Mid­dle of Some­where

The pro­lific lo­cals of Roy, New Mex­ico, share their epic, hereto­fore-undis­closed sand­stone boul­der­ing with the world.

Climbing - - CONTENTS - Story by Owen Sum­mer­scales

“We’ve gone the wrong way,” I said. The car’s head­lights il­lu­mi­nated an un­fa­mil­iar gate at the end of a field. We had been driv­ing for what felt like hours, fol­low­ing a whis­per of a two- track in the dark. I checked my phone again for a sig­nal, to ac­cess a map. There was none. “Maybe we should camp here and fig­ure it out in the morn­ing?” my girl­friend, Jamie, sug­gested. Lost, in a cow field, in east­ern New Mex­ico, and not a rock in sight— could this re­ally be the Land of En­chant­ment’s best boul­der­ing?

That was early 2012, just after I had moved to Los Alamos for work. As a Bri­tish ex­pat, the amount of open space shocked me—the pop­u­la­tion den­sity in Eng­land is 1,070 peo­ple per square mile; in New Mex­ico, it’s 17. I didn’t re­al­ize it then, but my move timed per­fectly with the wave of a nascent boul­der­ing boom in north­ern New Mex­ico—word had got­ten out about the dis­cov­ery of not one but two ma­jor boul­der­ing des­ti­na­tions. First was the Orte­gas, a mas­sive out­crop of bul­let-hard, swirled quartzite cliffs and boul­ders north­west of Ojo Caliente. And sec­ond was Roy, nes­tled in the cat­tle-ranch­ing high plains of north­east­ern New Mex­ico near the epony­mous farm­ing vil­lage (pop. 230).

At what climbers call “Roy,” the Cana­dian River has carved out myr­iad den­dritic canyons in the Dakota sand­stone caprock, cre­at­ing a playground of unimag­in­able scope. The area cen­ters on Mills Canyon, a chunk of pub­lic land man­aged by the For­est Ser­vice amidst a checker­board of dis­parate land own­er­ship—largely ranch prop­erty, with a smaller mix of state and BLM land. On the pub­lic land, a dozen or so side-drainages feed Mills Canyon; 30 miles of cliff­band ring Mills and its trib­u­taries, shel­ter­ing er­rat­i­cally dis­trib­uted caches of boul­ders in the depths of wind­ing streambeds. Thir­teen es­tab­lished trail­heads ac­cess over 50 zones and some 1,800 doc­u­mented prob­lems from V0 to V13, climbable all but sum­mer. Even so, the po­ten­tial is stag­ger­ing—the num­ber of climbs here could be dou­bled or tripled.

Most climbers’ first im­pres­sions of Roy are its re­mote­ness, its vast­ness, and its sheer im­prob­a­bil­ity—lo­cated east of the Rocky Moun­tains on Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands short­grass prairie. The stone fea­tures the kind of gor­geous, tex­tured, bul­let-hard slop­ers you’d find far­ther east, like in Arkansas’s Ozark Moun­tains.

In the en­su­ing months, Jamie and I slowly got to know the canyons, thanks to maps and beta from two of the area's main, Al­bu­querque-based pioneers, the wry, acer­bic Wil­liam Pen­ner and his ef­fer­ves­cent coun­ter­part, Tom El­lis. I’ve come to think of them as hav­ing a Len­non-Mc­Cart­ney re­la­tion­ship: Pen­ner as the sharp in­tel­lec­tual and El­lis the down-to-earth coun­ter­weight. (El­lis jok­ingly says CheneyBush would be a bet­ter anal­ogy.) Get­ting to know them has re­vealed an im­pres­sive his­tory, a re­mark­able story of how a small group of friends had this fu­ture boul­der­ing des­ti­na­tion vir­tu­ally to them­selves for nearly a decade.

