TR: Red Rocks Reading Week Adventure February 13-20, 2016
From February 13-20, 2016, a group of 8 VOCers made their way down to Red Rocks, Nevada for a week of climbing. In our crew we had Jake Jones, Emmanuel Beraud, Annie Maurer, John McKenna, Mike Wathen, Cindy Gu, Lesley McDonell and myself, Cora Skaien. We decided to fly down and rent a car in order to increase the amount of time we had climbing. Along with the flight deal, we acquired cheap accommodation and we stayed at El Cortez Hotel and Casino.
On our first day, we went straight from the airport to Panty Wall to do some sport climbing and familiarize ourselves with the area. Panty Wall was an excellent first choice because it had a range of difficulties from 5.8 and up for us to get use to the rating system of the area. It was super hot, and most days were about 25 degrees Celsius, which is only 2 degrees below what the guide book suggests as the record high for the area for that time of year. What we did not know at the time is that this was going to end up being our only day of sport climbing! The entire rest of the trip was trad climbing.
The next day (February 14th, Valentine’s Day!), we went to the Willow Springs Picnic Area and decided to do some easy trad cragging, from 5.5 upwards. This was a great area with a lot of nice climbs! We ended up splitting into groups of twos, with Manu and myself paired together, Jake and Annie, and Mike and John. Cindy and Lesley joined us later that day as they flew in a day later than we did. Manu and I started on Tonto, a 5.5, which was a nice one to feel comfortable on. What I liked about the trad climbing in Red Rocks which I found to be different from Squamish was that although you are climbing with cracks, you are also climbing a lot of face rock where you have a crack for protection, as opposed to predominately just using the crack for climbing. We then moved up and lead a few 5.6s and 5.7s in the area before we jumped on Ragged Edges, a 2-pitch climb with the first pitch being 5.7 and the second 5.8. Some areas were definitely run out (i.e. few areas to place gear), and this was also our first realization that the grades in Red Rocks, although similar to those in Squamish, are different. A 5.8 in Red Rocks felt more like a 5.9 in Squamish- which was luckily still within our capabilities. Jake and Annie warmed up on Ragged Edges and did great, and then Manu and I tackled it with me leading the first pitch and him the second. The last one meter of the 5.7 is kind of nerve racking as it becomes slick rock and a thin crack (which is not my style of climbing!), but luckily for me, Mike was at the same anchor after climbing the climb next to me, and was able to allow me to cheat and clip my rope to a draw while I figured out how to climb the last meter. Manu did excellent on the run-out 5.8 that was next, which was not too difficult in terms of climbing, but was quite committing in some areas. Mike and John overall went off to do some harder routes in the area.
Cora at the top of the first 5.7. pith of Ragged Edges
That night we wondered around Vegas in the historic downtown section and found a place for dinner. Gluten free dinner in Vegas consists of 3 eggs! I had been to Vegas before and knew what to expect, but the boys were mostly bewildered.
The next day (February 15th) we were to embark on multi-pitches! We stayed in our same groups and Manu and I headed off to do Cat in the Hat (5.6 trad), Jake and Annie headed off to do Birdland (5.7+ trad), and Mike and John set off to first do Birdland and then do Dark Shadows (5.8) on the same day. Manu and I decided that we would alternate leads, with him leading the first 5.6, me the 5.5, him the next 5.5, me the 5.3 traverse and him the last 5.6. These all sound like really easy grades, but we learned very quickly on the first pitch to expect the whole climb to be a bit sand bagged. We felt a bit soft, but on our rappel down, everyone we passed started the conversation with, “This climb is a bit sand bagged, no?”, justifying our feelings as well. However, it was still well within our capabilities and felt more like a Squamish trad 5.8 overall. One thing that we learned quickly was that sometimes the belay anchors are hard to find in some areas, as Manu can attest with his numerous down climbing requirements when he had passed the goal. The first 5.6 pitch was fairly straight forward, with a good mixture of rock types and climbing styles on your way up, but it definitely felt harder than a 5.6! The second pitch involved a short bouldering section, followed by a 20-30 meter walk across rocks, then going straight up 15 meters or so. I HIGHLY recommend re-locating the belay. We did not. The entire time I was leading this pitch, I was pulling my rope as hard as I could with my hips and just trying not to get pulled off of the wall. The rope drag was INSANE! Definitely move your belay to the bottom of the next crack system! But from there, I made it to the belay tree which had slings and webbing left there as a permanent anchor system. Manu then lead the next 5.5 (with a portion of 5.6) to a rock belay with slings and webbing. Then I was supposed to lead the next 5.3 traverse, but it was extremely exposed and looked terrifying, so I bailed and Manu lead it, setting up a gear anchor in the crack system beyond the arête we had to traverse. Then Manu lead the last 5.6 pitch which has an initial section that is protectable, and then it turns into run out non-protectable slab with a single bolt in the middle. Manu climbed it like a champ! There were two very nice girls coming up behind me who I would hang out with at each belay station, and the girl who was leading all of the pitches took a massive fall well above this bolt while Manu and I were preparing for our rappel. She was so composed and jumped straight back on without being flustered! She amazed me with her ability to brush it off! Once you are at the top of this fifth pitch, you can either rappel back down (most common approach), or scramble up several hundred feet of loose rock with portions that are at times exposed, followed by a very long and hard to find descent. We decided to rappel off in the end. We had a wonderful climb and soon rejoined the others to share in our excitement of our adventures of that day.
