Waking up in a post-New Year’s haze, Planet Granite Route Setters Josh Horsley and Mark Heal embarked on a 12-day bouldering extravaganza at Hueco Tanks State Park, a tangled network of corridors and roofs just on the outskirts of El Paso, TX. Giving rise to the now standard Vermin, or V-scale, used to grade boulder problems, Hueco is steeped in history and to this day remains one of the premier American bouldering destinations. After years of waiting since their previous migration to this Mecca, Josh and Mark were intent on finishing both old and new projects while sampling the glut of classic lines along the way.
Clocking in at around 18 hours of driving, the drive to Hueco is no small undertaking. Josh and Mark crammed their pads and other essentials into Josh’s Prius and steadily made their way East. Reaching Tuscan, AZ and the edge of their exhaustion in the wee hours of the night, they decided to catch a brief nap to make up for the past night’s indiscretions. With 4 hours of heavy, dreamless sleep under their belts they continued along, immersed in a bottomless discussion of which problems to try, how to try them, and everything in between. It was clear that their entire consciousness had been consumed by the upcoming adventure.
Preparation for the trip began months before they even began packing the car. “I’m not a big trainer,” mused Josh with a tinge of irony. While neither hold to any specific training regime, both had lofty goals for the winter climbing season and wanted to be in peak condition to take advantage of the crisp temperatures and high friction. “We resorted to Starvation Tactics,” said Mark wryly. Both modified their diets in a bid to shave some weight and maximize the benefits of their preparations. With an ever-present focus on food quality, Josh, a self-professed “nutrition nut” eschewed carbs from his diet, instead replacing the calories with healthy fats and proteins to maintain muscle building and repair.
As Hueco came into focus as the destination of choice, Josh and Mark began tailoring their training to the specific demands of the area. Notorious for sharp, steep, crimpy climbing with big gymnastic moves between holds, finger strength and skin toughness were paramount. To ready their fingers they spent as much time as possible outside on real rock to thicken the skin on their fingertips. During the week, when they were unable venture outdoors, they mainly climbed on PG’s systems board, making up difficult problems to train their core tension and explosive power for the steep wall angles characteristic of Hueco. “We wanted to peak right before the trip,” said Josh. Setting moves that would test their skills at full extension, these “big moves on a flat wall” simulated the type of control and coordination needed for Hueco. This physical training was supplemented by extensive research into established sequences or beta for problems. “We watched tons of videos on YouTube, Vimeo, etc. to learn the moves before we got there,” Mark divulged. As the final countdown to departure approached, Josh and Mark spent 4 days in Bishop tearing up their fingers on the viciously crystalline (read: SHARP) Bishop Buttermilks granite in a last ditch effort to toughen their hands.
Pulling into the dusty, rural parking lot of The Hueco Hacienda after a 1200 mile marathon drive through snow and dust storms, the two were greeted by none other than former PG Head Setter Moses Potter. Keen to maximize their limited time, they shrugged off the aches and stiffness synonymous with long stints in a car and went straight out to the boulder fields of East Mountain, one of four designated climbing zones in the highly protected park. With quick sends of Liane (V11), a flash from Josh on Whispers of Mortality (V10) and Notorious D.I.G. (V9) for both, their preparations were already coming to fruition. With the psych high, it seemed like everything was coming together to make this the trip of a lifetime.
Hueco, however, does not give up its gems so easily and the early momentum of the first day was derailed by heavy snows blanketing the area, rendering the boulders unclimbable and leaving the pair to their own devices. After a few days of countless movies and rounds of Scrabble with fellow climbing gypsies Jackie Huftle, Chris Schulte, and CA native Dan Beall, the snows finally began to dissipate, ending the excruciating wait as precious days had already ebbed away. Eager to make up for lost time, Josh and Mark quickly got to work, heading out on tour with Jackie, Chris, and Dan. Spirits ran high as everyone began to catch their stride. “He was super motivated because it was his first time,” said Mark, referring to Dan’s first days in the park. “It was really cool watching him adapt to the style and figure out the movement on some of the harder lines.” With more than enough enthusiasm and excitement to go around, Dan’s spirit was contagious and permeated through the group, with Josh and Mark’s efforts bolstered by the energy. Mark explained, “It was awesome to watch Dan on Terremere (V15), his focus and determination, trying hard. This was his major goal for the trip. He’s at a time in his life where he can project, being fresh out of school. It’s great to see that he’s happy and loving life.”
Dan Beal crushing.
