Many years ago, I helped my friend Ryan Dorward and his brother Colin build a climbing wall in the basement of his mother's house near the University of Alberta. Using scraps of 'found' wood, several generous donations, and more than a little scrounging, we constructed a great bouldering cave in which to while away the winter evenings. The bouldering cave came to be known as the Barn Wall; I remember it being so-named because several of us built a big section of it one weekend in a fashion that we thought reminiscent of a barn-raising; alternatively, it may have been because the framing of one roof-to-bulge wall looked like the gambrel roof of a barn. Regardless, the Barn Wall was an amazing place to climb, a laboratory where we learned how to heel-hook and mastered the drop-knee (both relatively recent innovations to us in the early 1990s). The technical expertise and power we developed there would serve us well sport climbing in the Canadian Rockies, but the one experience we really wanted - yet seemed impossible due to the distance, associated cost, and time investment - was to boulder in Hueco Tanks.
To poor students in the early 1990s, Hueco Tanks might have well been on the moon. We went to school in the winter, and worked in the summer, a schedule that left little opportunity (or money) to travel to what was then the de facto bouldering capital of North America. A handful of stalwart Edmontonian climbers made the pilgrimage to Hueco Tanks; Bonar McCallum, Trevor Tyre, and Simon Robbins had all (at one time or another) made the drive down to the Texan desert, leaving us to our indoor winter climbing pursuits. Although the resultant 'Hueco envy' would eventually drive me to hunt for (and find) bouldering areas in western Canada (at the time "Canadian Bouldering" was an oxymoron), Shelley and I never managed to find the time or opportunity to make the trip to Hueco Tanks.
At this point in the story, we can leap forward many years to the spring of 2016, when Kyle and I had just returned from a (very) successful bouldering trip to Red Rocks near Las Vegas. Between attempts on the latest project in the gym, we were discussing where we might go next. "We should go to Hueco Tanks!" I said half-jokingly. When Kyle replied that it sounded like a good idea, I knew that things were getting serious; Kyle doesn't joke around when it comes to bouldering. After a protracted period of negotiation we settled on a springtime pilgrimage to Hueco Tanks, a trip I felt was long overdue.
Although the Hueco Tanks Public Use Plan is somewhat of a barrier to unfettered access of the area, Kyle did the necessary research and legwork to contact the Park and reserve tour-days for bouldering on North Mountain (the only one of the four mountains that allows unguided access) for several days of our trip. This schedule would leave us opportunity to arrange for guided tours of the other mountains of Hueco Tanks (that require booking of guided tours). We planned on meeting my friend (and New Mexico bouldering guidebook author) Owen Summerscales in Hueco as well; he knew a guide who would be willing to take us out on tours.
Bouldering trips (and long drives) are more fun if more people are involved, and since we were looking at an (at least) 26-hour drive followed by a week in one of the best bouldering areas on the continent, we thought it best to recruit another climber. We invited Davin (stalwart Frank Slide local, strong climber, and all-round fun guy) to come along, and he was excited to join us on the trip. Kyle arranged for us to stay at The Hacienda near Hueco Tanks, partially because of its proximity to Hueco Tanks (just a mile or so away), and partially because we have decided we are too old to sleep on the ground.
Eventually, the day of the trip arrived, and we packed the car and settled in for what we assumed (correctly, it turned out) would be a soul-destroying drive from Lethbridge to the Mexican border. Long drives always start out the same way - with hilarious banter, a bag of potato chips, and fun conversation - but after six hours a grim silence sets in. Though we made efforts to break up the monotony of the drive with brief stops to eat, get gas, or switch drivers, we pushed on through the evening, past the night, and into the next day. Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado passed by in a sagebrush-colored blur. The ranchhouses of Montana were replaced by the high-desert emptiness of Wyoming, only to give way to the bustling urbanity of Denver. The air outside the car warmed as the front ranges of Colorado morphed into the hills of northern New Mexico, only to give way once more to the deserts of the southwest, where expanses of cactus and yucca stretch away into the dun-colored hills.
We finally pulled into El Paso, and stopped to get groceries (the Walmart was still open!) and eat (El Taco Tote!) before winding our way out of the city toward Hueco Tanks and the Hacienda. Almost 30 hours after beginning our drive, we finally arrived at our destination under the starry night skies of the Texan desert. Having only slept in the car for a few hours (Kyle and Davin definitely slept less than I did), we were feeling sleep-deprived, but Emily (the AMAZING host of the Hacienda) showed us around the building, and got us settled in.
