Red Rocks April 9-14, 2001
My son and I made the pilgrimage to Red Rocks for the first time last
Saturday. I was pleasantly surprised by the easy half day drive from San
Diego. The last time I drove to (and through) Las Vegas was in 1982 in a
1963 Chevy pick-up, and it took considerably longer, and was more
grueling. Driving up 159 in the dark, seeing the silhouettes of the huge
peaks, gave me a thrill close to what I feel when I come into the Valley
at night. We set up housekeeping in site 31 at the 13 Mile Campground by
8:30 that night.
The next morning, we discovered we had only one pair of climbing shoes,
my 20 year old Fires that I threw in at the last minute for some of the
easier routes we had picked out. We shared the blame and shook it off.
It was too early to go to Vegas to buy shoes for Kellen, so we paid our
five bucks to tour the loop, stopping frequently to consult the
guidebook and orient ourselves to the major features. No one was parked
out at any of the pull-outs at that time of the morning (about 8:30),
and we got the mistaken impression that there weren't many climbers in
camp. We finished our tour of the loop by 9:30 and headed for Desert
Rock Sports on Charleston.
You can practically coast down Charleston from the campground to Mike
Ward's store where we bought Kellen a new pair of climbing shoes and
talked to Mike about some obscure and not so obscure routes. He
recommended Frogland for our specifications: four pitches or more, .8
and under, but warned us to get a very early start, one where headlamps
would be necessary. It's very popular.
On our tour the Willow Springs area looked like a good place to get
started. On returning to the parking area at the end of the gravel
road, we found many more cars and climbers about, but no one on Ragged
Edges, a beautiful crack splitting a dark brown varnished, nearly
vertical cliff about a pitch high. We were intimidated by its steepness
and the width of the crack in places. I didn't have much wide gear, 3.5
and 4 Camalots, and a 10 hex. I couldn't bring myself to schlep up the
ancient bong and tube chock I had thrown in the box for wide cracks. I
pushed the big cam ahead of me through the crux bulge, gingerly pulling
and stepping on the wonderful, but fragile looking horns on the face to
the right of the crack. Nothing broke and we began to get the feel of
this new rock.
Belaying Kellen I saw a young mountain sheep above me on a tower, my
first. Desert Bighorns inhabit the desert east of San Diego, but I've
never seen one in forty years of hiking out there. So this was a thrill.
I told Kellen, who has a keen interest in wildlife, but his view was
obstructed by the wall. On our way down, Kellen spotted the same animal
moving deftly ahead of us along some fifth class terrain seemingly
without effort. We stopped to watch the animal until it left our view.
We moved down the wash to the paved parking area and hiked in to look at
the Lost Creek Canyon (left side) routes, but found them all too steep
and thin for our first day. We were looking for something fun. We ended
up on Pillar Talk, a 5.7 corner crack leading to a roof, and an
improbable and fun traverse to the left under and around the roof. It
turned out to be quality route, although it gets no thumbs up from Swain
or the Uriostes. We rapped off to the right and headed back to camp,
feeling much better about climbing on sandstone than we had a few hours
While sitting up at the belay it occurred to me that I could call my
wife and have her send us our shoes. Peter at Desert Rock Sports
graciously let us use their address. We had plenty to do without a high
performance shoe, and there was no hurry, but I could tell that
something a little tighter and more precise would be better on any of
the varnished face routes.
I wanted to stretch out on something long, but not too long or hard, so
we hiked up to Olive Oil the next morning under solid gray skies. It was
cold enough to keep our layers on until we broke a sweat climbing out of
the Pine Creek wash bottom. No one else was there, and it appeared that
no one was on Crimson or Ginger Cracks either, across Juniper Canyon to
the south. We had some trouble finding the start, confused by Swain's
reference to two trees because there are more than two. Then it started
to snow. Little white flakes drifted down and instantly melted and
slowly vanished into the thirsty sandstone. The top of Rainbow Mountain
was obscured by clouds. There was little wind but it looked to me like a
storm that would only get worse, so we headed back down to our packs and
got ready to leave.
