Desert Rock Climbing
A Popular Recreational Activity
by Joe Zentner
Increasingly, we live in a hermetically sealed world, cut off from nature. At the same time, to preserve sanity, we find it increasingly necessary to have an escape hatch.
Rock climbing the art and skill of getting up and down a precipice safely offers an escape that can be commenced early in life and continued indefinitely. It is a popular recreational activity in the Southwest, where the choice of ascents is infinite.
The most popular form of rock climbing, called “free climbing,” does not mean climbing free of a safety rope and anchoring equipment. That totally unprotected style of climbing is known as “unroped free soloing.” “Free climbing” means free of direct dependence on rope and anchors. In other words, all resting and movement must be accomplished on footholds and handholds only. The rope and anchors the “belay” system are there to catch a climber in the event of a fall. They do provide important psychological assistance.
Free climbing is also known as “fifth-class” climbing; the six climbing categories range from hiking rugged level terrain (first class), to very difficult assisted climbing (sixth class). The difficulty of a fifth-class ascent is ranked on the Yosemite Decimal System, which runs from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.14 (the most difficult).
Most climbing schools provide the use of equipment with the price of a lesson. But if you are going to pursue the sport in earnest, you’ll want to buy your own gear. You will need climbing shoes the kind designed specifically for rock climbing, with sticky rubber soles. You’ll also need a harness the bondage-looking outfit that connects you to the rope. It’s also wise to purchase chalk bags. Athletic chalk on your fingers helps dry sweaty hands and provides a better grip. You’ll also need a belay device, which allows you to securely control the play-out of rope, and a locking carabiner to attach that device to your harness.
Some Places to Climb
There are thousands of places to climb in the United Statesfrom alpine peaks in the Rocky Mountains to the small rock outcroppings that dot the landscape in the desert Southwest. Chances are good, especially if you live in the Southwest, that you can find a place to climb within a few hours' drive of your home.
Joshua Tree National Park, 140 miles east of Los Angeles and deep in the Mojave Desert, is perfectly set up for vertical adventuring, with the added bonus of some of the most dramatic desert scenery in America. The park is nature’s very own climbing gym, scattered with granite formations so gorgeously sculpted one can almost sense a conscious effort, on the part of Mother Nature, to entertain athletic types.
Joshua Tree has more than 5,000 established climbs, from elementary to absurdly challenging. Most are relatively short, both in height and duration, and most are close to roads. Except for torrid midsummers, the weather is delightful, making this a midwinter climbing paradise.
Joshua Tree-style climbing does not involve high altitude, extreme cold, or the sheer exhaustion brought on by multi-week slogs to distant summits. The park headquarters (74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, California 92277, phone 1-760-367-5500) has a list of schools licensed to teach climbers in the park.
Baboquivari Peak is the cultural and religious home to the Papago Indians, also known as the Tohono O’odam, who live in the arid desert west of Tucson, Arizona. It is also home to Baboquivari Peak and its superb backcountry rock climbing.
An important thing to remember about the peak is that it is a sacred landmark, the birthplace of I’ITOI, creator of the Papago Indians. The tribe does permit rock climbing to the summit, but adhering to tribal guidelines is essential. The western approach requires only minimal notification, and there is a beautiful campground that can be used for a nominal fee.
To get there, go west on Highway 86 to Robles Junction. Continue past the junction until you reach Sells, Arizona. Turn left (south), and head toward Topawa. Follow the signs to Baboquivari, which is 10 miles east on a graded dirt road. The Arette route (rated a 5.6), one of the most popular trails to the peak, is approached via the Lion’s Ledge with good protection from inclement weather.
The Sandia Mountains rise over Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley like an immense stone wave threatening to break. They are a defining element of the city’s character, an always-shifting show of color, light and shadow. More than 4,000 feet from base to summit and 30 miles from end to end, the Sandias present a nearly limitless variety of rock climbing routes.
These range from simple bouldering to some of the more challenging climbs in the region.
One climb that merits an attempt is Happy Gnome, a 5.8-rated route that snakes up a prominent buttress called the Yataghan on the north side of La Cueva Canyon.