AL­THOUGH TAOS and Santa Fe climbers had es­tab­lished un­doc­u­mented route climb­ing and boul­der­ing in Roy dur­ing the 1990s, Pen­ner and El­lis were ar­guably the first to rec­og­nize its full boul­der­ing po­ten­tial. Pen­ner, 46, a well-trav­eled all-rounder with a thirst for new climb­ing, had first seen the boul­ders in Mills Canyon in 2000, and re­turned for a stint work­ing here as an ar­chae­ol­o­gist with the For­est Ser­vice in 2003. His sinecure al­lowed him time to ex­plore. On an early foray into one of the side drainages, he found the Bear Boul­der, an enor­mous chunk of dark, iron-var­nished stone with a per­fect over­hang cleaved to fifty de­grees—home to the now-le­gendary Bear Toss (V11). Pen­ner was im­pressed, but con­vinc­ing oth­ers to visit was an­other mat­ter. The pre­vail­ing view at the time in New Mex­ico was that the state was tapped out for boul­der­ing po­ten­tial, and you were bet­ter off driv­ing to Hueco.

De­vel­op­ment in Roy wouldn’t re­ally kick off un­til 2006. El­lis likes to give Pen­ner a hard time about their first trip, three years after Pen­ner’s ini­tial so­journ. Re­calls El­lis, “He’d been rav­ing about this place for years, and when I fi­nally came out, he took me to the Road­side Area in Mills Canyon—I mean, it was fine, but just not that amaz­ing. I told him we should go down to the streambed, which was right there, and lo and be­hold—it was full of huge, in­cred­i­ble boul­der prob­lems on great stone!” Pen­ner just rolls his eyes—he’s heard this one be­fore.

El­lis, 46, works flat-out for five months of the year in Alaska pav­ing roads to have win­ters off in New Mex­ico. An af­fa­ble and gen­er­ous climber, he fo­cuses on boul­der­ing and de­vel­op­ing. He has a ta­lent for sniff­ing out killer moves and “dia- monds in the rough," of­ten driven by the need to use a cer­tain hold re­gard­less of the aes­thet­ics of the line. Take El­lis’s Roy prob­lem A-Frame (V8), a squat, un­re­mark­able-look­ing prow that re­veals it­self to be a de­cep­tively sus­tained sloper com­pres­sion rig.

The 2006 trip sold El­lis on Roy. Soon, along with Pen­ner and El­lis, a tight-knit group of de­vel­op­ers formed, in­clud­ing Ma­sumi Shi­bata, Grady Ball, Aaron Chavez, and J.C. Cochran. “The fol­low­ing six years were a blur of con­stant dis­cov­ery and ex­cite­ment. We spent nearly ev­ery week­end dur­ing the climb­ing sea­son ex­plor­ing, break­ing in trails, and send­ing new lines, even­tu­ally putting up nearly 1,500 doc­u­mented prob­lems,” says Pen­ner. “Sea­sons would pass with­out re­turn­ing to the same spots be­cause we were con­stantly find­ing new zones.” Pen­ner and El­lis would come out to­gether all sea­son ev­ery sea­son, con­stantly push­ing each other to climb harder and ex­plore more. Hav­ing spent years scram­bling through ser­pen­tine canyon streambeds, thrash­ing across over­grown hill­sides, and con­sult­ing Pen­ner and El­lis’s three books’ worth of enig­matic, hand-writ­ten notes while writ­ing a guide­book, I can safely say, “Holy crap, did they do a lot of work!”

El­lis, a highly en­er­getic early-riser, of­ten scopes new po­ten­tial be­fore you’ve

even had break­fast. When ev­ery­one else is tired, he keeps try­ing, some­how man-ag­ing to pull off im­pres­sive as­cents above his pay grade on a last-gasp ef­fort. This do-or-die at­ti­tude gave Roy some of its early clas­sic hard prob­lems such as

Car­pet Bombers (V10) and No Tiempo Moss (V10/11), of­ten by head­lamp. These lines, like most Roy prob­lems at the time, were es­tab­lished in only a ses­sion or two, as El­lis and Pen­ner would rarely re­turn to the same zone—they were al­ways be­ing lured away by “what lurked around the next bend of the streambed,” as Pen­ner puts it.

