Holey Land


Pulling pockets in the Land of Enchantment

A pocket is an absence, a hole in the rock created by gas bubbles, decomposing choss, or a missing cobble. But it’s an absence that climbers love, and New Mexico, a state known as much for its violent volcanic geology as for its spicy green chili, is the pocket capital of the Southwest. Whether you’re pimping monodoigts on the tan tuff of Cochiti Mesa, grabbing anti-cobbles on the red conglomerate of El Rito, going monkey-bars on incuts at the Enchanted Tower, or tweaking basalt divots at White Rock, you’ll find pure pocket pleasure in central New Mexico.

Pocket Dictionary

MONODOIGT: A one-finger pocket, from the French doigt (“finger”). Abidoigt is a two-finger pocket.

COBBLE:A round stone embedded in a conglomerate wall. A missing cobble creates a pocket.

HUECO:Spanish for “hole,” best known from Hueco Tanks, Texas.

SOLUTION HOLE: Cavity caused when rock is dissolved by percolatingwater.

Cochiti Mesa

Cochiti Mesa’s style is classic, vertical 1980s microsurgery on holds rarely larger than threefinger squashed ovals. The rock is welded Bandelier tuff: compacted ash spewed from the massive Jemez Volcano, which formed the mountains that house the Mesa. Starting in the 1970s, climbers explored the Mesa’s splitter cracks, mostly in the Dihedrals area. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that climbers started developing bolted routes—some of the first sport climbs in the Southwest.

The first round of Mesa face routes were sporty: e.g., the mixed bolt, pin, and gear 5.11s Double Jeopardy (aka The Prow) and Another Lichen Nightmare, by trad-dads like Doug Pandorf, Dave Baltz, and Paul Horak. More climbers soon followed, in particular Tom Kalakay, who put up the area’s signature dueling-monodoigt 5.12, Gunning for the Buddha, and Jean de Lataillade, a French émigré who established Cochiti’s first 5.13, Touch Monkey, in 1989.

Unfortunately, due to 2011’s Las Conchas Fire, the Mesa is presently closed, though it is slated for evaluation for possible reopening this spring. (Check with Santa Fe National Forest for updates; see Beta for contact info. Other affected crags along the same road include Disease Wall, Cacti Cliff, Jimmy Cliff, Pygmy Canyon, and Eagle Canyon.) Once the Mesa reopens, start your tour with the popular off-vert slab Just Say No to Crack, a 5.10a/b that preps you for the tall, pocket-peppered Mesa classic The Boya from La Jolla Who Stepped on a Cholla (5.11a). The Mesa’s hard-5.11 testpiece is Open Mouth Syndrome, on a scooped pillar featuring endless bidoigts. And finally, to get jiggy with Mesa 5.12, check out the rounded spine La Espina and of course Shadowdancer (5.12d), a gently overhanging faceto- arête on perfect black stone.


  • Season: Best in spring, summer, and autumn

  • Camping: Look for sites off the dirt National Forest road; improved (pay) camping can be found down by Cochiti Lake.

  • Guidebook:Jemez Rock & Pecos Area, by J. Marc Beverly (

  • Rack: 60m rope, 15 quickdraws, trad rack with emphasis on finger- and hand-sized pieces

  • Access: For updates on the closure, call the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest at (575) 829-3535.

  • Rest Days: Bandelier National Monument (home to early Pueblo dwellings carved into the rock) and Santa Fe, with all its Native American and Spanish history, are viable day trips—easily accessible from White Rock as well.

Trenis Hindle keeps moving on Gridlock (5.11a) at El Rito. Photo by Andrew Burr

El Rito

El Rito’s gently overhanging stone offers pockets from sharplipped hand-gobblers to crypto-sloping huecos and shallow tri- and bidoigts. The rock is a striking red-stained quartzite conglomerate formed into eye-pleasing bread loafs studded with cobbles—some as big as wheelbarrows—in bucolic Arroyo Seco Canyon, about two hours north of Albuquerque. While climbers had been picking their way up trad moderates on a slabby 100-meter formation farther up canyon since the 1970s, it wasn’t until spring of 1997 that Ed and Rich Strang, soon joined by others, began bolting the shorter but steeper cliffs down-canyon. Today there are 80-plus sport routes spread over 13 walls, with climbs from 5.7 to 5.13a, ranging from 20-foot appetizers to 100- foot rope-stretchers.

The tall, tilted Rad Wall, with its mostly 5.12 climbs, is a big lure, as is the centrally situated Beer Block, with short, bouldery lines on all sides. But for pure plugging perfection, it’s best to try an El Rito sampler: Warm up with the 5.9 Angry Sea Bass, a vert pocket smorgasbord on the airy Balcony. Then get steep on El Rito’s money 5.10, Cobble Wobble, on the Big Pine Wall, with a funky seam at midheight followed by full-hand sinkers so deep they’ve been known to house action figures. Next, go hueco-hunting on the fire-engine-red Redline (5.11a), on the shorter Ed Woody crag downhill. Fingers primed, you’re ready for the techy, bidoigt-intensive crowdpleaser Pocket Rocket, a sweet 5.12a back on Big Pine, or the Rad Wall’s central testpiece Against All Cobbs, a 5.12c whose “jugs” reveal themselves to be slippery slopers upon closer inspection.


  • Season: Best in spring, summer, and autumn

  • Camping: Good National Forest camping up the Cañada del Potrero spur road on the left, where you park to climb.

  • Guidebooks: Taos Rock: Climbs and Boulders of Northern New Mexico, by Jay Foley ( For more recent beta, visit and

  • Rack: 60m rope, 15 quickdraws

  • Rest Days: El Rito is a short drive from Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, where you can luxuriate in natural geothermal waters including lithia, iron, soda, and arsenic springs.

