Rock Star

Meet the mountain with an epic rock climbing adventure  

By Jay Foley

As you take in the mountains and serene mesa vistas of Taos County, look closely and you will notice several cliffs dotting this majestic Northern New Mexico landscape.

By now, many of us have seen the motion picture “Free Solo” or “The Dawn Wall” documentary. With these two films gaining traction, the names Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin and Tommy Caldwell are fast-becoming household names, and rock climbing is starting to become a known pursuit. 

When I learned to climb in America in the early 80s, climbing was still a very obscure pursuit and remained that way for decades to follow. It is only recently that the sport of rock climbing is becoming commonly known and understood in America.

Europe has always been ahead of the curve with the popularity and general public knowledge of rock climbing. European “rock star” climbers have been revered since the 70s and can command the popularity, sponsorships, and annual income similar to American football and basketball stars. With American Nathaniel Coleman winning the Olympic silver medal in the first ever sport climbing event in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, perhaps climbing will continue to grow in popularity here as well.

The level of safety attainable in modern rock climbing is commonly misunderstood and most people still think that rock climbing is left up to thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies and risk-takers. This is understandable when films showcase elite, one-of-a-kind climbers and their epic “death-defying” achievements, like climbing without a rope up Yosemite’s El Capitan, the world’s largest monolith of granite! For most professional and expert-level climbers, this is not what typical climbing looks like. 

A day of beginner rock climbing in Taos can be as casual as being roped up for a stroll up a steep mountain trail. Here’s how it works: 

1. Beginner routes are low angle, (not vertical steep walls that require upper body strength) and climbers are equipped with special shoes that stick well to rock surfaces, so you can move upwards by using small steps, the balls of your feet and your legs. 

2. There is always a rope attached to you from an anchor above, and this rope can hold up to 4,000 pounds. 

3. Once you reach the top, or decide to stop, you simply sit back into your harness, which is secured tightly around your body and connected to the rope, and slowly lower back down to the ground. 

Accidents in climbing are rare, are almost always the result of carelessness or ignorance, and are easily avoided with proper attention to detail, quality instruction and guidance. When seeking instruction, it is always a good idea to find a reputable guide service to teach you the basics.

With indoor climbing gyms proliferating throughout major cities in the country, more and more American families are taking up indoor rock climbing as a sport.

The transition from indoor to outdoor climbing can be quite seamless. Many of the techniques used indoors are similar to what you will find outside, and when combining the joy of movement you’ve experienced in the gym with fresh air, dramatic views and a beautiful natural setting, you will have discovered the attraction of outdoor climbing.

Taos County has an incredible variety of rock climbing to offer beginners and experts alike. Taoseños have been enjoying Taos rock since the 1970s. Taos County is home to thousands of outdoor rock-climbing routes, including granite walls that line the road to Red River and the Taos Ski Valley. The Rio Grande Gorge National Monument is festooned with basalt boulders and lined with basalt cliffs on its eastern and western slopes that span over 20 miles, both north and south from the town of Taos.

If you are looking for guidance or expert tips, check out Taos-based Mountain Skills Rock Guides. This international outfit teaches and guides beginners and experts in Taos and locations around the world. For the past 27 years, Mountain Skills has taught outdoor rock climbing to thousands of people including local Taos Pueblo kids, the Zuni Pueblo, university students, the Girl and Boy Scouts of America and visitors alike.

Basic climbing abilities and wilderness leave-no-trace ethics are excellent skills that anyone can learn, and Taos County is a perfect uncrowded place to experience this exciting sport and the magical landscapes of Northern New Mexico.

Nathan Burton/Taos News
Mountain Skills Rock Guides