From the tall V0 jug ladder of Melon Patch on the Front Side to the overhanging, nails-hard crimping on Karoshi (V15) at the Dragon’s Den, Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, Texas, offers America’s—and arguable the world’s—best, densest collection of boulder problems. The three mountains of syenite porphyry are riddled with caves, grottoes, slots, fissures, and freestanding blocks, with problems ranging from dark iron-rock slabs to lighter-colored compression roofs on wind-sculpted flutings and slopers. The one constant is quality—Hueco’s thousands of problems are mostly three or four stars, and the movement is athletic, the rock so unique in its architecture as to defy belief. Where else could you do a 140-foot, overhanging slot-traverse V10/5.13+ like the Norwegian Wall and never even rope up?
With abundant sun and daytime highs in the 50s, winter is the perfect time to visit Hueco, which lies just east of El Paso in the scrubby Chihuahuan desert. Hueco is a place of immense beauty and power. Its natural cisterns collect water and attract animals, and for the past 10,000 years humans have found both sustenance and shelter here. Brilliant yellow-and-ochre pictographs—masks, handprints, dancing figures, and deities—dot the walls of secret caves, and you’ll find corn-grinding holes in the slabs, evidence of the Jornada Mogollon people who used to farm here and of the other Native Americans who came later. As you top out a boulder high on North Mountain, the desert horizon meeting azure skies laced with winter cirrus, you can feel the energy that’s drawn humans here for millennia.
Hueco can also be punishing. It’s almost invariably overhanging (if not upside-down), the rock is rough, the moves are athletic, powerful, and wild, and the landings are hardpacked earth or rock slabs—and many of the problems are highballs. For your visit, you’ll want to come prepared with the best bouldering kit out there. (For more bouldering gear, visit Backcountry.com.)
While some blocks are at desert level, many are high on the mountains, accessed via steep slabs, scrambly boulder-hops, and the occasional low-fifth-class rock step. For maximum purchase while schlepping crashpads up this technical terrain, Scarpa’s soft, versatile, skate-style Gecko approach shoe is a sure thing. It has a stylish 1.8mm suede upper with a recycled-polyester lining and pliable, perforated mesh tongue, a wraparound sticky-rubber toe cap for mellow cracks, and a dual-density midsole for support and shock absorption (boulder hopping, anyone?). Meanwhile, the Vibram Reptilia HG / Idrogrip sole gives you lizard glom, with a light tread for trail traction.
Metolius Magnum Crash Pad
If highballs like the 25-foot See Spot Run (V6), with its committing final crank above a flat slab, are on your list, then you’ll need serious foam. Metolius brings landing-zone salvation with its Magnum, a tri-fold pad that opens to an ample 4 feet by 6 feet, with 4 inches of foam to land on: a 2.5” open-cell-foam center sandwiched between a 1” top layer and a 0.5” bottom layer, both comprised of denser closed-cell foam. This durable pad has a 900D nylon shell and angle-cut hinges to eliminate gutters when opened; to facilitate carry, it has padded shoulder straps (key when you’re portaging 19 pounds o’ pad) and drag handles for problem-base transit. As you stare down gratefully at that nest of pads far below, pay a quick thought to the early Hueco boulderers, who did many of the highballs in the 1970s and ‘80s before crashpads were invented.
Topo Designs Daypack (20L)
Sure, you could just fold your climbing stuff up in your pad, but then it gets yard-saled (and maybe lost) each time you move to a new venue, as you often do at Hueco. A better bet is a pack big enough to hold your shoes, chalk pot, water, snacks, layers, etc. but that still fits within a folded pad and can compress—or works well as a standalone pack if you aren’t carrying a pad. Made in the USA, Topo Designs’ svelte, U-shaped 20L Daypack hits that sweet spot, offering a deep main compartment, internal laptop sleeve and organization panel (skin-care kit goes here!), side water-bottle pockets, and bombproof YKK zippers. If you decide to carry it, the 1,000D Cordura shell will hold up against Hueco’s rough rock while squeezing through corridors, while the padded shoulder straps make for a gentle ride.
