Monday, December 12, 2016

A Late-Season Matinee (5.10d) & More!


(Photo: Connie at the crux of pitch two of Nurse's Aid (5.10a).)

It was December in the Gunks.

Connie and I were on our way towards the West Trapps parking lot. We'd been climbing all day, thanks to temperatures above forty degrees. It was getting late in the afternoon and I had to get back to Manhattan for a dinner reservation. I figured we could knock off a quick climb like Retribution or Nosedive and then we'd hit the road.

But Connie had other ideas. She was pushing me to hop on Matinee (5.10d), one of the hardest tens in the Gunks.

This was all my fault.

Connie had been reading my blog, so she knew that Matinee was one of my must-dos for the year. I'd said so. And the year was just about over! If I didn't do it now, the route would have to wait for 2017.

I wasn't sure I was up for it. With the season winding down, my ambitions were fading. And besides, we probably didn't have enough time left in our day. It was going to be dark in less than an hour, and we needed to get going.

So we passed Matinee and walked into the Uberfall, only to find that we couldn't do Retribution or Nosedive. They were occupied by a big group.

I should have known they'd be unavailable.

What was my backup plan?

I didn't have one.

It looked like I would have to do Matinee. We walked back over to it.

I'd never been on the route. Connie had seconded it before. She mentioned in passing that the person she followed on her first visit to the route was trying to complete all of the star-worthy 5.10's in the Trapps. Matinee had been one of the last ones on his list.

As she said this, I realized that I'd basically done the same thing. I'd been working through the tens in the Trapps for years, and by now I figured I'd done almost all of them. Matinee was one of very few left on my personal hit list that I had yet to try. It was still sitting there, unclimbed by me, because of its stout reputation.

It occurred to me that Connie's remark could provide me with a new purpose: I could polish off the 5.10 grade. I could lead every star-worthy pitch of 5.10 in the Trapps-- and in the Nears too, why not? I would have to comb through the Williams books later to see what I'd missed. There couldn't be too many of them left.

I haven't worked through them in a systematic way. I just try to do new tens in the Gunks all the time.

The last couple of days I've had in the Gunks have been no exception. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was subconsciously working towards completing my new project.

The weekend before my day with Connie, for example, I was out with Gail and I ticked off a couple of tens from the list.

We did Dis-Mantel (5.10b), a short climb up a big block with two good roof cruxes.

This was a climb I'd tried in 2012, and on that occasion I'd been completely unable to do it. There is a very reachy move over the first roof. In 2012 I couldn't make the reach.


(Photo: Gail's shot of me at the second crux roof on Dis-Mantel (5.10b).)

And in 2016? It was still hard for me. I had to step up and down several times. I rearranged my feet, sucked my hip into the wall, and stretched with all of my might... and eventually barely reached the good hold over the roof.


(Photo: Gail at the first crux roof on Dis-Mantel (5.10b).)

The second, "5.8" crux on Dis-Mantel is also no gimme. It is a good climb. It is well worth doing.

Gail and I also did Co-Op Direct (5.10a), an unpopular line just to the left of Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b). The regular Co-Op wanders a lot and is rated 5.8. The direct variation goes straight up some steep flakes and through a shallow overhang instead of veering left and back right to avoid the hard stuff.


(Photo: Gail coming up Co-Op Direct (5.10a).)

I liked Co-Op Direct. It isn't spectacular but it has some good moves. I thought the 5.10a crux came at the steep flakes. There is gear at the beginning of the difficulties but by the time you reach the shallow roof you'd be in for a pretty good fall if you blew it. At the roof, it seemed natural to me to follow the holds just a foot or so to the left, where I was relieved to find good gear for the the final moves up.

The next weekend, with Connie, I attempted a few more of the last remaining pitches on my 5.10 tick list before we got around to climbing Matinee.


(Photo: Connie leading pitch two of Arrow (5.8).)

Connie had expressed an interest in doing Feast of Fools (5.10b). We warmed up on the nearby Arrow (5.8), and as Connie led pitch two of Arrow I got a good look at pitch two of Nurse's Aid (5.10a). Pitch one (5.10c) was one of my prouder on-sights in 2015, But I'd never gotten around to trying the second pitch.


(Photo: An unknown leader on pitch two of Nurse's Aid (5.10a). I took this photo in May of 2010 from the bolted anchor above Limelight (5.7).)

Pitch two is reputed to be a sandbag at 5.10a. It is also a great photo op, with a super-exposed swing out of an alcove to the side of a white block hanging in space. It looked very intimidating.

It was time to give it a try.

The early part of the pitch sucks. I found slimy wetness and loose rock. Just past a truly scary block things improved. After some nice layback moves up a vertical crack I landed in the alcove just before the crux. I took a big gulp before leaving the security of this little cave and swinging out to the crux horizontal. It helped that I was able to arrange bomber gear before making the moves. Nevertheless, once I got out there I really felt all that air beneath me!


(Photo: That's me in the thick of things on pitch two of Nurse's Aid (5.10a). This photo was taken by Mountain Project user cvanpak, from the GT Ledge.)