Manu eyeing up the first pitch of Cat in the Hat.
On February 16th, Jake and Annie embarked on Dark Shadows, along with Cindy and Lesley, and Manu and I decided to go do Bird Land (which the others had done the day before and had nothing but good things to say about it!). Mike and John went off to do something harder, and had a wonderful day! Manu and I decided that similar to the day before, he would do the first, third and fifth pitches, and I would do the second and fourth. The first pitch is a 5.6, then a 5.7, then a 5.7+, then a 5.6 and finally a 5.7+. The first 5.6 was straight forward and lovely. The first 5.7 was confusing with many different crack systems, and I frequently had to down climb and re-assess. I did not like the aesthetics of this pitch, but I made it up eventually! The next pitch was a 5.7+ traversing pitch that had a lot of elegant, technical moves. Manu lead it like a champ, and I came up behind him and absolutely loved the pitch! It was very elegant and fun! There was a group ahead of us which was a couple (one from Scotland, one from Australia) and they were rappelling off of the last anchor down to us. They were very nice! But we had a heck of a time understanding the man’s thick accent with all of the echoing in the valley! We waited until they rappelled off our anchor before we continued climbing, which was a good thing because when they pulled their rope, it got stuck in a rock! Apparently the same thing happened to Jake and Annie the day before and the group behind them was able to help them. But there was no group behind us… so we would need to be careful. I was lowered back down and removed their rope from the crack it was stuck in, and climbed back up. I then began leading my 5.6 pitch, which continued at a 45 degree angle (i.e. slight traverse with still going up) for a bit before continuing straight up. It was a lovely pitch and I greatly enjoyed it, although I did have difficulty finding placements that I felt good about for much of the journey. Manu then lead the last 5.7+ pitch which was mentally kind of scary to lead due to many committing moves well above the last piece of gear, and fewer gear placements than one might desire. This belay is a hanging belay from the top, and I seconded the route and loved it very much! It was beautiful but I could see how it could be quite scary mentally on lead! He then lowered me due to the nature of the belay station (hard to get two people near the anchors), and then we rappelled off. We managed to not get the rope stuck on the third pitch… but we did get it stuck on the second pitch. Manu climbed back up with the opposite end of the rope and then down-climbed, removing gear as he came. We then made it back to the parking lot to join the others!
Photo by Annie. Dark Shadows.
At this point, I must have an interlude to share the fun times we had! In my hotel room was Mike, John, Jake and I and we would often have lots of funny puns and jokes all evening. We also would buy food from a grocery store that is a few miles out of the park in a convenient location. No matter how much water I drank and how often I applied lip balm, my lips grew drier and drier to the point that I could not smile or laugh without my lips cracking open and bleeding. But we were all having such a good time, I could not help but laugh and smile all the time!!
The next day, February 17th, we decided to take a day off. Jake and I did some work in a café and wondered around. We found a really nice “Container Park” nearby which we had lunch at, and we relaxed.
Our plan for the next day was to either go to Black Corridor for a day of harder sport, or to do our big multi-pitch objective: Johnny Vegas into Solar Slabs. What we did not look at was the forecast… and unexpectedly, it rained that evening and the next day. To make matters worse, the rain was accompanied by strong winds. As a result, we could not climb. You cannot climb the fragile red rocks when it rains because the rocks will crumble off and you alter the routes dramatically.
