Monday, May 25, 2015

Socorro, New Mexico: Rock Climbing Heaven

Phil Miller on "Nasty Sally."
(Originally published in Published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA.)

Phil Miller is standing 15 feet up a rock cliff, one foot on a four-inch ledge, the other pressed against a sloped face.

He wedges the fingertips of his left hand in a tiny crack, and leans to the right. In one smooth move, he straightens his left arm, pushes against the sloping rock with his left foot, and reaches high with his right hand. His right foot floats in space until he tucks it up on a rocky protrusion. He is at the crux – the hardest move – on the climb called Nasty Sally.

Phil grunts, pushes off, stretches high. His hand brushes the next hold, barely within his reach. His fingers tighten. His grip slips.

He falls.

A moment later he is hanging in his climbing harness, groaning, then laughing. His belayer smiles up at him and says, “Nice try.” Nasty Sally has won again. But there’s always next time.

Nasty Sally is Phil’s “love to hate” climb, the best kind. “I know I can do them, but they are going to be a challenge the whole way through,” he explains. He has already made Nasty Sally “clean” – without falling or hanging on the rope – but can't yet do it every time.

Phil provides a safety check for Tammy
Phil started climbing as a student at New Mexico Tech. Many Tech students take advantage of climbing classes to get out of the classroom and into the sun. Others learn informally, from friends. Either way, the stress relief of climbing is welcome.

Biology student Tammy tried climbing after watching friends. “Everybody’s friendly,” she says, “You may have never seen them before, but everyone’s welcome.” Her favorite part is being able to accomplish something new. “Rather than being competitive, if you get to the top it’s because you did it.”

Climbing comes in many varieties. Top-roping is the safest. The rope hangs from an anchor, so a climber can’t fall more than a few feet. In lead climbing, a climber clips a rope to bolts drilled into the rock every 5 to 15 feet on the way up. If a rock face has no permanent bolts, a trad climber can wedge special equipment into cracks and pockets to provide protection. All these are forms of rope climbing, which requires a few hundred dollars worth of equipment, and a partner for the belay – someone to anchor the other end of the rope and control falls, aided by braking equipment.

A group of boulderers at Streambed in Box Canyon.
Some climbers prefer bouldering, which can be done solo with no more than a pair of climbing shoes. A bouldering “problem” involves a short sequence of moves up a boulder or across a rock wall. Because they stay close to the ground, boulderers don’t need ropes, though most like a bouldering pad to cushion falls.

Problems, Problems Everywhere

Socorro is a haven for climbers of all types, with around 100 set climbing routes and over 700 boulder problems within 10 miles of town. Most of these are in Box Canyon and Spook Canyon, which lie side by side off Route 60, about 7 miles west of Socorro. The Box and Spook Canyon areas are BLM land, specially designated for climbing and bouldering. Local climbers have a long and friendly history with the BLM. “Climbers are often BLM’s eyes and ears by reporting problems,” said a BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner. “As volunteers they clean up the area and help with projects.”

Climbing a crack at Spook Canyon
The canyons’ rocks provide interesting variety for all abilities: fine-grained, smooth planes with tiny cracks and ledges for fingers and toes; rough surfaces perfect for smearing (pressing a foot against flat rock to create friction); or big bulges and huecos (pockets) for easy holds.

The warm, dry Socorro weather allows climbing year-round. Winter sees many day visitors from Albuquerque and Santa Fe. School breaks bring vans of young people from as far as Canada to camp at Box Canyon.

Despite these far-flung visitors, the area is rarely crowded. Waterfall Wall, just off the parking lot, is sometimes strewn with colorful ropes over many of the 16 climbs. This is a favorite spot because climbers can hike around the cliff and drop ropes from bolted anchors, for safe and easy setup. Nearby Dirt Wall and Hueco Wall are also popular, with climbs ranging from very easy to nearly impossible, and the added winter advantage of direct sun all afternoon.

But walk north down the streambed a few hundred feet, and you’ll find other climbing areas and fewer people. Or take the easternmost dirt road south a mile, to more climbing walls, plus a large boulder field. Spook Canyon’s two east facing walls are lesser known, not even listed in most climbing guides. With so many choices, you’ll always find great climbs open.

