Picachos El Fraile (El Sapo)

January 28, 2023


Nuevo León, México

Picachos El Fraile aka. “El Sapo” locates in the broader vicinity of Monterrey in Nuevo León. This area is better known for the world-class rock climbing in Potrero Chico but the rugged topography means it also boasts peak-bagging potentials. Over the past few years several groups of internationally famous peak-baggers had come and bagged a bunch of “ultra-prominent peaks” and Picachos El Fraile is generally considered as the “best” in this area. Adam Walker had referred this peak as his favourate in the entire country of Mexico. I had to come and do it even just because of that.

It would make more sense to spend at least a week in the area to “clean off” all “ultras” that had decent beta but I somehow decided spontaneously to smash-and-grab the main objective in a weekend warriors’ fashion. Elise happened to have booked a trip to Potrero Chico for 10 days of climbing and mentioned that to me. I suggested her to at least scramble Picachos El Fraile in the area as I had heard good things about this peak. That was just a few days prior to the trip. Our chat then quickly changed to “how-about-I-come-to-join” kind of talk. After checking weather and flights logistics I made the spontaneous decision on Wednesday evening to book Friday morning’s flight to Monterrey. I thought about to just do one peak and come home on Sunday, but decided to extend one extra day and booked the Monday’s return flight. The round trip cost was 780 dollars plus extra money for one checked bag. I would only have 2 full days (Saturday, Sunday) in addition to a travel day (Friday) and a half-day (Monday) to do any peak-bagging, but given the busy work schedule that’s as much as I could manage. Taking two days off work needed a lot of justification, but at least one world-class limestone peak along with Elise as the company justified that.

There’s a lot of hasty work to be done on Thursday as I also did a before-work sunrise ascent in Washington with barely any sleep. I managed to rush the packing process in about an hour and then set the alarm at 3:50 am. The flight was at 7 am and I wanted to be in the airport by 5 am. Elise and I together needed one checked bag as our trekking poles couldn’t be brought to the carry-on, and that costs 30 extra dollars each way. Our flights to Dallas and then Monterrey went without event and we arrived in the late afternoon. The first crux was to obtain our rental vehicle. I had made a reservation with Thrifty through Expedia but we quickly realized that there’s no Thrifty at Monterrey airport. I then went to Hertz and learnt that those companies all merged together so my reservation was actually under Hertz. The cost was also significantly different than stated on the website. Instead of costing 125 USD for the 4 days they wanted to charge me 450 USD due to the insanely high insurance rate. Even the most basic option would still cost over 300 USD and none of us wanted to support that kind of money grabbing. I decided to take the risk and went without any insurance (only 125 USD) but had we lost or damaged the vehicle I would have to pay the full price of the vehicle to cover it up. I had to trust my driving skills to not crash in the next few days. They required me to pay 2500 USD for the deposits. That seemed ridiculous but understandable so I paid that and got the vehicle. After a bunch of inspections we then realized the vehicle had manual transmission which I knew nothing about. I told them the problems and thankfully they were able to fix by giving us a different (automatic) vehicle and we finally drove out of the airport, now in the fading daylight.

It’s always not advisable to drive in Mexico at night but we had no other option. We had reserved a hotel in García which was about an hour away. The driving time turned out to be quite a bit more than an hour thank to the heavy traffics coming out of Monterrey area. The driving wasn’t as difficult as in Mexico City but still required full concentration. The highway was in a surprisingly good shape but that’s because of the expensive tolls. They collected money twice and together we had to pay about 250 pesos which was equivalent to 15 dollars. For us that’s not much, but for those living in Mexico commuting for work this would be intolerable. In any case we arrived at our cheap-ass hotel in García confused. After some difficult communication in Spanish we learnt that our reservation didn’t go through. They had no space available whatsoever, so we drove back a few kilometers and thankfully found an available room in a different hotel. I was glad to finally finished the driving on this day, but we still had to walk around the town to find a restaurant and a grocery store. The food in Mexico surely did not disappoint, and the grocery was also pretty darn cheap. We went back to the hotel and still had to repack for our objective on the following day, and subsequently didn’t sleep until 10 pm or something. The alarm was set at 6 am so we wouldn’t get much sleep after all.

Our restaurant seemed fancy
The first Mexican meal we opted for tacos!
Wondering around García in the evening. It’s a beautiful town

After checking out the hotel we did one more stop at a local gas station for some last minute grocery things before driving to the trail-head, still in the pitch dark. Thankfully there wasn’t much traffic at this time of a day. The trail-head locates about 1 km from the highway on some secondary roads but the road was surprisingly gated. That was not mentioned in any of the trip report so I went to inspect the gate. Not to my surprise the gate wasn’t locked. We thought it might actually be safer to risk the gate and park the vehicle away from the highway so we did that and drove to the actual trail-head next to some garbage dumpsters. Honestly this entire area felt sketchy and I didn’t feel safe to leave the vehicle anywhere in the vicinity for a day, but we had no other option. On the bright side we were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise behind the mountains minutes after we parked.

A gorgeous sunrise above the smog layer
Our objective, Picachos El Fraile on left
The rental car’s parked at the regular trail-head
Picachos El Fraile standard scramble route. GPX DL

The first stage of this ascent was by walking the deactivated portion of the road to the end where the actual trail-head was. With a beefy 4×4, high clearance vehicle one could drive a kilometer further from where we parked. The trail then led us ascending into a vegetated canyon and for the next 600 m elevation gain we would follow this trail to a small cave under the ridge crest. The trail was as described, overgrown with thorny plants but the path was actually quite obvious. Wearing long pants was the absolute minimal requirement to protect one from the cactus plants. Elise opted to even wear gaitors while I was fine with just the long pants. The trail bed was also quite loose and required some scrambling moves at a few places. That cave was not super attractive as a destination itself, but we stopped for a break anyway. The next break was after gaining the ridge crest where Elise opted to scramble along an exposed ridge for some photos.

