A Boulder-Climbing Paradise, Where Sacredness Meets Sport

April 13, 2009

Author: Michael Brick

Source: The New York Times


Northeast of East El Paso, where housing developments give way to salvage yards, a stand of volcanic syenite rises from the valley floor in a palette of rust and dun, splintering into foothills sliced like layer cakes.

This 860-acre span, known as Hueco Tanks for its rainwater pockets, has beckoned generations of families from the twin cities of Juarez and El Paso. To picnickers, hikers and bird watchers, it offers a dazzling idyll. To certain American Indian tribes, it marks the sacred place of emergence from a prior world. And to far-flung devotees of the intensely physical rock climbing style known as bouldering, it has become the Colosseum.

“For bouldering, the concentration is better than almost anywhere in the world,” said Matt Tschohl, 27, a climber from Colorado who has spent nearly every winter here since 1996. “There’s really steep things, there’s vertical things, there’s a real variety.”

Requiring little equipment beyond chalk and form-fitting shoes, bouldering gained popularity with the spread of indoor climbing gyms in the 1990s. Its practitioners rarely ascend above 20 feet, preferring to test their strength, endurance and puzzle skills against low-rising formations with few obvious holds.

For elite boulderers, Hueco Tanks compares only to the Fontainebleau forest south of Paris and the Cederberg Wilderness Area in the Western Cape of South Africa. Among the rock formations here, climbers have identified more than 1,600 bouldering routes, or problems, ranked on a scale of difficulty. An annual tournament known as the Hueco Rock Rodeo draws scores of competitors to scale problems called, among the less obscene names, Jiffy Pop, Screw Driver and Julio and Me.

But the arrival of legions of climbers has provoked a deep reckoning on the site’s archaeological, natural and spiritual legacies. Forged from magma when this place was a seabed, the rock formations developed their distinctive huecos, or hollows, through the weathering of millennia. They formed natural retaining pools to capture the summer rains, nurturing such desert oddities as cottonwoods, willows and seasonal freshwater shrimp. Nomadic hunter-gatherers made regular stops.

In the 12th century, the Jornada Mogollon people began farming the site, leaving behind pictographs that depict masked faces, animals and deities. Kiowa, Mescalero Apache and Tigua tribes also left their mark.

At midcentury, the mountaineer Royal Robbins climbed here, before the land fell under control of the county and then the state. Tales of grandeur and challenge traveled far among climbers.

By 1991, Hueco Tanks was receiving 150,000 visitors a year. Archaeological treasures were spoiled. Debates centered on litter, human waste and the use of climbing bolts. In time, the state spent $75,000 removing graffiti. The Tigua Indian tribe, newly endowed with casino earnings, sought unsuccessfully to acquire the land.

After much acrimony, the state set restrictions on access in 1998. Now, visitors must make reservations for guided tours. Climbing parties, limited to 10 members, require trained escorts. Some local climbers have abandoned the site in protest.

“Ten years now that they’ve had their stupid rules in place,” said Steve Crye, 52, who has compiled a whimsically climbing-oriented timeline of the site’s history. “Ten years that they’ve told me I need to have a guide to go out to the backcountry, when I know the backcountry like the back of my hand. The only people that go out there anymore are the kids who don’t know any better.”

The Tigua have been no better satisfied. Sixteen hundred members of the tribe live on the Ysleta del Sur reservation near the Mexico border, paying admission to enter Hueco Tanks for ceremonies.

“In the Huecos, we made pilgrimages and offerings to our grandfathers of the mountains,” said Javier Loera, 52, a war captain whose elected position charges him with stewardship of tribal customs. Wearing a bead necklace, his graying black hair tied in a long ponytail for an interview in his office on the reservation, Loera added: “Nowadays, the commercializing of the Huecos, to us, we view it as a desecration. Put that in as my personal belief. Although to the dumb society, it is a sport, mountain climbing.”