Climbing in West Texas

Climbing, history, and rare desert ecology draw us to this magical part of West Texas.
Kim Cross

Her tiny hands find holds so small we can hardly see them from the ground. A spidery crack, a hair-thin ridge, a pea-size bump act like ladder rungs as she dances her way up the slab of stone. She moves naturally, effortlessly, like an animal in its element. This delicate dance of strength and agility, of balance and nerve and grace, plays out on a boulder the size of a house way out in West Texas.

It’s daunting to follow the footholds of a rock climbing legend, but we are here to try. Our women-only climbing group has convened from eight states to explore the vertical world of Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. Filled with prehistoric pictographs and fragile desert ecosystems, the site is open only to those with a permit or a guide. We are lucky. Our guide, rock climbing pioneer Lynn Hill, is here to unlock the secrets of this stone.

  

Women on the Rise
Zoom out, and the boulder field looks like a giant pile of pebbles. Zoom in, and stones that seemed smooth as sand now show lovely texture―pockets, creases, and folds―that reveal infinite paths up the rock. We are programmers, surgeons, product managers, editors, lawyers, and moms, unique in ability, personality, and style. Each one of us finds her own way up as others cheer her on.

"Lock in. Heel up. Smear," Lynn says, crouching on the rock face, dangling from bare fingers. We learn her language, try her techniques. She's teaching us how to fight gravity by using our bodies in mechanically efficient―if counterintuitive―ways. "It's difficult. How do you explain walking?" Lynn says, explaining how movements blend into one fluid motion. "It's like a moving meditation."

Birthplace of Bouldering
They're called "problems"―the routes we take up a boulder. Hueco Tanks has no shortage of them. This austere intrusion of igneous rock is to bouldering what Yosemite is to traditional climbing. "Hueco can be considered the birthplace of bouldering," says Robert Rice, owner of Hueco Rock Ranch, the climbers' outpost where we're staying. "It's one of the most famous bouldering spots on the planet―Fontainebleau in France, Rocklands in South Africa, and Hueco Tanks in Texas.'

Hueco feels as sacred as a church to some. The Mescalero Apache, Kiowa, and Tigua groups hold religious ceremonies here. Named for the huecos, or rock cisterns that gather water year-round, it has served as an oasis throughout history.

Visitors today must arrange for a state-certified guide who can protect the vulnerable desert vegetation. The fragile ecosystem is part of Hueco's mystique, which draws world-class climbers such as Lynn.

At Home With a Master
Lynn is astonishingly tiny for someone who became a giant of her sport. Her 5'1", 100-pound frame and tiny hands would seem a disadvantage on routes where the next handhold lies out of a petite reach. But Lynn, a former gymnast, employs uncanny flexibility, balance, and strength to scurry up routes that defy much taller men. Once able to bench-press nearly twice her weight, she exhibits quiet strength.

We listen as Lynn critiques videos of our climbs. We try our balance on the slack line, a tightrope suspended a foot off the ground. We drink wine, do yoga, tell stories, and laugh like old friends. The few men hanging out in Hueco Rock Ranch watch from a distance, dumbfounded by the shift in estrogen over testosterone. "It's really trippin' me out," says one. "I kind of want to call my mom." As the party unwinds, we head outside to gather around a bonfire, visiting with another group of climbers who are roughing it in tents among the desert scrub.

  

A Year Later
In three days, friendships formed, the kind that withstand time and miles. Four women from four states reunited for a summer weekend in Kentucky's Red River Gorge. Others met up, climbed together, or stayed in touch through e-mail and blogs. Looking back, we all remember the same thing. Even more than the big-sky horizons and the feel of the rock beneath our fingers, we remember the spirit of fun and togetherness that happens when women lift each other up.

Climb With Lynn
Lynn Hill runs private climbing clinics around the world, including at Hueco Tanks. Beginners are welcome, though previous time spent climbing outdoors or in a climbing gym will amplify the experience. Classes are limited to 10 people for individualized instruction and need to be booked well in advance. Find out more at www.lynnhillclimbs.com.

"Land of Rock and Sky" is from the November 2007 issue of Texas Living: People and Places, a special section in Southern Living for our subscribers who live in Texas.