The chang­ing face of Hueco Tanks State Park


The chang­ing face of Hueco Tanks State Park, and how reg­u­la­tions saved it from be­ing loved to death.

Climb­ing ac­tiv­ity on Hueco Tanks’ unique, fea­tured syen­ite por­phyry dates back to the 1950s with the Texas Western Col­lege (now UTEP) Kliff Climbers toprop­ing at the area. In the sec­ond half of the decade, Royal Rob­bins and oth­ers es­tab­lished the first lead climbs, on the slab­bier but­tresses on the Front Side of North Moun­tain. In the mid-1970s, Tanks pi­o­neer Mike Head, with John Mc­Call and Mark Motes, es­tab­lished

In­de­cent Ex­po­sure, a me­an­der­ing Front Side 5.9+ that dances along the edge of a rad­i­cally over­hang­ing 300-foot but­tress. Head and crew, along with the reclu­sive Bob Murray, also be­gan ex­plor­ing the area’s boul­der­ing po­ten­tial, with Head es­tab­lish­ing the then cut­ting-edge Mush­room Roof (V8) in the early 1980s. John “Ver­min” Sher­man ar­rived in 1983, when he “had the boul­ders mostly to my­self.” Sher­man es­tab­lished over 400 clas­sic prob­lems at Hueco, in­clud­ing many of Amer­ica’s early V9s— things like the roof crack Mother of the Fu­ture and the bur­nished slab Na­choman. When Skin­ner also showed up around then, he pushed steep, mod­ern sport climbs.

In 1987, when Skin­ner es­tab­lished Leg­ends, the scene at Hueco dif­fered greatly. Though bolt­ing here was il­le­gal un­til 1989, Skin­ner and com­pany equipped at night, jus­ti­fy­ing it through a loop­hole in the rules. “The bolts them­selves were le­gal,” Skin­ner was quoted as say­ing in Jeff Jack­son’s ar­ti­cle “Then and Now” in Climb­ing No. 195. “So if some un­known per­son got the bolts into the rock at night, then you could legally climb the route the next morn­ing.” Us­ing a muf­fled drill and look­outs, Skin­ner et al. es­tab­lished a num­ber of climbs, in­clud­ing Leg­ends. “[He’d just be] rub­bing it into the rangers that, ‘Hey, look what I did, and you didn’t catch me,’” says Sher­man of the neon quick­draws that hung through­out the win­ter while Skin­ner worked his pro­jects. How­ever, one bolter did get caught red-handed equip­ping East Moun­tain’s Tarts of

Hor­sham (5.12+), a crimp marathon on the iron-rock Great Wall. “They make rules; we break em,” said Skin­ner. Pre­dictably, this at­ti­tude led to prob­lems, and for three weeks in 1988 the park banned roped climb­ing.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Hueco was con­sid­ered a ma­jor des­ti­na­tion for hard climb­ing. In 1991, Sher­man pub­lished a boul­der­ing guide in­clud­ing over 1,000 prob­lems and in­tro­duc­ing the V-Scale. His sec­ond edi­tion, in 1995, cat­a­logued 1,400 prob­lems, in­clud­ing some of the hard­est in North Amer­ica—things like Crown

of Aragorn (V13) and Mar­tini Right (V12). By 1998, Fred Nicole had brought the first V14s to Amer­ica with his Slash­face and Coeur de Leon. As Hueco, a com­pact 860 acres, be­came an in­ter­na­tional nexus, im­pact is­sues be­gan to arise on its three piles of steep, red­dish-brown patina rocks: North, East, and West moun­tains. With less than 13 inches of rain­fall per year and the ma­jor­ity of that com­ing in the mon­soon sea­son, the park was feel­ing the im­pact of in­creas­ing vis­i­tor num­bers—the tram­pling of veg­e­ta­tion and the cre­ation of so­cial trails in the win­ter climb­ing sea­son meant that the frag­ile Chi­huahuan desert en­vi­rons re­cov­ered slowly. With the ad­di­tional im­pacts of chalk, quickly. able.” So­cial trails braided through mead­ows. El Paso lo­cals par­tied at the boul­ders, and lit­ter and graf­fiti spread through­out the park. In 1992, the Tigua, the only Pue­bloan Na­tive Amer­i­can tribe still in Texas, protested the Hueco Rock Rodeo, ar­gu­ing that the area was sa­cred ground. (The tribe still uses the area for prayer gang mark­ings ob­scured rock art at the Kiva Cave, then Su­per­in­ten­dent Dar­rell Rhyne an­nounced that the park would close for two weeks. Hueco had hit a thresh­old.