The next day was our first day at Hueco, and we had reservations to climb at North Mountain. My friend Peter Michaux (one of the infamous Victorians and author of the first Squamish Bouldering guidebook) had sent us a list of must-do warm-up problems, which helped us focus our mornings on some of the best easy lines that Hueco has to offer. Arriving at Hueco Tanks State Park, we checked in (with both the guard at the gate, and the park office) and were sent along to watch the infamous 'Park Orientation' Video.
Bureaucratic issues out of the way, we were finally ready to climb, and so we drove over to the north end of North Mountain and pulled our mats out of the car. Stretching my legs, I walked to the edge of parking lot, and almost walked into a javelina (a wild pig) calmly eating a cactus. I looked at the javelina. It looked at me. It kept gnawing away. Davin and Kyle came over. The javelina kept eating. Eventually, deciding it was outnumbered, the javelina wandered off into the desert, and disappeared silently into the yucca. A good omen, I thought, a sign of an interesting trip.
We headed over to the JuJu area (following Peter's warm-up list) to find some rocks to climb. We dropped our mats and puled on our shoes to climb JuJu Left and Right (V0s), then shuffled our mats over to the next wall to do the airy and satisfying Backscratcher (V1) and Bitch Magnet (V0), as well as a handful of other moderate lines. Having waited 20 years to climb at Hueco, I wasn't disappointed; where the rock is covered with brown patina (the majority of the rock surface), the rock is incredibly solid, with even thin flakes seemingly bombproof. The huecos were generally incut, though some were sloping, and the movement on the first lines we climbed was fantastic. Having warmed up, we moved up the hill to find a recommended line called T-Bone Shuffle (V4).
T-Bone Shuffle is essentially an easy traverse (though the first footless move is tricky) capped by a big (and hardish) move to a huge hand-swallowing hueco. As we were laying the mats down, we were joined by Eileen (a fun young climber who had been in Hueco several weeks) and the somewhat eccentric Donny (a Hueco guide who we referred to as 'Goggles' due to his habit of wearing a pair of oversized goggles as he climbed and walked around; we ran into him almost every single day we were in Hueco). Though the dyno at the end of the traverse looked big, Kyle, Davin, and I all managed to flash the problem fairly easily, while Eileen did a variation on the line that traversed out the end of the boulder instead of doing the dyno. Wanting to try something a bit more challenging, we all did a direct version of the line (V4 or V5) that climbed the prow to the right on crimps instead of doing the big move to the hueco.
Warmed up, we decided to explore a bit to see what Hueco Tanks has to offer. Running around the north end of North Mountain, we looked at pictographs (there are literally thousands of them at Hueco Tanks), mammoth polish (rock faces at ground level are often planed perfectly smooth where mammoths once scratched their sides thousands of years ago when Texas was a much more temperate place), cacti and ocotillo (spiny!), and the overhanging pocket- and hueco-filled faces that are everywhere in the park. It is easy to see why climbers have been travelling to the area to climb for decades; the combination of solid rock, huecos, and overhangs is hard to beat.
One of the fun things about Hueco is that due to the fact that it is one of the centers of the climbing universe, and as such if you spend time there you will inevitably run into people that you've seen in magazines. After doing T-Bone Shuffle, we headed over to try Sign of the Choss (V4), a tricky and high problem with a committing topout. As he meandered across the slabs of North Mountain, Davin ran into Alex Puccio, who had headed down to Hueco after winning the American Bouldering Nationals. Seemingly everyday we saw climbers we recognised; Jason Kehl behind us in the lineup at the park office, John Sherman eating an apple. In addition, it was fantastic to meet climbers from across the continent and the world, all equally excited to be in Hueco Tanks!