Pen­ner’s climb­ing style re­flects his sharp mind: He’s es­tab­lished nu­mer­ous clas­sic high­balls in Roy ground-up, in­clud­ing the 20-foot run­nel-striped Beau­ti­ful

Pig (V6) in Mid­dle Mesteño. The prob­lem starts with a grit­stone-style slab then steep­ens to ver­ti­cal. The gnarly crux comes above, with a one-of-a-kind mono-run­nel-pinch and a com­mit­ting high­step at 15 feet—enough to re­pel most suit­ors. El­lis re­marks that Pen­ner’s self-con­fi­dence, which some con­fuse for ar­ro­gance, has en­abled him to con­sis­tently top out new high­balls. He also con­fesses some jeal­ousy over Pen­ner’s men­tal skills, which have pushed him to up his own high­ball game.

For this duo, de­vel­op­ing Roy be­came a con­sum­ing pas­sion. When in Hueco Tanks or Bri­one, they wished they were back in Roy. “Not to say that Roy is bet­ter,” El­lis ex­plains. “But, for us, the free­dom and lib­er­a­tion from the climb­ing scene that Roy of­fered were what we wanted more than any­thing else.”

WHILE THE “Wild West” feel­ing of free­dom at Roy draws many, I keep com­ing for the sheer va­ri­ety. Not only does each canyon have a unique vibe, but the shapeshift­ing stone varies enor­mously.

Cracked with in­cut crimps and gilded with neon-yel­low lichen, the deep red-pur­ple, desert-var­nished, plated “Mer­lot” is per­haps the best, akin to Red Rock’s finest and found in lim­ited quan­ti­ties al­most ev­ery­where. Streambed rock, mean­while, sports a deep, uni­form wa­ter pol­ish that cre­ates stel­lar sloper and com­pres­sion climb­ing—even bet­ter when a Mer­lot boul­der re­ceives river weath­er­ing. The shorter cliff­bands on the canyon rims lend them­selves to pumpy high­balls and un­der­cut roofs, fre­quently in­dented with so­lu­tion pock­ets and jugs; cal­ci­fied, con-

glom­er­ate, banded, and cross-bed­ded rock add fur­ther in­ter­est. Of course, there is desert choss, some of which cleans up and some of which does not. Your av­er­age, brown­ish, bland-look­ing Roy rock is also quite vari­able: an­gu­lar with clean edges in dry en­vi­ron­ments, slopey with more sculpted fea­tures in wet­ter lo­cales.

The bumpy drive into Mills Canyon de­scends through the col­or­ful strata of the 800-foot gorge, cut­ting through 160 mil­lion years of sand­stone de­posits, and takes you to the Cana­dian River, where Melvin Mills at­tempted an enor­mous agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tion in the late 1800s. Mills planted as many as 20,000 fruit and nut trees, but a flood wiped out the or­chard and he died pen­ni­less. Stumps and his ru­ined ho­tel re­main on the land. (In­ci­den­tally, this his­tor­i­cal site is what brought Pen­ner out here to study back in 2003.) All that re­mains of his town “Mills” are a cou­ple of farm­houses on the high­way, yet it used to be home to more than 3,000 peo­ple. The area at­tracts a trickle of tourists, plus a hand­ful of hunters and rock crawlers.

