The Gunfighter’s Ballad

Photo by Kelvin Pond @ponderosa0210

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a State Historical Site. To tell the truth, this blog post has already been written, by Marty Robbins. The story of our month in Hueco Tanks is exactly the same as his song “El Paso” to the letter! It began with a girl, whirling in a cantina, and ended in gunfire, and me, shot through the heart.

No, it’s cool, you keep staring, I’ll get my own shovel

There we were, a couple of young cowboys, wild as the West Texas wind. Dashing and daring, we parked the Rampage on our friend’s abandoned property, 25 miles outside of the park. Climbing at Hueco Tanks has been my dream ever since I first realized that I love roofs, and after years of failed plans to make this sacred journey, it finally happened. We received a warm West Texas welcome from a neglected pack of hoarse, limping dogs who came to yell WOOF at us as we explored our new haunted house. An extended family of pigeons exploded out of the roof, and behind the old water heater, a cat with no eyes patiently disintegrated. It was perfect, except for the 50 miles round trip to the boulders. After less than a week we moved to the Hueco Rock Ranch, the campground where all the other climbers stay, figuring that along with our mileage, our social situation would also improve. I rode on the roof, pushed the low-hanging power line up out of the way with a metal ladder, like you do, and we crammed the trailer into its campsite for the upcoming weeks.

Nachoclaws lookin’ at stuff on Alf in a Blender

Hueco felt like a long lost homeland. Like I’ve always been a blind cave fish, but I’d been wandering the open ocean, and here I was, finally home in pitch black waters, hunting cave bugs only on instinct. This is to say, I was climbing better than ever. It can be difficult and expensive to get to the boulders, but it turns out you end up trying harder than if you hadn’t accidentally paid someone $50 to take you on tour. This bloody guided tour accident resulted in me sending The Long Haul (v8) and Alf in a Blender (v6) inside of one session, which qualifies as my best climbing day ever.

The Hueco Rock Rodeo was coming up, so I volunteered all weekend, and got on the wait list to compete (cuz I still wasn’t going to pay $100), and do you know what? I won Women’s Advanced! After a tie-breaker pull-up contest! Yes, another dream come true! Walk with me down the empty halls of my hollow, baffling, yet heartwarming victory.

Here’s how it happened, the Devil asked me for my soul and I was like, “Sure, bud. I mean, I don’t even know what they are for.”

Sorry. So, the competition categories are kind of insane: Rec v0-v4, Int v3-v7, Adv v5-v10, Open v8+. This bizarre spread of grades encourages most non-professional climbers to sign up in Intermediate, and since I was only competing if I made it off the wait list, I got a spot in Advanced. That’s a little salty for my muffin, but I had a project on the Advanced list, so I was excited to climb on East Mountain. Complications began Friday, when the sky unleashed a wet fury upon the rocks. Like any other kind of mortal choss, syenite porphyry is even more fragile when wet. The Rodeo organizer wisely postponed climbing until Sunday, and changed the problem lists for each category. Climbs whose holds were more likely to break were removed, consequently eliminating every problem I’d either tried or seen a video of. “No big deal,” I thought to myself, “I’ve been climbing v6-v8 in one session lately, this could still be a realistic category for me…”


Pure, non-sending bliss. Photo by Stella Mascari @stella.the.giant

I climbed all day and sent nothing. True story. It was a blast. I ran around East Mountain trying as hard as I could on everything I could get to (a guide had to be present at all times), sharing beta with new friends, and spiraling into delirious exhaustion. I found this climb at the very end of the day whose landing was a 60 degree slab, with soaking wet sand at the bottom. Everyone there was trying desperately to wring out one more climb for their scorecard, but we were all made of pudding. Riding a crashpad all the way down the slab into wet sand every time we fell, losing our shit laughing, it felt like a 3-legged race, on a fishing boat, in a storm. In the end, I failed to send this as well, and had to turn in a scorecard with no climbs on it, only 10 points for collecting a bag of trash. “That’s ok,” I think to myself, trying to manage my bottomless disappointment in this failure, “I’m terrible at competitions, and I feel like I climbed pretty well for myself, all things considered.”

