By Philip Simon
I was involved in a great deal of the development at Box Canyon and the Enchanted Tower between 1980 and 1988, my years at New Mexico Tech. We climbed a great deal there, neglecting our formal studies, and checked out rock all over the place. I first learned technical climbing from Erik Hufnagel, who wrote the Box Canyon Guide pamphlet. I later climbed mostly with him and the late Bertrand Gramont. Bert upped the climbing to a new level, and introduced bolting. Before this time of expanded development, there were just a few routes - the only one I know of is the Red Wall at Box.
My biggest regret from the time I was hiking, climbing, and mining in New Mexico is that I never made it out to the Great Potato. We had eventually developed most of the walls at the Box, so we wanted to find some new rock. We scouted Ladron Peak, Monticello Box, Salado Box, Vics Peak, San Lorenzo Canyon, Tinaja Arroyo (granite to NE of Socorro) among others, but there was not much to climb, or the approaches were very long. Still, these are beautiful places. I finally suggested the "Great Potato" near Mt. Withington. I saw a picture of it in some geology text, so Bert and I went out to find it in his beat up, smoky old white Ford. We went south from Highway 60 on the Mt. Withington road to where we could see the far yonder Magnificent Spud. Clearly that was it, a blocky vertical tower of brown tuff perhaps 300 feet high, with obvious pockets and big huecos, the all seeing eyes of Mt. Ore Ida. The problem was that it was so far away, and we could not find a road to get closer. I estimated that it was 4 hours hike, one way. I tried to convince Bert to go there overnight on the next weekend, but the stalwart Frenchman had an aversion to "horizontal climbing". Besides, he had news of a "mushroom rock" reported by a Forest Ranger in Thompson Canyon of the Datil Mountains. Soon, the Land of Enchantment had a new pivot point for its spirit wheel dream catcher, the Enchanted Tower.
I went with Bert for the discovery trip to the Tower of the Datil Mts, in said canyon, and suggested the name "Enchanted Tower". We also thought about calling it the "Tower of Babel". I suggested that the routes all have fairy tale names, as this continued a tradition of Erik's from the recently developed Sea Monster Wall at Box, with the good climbs Kraken and Grendel. Bert thought that was a fruity idea for some tough guy climbers to use fairy tale names, but then you should have seen this guy's spandex tights! Bert was not very enthusiastic about the place on that first trip. Being about 5'2", it was hard for him to get a start anywhere on the wall. He hardly even touched it, and thought it looked crumbly. I went with Erik there in Late February on a good sunny day, and we both loved it, patches of snow and all. We returned to the Tower ASAP, and started top roping on my suggested route, Golden Stairs (named after the line from Rapunzel). After a couple weekends, I had made it past the crux, and Erik was close behind. We bragged to Bert about how great it was, so he had to give it a go too. After getting my Beta, Bert made a stack of rocks so he could reach the first hold! Uncharacteristically, he fell from near the crux section, but made it later in the day. He complained of cold fingers from the March weather. Eventually, Bert added hand drilled bolts from top rope, and red pointed the route. I finally led the route too, because of Bert’s “encouragement”, my hardest lead ever at 5.12a. I was more of a follower. We had found our climbing Nirvana. Bert bought a Bosch power drill to put up routes more easily. That summer, our informal group, including “Cooch” Don Goodhew, and Noel Rogers supported Bert in his first ascents of Looking Glass and other routes, and I think it was Fall before Bert finished Zee Wicked Witch. (he could not pronounce the word "the"). I was proud to have been the first to have worked out the moves in a brutal layback lower down, a new start onto the Tower’s most forbidding face. (I think the current Wicked Witch route bypasses this layback. It is possible someone carved some holds. Please don’t carve holds at the Enchanted Tower!)
In the days and weeks that followed, the charm and easy access there led to many fine lines, and the other, T’uber Tower was soon forgotten. But in the back of my mind, even after all these years, I still remember that Greatest of Potatoes, and wonder what mysteries it guards in its vast Spudlyness. To the new generation of climbers, routes such as “Potato clips” or “Mashed fingers” await, but if I had a chance to name a climb there, it would of course be called “French Fried” in honor of our perpetual friend, the late Bertrand Gramont.