Around 2010, word was get­ting out about Roy, and the next wave of climbers ar­rived, mainly Colorado boul­der­ers. John Kuphal, a Gunks climber and good friend of El­lis’s based in New Paltz, New York, demon­strated pos­si­bly the high­est level of ded­i­ca­tion. Work would take Kuphal to Dal­las on oc­ca­sion, from where he would drive 500 miles to Roy just for a cou­ple of days to pick a few plum FAs. On one event­ful week­end in 2009, he es­tab­lished Gi­ant Pros­ti­tutes in Space (V8, and pos­si­bly the best-named boul­der prob­lem ever), a 25-foot high­ball with a slop­ing man­tel fin­ish over an ugly tiered land­ing. Kuphal sent with just one spot­ter and a cou­ple of pads. The fol­low­ing day yielded the crimper clas­sic Flam­ing Lib­erty (V6), so-named after an ac­ci­dent that hap­pened that trip when he put his gas lantern in­side his rented Jeep dur­ing a wind­storm and the car caught fire. (Mirac­u­lously, the rental com­pany failed to no­tice the par­tially melted car­pet.)

Al­though Pen­ner and El­lis’s group had es­tab­lished qual­ity climb­ing in most of the dozen or so canyons ac­ces­si­ble in Roy, one area has no­tably stood out: the fivemile drainage of Mesteño Canyon. As be­fits its name ( mesteño means “un­tamed,” used to de­scribe a mus­tang), parts feel wild and des­o­late, the ter­rain of moun­tain lions and bears, and yet other sec­tions have lent them­selves to the most eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, dens­est clus­ters of prob­lems. Start by ex­plor­ing the Jum­bles, a con­densed zone of boul­ders in a dry riverbed. You’ll find over 100 prob­lems here of most dif­fi­cul­ties and styles. Don’t miss Fun­bags (V5/6), an ul­tra-clas­sic line of sloped scoops with 120-grit tex­ture up a tilted, cross-hatched wall.

Above here are nu­mer­ous hill­side zones, in­clud­ing the im­pres­sive Tiger Stripe Wall area, which boasts a quin­tet of high­ball boul­ders, all lined up in a row in a stand of Pon­derosa pines. Icarus (V7) as­cends a slightly off-ver­ti­cal Mer­lot face with big lock­offs be­tween slant­ing ribs, while One-Eyed Clown (V10), lauded as the best of its grade in the state, climbs a beau­ti­ful, arch­ing, pock­eted ar•te. Its neigh­bor Quar­ter Life Cri­sis (V12), mean­while, is a less heady but more pow­er­ful steep face on pock­ets. The tallest, Hokusai’s Wave (V12), is one of the bold­est hard prob­lems this side of the But­ter­milks, a 30-foot wave of sidepulls and pock­ets with a com­pres­sion crux at its crest. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Keenan Takahashi’s daunt­ing first as­cent has yet to be re­peated.

Takahashi, a Yosemite-based boul­derer, first came to Roy in spring 2015. “To drive up to the [Mid­dle Mesteño] over­look and have Hokusai’s be the first boul­der I saw in Roy was very spe­cial,” he says. He re­turned a year later with this line as his sole ob­jec­tive. He prac­ticed on a rope, head­point-style, but the high crux—a pre­cise right-hand stab into a small slot—still con­cerned him. It’s a move, says Takahashi, that were you to blow it would see you sling­shot­ting far left, “prob­a­bly past all the pads.” Wit­ness­ing the FA was ter­ri­fy­ing, I’ll ad­mit, but Takahashi’s fiercely fo­cused send was flaw­less. His topout screams shat­tered the silent ten­sion that had built all af­ter­noon after his an­nounce­ment that he was go­ing to go for it that day.

Fi­nally, the Dave Gra­ham Me­mo­rial Boul­der pro­ject, close to Hokusai’s Wave, com­bines el­e­ments of all the above through an awe-in­spir­ing over­hung wall of wash­board run­nels. To para­phrase Pen­ner, its name is an homage to the US’s

most pro­lific boul­derer and his vi­sion for bold, sin­gu­lar climbs, which formed a wry at­tempt to get his at­ten­tion to come try this line. (In the end, Gra­ham did climb in Roy and es­tab­lished sev­eral V13s, but did not try this pro­ject.)