Sign of the Choss turned out to be hard and high (I whined that a hold MUST have broken), with only Davin walking away with a send. Davin and Kyle also did the dynamic Choss Training (V3) while they were there; given my spectacular inability to dyno, I gave up on the problem after a half-hearted hop. We still had some time to kill before the park closed, so we headed up the slabs to look at the legendary Sign of the Cross (V3, and a standard for the grade). We wandered about looking for the problem (not knowing it was in a hidden room), but luckily found Owen Summerscales who pointed us in the right direction. It was great to catch up with Owen (I hadn't seen him in years), and to hear about all the fantastic bouldering that he has been involved with in New Mexico. Unfortunately, Owen had come down with some kind of grim virus and was heading home the next day instead of climbing. He said that we should climb with his friend (and Canadian!) Sam who was down in Hueco for a week. With the daylight fading, we packed up our mats, assured ourselves that we would be back to try the savage-looking Sign of the Cross (we wouldn't, it turned out), said goodbye to Owen, and headed back down to the car. Thoroughly happy with our first day in Hueco Tanks, we drove out of the park and headed back to the Hacienda.
The next day, we planned to head up to the top of North Mountain, which arguably holds the greatest number of famous problems at Hueco Tanks. The day dawned with perfect weather, and I listened to the desert birds as I stretched and did yoga in the courtyard of the Hacienda, and watched as the climbers staying there geared up for the day. Heading into the park, we shouldered our mats and headed up 'the chains', the trail that winds its way up rock slabs, guarded and directed by a chain railing. We warmed up at the Small Potatoes Area, which would be our routine every day we climbed high on North Mountain. Though generally considered to have a number of fun low problems, it also features amazing highballs such as Men in Chains (V0), Women in Chains (V0), and the knob-tastic Bawl and Chain (V0), all of which I included in my North Mountain warmup circuit.
Wanting to try something a bit steeper, we headed into the eternally-shaded cave behind the Small Potatoes that hosts the funky cave problems The Hog (V5) and Hog Left (V7). We grew excited as we arranged the mats beneath Hog Left; here at last was the kind of super-steep funky-scoop-compression line we had travelled thousands of kilometers to climb! Chalking up, we squeezed. We heel-hooked. We tried to compress the huge sloping bowl-like features of the problem, all to no avail. At this point, it became clear that we had a lot to learn about climbing at Hueco Tanks.
We moved on to The Hog (V5), only to find it equally perplexing, at least at first. After a lot of discussion, and trying different sequences, we finally unlocked the key to the problem. Compressing a series of blunt scoops allowed us to advance our feet, first to a heel hook and then to a high toe hook. Once we had the beta in mind, we all did the problem quickly, excited to have started learning about the unique styles of Hueco Tanks.
Warmed up, we headed deeper in the maze of North Mountain. Walking past classics such as Barefoot on Sacred Ground (V12), See Spot Run (V6), and the Fern Roof, we stopped to climb the classic Nobody Gets Out Of Here Alive (V2). There is always a throng of climbers trying this amazing roof problem, and we stopped to hang out for a bit before flashing the line. NGOOHA starts in a pocket and hueco, but then climbs through huge incut huecos and juggy rails out a huge roof. Like many other roof problems at Hueco, it was astounding to climb on such a continuous array of perfectly sculpted holds out an almost horizontal roof.
We headed further up the mountain, winding our way through the cacti and yucca before finally arriving another line we wanted to try, Daily Dick Dose (V7). I'd heard about the line for decades, but had never really seen a photo; I was not surprised to see that it was a huge roof, but WAS surprised to see that it featured only small, incut, but widely spaced crimps! Keen to see what it was like (and bolstered by the beta of the two other people working the line), Davin and I laid out the mats and hopped on the line. It became apparent that there were two ways to climb the problem; a static method that forced the climber to use a high heel on an edge to push into a gaston crimp on the roof, or a dynamic method that involved long pulls to edges and a dynamic move into a huge underclinging hueco at the end of the roof. Needless to say, I attempted to use the static method, while Davin flung himself wholeheartedly into the dynamic beta. After an hour or so, we were both making progress (I was piecing together sequences and had done most of the hard moves in short linkages, while Davin fell throwing into the final hueco several times), but our fingers were starting to feel a bit thrashed.
One of the people working the line with us was a very cheerful (and strong!) woman from New York City. Halfway through the session she left for awhile to try another problem, but as the day wound down (the gates close at 5:00, and everyone has to be out before then), she reappeared to send Daily Dick Dose in a (very) impressive end-of-the-day send! Glad to see the problem go down (though not by us), we packed up and hurried back down 'the chains' to the parking lot. With throbbing fingers, we were ready for a rest day.
Next: Hueco Dreams (Part 2)!