Hueco Origins: Remembering Todd Skinner

Todd Skinner and Scott Milton. John and Carol Gogas Collection

Todd Skinner and Scott Milton. John and Carol Gogas Collection

By Brad Werntz

As climbers, we play on a timeless playground. The mountains are eternal. When we grab a hold, we touch ancient magma, or the bed of a sea that dried up eons ago. Things—as they are—seem to be exactly as they were handed to us, unchanging and with un-questioned origin. Even when we know this is false, the illusion of the eternal in climbing is so deep we rarely think about it. Though we almost always stand in the long shadows of those who came before, often enough, we fail to recognize them. The bolts we clip seem to have always been there; the trails we walk forever treaded upon. The question of who put them there is not one we often ask ourselves, or even think to ask.

I read a few years back, with some amusement, an article in a major magazine about a trip to the Getu Valley of China, where in 2011 Petzl hosted their annual RocTrip. The author wrote with enthusiasm about the many fantastic routes they found on the Great Arch, marveling at how well equipped they were with modern, Western hardware, and a bit of whimsy, too. One route had a Chinese mask bolted into a hidden location, another, a red flag waving from it. The article asked: Who could have put these there? 

Indeed, who?

In the same vein, there’s been a lot of excitement about the American Alpine Club acquiring the Hueco Rock Ranch, which is the premier wayside for climbers from all over the world when they visit Hueco Tanks. It was at Hueco Tanks Historical Park that the modern sport of bouldering was born. The V-scale that is used worldwide to rate boulder problems was born there as well. Hueco is to bouldering what Yosemite is to traditional climbing, and every climber should make at least one pilgrimage to Hueco. Many over the years have stayed at the famous Hueco Rock Ranch.

Todd, Amy, Carol, and John. John and Carol Gogas Collection

Todd, Amy, Carol, and John. John and Carol Gogas Collection

As the Hueco Rock Ranch transitions from its most recent incarnation to the next, it seems appropriate to remember that it did not just simply rise from the desert any more than the bolts on the Great Arch of Getu placed themselves. As it turns out, the Hueco Rock Ranch and the Great Arch share something—or rather, someone—in common: Todd Skinner. Todd placed the bolts, the mask, and the flag in the Getu Valley, and he built the house that became the Hueco Rock Ranch as well.

The house itself was the final establishment in a series of ever-improving versions of the “Hueco Camp,” as Todd called it. Starting in the early 1980’s, Todd spent a major portion of the winter season at Hueco Tanks, at first in the campground, and sometimes as a guest of Pete Quonset’s hut. Later, he rented apartments or houses in El Paso that he shared with a rag-tag band of itinerant climbers. Paul Piana lived in one of these, boarded up like Harry Potter in a closet beneath the staircase. He closed his door on the rest of us as we spread out nightly over every square-inch of available carpet, covering the floor with semi-washed bodies and our greasy fart-sacks.

Amy Skinner, Carol Gogas, Sandra Studer. John and Carol Gogas Collection

Amy Skinner, Carol Gogas, Sandra Studer. John and Carol Gogas Collection

By 1991, Todd had another vision of what would be. He and Amy Whisler joined Carol and John Gogas in purchasing a plot of land adjacent to Hueco Tanks. They were going to build a “palace,” he said. It would comfortably sleep 16 or more without a single body on the floor. It would have several full bathrooms so nobody would wait in line, or—for that matter—have an excuse to remain unwashed. The kitchen and the common area would be a gathering space around which the whole house was based. Most importantly, he added, the house would have no right angles. “We’d build it round if we could make it work,” Todd said.

For months, he carried around 4×6” stills of the work in progress. Todd pulled out the stack of photos for anyone who would lend an ear. Leaning in close to point out the details, he would say, “This is the foundation being poured…And here the walls are going up,” and, always, he shared a picture of Hueco Tanks at sunset, “This will be the view from the porch!”

Every aspect of the house was thought through for communal living. For instance, they put no doors on the cupboards, so that guests could tell at a glance if they had left something behind as they were packing to leave. The floors were bare concrete so that they would be easy to clean, and also to discourage people from sleeping on them. The house was built around the kitchen, because there was always a hired cook there to keep order. The tree in the kitchen came from the Gogas’ yard; when they installed it during the middle of winter, hundreds of hibernating ants suddenly awoke and invaded the new space.

