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TR: Desert Climbing, February 2017

In February 2016, I had a wonderful trip climbing in Red Rocks, Nevada, with a group of fantastic people. This year, I wanted to go back and get on some new routes. I assembled a group with some of my favourite climbing buddies and other acquaintances, including Shell, Nicole, Rae, Lianne, Manu (from last year), Christy and Jon.

This year, we decided to book an airBnB instead of a hotel, and booked the same one Shell had gone to 1.5 years before with a different group. This airBnB was fantastic! We had 4 bedrooms, each with a double bed, 2.5 bathrooms and a kitchen. The airBnB was about $22 per person per night after all expenses. Costs were relatively cheap for food because we could cook for ourselves. Because we were a group of 8, we rented two vehicles instead of one (note to self and others: compare prices from airport rental place to other nearby rental locations, and ensure all taxes and fees are included in booking). Although having two cars was more expensive, it was definitely nice to have the flexibility and ability to divide the group as needed.

The trip was scheduled for February 18th-26th, immediately after the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF), which I helped out at this year by co-running two nights of the festival at a new UBC venue. Unfortunately in the week leading up to the trip, the forecast called for rain on the day of our arrival. And not just light rain, but heavy rain (35-40 mm in a desert is a lot).

This forecast held true, and we arrived to Las Vegas on Saturday to find a very wet ground and rain still falling from the sky. This meant that we were not able to climb that afternoon, and instead bought our groceries for the week and pondered our game plan for the trip. In Red Rocks, you cannot climb for 24-72 hours after rain (depending on severity and warmth subsequently) because it is sandstone. This means that the holds can break off, ruining the climbs, but also that gear could pop out, presenting a safety hazard. The second rental vehicle, however, was being picked up Sunday morning, which meant that we could not relocate until the next day. We decided that we would pick up the rental vehicle Sunday morning, and then head to Joshua Tree for a few days of climbing. Nicole was going to stay at the airBnB in Vegas to catch up on some school work and we were going to meet her back there in a few days.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located in California (about 5-6 hours South of Las Vegas and Red Rocks), and is one of the best known climbing destinations in the area. Two desert ecosystems come together in this park: the Mojave and the Colorado, and it is beautiful. The area is full of the very cool Joshua Trees (pictures below) and a lot of really cool rock called inselbergs. The style of climbing is predominately crack climbing with traditional protection. In fact, most climbs do not even have bolted anchors, but instead you must build a gear anchor, and either down scramble (often class 4 scrambling) after cleaning the anchor, or sometimes there is a rappel anchor established in the area that services multiple routes.

We arrived fairly late on the first day due to the long drive but decided to get a climb in before finding camping (as the campsite was packed). We climbed a 5.7 route (Toe Jam) near the parking area that Rae led up and created a gear anchor for the rest of us to top rope, as most of us wanted to do our first climb on top rope before jumping into a trad lead to get a feel for climbing rock again (it had been months for all of us!).

Rae leading up the 5.7 climb, Toe Jam.

I have been told by many friends who have climbed in Joshua Tree before that grading is a bit different, and to expect a 5.3 to feel more like a 5.6 or 5.7 elsewhere, and so forth. However, I felt that this one was not that far off in the grading. Most of the group found the start and the final crack system to be a bit challenging, but within reason for a 5.7-5.8 crack climb. I stayed at the top and belayed up everyone one by one, while Rae helped rescue some pieces on a rather challenging "5.9" around the corner that Jon attempted. That climb was fairly challenging and had some bad fall potential, but Rae climbed it like a pro! After everyone had climbed up and rappelled the climbs, Manu and I cleaned the gear anchor and rapped off from a rap station nearby.

Manu coming up over the lip in the crack crux of the climb.

Rae belaying up Jon on the difficult "5.9".

Rae complementing a beautiful view from the top!

Unfortunately for us, it was an American long weekend, which made finding camping difficult. The campsite was completely full, and we looked for opportunities to join someone else's campsite(s). Jon and Christy were able to find a group to join (you could only have 2 vehicles for site) and set up their tent, and Lianne slept in the back of their parked car (i.e. the second rental vehicle). We had packed 3 sleeping pads and one sleeping bag in hopes that we could make it all work. Lianne got the sleeping bag, and the rest of us drove to the trailhead of the back country overnight area (Boy Scouts area?) to park and sleep in the van for the night. Luckily, the van has seats that go into the floor, and we stole as many blankets from the beds of our airbNb as we could before we left. We inflated our mattresses and Rae, Shell, Manu and I crammed into a 4-person cuddle puddle to keep warm. Unfortunately, it was actually too warm with 4 so Rae went to the foot of the makeshift bed, and then it became too cold for the rest of the night. Overall, we got through the night and were prepared for another day of climbing!

