A lost fragment of a dust-devil swirls through the empty lot below us, blowing new sand into the piles that are slowly accumulating around the lonely, discarded objects - dark beer bottles, tie-down stones, some pallets - the sad refuse of a place that once was filled with the energy of a bustling community of happy climbers.
Atop the gray, weathered and slowly disintegrating structure of the upstairs' porch at Pete's, my four year old poses at the spot traditionally used as the "winners pedestal" each year at the Rock Rodeo. Behind Julie, there is only emptiness where last year a colorful sea of tents housed those courageous enough to brave the splendid squalor that was Pete's. The long rays of the setting sun shine slantingly across the landscape, coldly illuminating the scene but providing little warmth. Except for some intermittent, unenthusiastic yips from Pete's dog, the silence and desolation are complete.
Julie, who usually loves having her picture taken, scowls impatiently while I fumble with the camera.
"Dad, have I ever been to this weird place?"
"What do you mean? You've been here lots of times. Don't you remember? This is Pete's! Don't you remember playing and dancing with the kids last year at the party? And it is NOT weird, this place is legendary!"
"'Dad" (indignantly), this isn't that place!"
I had no immediate response to this, because she is right. Pete's and Hueco are nearly unrecognizable compared to last year.
This would have been the day of the 10th Annual Hueco Tanks Rock Rodeo Bouldering Contest. The last Saturday In February - for the last 10 years this weekend meant "Hueco!" to those few hundred faithful rock rats attending the joyful and irreverent gathering. We have driven out to interview Pete, and to see if there were any die-hard climbers wintering there. I have grown used to seeing it empty save for Pete's truck, but hope that someone else remembers that this is the weekend that usually represents the climax of the winter bouldering season at Hueco. This afternoon, there is only one car and Pete's truck in the lot.
Out front, the slack wire is still there, rotting from UV but strong enough to hold the chubby kid sitting on it eating his dinner - probably one of Pete's numerous grandchildren. Beneath the porch, the campus board and five-hold climbing wall are still functional. The steps to the upstairs are warped and slate gray, and the second one is missing entirely - possibly consumed in some ecstatic orgy of pyromania. They creak and splinter as I help Julie up to the lofty and revered summit of the porch, guiding her around the weak sections - numerous holes reveal the layers of years of repairs as successive generations of climbing rats came to Pete's and added plywood. The door to the upstairs room is locked, so I wipe clean a circle in the muddy cracked window and have a look. Inside, shadowy piles of mysterious junk in cardboard boxes fill a space that once housed climbers and lice and laughter - where once the famous and the insane, the rads and the trads, coexisted in peace.
A year ago today, Pete's teemed with wiry, bloody-knuckled people dressed in odd clothes, relaxed and happy after a perfect day of spring bouldering. The warm smell of gorditas and beans shared the air with the sounds of spew and the staccato hissing of camp stoves. The awards ceremony would have just ended, the disco would be blaring and the bonfire soon would be lit.
The contrast with the desolate gray loneliness before us today is stark and sobering. We descend quietly and go inside to say hi to Pete and Queta.
They are talking with three of their descendants, munching tacos and watching TV. We shake hands, and Queta makes her usual fuss over "how big Julie is now!". I remind them what weekend it is - they had completely forgotten - and ask them if I may take their picture and get a brief interview for this article.
I want to hear from them exactly what impact the restrictions have had. I do not want to write that Pete's is empty if it is not - if, as the TPWD claims, there are "plenty of tents" at Pete's
"So - no tents at all in parking lot? No one staying here?"
Queta: "Not even one!"
"Tell me what this has done to your business."
Pete gave a wry chuckle and said, "I figure I am going to have to close it down or sell it or something - there's no business."
"Can you give me any kind of numbers - 50%, 10%, 5% of last years? What would you say?"
He paused and with that special subtle tone Pete reserves for stupid questions, answered "Zero percent of last years business - zero percent!" Queta chimed in , "It's terrible! We have been struggling a lot, we have been selling our equipment, to keep going."
"Pete, I have heard the TPWD claiming that they are getting a lot of reports that the climbers are happy, that they like the new system, that the reservations are the way to go. What have you heard from climbers that you have talked to?"
