Saturday, April 6, 2013

Red Rocks, Nevada.

BEEP BEEP BEEP, went the obnoxious alarm at 5AM. Feeling sluggish from the beers the night before I stirred myself awake. My good friends Sylvain and Sara had kindly put me up in their house in Calgary the night before I was due to fly to Las Vegas via Vancouver. Despite having to go and teach a class of high school students that day, Sylvain kindly woke at the same time and insisted on driving me to the airport, a very kind soul! I was headed to Red Rocks, Nevada for a five week long climbing trip. The flight from Vancouver to Las Vegas was incredible! First humbling sight was Mt Rainier (4,392 m), completely free of clouds, I was able to clearly see its crevasse riddled glaciated slopes.

* Mt Rainier (4,392 m)

 * Red Rocks, Nevada.

For the remainder of the flight I had my head buried in the Red Rocks guide book, making a list of routes I wanted to climb. Just before landing in Las Vegas we flew right over Red Rocks itself, it was a incredible sight. I had definitely downplayed the proportion of this place in my head and I was again humbled at what lay beneath me. A couple from Texas asked me what the purpose of my trip was, I replied "I'm camping in the desert for five weeks to climb in those sandstone mountains. I told them I might check out the strip once or twice but aside from that it was tent life for me. They nodded, smiled and said a familiar line of "Oh a rock climber, you're crazy". Once I landed in Las Vegas and made it through the grueling, ever welcoming, process of American Immigration I met up with a friend and climbing partner from the Bow Valley, Samuel Lambert. We had organised to climb together for five weeks in Red Rock Canyon. "Red Rocks" as it is refered to by climbers is series of sandstone peaks and walls, some rising 3000ft (915m) from the desert floor. After a quick trip to Costco for the cheapest groceries and alcohol one could find anywhere on the planet ($15 for 1.75l bottle of Smirnoff) we drove 24 kilometres west to the Red Rocks Campground. Red Rocks campground is a pretty barren place, beautiful in a sense and not so much in others. Before leaving on this trip a friend had called it "Campghanistan" as it is sandy, windy, hot and there was shooting range close enough that you could often hear gunshots. I had also heard horror stories of tents being ripped out of the ground from the extremely strong winds, intimidated by these stories I had bought 15m of 3mm cord to guy out every possible point on my tent.

 * Home for 5 weeks.

On our second day there we had some interesting weather...despite holding true to its forecasted temperature of 21°c it decided to snow on us halfway up a 6 pitch route. The air temperature difference at our elevation compared to the clouds was inconceivable - snowing when not thirty minutes ago I was sweating without a shirt on? Luckily it was a easy grade and we finished up the route quickly, though not without getting quite cold on a few of the belays. Sandstone is also quite dangerous to climb when its wet as it becomes very fragile, very fast. This made our descent a little interesting but far from epic. I was already feeling a bit crook upon arriving and after our snow day in the desert I came down with a bad cold, it did not help it was dipping below 0°c at night, nothing my sleeping bag could not handle but not ideal when already battling a bad cold. I spent the following 5 days sleeping, reading Jack Reacher novels and drinking copious volumes of vegetable Juice in the hopes I would be back on the rock soon.

* Hanging off a vertical wall getting snowed on in the desert.

I was soon feeling better but not without a week "wasted" recovering, very frustrating when everyone around you is getting out and returning to camp at night with joyous tales of the vertical world. A few days after feeling relatively human again Sam and I decided we would climb the mega classic, Epinephrine. Epinephrine is considered one of the best quality routes in Red Rocks and probably one of the most classic 5.9 multipitch routes in the world. I had heard of people getting shut down on this route and having epics trying to get down in the dark, some even sleeping out (when the headlamp was forgotten), waiting to find their way down in the morning. I think the main reason for this is the moderate grade of the climb which might lead people to underestimate the time needed and the true chimney technique required to climb the first five pitches (rope lengths) efficiently and quickly. Epineprine starts off with five incredibly fun chimney pitches, requiring you to wiggle, squeeze, jam, slide and worm your way up. There was the odd bolt for protection and lots of good cam placements a crack at the back of the chimney. Overall they felt very secure and we moved quickly. At one point I lost concentration for a moment and almost slipped though I was enjoying the climbing so much I could not step yelling down to Sam on the belays about how good it was!

* Placing a cam (protection) on one of the lower chimney pitches.

 * Sam seconding one of the lower chimneys.

To move fast we employed block leading techniques. This is where one person will lead a number of pitches in a row, this can speed up a party if the leader still has most of the gear racked on their harness. It saves exchanging lots of gear at the belays in order for the seconder to climb next. It worked well on these pitches as they were quite short and not a huge amount of gear was placed.
Once we cleared the chimneys of the black tower we had continuous beautiful 5.9 face and corner climbing above. It was spectacular, super positive holds, great pro and awesome exposure!

 * Great exposure on a hanging belay on the upper pitches of Epinephrine!

 * Sam Seconding upper corner pitches of Epinephrine.

The final leg of Epineprhine involves a few hundred feet of 3rd & 4th class climbing (scrambling with consequence of falling) which Sam and I simul climbed. Simul climbing is another technique for moving fast, it is where both climbers are moving at the same time, usually with about 30 meters (varies depending on terrain) of rope between the two. The leader will place gear and when the second arrives at gear (protection placed in the rock) he will take it out. The idea is that there is always numerous pieces of protection between the two climbers so in the event of a fall, the gear will catch either the leader or the seconder. It is important for the seconder to not climb too fast and allow too much slack rope to come into the system, if this does happen then the leader has a greater chance of taking a big fall. We summited 5.5 hours after leaving the car, we were stoked to move so quickly and it filled me with the confidence I needed to feel ready for our main objective of the trip and what was to be the longest rock route I have ever climbed.

