Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Red Rocks 2011, Part 1

(Photo: Most of the way through the runout on pitch three of Johnny Vegas.)

I was really looking forward to my trip to Red Rock Canyon this spring.

Visions of long, moderate trad routes occupied my mind for months. Grades were irrelevant; I just wanted to go high and far on the gorgeous sandstone.

Okay, I'm lying about the grades. I worked hard this winter to get in better shape and I wanted to feel like I was making progress. I'd sent my partner Adrian a list of possible routes in January, and it included routes that were harder than anything I'd ever climbed before. I figured I'd be comfortable leading 5.7 or 5.8, for sure, that would be a given. I expected Adrian could handle the odd 5.9 pitch, or maybe if I was feeling good I'd take them on as well. And maybe, just maybe, I could follow Adrian up a 5.10 pitch, and after (of course!) finding it surprisingly easy, I could perhaps get my first 5.10 trad lead under my belt...

Well, it didn't quite work out like that, although we did get some amazing long trad routes done. There were successes, and some missed opportunities. Overall I think it was a great way to start the season and build a foundation for climbing during the rest of the year.

Day one: getting comfortable in fits and starts

I had hoped to get in a few Gunks days in March as preparation for our trip, but the weather and other obligations made that very difficult. I ended up squeezing in just one day in the Gunks in March, and this day did not make me feel like jumping right into any 5.9 leads, much less 5.10. I felt extremely rusty on Gunks 5.7. I decided I was unprepared for the trip. Climbing on real rock felt foreign and insecure. And I was all fumbly with the gear.

Then in the days before our departure the forecast for our first day in Red Rocks turned ominous. Highs only in the low 50s. Rain likely by the afternoon. In Vegas! Rain likely?! Seriously. I couldn't believe it.

So Adrian and I talked it over in the airport and as we headed down the runway we decided to take it pretty easy on our first day and do something not too long on the Angel Food Wall, which gets sun in the morning. Maybe we could quickly run up something easy like Group Therapy, which has seven pitches but only one as hard as 5.7-- most are 5.5 or easier. Hopefully we'd shake off some rust, beat the rain and then reassess.

Our first day in Vegas dawned without a hint of the forecasted rain. It was chilly, and snow was clearly visible atop the highest formations in Red Rock Canyon. But the skies were blue, and as we started driving around the loop road towards our chosen destination Adrian said the kind of thing I love him for. He said: "wouldn't you rather do Solar Slab?"

Wouldn't I?? "Hell yes," I replied.

Now Solar Slab is also a climb full of easy pitches, none harder than 5.6. But it goes a long way up a huge face. First you have to pick a three or four-pitch route just to get up 500 feet or so to the ledge below Solar Slab. Then Solar Slab itself involves 7 pitches to the last rappel anchors. This wasn't at first blush the sort of commitment I wanted to enter into if rain was coming at midday. On the other hand, Solar Slab features bolted anchors all the way up the wall, allowing for easy retreat pretty much at any point should the weather turn sour. So climbing it didn't seem like an unsafe decision. It was just going to make for a long, unpleasant descent should we get caught in the rain while on the upper wall. Why not go for it?

We decided on Johnny Vegas, a four-pitch 5.7, as our approach route to the big ledge below Solar Slab. We racked up and I prepared to lead the first pitch, which is rated 5.6. I was getting psyched up to start when Adrian must have sensed my anxiety. "This is going to be super casual and fun," he said. And he was right. It didn't just feel easy, it felt easy for 5.6. It was to be my frequent experience at Red Rocks: if you're talking about face climbs the grades feel soft. The holds are juggy and ample. The only real worry is the rock quality. It often feels like you're going to rip the sandstone holds right off the wall with just your fingertips. "Pull down, not out," became a mantra I repeated constantly to myself over our four days in Red Rocks.

(Photo: Looking up at the short crux of pitch two of Johnny Vegas.)

