Climbing season is upon us and many Durangoans are making the trek down south to climb in our neighboring state of New Mexico. Just north of Espanola and east of Abiquiu, New Mexico, the historic Spanish settlement town of El Rito offers sport climbing of the unique “cobble” variety. Made up of a conglomerate matrix filled with interesting textures of rounded features with corresponding pockets and differential rock types of all sizes, the walls of El Rito are somewhat reminiscent of cobblestone streets (to put it simply).
Similar to Maple Canyon in Utah, El Rito’s cobble climbing take a little getting used to. From below, the cobbles appear to be decent holds (or jugs for that matter) when in actuality, you’ll often find polished slopers devoid of a positive surface to grip. The tendency is to then test (or desperately grasp at) several holds before landing on the “right” one.
Add in the differential rock types (granite, gneiss, schist, sandstone and quartzite) that make up the cobble formations and you end up with extremely varied holds from one move to the other. Unlike most climbing areas consisting of primarily the same type of rock and friction, El Rito’s routes offer everything from polished granite river rocks to sticky sandstone. For those new to the cobble scene, this means you‘ll likely exert far more energy testing out several holds before moving onward and upward.
Other holds consist of pockets that reside in the matrix where cobbles have since vacated the premises (read: one should also watch for loose rock when pulling down on cobbles!). The pockets certainly lend more options for getting up the route, but can sometimes have extremely sharp edges so delicate fingers take heed.
All that being said, El Rito offers some of the best climbing New Mexico has to offer with ample camping amid ample ponderosas, but with minimal crowds. Here’s some general beta on the town of El Rito, cobble climbing technique and route recommendations. Climb on!
1. Getting there: El Rito is located about 180-miles southeast of Durango and 12 miles northeast of Abiquiu, N.M., off U.S. Highway 84. From Abiquiu, take N.M. Highway 554 about 12 miles to El Rito. From El Rito, take Forest Service Road 44 for 3.75 miles and park at the spur.
2. Camping: Free camping is allowed along the spur road. There are no public bathrooms so PLEASE be a responsible camper and PACK IT OUT! For more info, check out this article on waste disposal strategies for climbers from the Access Fund.
3. Cobble Tech Tip #1: Avoid grabbing for too many cobbles and go with your first choice whenever possible. This eliminates over-exerting yourself and will better set you up for success down the line.
4. Cobble Tech Tip #2: Avoid over-gripping. This proved a natural reaction for me while getting accustomed to the one-too-many-choices-of-cobbled-holds. El Rito is generally well protected, so relax and pay closer attention to your footwork instead.
5. Route Selection: Try Schoolhouse Wall for well-protected beginner routes or Super Slab for longer routes ranging from 5.9 – 5.11. Both are south facing walls offering good morning sunlight for colder temps.
6. A Few of the Classics: Scurvy Dog, 5.9 – located on the Pirate Wall, this is probably the best 5.9 climb El Rito has to offer (2.5 stars). Cobble Wobble, 5.10c – one of the best routes in El Rito located on the Big Pine Wall = sustained pumpiness.
7. Traditional Climbing: Further up the road is a 100m monolithic cliff that offers less steep, moderate “trad” routes perfect for those hoping to improve his or her multi-pitch technique.
8. Access: The Trad Area is subject to seasonal closures due to Peregrine Falcon nesting so be sure to check with the El Rito Rangers before planning your visit: El Rito Ranger District – Phone: (505) 581-4554.
9. Dining: Check out El Farolito, serving authentic New Mexican-style food in downtown El Rito. The food and service is AMAZING and it definitely won’t break the bank. Plan accordingly: this tiny adobe style restaurant typically closes shop around 7pm and does not accept credit or debit!
10.Locals: In addition to bears and rattlesnakes, El Rito is home to cattle (and the ranchers who steer them) that don’t take too kindly to folks driving too fast on the dirt roads surrounding the climbing areas. As always, leave no trace and be respectful!
Disclaimer: Climbing is an inherently dangerous sport. Seek professional training before attempting to climb. Know before you go and don’t put yourself into a situation over your head. Have fun and be safe!