Rae and Shell sitting on our van bed.

We packed up the van in the morning and went to meet the others back at the campsite. Christy and Jon decided to climb a few routes in the campsite area, and the rest of us headed to Trashcan Rock to do some easy trad warm ups for the trip. Manu and I jumped on lead for the start of the day, each climbing up a 5.3 crack.

Manu on the left, climbing B-3 (5.3) and me on the right, leading B-2 (5.3). Photo credit: Lianne McRadu

Unfortunately for me, this lead destroyed my confidence on trad lead for the trip. Where I am pictured in the photo above is as high as I got before I bailed on an awkward move. I decided that I would rather bail, have someone else finish it, and top rope the climb later and get more comfortable climbing rock again. Shell finished the lead for me and I went and top roped the one Manu lead (B-3), which was far nicer and I wish I had lead it. Little did I know, B-2 is described on Mountain project as "B-2 is an awkward, unaesthetic chimney. Definitely my least favorite of the three [cracks B-1 to B-3]. You're probably better off avoiding this one." I cannot agree more as I greatly disliked that climb, and others on Mountain Project seemed to agree that it seemed more difficult. Rae next lead up the 5.6 on the left of B3, Karpkwitz, and I top roped it afterward. This climb was beautiful! A lot more face climbing style, or "bouldery", which is the style that I prefer. I then returned to B-2 to top rope, and disliked it just as much on top rope as I did on lead.

All 5 of us (Rae, Lianne, Shell, Manu and I) climbed these 3 routes and then decided to move to the back of Trashcan Rock and try some different routes. Here, there was a 5.9 crack climb (Right Sawdust Crack) next to a 5.10.c R climb (Left Sawdust Crack). Rae led up the 5.9 pitch, which shares an anchor point with the 5.10c R, so we were able to climb both on top rope. While Rae and Shell were setting up the 5.9 crack, Manu, Lianne and I set off to scramble to the top of a pile of rocks we saw across the road. This ended up being a really fun scramble, with an interesting chimney section.

The 'pile of rocks' we climbed.

Manu and Lianne conquering the awkward chimney section.

Manu enjoying the view from the top.

The final moves to the top.

View from the top.

Manu, Lianne and I at the top.

Once we returned from the scramble, we rejoined Rae and Shell. I jumped on the 5.10c (on top rope) and absolutely loved the bottom half! Super technical and bouldery, just my style. The top half required a bit more crack technique, but after a while, I managed to pull it off. Manu, Shell and Lianne also jumped on this climb. Rae then taught me a bunch of proper crack climbing technique because I clearly had successfully avoided proper technique for cracks my entire climbing career... this was useful but hard for me to apply! I then tried to climb the 5.9 crack and had a major strugglefest! Eventually I made it up, and then Manu cruised up it and cleaned the anchor. We then drove back to Las Vegas.

Me top roping Left Sawdust Crack, 5.10c.

Valley of Fire

Once we returned to Las Vegas, we re-united with Nicole and decided that we would try to climb the next day (Tuesday). We had doubts that we could climb, however, especially because one of Rae's friends who lived locally in Vegas suggested it would be another few days before the rock was dry enough to climb. We checked out the rock and decided that it was indeed still too wet to climb, and decided that we needed alternate plans. Unfortunately, we had lost so much time seeking dry rock, that it was already 10:30 AM. We went to a Dunkin' Donuts to get wifi to research alternatives, and after talking to some people there who had gone to the Valley of Fire the day before and did the "Prospectors Route", we decided to try that out. Nicole had been there when she visited Red Rocks in December and also recommended it.

Valley of Fire State Park is about a 1-1.5 hour drive North of Vegas, full of red sandstone formations. There was a $10 per vehicle fee, and the National park pass did not work for this location sadly. We went to the Info Center and found information about the hike, set up the vehicle shuttle (it is about 6-8 km one way, different parking lot start and finish), and were on our way hiking by about 2:00 PM. The Prospectors Route was nice because it is on the backside of the state park and is an unadvertised trail, making it far less busy. We saw a lot of beautiful red rock formations, and then we ended up on the loop to the White Domes, which had a fun narrow corridor. The car crew took off and returned Manu to the rental van, and then Manu picked Rae, Shell and I up. While we waited, we climbed to the top of a nearby slab rock and enjoyed the view.

Shell and Rae enjoying the view.