I wish I could say I got the on-sight cleanly, but I did not. I tried heel-hooking out the horizontal and then rocking up over my heel but I couldn't make it work and eventually I took a hang. When I went at it a second time I found another way to mantel up over the crack. Once I figured out the move it felt straightforward; the grade of 5.10a seemed fair enough.

I have to go back for the send on pitch two of Nurse's Aid. It will be easy for me the second time, I think, since I've worked it out.



(Photo: My shot of Mountain Project user cvanpak on Limelight (5.7), taken from the top of Nurse's Aid.)

After we finished with Nurse's Aid, Connie got her on-sight of pitch one of Feast of Fools (5.10b), motoring through it without a moment's doubt. I was happy for her. I'd led this first pitch a couple of times but, as with Nurse's Aid, I hadn't tried pitch two, another star-worthy pitch of 5.10a. Ever eager to knock off another new pitch of 5.10, I went ahead and led it.


(Photo: Connie on pitch one of Feast of Fools (5.10b).)

It went well, though it wasn't quite what I expected. The pitch ascends a left-facing corner. I assumed there would be some kind of weird crux move to get around the corner, sort of like MF (5.9) or Moxie (5.9). Instead it turned out to involve steep, burly climbing straight up the corner, using obvious jugs and crimps. It was a bit dirty after the crux. The gear was adequate.

Pitch two of Feast of Fools is worth doing once. It isn't nearly as good as pitch one.

But let's get back to Matinee.

It was already late. Time was of the essence. I decided to do the two pitches of Matinee in one lead. I knew there would be rope drag but I thought it probably wouldn't be too bad, since the first pitch is so short.

Setting off on pitch one, I quickly got up to the stance beneath the big roof and confronted the crux of the climb: a thin traverse left, under the ceiling, with tiny crimps and underclings for the hands and, for the toes, only some pathetic little smears on the smooth, steep wall.

I really wanted to get the send on this pitch so I resolved neither to hesitate nor to give up. I placed a nest of good gear from the stance and then it was on. 

Stepping out onto the slick face, I delicately moved from crimp to undercling, matching toe to toe as I floated to the left. I considered placing another piece of gear mid-crux but decided against it-- with just a few steps I was going to be through the hard part. Holding my breath, I matched hands on the undercling hold I was using and stretched out to the lip at the end of the overhang. Finding a positive edge, I held on tight as I swung the other hand to a jug on the wall. Just like that, I'd made it! Pitch one was in the bag.

I was very happy, and relieved. Pitch one of Matinee is tenuous and thin-- I'm not sure I can repeat exactly what I did. I could easily slip off of the same moves next time. I'm glad we tried it in cool weather.

I placed a couple of pieces for Connie at the end of the pitch one crux and then kept going instead of stepping left to the traditional belay. Moving up, I arrived at the pitch two crux, a tough layback move over a shallow rooflet in a left-facing corner. Again the gear was good. There was a fixed nut there and I placed another nest of pieces to back it up. But the move was mysterious. I couldn't figure out how to get my foot up so I could get up over the little roof.

I stepped up and down, trying everything I could think of. I was conscious of our time slipping away. Finally I decided I had to commit to something. I launched myself upwards, but it didn't work. I couldn't get established above the overlap. Giving up, I asked Connie to take and I took a hang.

Right after I weighted the rope I spotted a hold I hadn't tried. As soon as I got back on the wall, I used this hold and got through the move. 

I was glad to be done with the hard climbing but I was angry with myself for giving up and hanging. I could easily have stepped down again and not blown the on-sight of pitch two. Impatience and frustration got the better of me. It was disappointing.

All of this was soon forgotten as the real adventure of our day began. 

I had taken a while getting through both of the Matinee cruxes. I knew the sun was setting, and I wasn't finished climbing. Connie still had to follow me. I needed to get this climb done! 

I got up to the next big roof. The move to escape the overhang wasn't hard but I soon discovered that I'd used up all my slings below.  

I couldn't extend my gear the way I needed to and as I stepped around the corner and up above the roof the rope drag became horrific.

I made a few more moves but I knew I couldn't continue. It was untenable. I could see the tree at the end of the pitch, only about 20 feet above me, but there was still some traversing to be done and I could barely move the rope. I decided I had to build a belay and bring Connie up.

I should not have tried to combine the pitches. Or I should have been more careful about my slings.

Once she was on belay, Connie climbed quickly but there were issues. As light started to leave the sky, Connie struggled to remove one of my cams below the big initial roof. 

Time passed, with no movement.... She kept working at removing the cam. I shouted down that if it seemed hopeless she should just leave the piece. 

Finally she got it free and simultaneously swung out to the left. With the rope now out from under the roof, the drag situation was much improved, but Connie had to do some boinking to get back on the wall.

Once she resumed climbing she surmounted crux number two and came up to join me at my hanging belay.


(Photo: My phone captured this grainy shot of Connie as she climbed up to my hanging belay on Matinee (5.10d).)

I was in a hurry to get going with what little daylight remained, so I just flipped the rope stack over, grabbed a handful of cams and slings from Connie and took off again. Connie had wisely brought up her headlamp and I took it for the lead, but I didn't turn it on. I thought I could see well enough without it. As I climbed up to the tree I could barely make out what my toes were stepping on. But I tried to be careful and still placed a couple of pieces along the way. I made it to the ledge.

