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.

November 1996By Comments

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 leading to the entrance, I came across a white stone building with a parking lot full of pup tents. The place was unmarked except for a sign announcing that snow cones were available, but I knew it had to be Pete’s, the cafe and impromptu campground that has become famous among climbers. Every year, about half a dozen people move to Pete’s for the winter, most of whom camp in the gravel parking lot. Inside the cafe, I met Luis Delgado, a wiry seventeen-year-old from Albuquerque  who had black hair that was standing up in all directions, perhaps because he hadn’t washed it in a while. Luis had started climbing only five months before, but he immediately quit his job, dropped out of high school, and decided to spend all of his time outdoors. “That’s how climbing is for some people,” he said. “It’s addicting.” He was hanging out with Pete Peacock (not the owner of the establishment), a climber in his twenties from Colorado who was wearing a baseball hat turned backward. To avoid straining their joints and tendons, climbers generally rest at least every other day, and at that moment the two were doing nothing in particular. “It takes a certain amount of mental creativity to stay entertained here,” Pete said. “When you’re not climbing, you’re staring at the desert.”

Everybody at Pete’s was either tanned or sunburned, and most of them looked like they needed to take a shower. Other long-term guests included a Swiss banker on vacation, an out-of-work German, and two British guys who had spent the summer working at Toys ‘R’ Us in England and then left their jobs to climb for the rest of the year. The resident expert at Pete’s was an East German in his twenties named Thomas (he would only give his first name), who has been living at Pete’s off and on for the past five years. I found Thomas outside. He has a determinedly relaxed attitude and sleeps in the parking lot on a threadbare sofa beside a campfire. “I’ve got the supreme spot,” he said. “How many times can you go to sleep watching a fire and the stars and the moon?” Thomas offered to show me around the park the following day, and we agreed to meet at Pete’s around noon. I wasn’t sure if Thomas was the type to keep appointments, but he certainly was affable.

THE NEXT MORNING, IT WAS BREEZY and about 75 degrees—perfect climbing weather. In the parking lot outside the rangers’ building were vehicles with plates from Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Maine, Rhode Island, and New York, as well as a school bus that had been transformed into a makeshift mobile home. Inside the building, I met park ranger Cynthia Dominguez, a petite woman of Indian descent, and she took me on a tour of some of the park’s pictographs. As we walked along, Dominguez pointed out several images, among them a Kiowa battle scene; an elaborate, faintly drawn rain altar; and a dancing figure with white horns. “He’s a happy little spirit, I think,” she said.

Back in the parking lot, I saw Luis Delgado climbing a lamppost. He gripped it with his hands, put his feet on the pole, and started crawling up it until the pole began to sway back and forth under his weight. When he got down, Luis explained that Thomas had found the weather so tempting that he had blown off our appointment and gone climbing instead. Luis offered to help me look for him, and we set off down one of the park’s trails. Luis had been up until three o’clock the night before and was a little under the weather, but he turned off the trail we were following and sprinted up a steep incline like a little goat. I had a hard time keeping up. Eventually we arrived at a wall known as Kid’s Stuff, a popular place to warm up. I began to see that we weren’t in a hurry to find Thomas. Luis was eager to climb, so he sat down to wrap black tape around his left wrist and the fingers of his left hand. “I screwed up my tendon about a week and a half ago,” he explained. “I don’t like using tape, but I don’t want to screw it up anymore.” Strained tendons and joints are common afflictions among climbers who have taken to bouldering; Hueco Tanks includes such brutal challenges that they sometimes blow a finger tendon. It sounds like a gunshot when it happens. Most climbers rely on crash pads and spotters—friends who help them land safely—to avoid more-serious injuries. Luis, however, took off his shoes and began going up the wall barefoot, without anybody or anything to break his fall.