We still climbed at the Box when the weather was worse, or we had less time. I was surprised that Bert extensively developed a wall behind box canyon off the Luis Lopez Manganese Mine road that took a bit of hiking. The best route Bert named “Frog Prince”. It sounded like Frog Piss when Bert said it. The climb was named for the frogs that were found there in some of the wet pockets. He blew out a finger (tendonitis) from working some tiny one finger pockets there. I went on some of those rides too, and my fingers started to hurt bad also. I liked the big pockets of the Tower better. Those were great climbing days, and I loved the beauty and clean air of the Datil Mountains.
Another good place in Box is the Sea Serpent wall. When Erik showed it to me, I said, “no way man, you must be kidding.” It is very cracked up, but somehow quite solid. It is a great top rope place about half way up the slope, somewhere above the streambed traverse in the North end, West side of the box. Erik’s find of this wall got us to look for more climbs near by, and lower down, and a bit North is one of my favorite small walls with one great route up a nearly blank wall. The climb starts in the ruin of a pueblo cliff dwelling. A bit further south at the same level are better remains of some walls, including preserved cedar timbers. Erik said that there had been a mano (hand stone) along with the metate (a stone grinding plate) at the base of this climb, and we both looked for it, but it was gone. Erik found some of the best arrowheads that I have seen nearby, of fine black obsidian that is not found in New Mexico. They were well worked and one was complete. Erik left them on top of the metate, so everyone could enjoy them. This climb is such a classic. It was hard to reach the first good hold, and I am 6’2, so I moved the metate about a yard left, and the first move became a step off of the durable Puebloan metate, after moving the arrowheads aside. The climb requires a big dyno move so far to the right that you have to have your left hand in a pocket that is on your right to set it up. All the early moves leading up to this point have to be in the opposite hand of what you would want, and you end up in some terribly awkward crossed positions. You have to move fast, because all the early moves are so sustained. It is more like kung fu than climbing. It was a couple of days after we both made this climb on top rope that Erik came up with a name both appropriate and cunning. He christened it Metate Karate. I was truly impressed! It was rock head poetry, summing up everything about this climb, that is a journey through time, as well as space.
Erik and I had to use our advantages against the formidable climbing skills of Bertrand, in the great challenge of vexing him with a climb that we could do, but he could not. Our only advantage was height and reach, so Metate Karate was a prime candidate for some good voodoo vexing of our little friend and co sufferer. I climbed the route to give the all important reverse sequence beta. Bert could not reach the high start holds, so first try I lifted him up. He then piled up more rocks futher back in the alcove, and used intermediate holds that I could not stick at all. Maybe I was too tall for this, but I was impressed. It was with glee that we soon witnessed the repeated falls of the supplicant, accompanied by much cursing in French. The better part of two days he spent, and still could not send it to the Karate heaven, or was it hell? Had we finally succeeded in producing a Bert proof route? Would this be our holy grail and Metate Sanctuary forever enshrined in local Lore like the miniature Shrine to dead miners in the valley next door? It seemed to be my church.
Even after making the crux lunge, Bert kept falling off higher up, and like most of my favorite climbs, the crux didn’t matter much, it was the sustained drain and lack of any good stances that made the easy 5.5 moves near the top the real crux. Imagine Bert’s fury, falling repeatedly from easy moves. At the very end, you have to turn a bulge to a ledge, when your arms feel dead. It couldn’t be any harder than 5.7, but it is the real crux of this 5.11d route. I had actually used a chin hold the first time to ease a few pounds off so I could slime my way over this bulge, a most ungracious maneuver. I even snagged the button of my shorts to temporarily relieve a few ounces during sagging back. Bert was so vexed by his failure that it seemed to depress him a bit, and I wondered if we had done Right, so we made light of it all, saying how hard we had worked as his Scouts to give him a real bad problem, tailor made just for him. Off to the Capital Bar then, for some beer and refreshing spirits.