When I got to the tree I turned on the headlamp, inspected the fixed tat anchor and clipped in. Breathing a sigh of relief-- we were almost done!-- I pulled up the rope and then realized that in my haste to finish the climb, I had left my Reverso behind at the hanging belay with Connie. 

Oops. I was really making a mess of things.

I had no belay device.

It was now completely dark. 

And was I going crazy, or was it starting to snow??

It was definitely snowing. 

I hope I redeemed myself by adjusting to the situation. I put Connie on belay using the Munter hitch, which I hadn't used in years. It is a very good thing to know, for just this kind of situation. I would encourage you to learn it if you don't know it already.

I pointed the headlamp downward to illuminate the rock for Connie and she joined me in a few minutes. I was certain we were were just one rap from the ground, but we couldn't see very far in the dark. We triple-checked everything, tied knots in the ends and were mindful of the rope as we rapped on down.

Needless to say, I was late for dinner! 

I was glad we tackled Matinee, even if it did turn into kind of an epic. We faced a few surprises but kept our heads and were safe. I was proud to on-sight pitch one and kind of pissed off about not on-sighting pitch two. Now I have to go back for the complete send. It is a great climb. Best to do it in two pitches! 

When I got home I pored over the Williams books and compiled a list of every star-worthy pitch of 5.10 in the Trapps and the Nears that I have not sent on lead. Here is what I came up with. If I have been on a route before, I have indicated it in parentheses. In the Trapps, most of the climbs are routes I need to revisit for the red-point. There are only a few I haven't tried at all. In the Nears, by contrast, I still need to hit several three-star multi-pitch classics that I have never attempted.

Trapps:

Sonja (5.10a/b)
Stirrup Trouble (5.10b) (I've followed it once)
Matinee pitch two (5.10d) (I need the red-point)
PR Direct pitch three (5.10b)
Nemesis (5.10a)
Birdie Party pitch two roof (5.10b) (I've followed it once)
Interstice pitch two roof (5.10d)
Mother's Day Party pitch two roof (5.10a)
Reach of Faith (5.10c) (should be an adventure-- no one does this climb)
Turdland (5.10d) (I've led it the 5.9 way)
Nurse's Aid pitch two (5.10a) (I need the red-point)
Directissima Direct (pitch one 5.10b/c variation that skips the ramp and traverse)
Ent Line (5.10d or 5.11a) (I've top-roped it)
Space Invaders (5.10d) (I've followed it once)
Double Crack/Where Fools Rush In (5.10b/c link-up)
Tweak or Freak (5.10a)
Bragg-Hatch (5.10d)
Creaky Joints and Trigger Points (5.10b)
Tennish Anyone? (5.10c) (I need the red-point)

Near Trapps:

Topeka (5.10a)
Outer Space Direct (5.10b)
Criss Cross Direct (5.10a)
Swing Time pitch one (5.10b)
Ba-Ba Moran pitch two (5.10b/c)
Fat Stick Direct (5.10b)
Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d) (I need the red-point)
Elder Cleavage Direct (5.10b)
Boob Job (5.10b)
Wooly Clam Taco (5.10c) (I've top-roped it)
Hang Ten (5.10a)
Whatever (5.10a)
Spinal Exam (5.10b/c)

I'm excited to get to work on this list! And to resume my attack on the 5.11 grade in the Gunks.

I hope your 2016 was as good as mine was, climbing-wise. Though I didn't see any major breakthroughs this year, I achieved a handful of 5.11 trad sends. I enjoyed successful climbing trips to Red Rocks and the New River Gorge. I also had a fun, casual day in Seneca Rocks about which I have yet to post.

If 2017 brings more of the same I'll be satisfied.

I wish everyone out there in the climbing world a happy and safe New Year!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Las Vegas on the Rocks 2016


(Photo: A leader named Brian at the 5.11a roof on Levitation 29 (5.11c).)

Vegas, baby!

I was excited to be back. 

I've been to Vegas on several occasions-- a few times for the climbing at Red Rocks, and a few times for (let's say) other miscellaneous pursuits.

My last visit was in 2011, and it was all about the rock climbing. Five years ago, I wasn't the polished, confident climber (!) that you, dear reader, have come to know and love. I was much greener back then, passionate to be sure, but unseasoned. During that trip to Red Rocks, with my longtime partner Adrian, I managed to get up a few of the area classics. I was tentative and had no idea what I could do. I was quaking in my boots climbing 5.8, and I was prone to bailing on my leads. I remember taking a hang because I couldn't commit to a single hand jam in 5.7 territory on Ragged Edges

But that was then. This year I was sure it was going to be entirely different. I had in mind many of the most legendary, heralded climbs in Red Rocks. For me the most important thing was that the climbs be long, multi-pitch outings up big walls, of the kind for which the area is famous. I wanted to do everything, although to me the most appealing choices seemed to be in the 5.10 range and beyond.


(Photo: Adrian's capture of Rainbow Mountain at sunrise, with moon.)

