Want to wait in line to climb? Then you better not go to the Jemez Mountains. However, if you have any interest in blue skies, popcorn clouds and expansive vistas, grab a rack of draws (up to 17) and head to New Mexico for some of the most diverse climbing in the Southwest.
For decades, the Jemez Mountains have been a crucible for sport and trad climbing. A host of well-known climbers—from Layton Kor, Lynn Hill and Todd Skinner, to next-generation rads like Ian Spencer-Green, Cody Roth and Timmy Fairfield—have all played on the crags between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Here, because of the recent burst of new route development, there is literally enough climbing to keep anyone pumped for a lifetime.
The Jemez wilderness contains a multitude of rock types: Welded tuff, basalt, granite and travertine have yielded routes of all grades up to 5.13+. Testpieces like Shadowdancer (5.12c/d) at Cochiti Mesa, Loose Cannon (5.13c) at the Dungeon, and the recently established Doughboy (5.13b) at Gilman Tunnels are some of the main attractions. Jean DeLataillade’s Mainliner (5.13c), at Las Conchas, is still unrepeated nearly 15 years after its first ascent. Since this is a National Forest, free camping is scattered throughout the region, although usually with fire restrictions.
In 2002, the New Mexico Climbers Resource Advocacy Group (NM CRAG) re-bolted most of Cochiti Mesa, replacing the old 3/8-inch expansion bolts with honker 1/2-by-6-inch glue-in bolts. This revived Cochiti Mesa, where climbers have tested their mettle since the mid-1980s. With a tight climbing community and a self-policing mindset, NM CRAG has made a good impression on landowners and raised their opinion of climbers.
With the Guadalupe River running right at your feet, the easy-access Gilman Tunnels area is a rare granite gem containing a spate of new climbs and several multi-pitch sport routes. Most of the climbing hovers around the 5.10 to 5.11 grades. Tom Weizwick, Karl Kiser, Mark Thomas and Chris Kessler pioneered some of the area’s first good sport routes on the canyon’s red faces in the late 1990s. Chris Eckstein, Lance Hadfield and Marc Beverly have put up over 40 new routes in the last two years. You’ll need to get psyched to crank the hard technical moves on routes like the 100-foot Hostile Takeover (5.11c/d) and Putty Girl (5.12c). The moderates Entrapment (5.9+) and Cyber Crime (5.10c/d) are full-value, well-protected face climbing with gripping exposure. Spring run-off can make climbing problematic for the Gilman Tunnels.
In 2003, Lance Hadfield produced several shaded, pumpy gym-style climbs in the travertine Crystal Cave near Jemez Springs. The Leper (5.12a), Dope (5.13a) and Soul Crusher (5.12d) “are great climbs for technical footwork and core strength,” says Hadfield, who adds that the horizontal-roof Crystal Cave is a great place to climb in the rain.
The Pond bouldering area, located immediately north of Ponderosa, and beside the town’s reservoir, saw a spate of new problems from V3 to V8 near the turn of the millennium, established at the NASCAR Boulder and King for a Day boulders. Recently, John Cardwell and Chris Eckstein sent Tsunami (V8) and Butterfly Effect (V10) at the Upper Ridge. The Pond still has an immense amount of untapped climbing. The Wave Boulder on the Upper Deck area sports the Core Traverse (V13), put up by Christian Core and Timmy Fairfield, one of the hardest lines around. The Lost Descent (V5) and Scream (V6) on the Lost Descent Boulder show that the textured welded tuff makes for some of New Mexico’s best bouldering.
Aaron Miller recently focused his speculative eye on Diablo Canyon, where the newest climbs, such as 2003’s Clovis Hunter (5.12a/b) and Cro-Magnon (5.12a), are bold, steep cave pitches on south-facing basalt. One of the original routes, Sun Devil (5.11b/c), is a must-do three-pitch spire. Rick Bradshaw was one of the key figures in establishing Diablo Canyon climbing, including the Grotto, Sun Devil Wall and Cocks Comb Crag. The 17-bolt Grape Ape (5.10c) and the 15-bolt Post Nine Moderate (5.9) are two great warm-ups.
Other well-established areas near Los Alamos round out the climbing experience for both trad and sport climbers on half- to full-pitch routes. The Dungeon holds a plethora of overhanging routes that stay in the shade nearly all day. The easiest climb on the Main Wall is Phrenology (5.11b), but other warm-ups are nearby. Beastmaster (5.12d) and Moat Jump (5.12a) are the more popular “low-enders” here.
Las Conchas, at nearly 9,000 feet, is graced by a brook flowing through the entire area. The region’s moderate routes suit the climber with a mellow personality, but you can always punch in some more difficult endeavors as well. Scott Cherry recently developed Area 37, home of Cyclic Loader (5.11b/c) and Bag of Sand (5.11c/d).
Away from the Jemez Mountains proper, The Pecos, about 20 miles east of Santa Fe, is another granite crag much like Gilman Tunnels, and is also packed with new routes. Recently, Weizwick took Kiser, Thomas and Bryan Pletta to the area for a first-ascent frenzy. The first and most obvious crag here is Cathedral Rock and has the quintessential Instant Classic (5.11d), Roadside Attraction (5.10b) and the area’s best trad route, Lil’ Darlin’ (5.11a). The Rim of the World area, with a 30-minute approach hike, has over 45 routes, with more to come. There’s plenty of free camping just up valley from the crag on the way to the old mining town of Terrero, next to the Pecos River.
Looking for rest-day activities? There’s plenty to see and do in the area, and throughout New Mexico. You can also get your “fix” for real New Mexican cuisine of blue-corn, green- or red-chili chicken enchiladas at one of the many local restaurants.