Thus, on February 18th, we took an alternate adventure day! Manu, Cindy, Lesley and John attempted to climb at a nearby location before bailing and heading to Death Valley for some site seeing, whereas Jake, Annie, Mike and I drove to Zion to hike Angel’s Landing. We had an absolutely amazing time and Zion was unbelievably beautiful! I must go back!
On February 19th, we embarked on our great multi-pitch day. Mike and John went off to do Black Orpheus I believe, while Annie, Jake, Manu and I did Johnny Vegas into Solar Slabs. There is a one hour approach, and we wanted to arrive early to ensure we had enough time in the day. We woke up at 4 AM to start bright and early, and I only managed to get about 2 hours of sleep. We ended up entering the park when it opened at 6 AM, drove the 40 minutes around the ring road, and did not arrive to the base of the climb until about 7:30 or 8:00 AM. An alternative is to park along the highway on a pullout and hike in on a trail that is an extra mile long. I was exhausted and not feeling up to much leading. Jake and Annie went up ahead of us, and Jake started on the first 5.6 pitch and a few small holds broke off while he climbed. I will note that there were groups ahead of us, and that we were not the only ones there and we did deem the rock as dry enough. I lead the first 5.6 pitch on Johnny Vegas, and I was very slow. The pitch was lovely, but my body and mind were not in it. Thus, to speed up the process, Manu lead the next 12 pitches! What a champ! The climbing was lovely! Johnny Vegas is 3 pitches of 5.6 and 5.7, and then Solar Slabs is 10 pitches of around 5.6 climbing. We linked many pitches together when we could to save on time, and there were a few near the middle which can be linked with a 70 meter rope (which we had). The climbing was a lovely mix of crack, slab and face climbing, with lots of interesting variation! Mike and John also topped out at the same location that we would, but Manu and I fell 2 pitches behind Jake and Annie at some point. Mike and John descended before us (4 hour descent, scrambling and hiking), and Jake and Annie waited for us.
I should at this time disclose that I have a massive fear of heights when I am not attached to a rope… especially on slab. I should also disclose how much I hate slab. We began our descent while the sun was still up, which involved first finding the rappel station and rappelling 70 meters. We tied our two ropes together and did the rappel in one go, and had to down scramble a few meters before getting to flatter rock. At this stage, the sun set. At first I thought this would make me more nervous, but it actually made it better because I could not see how steep things were! I was very careful not to point my head torch downwards so that I could only see the relatively flatter portion ahead of me. Unfortunately, at some point, we had very abrupt switch backs and I saw Annie walking along a steep drop and she said “We have to go down there”. At this point, I had a panic attack and sat down crying. Despite my crying, I was still laughing and Jake could not tell if I was laughing or crying. He made good puns to cheer me up, like, “I sure am likin’ that lichen!’. Then I was convinced that we had to down-climb the long slab portion and Jake stayed right behind me to point out hand and foot holds. Thank goodness he was there because he blocked my view of how high up we were! To calm myself down, I say things like, “You cannot be scared and shake right now, because if you do, you will fall and you will die.” This realization calms be right down because I know that I need to be confident to survive In the guidebook, the only mention of the scariness of the down climb is the last 10 meters which they say is a slippery slab slide. I could not believe it when we arrived and it was the least steep of our journey in a long time, and I ran down it in joy and kissed the rocks at the bottom! I had made it! Take that fear of heights and down-climbing slab without a rope! The sun had been set for 1.5 hours at this stage, and we still had an hour of giant boulder hopping down the creek bed, plus an hour hike back to the car. I was in my element in the creek bed, scrambling and route finding. Despite my earlier fear, I was able to contribute here and had a great time! This was most people’s least favourite part of the decent, but it was my favourite part. We returned to the cars shortly before 10 PM.
That night, John had booked a pub crawl and he left earlier (along with Mike) with Cindy and Lesley. He had a crazy night out on the town in Vegas with a wonderful snapchat story! He got back to the hotel at 4 AM. The next day was our last day (February 20th), and we were all so exhausted from our adventure the day before that we decided to sleep in, take it easy and head to the airport early to relax and nap while we waited for our flight. We had a wonderful time overall and I cannot wait to return again! Potentially in November of this year