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Seeking Space – The Climbing Life

This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 56–Winter 2016.

[Photo] Seth Langbauer

[Photo] Seth Langbauer

It’s hard to hide from history in the desert Southwest. The road passes towns named Fort Wingate, Kayenta, Aztec–emblems of the vast human and geologic time that stretches out behind me and before me. Between the open sky and mesas of red dirt and sage, I sense the curvature of the earth.

Out here, the winter wind is biting, but in its lulls, the sun feels warm and gentle. Gradually, the dry and cracking clay of the desert gives way to foothills of fertile land. Squat, green juniper trees reach up from the tops of mesas, above layers of crumbling salmon-colored rock, brown-ochre dirt and pink-hued sand. Dusk lasts for hours and plays out on all sides of the horizon: a blaze of orange clouds to the west; a glow of plum and deep blue sky to the east. The colors disappear, and the atmosphere fills with grey, then black. With so much space and light, it’s easy to imagine the land is still limitless.

Climbing in New Mexico developed in isolation, away from the Western road-trip circuit, off a forgotten exit on I-25, somewhere between the more familiar landmarks of Shelf Road and Hueco Tanks. Much of the rock remains undeveloped, and the difference between public and private land is hard to distinguish. Grid-bolted limestone caves encroach on local mining claims. Boulder fields spill from the National Forest onto ranches marked by No Trespassing signs.

On a cold February day, the hardpack snow crunches under car tires. We head out, seeking sun and unclimbed quartzite boulders. A left turn off a county road marks the beginning of a small town. The surface changes from asphalt to dirt. At first glance, an outside visitor might only notice broken windows, peeling paint, rusted trucks and overgrown yards. Yet amid the graffiti on the decaying walls, a fresh mural depicts children playing and cows grazing in fields. A sign with a hand-painted arrow points toward “Asshole’s Garage,” which appears to be the only commercial building in town.

A luminous quiet fills the surrounding valley. Beneath a pastel sky, the pinon and juniper forest stretches on in dull green uniformity until it meets a jagged line of white peaks, hazy on the skyline. Small plots of farmland are wheat-yellow with winter. Large black cows congregate beneath ancient cottonwood trees. To the west, low hills appear swathed in muted colors of ponderosa and patchy scrub oak. A closer look reveals patches of grey-looking rock: outcroppings mostly, with a few lone boulders scattered near the farms.

Many of the local residents with Spanish heritage have lived here for generations, long before this region became part of the United States. In 1908, through the efforts of early conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt, the Forest Service set aside these hills as National Forest, part of an effort to slow the frantic harvest of timber and the destruction of open land in the West.

To some, this Public Land designation is meaningless; they’ve always hunted in these hills and they’ll continue to do so. To a few, it means these forests are a place to leave trash–an old bed, tires and endless bits of broken glass line the dirt road outside town. Others cut wood here to heat their homes in winter.

To us, it means we can walk through the pinon, bushwhack through scrub oak, jump from snow-covered quartzite block to quartzite block, and encounter rocks that gleam like giant river stones–polished and compact with swirling quartz bands, covered in electric lichen. By midday, we’ve barely put our climbing shoes on; we’re too distracted by the desire to peer into each featured cave and look up at each rock face splashed in color. The boulders look like ribbon candy and feel like fine sugar. To climb them means to become absorbed in delicate patterns of color and texture. Hidden seams appear like laser cuts on rippling smooth walls, and I marvel at finding friction beneath my fingertips in the midst of something so featureless.

The sound of a shovel and the rustle of brush draws my attention north along the hillside. A man emerges from the scrub oak. He’s wearing an old, loose, navy-blue, long-sleeved shirt. Black rubber boots cover his dirty jeans to the knees. He has a ski pole in one hand. Anger twists the features in his face. I watch him quietly from my perch, waiting for him to notice me. I know I’m not trespassing.

“You see what they’ve done?” The man looks up at me. His eyes are fierce and bloodshot. “You probably did this. You’re the one that’s done this. You see these trees that have been cut? You see these rocks that have been moved? Look at this!” He points to a newly formed landing zone beneath an overhanging boulder. He shakes a branch of scrub oak at me. “You rock climbers are all the same. You make your own rules. You ruin these places. You kill lichen. You cut down trees. You move rocks. You make trails wherever you please.”

My face flushes. “I didn’t cut down those trees. And this is Public Land. We have a right to be here,” I say. But I’m stammering, feeling suddenly young. I glance down. To my right is a fresh dirt scar where someone had unearthed the stones and rolled them aside so climbers wouldn’t risk falling on them. Broken branches and matted grass bow away from the base of the boulder. I grimace.

The man’s voice becomes quieter. He tells me he grew up in Boulder, Colorado. He felt chased out by the influx of young people who migrated to the Rocky Mountains in the 1970s and ’80s. He saw what the booming outdoor industry had done to his beloved hills in Colorado, and he deemed the new enthusiasts “as destructive as oil companies and loggers.” Obscure outcroppings drew the attention of climbers, who told more climbers, until the pullouts filled, quiet trails became crowded, and sticky rubber footprints pounded delicate ground. He had moved to this off-the-map town to escape what he felt was a tragedy.

And here I am, to him, part of this self-serving, privileged, entitled population of rock climbers spreading to the hillside above his remote hideout. As he rambles on, I look out across the valley and try to imagine what it must have looked like hundreds of years ago, before either of our European ancestors had set eyes on this landscape, before they ripped it from the tribes who considered it their home. I remember the cold look I got at a gas station in Shiprock, within the borders of the nearby Navajo Nation.

The man stops speaking, and my ears fill with the rustle of dried scrub oak leaves in the wind. My fingers trace the ridges and valleys of the ponderosa’s thick bark. I think of other places I hold sacred: the Teton Range of Wyoming, the Canyon Country of Utah. My mind follows my gaze northwest, and I picture the moki steps and grinding stones left in a cliff dwelling concealed amid the crags of Indian Creek. As a child, I pretended to live in those hidden fortresses. Since then, I have tried not to notice the disappearance of pottery shards and corncobs, or the creak of the ceiling beams and the sag of the floors. The wash that once led to that site has transformed into a worn trail. My footprints, too, have contributed to the crumbling of foundations.

The sun is lower in the sky; its angle sharpens the features in the silver-grey blocks. So where do we go from here? I wonder. Do we keep pushing farther out to seek our piece of solitude, to make our mark in history? Do we find a way to keep some space in the world for silence and wind? I’d like to think the more of us out here in these wild places, the more incentive to preserve them, right? Or will those places where we feel isolated, alone and alive evaporate–the way that rain does as it hits the parched desert ground?

–Jane Jackson, Yosemite, California

This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 56–Winter 2016. Issue 56 is available on newsstands, by subscription or direct through our online store.