After Luis finished warming up, he scurried from one rock face to another like a kid on a jungle gym while I stuck to the trails. Often we would arrive at a boulder just as another group converged on it, and we would pause and observe as they tackled the climb first. Watching bouldering is like watching a chess game—it is a slow, almost static sport. A particular path up a boulder is known as a route or problem, and climbers scour the park for the hardest problems they can handle, trying the same one over and over until they have it “wired,” or down cold. By the time Luis and I arrived at Mushroom Boulder, one of the most popular rocks in the park, it was midafternoon and there were lines of people waiting to take their turn. We met up with Pete Peacock, and the three of us watched as other climbers tried a route known as Mushroom Roof. According to a guidebook about Hueco Tanks written by climber John Sherman, there are 28 ways to get to the top of Mushroom Boulder, but Mushroom Roof is one of the hardest: Routes are graded by difficulty depending on the amount of strength they require and the holds involved—whether there are small ledges in the rock to grab or merely thin cracks, for instance. Sherman ranks Mushroom Roof as a V8. (The bouldering rating system goes from V0 to V14, and anybody who can master a V8 is considered a pretty serious climber.)

Mushroom Boulder is a large, top-heavy rock that sits on a slender base; it didn’t look like a mushroom to me, but Pete Peacock said that when he squinted and the light was right, he could see how somebody might think it did. Each climber began by sitting under a big overhang, with the bulk of Mushroom Boulder directly above him. (There were many women climbers in the park, but none in the group I was watching.) Then he would reach up with both hands for a hold known as a rail—it was a long, horizontal crack in the rock face. He would pull himself up to the rock, stick his left foot into a hueco, and prepare to lunge with his left hand to grab a shallow edge with a little lip on it. That early move is one of the hardest in Mushroom Roof because it requires such a long reach across the rock face, and as we watched, several climbers tried the lunge and fell. Finally one made it. He continued, bringing his right foot up beside his right hand and sticking his heel into the rail there—the move is known as a heel hook, and it looked incredibly uncomfortable. Then he reached up to a little edge with his right hand and stretched even farther with his left hand, crossing his arms in the process. Many people fall at this point too, but this climber went on, sticking his left toe into the edge where his left hand had been before, and moving higher up in the process. After several other difficult moves, he was just at the edge of the overhang—about ten feet off the ground—and he was about to “top out,” or go up onto the flat, slablike side of the boulder. Once you make it onto the side of the boulder, it’s an easy climb, as there are plenty of huecos and other holds to use, but getting around the overhang is the hardest part of Mushroom Roof. It’s known as the red-point crux—the biggest hurdle in the climb. The climber inched higher and was trying to move his right foot up to stand on a knoblike protrusion when his strength gave out and he dropped to the ground. It was a good try, and everyone else who had attempted the problem congratulated him.

Luis and Pete got fed up with the long lines at Mushroom Boulder and decided to tackle various other rocks in the park. At one point we stopped to take a break, and I asked Pete if he had gone to college. He said he had finished one semester at Western State College in Colorado. “Just wasn’t too impressed with it,” he said. He wasn’t sure what to do with his life and wasn’t in a hurry to decide. “My mom wonders when I’m going to take part in what you’d call the norm of society. Go to school, get a job, fall into this sense of false security, just because you have a degree and a title. I don’t know, I might end up moving to Latin America. There’s a lot of wisdom down there.”

Late in the afternoon, I left Luis and Pete (we never did find Thomas) and drove to Todd Skinner’s house. At the New Map of Hell, Todd had invited me to join him and some fellow climbers for dinner at his house, just outside the park’s entrance. When I pulled up, there were nine cars in the yard. Todd wasn’t there yet, but sitting around the house were climbers from South Africa, Canada, Switzerland, England, and Texas. They were talking in the large common area on the ground floor of the house, which had several sofas, a dining room table, and an indoor climbing space. They were all full-time climbers, and none of them had permanent addresses. “We follow the seasons,” said Scott Milton, who is originally from Alberta, Canada. “We’re nomadic.”