Adrian was to be my partner again for this 2016 Vegas adventure. He's been to Red Rocks on countless occasions over the last twenty years. He's done almost every great Red Rocks climb you can name. Nevertheless, he came to Vegas this year with a brief list of climbs that he had never tried.

We had four short November days with which to make memories.

Flying into Las Vegas for the first time in a long time, I was struck anew by the duality of this strange place. The beauty of Red Rocks, always visible in the distance, stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of the sprawling city. The genuine natural wonder of the desert surrounds the wholly artificial glitter of The Strip. The pure, noble attraction of the mountains is ever present, but is juxtaposed with the cheap, tawdry enticements of the town.

How many visitors to Las Vegas are even aware of the glorious landscape that sits just outside the city limits? For the most part, people don't come to Sin City for outdoorsy games. They come for the other Vegas. They value the ugliness, the artificial glamour, the cheap and tawdry entertainments. Do they ever lift their eyes from their poker chips for just a second to scan the horizon? Do they wonder what is out there?


(Photo: Red Rocks in the afternoon.)

I ought to hate Las Vegas. Sometimes, driving around the city, I would play a little mental game in which I would try to see if I could spot in Las Vegas the most depressing place in the world. Everywhere you look in the city, you'll find a candidate for the title. How about this nasty-looking tattoo parlor? Pretty sad. Or maybe that seedy strip club in a sketchy strip mall? Could be a winner. Perhaps one of the countless little local casinos, with worn carpets and blinking fluorescent lights, empty but for a couple of patrons wearing thousand-yard stares as they slowly drain their bank accounts into slot machines?

There is much to dislike, and much to be depressed about, but I have to admit that I like Vegas. I like that people come to the city to let loose, to let go. I like the groups of women strutting out for a good time, dressed in a trashy way that I imagine they'd never consider back at home. I like the families with little kids, racially and economically diverse, entranced at the ersatz wonders on every corner. I like the conventioneers, gathered for marijuana industry panels or obscure religious meetings, and I like the groups of teenagers brought together for baseball championships and chess tournaments.

In Vegas, you encounter a broader cross-section of America than you're likely to find anywhere else-- much broader than I ever see in my home town of New York City. Every time I step into an elevator in Vegas I feel like I'm about to be introduced to a new example, previously unknown to me, of What's Out There.

And we climbers are part of the freaky parade. I'm sure Adrian and I looked quite unusual to everyone else in our (cheap) hotel, trooping through the lobby as we did in the wee hours of the morning carrying our packs and ropes and gear. This was our main interaction with the normal Las Vegas; we'd speed through the lobby on our way out, and stumble back through after climbing all day and grabbing a quick dinner, ready to shower, crash, and do it all over again.


(Photo: The famous Las Vegas sign, with a shadowy stranger lurking beneath it.)

Our routine was to awaken at 5:00 in the morning. We'd get our crap together and hit the road, with only a stop at Starbucks for a coffee and a sandwich before heading out Charleston Avenue to Red Rocks. Our aim was always to be at the gate as close to the 6:00 a.m. opening time as possible, so we could make the most of the available daylight and have the best chance of being first to our chosen climbs. This worked well for us on the first two days, when we climbed routes that were accessed from the loop road. On days 3 and 4, we drove to Black Velvet Canyon, which is outside the loop, and found out that 6:00 isn't necessarily early enough to be first when there is no gate. But arriving second didn't end up hurting us much.

We did a lot of excellent climbing in our four days. There were many pitches of 5.10 face climbing, which the two of us handled pretty comfortably, generally speaking. I thought we did well as a climbing team, too, moving quickly enough on the approaches, handling the changeovers efficiently, and avoiding any true rope management disasters. We never got bogged down or spent too much time on a pitch. All in all we succeeded in what we set out to do, climbed some wonderful classics, and had a great time doing it.

Day 1: Unimpeachable Groping (7 pitches, 5.10b)

Our first route was Adrian's selection, chosen mostly because he'd never done it before. I hadn't put Unimpeachable Groping high on my list because it is essentially sport-bolted, with just a few optional gear placements here and there. I was more keen to do real trad climbs.

But I was willing. The guidebook describes the climb as having six pitches in a row of 5.10a & b face climbing. Adrian argued, convincingly, that this route would get us acclimated to the Red Rocks style.

In the morning we arrived in pretty good time and we were first at the base. It was chilly and shady in the gully below the climb, but it was nice and sunny up on the wall, which caused me to make a potentially serious mistake: I decided to leave my jacket on the ground. I figured that with high temperatures expected in the fifties and the sun on the rock, I'd be comfortable in a my shirt sleeves, just like in the Gunks.

Adrian led pitch number one, using the tree-climbing start recommended in the guidebook. It looked a little bit dicey off the deck, but once he reached over and placed an Alien to protect the move onto the face, it all seemed good and he made steady progress. As he climbed I took in the beautiful surroundings. It was good to be there, communing with nature.


(Photo: Adrian using the tree-climbing start on Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b).)

Soon we had company. Another pair of climbers arrived at the wall. They'd been partying a little too hard the night before. Right after they arrived, one of them started puking in the bushes!

My reverie was spoiled. I couldn't believe these dudes made the hour-plus hike.