Zion National Park

The next day (Wednesday) we were faced with a decision to try and climb or to find alternate plans right away without wasting the time to try and find dry rock and potentially fail. Rae's friend recommended another day of drying and I did not want to be that asshole tourist that destroyed a classic climb, so Nicole, Lianne and I decided to head out right at 8 AM to Zion National park (3.5-4 hour drive North of Las Vegas) while the other 5 tried to find climbing (they did successfully find some areas that were dry enough, but a lot of stuff was still too wet). We decided we would hike to Observation Point, which was across from Angel's Landing, the route I did the year before. The return journey was ~13 kms and involved walking through beautiful canyons and along ridges. Such a beautiful journey! I even ran into a girl in the VOC who I had met a few weekends before! What a small world!

Red Rock National Conservation Area

On Thursday, I was finally going to climb in Red Rocks! I was super excited as the trip was already half over and I had not climbed in the area that we had come to climb in. Manu, Lianne, Jon and Christy went to do Cat in the Hat (5.6, multipitch, 5 pitches- same one Manu and I started on the year before). Shell, Nicole, Rae and I went to Magic Bus, which took us a long time to locate the approach to. When we finally arrived, we got straight to climbing. Rae jumped on a 5.9 (5.9+ according to Mountain Project) called Queasy Sunrise. I then top roped this one to get a feel for the rock before leading the two 5.8s sport climbs beside it (Technicolor Sunrise and Neon Sunset). Everyone else top roped this first 5.9+ and lead both 5.8s as well. I noticed a vast improvement from my time in Red Rocks the year before, where I backed off my first 5.8 sport lead (after only having 2 hours of sleep mind you).

Digression: I have always had a fear of leading and falling above the bolt, and it has been something I have struggled a lot with. I was working hard to fight this fear last spring before my knee injury at the beginning of June, 2016, but then had to take a long break from climbing. At that time, I was warming up cleanly on 5.9s in Squamish, but still too fearful to lead a 5.10a. In November, I started being able to climb without my knee brace and could start pushing myself harder while climbing indoors again. I began leading with my friend Leon in the Aviary a few times a week and forcing myself to take 5-7 falls on my first lead of each day, and pushing myself to lead harder and harder grades. I got to the point where I was leading climbs in the Aviary for the first time on lead instead of top roping them first to get the beta. I also recently lead one of the 5.10+ routes. Note: climbs in the Aviary are graded more similarly to outdoors, and are much stiffer than other local indoor climbing gyms.

Back to Red Rocks: After successfully leading the 5.8s, I then decided to lead the 5.9+ on the far left of the wall Electric Koolaid. I had only ever lead up to a 5.9 outdoors, so this would be breaking into new territory for me. I jumped on lead and was so happy I did! I grabbed a draw once to re-organize my thoughts, but otherwise aced the climb. The climb itself was also very beautiful and aesthetic! Rae, Shell and Nicole all also lead this climb afterwards.

Me leading Electric Koolaid. Photo Credit: Nicole Barrette

This climb shared an anchor with the trad climb to the right, Blonde Dwarf (5.8 in the guidebook, 5.9 on Mountain Project), so we were able to top rope this climb as well. It was then almost time for the parking area to close (5:00 PM), so we left the crag and checked out some of the bouldering areas in the Kraft Boulders. We did not have a crash pad with us, so just had some fun on the warm up boulders and some V0-V1 routes throughout the area.

Me warming up on some boulders. Photo credit: Rae Cramer.

On Friday, it was our group's turn for some multi-pitching. Rae met with her friend Irene to do an 5.11a multi-pitch, Shell and I paired together to do the 4-pitch 5.9 sport Big Bad Wolf, Nicole and Manu did the 2-pitch 5.7 trad route Physical Graffiti right beside Big Bad Wolf, and Lianne joined Jon and Christy for a day of cragging. I was to take the first 5.9 pitch, and we decided that I would also link it straight into the second 5.8 pitch (described as slabby). I loved the first 5.9 pitch, but it was quite sustained for a 5.9 and felt a bit more difficult due to this. Luckily, the bolting was insanely generous and I was able to takes breaks every time I felt the desire to. Three bolts were so close together, I had to be worried about Z-clipping outdoors for the first time! I got to the anchor and continued on the 5.8 'slab' climbing. By Squamish climbing, this was still very much face climbing with only 2 short sections of anything resembling slab, as there were holds everywhere! The only part that made me a bit nervous was a spot in the middle which I then realized I could find face holds to the left instead of the right, and the final 1.5 meters which was a slab traverse to the anchors. The route itself to this point was super aesthetic!

Shell belaying me up the first pitch of Big Bad Wolf, 5.9. Photo credit: Nicole Barrette.

