For the second time this year, I traveled to Hueco Tanks, TX for climbing. Hueco is a world class bouldering destination for climbers, but for me it's special for a different reason. Don't get me wrong, I love the climbing in Hueco. It truly is incredible--the vastness of the boulder fields, and quality of the climbs. But the importance of Hueco to the climbing community means people travel from all across the world to climb it's stone. The community at Hueco is unlike any other I've experienced at other climbing "crags".
Hueco Tanks sits about 20 minutes east of the city of El Paso, and its kind of like it's own little city. Tucker, Evan, and I pulled up to the "Hueco Rock Ranch" after our first day of climbing in the park and three guys stood around a fire in a barrel..what I think is lovingly referred to as a "Hobo Fire" hahah. My previous experience in Hueco this year was a week before the Hueco Rock Rodeo, which is a huge outdoor bouldering competition that pros and amateurs compete in every year. Needless to say it was very busy with people from all over getting ready for the comp. But this weekend there wasn't a lot of people. The bouldering "season" in Hueco was quickly coming to a close as the higher temperatures approached. Two of the three guys standing around the fire were the Rock Ranch's care takers (People employed by the American Alpine Club to manage this location). John & Clark introduced themselves and the third was a tall older man named CJ.
We started to make dinner and talked with Clark who immediately struck me as a very genuine, honest person. Often times in conversation people aren't really listening, but waiting for their next turn to interject their opinion in the conversation. Clark wasn't like that, he listened, really listened, like someone who is whole heartedly interested in something you have to say. He explained to us how he got the job managing the Rock Ranch and what he does during the days. Life lived in the desert of Texas strikes me as very lonely, you'd have a lot of time to yourself. Clark really showed that in his words. Everything he said he had definitely thought about. Tucker from our group is a teacher in a high school in Dallas, and Clark was very interested in the education system as a whole. It took me aback a little bit, here I was eating Ramen noodles, sitting around a "hobo fire" with a complete stranger who I met 30 minutes prior, having one of the most interesting conversations i've had in my life. Clark was very honest with us about his confusion in life and what to do after he was done at the Ranch. He told us he had been accepted into a Graduate program that does research on Sustainable Communities. I could see the conflict on his face. The conflict of leaving a beautiful place and being paid money to live a dream life to pursue a higher education that might not be better than what you already have. It felt very familiar to me, and probably to most people my age. The uncertainty of anything we do and not knowing if we can ever get back what we once had before.
I commented that our guide had told us the wind would be "crazy" later tonight, and the second after I said that a huge gust of wind hit us, blowing the fire probably 10 feet sideways. We scrambled quick to put it out as to not light the whole camp ground on fire. The wind was easily 30-40mph and since it was just us and one other group camping out there that night, we decided to pass out on the couches inside the barn.
The next morning CJ, whom we had met the night prior, had asked us if he could ride with us to the park, since he didn't have a car. On the quick drive over to the front gate to the park, he told us how he ended up at Hueco Tanks, TX without a vehicle. I've always thought about what it would be like to go somewhere without a vehicle, without knowing people, and wondered if I'd make it. CJ had a kind of boldness to him that I strive for in my climbing and personality. He was interesting to me, I've wondered several times what a climber's life looks like on someone my father's age. CJ had been all over, and could name off tons of old climbs he did back in the day. He had actually been a park ranger in the Hueco Tanks park in the early 2000s, living in the park and climbing. It was pretty cool hearing his stories about the early days of climbing in the park. A lot of the time you have to take old climber stories with a grain of salt...the community likes to embellish a lot haha. But not with CJ it seemed, he actually knew several people we met throughout our day on the mountain from the early 90s and could literally name every spot we climbed. He had definitely experienced a lot in his life, you could read in his face hard times and hard choices. It's been said that the two great risks in life are risking too much and too little, and CJ was no stranger to risk. One thing's for sure, despite not having bouldered in Hueco for some time, he kept up with us younger guys pretty well.
Our guide for Sunday and Monday was Brandon. I had actually seen him on my previous trip guiding a tour while on a different tour myself, and my previous guide referred him to me for this time around. Brandon is a pretty mellow guy. He struck me as older because how mature he was, but he's just 23 years old. As far as guiding went Brandon, like all the other climbing guides, knows just about every single boulder that exists in Hueco Tanks. It's pretty impressive to be honest. He struck me as kind of enigmatic. I find myself always intrigued with these type of people because I like really understanding how a person thinks, and to me, being fairly high energy and talkative, a quiet person is a puzzle. I wanted to get an idea of how strongly Brandon climbs, so I asked him what his best send in the park was. He said "I sent Diaphanous Sea", and when he said it CJ's face lit up and he goes "Oh this guy is a freakin CRUSHER". Still not knowing the answer to my question I asked him what it's graded (How difficult on the "V" scale it is). He replied with "Well the guide book grades it as V12". To put that in perspective the hardest boulder grade to date is a V16 and to put that further into perspective, the hardest boulder i've ever completed is a V5. It was super impressive, but Brandon was almost uncomfortable discussing it. He was incredibly humble, which really made him all the more impressive to me. He had the attitude of a V1 climber, with the skill of a professional climber, it's remarkable. It really taught me that the more impressive thing is to be humble, and not to flaunt your achievements but to let them speak for themselves.
I really enjoy watching climbing documentaries and specifically a recent one about the start of climbing in the Yosemite valley. A community of young climbers who pushed each other to climb better and be bolder than anyone previously had. I haven't personally been to Yosemite yet, so I can't speak to the existence of that culture still, but Hueco Tanks has that feeling for me. The people from all across the country and the world come together in this small spot in the Texas desert to climb and commune with the community. It's kind of cool actually, the history of Hueco Tanks is that people have always gathered there for hundreds of years because it's an oasis in the desert. Here we are hundreds of years later gathering in our climbing oasis.