Queta jumps in forcefully, "They don't like it any way!". Pete adds with a disgusted look, "I talk to all kinds of climbers. Foreign Climbers. They don't like it - they can't get in. They can't get reservations. They are very unhappy. I've talked to American climbers who have come in, they have been here before, and they don't like the new system. They can't get in, they won't let them in."
He continues, "I talked to the…used to be "snow birds" coming in for winter, and they don't like it cause they tell me, they tell me that the uh … people at the park, they are not the same as before, they're not really friendly like before."
"What do you think about the current efforts to try to get some or all of the park transferred to control by the Tiguas?
Pete then gave me another one of his famous looks - the "OK, you are still wet behind the ears, but because I like you I will explain it to you one more time instead of just grunting and turning back to what I was doing", look.
"Its like any other bureaucracy in this world" he says, shaking his head. "When they have a need, they make a lot of promises, and then after it is said and done, they shaft you!"
Queta sighs, "We just don't know what to say anymore. We don't think much … we just don't know what is going on."
I snapped a picture of them, promised to do what I could, and sadly took my leave.
I was originally opposed to the idea of having a contest every year. In 1987, the newly formed El Paso Climbers Club had just beat back the forces of evil responsible for the first of many closings at Hueco. We had succeeded in implementing a plan that allowed for new routes to be bolted after they were approved, Mike Head had just retro-bolted all of the death-runouts on the frontside, and things were almost perfect. Relations with the park staff were pretty good, and one of the rangers was even a climber (some of you may know Donny Hardin - he has appeared in the pages of Climbing Magazine a few times.) I was worried that the increased visibility would lead Hueco to be overrun by thousands of climbers.
I lost that argument, and in retrospect I am glad that I did. I came to love the yearly debacle, despite the hassles of begging for prizes from sponsors and the other work involved with organizing it each year. Hueco was destined to be discovered by the rest of the world, contest or not, and I would not have had the nine years of memories of the annual February festival to cherish.
The first few contests were divided into two main divisions - the "Super Expert" course, set by John Sherman and run under his strict rules , and the Advanced, Intermediate, and Beginner sections for the rest of the mere mortals.
I recently found a copy of the original "rules" sheet, written and printed by Sherm himself, for the very first 'Super Expert" course:
In those days, Sherman's warped yet fertile brain was pregnant with both the V system and the revised Hueco Tanks Guidebook. Bouldering was a relatively new pursuit, and those who came to Hueco felt like pioneers in many ways.
We never tried to make the Rock Rodeo big and organized, or tried to attract the world's best climbers. We offered almost no prize money, a few items of donated equipment, and did not even offer trophies until after the 6th year. The best the winners could hope for was some item of gear, a tiny mention in the climbing rags and to have their names added to those inscribed on the "Golden Chalk Bag" that hung inside Pete's.
The most sought-after prizes were the bizarre ones - the "Velvet Elvis" painting, the Skull and the bottle of genuine Mescal Tequila, which was usually awarded to one of the good sports who fell into the fetid bacteria-laden water of "Laguna Prieta". Access to the "Start From The Canoe" problem required being ferried there by Dan "The Boatman" Garbo, also famed for having survived an unroped fall from the top of the End Loop boulder. Tape and Benzoin were given to the climber with bloodiest flapper, a "climbing negligee" went to the most stunning lycra-clad female climber, and a sleazy velvet painting of a naked woman would be presented to the climber voted the "Loneliest Guy".
By the second year, everyone realized that the best part of the contest started at sunset - the party afterwards at Pete's! Suds would flow, the disco would blare, the bonfire would blaze, and the debauchery would last long into the night.
I was unable to be there the first time fire-walking was observed. Legend has it that the "British Team", which swept the Men's Super Exert and Advanced categories that year, were the first to brave the flames and start the long and honorable annual tradition of partial self-immolation.
Over the years, the memories of this strange post-contest thermal ritual stand out clearer than the images of sunshine and boulders and chalk dust in the cool, dry spring air. Climbers, their courage fortified with ethanol, would each year escalate the level of craziness. Naked fire dancing, fully inverted flips and other acts of derring-do were witnessed, cheered and photographed. Many a fire dancer was pulled from the coals and quickly extinguished by the crowd, several of whom were professional firefighters! Many a romance was kindled in the hearts of those circling the flames those nights…
The Friday night before each contest a small group of us would rendezvous at dusk to mark the course by headlamp. We would fan out over the park, armed with masking tape, markers, guidebooks and the super-secret list of 200 or so problems that had been selected that year. By 10:00p or so we had finished marking the course and would head over to Ranger Dave's for a nightcap.
