The Source

How the Hueco gave birth to modern bouldering

 

Michelle Goeman pillages Nobody Gets Out Alive (V2), North Mountain.
The prickly brown stone crests over me like a tidal wave about to crash. It’s 1995, my first full-fledged trip to Hueco Tanks, and I’m not sure what’s more intimidating — topping out above my thin homemade pad consisting of a sleeping pad wrapped in carpet and duct tape, or the testosterone filtering through this cluster of boulders. Nearby, high-profile rock star Todd Skinner slaps out a sloping rail on a new problem he calls The Whole Hog as a photographer fires off a roll of film. Below us, Dean Potter and Jim Belcer hike laps on the 45 Degree Wall (V5), sans pad, to the amusement of a group of itinerant, smoky sandpeople. Around the corner my friend Ed Strang battles The Full Monty (V12), one of the country’s hardest boulder problems.
My tips, which are beginning to resemble raw tuna, are hopelessly shredded, and little purple bruises reveal themselves on my peeling digits. I brush the holds, preparing for another go on the aptly named New Religion (V7). Scrrraaaape ... My fingernails gouge the back of a potato-chip crimp. As I struggle to reel it in with all four fingers, my foot pops, and I land flat on my ass on the thin “pad” for the twentieth time.
Development began at Hueco in 1980 with the pioneer Bob Murray, with Mike and Dave Head, Todd Skinner, John Sherman, and other locals pushing things throughout the rest of the decade. Then, in the late '80s and early '90s, during the winter months, transient climbers began to assemble here en masse as word of this pile of rocks just south of New Mexico continued to spread. Each year Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, located east of the multi-million person border towns of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, became the unlikely host to an intense international convergence. Though far from any established climbing scene, Hueco drew a cult-like following due to its location, crisp temps, perfect syenite porphyry stone, and freeform dirtbag culture.
The V-grade system and the crash pad were born here, and for the first time masses of people gathered from all over the world at an American crag just to boulder. During this golden age progressively harder problems such as Sex After Death (V9), Full Service (V10), Full Monty (V12), and Shaken Not Stirred (a.k.a. Martini Right) (V12) were established. Then, as the hordes reached critical mass, the party ceased ... or so it seemed.
Hueco Tanks, for those of you living in a bubble or who are new to climbing, is considered by most climbers to be the world’s bouldering destination. Ask any boulderer if they’ve visited and the answer is almost certainly either “yes,” or “I plan to go soon.”

 

Your pot of gold awaits ...
Initially, the few climbers to visit in the ’70s were captivated by the park’s wealth of traditionally protected cracks, and in the ’80s bolted face routes became popular. This began to change in the late ’80s, however, as bouldering eccentrics like Mike Head, Bob Murray, and John Sherman established many hard problems and recognized Hueco’s world-class potential. Sherman liked Hueco so much that he began bouldering there almost exclusively, and personally developed the open-ended V-grade scale (V for Vermin, Sherman’s self-styled nickname) at Hueco to grade his and friends’ efforts. Verm went so far as to pen the 1991 and 1995 guidebooks Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide, which were the first comprehensive bouldering guides to the area. Partly as a result of V-grades, bouldering’s meditative, loner soul began to morph into a more community-based, goal-driven pursuit, as participants now had a way to measure their performances. “Half the climbers out there wouldn’t be bouldering if their efforts weren’t quantifiable,” says veteran Hueco first ascentionist Boone Speed. “I mean honestly, do you think those people out there sieging crumbly butt starts would be doing it if there was no grade involved?”
Hueco Tanks, for those of you living in a bubble or who are new to climbing, is considered by most climbers to be the world’s bouldering destination. Ask any boulderer if they’ve visited and the answer is almost certainly either “yes,” or “I plan to go soon.”

 

Isaac Caldiero antagonizes El Chupacabra (V11), East Spur.
Initially, the few climbers to visit in the ’70s were captivated by the park’s wealth of traditionally protected cracks, and in the ’80s bolted face routes became popular. This began to change in the late ’80s, however, as bouldering eccentrics like Mike Head, Bob Murray, and John Sherman established many hard problems and recognized Hueco’s world-class potential. Sherman liked Hueco so much that he began bouldering there almost exclusively, and personally developed the open-ended V-grade scale (V for Vermin, Sherman’s self-styled nickname) at Hueco to grade his and friends’ efforts. Verm went so far as to pen the 1991 and 1995 guidebooks Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide, which were the first comprehensive bouldering guides to the area. Partly as a result of V-grades, bouldering’s meditative, loner soul began to morph into a more community-based, goal-driven pursuit, as participants now had a way to measure their performances. “Half the climbers out there wouldn’t be bouldering if their efforts weren’t quantifiable,” says veteran Hueco first ascentionist Boone Speed. “I mean honestly, do you think those people out there sieging crumbly butt starts would be doing it if there was no grade involved?”
During this golden age, über-fit sport climbers contributed a new wave of development, and double-digit-grade bouldering was born. Hueco’s plethora of desperate problems quickly became the standards for the grade. Full Service, the The Martini Roof (Left Martini), and the sit-start to Better Eat Your Wheaties were some of the first V10s, and remain sought-after prizes.
Everyone was at Hueco during those freeform days. All ends of the climbing spectrum — from flailing-footed, steel-fingered youngsters, to aged honemasters, to chain-smoking Euros dressed in colorful attire, babbling unintelligible languages — were in attendance. One climber who arrived but never really left, and who made a heavy impact on Hueco, is Fred Nicole of Switzerland. His incredible feats of strength include such problems as Crown of Aragorn (V13), and Slashface (V14) — both of which represented important breakthroughs in bouldering’s upper end.

