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