After the guy finished purging his breakfast, he lit a cigarette and wouldn't shut up.

Standing there, shivering a bit, I couldn't wait to get going. Thankfully, Adrian finished the long pitch with dispatch and soon enough I got on the wall and escaped the barfing bros. They ultimately bailed after one pitch.

Once I got to climbing I quickly became comfortable on the sandstone. It sometimes felt a little bit slippery to me but I got used to the style and confident on my toes by the end of our first pitch. I liked the climbing on the route. It was all thin face climbing, but it wasn't a monotonous slog straight up the bolt line. There were interesting sequences weaving left and right past the bolts. Climbing into the sunlight on the wall, I felt warm and happy.


(Photo: Adrian's shot of me climbing into the light on Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b).)

I led pitch two. It went well, and though there were some interesting moves there was nothing that felt desperate.

I took an unexpected fall. I was standing at the anchor at the end of the pitch, about to clip in. I can't tell you what happened. My foot must have popped. I was suddenly airborne. It was to be my only fall of the day. Furious, I quickly climbed back up and kept going, linking the second pitch into the short third pitch, which brought me to a ledge beneath a big roof. Adrian offered me the lead again on pitch four, knowing that I'd be eager to use my Gunks superpowers on the 5.10 roof just above us.


(Photo: Adrian's pic of me clearing the roof on pitch four of Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b).)

Soon the wall fell into the shade, and this is where the trouble began. It might have been fifty degrees at the base of the wall, but up a few hundred feet, with no sun and no shelter from the wind at the hanging belays, it felt much colder to me. As Adrian climbed and I waited, I started to shiver uncontrollably.

When Adrian arrived at the belay I expressed an interest in leading again, so I could get moving. Adrian-- that bastard!-- was comfy in his jacket and he agreed.


(Photo: Adrian, appropriately dressed, on one of the upper pitches on Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b). You can see a party behind us on the route.)

The rest of the climb went by in a blur. I moved quickly while leading to get warm and then shivered, teeth chattering, at the belays until Adrian joined me and I could start climbing again. I remember good, steep climbing, but not many details. As I led the final 5.10 pitch, I blew past the last rap anchor and realized later, as I reached a big ledge, that I'd inadvertently committed us to doing the final 5.8 pitch to the top of the tower.

This last pitch was very enjoyable, with some space between the bolts and airy positioning at the left edge of the face. I'm glad we did it, in retrospect. At the time I just wanted to get down and put my jacket on.


(Photo: I'm taking it to the top on Unimpeachable Groping. Photo by Adrian.)

During our descent over another route called Power Failure (5.10b), we had an encounter with the renowned rope-eating features at Red Rocks. One of our ropes got hopelessly stuck on a blocky ledge. It wasn't a crisis, but I had to climb back up to the ledge to free the rope. We'd been speedy, so we had plenty of time.


(Photo: Adrian rappelling over Power Failure (5.10b).)

I liked Unimpeachable Groping, much more than I expected to. It has pitch after pitch of consistent, high quality face climbing, and a fun roof problem. You really don't need any trad gear, although we brought a set of nuts and a few cams and placed them on occasion. I'd gladly go back and do the route again. And I'd like to do Power Failure, the route we rapped over. Looks very nice. You could easily do both routes in a single day when the days are longer.

The most significant thing about the climb, from my perspective, was that we'd now done many pitches of 5.10 and (apart from my one mystery fall) it had all been casual and fun. This was what I'd hoped for. I was going to have a great time climbing in Red Rocks.

Day 2: Eagle Dance (9 pitches, 5.10c)

Our second day was projected to be slightly warmer, but not by much. I wanted sunshine. Over dinner we looked through the guidebook for walls that stayed in the sun all day. I was surprised to see that there really aren't that many. One option stood out: the Eagle Wall, home to some mega classic lines.

This wall hadn't figured into my plans. The traditional approach takes two hours. I wasn't sure we'd have time to do a big route at this wall in November.

But I saw some useful beta on Mountain Project for a direct "Wily Climber's Approach" that takes only an hour and a half. After some rough calculations we decided that if we moved quickly we could get a route done in daylight. We might end up walking out in the dark, but that wouldn't be a big deal.

Adrian had done all of the most popular routes at this wall, and he wasn't exactly thrilled about hiking all the way up there again. But he knew that if we could knock off a climb like Eagle Dance (5.10c) or Levitation 29 (5.11c), it would be a big deal for me. He could see the pleading in my eyes. So he agreed.


(Photo: Adrian on the scrambly direct approach to the Eagle Wall.)

The "Wily" approach went well for us; I would recommend it. Because we hadn't done it before, it wasn't much faster than the traditional approach for us. It took us just under two hours to reach the base of the wall. But it was fun, and it avoided the endless boulder scrambling that is required by the traditional approach.

Although we'd entered the loop road just after 6:00 a.m., we weren't the first to arrive at the wall. There was a party just ahead of us, getting set up for Levitation 29 as we walked up. Our intended target, Eagle Dance, was sitting there open, so we were in luck.


(Photo: I'm standing not far from the end of the scrambling but still some distance from the Eagle Wall. You can see the bird-shaped streak of brown varnish which gives the wall its name. Photo by Adrian.)

