“We’ve gone the wrong way,” I said. The car’s headlights illuminated an unfamiliar gate at the end of a field. We had been driving for what felt like hours, following a whisper of a two-track in the dark. I checked my phone again for a signal, to access a map. There was none. “Maybe we should camp here and figure it out in the morning?” my girlfriend, Jamie, suggested. Lost, in a cow field, in eastern New Mexico, and not a rock in sight—could this really be the Land of Enchantment’s best bouldering?
That was early 2012, just after I had moved to Los Alamos for work. As a British expat, the amount of open space shocked me—the population density in England is 1,070 people per square mile; in New Mexico, it’s 17. I didn’t realize it then, but my move timed perfectly with the wave of a nascent bouldering boom in northern New Mexico—word had gotten out about the discovery of not one but two major bouldering destinations. First was the Ortegas, a massive outcrop of bullet-hard, swirled quartzite cliffs and boulders northwest of Ojo Caliente. And second was Roy, nestled in the cattle-ranching high plains of northeastern New Mexico near the eponymous farming village (pop. 230).
At what climbers call “Roy,” the Canadian River has carved out myriad dendritic canyons in the Dakota sandstone caprock, creating a playground of unimaginable scope. The area centers on Mills Canyon, a chunk of public land managed by the Forest Service amidst a checkerboard of disparate land ownership—largely ranch property, with a smaller mix of state and BLM land. On the public land, a dozen or so side-drainages feed Mills Canyon; 30 miles of cliffband ring Mills and its tributaries, sheltering erratically distributed caches of boulders in the depths of winding streambeds. Thirteen established trailheads access over 50 zones and some 1,800 documented problems from V0 to V13, climbable all but summer. Even so, the potential is staggering—the number of climbs here could be doubled or tripled.
Most climbers’ first impressions of Roy are its remoteness, its vastness, and its sheer improbability—located east of the Rocky Mountains on Kiowa National Grasslands shortgrass prairie. The stone features the kind of gorgeous, textured, bullet-hard slopers you’d find farther east, like in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains.
In the ensuing months, Jamie and I slowly got to know the canyons, thanks to maps and beta from two of the area’s main, Albuquerque-based pioneers, the wry, acerbic William Penner and his effervescent counterpart, Tom Ellis. I’ve come to think of them as having a Lennon-McCartney relationship: Penner as the sharp intellectual and Ellis the down-to-earth counterweight. (Ellis jokingly says Cheney-Bush would be a better analogy.) Getting to know them has revealed an impressive history, a remarkable story of how a small group of friends had this future bouldering destination virtually to themselves for nearly a decade.
Although Taos and Santa Fe climbers had established undocumented route climbing and bouldering in Roy during the 1990s, Penner and Ellis were arguably the first to recognize its full bouldering potential. Penner, 46, a well-traveled all-rounder with a thirst for new climbing, had first seen the boulders in Mills Canyon in 2000, and returned for a stint working here as an archaeologist with the Forest Service in 2003. His sinecure allowed him time to explore. On an early foray into one of the side drainages, he found the Bear Boulder, an enormous chunk of dark, iron-varnished stone with a perfect overhang cleaved to fifty degrees—home to the now-legendary Bear Toss (V11). Penner was impressed, but convincing others to visit was another matter. The prevailing view at the time in New Mexico was that the state was tapped out for bouldering potential, and you were better off driving to Hueco.
Development in Roy wouldn’t really kick off until 2006. Ellis likes to give Penner a hard time about their first trip, three years after Penner’s initial sojourn. Recalls Ellis, “He’d been raving about this place for years, and when I finally came out, he took me to the Roadside Area in Mills Canyon—I mean, it was fine, but just not that amazing. I told him we should go down to the streambed, which was right there, and lo and behold—it was full of huge, incredible boulder problems on great stone!” Penner just rolls his eyes—he’s heard this one before.
Ellis, 46, works flat-out for five months of the year in Alaska paving roads to have winters off in New Mexico. An affable and generous climber, he focuses on bouldering and developing. He has a talent for sniffing out killer moves and “diamonds in the rough,” often driven by the need to use a certain hold regardless of the aesthetics of the line. Take Ellis’s Roy problem A-Frame (V8), a squat, unremarkable-looking prow that reveals itself to be a deceptively sustained sloper compression rig.
