Now and Then
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.