The easy first pitch set my mind at ease. After Adrian led the second pitch, a simple 5.7 featuring a steep crux section that was over in about two moves, I confronted the runout 5.6 pitch three. The runout is actually not the 5.6 part of the pitch; the guidebook describes the unprotected face climbing as a straightforward 5.5 section. Standing there before it, I had absolutely no doubt I would climb it safely. The angle was low and the rock was heavily featured. Holds were obvious and everywhere. But the runout was real and as I contemplated the lead I looked over Adrian's shoulder and could see a nearby climb called The Friar, where a climber last year broke a hold while climbing the "easy" 5.6 runout section and fell, tragically, about 50 feet to her death.

There was a time in my life when I would have simply rejected a climb featuring a runout, R-rated section, regardless of how easy it was, on the theory that such runouts are "unsafe." Now, however, I realize that in traditional climbing the leader often places him or herself into such situations. You can't protect every move. If you tried you'd have to carry too much gear, and you'd never finish. Instead, you protect yourself most when you are closest to your limits, and by necessity you run out easier sections of climbs, at least to some degree. If you are honest with yourself when you climb, you have to acknowledge that if you climb harder than 5.5, you are probably climbing into 5.5 R territory with some regularity.

Still, this particular runout was longer than I ever would have chosen for myself and it took a momentary gut check before I went ahead and did it. And then it was all over and the whole internal debate seemed silly.

The day was going very well, and Adrian knocked off the easy 4th pitch, a scramble up to the big ledge beneath Solar Slab, in no time. As I reached the big ledge, I felt great. Johnny Vegas had been an awesome warm-up for our day and our trip. But then I looked up at Solar Slab and my high hopes for the day were instantly deflated. Solar Slab was a tunnel of runoff. Water was flowing in a stream down the wall, through the middle pitches of the route, and then to the right and directly over the slabby first pitch as well. The wind had also picked up and staring up at that wet wall gave me a deep chill. We thought about diverting to one of the other (harder) routes to the right of Solar Slab, but the first pitches seemed wet and to be honest neither of us really wanted to jump into the harder leads just yet. Reluctantly we bailed down the (wet) Solar Slab Gully.

(Photo: Looking down pitch one of Beulah's Book.)

We then moved on to Beulah's Book, and I really enjoyed leading the 5.7 pitch 1. The only part of the pitch that was arguably 5.7 was the opening bit up a corner with a crack in the back, and then the angle eased and the climb went up a pleasant face, then back to the widening crack and a bolted anchor. A very aesthetic and mellow pitch. For some reason there is one protection bolt in the middle of the face-climbing part of the pitch, just a foot above a perfect horizontal crack that takes great cams or tricams.

As I waited for Adrian to come up I stared into the intimidating chimney that begins the 5.9 pitch two of Beulah's Book. I hoped Adrian would decide to lead it, and not the easier (to all appearances) arete variation that avoids the wide chimney. I knew there was no way I was leading it. As it happened, Adrian checked it out and thought long and hard about heading up the chimney, and then decided to do the (bolted) arete instead, which turned out to be nice, but probably not as hard as 5.9.

Then we rapped off and left the area, and drove around the loop again to the Willow Springs pullout to do Ragged Edges before the day ended. I was interested in leading the 5.7 first pitch because a couple of years ago I had taken a hang before having the guts to do the final section of pitch, which actually requires a few moves of pure crack climbing. You need to throw a jam or two into the crack and torque your feet into it as well. Not my cup of tea as a Gunks climber, but I thought that I'd go right at it this time around. Well, wouldn't you know it, I got up there and did the same damn thing all over again. I had great pro in the crack, all I had to do was commit to the move... but I couldn't make myself do it and I asked Adrian to take. Just like the last time.

"You need to put your FOOT into the CRACK," Adrian said, not unreasonably.

"I know, I know, shut up, I know!" I said.

After hanging there a minute I went ahead and did it and it required exactly one jam before I could easily finish the pitch using sizable face holds. So frustrating.

