EL PASO, Texas — EL PASO, Texas - In bouldering lingo, a climbing route is called a "problem." Some problems here in Hueco Tanks State Historic Site are tougher than others.
Mine was a gentle overhang pocked with shallow depressions, among the easiest routes in the park. No need for a 5-inch-thick pad to soften my landing, I thought. After all, I'm only a few feet off the ground.
I clung to the gritty granite, struggling against gravity until my grip on a thin ledge failed and I fell to a flat, slanting rock below, landing on my keister on the desert floor.
My climbing partners for the day - a group of Aussies from Perth and climbing junkies from Colorado - barely looked up at the sound of my thud. Falling from boulders is part of the fun in Hueco Tanks. In fact, it's a privilege. This 860-acre park - a protrusion of sun-burned boulders in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert east of El Paso - ranks among the top two or three bouldering sites in the world.
Since the sport's popularity began to surge about 10 years ago, bouldering enthusiasts have descended on Hueco (pronounced Way-co) Tanks like ants to a picnic. The boulders, some the size of school buses, others the size of skyscrapers, are pocked with millions of huecos (Spanish for hollows), created during a magma eruption 35 million years ago. The winter weather usually is mild - with high temperatures around 60 degrees - ideal conditions for winter climbing, considered the best time to scale desert rocks.
But there is more to Hueco Tanks than climbing. This lumpy outcropping of pockmarked rocks is adorned with more than 2,000 pictographs and petroglyphs from American Indians who have been visiting the area since 8,000 B.C. to draw water from the pools that form in the ubiquitous hollows. The park represents one of the largest collections of Indian rock art in North America and annually draws hundreds of historians, educators and fans of American Indian culture.
Thus the problem for Texas park officials: How do you preserve historic Indian rock art while accommodating visitors who come from as far as Europe and Australia to climb?
In mid-November, just as temperatures in West Texas were dropping to comfortable levels, I flew to El Paso with climbing shoes in my backpack to experience the park and to see whether such divergent groups of visitors could co-exist on this tiny island of pitted rock.
In a satellite photo, Hueco Tanks looks like three wrinkly mounds of sun-baked clay surrounded by a flat stretch of shrub-strewn desert. The mounds are dubbed North Mountain, West Mountain and East Mountain, with a small spur protruding from East Mountain.
On the ground, the park appears as a stony oasis, festooned with juniper and oak trees jutting from a parched stretch of cactus-strewn desert. The hub of activity is the park headquarters, a cramped stucco building at the main entrance. This is where I started the first day of my visit, with reservations to join a rock-climbing tour.
To help protect the rock art and better supervise climbers, the state adopted a management plan 10 years ago that imposed a daily limit of 230 people. Of those, 160 people can visit the East and West Mountains, but only if accompanied by a guide. Seventy other visitors can wander unsupervised around North Mountain. Before the restrictions were put in place, the park drew about 150,000 visitors a year. That number is down to about 28,000.
Corey Dwan, a climbing guide from Crested Butte, Colo., was leading six climbers from Colorado and Australia into East Mountain. He agreed to let me tag along. These were experienced climbers and world travelers who talked about Hueco Tanks the way surfers extol the virtues of Oahu's North Shore.
"The quality of the rock is just so solid, and it tends to be more overhanging, so it tends to lead to more difficult problems, and the setting is just beautiful," Dwan said from atop a giant igloo-shaped boulder.
When we arrived at our first bouldering spot, a place called the "Warm Up Roof," I understood why they called the routes "problems." Serious climbers do not scramble up a rock face on a whim. They study the pocks and indentations with the thoughtfulness of a mathematician. They plan each maneuver beforehand and discuss options with fellow climbers.
And once they get on the rocks, they fall. Repeatedly.
The falling bodies were cushioned by 5-inch-thick pads called "crash pads." Rock climbing and bouldering are different activities. I have scaled a few rocks in Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks and the Red Rock Canyon area in Nevada, but I would classify myself as a novice.
Unlike rock climbers, who use harnesses and anchor ropes, bouldering enthusiasts climb 20 to 25 feet above the ground, at most, using only their hands and feet. It sounds easy, except that the toughest "problems" usually are on sheer, vertical walls or overhangs that are nearly horizontal to the ground. (Bouldering problems are ranked in difficulty from 0 to 16 on a so-called "V" scale, named after climbing pioneer John "Vermin" Sherman.)
