* Yes, a real thing.
** Also a real thing in El Paso, apparently. Weirdness happens in Texas.
Growing hungry, we were excited to find a good Mexican restaurant for lunch. A 'drive-around-and-look' strategy proved difficulty (many signs are only in Spanish, making it hard for non-speakers to even recognize restaurants), so Davin googled "mexican restaurant El Paso" to get us back on track. After some discussion (and a fair bit of hilarity) we settled on the L&J Cafe, which we saw was located (ominously?) close to a graveyard. We needn't have worried about the L&J Cafe, though; this restaurant has been operating for almost 100 years, and has been voted El Paso's best Mexican Restaurant for many years. After we arrived, we sat down to enjoy some of the best food I've had in a long time. I had the huevos rancheros (which were absolutely perfect), while Davin had the grilled steak fajitas (which seemed equally splendid), and Kyle had chicken tacos. If you're ever in El Paso, check it out, but be warned - it can get quite busy!
The day dawned warm and sunny as usual, and we packed lunches and gathered gear for our first tour of the trip; we were joining a tour of the moderate-to-hard problems of West Mountain that was being led by Shane (check out his great video of his Hueco Tanks season here). Arriving in the park, we were finally able to cross the 'guided groups only' boundary into the backcountry of Hueco Tanks. After a short hike, we warmed up on a few easy lines in the Skull Hollow area before heading deeper into West Mountain to try a steep line in the sun called Crash Test Dummy (V7). One of the climbers on the tour was Sam, a chemistry professor from Ontario (a strong climber who we would climb with for much of the remainder of our trip). Although everyone on the tour quickly began to make good progress on the problem, it began to get too hot for serious climbing in the full sun, and we moved on to find more shady lines.
Shane thought we would enjoy a crimpy rising traverse on perfect patina edges called Animal Acts (V5), which also happened to be Emily's project (she was on the tour as well). With a little luck, I managed to flash the line, with the owner of Rhino Skin Solutions (who had originally booked the tour) flashing it soon thereafter. After a bit of work, Kyle and Davin sent the line as well, and while everyone was eating lunch I started work on a long funky V7ish problem that climbed out of a hole nearby. Before I could send it, people were ready to move on and we headed up to the cave of Between the Sheets (V4). Although not particularly hard, Between the Sheets is long and steep (!), and despite our best efforts (and maybe because of the heat), almost no one on the tour sent it. After climbing Under the Covers (V2) as a consolation prize, we headed up to the top of West Mountain to try two more roof problems, Body Snatcher (V4) and Booty Slapper (V5). Though I managed to flash through the roof of the amazing Body Snatcher, I didn't have enough gas left to pull the mantle and dropped off. While everyone else tried Body Snatcher, I walked over to look at a tall brown face with perfect patina edges and huecos nearby. Pulling a mat over, I chalked up and climbed another perfect Hueco Tanks highball as the sun slid lower in the desert sky. Our day on West Mountain demonstrated perfectly the two things that Hueco does well; steep caves and juggy highballs!
Wanting a fix of Mexican food closer to the Hacienda, we asked around and were recommended a place called Rancho Escondido by a friend of Sam's. Although Sam's friend hadn't been there in a few years, reviews on Google looked very positive, so we headed out into the eastern fringes of El Paso to track down Rancho Escondido.
Following the map that Google provided, we grew increasingly confused as we drove into an especially dusty and sparse part of the city that seemed to feature empty lots, gravel roads, and a concrete plant. As we neared our Google-determined destination, we found ourselves driving down a pitted gravel lane in the dark. "Maybe it's a locals-only kind of place" I thought, as we pulled into a dusty parking lot behind a row of buildings. I got out of the car to investigate, and as I peered through locked gates I started to feel suspiciously like I was in an episode of Breaking Bad. Although I could see a few cowboy hat-clad men drinking beer, I definitely felt like something was off. However, I could see plastic bull heads mounted on posts; maybe it was a meat-themed restaurant of some kind?
Feeling out of our depth, we headed into the more populated parts of El Paso to grab some food at El Taco Tote (a Mexican fast food chain). We would later find out that the restaurant Rancho Escondido of east El Paso had long since gone out of business, but the petting zoo Rancho Escondido was doing great business on the outskirts of El Paso! In retrospect, this did explain why most of the reviews on Google focused on how much children seemed to enjoy Rancho Escondido...
The next day, feeling strong and loving the warm weather, we headed back into North Mountain to pull on more perfect holds. Climbing with Sam (who was proving to be a valuable addition to our Canadian posse) we warmed up at the Bawl and Chain wall, then headed into The Gymnasium. The Gymnasium must be one of the most perfect bouldering walls in the USA, with a long overhanging wall covered with huecos of all sizes, rising to heights that range from 10 to 20 feet. We did the amazing highballs 40 Ounce King (V0) and Bad Axe (V1), as well as the fun World Without Lawyers (V0) and Jimmy Hats on Parade (V0). After a bit of work, we did the tricky Rhymes with Rich (V3) and Only the Little People Pay Taxes (V3).
Wanting to climb something a little harder, we moved over to the amazing Stegosaur (V7/8), which climbs a funky rib feature out of a low roof to a high (but relatively easy) slab. There was a young climber working it when we arrived, and he showed us the sequence he was using. We opted to climb it feet first (which seemed a lot easier), starting with a toe hook on the lip and climbing a few moves 'backwards' before rotating to a 'head-first' position. The difficult part was not the roof, however, but turning the lip (as we found was the case of many of the Hueco roofs). It took us a little while to work out the beta, but when we did we all managed to send the line. Now thoroughly warmed up, we packed up, and squeezed though a tunnel in the rock to try the devious King Cobra (V6).