Nicole was at the belay station at the top of pitch 1 of physical grafitti about 20-25 meters below me and to the right. She said that first pitch was super nice and easy. Manu was to lead up the second pitch, and he began his lead while Shell climbed up to me, and then began her lead on pitch 3 of Big Bad Wolf. It became clear quickly that Manu's pitch was far more difficult and he ran out of gear, and anywhere to place gear. He ended up doing a 60-65 meter pitch in the end! He also ended up sharing the anchor with Shell and me once we were finished instead of trying to build a gear anchor. A mentally trying time for him, but he nailed it!

The most difficult move for me on Big Bad Wolf, was the slab move to start the third pitch (5.8), but Shell aced it! After a few meters of slab and reduced hand holds, Shell got to a steeper section with lots of jugs. She belayed me up to her before doing the final 5.0 pitch because we did not see the anchor at first (it is ~15 meters beyond the top of pitch 3). While doing so, the sun left the rock and it became super cold super fast. I struggled to get through the steep section without needing to warm my hands regularly, but the climbing itself was beautiful.

Shell leading the third pitch of Big Bad Wolf (5.8).

Shell and I ate lunch at the top while Manu belayed Nicole up so that we could descend the route together, which involved a rappel around the corner and a down scramble on some class 3 to class 4 terrain. We originally intended to switch climbs but the rock had gotten too cold, and the others were tired, so we went back to Kraft boulders and took a nap on a rock in the sun while I read a book and Nicole sketched.

Shell and me at the top of Big Bad Wolf.

Friday night, we went out to explore the Vegas strip as a group. As usual, an interesting time was had!

On Saturday, Shell, Jon and Christy had to go to the airport early in the morning and fly home. Manu, Rae, Lianne, Nicole and I went to check out Moderate Meca and do some crack climbing. I was not feeling trad leading still, so was content to top rope. Nicole was keen to get a bunch of trad routes in (her preference over sport), and this was her day to excel, setting up multiple routes. Rae kicked things off for us by leading a 5.8+ (Valentine's Day). I quite liked the climb, as it has aspects of both crack climbing and face climbing, but I was definitely off my game. Valentine's Day shares an anchor with the 5.10d to the left, Ace of Hearts, and Rae and I stayed to climb this one while Nicole, Lianne and Manu went around the corner to lead some 5.5-5.7 climbs. Ace of Hearts was absolutely beautiful! A very nice climb, very much my style, with lots of bouldery moves. Rae's friend was with us as well, and we then went to go check out an interesting boulder problem beneath the crag before joining with the others.

Rae on the cool boulder problem.

Nicole leading up a 5.6, Manu belaying.

Sunday was our last day of climbing, with our flight departing at 5:48 PM. We went to check out Black Corridor to see if it was finally dry. This location was the one main objective I really wanted to get on while in Red Rocks this year, and it had been wet all week. We arrived to determine that the upper left wall was dry enough to climb! There was a very aesthetic 5.10a (Dancin' with a God) open and I decided to jump on it on lead right away- my first outdoor 5.10a lead! I was so stoked to get on it, and although I took breaks at several bolts, I did well and loved the climb! Manu and Rae also lead this route afterwards. I then top roped the 5.10b (Fools Gold) that Rae led up, twice, and also loved this climb. I then top roped the 5.10a I had just led and realized how sustained it was (quite pumpy!). Further, the last move over the lip was quite tricky, and everyone commended me on my no-hesitation lead at that section. I then lead the 5.9+ a few climbs down (Crude Street Blues, 5.9 on Mountain Project) which was enjoyable, but I was quite tired and it was harder to not need breaks. Nicole and Rae also lead this route. Lianne lead a 5.9+ across the corridor (Misconstrued), which was her first lead at that grade (yay Lianne! Killing it!), and Manu lead that route after as well.

Me leading Dancin' with a God (5.10a).

With sadness, we then had to pack up, drop off our rental van and head to the airport. Another successful trip climbing in the desert, and I hope to make this an annual tradition for as long as I can! I am very excited to hopefully continue pushing myself to lead harder grades this season and cannot wait for Squamish to dry, but also keen to hit up Vantage, Smith Rock, Skaha and other great locations. I am also excited to do more climbing with some of the wonderful people on this trip (e.g. Nicole, Shell), but also others who failed to be on this trip with me (e.g. Julie, Leon, Jake).

Compared to last year, we had much colder weather. It was often 4-10 degrees and overcast. Quite the contrast to last year's 20-25 degree weather! I still managed to get sun burned though as I expected I would. So excited for my next adventure!

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