Early climber gets a spot
I sit in the passenger seat of my Subaru Outback Sport, the sun rising to my right over the East Spur of Hueco Tanks State Park, twenty miles outside of El Paso, Texas. My car’s thermometer reads 25F degrees. The wind has fallen silent for the first time in a week, giving the desert a welcomed calm which enables the sun’s warmth to be fully received. I will likely remove two of the four layers I now wear before I am allowed into the park.
I rose at 6 am and drove from the Hueco Rock Ranch to the park entrance, again the third in line. I may jump on a volunteer tour by 10, or wait till noon to gain access to North Mountain. My cell phone dangles by its USB tether from the driver’s side visor, facing due West to a gap in the mountains which apparently enables a very narrow band to the desired Edge connection. With this digital lifeline I am able to work until allowed into the park, and again at night following dinner and time spent in the Barn or around the fire.
It’s a strange juxtaposition, to let go of the comforts of modern accommodations, to camp in the middle of a high, wind scorched desert outside an historic border town, to watch the sky catch fire by the hand of our own sun before it gives way to the countless suns of the night sky, and then to slip into the world of electrons whose messages carry reminders of the deadlines and demands of those who awake each morning for a very different reason.
The Rock Ranch
The Ranch was established in the mid ’90s by the late Todd Skinner and friends, and is now owned and operated by Rob Rice. It consists of a 2-story house and hotel, the “Barn”, two fire pits, slack lines, a dog kennel, and a few dozen camping spots set among ten acres of creosote bush, prickly pear, and ocotillo. The house/hotel offers a higher quality standard of living with nightly socializing away from the intense Foosball games in the Barn. The Barn houses a never-really-worked tuner and speakers, Foosball table, hot shower, card tables and cross-selection of donated couches which have long since reached the end of their intended life.
This is the year the Park Service permanently closed the Mushroom boulder, as presented at the Rock Ranch. Too much top soil lost, artifacts destroyed by the pressures of overuse. The majority of the climbers responded by asking why the Park Service didn’t take precautionary measures sooner, to protect and preserve instead of waiting until it was for the most part, too late. The Park admitted to having not managed the area well, inspecting hot spots too seldom. Sad, for the artifacts and for the climbers too.
A climbing mecca
People come from around the world to climb at Hueco Tanks, three or four languages spoken each night around the fire. And yet it feels like a family reunion for the faces are familiar from previous years at Hueco and commonplace meetings at Joshua Tree, Bishop, or Rocky Mountain National Park. Despite the countless tens of thousands of committed climbers world-wide, the bouldering community feels small when I consider the number of familiar faces over so many miles, a perpetually unfolding journey to mecca, year after year.
Sedan roof racks sport crash pads, cargo vans with built-in kitchens, mini-RVs and pull along trailers, all adorned with an ornamental myriad of stickers promoting peace, climbing, and intentional homelessness by high school and college graduates who prefer the challenge of climbing a rock than a corporate ladder.
It’s a simple life, focused almost entirely on improving the mind and body for just one purpose –to climb harder. Some people climb one day on, one day off; some two days on, and then rest. Some come for just a few days or one week and push themselves to the limit, climbing four or five days straight which inevitably results in a donation of blood to the granitic god who turns crimson to brown; fingers taped, muscle tissue torn, wrapped, and bandaged.
Silhouetted against the midnight flames are animated bodies whose legs, arms, and fingers retell the epic battle of the day, each move accompanied with the sounds of explosive release, cries of pain, and ultimate victory. The dances by fire light are the retelling of battles lost or won not with an enemy, but with an ancient companion whose uplifted magma chamber eroded into the perfect training ground for the climber’s soul.