It’s no big secret that I love climbing, camping, road-tripping and photography…among a zillion other things. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that for the past few days my friend Jason and I have been roaming around the high deserts of New Mexico and Southern Colorado in my Toyota truck doing precisely those activities. Add to that that my good friend Marc and his son Nicholas drove up from the Santa Fe area to join us for the camping part of the weekend and we totally had ourselves set up with the perfect ingredients for an amazing weekend.
Taos is just a short four-ish hour drive from my house here in the Boulder Valley so there is rarely an excuse not to run down there when the weather is perfect (which is always). There is nothing better than sitting by a campfire in an ocean of sage by night and climbing hard desert routes high above the Rio Grande River by day. It actually makes me all tingly inside just writing the words. Jason is leaving in a matter of days for Alaska where for the next few months he’ll be working as a mountain guide in the St. Elias Range. That being the case, we decided that there would be no better way to close out his last few days in the lower 48 than road tripping it down to Taos.
We opted for the quick dash down the Front Range via I-25, turning west at Walsenburg, CO before shooting pretty much straight into Taos from Ft. Garland. Quick, easy and incredibly scenic. So quick was the drive that when I checked with Marc about his current proximity to our campsite, we were far enough ahead of schedule to stop at the infamous and always funky Taos Inn and partake in one of their legendary margaritas. Historically, every time I’ve been in for a glass of icy tequila goodness I leave in a different frame of mind. Chilled out, relaxed and centered with all that is good. This is something I’ve come to depend on and fortunately wasn’t disappointed on this visit. If you’ve never been, go. You’ll dig it.
So after our quick stop, we headed 20 miles south and west to my secret camping spot, which unfortunately is no longer a secret at all but a full-fledged BLM trailhead — complete with graded gravel road, “official” signage and even an information kiosk. This was always a solitary place high on the rim above the Gorge where dirtbag climbers, kayakers, rafters and mountain bikers alike would hole up for the evening to avoid the oppressive $5 camping fees in the State Park down below. The original turnoff to the “secret spot” was disguised in the sage and was nothing more than a two-track trail which would gobble tires when wet and bottom out passenger cars that strayed into the always deep ruts. But alas, those days are gone and I fear a vehicle such as the tiny little Smart could even manage to turn up without much ado.
Saddened, but undeterred, Jason and I positioned my truck in the parking lot to where our morning view from the back would give us unrestricted views of not only the Gorge dropping hundreds of feet below, but also of the morning sun breaking over the Sangre de Cristos to the east. Now that I think about it, this is such a sweet camping spot it was probably inevitable that the secret wouldn’t last forever and the onset of mainstream America would soon invade and make it another place to exploit…hence the rogue empty beer cans and fast food rubbish lying around.
With Marc and Nicholas still en-route and a little time on our hands, it was only natural that we dropped a couple of Crazy Creek chairs onto the tailgate, opened a couple of Tecate cervesas and proceeded to listen to the breeze blowing across the desert while we gazed at the mountains, desert birds, sage and brilliant blue skies so big that it almost made us dizzy. As you can imagine, the stress level of this kind of activity was mind-boggling so another couple of ice cold Tecates were consumed to help calm our frazzled nerves.
Soon after our second medicinal cervesa was finished, we saw Marc’s VW Vanagon breach he horizon and within minutes he was set up next to my Tacoma and our little compound of zen-ness was complete.
Nick was quickly on task to build our campfire while Marc and Jason took the helm at the camp stoves to begin preparing dinner. Jason and I decided to trade out our cooking tasks for the weekend with him doing dinners and me doing breakfasts. Based on the amazing flavors of the curry burgers he whipped out the first night, I was definitely on the winning end of that deal! Wow!!! Anyhow, once the respective dinners were prepared, we sat round the campfire eating awesome food, having fun conversation and drinking a little red wine that Marc had thoughtfully brought along. And let me say right here that the fire Nick built was becoming more and more important and appreciated as the evening wore on. Those brilliantly blue skies I mentioned earlier soon turned into night and then cold…really cold. The stars though, well, they were just amazing.
We continued to talk for quite some time but by 2200 the wind picked up a little and we all agreed a warm sleeping bag was far superior to sitting out and shivering. Within minutes Marc and Nick were closed up in the van and Jason and I were tucked away under the shell on my truck.
