Hueco Pete's: "the Miguel's of the south­west" and the birth of mod­ern boul­der­ing

Climbing - - FROM PORTUGAL WITH LOVE - —MATT SAMET

Ev­ery great Amer­i­can climb­ing area has one: a gath­er­ing place where the scene can gel and evolve. Here, road­trip­pers, lif­ers, odd­balls, scam­mers, and layabouts form a com­mu­nity and push stan­dards.

At Yosemite, it was Camp 4; at the Red, Miguel’s; and at Hueco, the Hueco Tanks Coun­try Store, aka Hueco Pete’s. In an alu­minum Quon­set hut above the shop, climbers from the 1980s on­ward would re­turn af­ter ses­sion­ing Hueco’s steeps to com­pare notes:

What went down to­day? And also, What went up?

While climb­ing ac­tiv­ity be­gan at Hueco in the 1950s with the late Royal Rob­bins, sta­tioned nearby at Fort Bliss, it wasn’t un­til the late 1970s and into the ‘ 80s that climb­ing ac­tiv­ity surged. Mike and Dave Head ( no re­la­tion), Fred Nakovic, James Crump, and oth­ers climbed up to 5.12 on the syen­ite por­phyry, while Bob Mur­ray, Mike Head, and John Sher­man opened stout boul­der prob­lems.

Back then, you could ei­ther camp in the park or bivy in the desert. Then came Hueco Pete’s and with it an ac­cre­tion of the scene that birthed the first Rock Rodeo ( 1989) and the first proper

Tanks boul­der­ing book ( 1991), which in­tro­duced the V- scale. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle by Steve Crye at hue­cotanks.com, in 1982 Todd Skin­ner ap­proached Pe­dro Zavala Jr. ( later “Hueco Pete”) about turn­ing the Quon­set hut into a crash pad. Skin­ner would clean the place up for roomand- board. As lo­cal Don Mor­rill re­calls in the story, Skin­ner “got some cats from the Hu­mane So­ci­ety and let them loose. They dis­ap­peared down a hole in the floor and ate rats for a month.”

Soon, as climbers be­gan com­ing to the park and stay­ing longer, Pete’s be­came the dirt­bag hang. It was the stag­ing venue for the rodeos, and it was here, in the park­ing lot, that you might see Sher­man hand­ing out ques­tion­naires to the dozen-odd climbers he’d cor­ralled to as­sign V-grades to the park’s clas­sics to reach con­sen­sus rat­ings for the 1991 book. With th­ese grades as bench­marks—think Mush­room

Roof at V8 or Sex Af­ter Death at V9—the V-scale later ex­panded with the park’s first V10, Full Ser­vice, and double-digit boul­der­ing was born.

The hut was a world unto it­self. While Pete and his wife, Queta, kept the con­ve­nience store and mod­est kitchen/ Mex­i­can restau­rant down­stairs tidy, it was left to the hut’s denizens to “clean up af­ter them­selves.” This soon spelled unchecked filth and de­bauch­ery. As Sher­man wrote in his 1989 Climb­ing fea­ture “Texas

Tall Tales,” “Pete’s up­stairs is a ver­i­ta­ble sci­ence- fair project. The floor is a petri dish cov­ered with a nour­ish­ing medium of dirt and moldy food scraps. Above this is a layer of sleep­ing bags filled with un­washed climbers.” Or, you could al­ways bivy in the park­ing lot.

For me and my bud­dies, who’d drive down from Al­bu­querque then Colorado in the 1980s and ‘ 90s, “the Hut” was par­adise. Here, we swilled beer and rubbed el­bows with fel­low mis­fits: scrag­gly Brits

who’d wear the same un­seemly tights for weeks on end, snow­birds sell­ing T- shirts out of their vans, bur­geon­ing lu­mi­nar­ies like Con­rad Anker and Dean Pot­ter, and the oc­ca­sional non­plussed Euro cou­ple. A smoke- belch­ing wood­stove “heated” the place, and you could “watch” net­work shows on a half­busted TV. You might also pe­ruse the porno and climb­ing magazines left on the cof­fee ta­ble.

When the health de­part­ment even­tu­ally shut down the hut due

to code vi­o­la­tions, climbers took over the park­ing lot. The rates at Pete’s stayed mod­est—we paid $ 2 per night per per­son on our last visit, in 2000— and the Zavalas loved their climber fam­ily. They would look af­ter the climberor­phans, giv­ing them jobs in the kitchen or let­ting pay­ment slide.

Per the Crye ar­ti­cle, near the end of his life Pete told Queta that he wanted “all the climbers to know that he loved them all, they were spe­cial to him, and that the

best part of his life was the years he ran the store for them.” Pete passed away in 2006 and was buried with mil­i­tary hon­ors at Fort Bliss. His health had be­gun to de­cline in 1998 ( he was di­a­betic and had heart is­sues) along with his busi­ness, which dwin­dled when the park put its per­mit­ting sys­tem in place, re­duc­ing traf­fic from the boom years of the 1990s when Fred Ni­cole and other top boul­der­ers brought world- class stan­dards. Though the store went un­der in 2005, in 2012, lo­cal climber Low­ell Steven­son pur­chased the prop­erty. In 2013, he re­opened it as the Moun­tain Hut Hueco Tanks Climb­ing Shop, which to­day of­fers camp­ing, guid­ing, rentals, in­struc­tion, and a gear shop. Mean­while, Steven­son has plans for a 300- square­foot boul­der­ing cave, “Bivi Hut Kitchen and Lounge,” and new show­ers, while Queta still lives in her house be­hind the shop.

A stan­dard crew of shady char­ac­ters at Hueco Pete’s.

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