Hueco Tanks’ his­tory of hu­man habi­ta­tion dates back to 1150 AD, when the Jor­nada Mo­gol­lon peo­ple lived in the area, us­ing the wa­ter that col­lected in the moun­tains’ large hue­cos (hol­lows/cis­terns). They lived an agri­cul­tural life­style, but also painted the boul­ders with deer, masks, hu­man-like faces in­clud­ing the Starry Eyed Man and the White Horned Dancer, and blocky, zigzag­ging de­pic­tions of Tlaloc, a rain god. From the mid-six­teenth to the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury, other tribes added to the rock art, paint­ing hand­prints, horses, snakes, and cer­e­mo­nial dances. In 1898, Sil­vero Es­con­trias bought a large sec­tion of land, in­clud­ing what is to­day the park, from the State of Texas; the park re­mained in the Es­con­trias fam­ily un­til 1956, when Pi­lar Loya Es­con­trias sold off four sec­tions con­tain­ing the Tanks. The site passed through var­i­ous hands, and at one point ended up with a de­vel­oper who built a dam be­tween North and West moun­tains, filled the basin with wa­ter, and at­tempted to sell lake­side prop­erty. Pre­dictably, given all the fis­sures in the rock, the lake drained within days. In 1965, tired of see­ing the park change hands and of the loot­ing of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­sources, El Paso County bought the prop­erty. Four years later, the state took it over, open­ing it to the pub­lic in May 1970. Ac­cess would re­main largely un­re­stricted for nearly 30 years.

In 1998, in re­sponse to the overusage cri­sis—to fur­ther pro­tect the pic­tographs and re­store im­pacted ar­eas—the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart­ment im­ple­mented the Pub­lic Use Plan (PUP). They cre­ated 70 slots per day that al­lowed climbers, hik­ers, bird­ers, etc. to visit North Moun­tain un­guided, with 60 of those slots reserv­able and the re­main­ing 10 left for walk-ins. An ad­di­tional 160 peo­ple per day could visit East Moun­tain, West Moun­tain, and the East Spur, but they needed to be ac­com­pa­nied by a Hueco Tanks–cer­ti­fied guide. Visi­ta­tion rates dropped—ac­cord­ing to “Then and Now,” the num­bers fell from 85,000 in 1996 to 17,000 in 1999.

Cur­rently, ap­prox­i­mately 30,000 peo­ple visit the park each year, with the same num­ber of slots (70) open on North Moun­tain and lit­tle move­ment by the park to open it fur­ther.

“When I came to Hueco in the mid-90s, you couldn’t go to an area with­out there be­ing two or three com­pet­ing boom boxes, ” says Ty Foose, who will be co-au­thor­ing a new guide­book to the area. Foose, who lives di­rectly across from North Moun­tain and has spent nearly 30 years climb­ing at Hueco, adds, “There were tons of peo­ple and 10 trails to go to any one boulder prob­lem. And there was no wildlife.” While Hueco had of­fered the free­dom to roam, qual­ity rock, and plenty of fu­ture hard climb­ing, in the frag­ile desert that fu­ture had its lim­its. I n De­cem­ber 2017, on the east flank of West Moun­tain, Ja­son Kehl pulls out his iPhone, takes a photo of a tan swath of rock, and then ap­plies the iDStretch app to it. Where there was seem­ingly only blank stone, the app picks up faint pig­ment, il­lumi- nat­ing the lines un­til a col­or­ful pat­tern emerges—art­work from a thou­sand years ago. The ma­jor­ity of Hueco’s rock art ex­ists at ground level, where the moun­tains meet the desert. Over time, the pic­tographs have faded—although many, like the Starry Eyed Man and those in the Cave of Masks, are vis­i­ble to the naked eye. In the past few years, park of­fi­cials have used iDStretch to rec­og­nize and cat­a­logue this less vis­i­ble art, check­ing ev­ery boulder prob­lem in Matt Wilder’s 2004 guide­book as well as other nearby sites. Not sur­pris­ingly, this has been prob­lem­atic for climbers. Prob­lems like Roughage (V7) and ar­eas like the Warm-Up Boulder were closed a few years ago for rock art. Then, in Feb­ru­ary 2017, cur­rent Park Su­per­in­ten­dent Ruben Ocampo closed an ad­di­tional 29 boul­der­ing sites (ap­prox­i­mately 50 prob­lems), in­clud­ing clas­sics like North Moun­tain’s Ad­just Your At­ti­tude (V8) and East Moun­tain’s Belly of the Beast (V7), be­cause of their prox­im­ity to rock art.