Me following the trail into the canyon ahead
The typical trail conditions
Thorny plants everywhere so caution is needed
Elise taking a short break under that small cave
A while later this is Elise posing on the spine of the rocky ridge
Elise scrambling back along the exposed ridge
This spot proved to be one of the more scenic ones around

After resuming the ascent we easily picked up the path again and traversed diagonally towards climber’s right aiming for the skyline ridge which forms the long and undulating west ridge of Picachos El Fraile. We crossed path with two local hikers descending. They must have started super early in the dark to watch sunrise higher up on the mountain so this is overall a decently popular objective at least among the locals. The long and undulating west ridge can be broken down into stages with several false summits to plod over. One of the first few false summits involved a technical down-climb had one stayed on the ridge crest. Elise and I were able to follow the trail and the path naturally led us bypassing that tricky down-climb on the north side of the ridge without even realizing. Looking back we could recognize that spot from Adam and Rob’s trip reports so a rope and harness was not needed for this ascent, after all. Rob W. had mentioned several moves up to 5.7 required to re-ascend that step, so we decided to try it out on the return for fun, but for the sake purpose of peak-bagging that step can be easily bypassed both ways.

Back to the main route, Elise plodding up..
Onto the broad west ridge now.
Cerro Tía Chena to the NE is another ultra-prominent peak nearby
We followed a well-trodden trail and bypassed the supposed crux

Most of the west ridge was broad and dull but there were a few exciting spots. After the first narrowing we came to a 4th class down-climb without any obvious bypass. Indeed, the locals had even installed a fixed rope here to help the scramblers but we were able to easily down-climb without using the rope. Another false summit later we were staring at the final push onto the true summit where things became a little bit more exciting. The attack was by traversing some ledges on climber’s left side to wrap around to the “backside” of the summit block. The traverse was mostly easy but involved some moderate exposure at places. We also likely didn’t pick the easiest path as mine involved a few more 4th class slabby moves. I knew I was off-route but I was too lazy to backtrack. The summit as expected, offered some incredible views down towards the rugged towers to the east. I wondered if that next imposing tower had ever seen ascents. I bet it had, but finding “beta” on the internet would be difficult, if not impossible.

All the peaks ahead are “false summits”…
We saw some huge agaves in the area..
Elise leading ahead across the first narrowing section
Elise scrambling across the narrow parts
The 4th class down-climb. Note the yellow fixed line.
Looking back towards that narrow ridge and the down-climb parts
The views are improving as we ascended higher
We had a long section of plodding on easy terrain to the next false summit
We finally stared at the true summit
Approaching the final bits of excitement
From the edge we saw the other spires of the range
Elise taking a look at the edge. It’s overhanging….
We would then traverse across some ledges on climber’s left side
Following the path onto one of these ledges
Summit Panorama from Picachos El Fraile. Click to view large size.
Pico Zorros in the far distance
The unnamed spires to the east on the same range
Cerro La Palmitosa is another prominent peak nearby
Sierra las Mitras in the foreground and other peaks near Monterrey
Elise admiring the views of the spires
Me on the summit of Picachos El Fraile
Elise and I on the summit of Picachos El Fraile

The descent was not super pleasant as the high clouds had dissipated and the smog layer had engulfed in. The day had become nuclear hot and we both suffered a bit in the heat. At least descending the ridge was somewhat “fun”, but that 600 m descent from the cave down to the deactivated road was a pure sufferfest. I did not enjoy that portion at all. The ground was also too loose and steep for the trail runners and with the thorny plants around I had to pay 120% attention to the footings to make sure I wouldn’t slip and fall on the wrong places. Our round trip time was under 7 hours including a very long break on the summit so this was overall not a long day, but it definitely felt like a long day.

Elise descending following the ledge traverse
Looking back at the true summit of Picachos El Fraile
One of the microscopic sections of the west ridge..
Re-ascending that narrow part with false summit behind
More false summits behind now
We opted to climb that boulder move for fun..
Descending off the west ridge now
Nearing the end of the descent..

A local who stays “siempre aquí” came out and greeted us for climbing this mountain just when we were about to drive out, and the gate at the entrance of the road was also open when we drove out, so this area might not actually be as sketchy as we thought. Over the next two hours we leisurely drove north and then east to the small town of Hidalgo. En route we opted for a short detour to check out the access for Cerro La Palmitosa (P600m) and we concluded that an extra 2 km of plodding each way would be required without a 4×4, high clearance vehicle. We were still debating about the following day’s objective but we were leaning towards something less sloggy but more fun. I spotted several rock towers to the north and we would try to find beta (if there’s any) after getting some wifi. Elise had booked me a spot in the hostel at the entrance of Potrero Chico a few kilometers from the centro of Hidalgo, but my spot was not successfully reserved. The lady at the hostel told us there wasn’t any space available. I was only planning to spend two nights there, so I threw out the possibility to just sleep in the car. Max, a new friend offered me his van for a more comfortable stay than the front seats of my rental vehicle. In the evening Elise and I went out for a walk together with her friend Barak, to the climbing area of Potrero Chico. The limestone walls in this area were something I had never seen before and I could totally understand why climbers would come here to spend months even if they climb every day.

Elise stepped out of the car for some photos
We went to explore the access for Cerro La Palmitosa
Picachos El Fraile in the background. This detour was actually quite scenic
El Toro seen from our hostel in Hidalgo
Elise resting in the hostel
We then went for a walk into Potrero Chico
This is indeed a world-class climbing area…