I could not accompany the crew for Bert’s next attempt at Karate, now a grand Spectacle. The returning fans were flocked around the successful Capital Crusader, but Bert was still a bit cowed, seeing as how he fell so many times on this wrongfully biased endeavor, fiendishly concocted to bedevil him, even with Beta. Like the good friend he was, he congratulated us on putting up such a good line, and that our skills were indeed improving. I asked Erik privately how Bert had done on that final move, and found out that he had gotten stuck in that slime move for nearly 15 minutes, unable to advance, but unwilling to admit defeat so close to victory. A Titanic struggle for a diminutive cursing sailor, fabled Popeye, forearms bursting, thus reduced to a slug like state, where the rotten summit was a relief, not a triumph.
Next Installment: Toprope climbs…Trails to ruins…the warm springs wall...butterfly petroglyph tinaja…puebloan pottery…Arm Alarm…Todd Skinner’s visit.
The air. That’s my best memory of the place. Standing on the summit behind the tower looking west toward the Divide. The breezes would come in gentle gusts. In between, the still air would smell of the hot dry rocks and the pine needles baking in the sun. The breezes were cool and clean, fresh from the Divide, rich with the scents of the living pines. It was as if the forest itself was breathing. Down below, the pinging. Above, the turning of vulture feathers in the wind. Now, the reveries end, a voice on the wind calling “Feel”. It was my name.
Feet come to life, shattering the stillness of the mountain slopes with the crashing of rock. A million crystals shattered to slow one foots’ hurried descent. Danger, loose rock on the cliff tops. I pause, the rock smoke and lichen dust overtaking me, to gaze out upon the Tower. An uplifting of spirits stirs me, and like the ancient tides of rock that shattered these mountains, I funnel down through a break in the cliffs toward the voice attached to the body attached to the rope attached to the hooks and fresh bolts on the side of the Tower, it is my companion, the Fly. “Feel, where the ‘ell ‘ave you bean? Zee climb, she is ready.”
This is The Tower, the Enchanted Tower of the Datil Mountains, New Mexico. A relict of powerful explosions that ripped apart the mountains, blending the different rocks together like a volcanic fruit cake. It is a pyroclastic (fire broken) flow with a matrix of welded andesitic porphry. Many of the angular nodules within the rock are made of pumice or softer rock that erodes to form beautiful pockets. One finger pockets are the most common, but larger pockets abound, often with handy lips. On this hulking prow of rock, best described as an inverted pyramid, you need all the help you can get. It is 150 feet high, and overhung by up to 50 feet. To climb it is a race against time, arms burning as if stung by wasps, the wall unrelenting in its triumphant arch. And yet, the moves are really easy. Every square foot has a pocket or two, calling out to be your friend. If you stop to wonder what might be hidden in there, you’ll never make it. Surprisingly few have much fauna, as the gritty desert winds scrub them as clean as a bowling ball. Some have their own little lakes that freeze up in winter, making for interesting hand holds. Bertrand once tricked me into trying a little overhanging boulder problem. The crux move was a two finger pocket – complete with its own two fingered bat. The hold was somewhat furry and wiggly, but I made the climb anyway to avoid falling on my head.
The ratings at the Tower are unlike anywhere else I have been. On a climb like Golden Stairs, 5.12a, a real classic, the hardest single move would only be a 5.7 if it were closer to the ground. Climbs are rated by the overall burn. A 5.12a means continuous overhang where nearly every move is 5.7. A mid length 5.12d like Humpty Dumpty presents sequential 5.10 moves with an easy 5.11 for a high crux. The climbing is surprisingly mental, which provides much delight in watching your partners fall off from sequences where you must start with crossed arms. Beta is everything. It is usually too steep to see your feet, so you have to remember where the good pockets are as you climb by. You can seldom put much weight into your feet, and often you must pull upward with your toes to keep from hinging out. Hands turn numb under the added strain, even with the big mouth bass huecos to cling to.
The best thing about climbing at the Tower is that it is a great place to fall. Even a top rope fall can present a chilling pendulum out over the void, especially from low on the Tower. Here we learned to fall with grace. Points are awarded for flying poise, Superman style. All climbs are bolted. A neck of rock connects the Tower to the cliffs behind, so two rope topropes can be set up from the summit, and you can walk down – far preferable to a 150 foot free rappel! Enjoy.