Hike fur­ther down­stream of the Jum­bles and you will find four or five sim­i­lar zones, so much rock that it can be a chal­lenge to scram­ble through this tan­gled con­fu­sion of wa­ter-polished boul­ders piled atop bedrock pan­els. Up­stream by sev­eral miles is an area of cliff­bands, high­balls, and hor­i­zon­tal roofs with a grass­lands ap­proach over moon­scape ter­rain. Here, you’ll find the World Wide Wall, a 25-foot-tall band of streaked stone with a dozen or so high-qual­ity prob­lems in the V4–10 range. A photo of this wall that Kuphal posted on his web­site 0fric­tion. com in 2010 formed one of the early eye-catch­ing, pub­licly shared im­ages of Roy. Aes­thetic, in­de­pen­dent lines of oval-shaped, sloped pock­ets reach juggy topouts just when you need them—enough to make even the most risk-averse boul­derer into a high­ball junky.

The World Wide Wall also drew an­other sur­pris­ing type of at­ten­tion—from lo­cal law en­force­ment. In 2012, the owner of a nearby ranch re­ported com­mo­tion em­a­nat­ing from what was nor­mally a des­o­late area. Re­serve Deputy Sher­iff Flow­ers, a lo­cal who lives at the en­trance to the Kiowa Grass­lands, was called in and found Pen­ner and El­lis’s chalk at the base of the cliff. Sus­pect­ing drugs, he sent a sam­ple to the crime lab (maybe he should have sent it to Fric­tion Labs?). At the same time, two star­tled Colorado climbers found them­selves vis­it­ing the Flow­ers ranch after find­ing their stashed pads miss­ing from Mid­dle Mesteño, in their stead a note in­struct­ing them that Flow­ers had their gear. They feared the worst, but it turned out that Mr. Flow­ers, a 6’8” ex-rancher in his 80s with hands the size of spades, couldn’t have been friend­lier. He had Googled the name on the crash­pads, fig­ured out the ori­gins of the chalk, and was just hold­ing onto the pads for safe­keep­ing. A few weeks later, Pen­ner and El­lis called upon Flow­ers—they were sur­prised to learn that he was al­ready clued-in, and had many sugges­tions for en­cour­ag­ing more climbers to visit. After a tour of Mesteño Canyon, the oc­to­ge­nar­ian be­came im­pressed with their pas­sion, es­pe­cially as they promised to keep an eye out for meth labs (per­haps Flow­ers had been watch­ing too much ca­ble news).

In gen­eral, the re­la­tion­ship with lo­cals has been pos­i­tive. The Dust Bowl vil­lage of Roy has a col­or­ful his­tory, with its main street form­ing a sun-bleached, open-air mu­seum of Amer­i­cana, but has suf­fered con­stant de­pop­u­la­tion since the 1940s; nowa­days, it is pre­dom­i­nantly com­posed of a small ranch­ing and re­tire­ment com­mu­nity. The main draws for climbers are a lo­cally owned gro­cery store, and a bar in which wear­ing a cow­boy hat and chaps will help you blend in. Just don’t ex­pect any­thing to be open on Sun­days.

AS THE ORIG­I­NAL pi­o­neer set­tlers of the area found out, the high plains are sub­ject to wild ex­tremes of weather, and vis­it­ing dur­ing the full six­month climb­ing sea­son (Novem­ber to April) teaches

you to roll with the con­di­tions. Late fall is ideal, after the first freeze has dis­patched the mos­qui­toes and put the rat­tlers to sleep. Mid­win­ter brings the oc­ca­sional bru­tal storm, but tough camp­ing con­di­tions can pay off with send­ing temps in the low-an­gle sun. Spring­time, mean­while, can be no­to­ri­ously windy— eas­ily avoided by climb­ing in the shel­tered canyons. As soon it starts green­ing up again, with the reemer­gence of bugs, poi­son ivy, and snakes, most peo­ple call it quits—mon­soon rains move in to wash away the chalk, the trails grow back over, and the canyons re­set.