The 2006 trip sold Ellis on Roy. Soon, along with Penner and Ellis, a tight-knit group of developers formed, including Masumi Shibata, Grady Ball, Aaron Chavez, and J.C. Cochran. “The following six years were a blur of constant discovery and excitement. We spent nearly every weekend during the climbing season exploring, breaking in trails, and sending new lines, eventually putting up nearly 1,500 documented problems,” says Penner. “Seasons would pass without returning to the same spots because we were constantly finding new zones.” Penner and Ellis would come out together all season every season, constantly pushing each other to climb harder and explore more. Having spent years scrambling through serpentine canyon streambeds, thrashing across overgrown hillsides, and consulting Penner and Ellis’s three books’ worth of enigmatic, hand-written notes while writing a guidebook, I can safely say, “Holy crap, did they do a lot of work!”
Ellis, a highly energetic early-riser, often scopes new potential before you’ve even had breakfast. When everyone else is tired, he keeps trying, somehow managing to pull off impressive ascents above his pay grade on a last-gasp effort. This do-or-die attitude gave Roy some of its early classic hard problems such as Carpet Bombers (V10) and No Tiempo Moss (V10/11), often by headlamp. These lines, like most Roy problems at the time, were established in only a session or two, as Ellis and Penner would rarely return to the same zone—they were always being lured away by “what lurked around the next bend of the streambed,” as Penner puts it.
Penner’s climbing style reflects his sharp mind: He’s established numerous classic highballs in Roy ground-up, including the 20-foot runnel-striped Beautiful Pig (V6) in Middle Mesteño. The problem starts with a gritstone-style slab then steepens to vertical. The gnarly crux comes above, with a one-of-a-kind mono-runnel-pinch and a committing highstep at 15 feet—enough to repel most suitors. Ellis remarks that Penner’s self-confidence, which some confuse for arrogance, has enabled him to consistently top out new highballs. He also confesses some jealousy over Penner’s mental skills, which have pushed him to up his own highball game.
For this duo, developing Roy became a consuming passion. When in Hueco Tanks or Brione, they wished they were back in Roy. “Not to say that Roy is better,” Ellis explains. “But, for us, the freedom and liberation from the climbing scene that Roy offered were what we wanted more than anything else.”
While the “Wild West” feeling of freedom at Roy draws many, I keep coming for the sheer variety. Not only does each canyon have a unique vibe, but the shapeshifting stone varies enormously.
Cracked with incut crimps and gilded with neon-yellow lichen, the deep red-purple, desert-varnished, plated “Merlot” is perhaps the best, akin to Red Rock’s finest and found in limited quantities almost everywhere. Streambed rock, meanwhile, sports a deep, uniform water polish that creates stellar sloper and compression climbing—even better when a Merlot boulder receives river weathering. The shorter cliffbands on the canyon rims lend themselves to pumpy highballs and undercut roofs, frequently indented with solution pockets and jugs; calcified, conglomerate, banded, and cross-bedded rock add further interest. Of course, there is desert choss, some of which cleans up and some of which does not. Your average, brownish, bland-looking Roy rock is also quite variable: angular with clean edges in dry environments, slopey with more sculpted features in wetter locales.
The bumpy drive into Mills Canyon descends through the colorful strata of the 800-foot gorge, cutting through 160 million years of sandstone deposits, and takes you to the Canadian River, where Melvin Mills attempted an enormous agricultural operation in the late 1800s. Mills planted as many as 20,000 fruit and nut trees, but a flood wiped out the orchard and he died penniless. Stumps and his ruined hotel remain on the land. (Incidentally, this historical site is what brought Penner out here to study back in 2003.) All that remains of his town “Mills” are a couple of farmhouses on the highway, yet it used to be home to more than 3,000 people. The area attracts a trickle of tourists, plus a handful of hunters and rock crawlers.
Around 2010, word was getting out about Roy, and the next wave of climbers arrived, mainly Colorado boulderers. John Kuphal, a Gunks climber and good friend of Ellis’s based in New Paltz, New York, demonstrated possibly the highest level of dedication. Work would take Kuphal to Dallas on occasion, from where he would drive 500 miles to Roy just for a couple of days to pick a few plum FAs. On one eventful weekend in 2009, he established Giant Prostitutes in Space (V8, and possibly the best-named boulder problem ever), a 25-foot highball with a sloping mantel finish over an ugly tiered landing. Kuphal sent with just one spotter and a couple of pads. The following day yielded the crimper classic Flaming Liberty (V6), so-named after an accident that happened that trip when he put his gas lantern inside his rented Jeep during a windstorm and the car caught fire. (Miraculously, the rental company failed to notice the partially melted carpet.)