Author Kris Bock at The Enchanted Tower area
Heat and bugs make summer less ideal. Devoted climbers head out early in the morning, or after dark – VLA employee Bob Broilo frequently sponsors “night missions” for boulderers, with battery-powered lights. Another option is The Enchanted Tower, just 75 minutes east on I-60 and cooler at over 7000 feet elevation. This spectacular climbing area was developed by Socorro climbers in the 1980s and remains a favorite escape from summer heat.

Other popular climbing areas are scattered across New Mexico, but Socorro remains a favorite for the number of good climbs and ease of access.

For Phil, the best part of climbing is that, “The world falls away.” A boulder problem may last only 45 seconds, but, “For those 45 seconds, nothing else is in my mind. The stresses of daily life all go away.”

More on the Box Canyon climbing area, including a link to download the Box Canyon: Enchantment Tower’s Socorro Climbing Area Guide. 

Next week, part two will include some of the history of climbing in Socorro.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico, with Ellen Rippel

Coffin handle from infant’s grave.
In April I did a guest column for Southwest Armchair Traveler and mentioned my search for “grounded” topics.  These pursuits have led to my involvement in diverse subjects, the most important of which was documenting the 1972 discovery of a century-old lost cemetery in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Southwest is filled with fascinating, old graveyards but this particular one was, and still is, very special to me.

In October of 2013 I wrote Outlaws & Outcasts: The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico.  A re-write of my 1979 history thesis from N.M. Highlands University, it was something I had put off doing for over 30 years. (I was good at procrastination, and had successfully raised it to an art form.) Here’s an excerpt from the book, recounting when the graveyard was first discovered by a backhoe operator in 1972:

The quarrying got underway right after Labor Day. The driver of a large backhoe began removing the grasses and top layer of soil, revealing the stone that he would soon crush into gravel. He glanced down while he was working, and something caught his eye. He looked more closely at the area he had begun to clear. 

The surface was sprinkled with bones, coffin fragments, and what appeared to be parts of a human skull – unmistakably all items associated with a burial. He guessed from the deteriorated condition of the objects that the grave was not a recent one.... The driver climbed down from the backhoe to get a closer look. He realized he was seeing the contents of not just one grave, but several graves.

Thus began the mystery of the Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
This is what the area around the quarry site probably looked like in 1972 –
hilly terrain, pinon trees, and lots of rock, but no hint of a cemetery.

The paupers’ cemetery in Las Vegas, NM was of particular interest to historians because it was known to have included famous outlaws – hanged or shot by lawmen and vigilantes during the early railroad days in the late nineteenth century.  But the exact location of “Boot Hill” became forgotten over time.  When the graveyard was accidently uncovered in 1972 only a small portion of it was archaeologically retrieved. Seventeen bodies were found, but conceivably as many as 25 or more additional bodies were needlessly destroyed.  And with that destruction, a large part of Southwest history was forever lost.  

Desecration of cemeteries, not just in New Mexico, but throughout the U.S., is not uncommon.  Sometimes folks who lived close to a cemetery – maybe a non-active one, maybe one that held people with different beliefs than theirs – would take a headstone and use it for a step in front of a doorway. This pilferage (and the fact that grave markers in a paupers’ lot were often handmade of wood scraps) makes it understandable how a cemetery might disappear in a brief period. 

Celluloid collar and silk tie from one of the better-preserved graves.
A major motivator for writing Outlaws & Outcasts was when I discovered the forgotten cemetery was the pauper’s graveyard dating back to the 1800s. The people buried there had been discounted as being poor, disreputable or insignificant. What troubled me was that an infant’s grave was one of the 17 uncovered.  I wondered what a baby might have done to justify that kind of oblivion. At least now I can rest easy knowing that my book – recounting the facts of the discovery of the Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas – will help assure the people buried there are not forgotten, and that one of the mysteries of the Southwest has been solved.

Ellen Rippel is the author of Outlaws & Outcasts:  The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico. For those who love history, archaeology, or quirky stories from the Land of Enchantment, the book is an intriguing summary of the unearthing of an unknown century-old graveyard in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1972. Outlaws & Outcasts is filled with stories of early outlaws and fascinating historical insights, including examinations of historical burial practices and customs, and a search through the scarce literature on events specific to the existence of the cemetery.