Befriending the Rock
Discovering rock climbing in the Cobre Mountains

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011

Befriending the Rock

Discovering rock climbing in the Cobre Mountains.

by Angie Carr

"You have classic sewing-machine leg," Stefan Link told me as I contemplated my next foothold. We were rock climbing on San Jose mountain near Bayard. A few things traveled through my mind as I attempted to defy gravity by climbing a vertical rock face. Number one was: Crap, I really do have sewing machine leg — defined as "an embarrassing climbing condition caused by panic and/or fatigue which is manifested by an involuntary vibration of one or both legs." It was not so much because I was scared — only slightly — but mainly because my left leg was threatening to quit for the day as it was not used to supporting my full body weight in such an odd position. That position was similar to a child clinging to her stuffed animal — for dear life — while dangling 20 feet in the air.

rock climbing
Rock-climbing in Grant County.
(All photos by Stefan Link)

My other thoughts revolved around how similar the carabiners that connect my harness to my rope were to a smaller keychain version that I once owned. It had broken about a week ago. "No, no, focus, Angie, just focus," I said in order to snap myself off the dangerous path that is irrational fear. That keychain, I reminded myself, offered a single warning, which read, "Not to be used for rock climbing." Real climbing carabiners are specifically created to support weights and stresses far greater than any rock climber would ever actually need. Not only that, but they have been tested and re-tested for all those "what if" and "just in case" scenarios that kept plaguing my mind with each failed attempt to find a better hand grip.

That was my first time up the rock face. It was the most mentally noisy. I was still allowing my thoughts to run rampant, rather than just surrendering them to the rock.

Stefan, a 30-year climbing veteran and kind soul who was my teacher and voice of reason on that hot Thursday morning, described the relationship between rock and climber as being one based on intimacy: You must get to know the rock that you are climbing; it is the only way to achieve your goal. Stefan pointed out to me that each climber's goal isn't necessarily to make it to the top of a 50-foot cliff. He explained, "The beauty of it is to each their own; you just embrace it and take it on however you want. One day you may make it to the top, the next time you may not, but the experience is always worth it."

Rock climbing does become very personal. The rock face is at once your obstacle and simultaneously the only thing that can assist you. It is both antagonist and protagonist in your rock climbing story.

I didn't discover this quiet struggle of role playing until my second journey up the rock face. The first couple of feet off the ground made me the most nervous, mostly because it would have been especially embarrassing not to even make it off the ground. But once I had cleared the first ledge I became transfixed by the mental and physical game of inches. My thoughts quieted as I had to focus more keenly on the challenge at hand.

Rather than travel up the deep crack that ran to the top of the rusty, sun-soaked cliffs, as I had the first time, Stefan directed me just a little to the left, which offered a slight overhang and less obvious holds. It was just me and the rock, along with Stefan's occasional encouraging word or gentle direction.

There were moments when I realized that I had been pawing around on the rock searching for holds for what was probably an inordinate amount of time, but I never felt the need to rush. Contemplating my next move felt similar to a chess player weighing his options and strategy before deciding upon his move towards checkmate; a faulty move could end the game. It is also this mental focus, this oneness with the rock that allows for Zen-like clarity. My dog, my job, the ridiculous amount of packing that I had to do, all of it just slipped away, and I was left supremely focused and free.

Upon nearing the top I ungracefully threw my left knee over the final ledge and hoisted myself up. I was tired and happy, sweaty and exhilarated. I stood, steadied myself and turned to look at the view below. I couldn't believe that I was looking out over Bayard. I had gone to school in that town since the sixth grade and I had never imagined climbing the red rocks that lay tucked behind this small community. At that moment, with a bird's eye view, I was able to watch as the sun spilled across Bayard and the colorful Cobre Mountains. I was honored and grateful to witness such beauty.

rock climbing

Stefan assured me that I was not the only one who was shocked and awed at the beauty that had been quite literally at my fingertips most of my life. "One of the unique things about Grant County," Stefan told me, "is the quality of climbing; the potential of climbing here as a huge activity for local people as well as an attraction for people to come here."

This is one of the main reasons that Stefan teaches climbing at Aldo Leopold High School and loves to take out veteran and new climbers alike: "I want to share what's here. This rock is made for climbing."

