Social Climbers

Every winter, adventurous nomads from around the world spend months hanging out at Hueco Tanks state park near El Paso—for the friend-ship, the weather, and the best boulders anywhere.

THE BOULDER WAS NOT PARTICULARLY impressive to me. Hueco Tanks State Historical Park is littered with enormous red rocks, as if some giant had upended a bag of them over the West Texas desert, and this one was shaped like an upside-down pyramid. It sat in the sand at a tilt, and it had a bland, uninteresting surface. Nevertheless, eight climbers were standing around it, transfixed. One of them, Todd Skinner, rubbed some chalk on his hands to keep them dry and began his ascent. Most of the others were from Europe or Canada, but Skinner was from Wyoming, and several onlookers began to chant, “Team USA! Team USA!” Before Skinner made much progress, he lost his grip and fell onto a large foam pillow wrapped in duct tape. Next up was Andy Skiba, who grew up in Wisconsin. He got part way up the rock, felt his heel slip out of a hold, and cursed as he too found himself in midair.

Nobody managed to get very far up the rock, and I moved on to watch people tackle boulders that looked more interesting. Later that evening, however, I learned that the climbers had been attempting an infamous route up the rock known as the New Map of Hell. There are few climbing problems of equal difficulty anywhere in the world, and the very subtlety of the rock face is what makes it so hard. “The holds are like dancing to music,” said Paul Higginson, a British climber. “There’s a set rhythm, and you can only do them a certain way.” Just one person, Swiss climber Fred Nicole, has ever reached the top of the boulder by the path the group had been following. And I had been watching some of the sport’s best practitioners: Skinner wrote a cover story for National Geographic earlier this year after spending sixty days on a rock tower in the Himalayas, and Higginson is one of only two people in the world capable of a move known as a one-armed campus. That’s when he hangs on to a rock face by the fingertips of one hand alone, then quickly hoists himself up in a one-armed pull-up, lets go of the rock for a brief second, and grabs a higher hold in the rock face with the same hand. It takes Herculean strength, and it’s a rare move because he doesn’t use his other hand or his feet at all, risking a fall if he doesn’t catch the second hold. The one-armed campus isn’t required by many climbs, but it does build strength and it’s a great way to impress people.

In recent years Hueco Tanks has been transformed from a sleepy historical park into a world-famous climbing arena. It’s now considered the best place on the globe to climb boulders in the winter, when the desert climate is dry and temperate. The park’s re-nown has risen in tandem with the appeal of bouldering, a sport in which climbers tackle low-lying rocks without any ropes or other equipment. Hueco Tanks has become so popular among the devotees of bouldering that during the winter season, which begins this month and ends next March, the park is engulfed by the climbing subculture. Hundreds of climbers come for long weekends, but the true fanatics are itinerants who stay for months on end, after saving enough money working odd jobs to pass the season scaling rocks. Todd Skinner spends so much time there that he built a house near the park entrance, where he hosts a kind of commune for the most serious of the roving climbers. In the spring they will move on—many will head for rock formations in California or France, the climbing community’s favorite summer destinations—but until then, Hueco Tanks will be their home.

THE PARK IS AN EERIE GEOLOGICAL anomaly that rises out of the desert thirty miles east of El Paso. The rock formation covers 860 acres and at its highest point stands about 350feet tall. Set against a vista of sweeping yellow grasslands and distant red hills, the rocks are an appropriate color for the landscape—shades of reddish brown—but in all other respects, they look out of place. The lumpy, oddly shaped protrusions were created 34 million years ago when molten granite pushed its way up to the earth’s mantle and then solidified as it hit a layer of limestone. Over the millenia, as the limestone washed away, the granite formation was exposed. The rocks that emerged are known as syenite porphyry; they are peculiar because many of them are pocked with large hollows, called huecos in Spanish, and they make the place look like a rusty moonscape.

Climbers are not the only visitors who have felt the strange pull of the hollows. Several Indian tribes settled in the area because of the abundance of water, wildlife, and vegetation—the hollows act as natural tanks, so the rocks typically contain a year-round water supply. The Indians left behind more than three thousand pictographs, some dating back six thousand years. The huecos also attracted gold-rush pilgrims en route to California who needed to water their horses (they often carved their names and the date of their visit into the rock) and ranchers who needed to water their cattle. In the thirties the rocks even caught the eye of real estate developers, who erected dams across some of the park’s canyons in the hope of creating a resort, but their giant lagoon sank into the ground and their get-rich-quick dreams vanished with the water. Today residents of Juárez and El Paso hold barbecues in the park, and gang members visit in search of distraction, leaving their spray-painted tags beside the Indians’ pictographs and the gold-rush travelers’ names. And the stone hollows serve as perfect natural grips and footholds for climbers; in climbing gyms around the world, holds are now known as huecos.

I visited the park on a cloudless weekend early in March, just as last year’s climbing season was drawing to a close. On the county road

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