Many non­climb­ing lo­cals sup­port the clo­sures. ““How can we re­spect the be­liefs and sites of the indige­nous peo­ples of this land while we con­tinue to al­low climb­ing at Hueco Tanks?” wrote Mar­i­lyn Rose Guida, a vol­un­teer at the El Paso Ar­chae­ol­ogy Mu­seum, in a March 2017 let­ter to the El Paso Times. While there re­main lin­ger­ing ten­sions be­tween Hueco ad­vo­cates who want to pre­serve the park’s his­tory at any cost and Hueco climbers who want to climb ev­ery­where, “There shouldn’t be a whole lot more clo­sures,” says Sarah On­tiveros, trea­surer of the Climbers of Hueco Tanks Coali­tion (CHTC), a lo­cal non­profit climber or­ga­ni­za­tion. “There’s not go­ing to be new rock art.”

In a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment, some for­merly closed ar­eas are now com­ing back on­line. In 2017, the park re­opened East Moun­tain’s Five Bim­bos area, thanks in part to the ef­forts of the CHTC. In 1996, the park closed the area due to tram­pling and so­cial trails. The CHTC worked to re­store the area, cre­at­ing bet­ter trail mark­ers, al­low­ing the meadow to re­vive. They also cre­ated seed bombs, col­lect­ing na­tive grasses and flow­ers and em­bed­ding them in clumps of mud that could then be tossed on restora­tion ar­eas dur­ing the rainy sea­son.

Since 2005, the CHTC has done a yearly cleanup. Shortly af­ter the Rock Rodeo comp, 80–120 vol­un­teers will walk through clean­ing up mi­cro-trash and glass shards from Hueco’s days as a party spot, and wash­ing chalk off high-vis­i­bil­ity ar­eas. Fur­ther, the coali­tion has mit­i­gated ero­sion in ar­eas like the one around No­body

Here Gets Out Alive (V2), a much-trav­eled jug-roof on force the land­ing. Still, climbers have had to live with ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­sources. Home to the iconic El Mur­rays, Mush­room Roof, and the early Fred Nicole Hueco was once the “main hang.”

“If they closed ev­ery es­tab­lished boulder prob­lem, I’d still have a life­time of climb­ing here,” Kehl says, as we nav­i­gate through the maze of West Moun­tain. Kehl ar­rived in Hueco in 1995, and in the early 2000s be­came a cer­ti­fied guide—one of sev­eral hun­dred to­tal, in­clud­ing about 65 who are ac­tive each win­ter sea­son. Kehl, who lives in El Paso, is now work­ing on a new boul­der­ing guide with Foose. Kehl and Foose have been busy iDStretch­ing new ar­eas and ex­plor­ing Hueco’s more re­mote reaches. They will be shar­ing this in­for­ma­tion with the park, and are us­ing the pro­gram to pre­vent the es­tab­lish­ment of new prob­lems on rock art.

Deep in West Moun­tain, Kehl shoes up be­low a block lodged in a gi­ant chim­ney. He pulls on, heel- and toe-hook­ing up Antimatter, a com­pres­sion V10. Kehl has been at the fore­front of de­vel­op­ment in Hueco Tanks in the past few years. He’s brought wild tac­tics, es­tab­lish­ing nu­mer­ous prob­lems on West Moun­tain, in­clud­ing Full Nym

pho (V12) us­ing a rope an­chored to a large thread to pro­tect him­self on its ex­posed lip above a 50-plus-foot drop. There’s Wig­gle Room (V8), a face-out stem prob­lem that in­volves ro­tat­ing through 360 de­grees; and Worm­wood (V9), a tall tufa line. Kehl found many of these prob­lems by walk­ing through the park in sum­mer, but he’s also picked lower-hang­ing fruit through sheer stealth. Af­ter work­ing Arachn­o­disiac (V11) at West Moun­tain’s pop­u­lar High Ideals area, Kehl metic­u­lously washed the chalk off to pre­vent oth­ers from see­ing the line. Most of Kehl’s new lines are in the un­ex­plored ar­eas of West Moun­tain, the most rugged and re­mote of Hueco’s rock­piles.