The amazing gymnasium wall, North Mountain! If moderate highballs are your thing, this wall is your go-to destination!
King Cobra epitomizes the 'compressing-scoops' style of problem that is common in Hueco Tanks (the other two common styles being 'roofs-with-huecos' and 'tic-tac-climbing-on-crimps'). As we worked the problem, it became obvious that sending the line would not be easy. Virtually every move required a great deal of body tension; even with a kneebar pad the line seemed resistant. After a solid session, Davin had a good redpoint burn, but couldn't quite pull through the final lip moves to the slab above. With the day drawing to a close, we packed up and headed down the chains.
The next day was supposed to be a rest day for us, but Shane informed us that he had spots on a tour of East Spur. Since we were keen to see more of Hueco Tanks, we dropped the cash and headed back to Hueco for a third continuous day of bouldering. We had a huge day in East Spur, climbing almost 20 problems. We warmed up low on east spur, including Udder Destruction (V1), Clumsy Plumber (V0), and the highball The Flexin' Texan (V1). Heading up into the maze of East Spur we climbed the classic rail problem Vulgarian (V2), as well as Walrus in a Blender (V5)***, where I used the kneebar beta instead of dynoing (of course).
*** I was excited to do one of the 'Blender' problems, although it was not the classic Hobbit in a Blender.
Davin and Kyle were psyched to try the classic dyno problem New Religion (V7). Kyle does a V7 dyno in virtually every area he visits, and Hueco would prove to be no exception. After a handful of tries to figure out the powerful moves leading to the dyno, he finished the problem in great style. Davin came incredibly (!) close to sending, but had to walk away without doing the problem. Since I am spectacularly bad at jumping, I didn't seriously attempt the line, but instead did the amazing highball UTEP (V0) before we packed up and moved further into East Spur.
Shane brought us next to the classic That High-Pro Glow (V6). We had to wait for another group to finish with the line (it is apparently one of the three V6 East Spur classics included in the 6-6-6 tour of East Spur), but that gave us the opportunity to watch how other climbers navigated the pinches and slopers of the problem. It also gave me the chance to explore the rock art in East Spur. Just around the corner from That High-Pro Glow is a huge overhang absolutely covered in rock art dating back thousands of years, including earlier geometric and abstract paintings and later figurative works. The bedrock floor of the cave also featured many metates, carved depressions in the bedrock used for grinding grains and seeds. The sense of history is palpable at Hueco Tanks, and is one of the reasons that the area is so special.
Once the line was clear, Kyle and I both managed to flash That High-Pro Glow, although I got punted off the nearby (and steeper, and crimpier!) Instant Expert (V5). The grades in Hueco seemed mysterious to me, with crimpy problems seemingly graded much more stiffly than the steeper lines; I suspect that the advent of climbing gyms (and their easy access to steep climbing) has changed our perception of difficulty. With the end of the day nearing, we left East Spur to try a few more problems in East Mountain; specifically the legendary roof problem Moonshine Roof (V4).
Moonshine Roof did not disappoint us. The amazing 'surfboard' feature of Moonshine Roof is truly one of the most spectacular holds I've ever seen. The movement of Moonshine Roof is also fantastic, with each move flowing into the next. Kyle and I were happy to flash the line, and Davin and I then set out to try the harder Moonshine Roof Right (V5), which follows a much different line than the V4 version. While we both got quite close the day was drawing to an end, and with throbbing fingers we packed up and began the hike back to the car and the Hacienda.
The day dawned sunny and warm, with perfect royal-blue skies. After three days of climbing in a row, our hands were ready for a rest day. However, having skipped a previous rest day, we were faced with a dilemma; should we head back to Canada immediately, or try to squeeze one more day of climbing in? Davin was excited to get back on King Cobra before we began the drive, so we packed a lunch and headed back into the park for one more session.
We warmed up one last time on moderate lines around the Bawl and Chains wall, then headed into the tunnel where King Cobra is found. After a few attempts on the line, both Davin and I managed to successfully squeeze and kneebar our way up the problem. Although it wasn't the hardest problem we did on the trip, we certainly had to work harder to send King Cobra than any other line. Though my hands were feeling pretty beat up by this point, I was glad I had come back to North Mountain for one more session. With the clock running down, we headed over to try Lobster Claw (V5). Although we successfully sent the problem, I found that this beautiful line of huecos and crimps didn't climb as nicely as I thought it would, due to extreme polishing of the rock.****
**** Don't wear trail shoes to climb on boulders! Sand on shoes contributes to rapid polishing of foot holds! The same applies to rock shoes; always be careful to clean your shoes before trying a route or problem, especially in areas where the ground is sandy!
Hands now thoroughly sore, we packed up our mats, shoes, and chalk one last time and headed back to the car, and began the absolutely epic (30ish hour!) drive back to Canada. We had an amazing time in Hueco and at The Hacienda (thanks Emily and Shane!), and I am definitely planning on going back (sooner than later, hopefully!). The bouldering in Hueco is fantastic, and the shapes of the holds are among the best I've ever seen. The next time I visit I'll either fly down or break the drive into sections... driving 30 hours straight is a terrible idea.
Next up... Frank Slide updates!