ROY – She knew it was out there, but the drive through rural, flat northeastern New Mexico made it difficult for Emily Marcacci to believe she and her husband were closing in on a rock climbing mecca.
For miles, Emily, 25, and Mike Marcacci, 29, passed nothing but grassy prairie.
“You don’t even know there’s a canyon,” Emily said. “It’s totally flat.”
“And then you drop in,” the Marcaccis’ friend Ty Tyler finished.
The Marcaccis have been driving around the country for the last year to climb in each state. The San Diego natives are avid sports climbers but are new to outdoor bouldering, which is on its way to becoming a premier attraction for tiny Roy.
Bouldering is a type of rock climbing done without harnesses or ropes. Equipment is mostly limited to crash mats in case of a fall and chalk to get a better grip. Bouldering typically takes place between November and April, when climbers are less likely to lose their bare-handed grips due to perspiration.
Canyons and drainages formed by the Canadian River about 20 miles northwest of Roy have been gaining popularity as a bouldering destination in recent years after being something of a well kept-secret.
The spot has found a national audience, and those responsible for its development say it is even in the early stages of gaining international attention.
Ty and his wife, Linda Tyler, who met the Marcaccis on the road, brought their new friends to explore in and around Mills Canyon, part of the Kiowa National Grassland. The Tylers, who travel around for Ty’s job at the Access Fund, a Colorado-based rock climbing advocacy nonprofit, first visited Roy last year on their honeymoon.
Linda described her experience at the nearby canyon as a “magical, wild, solitude” – at least during the first few days when they were the only ones there.
“It’s so much rock,” Mike said, describing his reaction when he entered a popular bouldering spot nicknamed “The Jumbles” for the first time last week. “It’s amazing.”
The Marcaccis have come across plenty of sandstone during their national tour. Mike said the quality of Roy’s “epic” sandstone boulders live up to the growing hype, mostly because the big rocks remained untouched for so long.
“A lot of times, especially in areas that are very heavily climbed, it’ll be greased up,” he said as the traveling foursome was warming up on some small formations. “With a ton of traffic, it’ll get slicker.”
He said the rock isn’t “chossy,” climber lingo for stone that breaks apart when weight is put on it. Mills Canyon’s boulders also haven’t become too sandy or covered with patina.
The quantity and quality of rock is just part of what has made Roy’s canyon a hit, said Owen Summerscales. The Los Alamos-based science editor, who started coming to Roy not long after he moved to New Mexico in 2012, published the “New Mexico Bouldering” guidebook in mid-2016.
The book provides directions and 300 known “problems,” rock formations that are named and graded on difficulty, out of about 2,000 discovered in Mills or at nearby locations that are reached from access points off of the main canyon.
He said the number of problems in the area could be easily double or triple that.
“It’s potentially one of the biggest bouldering areas (in the U.S.) in terms of numbers,” he said. Within the Canadian River drainage alone, he said, there is an estimated 90 to 120 miles of sandstone rock.
Locals and visiting climbers alike credit the guidebook for the recent surge in the Roy area’s bouldering popularity. Summerscales acknowledged his book has “ramped up” visitation, but he said Roy had already seen a steady increase in boulderers, many from Colorado, over the last four or five years.
While it’s still possible to explore in solitude depending on the particular climb, boulderers like Summerscales say on busy weekends they’ve seen 40 or more cars at popular spots with high concentrations of rocks.
A wild ‘oasis’
Summerscales said he has been surprised at how many climbers are finding their way to Mills Canyon. But not William Penner, who first established Roy as a bouldering spot.
“Once you realize how much rock there is … and you begin to grasp the scale of it, it almost has to be a place that people eventually recognize. But it took a long time.”
The Albuquerque-based climber first began exploring the canyons in 2003. Back then, he was an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service researching early 20th-century floods that wiped out the canyon’s 30,000 fruit trees. The orchard belonged to Melvin Mills, a New Mexico territorial legislator and the canyon’s namesake.
Penner eventually brought friends to see the Roy rocks. Many were reluctant at first, he said.