Resolution Arete, to my knowledge, is the longest route in Red Rocks Canyon. It follows the prominent turreted arete, centre right of the north east face that runs direct to the summit of Mt Wilson. It stretches a mighty 2500ft  in length and is a varied, challenging line, with many different styles of climbing. Retreating off this route would be very hard as it is a wandering line with no fixed anchors. Once we committed to the climb we had to reach the top. It holds challenging route finding with many very poorly protected sections and seldom sees ascents when the days are short and being early December our days were very short.The sun was rising around 6AM but the sun was setting just after 5pm. This allowed us 11 hours of light to climb the route. It is graded 5.10, A1 with a total of 1 bolt on entire route. The short days, old school grades, long runouts with poor gear and the challenging route finding were all weighing on my mind and making me quite nervous. Not to metion that at night it was often dipping to below 0°c. The prospect of spending the night on the wall was not one that I was excited about, though we prepared for it by stuffing two super light weight puffy jackets into our bullet packs, just in case we did end up sleeping halfway up the route.

*Standing at the base of Resolution Arete, watching the sun rise over Las Vegas.

 * Resolution Arete is the prominent turreted arete that runs centre right of the face.

To increase our chances of returning to our tents on the night of the climb we decided to familiarize ourselves with the approach and dump as much heavy equipment at the base of the route the day before. We carried in water, food, ropes, shoes and the climbing gear and left it at the base of the climb. We were now familiar with the approach, so doing it in the dark would not be an issue.
We set the alarms for 3AM. It was hard crawling out of the warmth of a giant down bag and pulling on smelly, sandy clothes in the freezing cold. I tried to force down our usual power breakfast which consisted of a Burrito wrap smeared with peanut butter and then loaded full of trail mix and M&Ms. It was so hard to eat, I wanted to vomit. In the end i ate a huge chunk of salami and sculled 1 litre of water.

We set off in the dark across the desert, moving fast and breathing hard with cold plumes of air catching in the light of our headlamps. The first segment of the approach was one hour of walking across flat desert through prickle cactus and ankle scratching bushes. After the flats the scrambling began, not hard but consequential enough to require one to focus, as a slip would result in serious injuries. We reached the base of the climb after one and a half hours - just as the sun was rising, perfect timing!

We sculled another litre of water, leaving only 1.5 litres on our pack and geared up for the climb.
The first pitch involved a run out traverse over a gap between two walls of rock, meaning when you looked down, even though you had just started the climb, there was a few hundred feet of exposure beneath you, pretty wild! It was obvious from the first pitch that this climb would require a strong head and a calm state of mind, the climbing was awkward and sandy and the gear was run out. At one point I was bumping a #4 Camalot for fifteen metres up a crack. Sam and I block lead sections, simul climbed some of the 4th and 5th class terrain and swung leads throughout the route. The crux of the climb is a 5.11d finger crack through a roof, Sam, the rope gun (stronger climber) was going to try and free this pitch but quickly decided to aid it like most other parties do. I was at a gear belay, hanging off a vertical wall 5 metres below him, slightly concerned about a factor 2 so I was very happy when he pulled out the slings and started aiding the roof. The climb flowed well and we moved very quickly, after all we had been climbing multipitch routes with each other consistently for the past four weeks. It is enjoyable to be so tuned in with one partner, knowing exactly how one another moves, what the other is doing or how long they will likely take even after losing sight of them.

*Sam aiding the A1 Crux.

 * Me seconding high off the ground on Resolution Arete.

 Sam & I looking tired on a very windy summit of Mt Wilson.

 *Hanging gear belay below the Crux Roof.

Despite getting slightly off route a few times and feeling the fatigue of five weeks of climbing, we managed to knock this route off with few headaches. We summited Mt Wilson fifteen minutes before the sun set and were ecstatic to have completed the route. Alas the risk of sleeping out that night was not yet behind us as we still had to descend the backside of the mountain and find the tree rappel that would put us in the valley that we would follow back to the car. We quickly woofed down a few power gels and half a very soggy subway sandwich, replaced the climbing shoes for lightweight runners and started running down the backside of Mt Wilson. Just as it was transitioning from twilight to pitch black we found our tree and abseiled 30 metres into the drainage. For the second time that day we switched on our headlamps and started the two and a half hour walk back to the road. We kept our spirits high by cheerfully reminiscing about the highlights and scariest moments and what takeaway we would reward ourselves with when we drove into town that evening. By the time we made it back to the car we had been awake and on the move for seventeen hours. I am so happy to have climbed Resolution Arete, a big adventure with a great friend, which filled me with a huge amount of confidence and fulfillment which I still feel to this day.

After spending five weeks in a sandy tent I was pretty ready for a comfortable bed and easy access to a shower. My brother had emailed me a few weeks earlier saying he wanted to buy me a belated birthday present and told me to pick a hotel to stay in for my last night in Las Vegas...very lucky to have such a kind big brother! What a contrast! From a sandy tent to a double queen room on the eighteenth floor of the Spa Tower in the  Bellagio! Sam and I were stoked...we did what must be done and went out that night on infamous "Strip". A few good friends from the Red Rocks camp ground came into town and we spent the night wandering from one casino to the next, pretending the play the pokies and milking the casinos for free drinks. A fun way to end a fantastic trip.

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