Climbing During A Pandemic - A Hueco Tanks Blog by Athlete Joe Czerwinski
Joe Czerwinski on “Sunshine” V11 in East Mountain
The pandemic has changed the lives of everyone, and many of the stories and situations are negative. Social distancing, face masks, elbow bumps, no school……. What happened? My family was no different when it came to the pandemic and making changes.
Each of my three daughters had to make a decision about how they wanted to attend school this year. Two of my girls chose to return to in-person classes when they became available. So while school was still closed, they had zoom classes every hour, meetings with teachers, and a bunch of accountability. My climber kid, Lilly, decided to stay online and go to Chandler Online Academy. This means she has no zoom classes, no teacher meetings-- only has to connect to wifi to do her homework, turn it in at the end of the week, and log attendance.
I started thinking- WE COULD GO CLIMBING! But we are in a pandemic...How? Where?
Living in the Southwest and a climber of 27 years, Hueco Tanks has always been our winter go-to crag. I became a commercial guide for Hueco Tanks 3 years ago since I was spending too much paying guides for private tours just so I could go climbing with my friends. Now, I have an easy way to take my daughter out climbing in the back country without anyone else on our tour. With Hueco as the plan, I contacted Gleatherland- a nearby property with yurts and RV’s for rent while staying and climbing at Hueco and a place we have stayed many times before.
Thinking of being sensitive to pandemic conditions (El Paso was starting to explode with COVID cases at this time in early Nov.), I made reservations for the NOMAD, one of the larger trailers. This trailer made the trip possible, Lilly had her own space to spread out and do homework, and I was able to stay on top of operations for my gym, Focus Climbing Center. Armed with an obscene amount of hand sanitizer and face masks we left PHX. We stuffed as much foam as we could carry, and groceries/snacks for every meal, every single day into my truck. Eliminating the need to go into ELP for any food or supplies throughout our trip.
Lily prepping meals in the NOMAD
We went to Hueco for about two weeks before Thanksgiving, and everything was empty. Gleatherland had one other car while we were there, and the park was a ghost town. No lines at the front gate, no cars at HQ, and maybe 4-5 cars at Pond Parking. While we were climbing, I would hear radio traffic of 2-3 other tours out climbing. It wasn't until the weekend before Thanksgiving that we actually saw another tour in the backcountry. Seeing another human besides my daughter at this time was quite exciting.
Our typical day started around 6:50am- then heading out the door to drive into the park by 8:20am. Again, no cars at the front gate, and no line at HQ. The park HQ streamlined commercial tours for checking in, so there was very little personal contact with the rangers or other climbers while checking in for tours. From HQ, we would drive to either the front side of East Mtn, or the East Spur, only to find empty parking lots. It was the start of the high season at Hueco, and there was NO ONE THERE.
We would load up our pads- each of us would carry two- and we would head out for the day. While out on the rock, we never had to wait for another tour to leave the spot we wanted to go as we had the park to ourselves. In fact, one afternoon we went in to try and take down a project. As we drove by HQ, the park ranger who took our tour form said “keep an eye out there for us, you two are the only ones on the mountain.” I have never seen the birthplace of American bouldering empty. In a way, it was eerily awesome.
How is Hueco so empty? One, the self-guided mountain (North Mtn) only allows for 70 people per day, so no massive crowds. If you want to see the other 2.5 mountains, you must hire or arrange for a guide to take you out on tour. Most guides head to Hueco for the winter to climb and make money guiding by taking out tours of 6-10 people. With the pandemic, guides are only taking out select friends/family. Without the opportunity to make an income this season, many guides haven’t even shown up.
What about the climbing?- because this is what we really want to hear about. Most of the days we were chilling in jeans and a hoody. The sun was warm, and shady rock would get chilly as soon as your climbing shoes were off. Overall, great temps for sending without freezing. Lilly had an exhaustive list of mega classic test pieces: Eckstein, Full Service, Sunshine, Glas Roof, Bushleague, and The Egg were some of the problems she wanted to tick off. For me, I wanted to climb on some new problems without getting stuck chucking laps for 2 weeks. I’ve climbed in this park for 12 years over the past 20 , and have eaten most/all the low hanging fruit in the park. Most of what I have left to climb are problems not suited to my style, problems above my ability zone, or anything new that I haven't seen. Needless to say, I still have a lot to do.
Lily Czerwinski on “Full Service” V10 in East Mountain
Since I have been there so much, I would let Lilly pick the spot to climb that day, then we would head out. Most of the problems she wanted to climb were really hard for her, so there isn’t much progress at times. As a climber of 27 years, I love watching Lilly work on her projects. Systematically going after each individual move with focus and determination until she would get it. If she was getting shut down, her relentless attack of the move would not stop until she felt “progress”, which could be the slightest of movements within a move. Sometimes negativity would take over, and I was not sure she would pull out of it. But sure enough, she finds that sliver of hope which keeps her going, finding a way to keep believing in what seems impossible.
Joe Czerwinski on ‘Gatecrasher”, a recent Jason Kehl addition in West Mountain
I noticed a dramatic difference in her climbing and mine, and I don’t know when this change in me happened, but it did happen. I have forgotten how to project. I have forgotten how to try hard, and be OK with not getting a move. I have grown into a climber that is very impatient and intolerant of my own lack of execution, especially when I am trying at my limit. It makes me lose perspective on what I’m there for, and what I’m trying to accomplish and provide for my kid.
Separately, I am thankful to spend so much one-on-one time with her that I would never have if life was “normal”. All of the small jokes and conversations that would take place throughout the day are things I never get at home- only because we are living in a trailer for 2 weeks. Getting to see her grow as a climber and learn about life was an invaluable experience that a classroom could not provide. Going out to climb, appreciating where we were, and the beauty and history around us, was something we will have long after this pandemic is gone.
BIO- Joe has called himself a climber for almost 3 decades and has been part of the Mad Rock Climbing family for over 15 years. He shares his passion for climbing through his bouldering gym, Focus Climbing Center, which he opened in 2013. His love for the sport is only matched by that of his family.