Wild Country Athlete Bronwyn Hodgins polished off her three-year project to re-equip El Gavilan, a remote limestone wall in the Mexican desert, and then make the first female ascent. The original line (El Gavilan, 13a, 1000ft) was established ground up by Jeff Jackson and co. in the 1990s and for over a decade it remained unrepeated. World-class climbers including British Leo Houlding and Americans Andrew Bisharat, Boone Speed and Dan Merski tried, but returned wide-eyed and empty handed — could it have been the shapeshifting horse people that thwarted them? — until finally in 2013 Alex Honnold claimed the second free ascent. After that, El Gavilan faded into the mists of legend…

 

We’d been warned not to drive out there after dark. “Bad people from the city hide in the desert there. It isn’t safe.” We should have listened.

 

It was late in the day by the time Savannah Cummins, Kiersa Koepnick, Nolan Smythe and I loaded up the car and set off northbound from Hidalgo on Mexico 53. Nolan and I excitedly discussed our strategy for the climb. El Gavilan, Spanish for The Hawk, is continuously overhanging and sustained with eight pitches of 5.12 and a 5.13a crux. Rising proudly out of the desert like a great ship, the formation is often called La Popa meaning The Ship’s Stern. Using Grade 7 Pods (inflatable porta-ledges), Nolan and I would attempt to both free the route over two days.

 

An hour along the dirt track we got a flat tire. No problem, we had the tools! Or so we thought… The wheel had one lug nut that could only be removed with a specific key. We checked our phones: no service. It was well past dark. I suddenly felt very scared and helpless. What do we do? We tried for another hour to pull the lug nut off with a wrench, but it was no use. Left with little choice, we open bivvied beside the road.

 

 

“CARRRR!” I woke abruptly to Kiersa’s shout. Bright lights were coming down the road toward us — many lights, multiple vehicles. They stopped 100m short and then a dozen men with machine guns slung over their shoulders were moving through the cactus toward us, shouting in Spanish and combing the desert floor with their powerful torches.

 

I froze, staring wide-eyed at the armed men above me. Nolan reached for his glasses, the man above him flinched. Do they think he’s reaching for a gun? Glasses on, Nolan thrust his hands above his head. “Amigo, amigo!” he stammered. I did the same. A man who seemed to be in charge spoke in broken English, “Not safe here.” I felt a small wave of relief, they want to help us. We learn that the officers are on a call for further up the road. “Is it a fight?” We asked. “Bigger,” he struggled to find the words… “bigger and guns.” The officer agreed to drive us to a nearby farmhouse to use the landline. Good news: our friend Chuy, a local in Hidalgo, was coming to help us. The sun would rise soon, and with it the dark terrors of the night would disappear.

 

Sitting in El Potrero Chico the next day I felt distraught. I was scared and ashamed of ending up in what could have become a much worse situation. Why hadn’t we brought the InReach? Why hadn’t we noticed the lug nut key was missing? Why had we driven out there at night? Why am I risking this to climb a cliff!? But it didn’t have to be so dangerous if we made better decisions, right?

 

 

EL GAVILAN
 THE MYSTERIES OF THE MEXICAN DESERT

by Bronwyn Hodgins

8.0 minute read

 

 

I first heard about El Gavilan from the Jeff Jackson episode on the Enormocast climbing podcast. My husband Jacob Cook and I were captivated by Jeff’s stories of the remote desert cliff:

 

“Follow the dirt road north, past the tiny village of Los Remotos, to the end of the road. You’ll find an elderly hermit there by the name of Luciano, living in the wall of the wash. His hands are crusty like a lizard’s skin, weathered from years under the blazing sun. He’s friendly enough. He’ll sort you out with a donkey and show you the way. But be warned, strange things happen out there in the desert. Legend tells of shape shifting horse people — The Nahuales — horses by day, human by night.” Homero points Jeff Jackson to the north and bays him good luck.