Hanging around for the awards ceremony, drinking a hard-earned beer, feeling spent but blissful, the MC gets to the Women’s Advanced category. He announces a 5-way tie that will be broken the old-fashioned way: by a pull-up contest. My stomach churns. That means nobody in our category sent a damn thing on the list all day. A tripod with a bar appears on the stage and he starts calling competitor’s names. Only one other woman is still present! She steps up and does 12 pull-ups, the crowd chant-counting each one. It was awesome. Usually, after a normal climbing session, I can only do 8-12 pull-ups, so I’m happily resigned to the nothing that I fully deserve for this competition, and beyond psyched for the woman who just did 12. Now, there’s nowhere to hide, and it’s my turn. I step up onto the stage and start doing pull-ups. I do 13 miraculously easily, and the crowd cheers for me to do more. Like any dutiful bride I just look at the sky and keep going. Somehow I pulled 19 out of my ass. Which is a lifetime record! Something to be proud of on this day.

Them’s the rules, so technically, I won, and I walked away with a brand new crash pad, and a box full of lavish and undeserved prizes. Sadly, not a single woman turned in a scorecard in Open. Learning this gave me that 20/20 hindsight super-vision:

1) I should have just paid the $100 to register in Open! I would have won actual money for the same pathetic performance… and The Long Haul was on the Open list. I might even have felt like I earned that award.

This is who women deserve to see win the Hueco Rock Rodeo: Juliane Wurm. Photo by Courtney Sanders.

2) My personal failure feels like a wider responsibility. The truth is even if I had entered Open and climbed the one v8 I know I could do (coincidentally, the lowest scoring climb in the category), I would still feel like a fraud. Every year, from whichever non-Hueco location I find myself, I check to see who won the Hueco Rock Rodeo, looking for the deliverance that comes from having a hero. Kyra Condie, Alex Puccio, and Juliane Wurm have all given me this shining example to look up to, all putting down multiple double-digit climbs. This year? Any women looking for that inspiration just get me, who sent nothing and had to break a tie for a bag of trash. Bright-eyed onlookers have only my dead cat of a name floating around their backyard pool of crushing letdowns.

Honestly, there are a lot of reasons why I didn’t send anything, only some of which I had any control over. Let’s not dwell on how much I suck at climbing. The story must go on. On the hill overlooking El Paso, I can see Rosa’s Cantina below. My love is strong and it pushes me onward, down off the hill to Felina I go.

After the Rodeo, I told myself I would feel less unworthy of my win if I sent some of my harder projects. Our friend Kelvin came to visit from Tucson, and we went on a tour to the East Spur. The first project I tried was Better Eat Your Wheaties, a classic v8 (v9 if ya nasty…). The start holds on Wheaties are so crimpy, and the rest of the climb so thin, I never thought it would be possible for me. A friend had convinced me to try it with her last time I was on the Spur, and against all odds I was doing really well. I could realistically send this crazy crimpy thing, and prove all of my wimpy pulleys wrong! I could overcome adversity and self-doubt, I could BE SOMEONE!

*TWWAAAANNG* Nah, brah, you just popped another pulley. My finger fell off of the hold, and my heart fell out of my butt. After that, if anything more substantial than a whisper touched my finger, it felt like it was shattering. Just like the crystal goblet of my DREAMS.

I may have this backwards, but maybe my soul was holding my tendons together? I’d been training years to be strong enough to send v8, and waiting years to come to Hueco, and both were finally happening at the same time. It was too good to be true. Did you see me dab on The Long Haul? On THE GROUND, for god’s sake. The hardest thing I sent in Hueco has an asterisk next to it, and my plan was to go back and send it clean that day. My love for Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen, though I am weary I can’t stop to rest. I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle, I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

Expectations are the death of fun, but it sure is painful to feel like you’re about to achieve something you’ve worked so hard for, just to have it torn apart. PUN INTENDED, I’m feeling dramatic! So, Nachoclaws, what have you been doing with all of this time you now have on your worthless, dangly hands? Crashing my mountain bike, taking apart our truck’s brakes about a hundred times, and crystal meth (makes taking apart the truck easier). All of my climbing role models who get injured do positive things like focus on their core workouts, or make art, but I just take it out on my loved ones and forget why I’m alive like a god damned normal person.

Totally kidding, you guys! I’m fun, I do stuff, and try to keep my head above water! I put my new big bore cylinder in my dirtbike and it works! I made almost imperceptible progress in my mountain biking skills! I half-assedly got into painting minis! See? Life still has meaning. It’s the warm fuzzy feeling from the first sip of whiskey, or talking to a nerd and pretending you don’t know the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. There’s so much to live for besides climbing, keep ya head up, kid.

Everything’s gonna be alright. This is an acceptable hobby.

Awesome video of the whole weekend by Cold House Media:

P.S. If you didn’t get enough Marty Robbins references or me symbolically fucking shit up, watch this video with Big Iron playing.

Leave a Reply