Be prepared to drive many miles of road, albeit paved. Some approaches need special attention while others are more direct. The main airport is located in Albuquerque. The best and easiest way to find the areas is to check out the latest guidebook, Jemez Rock, by J. Marc Beverly, available at sharpendbooks.com. The only areas that may need a medium-clearance vehicle are Cochiti Mesa and Eagle Canyon, but cars make it in and out all the time. For the techno-geeks who know how to use a GPS, the coordinates of boulders and crags are listed in the appendix of the guidebook.
—J. MARC BEVERLY
LAKE TAHOE’S SECRET STASH
With Yosemite, Bishop, and Joshua Tree drawing most of the attention, Lake Tahoe locals have been left with most of their 2,000-plus boulder problems to themselves. What’s more, they have just scratched the surface of the Tahoe area.
Tahoe has escaped attention largely due to the fact that the 40-plus areas are so diverse and spread out. Each sector has its own rock type and unique ambiance. Within the space of a day you can boulder Joshua Tree-style granite with lake views, Tuolumne-esque golden stone above the tree line, or Yosemite-like granite in the forest. If a snowstorm is forecast, a mere 30-minute drive will land you in the desert sun.
At a time when staying in Yosemite seems to involve more logistics than a visit to a foreign country, Tahoe offers endless free camping and few hassles. Most people stay at Lover’s Leap Campground, Tahoe’s version of Camp 4, with free camping, individual sites, boulders in the campground, and a five-minute walk to a bar.
At the moment, most land managers either support bouldering or don’t know it exists. Let’s keep it that way. Be mindful where you park and leave no trace at the boulders. You can boulder in Tahoe year-round, but the best climbing is between April and November.
Here are the top five of the 40 or so areas surrounding Tahoe:
BLISS The perfect name for one of Tahoe’s most concentrated and scenic areas, where you’ll find over 200 problems at four sectors. South Bliss offers gritty rock with lake views and world-class photo opportunities. Middle Bliss is the main area, with some solid patina and a few mega-classic highball aretes. North Bliss has a few excellent sharp problems, including the aptly named Spiderman (V7). The Ladder Boulder is one of the single coolest stones in Tahoe. The rock texture is remarkably forgiving compared to the sharper surrounding Bliss areas.
Take Highway 89 from Tahoe to the main D.L. Bliss State Park entrance. For the Ladder Boulder, drive about a mile toward the lake to the parking area ($6 per day), then backtrack a few hundred feet. The parking for the other Bliss areas is on Highway 89. From the entrance area, drive 0.3 miles south for South Bliss, 0.7 miles north for Middle Bliss, or 0.8 miles north for North Bliss. From each pullout on 89, walk a few minutes east (toward the lake) on climber trails.
THE SADDLE The Saddle has Tahoe’s best rock and greatest concentration of hard problems (up to V11). The granite is grade-A Yosemite with steep, technical and powerful problems. You will have to work hard to get here, but it’s worth it. The setting is as beautiful as it is remote.
It was once possible to drive miles of abandoned train tunnels to reach the Saddle. Now the railroad has blocked this option. Instead, drive for about 30 minutes on 4 x 4 roads, starting in Coldstream Canyon. From I-80 in Truckee, take Cold Stream Road; at 0.8 miles, take the left junction, passing the ponds; at 1.7 miles bear left, heading up the valley; at 3.1 miles, where the road meets the railroad tracks, bear left; at 3.3 miles, head through the tunnel (the “mouse hole”), and right after leaving the tunnel; at 3.7 miles, bear right, following the sign toward “N. Fork Cold Creek”; at 5.5 miles, bear right; at 6.4 miles, park. Whew.
OLD COUNTY While it’s hard to get sick of Tahoe granite, it can happen. When it’s about that time, visit Old County, the largest concentration of volcanic rock in Tahoe. About 100 problems, almost all of which remain unnamed, up to V9 rise up steep, technical faces with sharp crimpers. The upper areas have great lake views.
From Tahoe City drive east on Highway 28 for five minutes and turn left on Old County Road and park at its end. Keep a low profile; if there are a lot of cars, park farther away. Walk a trail for a few hundred feet and turn left up a hill on a narrow trail. After about five minutes you hit a fire road. Turn left, walk a few hundred feet, and spot the main concentration of boulders on the right.
WASHOE BOULDERS The Washoe Boulders are polished volcanic blocks with wild green lichen in a Bishop-like climate and setting. Most of the bouldering is good, with the exception of the Tsunami Boulder, which is world-class. Imagine perfect pockets scattered under a cresting 25-foot petrified tidal wave. The prize is the sharp and spicy Wasabi (V7).
From highway 395 at the north end of Carson City, turn south onto East College Parkway. Drive a few miles and turn left onto Goni Road. Follow this until it turns right onto a dirt road. Drive a few more minutes to a hairpin turn below a black slope of cinder cones. Park here and hike back west on a one-lane dirt road. The boulders are on the right.
THE SECRETS Many oil pans have been sacrificed to find Tahoe’s most elusive bouldering area. The Secrets has more than 1,000 boulders, but the big concentrations are scarce. The rock is similar to Phantom Spires with knobs, sharp edges and dishes. There are more than 300 problems, with more being discovered every week.
From Strawberry, drive a little less than a mile west on Highway 50 and left onto Strawberry Tract Road. This becomes 42 Mile Tract Road. Drive 5.5 miles to Pack Saddle Pass. Take the first dirt road on your right and drive until the first Forest Service road on your left. Stay left when the road forks and you will hit the parking for the main concentrations. This beta will get you in the vicinity, but to really find the boulders, download the free SuperTopo for The Secrets at supertopo.com.
— CHRIS McNAMARA
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