 

Ally Dorey finds her New Religion (V7), East Spur.
Equally entertaining to watch were the preppy frat boys, bickering couples, promiscuous hotties, average Joes, and of course, the most eccentric of all, the transient dirtbags. By 1995 Hueco’s scene was in full bloom. The laissez-faire lifestyle was a precious window in time ... but we didn’t see it that way back then.
As the golden age gave way to the late ’90s, things at Hueco began to take a negative turn both from heavy climber visitation, and from non-climber vandalism. Modern bouldering became a high-impact sport, due to the repeated pummeling from commercially available pads (such as Kinnaloa’s Sketch-pad, which Verm helped to develop), frequent ground manipulation employed to protect falls off desperate highballs — and especially the sheer number of participants. “Despite the desert’s rough appearance, it’s a fragile environment, containing thousands of years of Native American artifacts, rare plants, animals, living soils, and dormant aquatic life patiently awaiting the rains in the huecos,” warns Rob Rice, owner of the Hueco Rock Ranch (the climber’s hang for the past six years).
1998 ushered in new restrictions enforced by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Hueco’s attendance fell from a record high of 85,000 visitor days in 1997 to 20,000 in 1999. The once free-roaming visitors were now required to have guides on two of the park’s three mountains (access at North Mountain remains unguided).

 

The Sausage Factory.
My first real trip to Hueco was winter break from college in 1995. This time I was free to fully engage the scene. Melissa, my then-girlfriend (and now wife), and I were eager to go south in our rattly old VW van. We timed our entrance during daylight hours for fear that Montana Avenue, the road leading out of El Paso towards Hueco, would be blocked. We’d been warned to be careful if we saw obstructions in the highway, as local banditos were literally conducting highway robbery.
We drove out of El Paso under a cloudless sky, past the tire piles, junkyards, drive-in porn theaters, strip clubs, and taquerias before hanging a left at a funky, white-domed real-estate office. As we drove closer we began to see brown domes erupting from the flat, cactus-and-cat-claw desert’s surface. We pulled the van into a dusty parking lot in front of a ramshackle Quonset shack and parked. “So this is Pete’s,” Mel said in a low, disappointed voice.
About thirty worn-out, sun-bleached tents surrounded the pile of corrugated metal. Pete’s, which should have been condemned years ago, was the original Hueco climber’s hang. (It closed around 2000, but luckily the Hueco Rock Ranch has since filled this need, with vastly improved comfort and hygiene.) If you were a member of the elite you could stay at Todd Skinner’s house. Such infamous scenes as Fred Nicole’s pinkie-finger one-arm pull-up were shot at Skinner’s pad for the Masters of Stone 3 film. Since we were just poor college students with no campground reservation, our options were simple: We squatted in the desert.
We parked our van in a circle of other car-camping poachers. Many strange-looking people mulled about camp. One was Alf, a fixture to the desert Southwest climbing scene. Lanky, thin, and unshaven, he strolled by that evening, looking to see if anyone needed shoes resoled. Like many Hueco residents, Alf wore filthy jeans and a battered flannel shirt, looking like he’d just finished a shift at Grease Monkey. He peered out of his thick, sooty glasses as he lifted one foot to exhibit the bedroom slippers he’d reconfigured with Stealth rubber. Alf was proud of his improvisation, and was quick to inform us that he’d just climbed the 45 Degree Wall in them.

 

High-class livin’, Pete’s style, circa 1989.
Our squatter’s camp showcased classic examples of road-trip vehicles. Everything from trucks with homemade plywood shells topped with pitched pro-panel roofs, to Rainbow Bread delivery vans, to gutted station wagons fitted with floral curtains were on display. My friend Ed, too cheap to buy a van, stripped the passenger seat from his hatchback to create sleeping accommodations. He was particularly proud of the fact that in the middle of the night, he could simply roll over, open the door, and pee. In the morning these rolling homeless shelters cruised into the park blaring Metalica, and hordes of unshowered climbers unloaded and warmed up in the parking lot with a few rounds of hacky-sack as the authorities eyed us. Maybe we should have seen the writing on the wall.
Mel and I began wandering around the park, crawling though the maze-like formations, carefully avoiding the prickly ocotillo and yucca plants. After some exploring we stumbled upon the Mushroom Boulder, the most famous boulder in Hueco — if not the world — and home to such classics as The Mushroom Roof, What’s Left of Les, The El Murrays (Left, Center, and Right), and Local Flakes. Several dirty, heavily clothed individuals wallowed in the dirt, working on the underside of the dark formation. I pulled on my shoes, butting into the group of resident dirtbags, and began groping holds, chalking insatiably, and generally sketching about.