By 0600 the next morning both Jason and I were burrowed deep within our winter sleeping bags trying as best we could to fend off the chilly air. By chilly I mean that when I tried to scrape the ice off the windows to look outside, I couldn’t even break through with my fingernails. Man, it was freakin’ cold in there! Although we are both typically early, EARLY risers, we jointly opted for a few more minutes in our warm cocoons before opening the back and braving the cold (i.e. getting out to pee). When we did finally open it up, the view to the east was bigger and better than we expected. In an instant the cold temps seemed to go away and “life in the moment” quickly moved in.
I wasted little time getting the stove started and coffee made. I’m never sure what is better on a cold morning while camping — smelling campstove brewed coffee, actually drinking it or just holding the warm cup in your hands. Fortunately we didn’t have to decide because we had all three going on at once! Shortly thereafter, I took control of the Coleman stove and started my turn at cooking, offering up my version of huevos rancheros. By the time we began eating, the sun had risen sufficiently enough to start warming the desert floor…and bring out the amazing aroma of sage (of which we would pluck the leaves from and add as a flavoring to everything we cooked!!).
A little tidying up and some administrative sorting of gear and we were out of camp for the arduous 200 yard slog to the climbing area known as Dead Cholla Wall. Yes, there is a sarcastic tone in that last sentence. This used to be an area known by few and visited by fewer. Now it’s kind of, I don’t know, almost mainstream I guess. Still, climbing in New Mexico is basically so untapped that if there had been even one more person there, it would have seemed crowded. Fortunately, we were it. Okay, there were a couple of other climbers up the canyon a mile or so, but we had this entire area to ourselves.
For a little time the evening before we had looked at the guide book to get an idea of what we wanted to do. In the end we essentially decided to rap down the face of the gorge based on our gut feeling once we got there. We could kind of see what was below us but really had no idea what was there. The main criteria was that if we couldn’t actually see the bottom-most part of the rock, then it was likely overhanging and probably not the best place to start. So we found something that we could at least see the bottom of, and dropped in.
Once down, we got the book out again and finally figured out approximately where we were. There were named routes to the left of us and maybe one or two to the right, but there were also a couple of beautiful finger/hand cracks that weren’t listed in the book…and yes, I have the most recent edition. Everything named was hard, as in the .11c and up range. Jason said he was game to give one of those unnamed lines a shot and eagerly tying in before I could put the guide book down.
The first 10-15’ of the route was thin, very thin actually. It was a true finger crack for the hands and either a true smear or painful toe jam for the feet. This was followed by a big move around a giant flake onto easier ground for a much needed break for the nerves. Above that was another 15’-20’ of hand and foot jamming to a kind of scary “slopey” move onto another relatively comfy spot where we could once again breathe. From there the climb was a mixed bag of easy to moderate hand jamming, slopey hands, crimpers, blockey chock stones and finished with a cactus filled ledge. Jason moved through the problem slowly but steadily and within just a few minutes had cleanly dispatched the route.
Having the visual beta from Jason’s attempt was helpful to have in my quiver, but given the fact that I’m about a foot taller than him basically meant I could throw most all of it out the window as I followed him. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the greatest crack climber (though I do okay). On this route I fortunately managed to call on a little experience and methodically work my way up the route without hanging, though at times I was quite nervous about whether my hand-jamming techniques would work as planned, or if my limited experience would send me flying. Fortunately I didn’t go flying.
But that’s what I love about climbing. It requires such total focus, concentration and trust. My entire world existed right there within the confines of how far I could reach. Nothing else mattered, nor should it have. This is such a cliché statement, but climbing allows that true living-in-the-moment opportunity that everyone seeks and very few find. Scary? Hell yeah, and it should be. But it’s also living life and filling the heart, mind and soul. I love stepping past the “perceived” safe and mundane world we live in everyday and taking a hard look at what life is really about.
Afterwards, we checked and rechecked the guidebook and agreed that the route was not named nor marked. Therefore, since Jason was “officially” the first to climb it he now had the opportunity to name it. And given that the unabated sun was starting to cook us right on the hoof, we decided that the process of naming the route would better be done after napping in the cool shade of my truck back at camp…a full five minute walk.