Most of Todd’s guests were about ten years older than the crowd at Pete’s, and they made their living by endorsing athletic goods, teaching outdoor education, or delivering motivational lectures. Scott Milton, who is lanky and has a mop of dark hair, was the most talkative of the group and its de facto spokesman. Scott explained that the boulders at Hueco Tanks have such steep faces and such tiny crevices that they require extraordinary strength to climb. “You gain so much power here,” he said. The visitors, who regard the park as a national treasure, could not believe how uninterested Texans are in the place. “I was down buying groceries in El Paso, and the woman at the checkout counter said, ‘Oh, are you here climbing?’” recounted Paul Higginson, the British climber. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m here for a month.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I didn’t think it was that special.’”

After Todd came in, we all sat down to a dinner of tuna casserole and salad. The conversation revolved entirely around climbing. Todd asked Sandra Studer, a Swiss climber, if it was true that she had managed to “flash” a rock—climb it cold, without much study or any trial runs. She had. An entire lexicon has grown up around the sport, and over the course of the meal, I learned that “dirt me” means you want help getting down from a tricky spot and that asking for “beta” means you want some information about the next move to make. (“Beta” is short for “Betamax”—ideally, the information is so clear that it’s like watching a video of the climb.)

THE FOLLOWING DAY, I DROVE OVER TO THE PARK with Sandra; Amy Whisler, who is from Wyoming; Kirk Billings, who is from Midland; John and Carol Gogas, who are also from Midland; and Dale Childers, who is from Odessa. We hiked over to an easy rock, where the group warmed up. Next they attempted nearby problems, including one called Assault of the Killer Bimbos. Around noon, everybody pulled Power Bars out of their backpacks for lunch and then we set off on a hike through Comanche Canyon—so-named for a Comanche battle scene of ghostly white figures found on the wall of a cave in the area.

“Are we going to the secret place?” John asked.

“Yeah,” Kirk said.

I asked why it was a secret.

“I’d rather nobody knew about it, so I can get it cleaned up and done before anybody else finds it,” Kirk replied. The week before, he had found a route that had never been climbed before—though hundreds of the park’s well-known problems have been catalogued in Sherman’s guidebook, visitors still find dozens of new routes every year. “The first person to do a route is always connected to it,” Scott Milton had explained the night before. “The first person owns it, in a weird way.” At the far end of the canyon we started climbing a set of deep huecos set into the rock like a ladder. About five hundred feet up, we came to an odd formation: Underneath a giant boulder was a vast cave with a ceiling from two to five feet high. The boulder rested on top of a flat granite table, but it was shaped like an overturned bowl, and you could walk or crawl all the way underneath it. The underside of the boulder was honeycombed with huecos, making it a perfect place to practice moves known as body-tension holds, in which a climber braces himself into position by pushing in opposing directions with his feet and hands. “God, that’s a real butt-dragger,” John said when he saw the confined space.

“I think I’m going to call it Near Birth Experience,” said Kirk.

We all crawled into the hollow under the giant boulder. It was cool and shady under there, offering welcome relief from the hot sun. As Kirk started brushing dirt off the ceiling, the others fanned out to explore. Eventually Paul Higginson appeared with two other British climbers. One of Paul’s friends peered at Kirk, who was clinging to the underside of the boulder like a spider. “It could get a bit claustrophobic in there,” he muttered. There was a thud as Kirk fell off the ceiling. He kicked at the honeycombs above him, then slid back to begin the problem again. Another thud. “Oh, f—,” he said this time. “I keep whacking my elbow.”

After several hours, Kirk showed the route to John. “Here,” Kirk said, coaching John as he took his turn clinging to the ceiling. “Now, heel, toe. Reach with your left hand. You want your right hand in that undercling, so you can pull yourself over. Reach a little farther—”

“Holy cow!” yelped John.

“Yeah, it’s really complicated,” said Kirk.

“God, this is brutal,” John said admiringly while he hung upside down. He thought the problem Kirk had found would prove to be one of the park’s more challenging climbs. “Very good, Kirk.”

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