Contest morning always started too early! Bleary-eyed, we would setup at Pete's for registration. All of us greatly enjoyed being able to meet people from all over the world who came to share in the good times and companionship. All were consistent in praising the Rock Rodeo as their favorite contest because of its informality and emphasis on fun.
They would then pile into cars for the 5 minute trip to the 'Tanks and start ripping the flesh from their tips. After cleaning up from registration, I would usually wander the park, answering questions, helping lost people and shooting photos. One of my most cherished videos is of Gary Ryan floating through chalk-fogged sunbeams up a (then) nameless V8 near the top of the East Mountain. The three minute performance shows everything that makes Hueco the best place to boulder in the Known Universe - the iron hard rock, so beautiful with its softly subtle brown and orange and gray tones, the incredible density of holds, all coupled with impossibly steep overhangs and routes that go on and on and on - nothing else is like it.
At 3:00p the contest was officially over, and contestants would hand in their scoresheets to us at the Ranch House. Some looked grim and serious, many were rueful over not having completed 10 problems. All looked somewhat dazed and relived. We would then take the sheets over to Ranger Dave's and start tallying up the points. After figuring out who the winners were, we would hurry over to Pete's for the awards ceremony, hoping to have our share of the beer before the thirsty crowd sucked the kegs dry.
At Pete's, the porch was the natural platform from which to announce the winners. Each would be called forth from the teeming throngs to proudly mount the steps, accepting the applause, a handshake and the chalk bag or harness or whatever with a smile for the photographer.
The occasional tie would necessitate a hang-off to determine the winner. These tendon-wrenching ordeals were endured cheerfully by the hapless pair while the crowd savored the agony of tortured fingers slowly uncurling from the bar.
On this last Saturday night in February, I should not be here in front of my computer. I should be at Pete's, one of the happy faces lit by the glow of the flames, egging on the pyromaniacs, eating Pete's gorditas and anticipating sleeping under the crystalline brilliance of a starry desert sky.
Not only has the TPWD taken away my freedom to climb at Hueco, they have deprived me of my right to free assembly at the place I chose to meet my friends. I don't go to church, I don't belong to any teams, I don't go to ball games or other spectator sports events, the only club I am a member of the El Paso Climbers' Club, and that is only because we had to organize to keep Hueco open. For me, my place to go where I could meet others who share my world-view was Hueco. It was my functional equivalent of a church, even though I worship no entity, and pray to no god. It was, as Donny Hardin used to say, "Mi Casa".
The current emptiness at Hueco is horrible and depressing. It used to be that one could drive out and meet people to climb with - those days of spontaneous visits are over. Now one has to plan ahead for months just to enjoy a simple pump with friends. With only 50 people a day allowed on North Mountain, one is lucky to encounter any other climbers while out there.
In years gone by at Hueco I have met so many of the people who have pushed climbing to new levels - Patrick Edlinger beneath the El Murray's, Robyn Erbesfeld dancing up Manly Stuff, Geoff Wiegand suspended from Bucket Roof, Hans Florine tearing flesh off his hands on Lunch Rock, Lynn Hill making Hueco Crank look easy, Fred Nakovic at New Chataquas, Les Harmon dangling from Plastic Fantastic, Donny Hardin at Mojo
Rising, John Sherman in The Morgue, Bob Murray emerging from the Mines of Moria, Mike Head giving a newbie (me) the beta on Cakewalk, Dick Cilly hawking his wares in front of Mushroom Boulder, Tim Toula who observed me struggling with Twisted, and showed me the trick with the outside edge of the left foot - the list is endless, and includes thousands of nameless lesser mortals like myself.
As time goes on, I realize that I miss the people as much as I miss the rocks.
Even though I was unable (again) to get a reservation to climb this Sunday, I think I will still drive out tomorrow. I know I wont be able to get in. Instead, I will stand outside the fence and stare broken-heartedly at the surfaces I am forbidden to touch, the buckets I am forbidden to caress. I will dream of the day when this nightmare will end, and hope that I am still alive when again we can experience a Free Hueco.