“The stuff on the other moun­tains is a lit­tle picked through, so it’s ei­ther a high­ball or re­ally hard or just what’s left,” says Kehl. Still, he and oth­ers have found gems even on the more trav­eled rock heaps. In 2005, Foose es­tab­lished Denizen (V4) in a re­mote cor­ri­dor on North Moun­tain and As­sisted Liv­ing (V7) by the well-trod­den Ghetto Sim­u­la­tor (V2). In 2007, Trevor Turmelle es­tab­lished the new-school clas­sic Guns of Navarone (V6) near North Moun­tain’s Baby­face. And in 2011 in the East Spur, Sam Davis es­tab­lished Bush League (V9) and Crown Royal (V13). In the up­com­ing Kehl/ Foose guide, there will be 1,000 prob­lems listed on North Moun­tain—com­pared to the Wilder guide’s 640. In ad­di­tion to Kehl’s 69 new prob­lems, Foose has au­thored 258 new lines, prov­ing that Hueco is far from tapped out, even un­der the PUP.

In fact for many lo­cals, the PUP, though it in­tro­duces lo­gis­ti­cal com­pli­ca­tion, works well. “I pre­fer it,” says Kehl. “Es­pe­cially go­ing to other ar­eas [out­side of Hueco Tanks]. There’s so much climb­ing here, but it’s in such close prox­im­ity that it just couldn’t han­dle more peo­ple.” Only 10 peo­ple at a time are al­lowed at any one boul­der­ing site on East and West moun­tains, which mit­i­gates crowds. Dogs, which are not al­lowed in the park, never eat climbers’ lunches. Mu­sic and trash are min­i­mized. Also, the ex­pense ($7 a day to visit the park and $25 per per­son for a guided tour) and lo­gis­ti­cal has­sles have kept many of the climb­ing-vagabond crowd away.

“I used to loathe [the re­stric­tions],” says Ci­masi, who lives a quar­ter-mile from the park and be­gan climb­ing here in 1997. “But af­ter see­ing many other ar­eas go the way of the Hap­pies in Bishop, I’m glad it’s there.” In the peak sea­son, 100 cars will line the park­ing on East Slough Road be­low the Hap­pies. The im­pact in less reg­u­lated zones like Bishop, Red Rock, Joe’s Val­ley, and other ar­eas is ob­vi­ous—things like de­stroyed veg­e­ta­tion in the But­ter­milks, bath­room waste in Cal­ico Basin, and ero­sion in Joe’s Val­ley. Too many climbers can turn a once-pris­tine wilder­ness into a tram­pled, pol­ished night­mare. Hueco, how­ever, has been pre­served. “In the long run, it’s bet­ter for us to make sure we’re pro­tect­ing the things that need to be pro­tected, and we still get to climb on the best square mile of rock on planet earth,” says Foose.

“We could walk up and touch the fu­ture of climb­ing,” Todd Skin­ner was quoted as say­ing in the Wilder guide­book about late-1980s Hueco. But is this still true to­day? Many peo­ple be­lieve that, with the last 20 years of reg­u­la­tion, the leg­end of Hueco Tanks has died. How­ever, what Hueco has shown is a more sus­tain­able ap­proach in an ever-grow­ing sport. The qual­ity and quan­tity of the climb­ing here haven’t changed, but climbers’ views on what they’re will­ing to en­dure to ac­cess the rock have—and many climbers mak­ing the pil­grim­age now are young enough that they can’t even re­mem­ber the park be­fore the PUP. With our ever-in­creas­ing user num­bers and the pressure we put on the fi­nite re­source of rock, most climb­ing ar­eas will need to have up­dated and per­haps more re­stric­tive use plans. As we move to­ward a fu­ture with more climbers and the same amount of rock, some leg­ends may need to die—or at least be re­ex­am­ined.

2. Pete Ci­masi makes a rare re­peat of When Leg­ends Die ( 5.13b), the Ea­gle, West Moun­tain.

1. Sig­nage denotes the re­cent clo­sure of the once- beloved Warm- Up Boulder on North Moun­tain.

2. Kehl demon­strates the i DStretch app on a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Me­soamer­i­can rain god Tlaloc, Hueco Tanks.

1. Kevin McNally works the beta on Dark Age ( V11) on the Big TIme Boulder, North Moun­tain.

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