Ready to rock at Hueco Tanks State Park

LA Times | Travel

In bouldering lingo, a climbing route is called a \"problem.\" Some problems here in Hueco Tanks State Historic Site are tougher than others. Mine was a gentle overhang pocked with shallow depressions, among the easiest routes in the park. No need for a 5-inch-thick pad to soften m...

By Hugo Martín // 01.16.09

In bouldering lingo, a climbing route is called a "problem." Some problems here in Hueco Tanks State Historic Site are tougher than others.

Mine was a gentle overhang pocked with shallow depressions, among the easiest routes in the park. No need for a 5-inch-thick pad to soften my landing, I thought. After all, I'm only a few feet off the ground.

I clung to the gritty granite, struggling against gravity until my grip on a thin ledge failed and I fell to a flat slanting rock below, landing on my keister on the desert floor.

My climbing partners for the day -- a group of Aussies from Perth and climbing junkies from Colorado -- barely looked up at the sound of my thud. Falling from boulders is part of the fun in Hueco Tanks. In fact, it's a privilege. This 860-acre park -- a protrusion of sun-burned boulders in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert east of El Paso -- ranks among the top two or three bouldering sites in the world.

Hueco Tanks climbing routes

The climbing routes, or "problems," at Hueco Tanks are usually named by the first person to successfully complete the route. And because rock climbers are a colorful bunch, the names they give the problems are also colorful. Here are a few examples:

* Shaved Pitts (rated V1 on the "V" scale of 0 to 16)

* Five o'Clock Shadow (V2)

* Root Canal (V2)

* Springtime for Hitler (V5)

* Mexican Love Handle (V2)

* Bloody Flapper (V4)

* Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive (V2)

Since the sport's popularity began to surge about 10 years, bouldering enthusiasts have descended on Hueco (pronounced Way-co) Tanks like ants to a picnic. The boulders, some the size of school buses, others the size of skyscrapers, are pocked with millions of huecos (Spanish for hollows), created during a magma eruption 35 million years ago. The winter weather is usually mild -- with high temperatures around 60 degrees -- ideal conditions for winter climbing, considered the best time to scale desert rocks.

But there is more to Hueco Tanks than climbing. This lumpy outcropping of pockmarked rocks is adorned with more than 2,000 pictographs and petroglyphs from Native Americans who have been visiting here since 8,000 BC to draw water from the pools that form in the ubiquitous hollows. The park represents one of the largest collections of Indian rock art in North America and annually draws hundreds of historians, educators and fans of Native American culture.

Thus the problem for Texas park officials: How do you preserve historic Indian rock art while accommodating visitors who come from as far away as Europe and Australia to climb on those same rocks?

In mid-November, just as temperatures in West Texas dropped to comfortable levels, I flew into El Paso with climbing shoes in my backpack to experience the park that draws climbers and history buffs from around the world, and to see whether such divergent groups of visitors can coexist on this tiny island of pitted rock.


From a satellite photo, Hueco Tanks looks like three wrinkly mounds of sun-baked clay surrounded by a flat stretch of shrub-strewn desert. The mounds are dubbed North Mountain, West Mountain and East Mountain, with a small spur protruding from East Mountain.

On the ground, the park appears as a stony oasis, festooned with juniper and oak trees jutting from a parched stretch of cactus-strewn desert. The hub of activity is at the park headquarters, a cramped stucco building, no bigger than an RV at the main entrance. This is where I started the first day of my visit, with reservations to join a rock climbing tour. Reservations are crucial, I learned.

To help protect the rock art and better supervise the climbers, the state adopted a management plan 10 years ago that imposed a daily limit of 230 people. Of those, 160 people can visit the East and West Mountains but only if accompanied by a guide. Seventy other visitors can wander unsupervised around North Mountain. Before the restrictions were added, the park drew about 150,000 visitors a year. That number is now down to about 28,000.

Corey Dwan, a veteran climbing guide from Crested Butte, Colo., was leading six climbers from Colorado and Australia into East Mountain. He agreed to let me tag along. These were experienced climbers and world travelers who talked about Hueco Tanks the way surfers extol the virtues of Oahu's North Shore.

"The quality of the rock is just so solid and it tends to be more overhanging so it tends to lead to more difficult problems and the setting is just beautiful," Dwan said later from atop a giant igloo-shaped boulder.

When we got to our first bouldering spot, a place called the "Warm Up Roof," I understood why they called the routes "problems." Serious climbers do not scramble up a rock face on a whim. They study the pocks and indentations with the thoughtfulness of a mathematician. They plan each maneuver beforehand and discuss the options with fellow climbers.

And once they get on the rocks, they fall. Repeatedly.

The falling bodies were cushioned by 5-inch-thick pads called "crash pads." Rock climbing and bouldering are two different activities. I have scaled a few rocks in Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks and the Red Rock Canyon area in Nevada, but I would classify myself as a novice.

Unlike rock climbers, who use harnesses and anchor ropes, bouldering enthusiasts climb 20 to 25 feet above the ground, at most, using only hands and feet. It sounds easy except that the toughest "problems" are usually on sheer vertical walls or overhangs that are nearly horizontal to the ground. (Bouldering problems are ranked in difficulty from 0 to 16 on a so-called "V" scale, named after climbing pioneer John "Vermin" Sherman.)

