Now and Then

Climbing - - ED NOTE - BY MATT SAMET

Twenty-eight years ago, Lee Shef­tel and I trav­eled from New Mex­ico to Hueco Tanks, Texas. Lee, at 44, was a gen­er­a­tion older, but we made a good team, both be­ing cyn­i­cal and an­ti­au­thor­i­tar­ian, with a pen­chant for en­duro climb­ing. I’m older now than Lee was then, and I can only imag­ine be­ing on the road with me at 19—my junkshow diet of ra­men, Twiz­zlers, and off-brand cook­ies, my leaky tent, fuzzy Coleman sleep­ing bag, and col­lect calls to my par­ents to spray about “five-thir­teens.” Lee was a pa­tient man.

That Oc­to­ber–No­vem­ber 1990, the park was empty save a few route climbers on the Front Side, some wan­der­ing boul­der­ers, and a trav­el­ing pack of Swiss. Lee and I mostly climbed routes, like When Leg­ends Die ( pic­tured) on West Moun­tain. For this im­age, with which I hoped to ply po­ten­tial spon­sors, I bor­rowed Lee’s sporty tights and tank top, pos­ing on the open­ing boul­der­ing prob­lem while he tied me off at the be­lay.

This was the Ranger Bob era, when the head ranger, Bob Miles, brought his au­thor­i­tar­ian wrath down on climbers, cranky, one might sur­mise, about clan­des­tine bolt­ing, ris­ing user num­bers, and the sight of all those frol­ick­ing, un­em­ployed crag hip­pies. With a Stet­son, dark sun­glasses, and a paunch over­hang­ing a mas­sive belt buckle, Ranger Bob was a clas­sic Texas fig­ure. He of­ten in­vented new rules—“No boul­der­ing on the pavil­ions!”—for the sim­ple plea­sure of hol­ler­ing at you.

Each morn­ing at the ranger sta­tion, Ranger Bob would be lurk­ing, mak­ing idle, pas­sive-ag­gres­sive chit-chat about where we were headed that day. Mean­while, the woman at the desk greeted us with a sac­cha­rine “Hi, boys,” which drove Lee nuts—he was a tax ac­coun­tant in his mid-40s, not a boy. Yet out at the rocks, it was free range.

Hueco, of course, is no longer so open. As de­tailed in James Lu­cas’s “When Leg­ends Die” (p.60), ac­cess changed in 1998 with the Pub­lic Use Plan (PUP), which lim­ited vis­i­tor num­bers and man­dated guided ac­cess to all but North Moun­tain. The plan came partly in re­sponse to the boul­der­ing boom at Hueco, which rapidly went from back­wa­ter to global des­ti­na­tion, and partly from a rise in graf­fiti and lit­ter left by non­climbers. Twenty years later, the PUP is still in place and climb­ing at Hueco is still go­ing strong—the rocks are eter­nal, and the desert has bounced back. Per­haps Hueco needed to be re­stricted to save it.

As we’re see­ing to­day across Amer­ica, Hueco was the prover­bial ca­nary in the coal mine. Even more-ro­bust ar­eas like the Red River Gorge, Ken­tucky, and Boulder Canyon, Colorado, now boast vis­i­ble cliff-base im­pacts like mi­cro-trash, com­pacted soil, ex­posed tree roots, be­lay-plat­form ero­sion, and so on—all things that need to be mit­i­gated to pre­serve the crags’ longevity. These are im­pacts to con­sider at ev­ery climb­ing area, even newer ones that aren’t vis­i­bly de­graded yet. We can’t, as Lu­cas ar­gues, stick our head in the sand any longer.

Twenty-eight years ago, a punk kid posed down on Leg­ends, car­ing only about get­ting to the next bolt. Twenty-eight years later, the man that kid has be­come thinks heav­ier thoughts, in a sport and a world that would have been un­rec­og­niz­able in 1990. “Sink a knee­bar,” I would have told younger me. “It makes the third clip eas­ier.” And also: “Scrub off your chalk, pick up any lit­ter, and make nice with Ranger Bob. Ev­ery lit­tle bit counts, and three decades from now no one will care whether you sent Leg­ends— just, did you help make Hueco Tanks a bet­ter place?”

THE AU­THOR IN 1990, POS­ING ON WHEN LEG­ENDS DIE ( 5.13B), HUECO TANKS.

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