Although Penner and Ellis’s group had established quality climbing in most of the dozen or so canyons accessible in Roy, one area has notably stood out: the five-mile drainage of Mesteño Canyon. As befits its name (mesteño means “untamed,” used to describe a mustang), parts feel wild and desolate, the terrain of mountain lions and bears, and yet other sections have lent themselves to the most easily accessible, densest clusters of problems. Start by exploring the Jumbles, a condensed zone of boulders in a dry riverbed. You’ll find over 100 problems here of most difficulties and styles. Don’t miss Funbags (V5/6), an ultra-classic line of sloped scoops with 120-grit texture up a tilted, cross-hatched wall.
Above here are numerous hillside zones, including the impressive Tiger Stripe Wall area, which boasts a quintet of highball boulders, all lined up in a row in a stand of Ponderosa pines. Icarus (V7) ascends a slightly off-vertical Merlot face with big lockoffs between slanting ribs, while One-Eyed Clown (V10), lauded as the best of its grade in the state, climbs a beautiful, arching, pocketed arête. Its neighbor Quarter Life Crisis (V12), meanwhile, is a less heady but more powerful steep face on pockets. The tallest, Hokusai’s Wave (V12), is one of the boldest hard problems this side of the Buttermilks, a 30-foot wave of sidepulls and pockets with a compression crux at its crest. Unsurprisingly, Keenan Takahashi’s daunting first ascent has yet to be repeated.
Takahashi, a Yosemite-based boulderer, first came to Roy in spring 2015. “To drive up to the [Middle Mesteño] overlook and have Hokusai’s be the first boulder I saw in Roy was very special,” he says. He returned a year later with this line as his sole objective. He practiced on a rope, headpoint-style, but the high crux—a precise right-hand stab into a small slot—still concerned him. It’s a move, says Takahashi, that were you to blow it would see you slingshotting far left, “probably past all the pads.” Witnessing the FA was terrifying, I’ll admit, but Takahashi’s fiercely focused send was flawless. His topout screams shattered the silent tension that had built all afternoon after his announcement that he was going to go for it that day.
Finally, the Dave Graham Memorial Boulder project, close to Hokusai’s Wave, combines elements of all the above through an awe-inspiring overhung wall of washboard runnels. To paraphrase Penner, its name is an homage to the US’s most prolific boulderer and his vision for bold, singular climbs, which formed a wry attempt to get his attention to come try this line. (In the end, Graham did climb in Roy and established several V13s, but did not try this project.)
Hike further downstream of the Jumbles and you will find four or five similar zones, so much rock that it can be a challenge to scramble through this tangled confusion of water-polished boulders piled atop bedrock panels. Upstream by several miles is an area of cliffbands, highballs, and horizontal roofs with a grasslands approach over moonscape terrain. Here, you’ll find the World Wide Wall, a 25-foot-tall band of streaked stone with a dozen or so high-quality problems in the V4–10 range. A photo of this wall that Kuphal posted on his website 0friction.com in 2010 formed one of the early eye-catching, publicly shared images of Roy. Aesthetic, independent lines of oval-shaped, sloped pockets reach juggy topouts just when you need them—enough to make even the most risk-averse boulderer into a highball junky.
The World Wide Wall also drew another surprising type of attention—from local law enforcement. In 2012, the owner of a nearby ranch reported commotion emanating from what was normally a desolate area. Reserve Deputy Sheriff Flowers, a local who lives at the entrance to the Kiowa Grasslands, was called in and found Penner and Ellis’s chalk at the base of the cliff. Suspecting drugs, he sent a sample to the crime lab (maybe he should have sent it to Friction Labs?). At the same time, two startled Colorado climbers found themselves visiting the Flowers ranch after finding their stashed pads missing from Middle Mesteño, in their stead a note instructing them that Flowers had their gear. They feared the worst, but it turned out that Mr. Flowers, a 6’8” ex-rancher in his 80s with hands the size of spades, couldn’t have been friendlier. He had Googled the name on the crashpads, figured out the origins of the chalk, and was just holding onto the pads for safekeeping. A few weeks later, Penner and Ellis called upon Flowers—they were surprised to learn that he was already clued-in, and had many suggestions for encouraging more climbers to visit. After a tour of Mesteño Canyon, the octogenarian became impressed with their passion, especially as they promised to keep an eye out for meth labs (perhaps Flowers had been watching too much cable news).
