Monday, June 1, 2015

Socorro, New Mexico: Climbing Grows Up

A climber in Box Canyon
(Adapted from an article originally published in enchantment magazine by NMRECA.)

In my last post, I described some of the excellent rock climbing around Socorro, in central New Mexico. No doubt people have been scrambling on rocks in this area for centuries. Rock climbing as a sport grew out of mountaineering and developed as an independent sport in the 1950s.

People may have been rock climbing in the Socorro area for that long, and certainly have been developing climbing routes since the mid-1970s. A climber who started in 1980 remembered when trad climbing was the only option. Climbers had to wedge specially designed tools into holes and cracks in the rock – if they could find a suitable place. “We’d tie ourselves on a rope and climb some climb, and find there wasn’t any place for protection,” the climber said. “I’d use up my strength and think, I better finish this climb, or climb down.”

Alan Erickson at Spook Canyon
In 1983, the late Bertrand Gramont, “a climbing fanatic” famous for his strength and colorful spandex leggings, arrived from France. He started setting climbs by drilling permanent metal bolts into the rock, adding safety. By the mid-1980s, Box Canyon had dozens of established climbing routes, and climbers were exploring surrounding areas.

Alan Erickson took the rock climbing class from Gramont in 1986. “He had too many students for his taste,” Alan says. “So one of our first exercises was to rappel down from the highest and most exposed peak in Box Canyon, then climb back up on one rope while dragging another, while traversing over a cave. Three-quarters of the class never showed up again. I, on the other hand, ended up dedicating my early would-be-academic career to climbing!”

VLA employee Bob Broilo took the rock climbing class in 1989. “The instructor noticed my impatience while I was waiting for a turn at either climbing or belaying. He sent me and some of the more adventurous students over to the Ultimate Boulder. The rock was so solid, the moves so powerful, and the convenience so seductive that I started bouldering at Box in earnest.”

Bob Broilo bouldering at Streambed in Box
Dancing with Rock

The lure of the rock now draws in today’s young climbers. “I fell in love with rock climbing,” said a student at the local New Mexico Tech university. “It is such a great rush, but not a super fast sport. Plus, the rock out here is super amazing.”

Despite the large number of college students climbing around Socorro, climbing isn’t just a young man’s sport. You may meet families with young children, middle-aged mothers, and weekend warriors going gray. Regardless of age, the main goal is to have fun.

“My favorite climbing achievements have always been those in which I feel like I’m flowing up the rock like syrup dripping over pancakes,” Alan says. “Each motion flowing from the last, each movement slow and controlled. Getting to the top? Very hard climbs? Not priorities for me. I like to dance with rock.”

Phil Miller sets up a climb from the top of a cliff
For many climbers, part of the fun is learning to do something different and challenging. According to New Mexico Bureau of Geology employee Phil Miller, “Even if it’s an easy problem, I know that not everyone can do that, or wants to. I also like the puzzle – setting up and cleaning [removing gear], any of the technical parts of the climb. No one can just tell me how to do it. I have to figure it out, then convince my body to do it.”

Tech graduate Zeb Westrom noted, “You don’t just normally walk up the side of a rock. It takes skill, and you have to learn.” Climbs are given a number rating for difficulty, which appeals to goal-oriented climbers. “It’s sort of like leveling up in gaming, improving yourself.”

Whether you want to compete against yourself or simply lounge in the sun with your friends, nothing beats the thrill of the outdoors, or the feel of dancing with rock.

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

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

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