Like Emily Marcacci, he said, it was difficult for others to believe worthwhile climbing spots could be found out in the flatlands.
As he described it, “It sounds like (you’re telling people), ‘Oh, there’s dragons if you sail off the edge of the world.’ ”
Eventually, he and a core group from Albuquerque began developing, naming and documenting problems. But for six or seven years, the only boulderers were those Penner’s group invited or with whom they shared information. He credits an uptick even before Summerscales’ guidebook to videos and pictures shared on social media.
Penner said he and his friends documented 1,500 problems before the book came out. Summerscales said he used parts of their work to cross-reference his own.
It was never-ending exploration that kept Penner coming back. “It’s highly addictive when you find really quality bouldering where you can find new things every day,” Penner said.
For others, the lure is climbing somewhere that has been and still is relatively secluded.
“It’s just very Wild West,” said Bennett King of Albuquerque, who started visiting Roy after Penner first brought him along about seven years ago.
Aside from the strong quality of the sandstone, the diversity of the rock is also an attraction. King said erosion left the sandstone with unique holds that require different kinds of movement by climbers.
“No problem is identical,” he said.
Summerscales added the Roy boulders’ varying angles and different difficulty levels make them accessible to more climbers. In bouldering, problems are rated on a “V” scale. Roy’s current problems range from the easiest V0s to the difficult V13s.
A place with that range is rare, said Jeremy Fullerton, a professional (thanks to sponsorships) boulderer from, naturally, Boulder, Colo. He said that in other location’s where he has climbed, there’s just one, high-difficulty problem that can take years to master.
Fullerton said he has been visiting Roy since 2016. “Say I want to do 20 boulder problems from V0 to V8; I can’t do that back home,” Fullerton said in a phone interview. “It’s like an oasis for us.”
Embracing the crowds
The wave of out-of-towners drawn to Roy by rocks hasn’t gone unnoticed by the 200-person ranching community situated in the state’s least-populated county.
Many boulderers, like those from Colorado, drive south through Springer and don’t drive on Roy’s main drag. But small-business owners here say they’ve been catering to groups of young, athletic enthusiasts about every weekend for the last few months.
Boulderers on their way to the campgrounds or driving before or after climbing stop for ice and snacks at Roy’s general store, a meal at the village’s only restaurant, or gas and propane at Roy Fuel Stop.
“We do pretty good for such a small outfit,” said Fuel Stop owner Richard Hazen. His gas station is the only one in Harding County, which has a population of about 700. He and other business owners speak highly of the boulderers, calling them a polite crowd.
Lonita’s Cafe owner Dorothy Hazen said climbers now make up about 25 percent of her customers. She said she has served boulderers in their fifties and as young as first grade, and they’ve come from Kansas, Arizona, Texas, California and other states.
And the local businesses want to further connect with the climbing community. Hazen, a Chamber of Commerce board member, said the organization plans to order and sell shirts and stickers that say “Rockin’ Roy.” She also recently informed stores about the supplies that climbers say they wished were sold locally, such as first aid kits and the chalk they put on their hands.
“We’re small, so anything we can capitalize on to get people, we have to jump on it,” she said.
The managers of the Kiowa National Grassland are also establishing a relationship with this growing genre of visitors, according to District Ranger Mike Atkinson. He oversees Kiowa and the Rita Blanca National Grassland in the Texas Panhandle and had his first meeting last week with Summerscales, Penner and Tyler, the Access Fund’s national stewardship director.
He said dialogue helps the Forest Service stay “ahead of the curve” on issues that could arise with more visitors and on understanding climber concerns. Kiowa is also used for hunting, camping and cattle grazing.
With more people coming in, Atkinson wants to mitigate resource damage in the bouldering hotspots and eliminate “user-created” driving routes or trespassing onto private property.
Even as bouldering near Roy becomes more established and mainstream, Penner is still discovering places he has never climbed before. Fifteen years on, he and his buddies are still searching for and conquering the unfamiliar, cheering on whoever makes it to the top first.
“It’s as cool as your imagination wants to be,” Penner said of the area’s possibilities. “It’s multiple lifetimes. …You just have to see it.”