Friction Labs Bam Bam
For our money, Bam Bam is perhaps the finest, grippiest chunky-chalk blend on the market—a little goes a long way, making it perfect for those long, sustained Hueco problems that border on being routes. Made of pure magnesium carbonate, without fillers, the chalk melds a fine powder with chunks up to golf-ball-sized; crush as needed to get the texture you want, or keep the larger chunks floating in your bag to crunch your mitt around, for full-palm coverage at that kneebar rest. Best of all, without any added drying agents, Friction Labs chalk doesn’t turn your hands into a lunar landscape of cuts, splits, crack, fissures, and callus canyons—key in a dry environment like Hueco.
La Sportiva Solution Comp
Don’t worry about the “Comp” in the name—Sportiva’s new, softer version of the Solution is just as much of a beast on rock as it is in the gym. Sportiva took their proven performance shoe/slipper the Solution and softened the midsole, added a bigger toe-scumming patch, and narrowed the heelcup. Paired with the Solution’s standard precision toebox, downturned P3 platform for “bite” on micros, and 3.5mm Vibram XS Grip 2 sole, the Comp is a technical, versatile monster that’s especially suited to the gymnastic bouldering at Hueco, where aggressive heel hooks, toe-scums, bicycle moves, and other fancy footwork are just as mandatory as toeing hard into razor crimps and iron-rock divots.
Black Diamond Mondo Chalk Pot
Never mind those vintage photos of Hueco Tanks guidebook author John “Vermin” Sherman—the inventor of the V-Scale—climbing with double chalk bags in his 1991 guidebook to the area. These days, smart boulderers leave the chalk on the ground, dipping their hands in a chalk pot first to then climb unencumbered. The roomy Mondo Chalk Pot is perfect for Hueco, with a stable base to reduce tipping, a magnetic seal and roll-top closure to prevent spillage during transport, a zippered stash pocket for sundries like tape, nail clippers, etc., and dual brush holders—one big, one small. Let’s go!
Prana Stretch Zion
A classic Hueco roof problem might involve improbable beta like a drop-knee that you then turn into a kneescum, to keep the body tension and own some miserable sloper. If your clothes don’t move with you, you’re toast. Prana’s aesthetic, cargo-style Stretch Zion pants tick the bouldering freedom-of-movement box, featuring a 97-percent nylon/3-percent Spandex blend, adjustable waistbelt, roll-up leg snaps to keep the cuffs off your feet while climbing, and gusseted inseam. You also get UPF 50+ sun protection—perfect for those approaches under the desert sun—and a DWR finish (it has been known to rain and snow at Hueco).
Houdini Power Air Houdi (Hoodie)
There are caves and corridors buried so deep in Hueco’s crenellated mountains that the stone never sees the light of day. These can be cold places, especially in the dead of winter—great for friction but challenging for staying warm on the rock or between burns. Using Polartec’s new Power Air textile, which is made to shed fewer microfibers than similar fleeces, and also comprises 54 percent recycled polyester, the Power Air Houdi is perfect for venturing into the park’s bowels. It’s warm yet light, flexible (we have topped out many a cold-day boulder problem in the Houdi), and built with climbers in mind, with nifty bells and whistles like thumbhole loops, a two-way zipper, easy-cinch hem drawcords hidden in the pockets, and a high, deep hood you can snug up with the torso zipper.
Friction Labs Climbskin Cream
There’s a reason Hueco has problems with names like Bloody Flapper, Searing Flesh, and The Ginsu Wall: The rock here is S-H-A-R-P, sharp! This means proper skin care and maintenance, especially for an extended trip when a flapper, split, gobi, or wound could sideline you for days. Part of your post-climb ritual, in addition to filing down calluses, should be the application of a climber-specific skin cream to re-moisturize your hands. Friction Labs’ wax-free formula hits the spot for climber hand repair; it’s also free of artificial colors and perfumes, key for when you’re slathering it on after a long, punishing day of pebble-wrestling.