White Rock

Another Jemez Mountains gem, these crags are situated atop White Rock Canyon, east of Los Alamos. This venerable area was a trad and toprope destination until the late 1980s, when some of the crimpy, bubble-pocketed faces and arêtes were bolted as sport climbs. Those routes shine in the 5.10 to 5.12a range, with the Overlook and Below the Old New Place holding the highest concentration of bolted routes—about 100 climbs between them, including trad lines.

For a perfect day at the Overlook, the most popular crag, tone the guns on Cholla Wall (5.10a/b), a direttissima up horizontal mouths on the cliff’s central facet that goes entirely on gear. Or, if you’d rather clip, try the five-bolt Holy Wall (5.10a) just to the right. Now sneak around to the shady north face for the short and steep Huecos Rancheros, a 5.10c with big lockoffs between, well, huecos. Back on the east side, the twin testpieces Thorazine Dream (5.11+) and Face Off (5.12a) climb seemingly blank, gently overhanging panels with small solution holes and crimps in just the right places.


Enchanted Tower

If your tendons are trashed from tiny pockets, it’s time for the Enchanted Tower, where the holds are so big you’d need a lawn mower hanging off your haul loop to blow a digit. A 120-foot inverted pyramid floating over Thompson Canyon, two hours southwest of Albuquerque, the Tower (and its myriad shorter, outlying cliffs) is part of a pyroclastic flow, what Tower pioneer Phil Simon calls a “volcanic fruitcake” reassembled from the powerful explosions that sundered the Datil Mountains. The wildly overhanging rock is like Swiss cheese, studded with deep, sharp-lipped, angular pockets of all sizes.

In 1988, French climber Bertrand Gramont, in school in nearby Socorro, caught wind of this “mushroom” formation from a ranger friend, and from there it was game on: Gramont appropriated all his lead-bolt hangers from Box Canyon, outside Socorro, bought a Bosch, and recruited a crew for the first round of classics, including Zee Wicked Witch (5.12c), one of America’s first bolted monster overhangs.

Because every Tower climb is a full-on pocketfest, you can’t go wrong—as long as you stab for the correct sinkers. Warm up on the fun, 30-foot 5.8s and 5.9s on the Ugly Duckling Boulder, then head uphill to the dueling super-juggy 5.10s Tarred and Feathered and Cheshire Cat on the Sleeping Beauty Wall. Then throw down on the perfect Sleeping Beauty, a sweeping 5.11c face with big moves between letter-box sinkers.

You would be remiss in not getting on the Tower proper’s 20-odd routes, from 5.11 to 5.13a. Rumpelstilskin (5.12a) and Zee Wicked Witch are perennial favorites, and for even harder people the area’s most striking line—Goliath, an enduro 5.13a right up the Tower’s hyper-exposed nose—is a must. You’ll find some of New Mexico’s biggest, deepest solution holes on the route, but that still might not keep you from taking the big whip.

If the Tower feels too crowded, head 1.8 miles up Thompson Canyon to the Land Beyond, a fun, building-sized block with about 20 climbs. Info at Or if it’s too chilly at the Tower, get on the short but steep andecite cliffs of Box Canyon, a desert hang that’s also home to stacks of good, Hueco-esque boulder problems.


  • Season: Best in spring, summer, and autumn

  • Camping: Most visitors camp right below the Tower, though there are other options in Thompson Canyon; bring bags to remove human waste.

  • Guidebook:The Enchanted Tower: Pockets Full O’ Fun, by Eric Fazio-Rhicard and Guy Agee (

  • Rack: 60m rope, 15 quickdraws

  • Access: Be low-key and respectful on nearby private land; drive slowly through the ranch and up the canyon, and only during daylight hours.

  • Rest Days: Head into Datil and the Eagle Guest Ranch, where you can get a great burger or steak and marvel at the giant snakeskin.

Donn Goodhew torques back on Worm World Cave (V9) in Squamish, British Columbia. Photo by Lyn Barraza

Local Hero: Donn Goodhew

Donn “Cooch” Goodhew was but a neophyte climber when Bertrand Gramont recruited him for new-routing at the Enchanted Tower. As Goodhew, now living in the Bay Area, recalls, the Tower came along at just the right time, when the Socorro, New Mexico, crew was in desperate need of a summer hang other than their local Box Canyon—an area plagued by 100-degree temps and biting gnats. At the Box, “We were wearing lycra tights, long-sleeved shirts, hats with bandannas hanging off them, and putting on ‘Avonbazoil’ [Bertrand’s name for Avon Bath Oil] as bug killer,” says Goodhew. As soon as they headed for cooler Datil, the climbers quickly realized the Tower’s quality, but still had no idea how revolutionary the overhanging climbing would be in the days before American Fork and Rifle.

Goodhew took part in key Tower first ascents, including Sleeping Beauty (5.11c) and Rumpelstilskin (5.11d), and recalls belaying Gramont on Zee Wicked Witch (5.12c). Part of the Witch lore is the Jack Daniels Pit Stop, a TV-sized hueco at mid-height into which you can cam your elbows and rest before the sickeningly exposed upper headwall. “Bert put the first bottle of Jack up there,” says Goodhew. “If you wanted to truly do the Witch, you had to take a couple of shots before you left the rest. There was even a shot glass for a while.”

Goodhew and Gramont came back to repeat the Witch one season after its first ascent, and each did the Pit Stop routine. This time, however, both men fell violently ill—for days. “Man, we felt horrible,” says Goodhew. “The rumor was that someone had pissed in the bottle.”a