Exposure

Establishing New Highlines in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains

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Photo: Justin Lewis

For six weeks last winter, I traveled with my friend Peter Hudnut and photographer Justin Lewis through Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, a canopy of tropical and montane forests that stretches nearly one thousand miles from Monterrey to Veracruz. The mountains of Mexico are the home of the Tarahumara Indians and the site of Alex Honnold’s epic 2014 free solo on El Sendero Luminoso. But our plan was to establish highlines. We loaded enough bolts and webbing for eight new lines into the Volkswagen, and headed south across the border.

Photo: Potrero Chico—Spanish for “little corral”—is a collection of massive limestone spires that gates the northern entrance to the Eastern Sierra Madres. Peter walked this 220-foot long highline on Christmas Day, aptly naming it Feliz Navi Highline.

Photo: Justin Lewis
A modern highline is made from a piece of one-inch-wide flat polyester webbing, usually between 200 and 300 feet long. Taped underneath is a thin dyneema cord. Were the main line to fail, this redundancy would prevent a catastrophic fall.

Getting the line to the other side of the feature, whether it be a cave, canyon, or rock formation, is an arduous task. Often we just throw a rope as far as we can from the first anchor and bushwhack our way to the other side and climb up. Today, highliners are starting to use drones and even high-tech bows to get lines across.
Photo: Justin Lewis
Highline anchors can be rigged in many different ways, but Hudnut prefers the method he learned from his mentor, Terry Acomb, who has been developing highline systems since the late ‘90s. Hudnut drills multiple 5.5-inch x 0.5-inch bolts into the hard limestone and equalizes the system with a sliding “X” of static 11-millimeter cordelette.
Photo: Justin Lewis
Highlining originated in Yosemite. As such, it’s inextricably linked to climbing. The summit of these rabbit-ear spires in Potrero Chico is only achieved through tricky, technical rock climbing. After 175 feet of face climbing, I scrambled past the anchors and took in the sunrise from the left summit.
Photo: Justin Lewis
Some days we took a break from highlining and just climbed. Here, I’m milking a much needed rest on La Mono de Dios, a sustained 12c that has few good holds between the thin edges and shallow pockets that lead to the anchors.
Photo: Justin Lewis
To get this shot of me at the anchors of La Mono de Dios, Justin, who hasn’t done much climbing, had to send the route just to the right, Mother Superior. It was his first 5.12.
Photo: Justin Lewis
Just behind me is El Toro, the tallest peak of the Potrero range. Right away, Hudnut and I decided that El Toro would be the ultimate highline, but bad weather and a difficult approach meant we had to wait several weeks to give it a shot.
Photo: Justin Lewis
After establishing multiple highlines in the northern section of the mountain range, we headed south to explore the country’s caves. This brought us into the cloud forests of Mexico. The man in the middle is a local who volunteered to help us carry gear.
Photo: Justin Lewis
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of caves in the Sierra Madre mountain range. This one is just outside the small Huasteca village of La Laja, near Aquismon. The 300-foot-deep cave is surrounded by strong trees and has a wide, flat opening, making it a perfect candidate for a highline.
Photo: Justin Lewis
Hudnut’s attention to detail borders on the obsessive compulsive. Each line is different, and while some can take less than an hour to rig, others can take days. Here, Peter’s using a five-to-one pulley system to tension the line tight enough to support his weight.
Photo: Justin Lewis
This highline took about three hours to rig because getting the line across the mouth of the cave was impossible to do from above. Instead, I rappelled to the bottom and tied two 100-meter ropes together. Hidden behind the trees are the many villagers from La Laja who turned out to watch.
Photo: Justin Lewis
On our way back home to the U.S., we returned to El Toro. People assume that highlining is dangerous, but it’s accessing these hard-to-reach places that presents the most risk. The summit of El Toro was no exception. We had to traverse across a sharp ridgeline of loose rock in order to rig our final highline.
Photo: Justin Lewis
In total, we established five new highlines in Mexico. At 272-feet across, Las Estrellas might be the longest highline ever walked in Mexico, while Lo Mas, pictured here, may be the highest, bridging a 240-foot gap more than 2,000-feet above the valley floor.
Photo: Justin Lewis
Hudnut, back on solid ground after successfully walking the final highline of the trip.

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