In spite of their extensive preparations, Mark gouged a crevasse-sized split into his fingertip that would stymie his progress for the remaining 6 days of the trip. “I had a big tip flapper that I had to tape, basically ending my trip since there was no sensitivity,” Mark recounted. “I had high expectations and had to sit on the sideline, watching Josh climb really well, crushing his projects.” Josh added, “Mark’s finger was a bummer. We’re a team, we went half way across the country and trained for this moment and we were devastated. I lost my climbing partner mid-way through the trip.” Making the most out of the situation, Mark and Dan hatched a plan to endure what’s demurely referred to as the Wanker 101. The goal: to climb 101 boulder problems in a single day.
“It was a big adventure. Everyone is trying to send their hardest climbs, projecting. Everyone neglects the basics, so this was a way to take it back to that basic level and get some mileage,” explained Mark. Unencumbered by shoes or pads, the two brought only chalk and approach shoes to complete the list. Of the 101 problems, Mark had only climbed 5 during previous trips. “We planned out our route through the park, where to go, which problems first.” Finishing the circuit in the throes of dusk, Dan and Mark topped out the must-do roof problem Ghetto Simulator (V2) before heading back to camp, exhausted but fulfilled by the experience.
Josh, fortunate to avoid the skin problems weighing on Mark, tore through the park on a sending spree. “Getting on top of Loaded Direct (V12) was my most meaningful. It was an incredible feeling,” Josh recalled. Walking past the line years ago, this one resonated with him. “It’s one of the first problems you walk past heading into North and it just looks amazing. 2 years ago it was over my head. It was really special to come back and do something you thought was badass and see that progression.” Focus (V10) was another line that captivated Josh on a previous trip, falling into the same category. “Focus and Loaded Direct capture that next level: tall, committing, and intimidating. Getting to climb lines like those is a realization of my goals. Even though I climbed similar grades last year, these are more fulfilling and meaningful. Climbs of this nature have more to it than the grade. The process and the undertaking is more involved and they are more rewarding.”
For Josh the process of sending is as much mental as it is physical. “I break problems down into obvious sections and get my beta dialed ASAP. Figure out what works, even if it isn’t perfect, and make sure to understand the top so once you get there you don’t blow it!” Josh shared. “One thing I’ve learned as I’ve become a stronger climber: Sometimes you’ll get close but it’s the end of the day, you’re falling off the crux or one particular move, and you tell yourself ‘Good enough, I’ll get it when I come back.’ I’ve found that’s often wrong,” he states matter-of-factly, “you may not come back or get as far. When it’s there you have to seize the opportunity and hang it all out there.” To reach a mindset that makes this level of commitment possible, Josh recommends having a ritual before you begin climbing as well as visualizing yourself successfully completing the moves. For Josh this involves a shake of the head and a brushing of all the holds, even if they’ve already been brushed. “A ritual tells you it’s time to try hard. It gets you in the right head space to send, telling you something is going to go down.”
The power of this process was evident when Josh did Alma Blanca (V13), his first of the grade. “I did it quickly,” Josh remembers, “it was unexpected.” Completing the problem just as the sun was setting and the warning sirens were sounding for the park closing Josh unlocked the crux and mantled over the top. “It was the last go of the day.” Success though, does not always come. “You can have incredible success and feel like you’re on top of the world and then get pulled right back down on the next climb,” a reference to their failed attempts on Full Monty (V12). “Walking up, 20 minutes in, it seemed like it was going to go, finish jug in hand. 3 sessions later, it never went. It was a heartbreaker. The funny thing about climbing is this is what I thought about on the ride home rather than all the successful sends.”
As an area that’s both ecologically and culturally sensitive, Hueco’s numerous restrictions necessitate some advance preparations, especially when reserving guides for tours into the more sensitive parts of the park. Reflecting on the trip, both have words of advice for anyone planning their own visit. “Go with friends and make sure you know people, the more planning the better. Go for a week and thrash yourself, but not much longer. If you can stay for longer, make sure to dial in guides. Stay at the Hacienda or somewhere comfortable and dry, camping wrecks you. Maximize your recovery time.” Says Mark. Josh continues, “For logistics don’t go during peak weeks (after Christmas or New Years), it’s crowded and hard to make it work. Make sure you get on the 4-star lines. Climb on problems that are world-class, not just ok. Don’t get stuck on crappy problems. Do the world-class problems first.” After a minute, Josh adds, “Just go. It’s as fun as it sounds. Traveling with your friends to beautiful paces to do beautiful things, it’s as good as it sounds.”
Written by Chris Sinatra (Askew). Chris has been climbing for over 15 years and has traveled extensively to pursue his passion for the sport. He now calls San Francisco home while planning out the next big adventure. Follow Chris on Twitter @AcutelyAskew.