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Looking into the belly of Last Chance Canyon

Last Chance Canyon—setting a rope for climbing

Hanging like an icicle, calcium salts deposited by dripping water form an incredible formation as a stalactite in Carlsbad Caverns.

Reflection in a cavern pond
Photo credit: —Story photos by Jacoba Jane

Last Chance Canyon

—Evan Belknap

Last week, a friend and I packed up all our climbing and camping stuff, bought enough food for a week, and set off south towards Carlsbad, New Mexico, to a massive canyon where I’d never been. I’d been hearing about it from my climber friends for years—how it was in the middle of nowhere, always windy, and had limestone walls of comparable quality to the best cliffs in Spain and France.

Just shy of Carlsbad, we turned right and headed towards the non-existent town of Queen. Past there, we found our dirt road and bumped and wound inward through grasslands and cacti for a few miles until we reached the primitive campground above the canyon. As I’d expected, we had the place to ourselves. The landscape glowed against the blue sky with the setting sun—all the gold of the grasses and greens and purples of cacti.

We set up camp, built a fire, and made dinner. We were thrilled that we had so long to just be in this one spot.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and had lots of coffee, packed lunch, and started down, dropping about a thousand feet to the canyon bottom. The first wall we singled out was a long panel of orange and grey limestone with blue and black streaks, bullet hard. I could hardly lace my shoes properly, I was so excited. Soon enough, I was up there climbing these little pockets and big holes. The rough rock grabbed my feet and held them on the smallest bumps and edges. I thought to myself, of course New Mexico has a canyon like this, with rock so good, hidden in one of its obscure corners.

We had lunch in a sunny patch of grass at the bottom of the canyon, eating sandwiches and watching two red tailed hawks circle above. Already, we had found “projects,” aka routes that require some rehearsing and multiple efforts before you can climb them without falling (which is the goal in sport climbing). Mine was a long sweeping arch that caught my eye, called “Texas Twister.” Overhanging moves up these beautiful positive pockets in the rock led to a full-on, all-points-off, throw to a giant hold, where you could rest before finishing the route. I’d tried it once and fallen at the hardest part, but I had a feeling I could get it next go.

There in the sun, I found myself thinking about how it’s important that people have something, at least one thing, that they can aspire to be good at. I find it fascinating how arbitrary my sport is and yet how great of an influence it has on my life. Climbing rocks is a pretty silly pursuit, but maybe it’s not about the thing itself but the effort and care that goes into it. For me, the excitement of trying hard, failing often, succeeding occasionally, drives me to work harder, and in that, is some semblance of purpose. I suppose that sense of purpose could come from a lot of things that people do—caring for their family, watching birds through binoculars, painting dinosaurs, etcetera.

After lunch, I climbed my route without falling, barely, and then shade hit the bottom of the canyon and the wind picked up. We packed our bags and starting back up the canyon trail—a long, low-angled slope to the rim. We had hardly scratched the surface of what the canyon had to offer, but at least now we knew which cliff was which.

We spent five days at our campsite. Each day ended around a campfire with big bowls of hot, delicious food and good conversation; it was hard to think about leaving. On the final morning, we woke to a bitter cold wind and a cloudy sky. Having climbed multiple days in a row, we decided that it was time to move on, and that perhaps this was a good day to go underground where that wind couldn’t get us.

We drove to Carlsbad Caverns, paid our ten dollars, and went down into the hole. The elevator was out of order and a long line of sweaty, red-faced, wheezing people crawled up the walkway as we went down in. To be fair, it is a pretty good hike—1.2 miles down, another couple miles around the “Big Room,” and then straight back up.

I had forgotten just how stunning Carlsbad Caverns really is. My friend and I were in awe, disoriented even, at the scale and beauty of those caverns. The ceilings of rock spikes, and the reflections in the twinkling ponds, were amazing. After several hours there, we huffed our way back up, out of the murky cave air, and headed home to reflect on both of the sparkling places that we had climbed down into.

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