Just north of the boat house, the Rio Grande River meanders through the stunning Rio Grande Gorge, an 800-foot-deep chasm in the Taos Plateau. The gorge is part of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and still feels remote and wild to any who get to travel down through its towering walls. This season we have used a beautiful spot on the west rim of the gorge to introduce guests to climbing and rappelling. Dead Cholla Wall is an established climbing area that sits with the river below and in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Often we are the only people at the wall and get to enjoy one of the most stunning vistas in the Southwest in solitude.
On our last climbing trip of the season, we had a bit of a run-in with the locals. The morning was cool and breezy and Nikos, Chelsea, and I were all in high spirits as we headed out.
To get to Dead Cholla Wall we drive along the peaceful Orilla Verde section of river, across the Taos Junction Bridge, and then up a winding dirt road until we reach the rim. We made it up to the parking area and set off down the trail to begin climbing. We walked slowly to enjoy the view of the mountains in the distance and after one particularly long look away, we turned back to discover a male bighorn sheep sitting on the trail ahead of us. He stoically lifted his head, gave us a brief acknowledgment and then stared back off into the distance. We all turned and smiled at each other and then kept on our way, trying to move quietly and not disturb him.
When we reached the base of the wall, we got geared up and ready to climb. I could feel the nervous excitement they both had as Nikos tied into the rope. After several minutes of working on it, Nikos made it to the top! We were all stoked that he was able to figure it out and climb so smoothly on his first climb ever. As I lowered him down, he looked back to enjoy the view. Suddenly I noticed panic in his eyes. He became visibly shaken and I tried to reassure him that everything was okay but he just pointed behind me with wide eyes.
I turned to see what was causing his alarm and my heart immediately dropped. Not 30 feet from where Chelsea and I were standing was the male bighorn that we had met on the trail. As he continued toward us I could see his lean, strong muscles moving beneath his coat and was overwhelmed by how large his curling horns looked this close up. I let Nikos down to the ground and we all huddled together as close to the wall as possible. No one spoke as we watched him. He walked slowly – looking and smelling and thinking. In that moment I knew that we were but guests in this bighorn’s kingdom. Time moved slow as we watched him walk past us and down into the large boulder field. He traversed the loose and uneven terrain with ease and soon he was out of sight. We let out a collective sigh and continued to stand in silence, all of us mesmerized by the experience.
We had an awesome morning of climbing, talking constantly about our surreal interaction. How powerful it was to feel so small and insignificant out here amongst the true locals.
I’m always looking forward to getting back out amongst the wild and rugged Rio Grande Gorge where the bighorn run free.