 

Isaac Caldiero on Focus (V11), East Spur.
Since commercial bouldering pads were unknown, I’d fashioned my own pad prior to the trip. It was only a couple inches thick, but it was better than nothing, and it protected me from the inevitable back-slapper that I repeatedly incurred at The Martini Roof. Other makeshift pads of the time were the duct-tape couch cushion and the classic tri-fold chaise lounge. That season there was even a team simul-carrying a futon mattress everywhere they went.
Hueco gets miserably cold in the winter once the sun goes down, and with such short days and cold nights, climbers had to find ways to rev it up after-hours. Fortunately, Pete’s hosted a roaring pallet fire every night. The crew of misfits would stand around drinking, smoking, and spraying about problems they sent, hadn’t sent, and the ones they needed to know about. In a scene reminiscent of a high-school kegger, duct-tape-patched hoodlums ran laps jumping over the fire, often screaming drunken obscenities.
Another popular nocturnal activity was a sojourn into the surreal Round Room, situated just inside the park. Its close proximity across the park fence from Pete’s made it a convenient nighttime hang when properly illuminated with lanterns. More than a few raging, tag-team pursuit tackle traverse comps were held in that circular syenite porphyry room.
An alternative nighttime journey included a quick hop over the border into the squalor of Juarez. That season the town was on maximum police readiness because a deranged serial killer had been on a slaughtering rampage of teenage prostitutes; we decided to stick to the Round Room. But this threat didn’t stop some climbers from going “abroad” in search of cheap Valium, tacos, and cervezas.
The quintessential Hueco experience changed forever in 1998. East and West Mountains, as well as the East Spur, where climbers once roamed and climbed without restriction, now required guides to access these problems. Despite the Internet rumors and media frenzy that heralded the “death of Hueco,” the park never “closed.” Provided that you’re willing to work within the system, access is still easy. The once-demolished vegetation is growing back, and the atmosphere is more tranquil thanks to limits on the number of daily visitors. While I was on a tour in 2005 with winter-resident “Arkansas Rick” Oliver, a Hueco veteran and now-guide, I saw killer new problems that were established only the season before, and classics from twenty years ago that I didn’t know existed. One thing that has changed, though, is how seriously climbers treat each day in the park compared with the “never-ending season” mentality of the golden age. “I’ve seen a real shift in the types of climbers coming to Hueco since my first visit fifteen years ago,” said Oliver. “The new boulderer kids are so much more serious when it comes to their vacations. They just don’t party as much!”
The volunteer guide system helps educate visitors (both climbers and other user groups) and control development, and limits the impact of climbers wandering around in the park. This program, which is largely coordinated and sponsored by the efforts of Rob Rice, has been hugely successful in working with Texas State Parks to improve climber access and awareness. If the guided thing just won’t work for you, North Mountain is still the way it used to be (provided that you’ve got a reservation; only seventy climbers are allowed there per day) and there’s a plethora of V-grades to keep you busy — but only after you’ve watched the park’s mandatory orientation video that explains who was there first, and what a “tank” is.

 

The Verm showin’ how it’s done, circa 1989.
Another effect of the Hueco “closure” is more global. The dynamic bouldering community, upset with their loss of Mecca, exploded outward to other areas, and the bouldering revolution truly began. “I see the ‘closure’ of Hueco as having a huge influence on the growth of bouldering in America,” says bouldering connoisseur Wills Young. “It was because Hueco became ‘off-limits’ that climbers began searching out options around their own local climbing areas, searching for alternatives.”
“The process of seeking out new areas was led by climbers who had been going to Hueco for a week or two each winter, then coming home and realizing their local rocks could be just as fun to climb on,” recalls bouldering filmmaker Josh Lowell. “I think the main effect of the closure was that boulderers who’d been spending their entire winters in Hueco needed to find another wintering spot with plenty of rock, stable weather, and free or cheap camping. That’s when Bishop blew up.”
Hueco’s history records a distinct tilt in climbers’ focus, the birth of what we now recognize as modern bouldering. Everyone who was able to get there — including myself — had a subtle but direct impact on bouldering’s future. We left there enlightened. When the restrictions came, this unspent power caused a cataclysmic expansion of bouldering throughout the country, shooting new vitality to places such as the Southeast, the Shawangunks, and Bishop. While Hueco has morphed past its wild days when climbers roamed freely, the guide program and visitor limitations are preserving the park for future generations. I’m grateful to have participated in the golden age, but I’m just as psyched as always to return again this year and savor some of the planet’s finest problems.

Luke Laeser is the production coordinator and webmaster for Climbing. When his eyes aren’t on the road looking for the next choss-pile Mecca, he’s focused on the next corner of a rally-car course.

 

 



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