He's right: The type of rock found in the Cobre Mountains is ideal for rock climbing thanks to volcanic activity that took place around 33 million years ago. This event created what is known as Kneeling Nun Rhyolite Tuff, or simply Rhyolitic Porphyry. What this means for rock climbers, Stefan excitedly explained to me, is that the outer layer of rock, approximately one to three inches, known as the patina, is a densely compacted shell. The patina has been most affected by forces and pressures such as geologic uplifts, freezing, thawing, wind and weathering, leaving it especially hard and stable — basically a rock climber's dream.

rock climbing

"There's some economic advantage to sort of busting the lid of what's available here," Stefan added. The tricky part of local rock climbing, it turns out, is land ownership. Much of the land is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, which is public-use friendly; however, this land is difficult to get to because much of it is surrounded by mine-owned land or private property. Stefan has been very diligent in taking every measure to ensure that he is not trespassing on his climbs, whether that means looking to maps for accessible BLM land, or discussing his climbing intentions with those who own the land that he needs to cross.

Often private landowners are reluctant to open up their land for fear of liability, loss of land control, security concerns and personal reasons. In light of this potentially troublesome situation, an international organization called the Access Fund, after a decade of hard work, has achieved legislation that acknowledges that a person with the intent to recreationally rock climb inherently knows and understands the isk nvolved, thus making the private land owners not responsible for recreational users. Such legislation gives Stefan and other climbers hope that new and old climbing locations will remain intact and accessible, and that in time others will also take advantage of what these giant bluffs can offer. In Stefan's words, "Climbing in the Cobre Mountains could be endless if access were granted."

I went up one last time. Now with confidence gained from the two previous successful climbs, I agreed when Stefan suggested a different, more difficult section of rock, and I agreed again when he offered to go ahead of me and guide me from the top rather than from below as we had done before.

rock climbing

Stefan launched up the rock, feeling the surface as he wove upward, searching for sturdy hand- and footholds, gracefully creating an invisible trail up the rock face. I stood acting as his anchor below, studying his movements and handholds, though I knew that when it came my time I wouldn't be able to remember them. I felt the tug of the rope on my harness as Stefan pulled the last bit of rope up the cliff. It was my turn.

"On belay?" I asked.

"Belay on," Stefan replied.


"Climb on."

And on I went. Climbing at that point felt almost natural. I was in no way as graceful nor as steady as Stefan, but I trusted my decisions and I felt strong. That's the thing about climbing: You may be hooked into a harness, but really it's just you and whatever nature gave you as far as useful holes and crevices. There isn't even a guaranteed way up the rock, just one small step at a time. There's no rushing, no cheating; big steps will only make your journey more difficult. Who would have expected that climbing could be a metaphor for life? I think it has a good message.

"I just feel so fortunate," Stefan sighed as he looked out towards Geronimo Mountain, "because there's no climbing scene here. I pretty much just have 14 years of scouring cliffs and really doing something that most climbers, about 98% of climbers, never get to experience, and that's new routing. That's going up to a cliff, becoming intimate enough with it to figure out visually stimulating lines that offer climbing in a safe, exciting, fun fashion. There are opportunities to do things, to take up activities that are interesting, exciting, fulfilling and healthy, and all while you're here in Grant County."

After making it to the top of my third climb, I was able to enjoy the child-like joy of rappelling down the rock surface I had just ascended. The peace that I achieved from that morning of rock climbing has yet to fade. I have noticed that it is a reflection place for me. If I get stressed out, I envision being back out in the sun with my face pressed against rock and dirt and I tell myself to take small steps. It's helped every time. I feel fortunate, too, that I got the opportunity to experience the land of my childhood in a new and different way and I hope that others will be able to as well.

I wouldn't trade my journey up that rock face for anything. There is no equivalent to the peace and, yes, the intimacy that I felt through that experience.

To contact Stefan Link's Renegade Guide Service, email nuntriangle@gmail.com or call (575) 956-8814. You will not only have the opportunity to climb in an area which few have experienced by way of rope and harness, but you may gain a little bit of philosophical enlightenment as well.

Angie Carr is a native New Mexican who is currently enjoying many adventures in life.



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