We hadn't hiked more than a minute or two, when the snow flakes stopped
and the subdued gray light grew brighter when the cloud cover above us
thinned. I thought I could almost make out blue sky. We hesitated,
fortunately, and went back to sit in the lee of a bulging, corduroy
cliff to see what the weather was going to do. It didn't get any worse,
and something told me to get on the climb. There were flurries of flakes
off and on for the next hour, and we shivered at the first two belays,
but soon the snow stopped and the air warmed a bit.
The second pitch was incredibly fun. I kept saying "You're going to love
this!" Steep, featured rock, interesting moves, good pro, fantastic
setting. Rose Tower sits on one side of a steep, narrow defile. The
wall on the opposite side is riddled with long straight in cracks and
chimney systems that go for hundreds of feet through red, pink and ochre
Kellen led the third pitch and missed the traverse right to the big
ledge. To me it seemed a more natural line to continue as he did up the
crack to its end, then traverse, so I decided to keep going up. After a
short face traverse to the right, I reached a crack that went up through
an intimidating overhang. A bail sling with a biner, and two pieces of
fixed fear gear raised my anxiety a bit, but the roof turned out to be
about 5.7 with excellent pro. I continued up the crack to its end and
belayed on top of another little tower.
Before belaying Kellen, I looked right toward the big corner that the
regular route ascends. Another party had caught up with us and was
approaching it quickly. The leader told Kellen that he was on Olive Oil
and that we were on what he thought was a 5.10 variation. The traverse I
had peeked at, and that would take us back to the regular route and the
top, looked like it might be 5.10.
I brought Kellen up and headed out to the right. The lower angled rock
of the traverse dropped away to vertical and slightly overhanging as I
turned the corner. There was a horizontal weakness leading over to the
big corner that looked climbable. There was a bit of rotten rock but it
was easy to avoid. Great footholds made the spectacularly exposed
traverse easy. There was just one hard move, no more than 5.8, up a
little seam to good holds. I could hear the leader of the other party
grunting up the long last pitch of Olive Oil and waited just off to the
left out of his way.
He soon came in to view and said, "Oh there you are! I thought maybe
you'd gotten lost." "Well we lost our way but found it again. Sounds
like you got the worst of it," I said. I was referring to his grunting
and thrutching up the corner. He laughed and said that he'd done the
route several times and could never remember which way to face, and that
he hadn't gotten it right this time either. I told him I'd wait for his
partner to go by, but he said there was plenty of room above and that
once he got anchored I could climb through.
We exchanged pleasantries on the summit and hiked down the back, one of
the easiest descents I can remember. I think it's one of the best
routes at the grade that I have ever done, at least with the direct
finish we did after pitch 3. Lots of 5.6 and 5.7.
On Wednesday we headed down to First Creek and walked in to Lotta Balls
wall under sunny skies. The forecast called for gusty winds in the
afternoon and a chance of showers. On the way in we spotted another
sheep, a big ram. Then another, and another. Once our eyes became
accustomed to what to look for, we started to see them all over the
place, 16 in all, most just resting on the ground in the sun. They were
watching us too. We dallied for half an hour until the novelty wore off.
A party was at the base ahead of us but were going to warm up on The
Trihardral, left of Lotta Balls. We all agreed that the first pitch of
Lotta Balls is intimidating for just 5.6. There's an overhang about 20
feet off the ground. But hidden holds and good pro make it fun. Above
the roof, a crack in a shallow corner leads to a flake that diagonals up
and right to a belay ledge and two bolts. The second pitch climbs a very
steep, varnished black face with lots of little balls of various sizes
suitable for finger and foot holds. Two bolts protect this bit and a
move of 5.8, and lead up to a steep, right facing corner and a nice
ledge. Kellen hadn't yet made peace with the new rock, the steepness and
the length of the pitches and was not anxious to lead. So I led the
third pitch too, loaded with steep, interesting and fun moves. He did
the last bit to the top and we rapped off the side.
It was early yet but the wind had kicked up and the wall was entirely in
shade. We were shivering and the forecast called for showers in the
afternoon, so we went to town to pick up our shoes and to get a shower.
A sign on the bulletin board at the campground says you can get a shower
at Desert Rock Sports for $5. But the shower is $4 and it's at
Powerhouse climbing gym, next door. We ate out, Mexican, after our
shower: a nice change from making dinner by lantern light, cleaning up
and passing out. Although we'd been climbing quite a bit since October,
our outings were mostly one day affairs to the local crag or bouldering. ...
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