While I was regressing, Adrian was interested in pushing a bit harder. So he led the 5.9 first pitch of Plan F, the climb just to the left of Ragged Edges. He had trouble figuring out the crux at the top and ended up cheating over to Ragged Edges to finish it. I was slightly consoled to get it on the first try on top rope. Then Adrian led up pitch two of Ragged Edges (5.8), which has great climbing but spaced pro. I hadn't been on that pitch before and it is quite worthwhile, but I'd consider that one a bit of a heady lead.

Day Two: snow and thrutching in Las Vegas

(Photo: Approaching Ginger Cracks, which climbs the white pyramid in the center of the photo.)

As our second day began I thought we'd passed the danger zone with regard to the weather. Rain was not in the forecast and the temperature was supposed to rise at some point. We'd settled on Ginger Cracks, a seven pitch climb up an attractive white pyramidal feature on the east side of Rainbow Mountain. It is just around the corner from Crimson Chrysalis, one of the most popular routes at Red Rocks, but Ginger Cracks sees much less traffic than Crimson Chrysalis, perhaps in part because the crux pitch of Ginger Cracks is 5.9 and because the climb begins with an off-width crack.

(Photo: Looking up the second half of pitch one of Ginger Cracks.)

I thought this climb might get morning sun but it became clear as we approached that only a portion of the route got a little morning light before falling into shade. The rest of the climb was perpetually shaded and we even spotted snow on the lower ledges on the route. Whatever, the climb looked beautiful, following obvious natural features through the several pitches we could make out from the ground. And we'd hiked over an hour to get here. Might as well start up.

I was scheduled to lead the 5.7 pitch one, but I took one step up into the opening foot-wide off-width and decided I wanted no part of it. I wasn't sure how I was going to climb the thing and I felt like there was no good pro where I wanted it down low. I knew Adrian would happily take over. It is another of the many things I value about climbing with Adrian: he is always available to bail me out.

It turned out he wasn't too happy with this part of the climb either-- as he grunted up the off-width he placed a cam deep in the crack and then started swearing.

"Shit, this flake in here is totally loose!"

I had already decided any pro in there would be junk, which is why I'd handed over the lead to Adrian in the first place, so I wasn't surprised to hear this. Despite the pro situation he got through it, and as he approached the first ledge about forty feet up I suggested he build a belay and let me do the second half of the pitch, as we'd originally planned. When I followed Adrian up the off-width crack I found it really easy to cam my foot across the opening and move up. I felt foolish for not leading it, although the pro down low was still not to my liking. And I found leading the second half of the pitch was wonderful, heading up a great layback flake and then a chimney leading to a roof escape.

(Photo: Watching a storm roll across the canyon from atop pitch one of Ginger Cracks.)

Pitch two of Ginger Cracks is rated 5.8. As I waited for Adrian to follow me up pitch one I checked it out. It is a face climbing pitch, and it also features a roof problem. It didn't intimidate me at all. This was my type of climbing. I told Adrian I wanted to lead it, and he happily gave me the gear. But before I could go, we had to decide whether we could continue at all. A huge storm had rolled in while I was leading the second half of pitch one, and although the sky above us remained blue, it seemed like the middle of the canyon was getting hit with a bunch of precipitation. We stood there for what seemed an eternity, trying to figure out if it would come over our heads or pass us by. Eventually, since the sky remained blue above us, and because the next three pitches all ended at bolted stations, we decided to continue. We could always bail from the next station, so why not get in as much climbing as possible?

I led up pitch two, enjoying the face climbing, until the roof drew near and I realized this pitch might be more than I bargained for. I looked up and saw that before the roof was a bottomless, flaring chimney, with a layback crack at the back. I had to go up into the chimney before pulling the roof. Suddenly the pitch was pretty scary. But this time I wasn't going to bail. I had good pro right in front of my face, and I knew the crack in the back of the chimney would provide as many options for placements as I could ever desire. I just had to commit to moving into the chimney, place another piece, and then pull the roof and get out of there.

