Letters

Posted on: March 1, 2005


A Sense of Loss

My friend Charlie lives in the neighborhood. Our kids go to school together. By all accounts, he leads a standard urban existence. He's not a climber, but he has a deep appreciation for wild places. He once lived for months by himself above the Artic Circle on a remote Canadian lake. He also knows something about rock. Charlie's a geologist—one of the world's foremost experts on limestone.

Charlie learned about limestone by studying the walls of the Pecos River in West Texas. West Texas is desolate, desert country. Large ranches line the river and long stretches are without public access. Charlie used to launch a canoe above Pandale and paddle and drag the boat for sixty-some miles until he reached a public take-out point on Lake Amistad. Sometimes, he'd spend weeks at a time on this stretch and not see another person. Charlie kept coming back to this remote part of the river and its walls for one simple reason. It revealed one of the largest single cross-sections of limestone on earth. Sixty-odd miles long and up to 300 feet high, it was—perhaps just as importantly to Charlie—one of the few truly wild places left in Texas.

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Over the years Charlie photographed just about every inch of those walls. Sometimes, he'd bring his large-format photographs over to my house. We'd hunch over the photos while he showed me clues to a distant past. He'd point to an area and explain that, millions of years ago, the site hosted a beach, or a shallow sea bed, or a deep sea bed. Charlie can read the features in limestone like I can read the printed word.

For its population, Texas has a pitifully small amount of public land. Although there is a huge amount of climbable rock in the state, almost all of it is in river- and creekbeds controlled by private landowners. As a result, the future of Texas climbing depends on both encouraging the state to acquire additional properties and cutting deals with private landowners. That's where Charlie came in.

I hounded him relentlessly. No one knew the Pecos River Canyon, and the owners of its adjacent ranches, like he did. Surely there must be some rancher who wouldn't mind making a little money from climbers?

Charlie repeatedly told me that no one wanted a bunch of hippie climbers crawling all over their property. But I kept bugging him anyway and, one day, he admitted that he did know of one rancher who just might be willing to trade access for cash. I encouraged him to talk to him.

Charlie did just that. Within a few weeks, he'd put together a weekend camping trip for us and two of our sons. We'd see the ranch and talk with the owners. Looking back now, it was almost too easy. The owners immediately warmed to the idea of allowing climbers access in exchange for entrance fees. Within another few weeks, I went back down with a handful of my more experienced climbing friends—and some hammer drills.

The property is hardly wilderness: it has been ranched since the late 1800s. But it is remote—and its 29,000 acres are wild. Bear roam the river valley. Bobcat and mountain lion are plentiful. The river is pristine, clear and spring-fed. Its canyon walls are steep and clean. The rock is grey limestone, bullet-hard and tall. The ranch and its seventeen miles of canyon walls easily contain a lifetime of climbing. I thought that if I could just convince this one landowner to let us climb here, the future of Texas climbing would be secure.

That first weekend, a handful of rap-bolted routes went in, just downstream from Painted Canyon. Over the handful of years since, routes have gone in at a clip that, given the ranch's remoteness, I never thought possible. It's now one of Texas's newest sport-climbing crags. You probably have heard of it, or at least read about it. One of the national climbing magazines recently ran a "destination" article about the ranch. Web postings tell the rest of the story: "Come on down to the Pecos." "Bring the drill."

A few months ago, after returning from his latest Pecos River trip, Charlie came over for a beer. I asked him if he'd seen any climbers. He said he hadn't, but he had seen a lot of shiny bolts. As a geologist, Charlie's no stranger to drilling holes in rocks. What he complained about now was the number of bolts. Did they have to put in so many? Were there that many climbers who visited the ranch? From his talks with the ranch owner, he knew that only a relatively small numbers of climbers actually visited. He's not a climber, so he never used the term "grid bolted."

Charlie doesn't think much of climbers now, and we mostly talk about other things. It's not that he's bitter. More surprised. And maybe a little sad. He knows the Pecos River and its cliffs are not his. He also knows that a few bolt lines arguably placed too close together on a remote river wall that few people will ever see pale in comparison to the environmental damage routinely inflicted on the state's natural resources in the name of commerce. But he can't help but notice that a bit of Texas is now a little less wild.

—Jamie McNally, Austin, Texas

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