New Stone Age
What possesses people to challenge every muscle in their bodies, stretching and straining to achieve a toehold or fingerhold in a crack on the face of a cliff? Is it the quest for superhuman fitness, or perhaps the fashion statement made by climbing harnesses, helmets and other gear? For 30-year-old Lee Brinckerhoff, rock-climbing enthusiast and a manager at Albuquerque’s Stone Age Climbing Gym, the appeal lies in breaking through mental and physical barriers – and seeing other people do the same.
“I enjoy a passion for the sport and for climbing country, especially on-site climbing,” says Brinckerhoff. On-site ascent means the climber starts at the bottom of a route he or she has never touched before (and has not learned about through guidebooks, word of mouth, or other means) and climbs to the top without falling off. Sounds simple? Well, more accurate words would be “strenuous” and “grueling.” A climber must have the strength, balance and agility of a gymnast, along with plenty of smarts and calm nerves to be able to manage the belaying rope – a climber’s only insurance against plunging to the ground from whatever height he or she has managed to reach. It helps to be able to hold on to a crevice above your head using just your fingertips to support your own weight for however long it takes to maneuver to the next crevice or ledge where you can hold on.
Brinckerhoff says there are highs that keep climbers in love with climbing. “Sometimes, you will just do a certain sequence of moves and it just flows perfectly together,” he says. “There are times you climb also where you feel like you do things that should be hard, but everything feels easy. That feeling is pretty amazing. You’ll have it for a few hours or a few days. Everything kind of clicks, the weather is beautiful, you’re climbing with your partner who you’re working with really well, and everything just happens and just runs smoothly. It makes you want to keep doing climbs so you can feel it another time.” He points out that such an experience is part mastery, but part good luck. “It’s not like a specific partner makes that magical experience happen – you can have that with any person you get along with. It’s that relationship and weather and the route and just how everything throughout the day happens.” Many dedicated climbers report that during an ascent, their minds are freed of stresses and everyday concerns. The sheer difficulty and concentration involved in this sport can transport the climber to a different world. Like Calgon, only harder.
New Mexico just happens to offer more than 120,000 square miles of climbing terrain – plenty of opportunity for those who wish to be transported in this way. A variety of rocks include basalt, granite, sandstone and limestone. Bouldering, a type of free climbing done in challenging places without ropes and with the goal of moving up just a few feet off the ground, can be had at Box Canyon near Taos, the Enchanted Tower near Socorro, Cochiti Mesa, White Rock and in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness, to give only a few examples. Traditional rock climbers or sport climbers – who usually climb in teams and use ropes, anchors, and other special equipment – tackle routes in the Organ Mountain range above Las Cruces; steep limestone cliffs near Alamogordo; and granite cliffs at Très Piedras. There’s also Cimarron Canyon State Park, Diablo Canyon, El Rito Crags. The list goes on and on.
Brinckerhoff regularly travels to get his climbing fix in places like Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite high country as well as in Spain, France and Japan. However, staying closer to home has become more alluring since the arrival of Brinckerhoff’s ten and a half month-old son, Dylan. Brinckerhoff adjusted his schedule at Stone Age to be able to work evenings and work from home so he can be a stay-at-home dad. He and his wife (they met on a climb in 2003) try to climb together outside every week if possible, and climb in the gym at least once a week. They also travel. “This summer we met some friends and climbed at Elk Calf Mountain,” Brinckerhoff says. “We just came back from Yosemite and Tahoe.” The trips have become shorter, and family has a greater influence on their plans. Brinckerhoff says his in-laws came along on the Elk Calf trip to spend some time with their grandchild, and that was a win-win situation – while they were thrilled to baby-sit, the other grownups could log daily climbing time.
The Sandias are far and away Brinckerhoff’s favorite place when he wants to climb while staying local. “I wouldn’t quite say the area is largely untapped, but it has a lot of potential if you’re willing to put in the effort,” he explains. In officially designated wilderness areas, you can’t use a power drill. You have to hit the back of a chisel with a hammer and slowly chip crystals away, which takes about an hour per bolt, if you are strong and have carpentry experience. Brinckerhoff explains that the vast majority of the climbing community doesn’t manufacture holds, but believes in placing bolts in the rock to make a route safe for people to climb. Rock-climbing ethics vary in different places around the world from “thou shalt not alter the rock in any way” to the other extreme, which is clipping with drill or chisel to make the rock easier or using cement to fill in and form hand and toe holds. “Some people try to put up a route with a minimum of protection, resulting in a climb which even at a low level of difficulty might be extremely dangerous,” says Brinckerhoff, who has created routes in the Sandias, Diablo Canyon, Colorado, and other places. “Sometimes the point is to make a statement about ability, rather than give back to the climbing community. I prefer to put up routes that are fun and safe at whatever difficulty level applies.”
What does this adventuresome climber find really cool? “When I watch someone who’s really pushing himself or herself on a climb, fighting to get up something, and they do it – that is cool,” he says. It must be why he likes to help coach Stone Age’s climbing team when they need a special class or another person on a climb, and why he enjoys setting routes for the climbing gym’s annual competition for members, the Yank-n-Yard. “The person feels good, and you feel good, and because they’re trying so hard, they’re going to improve. Seeing someone get that much satisfaction out of something I love, feels great. On the other hand, it’s really tough seeing someone give up on something that I feel they can do. When a climber thinks they’re not that good, and they give up, the opportunity to break through their barriers is lost.”
Brinckerhoff grew up in California and attended college in Colorado, where he majored in math and minored in history. He says, “You could say my second major was climbing.” He worked for a remodeling construction company, “the easy thing that allowed me to climb a lot during school,” and also used to work for a mail-order company that sold climbing supplies, which he says was “a far better practical education than any college could have been.”
When he talks about New Mexico, Brinckerhoff says he really likes the climbing community here. He describes it as the largest, yet tightest community that he has ever been a part of. He thinks New Mexico is beautiful, but having grown up in the Bay area, he also thinks it’s overly hot, so he makes a point of traveling and climbing to cooler spots. No matter which state or country he visits, Brinckerhoff has been a climber for so long that he almost always runs into people he knows. “I’ll see people I climbed with in college at Yosemite, people I know from previous climbs even in Europe and Japan,” he says. Then there’s the celebrity factor. Even if he doesn’t recognize someone, sometimes they’ll insist they know him, anyway, because they recognize him from his image that appeared years ago in his then-employer’s mail-order catalog.
Just when you might be thinking that internationally recognized celebrity stuff sounds pretty glamorous, Brinckerhoff pauses to trade tips about different diaper rash creams with a doctor – the father of infant twins – who stops by the climbing gym and says hello. They each share their experience with diaper rash, diet and child development. Brinckerhoff says his son is currently going through a seal-like stage, building pectorals and triceps, using his arms and shoulders to pull himself around. He yells out, “Walgreens!” as a final helpful hint before the doctor disappears across the parking lot.
Stone Age Climbing Gym is located at 4201 Yale Ave NE in Albuquerque, 505.314.2016, www.climbstoneage.com. Open weekdays noon to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The other full climbing gym in New Mexico is the Santa Fe Climbing Center at 825 Early Street, 505.986.8944. www.climbsantafe.com.
story by Jeanette Alt Romero
photos by Todd Young