The Southwest Shuts Down

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Picture courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Summer is fire season in the southwest, and we're getting pounded. This year, half a dozen wildfires have ravaged over 1,300 square miles—an area nearly the size of Rhode Island—in New Mexico and Arizona alone. Two blazes are burning within miles of Santa Fe, and a thick miasma of smoke has settled more or less permanently over the mountains.

But if it's a bad summer to be a tree here, it's only a marginally better one to be a climber. Even in places nowhere near the conflagrations, bone-dry conditions across the southwest have forced the closure of large swaths of national forest—bad news for climbers in a region where the most popular spots lie on Forest Service land. Add to that the summer heat, which makes low-lying areas too hot to climb, and the multi-million acre shutdown is leaving many with nowhere to go.

Like the wildfires, the current crop of closures hit Arizona first. On June 9, the Forest Service shut the gates to the Coronado National Forest near Tucson, home to Cochise Stronghold and Mt. Lemmon. Mt. Lemmon's closure hit locals especially hard: the 9,157-foot-high peak is one of the few places in southern Arizona cool enough to climb in the summer, and contains some 1,500 sport and trad routes.

“I'd definitely hate to see the forest go up in flames,” Tucson climber Joe Kreidel told Dead Point Magazine earlier this month. “But I'm pretty bummed about the closure, it's unfortunate for all the climbers and hikers and everybody who goes up there during the summer to escape the heat.”

New Mexico isn't faring any better. The list of areas closed so far reads like a climber's atlas for the state: Cochiti Mesa, the Sandias, Pecos, the bouldering areas of the Jemez. This Thursday, the Carson National Forest closed, taking the cobblestone sport routes of El Rito, the granite cragging of Tres Piedras, and the long, scenic trad lines of Questa Dome with it. The many volcanic crags clustered on county land around Los Alamos are out too, courtesy of the Las Conchas fire raging at the town's outskirts.

Many southwestern climbers–including yours truly–will likely spend the summer in the gym. A few are turning refugee and fleeing to Colorado and Utah, though even that isn't a sure bet: smaller fires have already broken out near both Boulder and Moab this summer. Wherever climbers go, they'll have to wait a while, as the forests aren't likely to reopen until after the July and August monsoons cool things off; if enough rain doesn't come, some areas, like the Sandias, could theoretically stay closed until November. What they find when they go back—ponderosa or charred trunks, pinyon or bare boulder fields—remains to be seen.

Adam Roy

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