 

Jeff finds the hermit, as Homeros had described, and that evening he and his partner Ben Fink set up camp among giant boulders. The 1000ft orange wall looms steeply above them, as they excitedly drift off to sleep. What’s that? They wake in the night to see the hillside speckled in lights. Peering through binoculars, it looks like people carrying lanterns? Spooked, they cower in the boulders all night barely sleeping a wink. In the morning the hillside is filled with grazing horses… (The Enormocast, 2012)

 

After seeing the horses, Jeff Jackson returned to La Popa for two more seasons. With limited equipment, he bought meat hooks from the butcher and welded them into homemade bat-hooks and, with various partners, proceeded to hook and bolt his way to the summit. He then came back and freed the line, a pretty cutting-edge feat of that era.

 

Two decades later, Jacob made the journey out to El Gavilan. In the middle of the night he woke to his partner Tony McLane shaking his tent: “Get out! You have to see this!” A fiery red moon hung low in the night sky, casting an eery glow across the desert. Over the next two days the pair made a (mostly free) ascent of El Gavilan and a few weeks later they established ground-up a new mixed line on the cliff: Super Blood Wolf Moon (5.11+). Upon return, Jacob excitedly told me about their adventures: “El Gavilan is incredible! It’s the steepest multipitch I’ve ever seen, with tufas and kneebars… you’d love it. But the bolts are ancient and I was scared to fall, we ended up aiding through parts of it.”

 

 

The following winter I arrived in Mexico with Savannah Cummins, with a plan to re-bolt El Gavilan and then having a go at the first female ascent. As it seems with every climber’s experience on this elusive desert cliff, things did not go exactly to plan.

 

We teamed up with Josh Janes, who had generously been given bolts by the American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) to re-equip the route, and on our first mission out to the cliff we managed to replace about half of the old bolts. Sav and I returned alone to continue the work, but the temperature dropped to near freezing and a thick fog moved in. Wandering around on the summit trying to find the top-out, we heard the snap of twig. We paused. I looked to Sav, eyebrows raises in curiosity. We could just make out a dark body in the mist. As we followed it, the fog lifted slightly and revealed a herd of about twenty wild horses! We stood mesmerized, watching the elegant beasts graze in the uncanny dim light. After about ten minutes, the fog thickened and shrouded the horses in mystery once more. Thinking about Jeff Jackson’s account of the Nahuales sent a few shivers down my spine.

 

 

I sadly waved goodbye to Sav, Nolan and Kiersa as they hopped into their car bound for Utah. I too had a flight booked home to Canada in four days, but all I could think about was El Gavilan. Was it possible to squeeze in a final attempt? I knew of one person who might be down. I’d met Ben Perdue a few days earlier and he said he’d climbed El Cap in Yosemite. I sent him a text. Am I being crazy?

 

The next day Ben and I set off into the desert. Part of me knew this last-minute mission was reckless. I didn’t know Ben, I was still exhausted from the all-night encounter with the police, and I’d have to lead several of the pitches on the old rusted bolts since we hadn’t yet finished the retro-fit. But my stubborn mind was set. I managed to desperately claw my way up the first three pitches, including the technical crux of the route, in a feat of sheer determination. We left the ropes fixed and rapped back to the base.

 

Drifting off to sleep next to Ben, I noticed faintly flickering green lights dancing on the cliff above us. The show lasted about 20 minutes. Again shivers ran down my spine as I recalled the words of Andrew Bisharat who, in an article following his attempt, wrote of a strange light: “whiteish-blue, bright and hovering. Suddenly, it jumped across the zenith, stayed there for a bit, vibrating dementedly, and zipped back to its original spot.” It came back each night, they called it The Visitor. (Rock and Ice, 2009)

 

In the morning we ascended our free-hanging ropes to my high point, and then I continued up the route with Ben belaying and jugging faithfully behind in support. Thick wet clouds moved in from below and soon we were in a total whiteout. Five steep pitches down and four steeper pitches to go! I looked up at the roof above me. I felt wrecked. I allowed myself to rest at the anchor for 20 minutes, then miraculously managed to knee bar and tufa hug my way to the chains. I can’t believe I’m still sending! I had a glimpse of hope that maybe I just might pull this off.

 

 

 

I grabbed my headlamp and set off up the next pitch, stemming/chimney-ing/squirming up the long corner, trying to use bigger muscles in lieu of my exhausted arms. What felt like an eternity later, I pulled into the second roof — the sting in the tail crux. I started lay backing and soon I was shouting, willing my fingers to hold on, but it was all too much… “Ahhhhhhh,” I came sailing down onto the rope, a totally clean fall into space. No! I hung alone in my little bubble of light, breathing heavily, utterly defeated.