I stemmed across the chimney, my left foot on a crease, my right foot just pasted to the right wall. Placing a cam, I figured I could reach over the roof if I got my left foot up just a little. One careful step up and the pitch would be as good as over. The feet and the hands would be much more secure.

And it worked out, just as I hoped. I let out a whoop and finished the pitch. It was just another 5.8, but pitch two of Ginger Cracks was my favorite lead of our trip, and my first real feeling of progress this year.

Just as I was feeling more in my element, Adrian was starting to seem a little beaten down. The first pitch had taken something out of him, and the third pitch, also rated 5.7, turned out to involve a bit more wide crack technique. He thrutched a bit at the start, then ventured a little too far left and scared himself for a second as he worked his way back onto the proper route. When I joined him at the belay he said he wasn't sure he felt like leading the 5.9 pitch four, which was the crux pitch on the route.

Looking up at it, I was sure I could lead it. It was another face-climbing pitch, the first part of which was low-angled and well featured with holds. The crux steep section appeared short, and it had three protection bolts. Three bolts! It was as if there were three pitons, which always produce irrational confidence, but these were not the junky fifty-year-old pitons I was accustomed to clipping; these were bright shiny bolts! No problem. This was going to be easier than Sente, a 5.9 minus with bolts in the Gunks. I was raring to do it. Not only would it be a great pitch to build on as I got my year under way, but it would also be my first chance to do for Adrian what he usually does for me. I could bail him out for once, let him take it easy for a change. It was perfect.

Alas, it was not to be.

As I'd waited for Adrian to lead pitch three, I detected snow flurries coming down around me. When I arrived at the belay with Adrian, the storm worsened. Soon we were surrounded by clouds and the snow flurries were blowing everywhere. The temperature dropped and what had been just a cool day was suddenly very unpleasant.

(Photo: Suddenly engulfed in a storm on Ginger Cracks.)

We stood there at the belay for what seemed like a very long time freezing and debating what to do. The snow didn't seem to be sticking or making the rock wet. The next pitch ended at a set of bolts. We could do one more pitch. But it was windy and miserable, and at any moment it could turn yet again for the worse, to rain or wet snow or who knows what. Ultimately we decided to do the conservative thing and bail off.

Of course, as we trudged back to the car the sky cleared and it grew considerably warmer. We got back to the trailhead and I was shocked to discover it was already 4:00 in the afternoon. We had expended an awful lot of effort for just three pitches. What with us breaking up pitch one into two parts and all the waiting for the weather, we'd used up most of the day. But I wasn't sorry we'd attempted Ginger Cracks. It is a great climb with a variety of challenges on it. One day I'll go back, charge straight up the off-width, and handle the crux pitch besides. But for now mostly I'm left with an unlikely story about climbing in the snow in Las Vegas.

I knew Adrian was tired but I couldn't end the day after just three pitches. The sun was shining and it didn't seem the rock anywhere was wet so I insisted we go and do a couple pitches of sport climbing, just to get a little more out of our day. I looked at the book and there was a wall near the first pullout called the Dog Wall, which looked like it had a couple good, short 5.10s on it.

"Are you going to lead them?" Adrian asked.

"Sure," I said, and he agreed to the plan.

I led Cat Walk (5.10a), the easiest climb on the wall, and I had to take a hang at the last bolt. It was an obvious, gym-like climb with rather repetitive crimpy moves. But I had to admit I was tired, regardless of the small number of pitches we'd done. It was time to head back to the hotel and hope for better weather tomorrow. From the top of Cat Walk I rigged a toprope for It's a Bitch (5.10b), and after we both climbed that one (it was more of the same type of climbing) we called it a day.

Coming up in Part 2: beautiful weather, Jubilant Song, Birdland, and Cookie Monster. And no more bailing!