Near the "Warm Up Roof," the climbers took turns on a V-4 problem that ends with a steep pitch about 20 feet above the ground. The climbers cheered one another on and howled with disappointment when someone failed.
Everyone was having a blast - climbing problems, quoting lines from the HBO series Flight of the Conchords and blasting techno rock from a portable digital player.
That's when I ruined the mood by bringing up Mushroom Boulder, a wedge-shaped rock that offers some of the toughest climbs in the park. Park officials closed the boulder to all climbing in December 2007 because of excessive wear and tear that damaged vegetation and exposed "cultural deposits."
Dwan and his group groused about the new limitations but took comfort in knowing they still had access to dozens of other climbing routes throughout the park.
"This park is beautiful," Dwan said, scanning the rocky horizon. "Look, the grass is growing and everything. We wouldn't do anything to ruin that."
Tour of rock art
The raid had failed and death seemed certain.
The Kiowas - about 20 Indians on a mission to raid a settlement near El Paso - were confronted by Mexican soldiers accompanied by Tigua scouts. The Kiowas retreated to the Hueco Tank boulders and, for several days, hid in a cave while soldiers tried to smoke them out. Knowing they were in danger of starving to death, most of the Kiowas escaped by climbing an extensive tree root system to freedom.
The legendary battle and escape, which took place around 1839, is depicted in one of the most famous examples of rock art at Hueco Tanks. The painting of wounded Indians and a giant tree root system is displayed on what looks like an immense rock amphitheater. I saw it on an art tour I took with eight other visitors on my second day at the park.
"It's kind of neat, because it's like an ancient billboard," tour guide Charles Wendon said of the battle scene.
The scene was defaced in the 1970s by graffiti vandals. But Hueco Tanks is decorated with hundreds of other paintings and etchings.
My tour group hiked around yucca, rabbit brush and ocotillo to inspect black, red and white paintings of birds, jaguars, deer and strange geometric designs. The boulders of Hueco Tanks hold the largest number of mask paintings in North America. Experts say they think the hundreds of masks represent the gods of the American Indians who pass through these parts.
During the tour, we passed several concrete and stone dams that were built in the 1950s and '60s when developers tried to turn this stretch of desert into a resort with lakes, hotels and a casino. The dams were meant to store water for swimming pools, which is why the word "tanks" was added to the park's name. But at the urging of historians and others, the county halted the development plans by buying the land and turning it over to the state of Texas in 1969.
After finishing the two-hour tour, I planned to wander around North Mountain to see the famed Mushroom Boulder and try to uncover rock art on my own. The park had reached its visitor limit for the day, so I put my name on a waiting list at park headquarters. I waited a couple hours with about a half-dozen other would-be visitors before I was given the green light to re-enter.
Mushroom Boulder was everything the climbers said it was: a giant stone wedge that looked like a devilish problem for any serious climber. I found it at the northern end of the park. The rock was free of climbing chalk, evidence that climbers were obeying the ban. Maybe the restrictions were working, I thought, and harmony was possible.
if you go
From El Paso International Airport, take U.S. 180/62 east for about 20 miles and then turn left on Hueco Tanks Road and drive about five miles.
It's $5 per day, per person. Tours are free with admission. $12 for state park campsite with water; $14 to $16 per night for campsite with water and electricity, depending on amperage. Call 512-389-8900.
Pictograph tours : 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Wednesdays through Sundays in summer (May 1 through Sept. 30); 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. in winter (Oct. 1 through April 30).
Bouldering tours : 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Wednesdays through Sundays in summer; 9 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in winter.
Birding tours: Third Sunday of each month; 7 a.m. in summer; 8 a.m. in winter.
Hueco Tanks Rock Ranch , 17498 Bettina Ave., El Paso; 915-855-0142, huecorockranch.com. The ranch resembles a youth hostel for rock climbers, but it is the social hub of activity at the park. The house sleeps 18 people. Outside, hundreds can camp on the 10-acre ranch. Rates: $30 per night, per person for private rooms; $20 for shared "bunk" rooms; $5 per person, per night for campsites, including access to a kitchen.
El Rancho Escondido , 14261 Montana Ave., Suite 8, El Paso; 915-857-1184. Traditional Mexican food. Dinner entrees $6 to $25.