Like many of the most popular climbs in Red Rocks, Eagle Dance was put up by Jorge and Joanne Urioste, whose routes tend to feature lots and lots of bolts. Eagle Dance is no exception, though it is definitely not a sport route like Unimpeachable Groping. Eagle Dance's first two pitches are protected entirely with trad gear.


(Photo: Adrian's shot of me leading pitch one (5.9) of Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

We fired off the first several pitches quickly. The opening pitch (supposedly 5.9 but probably not) went easily, as did the 5.7 pitch two. An unexpected hiccup: as I followed pitch two, I sensed that I'd dropped something. Looking down, I was horrified to see my wallet tumbling down the wall! The stitching in my pants pocket had blown out.

The wallet landed at the top of a 150-foot tower that is to the left of the start of Eagle Dance. It was about 40 feet below me. It had fallen into a thin crack. I could only hope that I'd be able to reach in and get the wallet out.

I had Adrian lower me to the tower and then I located the wallet. It wasn't very far into the crack but I couldn't quite wedge my arm in to retrieve it. With a little work, however, I was able to fish the wallet out with my nut tool. I was fortunate that the wallet fell when it did. It didn't go very far, I was able to get it back, and nothing fell out! It was a minor miracle, and only cost us about ten minutes. I quickly got back to climbing.


(Photo: I'm leading pitch three (5.10a) of Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

The middle pitches of Eagle Dance, all generously bolted, are among the best on the route. I led pitches three and four. Pitch three (5.10a) is incredibly sustained, with consistent great moves as it traverses right and then trends back left up a diagonal seam. And then pitch four goes straight up the beautiful face at 5.10c. I remember the hardest moves coming at the beginning of the pitch and then again near the end, at a shallow vertical slot. Adrian handled pitch five, with more bolted 5.10a face climbing.



(Photo: Adrian at the final bits of pitch four, one of the two 5.10c crux pitches on Eagle Dance. You can see the top of the tower where my wallet landed, now far below us.)

During pitch six the rock started to change, with the features getting more fragile. The climbing was good but I passed many loose flakes.

As Adrian tackled the straightforward but strenuous aid climbing on the pitch seven bolt ladder, I started to really relax. We were cruising, and we had only two more pitches to go. I had brought my jacket but I never needed it, since I was very comfortable in the sun. The climbing so far had been awesome. Our position high on the remote Eagle Wall provided beautiful views over Oak Creek Canyon. And we had a front row seat to the guys to our right (named Brian and Gerry) on Levitation 29. They were struggling at the 5.11 cruxes but they made steady progress up the wall. Looking around, I basked a bit in our success. This was the Red Rocks experience I'd always dreamed of.



(Photo: Adrian's shot of Brian on the crux pitch of Levitation 29 (5.11c).)

I led the final two pitches, which ascend a shallow open book with smooth white walls on either side. These turned out to be the hardest pitches on the route. Pitch eight is rated at a modest 5.10a in the guidebook, but it is awkward and difficult right off the hanging belay. I got through this section with delicate wide stemming up the open book and then was proud of myself for hand-jamming, without hesitation, through a bulge to finish the pitch. Take that, Ragged Edges!


(Photo: Adrian doing the final jams on the 5.10a pitch eight of Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

Pitch nine upped the ante to 5.10c, and here I struggled, for the first time all day. At the start of the pitch I was unnerved when I gently touched a flake and it snapped right off in my hand. I desperately held on to the wall and the flake, worried about dropping it. Fortunately there was a little slot to my right where I could place some gear and, after a move or two, I shoved the broken flake in there as well.


(Photo: I'm holding the flake I broke off on pitch nine of Eagle Dance (5.10c). Photo by Adrian.)

The crux climbing then came pretty quickly as I got back into the shallow open book. The wall had few features, and they were all hollow; it seemed like anything I touched could easily break. Using tiny ripples on the wall, I tried stemming upward again, but I slipped and took a fall. Going back at it, I changed tactics, throwing a shoulder into the crease of the open book, and this time I got through the hardest climbing, placing a cam under pressure during a somewhat spacious stretch between bolts. This was great climbing, thin and challenging, and not the usual crimping and reaching. As I got higher I resumed stemming. The pitch remained delicate, requiring precise movements and balance, but as the angle eased I knew it was all over.


(Photo: Looking down pitch nine to Adrian from the final anchor on Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

It was 3:00. We had an hour and a half before sunset, which was plenty of time to rap off and negotiate the ledges back to the drainage. Barring a rope-snag disaster, we'd be well on our way back to the car by the time it got dark. On our second rap, the knot got briefly stuck, but after a moment of panic we got it loose. I held my breath during every subsequent pull of the rope, but we made it down without incident.

Walking out, I felt like we'd just finished one of my best-ever days of climbing. The route had been fantastic, with great moves, varied challenges, and stunning scenery. Adrian and I had worked together with efficiency, getting up and down with time to spare.

Though I didn't get a perfect on-sight of every last move, the day was still a validation of sorts for me. I know I am not a talented climber. I've been a mediocre weekend warrior for many years. But I've steadily plugged away at it, hoping one day to be able to travel to the great rock climbing destinations of the world to do routes like Eagle Dance. And now, here we were, going after it and getting it done. It was all I'd ever wanted.