After an hour or so nap, our collective hunger took precedent over the discussions of route naming conventions and once again, the grills were fired up and the sizzle of fajitas and some delicious sort of scallop dinner filled the air! Naturally the distinctive “psshhhttt” sound of a Tecate can being opened accompanied the sizzle on the grill! Beautiful desert landscapes, vast vistas, good friends, sizzling fajitas, ice cold cervesas…man, we were in the heart of the Land of Enchantment in the truest sense!
It wasn’t until we were sitting around the campfire later that evening that the thought of the name for the route finally came back up. One thought was Bloody Digits since both Jason’s and my hands were freshly scraped and still bleeding from the day’s climbing. Seemed appropriate given the day’s skin donations but he said he still wanted to think about it.
Proper route naming is key. Too pansy of a name and you look like a douche bag. Overly hard sounding for the grade and you run the risk of being labeled a punter. Lots of pressure on Jason and he knew it wasn’t a task to be taken lightly. Therefore, we popped open another Tecate and did nothing.
By 2130 we were mentally and physically done. It took about two minutes to make the decision to call it a night and about a minute after that we were stowed away into our van and truck. By 0430 the next morning, the windows of my camper shell once again resembled the inside of an old non self-defrosting freezer. And like the morning before, we opted again to stay inside our sleeping bags until Nature’s Call demanded we get out. It’s amazing how fast you can get out of a sleeping bag, get quasi-dressed, crawl out of a pickup bed, trek a safe/sanitary distance from the camp, get your pants unzipped and take care of business when you suddenly realize you’ve crossed the fine line between annoyingly uncomfortable and a full-on crisis.
Still cold. Still breezy. An amazing sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Once out of your sleeping bag and dressed against a chilly morning, it really makes no sense to get back in. Therefore, I made quick work of getting the coffee pot started and Jason stoked the still hot coals from the previous night’s fire. Minutes later we were sipping our coffee by another nice, warm cedar scented campfire. It was then that Jason blurted out the name for his FA (First Ascent). Tequila, Tecate, Wine and Huevos. These were four of the benign but relevant items that led up to the morning that he sent the route! It sounded so simple yet so perfect and appropriate. Not overly brazen and tough sounding, yet not a wimpy name either. A nice mix of cleverness and subtle mystery for those who follow to decipher.
Marc and Nick were up soon afterward and before long we were grazing our way through a menagerie of eggs, potatoes, breakfast burritos, green chile and hot coffee…all balanced on our laps as we sat by the fire. There is little that can beat a camp breakfast, especially given the amazing views and clean, crisp desert air. I was in heaven!
We briefly discussed heading out to climb or mountain bike a little before starting back to Colorado, but given the soreness of our arms and shoulders from jumarring our way up a long ass fixed line to finish out the previous day, it didn’t take long to decide to opt out and think about heading out a little earlier than planned. We decided that we’d extend the normal drive home to include a circuitous route to small New Mexican villages, obscure Buddhist stupas, across huge valleys flanked with high peaks and even stop for a visit at one of the least visited national parks, Great Sand Dunes NP. And of course we’d stop at interesting mom and pop eateries along the way for a slice of Americana and a healthy plate of home cooking…none any better than the incredibly tasty ice cream in Arroyo Seco, NM and the awesome alimentos tradicionales in Salida, CO.
The drive home was almost as rewarding as the climbing. Rewarding in that we didn’t set any time limits or let the “mañana” attitude of the entire weekend ebb. We took our time, stopped at points of interest, let our eyes drink freely of some big vistas, and more importantly, we let the minutes and hours pass without noticing or caring. I probably shot more photos on the ten hour drive home than I did in the previous two days combined simply because we savored every mile of the drive and took the time to appreciate all the small things as they crossed our path.
“It’s a road trip brotha, let’s slow it down and enjoy the ride”. That was our credo.
So, in the end, it was just another great road-trippin’ weekend spent with great friends, big views, great food and some damn good climbing.
Tequila, Tecate, Wine and Huevos. (5.9 or 5.10a — TBD)
Mi vida es bueno. Estoy contento.