In general, the relationship with locals has been positive. The Dust Bowl village of Roy has a colorful history, with its main street forming a sun-bleached, open-air museum of Americana, but has suffered constant depopulation since the 1940s; nowadays, it is predominantly composed of a small ranching and retirement community. The main draws for climbers are a locally owned grocery store, and a bar in which wearing a cowboy hat and chaps will help you blend in. Just don’t expect anything to be open on Sundays.
As the original pioneer settlers of the area found out, the high plains are subject to wild extremes of weather, and visiting during the full six-month climbing season (November to April) teaches you to roll with the conditions. Late fall is ideal, after the first freeze has dispatched the mosquitoes and put the rattlers to sleep. Midwinter brings the occasional brutal storm, but tough camping conditions can pay off with sending temps in the low-angle sun. Springtime, meanwhile, can be notoriously windy—easily avoided by climbing in the sheltered canyons. As soon it starts greening up again, with the reemergence of bugs, poison ivy, and snakes, most people call it quits—monsoon rains move in to wash away the chalk, the trails grow back over, and the canyons reset.
Penner and Ellis originally envisioned Roy as a word-of-mouth area, which it remained for years. This approach also fitted Roy’s remoteness—2.5 hours from Santa Fe, and 3.5 hours from Colorado Springs. However, increasing numbers of climbers were arriving and getting lost anyway. Many of Penner and Ellis’s classic problems were being renamed by people who thought they were doing first ascents. Social media muddied the waters of the word-of-mouth concept, and, worst of all, the duo faced accusations of being secretive and protective. With the growing pains of a new climbing destination in the twenty-first century, the compromise was to create a print guidebook that highlighted a selection of the most concentrated sectors, whilst leaving most other areas unpublished. With the help of many local climbers over a two-year period, I put together the first bouldering guidebook for the state, including Roy and the Ortegas.
After a day of try-hard in the twisting canyons, the arid emptiness of the windswept flatlands hits you on the hike out. Arguably, this is the most meaningful component of the Roy experience, a punctuation mark on a day well spent. We’ve witnessed this element change as the guidebook has brought more climbers to select areas of Mills and Mesteño canyons: Trails and boulders alike have improved with traffic, but correspondingly, the days of absolute solitude at the Jumbles may be over. Conversely, isolation and adventure are still preserved in the other 13 miles of public canyons, where the climbing is largely still free of chalk. As a footnote, those 13 miles are but a postage stamp on the larger geological map of Dakota-sandstone distribution in northeastern New Mexico: The Canadian River winds its way southward for another 90 miles through a bewildering number of privately owned canyons, and drains another 60-mile rift to the west, a combined area the size of Rhode Island. Together with the huge number of quartzite boulders in the Ortegas, it is hard to believe that no one thought there was quality bouldering in New Mexico. Now, it seems, there is more than anyone knows what to do with.
I first came out to this middle of nowhere to see if the rumors of good bouldering were true. Now, I can tell you, yes, but there is so much more. I recall my fondest memories here: laughs at the campfire with friends, exploring frozen ice caves in midwinter, the tumbleweed invasion that buried the roads one weekend, the blaze of rowdy sunsets that fill big, dynamic skies, pronghorn galloping alongside the car, the cathartic dose of wilderness and adventure that glow inside you as you’re driving home on the dead-straightaway out of Roy. Middle of nowhere? It doesn’t feel that way to me anymore.
Roy Bouldering Logistics
From I-25, turn off at Wagon Mound (from the south) or Springer (from the north) toward Roy. The turnoff to Mills Canyon is located on NM-39, 10 miles north of Roy, 35 miles southeast of Springer. A five-mile gravel road leads to the rim of Mills Canyon and the main campsite, from where multiple roads split off toward the different climbing areas.
November to April.
New Mexico Bouldering, by Owen Summerscales (2016).
Two free Forest Service campgrounds at Mills Canyon with picnic tables and toilets (no water), and dispersed camping near climbing trailheads.
Close all gates behind you to stop cattle escaping. Keep your dogs under control whilst in cow pastures. Don’t trespass—get the guidebook or a Forest Service map that shows property boundaries. Follow Leave No Trace ethics.
Roy has a small grocery store, bar, and several accommodation options. Springer is a little larger with more amenities, including two motels, several restaurants, and a swimming pool for rest-day showers.
Research chemist Owen Summerscales is the author of New Mexico Bouldering and a forthcoming companion guidebook for sport climbing.