Near the "Warm Up Roof," the climbers took turns on a V-4 problem that ends with a steep pitch about 20 feet above the ground. The climbers cheered each other on and howled with disappointment when someone failed. And the consequences of failure can be painful.

Scott Koehler, a software engineer from Denver, made it to the V-4 pitch when his hand slipped out of a deep depression. He landed on the cushion and, with a pained expression, held up his hands. The rock, a type of granite, called syenite porphyry, had ripped two slabs of skin from his fingers. The injury is so common that climbers have a name for it: a "flapper."

"When you're tired and you pull hard, it's [the boulder's] really sharp," Koehler said with a sigh.

Everyone was having a blast -- climbing problems, quoting lines from the TV show "Flight of the Conchords" and blasting techno rock from a portable digital player.

That's when I ruined the mood by bringing up Mushroom Boulder, a wedge-shaped rock that offers some of the toughest climbs in the park. Park officials closed the boulder to all climbing in December 2007 because of excessive wear and tear that damaged vegetation and exposed "cultural deposits."

The closure of Mushroom Boulder drew complaints from climbers across the country, many of whom wondered if it would lead to more restrictions.

Dwan and his group groused about the new limitations but took comfort in knowing they still had access to dozens of other climbing routes throughout the park.

"This park is beautiful," Dwan said, scanning the rocky horizon. "Look, the grass is growing and everything. We wouldn't do anything to ruin that."


The raid had failed and death seemed certain.

The Kiowas -- about 20 Indians on a mission to raid a settlement near El Paso -- were confronted by Mexican soldiers accompanied by Tigua scouts. The Kiowas retreated to the Hueco Tank boulders and, for several days, hid in a cave while soldiers tried to smoke them out with burning bushes. Knowing they would eventually starve to death, most of the Kiowas escaped by climbing an extensive tree root system to freedom.

The legendary battle and escape, which took place around 1839, is depicted in one of the most famous examples of rock art at Hueco Tanks. The painting of wounded Indians and a giant tree root system are displayed on a flat panel on what looks like an immense rock amphitheater. I saw it on an art tour I took with eight other visitors on my second day at the park.

"It's kind of neat because it's like an ancient billboard," tour guide Charles Wendon said of the battle scene.

The battle scene was defaced in the 1970s by graffiti vandals. But Hueco Tanks is decorated with hundreds of other paintings and etchings, some so clearly defined I would swear they had been painted only weeks before.

My tour group hiked around yucca, rabbit brush and ocotillo to inspect black, red and white paintings of birds, jaguars, deer and strange geometric designs. The boulders of Hueco Tanks hold the largest number of mask paintings in North America. Experts think the hundreds of masks represent the gods of the American Indians who pass through these parts.

As we scrambled over boulders, the masks -- some with goggle eyes and others with blank stares -- gazed out at us from thousands of years in the past.

The Native Americans painted with brushes made from plant fibers and used hematite, limonite, ocher, manganese and other local minerals to produce the colors. They were Mescalero Apaches, Jornada Mogollon and, of course, the Kiowas, some of whom return to the park on occasion to tell their stories and perform ancient rituals.

During the tour we passed several concrete and stone dams that were built in the 1950s and '60s when developers tried to turn this stretch of desert into a resort with lakes, hotels and a casino. The dams were meant to store water for swimming pools, which is why the word "tanks" was later added to the park's name. But at the urging of historians and others, the county halted the development plans by buying the land and turning it over to the state of Texas in 1969.

After finishing the two-hour tour, I planned to wander around North Mountain to see the famed Mushroom Boulder and try to uncover rock art on my own. But the park had reached its visitor limit for the day, so I put my name on a waiting list at park headquarters. I waited a couple of hours with about half a dozen other would-be visitors before I was given the green light to reenter.

Mushroom Boulder was everything the climbers said it was: a giant stone wedge that looked like a devilish problem for any serious climber. I found it at the northern end of the park. But the rock was free of climbing chalk, evidence that climbers had respected the ban. Maybe the restrictions were working, I thought, and harmony was possible here.

As I wandered about, I met three Army medics from nearby Ft. Bliss who were about to tackle a problem known as "small potatoes." Reassured that the medics would treat any injury I could inflict on myself, I asked them to spot me while I tried the problem, a route along a wide crack running diagonally up a 30-foot rock wall. The handholds were huge and the crack wide, making it an easy climb.

I felt proud of my feat at "small potatoes," but it was nothing compared with my excitement a few minutes later when I ventured off and found an opening under two building-size boulders and spotted a red geometric design on the rocks about 15 feet above me. Using my newfound climbing techniques, I climbed to a shelf where Native Americans had painted what looked like a red bird with its tail feathers extended. As I admired it, I caught sight of another piece of Indian rock art, a red jaguar in a hollow about 6 feet above the shelf. A few feet above that, I spotted a faded painting of a horned mask with a scowling face.

From my perch, I could see the East Mountain, glowing gold in the light of a setting sun.

What's to scowl about?