Sunday, September 27, 2009

Climbing the cliffs of San Esteban - Part 2

Large monolith towers over surrounding trees. In Part 1, we walked though beautiful woods and pastures before climbing steeply up to the main ridge of the San Esteban cliffs. Above, you can see one of our goals, a huge rock monolith. Robert (our rock climbing expert) wanted to rappel off the top. The monolith stands over 90 feet high and is about 10-12 feet across at the top. Ironically, we had to climb down the hillside behind the monolith for a couple of hundred yards to reach the top of this structure. This was only one of many monoliths we encountered on the hike.

Christopher waits his turn. Our group was composed of 15 men and women hikers from the US, Canada, and Mexico. While hiking with a large group can be fun, it also entails a lot a waiting. Rock climbing can be a slow, one-at-a-time process. We spent our waiting time chatting and catching up on one another's lives. Christopher never minds hanging out and taking pictures while others go ahead.

Another monolith, with a view of the mountains. One great thing about this hike was that both the foreground and the background were stupendous. Monoliths such as this one rose around the crest of the ridge like ramparts on a castle wall.

Fire raged across the valley. We spotted this smoke on a parallel ridge across a deep gorge. It could have been the result of a careless smoker, but more likely it was due to a local farmer trying to clear some land for planting. Sometimes, in the dry season, these fires get seriously out of control and aircraft have to drop fire suppressant material.

Lynne climbs a chimney. A long, high split in the rock like this is called a chimney. It is not difficult if you are familiar with the right technique, but can be very challenging if you are not. Lynne was not, and struggled mightily as we all encouraged her efforts. The greater the struggle, the greater the triumph when success is achieved. She made it. Rock climbing of this sort can often be harder for women, because they generally have less upper body strength than men.

A view from the top. Mike (L.) and Tom (R.) enjoy the long view to the north of the ridge. The cliffs drop off just in front of them. We originally thought this was the top of the monolith we were seeking to rappel, but soon discovered our goal was further to the east along the ridge.

The great monolith. As you can see, the spaces between the cliffs and monoliths are dense with underbrush and trees. Hopefully these would break a fall. Hopefully.

A scramble to the top of the great monolith. This is the view from behind the same rock structure seen in the last picture. Robert (L.), Tom (R.) and Mike (scrambling) went up to take in the view. The climb was not difficult from the rear, if you were careful. This was probably the maximum number of people you would want to share the view with at one time. The drop in front of Robert is at least 90 feet straight down.

A country lane snakes along the base of the cliffs directly below the monolith's peak. This is the same road, seen in the second picture of Part 1, along which our group initially hiked from the town of San Esteban.

Looking north from the monolith peak. Rolling hills, pastures, and corn fields spread out below, stretching off toward the distant peaks. Jalisco State has a lot of farmland enriched by the volcanic ash deposited over the centuries. The peaks in the distance may actually be in Zacatecas, since the border between the two states dips close to Guadalajara in this area.

The town of San Esteban lay at our feet. Looking over the rocky edge of the monolith, we could see San Esteban almost directly below just to our east. San Esteban stretches out along both sides of a road which follows a ravine. Although it is fairly close to Guadalajara, San Esteban is off the tracks normally beaten by area expats, so the townspeople seemed intrigued by the large group of gringo hikers who suddenly materialized in their midst.

Little brothers. While many of the monoliths we encountered were huge--some the height of a 5-story building--others were smaller. The two above were about the height of tall humans. I don't know the geological origins of these unusual rock structures, but would love to hear from anyone who does.

Small and delicate, yellow flowers blossom in the shadows of rock giants. I have noticed that the higher the altitude, the smaller the flowers. These little yellow beauties managed to eke out a living in the cracks among the rocks under our feet.

A final view from the top. Here you are looking roughly south east. This country is typical of Jalisco: lush, fertile valleys separated by rugged mountain ridges.

Starting down. Descending, while taking less effort than climbing, is often more precarious in the mountains. Since you are facing out, away from the mountain, gravity works against you. It is more difficult to see secure footholds from above than below. Finally, you are already tired from climbing, and are probably thinking about that cold beer to come, so it is easy to lose focus and miss your step. More people get hurt descending than climbing. Some, as you can see above, prefer to do it on their backsides. Above, Craig in the foreground, waits as his wife Halcyon scoots down a tricky section on her behind.

In some places, backsides just won't do. We needed to get down some pretty steep rock faces, so Robert broke out his rappelling gear and gave some quick lessons to the uninitiated, which included Halcyon above. The art of rappelling is not hard to learn, but is somewhat counter-intuitive. It requires you to trust your gear and lean back into space, an act someone new to the game may find a little unnerving at first.

Caroline rappels down a slot as Christopher and others "spot" for her below. Without the proper gear, and care in using it, one could easily twist or break an ankle. Such an injury would be very problematic in this terrain with a long way yet to go down.

Down the ridge and through the slot. Caroline (L.) and Halcyon (R.) carefully picked their way over the loose rocks and through a slot separating two huge boulders. Caroline clutches her camera to keep it from banging against the rocks. One of the dangers I have found in a place like this is the temptation to get caught up in all the great photo opportunities. By not paying enough to my footing, I've taken a few spills this way. Fortunately, other than some minor cuts and bruises, I've been lucky.

Awaiting us were lush green meadows, abounding with lovely wildflowers. Although a little nerve-racking at times, the climb down was accomplished fairly quickly. The group made a bee-line to the nearest tienda in San Esteban for the traditional post-hike beer. I don't drink alcohol, and neither does my friend Bob, but both of us drink O'Douls a non-alcoholic beer. I stepped up to ask if the tienda carried the brand, while Bob pooh-poohed the notion. To the amazement of both of us, the proprietress promptly produced two ice cold cans! In Mexico, you just never know what you'll find.

This concludes Part 2 of my two-part series on Climbing the Cliffs of San Esteban. I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to forward a link to my blog to friends and family. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below or email me directly at If you use the Comment section to ask a question, please make sure you include your email address so I can answer you.

Hasta luego! Jim

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