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