Pen­ner and El­lis orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned Roy as a word-of-mouth area, which it re­mained for years. This ap­proach also fit­ted Roy’s re­mote­ness—2.5 hours from Santa Fe, and 3.5 hours from Colorado Springs. How­ever, in­creas­ing num­bers of climbers were ar­riv­ing and get­ting lost any­way. Many of Pen­ner and El­lis’s clas­sic prob­lems were be­ing re­named by peo­ple who thought they were do­ing first as­cents. So­cial me­dia mud­died the wa­ters of the word-of-mouth con­cept, and, worst of all, the duo faced ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing se­cre­tive and pro­tec­tive. With the grow­ing pains of a new climb­ing des­ti­na­tion in the twenty-first cen­tury, the com­pro­mise was to cre­ate a print guide­book that high­lighted a se­lec­tion of the most con­cen­trated sec­tors, whilst leav­ing most other ar­eas un­pub­lished. With the help of many lo­cal climbers over a two-year pe­riod, I put to­gether the first boul­der­ing guide­book for the state, in­clud­ing Roy and the Orte­gas.

After a day of try-hard in the twist­ing canyons, the arid empti­ness of the windswept flat­lands hits you on the hike out. Ar­guably, this is the most mean­ing­ful com­po­nent of the Roy ex­pe­ri­ence, a punc­tu­a­tion mark on a day well spent. We’ve wit­nessed this el­e­ment change as the guide­book has brought more climbers to se­lect ar­eas of Mills and Mesteno canyons: Trails and boul­ders alike have im­proved with traf­fic, but cor­re­spond­ingly, the days of ab­so­lute soli­tude at the Jum­bles may be over. Con­versely, iso­la­tion and ad­ven­ture are still preserved in the other 13 miles of pub­lic canyons, where the climb­ing is largely still free of chalk. As a foot­note, those 13 miles are but a postage stamp on the larger ge­o­log­i­cal map of Dakota-sand­stone dis­tri­bu­tion in north­east­ern New Mex­ico: The Cana­dian River winds its way south­ward for an­other 90 miles through a be­wil­der­ing num­ber of pri­vately owned canyons, and drains an­other 60-mile rift to the west, a com­bined area the size of Rhode Is­land. To­gether with the huge num­ber of quartzite boul­ders in the Orte­gas, it is hard to be­lieve that no one thought there was qual­ity boul­der­ing in New Mex­ico. Now, it seems, there is more than any­one knows what to do with.

I first came out to this mid­dle of nowhere to see if the ru­mors of good boul­der­ing were true. Now, I can tell you, yes, but there is so much more. I re­call my fond­est mem­o­ries here: laughs at the camp­fire with friends, ex­plor­ing frozen ice caves in mid­win­ter, the tum­ble­weed in­va­sion that buried the roads one week­end, the blaze of rowdy sun­sets that fill big, dy­namic skies, pronghorn gal­lop­ing along­side the car, the cathar­tic dose of wilder­ness and ad­ven­ture that glow in­side you as you’re driv­ing home on the dead-straight­away out of Roy. Mid­dle of nowhere? It doesn’t feel that way to me any­more.

FROM LEFT: Al­ton Richard­son fig­ur­ing out the ge­om­e­try on Try An­gu­lar (V6), the Jum­bles, Mid­dle Mesteño; the tiny vil­lage of Roy, on the high plains of north­east­ern New Mex­ico.

FROM LEFT: Ken Holder high on Beau­ti­ful Pig (V6), Mid­dle Mesteño; Alex McIn­tyre styles Love Jug Cen­ter (V3), the Jum­bles; along the hike into Mills Canyon; devel­oper Wil­liam Pen­ner on Er­gonomi­con (V7), Up­per Mesteño.


Kris­ten Kirk­land on Pud­dle Jumper (V6), the Jum­bles, Mid­dle Meste–o.

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