Day 3: Bourbon Street (7 pitches, 5.8+)

Our second day had been pretty big and, being old men, both Adrian and I woke up on day three feeling a bit sore. Our plan was to head into Black Velvet Canyon and see what was available. We had many options in mind at Whiskey Peak, which is the closest formation to the parking lot. We also considered doing something at the Black Velvet Wall, which sits just beyond Whiskey Peak. There are tons of great routes at both of these locations. I'd never been in Black Velvet Canyon before, so it was all new for me. 

Adrian pushed for us to do Bourbon Street (5.8+), a full-length route up Whiskey Peak that he'd never climbed. I was fine with it, but I was also up for something harder if we felt the urge once we got moving, or if Bourbon Street was unavailable.

When we arrived, there were only a few cars in the lot, so we figured Bourbon Street would be open. We did the forty-five minute hike in to the base and found that we were the first to arrive. I think we were the only people on the route all day on this beautiful Saturday, though there were a couple of parties on Frogland (5.8), right next door.

The climb was in the shade for the whole day, and I brought my jacket. I sometimes needed it, even though the temperatures climbed into the sixties.

I had hogged all of the best pitches on Eagle Dance, so we set things up for Adrian to lead the money pitches on Bourbon Street: the crux second pitch, and the long face-climbing pitch five.


(Photo: I'm heading up the 5.7 pitch one of Bourbon Street (5.8+). Photo by Adrian.)

Starting up pitch one, I had a couple of uncertain moments. This pitch (which is just 5.7) follows a .75 Camalot-sized vertical crack in a corner for about 40 or 50 feet. I had two green .75 Camalots, but I stupidly left one in the crack early, and then found myself constantly sliding the other one up with me while I looked for other gear. The climbing was reasonable, but I didn't like the feeling of repeatedly moving the only piece of gear keeping me off the ground. Soon I reached a small overhang, where other gear appeared, and all was well from there. I really enjoyed the last bits of the pitch, using hand jams to get in and out of an alcove with a blue Camalot-sized vertical crack at the back.


(Photo: Adrian leading the crux crack section on pitch two of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

Pitch two is definitely the business, and Adrian did well managing the finger-lock moves up a crack just to the right of Frogland's second-pitch corner.

I led pitches three and four. Pitch three (5.7) is the closest thing to a throwaway pitch on the route, but I still found it fun. It wanders up a few bushy corners and then follows a brown face with many features and thin gear to a stance beneath an obvious hanging horn/corner. Pitch four (5.7+) ascends the hanging horn/corner, which is juggy and no big deal. Then an easier ramp takes you to the base of a crack.


(Photo: Adrian following my lead of the 5.7 pitch three of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

Adrian took the lead again for pitch five (5.6), a beautiful long pitch (150 feet) of face climbing up to a little shelf beneath a break in the final overhangs at the top of the mountain.


(Photo: Adrian is all smiles as he starts up the 5.6 pitch five of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

I brought it home by combining the short pitches six (5.7) and seven (5.5) into one lead. I found I was able to avoid rope drag by not placing much gear and by double-extending a few of the pieces.


(Photo: I'm doing the exposed but easy moves up the 5.7 pitch 6 of Bourbon Street (5.8+). Photo by Adrian.)

Compared to our first two days, Bourbon Street was an easy romp. But I found it to be a very worthwhile climb, with much to recommend it. The first two pitches feature great climbing up vertical cracks. The rest of the climb is adventurous, with some route-finding challenges. I liked the hanging corner of pitch four, the nice face on pitch five, and the exposure of the short wall ascended by pitch six. It was gratifying to top out at a real summit, with good views over the canyon below. And finally, the descent was an easy half-hour scramble down the back side of Whiskey Peak. What's not to love?


(Photo: Looking down at Adrian from the middle of the last pitch of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

I haven't done Frogland, Bourbon Street's more popular neighbor, so I can't compare the two. But I can say this in Bourbon Street's favor: there is not a single piece of fixed gear on the route. Frogland (another Urioste route) has bolts next to cracks. Bourbon Street has no bolts, period! And no fixed anchors. It is a true trad experience. I found it refreshing after two days of heavily bolted routes.

Day 4: Sour Mash (7 pitches, 5.10a)

When we finished Bourbon Street we could see several parties climbing on the Black Velvet Wall, just a little bit further into the canyon. It is a popular area and the sheer, steep wall looked very appealing to me. I wanted to come back on day four and hit one of these routes before we left Las Vegas.


(Photo: Black Velvet Peak seen from the summit of Whiskey Peak.)

Adrian and I talked about the many classics available on the wall. He's done almost all of them. The two he's never tried-- Rock Warrior (5.10a) and Fiddler on the Roof (5.10d)-- are considered somewhat run out and scary. I was feeling pretty good and thought I could handle either of these. But Adrian wasn't enthused, and I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. Eventually I proposed we just do something good; I didn't care which climb. I knew Adrian wasn't particularly fond of the two most popular routes here, Prince of Darkness (5.10b) and Dream of the Wild Turkeys (5.10a). So I suggested we do Sour Mash (5.10a). I'd heard Adrian describe this route as a favorite over the years. It has seven pitches, most of them easier than 5.10. Seemed like a nice, breezy way to end our trip, with no worries about finishing in time to head to the airport.