Rooms were private, semi-private, and bunkhouse style. The original investors—Todd, Amy, John, and Carol—had their own rooms. Scott Milton and Sandra Studer earned a permanent, private space with their labor on behalf of the house, which long after it was “completed,” remained an ongoing construction project. On rest-days, just about every guest there found themselves dry-walling, painting, sawing or hammering something, or running errands on behalf of the community in the house. Frankly, it was expected that visitors contribute not just dollars or food to the place, but also time as well. Todd knew that the natural order of things was attrition, so to fight this he sought to instill a culture of constant improvement. 

Fred Nicole, Scott Milton, and Todd Skinner. John and Carol Gogas Collection

Fred Nicole, Scott Milton, and Todd Skinner. John and Carol Gogas Collection

There is absolutely no end to the stories of climbing history, household hilarity, and chaos that happened in that house:

Late one evening, Fred Nicole showed up after traveling directly from Europe. The next day, both jet-lagged and hung-over, he onsighted almost every project that the crew had been working on, saying casually and quietly in his heavy accent, “Yes, that is V11; this is V12…” 

Scott Milton could —and probably still can—fold his body up to fit into an average-sized Rubbermaid container. He did this one day as Bobbi Bensman arrived; our crew acted distracted and busy. Todd incidentally turned to Bobbi, “Hey Bobbi, can you hand us a hammer from out of that box?” As she reached into the box she discovered Milton with her fingertips. Legend has it that Bobbi’s latte did three full flips in the air before hitting the floor, but long before that the dust from her car had disappeared down the road.

In the house, there was almost always an unfortunate cat named Stumpy, but it was hardly ever the same cat. The original Stumpy lost her tail to a car, and likely lost her life to coyotes. Stumpy Mark II, Stumpy Mark III, and Stumpy Mark IV almost invariably suffered similar fates, but not always. One morning, we were in the kitchen as two well-fed coyotes came walking out of the desert near the back porch. Amy instinctively asked, “Where’s Stumpy?” And at that moment, we watched the cat—Mark III or Mark IV, I’m not sure which—walk out the front door. “Oh Lord!” Amy exclaimed as she chased after the cat into the desert, trying to scoop her up before the coyotes did. The rest of us fanned out of every door to chase the coyotes off, tossing rocks at them as they snarled back at us. 

All the while, climber’s relationships with the Hueco Tanks State Historical Park grew increasingly strained. Ranger Bob imposed arbitrary restrictions, making access to the park ever more difficult and absurd. When the Access Fund and others commissioned a study to catalog the Native American rock-art in the park and discovered that there were thousands more petroglyphs than originally believed—many of which had faded to the point of being almost invisible over time. But the writing was literally on the wall and things would change at Hueco forever. It was time to close the Hueco Camp.

Todd, Amy, Carol, and John sold the house to the crew that would turn it into the “Hueco Rock Ranch”. It operated as this for about ten years. Most of us never went back to Hueco after that, although recently this has changed. While the experience may be a bit different, the rock is just the same.

In the last few years of his life, Todd worked on projects the world over, many of which he never reported. He wanted to be the Fred Beckey of his generation, grabbing all of the world’s plum lines from current and future climbing generations. He wanted to pound pitons and place anchors where nobody had ever been and where they likely would never go for some time. If only, as an old man, he could then giggle at reported “first ascents” that were slightly marred by the discovery of gear left behind by “unknown others.”

Though he left Hueco behind, he did leave something for all of us: The Hueco Rock Ranch—now a part of the American Alpine Club holdings—will contribute to the sport of climbing for generations. And Todd would have liked this. In the end, he probably said this best in his own words:

“My own Hueco era comes to an end. That climbers are now arriving in search of something different is to be expected, and that my version of paradise is lost does not make their own less glorious.”

About the Author: Brad Werntz has been climbing on rocks and mountains worldwide for thirty-six years. He is the president of PEMBAserves Inc, a sales agency that represents Petzl along with other brands to the outdoor industry, and along with Todd Skinner and several others he is also the founder of Boulders Climbing Gym in Madison, WI. He lives and climbs with his wife and three kids in Madison.