Voodoo Child (rated 5.12) works its way up a huge buttress called Torreon, and includes rock-climbing challenges that will test the skill of even experienced climbers. Keep an eye out for peregrine falcons, which make their nesting sites in crevices on the cliff faces. You can reach climbing routes from a series of foot trails along the base of the range off Tramway Boulevard on Albuquerque’s eastern fringe, or from Sandia Peaks summit, reached via paved road (New Mexico 536).
Many climbs in the Sandias require involved approaches. Visiting climbers often have difficulty locating specific destinations and routes. Your best bet: Contact the Sandia Ranger Station, Highway 337, Tijeras, New Mexico (phone 1-505-281-3304), or consult the book Hiker’s and Climber’s Guide to the Sandias, by Mike Hill (University of New Mexico Press).
The best-laid plans of scaling El Capitan in Yosemite or scurrying up rock faces in Yellowstone often begin in far West Texas, at Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, considered by many people to be the spring-training capital of the rock-climbing world. When snow and ice still cover objects of climbers’ desires in the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny at Hueco (pronounced Way-ko), an 860-acre pile of 34-million-year-old volcanic rocks scattered on the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Hueco Tanks, which is also a famous prehistoric rock art site, is considered the equivalent of Mount Everest for the rawest and most radical of all rock climbersboulderers. For this contingent, Hueco contains a world-class trick bag of problems, all conveniently found in one location. There are tendon-ripping challenges everywhere, from body busters such as Asylum, Lunacy and Nuclear Arms/Blood and Gore, to Slim Whitman (Hueco’s hardest slab), the 45 Degree Wall overhang, and Mushroom Boulder, perhaps the wickedest chunk of rock to be found in the park.
The Hueco Tanks rock-climbing season peaks, so to speak, on the last Saturday in February, when El Paso’s Texas Climber’s Club hosts its annual bouldering contest, attracting climbers from around the world. Decent weather extends all the way into May, when daytime highs begin to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hueco Tanks State Historical Park (6900 Hueco Tanks Road No 1, El Paso, Texas 79938, phone 1-915-857-1135) is located 32 miles northeast of El Paso, off U. S. Highway 62/180. The park is named for the natural rock basins, or “huecos,” that have furnished a supply of trapped rainwater to prehistoric settlements and to travelers in this arid region of west Texas for millennia.
Rock climbing is a risk-oriented sport. Novices often view injuries as random and uncontrollable events, that is, as “accidents.” Experienced climbers know better. Almost every climbing “accident” is a result of failure to pursue safe climbing techniques, either by ignorance or by choice. Safe climbing techniques can be learned from a reputable teacher with broad climbing experience, and they can be refined through experience in actual rock climbing.
Keep in mind: equipment, no matter how good, cannot replace sound judgment, training and experience.
Also, keep in mind: gravity is always on; there is no need to throw rocks over bluffs to double-check. There are likely people below you, and throwing rocks might kill someone. In any event, the practice is illegal.
Plan your route. Get all the information you need before you start. Acquaint someone at home or base camp with the route you intend to take and the approximate time you expect to return. Always climb with someone. Carry food, water, a whistle, compass, flashlight and aircraft signal flares.
Never tax more than 45 percent of your strength. That leaves a decent margin for safety. These common-sense rules, proper equipment and a love of nature will allow you to see a new America.
One reason people climb rocks is because of the challenge of conquering some of nature’s toughest elements, the feeling of complete freedom once a summit is reached, and the sheer joy of climbing just to be climbing. Among rock precipices, all is well that ends well, and what sport is there worthy of the name without a hint of danger?
Rock climbing is an adventure into health and freedom. It is clean and honest; success in reaching the top is dependent on one’s ability to adapt individual resources to the strict laws that your opponent the precipice lays down.
Call it escape if you likebecause it certainly is. It gets you away from cities and crowds, from ambition, hypocrisy, greed, and the machinations of the U. S. Congress, from the perplexity, misery and despair that often threaten peoples’ lives. But in a more profound sense, climbing is an escape not from but to reality. Among the rocks, one is close to the earth, to himself or herself, to the unknown and unknowable presence that some call God, and others simply call a force greater than ourselves.
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