 

It’s over. I can’t do it, not this time. Ben eagerly yelled up some encouragement, but I shook my head.“No, I really can’t.” My fiery goal-driven ego shrieked silently as I spoke the words. “I’ll aid through and get us to the summit.” On top it was cold and had started to rain. My watch read 1am. I looked over at Ben and started to laugh, then I gave him a big bear hug. “Thanks for joining me on this ridiculous desert adventure. Now let’s get the hell outta here!”

 

 

I grabbed my headlamp and set off up the next pitch, stemming/chimney-ing/squirming up the long corner, trying to use bigger muscles in lieu of my exhausted arms. What felt like an eternity later, I pulled into the second roof — the sting in the tail crux. I started lay backing and soon I was shouting, willing my fingers to hold on, but it was all too much… “Ahhhhhhh,” I came sailing down onto the rope, a totally clean fall into space. No! I hung alone in my little bubble of light, breathing heavily, utterly defeated.

 

It’s over. I can’t do it, not this time. Ben eagerly yelled up some encouragement, but I shook my head.“No, I really can’t.” My fiery goal-driven ego shrieked silently as I spoke the words. “I’ll aid through and get us to the summit.” On top it was cold and had started to rain. My watch read 1am. I looked over at Ben and started to laugh, then I gave him a big bear hug. “Thanks for joining me on this ridiculous desert adventure. Now let’s get the hell outta here!”

 

 

Two years later I returned to El Gavilan. This time with a solid team, more experience and superior tactics. For the better part of two weeks we camped out at the desert cliff and, with more helping hands than I could have possibly asked for, we finished adding new shiny bolts, removed all of the old sketchy bolts and established a new access trail for the cliff.

 

December 21st - 22nd Kelsey Watts and I made the first female ascent of El Gavilan, swinging leads with no falls for either of us! Kelsey and I have been good friends since we were thirteen, so it felt pretty special bringing her out to this project and then sending it together. I was smiling ear to ear as I belayed Kelsey up to join me at the summit, under a brilliant pink sunset. What a perfect conclusion to this epic saga, and I couldn’t wait to share the beta so that more climbers can come have their own adventures on this now-not-so-elusive cliff!

 

A huge thank-you to all who came out there with me: Savannah Cummins, Kelsey Watts, Jacob Cook, Josh Janes, Ezra Byrne, Shafiq Lalloo, Johannes Charman, Ryan DesRoches, Ben Perdue, Nolan Smythe, Kiersa Koepnick, Paul Kimbrough, Scott Davis, Angela Van Wiemeersch, Hannah Zamora, Beca Rodriguez, Rob Rodriguez, Francesca Cesario, Chuy Rodriguez, Chuy Martinez and the Lupe the burro man.

 

 

Two years later I returned to El Gavilan. This time with a solid team, more experience and superior tactics. For the better part of two weeks we camped out at the desert cliff and, with more helping hands than I could have possibly asked for, we finished adding new shiny bolts, removed all of the old sketchy bolts and established a new access trail for the cliff.

 

December 21st - 22nd Kelsey Watts and I made the first female ascent of El Gavilan, swinging leads with no falls for either of us! Kelsey and I have been good friends since we were thirteen, so it felt pretty special bringing her out to this project and then sending it together. I was smiling ear to ear as I belayed Kelsey up to join me at the summit, under a brilliant pink sunset. What a perfect conclusion to this epic saga, and I couldn’t wait to share the beta so that more climbers can come have their own adventures on this now-not-so-elusive cliff!

 

A huge thank-you to all who came out there with me: Savannah Cummins, Kelsey Watts, Jacob Cook, Josh Janes, Ezra Byrne, Shafiq Lalloo, Johannes Charman, Ryan DesRoches, Ben Perdue, Nolan Smythe, Kiersa Koepnick, Paul Kimbrough, Scott Davis, Angela Van Wiemeersch, Hannah Zamora, Beca Rodriguez, Rob Rodriguez, Francesca Cesario, Chuy Rodriguez, Chuy Martinez and the Lupe the burro man.