|On my second trip to Hueco, I tore my MCL falling on this classic John Sherman boulder problem. On our last climbing day in Hueco, I finally sent See Spot Run, an amazing V6.|
Located 32 miles northeast of El Paso, Texas, Hueco Tanks hosts thousands of high caliber boulder problems in a condensed area. Low, steep terrain allows many of the cruxes to be worked easily; a top down approach to the boulders can be used versus a ground up style. The large smooth holds keep skin intact so failure becomes an issue of muscle failure. These factors amount to an easily accessible way to become strong quickly. Hueco Tanks is a bouldering mecca.
For twenty years, from the late seventies to late nineties, climbers roamed free about Hueco Tanks State Park (HTSP). Below John Sherman’s See Spot Run, I spoke with Rick Olivier, a climber who has spent the last twenty four winters climbing in Hueco. “Before the 98 new user plan there was a 300 car limit,” said Rick. “You could bring your dog, play your boom box. Go wherever you wanted.”
|Drew Schick works through Whisper of Mortality|
In the height of it all came the Tortilla Syndrome. James Crump, who in 1985 co-authored the first guidebook to Hueco Tanks Indian Height, described the term in Jeff Jackson’s 2000 Climbing article “Then and Now.” “In the mid 80s the professional climbers discovered Hueco and they had to eat. Had to have their big-number, new-5.13 cover shot.” Crump blaimed Todd Skinner and his “cronies” for illegally bolting in Hueco, over developing the area and creating anomisity between the park staff and climbers.
“We were putting up routes as outsiders and that was tweaking the locals. The locals were talking to the rangers so the rangers started tweaking too. The locals made it clear that we weren’t on their team,” said Skinner in the Jackson article. “And, of course, we were bolting.” Skinner said in the Jackson article. “The official position was that bolting was illegal. The bolts themselves were legal. So, if some unknown person got the bolts into the rock at night, then you could legally climb the route the next morning.” Skinner and company devised a system with lights to warn each other of approaching rangers. They got caught though.
Skinner claimed the bickering between climbers had little to do with the park restrictions. “Alex Mares (the former head ranger) wants the place as a church. He’s got that holy-war look in his eyes. And the rock-art people want it as a museum.”
|Peter Michaux on the classic and difficult Double Vision V7 on North Mountain|
The number of park visitors peaked in the early 1990s. “There were 150,000 people a year,” said current park Superindentent Wanda Olszewski, “which was definitely unsustainable.” The impact on the park’s vegetation, the thousands of trails popping up, were more obvious than the bolts that climbers were taking a toll on Hueco.
In 1998, The Texas State Park and Wildlife Department increased restrictions. TSPWD created seventy spots on North Mountain (initially there were fifty spots), allowing sixty spots to be reserved up to ninety days in advance. The remaining ten spots are left for walk-ins on a first-come, first-serve basis with Hueco Tanks campground members given preference. In the areas of East Mountain, West Mountain, and the East Spur, an additional 160 people are allowed to climb but they need to be accompanied by a guide. Guide services fluctuate between $2 and $25 depending on the nature of the tour.
When the restrictions fell, many of the old vanguard left. Long time locals like Todd Skinner, Scott Milton, John Sherman, Matt Samet and escaped the new rules. “For me, given how free Hueco once was, how you could just wander around in the park on rest days hanging out, exploring caves, looking for pictographs, not having to go to Barnes and Noble in El Paso to kill time, it was awesome back then,” said Matt Samet, who climbed there for a few seasons prior to the 98 restrictions and then again post restrictions. “In 1999 and 2000, the experience was so different from what it had been that I realized I was done with Hueco.”
There was little love for the new regulations. “We certainly can’t call the new Site management plan progress, as it stifles the freedom of exploration, but one good thing came out of it: People took what they learned about bouldering possibilities at Hueco Tanks and they explored other areas, and new bouldering spots were developed.,” said long time Hueco climber Scott Milton. “That, at least, is progress.”
The restrictions affected the local El Paso folks. Jumping through the hoops to get into the park became a huge detriment to the families that wanted to picnic for the day or walk around their local state park. The number of local visitors decreased significantly. The focus of the park changed.
Park management wanted visitors to see the history of the park. The park flexed its desire to show the amazing pictographs. “When climbers get interested in the pictographs, they start to see the park in a whole new way,” said Superindentent Olszewski. “They realize that if all they’ve done here is climb, it’s like going to Disney world and riding one ride and going home. You’re not getting the whole picture.”