(Photo: Some rain clouds in the distance at first light.)

As we headed in, we were a bit concerned about the gloomy skies above us. There were threatening clouds here and there, and the forecast put the chance of rain at 30 to 40 percent by 11:00 a.m. Adrian had once had a scary experience on the Black Velvet Wall in which a sudden storm sent a stream of water down the wall, soaking everyone and sending Adrian nearly into hypothermia. So we brought a pack with our raincoats. I knew we could retreat from any pitch so I wasn't particularly worried.

I was much more upset to see that the parking lot was practically full as we pulled in at 6:00. I wasn't expecting this, since there were so few people in the canyon the day before, when the weather was better.

There was nothing to do but to hike in. If we were stuck behind too many parties on Sour Mash we could pick something else. We could even shift gears and do Rock Warrior, after all...

We found ourselves second in line for Sour Mash. The first party was just getting started as we arrived, and they looked pretty speedy, so we decided to just wait it out and start up behind them. It worked out fine, and after the initial waiting we weren't held up.

I led the first two traditional pitches in one. The first pitch is rated 5.8 in the guidebook, but the crux move is a committing step up with good hands and polished, tiny footholds. There is gear nearby but the territory below is ledgy so there is still some splat potential. After this move, the climbing eases up to the traditional belay ledge and then some very nice thin face climbing (5.9) past bolts takes you up to a second ledge where you belay at a small tree.


(Photo: I'm past the slightly sketchy 5.8 on pitch one of Sour Mash (5.10a), and heading into the 5.9 face climbing of pitch two. Photo by Adrian.)

As we ascended these first two pitches, the air felt moist and the occasional raindrop came down out of the sky. The rock was still dry and we persevered, hoping it would blow over or hold off. I quickly got started on pitch three, a brilliant 5.8 pitch out a roof and then to the right up a diagonal ramp, which eventually led to a steep, juggy section up to a ledge.


(Photo: Adrian's shot of me scoping out the roof on the 5.8 pitch two of Sour Mash (5.10a).)

I really enjoyed the climbing on this long pitch, but I couldn't understand why there were so many bolts. Sour Mash is yet another Urioste route. I expected bolts, but some of their choices baffle me. I was sure that I could have found placements on this pitch. The ramp was featured with cracks. But every time I thought about looking for a piece of gear, I found another bolt instead.


(Photo: Adrian following me up the 5.8 pitch three of Sour Mash (5.10a).)

As Adrian came up behind me, I looked at pitches four and five. They looked beautiful, and easy to combine. The short, 5.7 pitch four goes straight into the 5.9 pitch five. There are no bolts on these pitches, which follow a vertical crack system up a varnished, smooth, brown face.

The wind started to pick up as I began pitch four, and soon it was raining. I decided to hurry up to the ledge at the end of pitch four, where there is a rappel anchor. I hoped the rain would stop again or pass over. We were moving fast, and if we got a reprieve for even an hour we might be able to finish the climb!

But as I reached the anchor it became apparent that the rain had truly arrived. It began really coming down, mixed with a bit of light sleet. I could see the smooth wall above me becoming slick and wet. Even if the rain stopped now, I didn't want to climb the next pitch. I could see the party above us moving to retreat.

It was time to bail.

Of course, once we were off the wall, the skies cleared and it was sunny for the rest of the day. We weren't in a hurry to leave, so we sat there a while, watching some other climbers who'd decided to stay up on the wall. I was sorry we didn't get to finish the climb, but I thought we'd made the right decision. Our climb was positioned such that it got quite wet in the brief storm. And you aren't supposed to climb on the fragile sandstone right after the rock gets wet.


(Photo: Adrian took this shot of the Black Velvet Wall after we bailed. If you click on the photo to enlarge, you can easily make out climbers on Prince of Darkness (5.10a), Dream of the Wild Turkeys (5.10a), and the upper pitches of Epinephrine (5.9).)

Sour Mash seems like a terrific route. I really enjoyed the parts we did and it looked like the best bits were still to come. All quibbling about bolts aside, the Uriostes picked out a great line with this climb, following fun natural features up the wall.


(Photo: So long Red Rocks! Photo by Adrian.)

I left Red Rocks feeling like we'd had a very successful visit. We did about as much climbing as we could possibly do. I enjoyed every climb that we did, but for me the biggest highlight was obviously Eagle Dance. I had some other huge routes on my list, like Epinephrine (5.9) and Woman of Mountain Dreams (5.11a), that we didn't get around to doing. But in the end I don't think that November was the best time of year for these objectives, at least for us. I think it may be better to try these climbs in April or early May, when it isn't beastly hot yet but the days are longer.

After this trip, I now know that these sorts of routes are well within reach for Adrian and me, and this knowledge is so valuable to me. I've felt great all fall, and this little excursion to Vegas put a fitting cap on my season. I'll look forward to coming back and putting another dent in the lifetime of climbing that is available in Red Rocks.