Two years ago, Mary Bocchicchio became the second rock art/climbing guide, and the only current one. The rock art changed her view of the park. “Now when I spend time in the park – I constantly think of those who came through hunting Mammoths or growing beans in the fields.” She reiterated the park’s view on management. “Hueco Tanks is a HISTORIC site, first and formost. The #1 priority of the park and its staff is to protect the artifacts and pictographs that were left there by Native Americans from 150 to over 10,000 years ago.””
|The Jornada mogollion were a Native American group that traveled the American Southwest from AD 150 to AD 1400|
Signs and posts driven into the rock, mark the few areas to protect the ancient history. In some of the closed areas, a protective crust covers the ground keeping the archaeology intact. The ground in areas like the Mushroom Boulder, which received enormous amounts of foot traffic and crash pad shuffling, eroded away and exposed midden soil, areas rich in Indian artificats and debris. In other areas like the famous 45 Degree Wall, ancient petroglyphs cover the rock.
|A Sign nailed into the rock above a boulder problem on North Mountain|
“Human beings get attracted to the same sort of places over the course of time,” noted Oliewski. “Those exact same overhangs that are attractive for climbing because of the angle are the ones that people hung out underneath years and years ago prehistorically.” In the Jackson article, Bill Dolman, who worked as part of the management team overseeing the TPWD restrictions implementation, reported on an archaeological study in late ninties “We found that because of the extent of (earlier) human occupation almost no part of the park did not have significant sub-surface archaeological resources.”
Dollman also spoke about the TPWD official position. “Well the long and short of it is that we’ve come to the conclusion that the climbing needs to be managed to the extent that we can protect the archaeological and rock art resources.” Oliewski’s management of the park continues with the same idea of preservation first and climbing second, to treat Hueco as an “outdoor museum,” a stance that finds little favor with climbers.
Ann Raber, a first year guide who has spent the winters climbing in Hueco since 2009, voiced many climber’s concerns about the management program. “The park management pays a lot of lip service to climber's rights as a user group, but I can't shake the sense that there are people with a lot of say in the matter who want this place to be a museum, to be observed without touching.”
Jason Kehl, voiced a similar idea. Kehl arrived in Hueco in 1995 and 1996, before the restrictions. After the1998 changes, he stopped climbing in the park. Kehl, now in his third year of guiding, returned a few years later when he heard the restrictions still allowed for climbing. “I think the restrictions are bad for climbing, but good for Hueco Tanks. This is a special place besides the climbing and we must protect it.”
|Jason Kehl found this boulder problem a few years ago. Bloodlines sits in a corridor near the summit of North Mountain. Kehl has spear headed much of the new development in Hueco.|
John Sherman “There had always been limitations on visitation and something had to be done,” Sherman said in the Jackson article. “For example, the base of the Three Star Arete used to be dirt; now it’s rocky. The desert root systems at Hueco are really shallow. Tromp too many people over them and they’ll die.”
The restrictions, the decrease in climbers, helped much vegetation to regrow, for the thousand trails to become single destignated paths and the park to return to its natural state, certainly in the back country. In unregulated bouldering areas like Bishop, California, climbers step in gum at the crag, dogs fight below popular areas, and overcongestion can be a huge problem. These problems don’t exist in Hueco because of the restrictions. These are the good parts about the restrictions. There are also bad aspects.
The largest problem revolves around the park’s open and closing times and the back country guide program. Temperatures and day light hours change dramatically over the course of the year but the 8 am to 6 pm park hours remain stagnant. Moses Potter, a first year guide and six year Hueco climber, added some of the problems with the guiding. “Were I to taste the climbing of Hueco for the first time under the current restrictions I would think the experience sucks, frankly. It can be very difficult to get in the park during peak season and during weekends, it costs $20 per day to climb off of North Mountain, which is prohibitively expensive for the shoestring-budgeted twenty-something, and you have to be able to negotiate the bureaucratic process in the front office. Having to leave the boulders by 5:30pm, so you can be clear of the locked gate by 6pm, is an added distraction from the experience. In short, the place lacks the kind of freedom that most of us climbers associate with the lifestyle of the climber.”
|Moses Potter catches the sunset after working My Life in a Tank|
Further, development in Hueco has been stifled to a great degree. The necessity of going with a guide “stifles the freedom of exploration.” “Newness and progression are important for any athletic pursuit,” said Potter, “and the stifling of that in Hueco is 100% due to the restrictions, not a dearth of quality rock or the strength of the climbers present.”
On my last day in Hueco, Nik Berry and I climbed the Melon Patch Extension- The two pitch route, Sea of Holes was established in the early Hueco days. Mike Head and others used to regularly free solo this 5.10 route. We climbed it on a cold morning. Our finger froze grabbing the rock. Hueco's beginnings were on routes like this. Now, seeing a roped climber is a rare sight.
“That climbers are now arriving in search of something different is to be expected, and that my version of paradise is lost does not make their own less glorious,” said Todd Skinner.
I barely need my headlamp under the bright Texas moon. I toe the edge of the campsite boundary. To step forward would be to break the rules, to jeporadize access, to affirm TPWD’s position that the park should be an “outdoor museum.” Stepping back would keep Hueco Tanks safe for another day. Access would be secure until something happened, until another petroglyph was discovered or more artificats were found in the midden soil. Stepping back would mean I could climb tomorrow. Who knows about the next day. Potter’s words about the restrictions echoed in my head, “These climbs are a precious resource, and the history of climbing is slowly being written out of Hueco Tanks. Once we lose Hueco, if we lose Hueco, we will have lost the standard by which all other bouldering in the world is compared.”
To move forward or move back? I turn off my headlamp and step.