Saturday, December 5, 2015

You Went to Vegas to do What?

It was completely dark and we were walking along an angled slab with a giant vertical wall to the right and a huge drop off to the left. Our headlamps gave us light to see 30 feet in front of us, but the rest of the landscape was dimly lit by the full moon and the lights of Las Vegas. Before this climb we joked that we'd always know which way was east as long as we could see the light beam shining up from the Luxor. It actually ended up being quite useful! We had been going for 12 hours non stop, so we were beat. We had climbed 13 pitches and were working on a complicated descent into Oak Creek Canyon, which we could follow back to our car. The slabs were wearing on us. We had to be careful not to slip when it got steep and the tension we felt, not being certain of our route, was stressful. We were ready to be done. We were actually ready to be done 3 hours ago, but we had no option but to continue. Looking beyond our headlamps we saw a terrace with trees on it, the first trees we had come across in a while in this sea of sandstone. Looking at our route description we knew that the terrace was a sign that we'd be off the slabs soon. We walked through the trees and just before turning to head downhill I saw a pair of eyes. The eyes moved and the creature started crawling down a steep rock. With my headlamp, I could see that the animal was about the size of a small fox. It stopped to look at us again and all I could see were white eyes again. As it continued crawling down, I caught a glimpse of a long furry ringed tail. "It's like a fox or a lemur thing! That's awesome!" I exclaimed. I was so excited that for a moment I forgot about the crick in my neck and how tired and thirsty I was and felt like a kid again, seeing a new animal for the first time.

In March last year, my Dad and I were hiking towards this same canyon. We had flown into Vegas for a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon and did a short hike in Red Rocks to check out a climb that I had been dreaming about. I was just starting to really get into climbing and had read about a nice little climb called Solar Slab. The idea of climbing a long multipitch route was what inspired me to get into climbing in the first place and this was a long climb. 13 pitches of rock climbing sounded like a pretty cool adventure. At that point I hadn't even placed a piece of trad gear and had been climbing less than a year, so it was hard to imagine climbing something like that. But I explained to my dad the difference between top roping and leading and how cams and nuts work. I wondered if someday I'd learn how to actually use these skills I had read about and climb the Solar Slab.

The picture I took last year with my Dad. Solar Slab goes up the big white slab on the left

To many rock climbers, Solar Slab sounds like an easy day out. It's only rated 5.6, which is about as easy as a technical rock climb gets. But that easy grade meant that we could climb fast and cover a ton of ground within the short days of late November. The idea of a really long, easy climb sounded like a fun thing to do, but Shelby wasn't super keen on it at first. We initially planned to stick to the shorter climbs, but out of the blue one day she said, "I think we could climb fast enough to do Solar Slab." So we went for it.

We started out the day with an hour walk to the base of the climb and walked part of the way with another couple from Colorado. I don't remember their names, but they were really friendly and allowed us to start climbing first. If we hadn't been the first on the climb, we may have not gotten to the top before dark, which really would have sucked, so we were very thankful for them.

To approach the Solar Slab climb proper, we climbed a 4 pitch 5.7 route called Johnny Vegas. From what I heard, the climb was worth climbing on it's own, even without linking it with the rest of Solar Slab. Shelby lead first up the pitch following a crack with an unbelievable amount of features on the face to use for holds. Typically on trad climbs, you have to jam your hands and feet into cracks, but we found that many of the climbs at Red Rocks have so many face holds, jamming is rarely required. This made the climbing feel easier and was just a lot of fun.

Johnny Vegas goes up and to the left in the middle of this photo

We continued up another pitch which followed discontinuous crack systems straight up the face. On this pitch I realized that finding protection at Red Rocks could sometimes be tricky. There were long stretches without any cracks on this route, but the features of the rock often times created gaps between features that provided places to put gear. This was new to me, but I soon got used to it and enjoyed the process of looking carefully for protection opportunities. 

Next, we traversed around a huge bulge by following a really sweet diagonal hand crack, which of course required nearly no jamming due to the abundance of face holds!

The diagonal crack

We had a great time climbing on Johnny Vegas. The climbing felt easy compared to a lot of the trad climbs we had done in Colorado and it was just a lot of fun climbing on such unique rock. Something that I've realized recently is that climbing teaches you to appreciate little details about rocks that you wouldn't notice just walking by a cliff face. We scrambled up easy slabs to get to the base of the Solar Slab proper and nobody was on the route yet! This was great because we didn't want to be held up by anyone and if we were to start climbing the route we needed to get to the top. In order to get off the route once you're on it is to either rappel with two ropes or to climb to the top and take the Painted Bowl descent off the backside, which can be done with only 1 rope. We didn't want to have to deal with a second rope, so we went for the second option. The climbing was well within our ability. We were moving at a good pace and had an early enough start that we knew we could get to the top before dark without anyone in front of us. And if for some reason we had to rappel, there would be many other parties climbing the route who could lend us a rope if need be. After doing some calculations, we determined that we could easily get to the top before dark and started climbing again.

Contemplating the rest of the climb. Note the headlamp, just in case...

The rest of the climb was something of a race with the clock. We didn't feel super hard pressed to climb fast, but knew we couldn't just doddle around all day or we would be caught in the dark. I didn't take as many photos as I would have liked, but rather just enjoyed the climbing. 

There were a lot of pitches. Most were pretty fun, sometimes we combined two pitches into one to climb faster. The climb started with a very easy slab to the base of a crack that went over a bulge and up to a large ledge. Fun pitch, but it felt hard for a 5.6. Next up we followed a giant flake up and to the left, through a chimney and up to an uncomfortable stance. Then we went up and over to a tough corner where all the good holds were away from the crack, but I had to use the crack for protection, so it was tough to make the placements.

At this point I was getting pretty tired and the pressure of needing to climb fast was starting to wear on me. We were still making good time, but it was kind of a bother to not be able to climb slow and enjoy ourselves. Our next long pitch started with about 150 feet of a sweet hand crack which required some fun jamming as well as good face holds. This pitch traversed over to another crack where I belayed from a really uncomfortable spot. I was ready to be done. My neck started bothering me a few pitches back from belaying in awkward positions and it was killing me now. If we had two ropes I would have turned around at this point. But since we had one rope and no one else was within a couple pitches of us to rappel with, we pressed on, looking forward to being able to walk unroped. 

We continued up a couple of easy pitches and got to a terrace where we could unrope, go to the bathroom and relax for a few minutes. But of course we couldn't stay long, so we scrambled up a class 4 slab to the base of the final pitch. It's really a beautiful pitch and the majority of the people who climb the route don't climb it because you can't rappel off of it. Most climbers turn around at pitch 7. I led up the corner, enjoying the fun climbing and told Shelby, "This pitch is great!" I continued up the corner until just below the top where the wall to the left closed in, forcing me to squeeze through a tiny gap. I took off my helmet so I could move my head around, removed my backpack and dangled it from my harness with a sling so that I could fit into the gap and wriggled my way up. Shelby couldn't see me at this point, but I yelled down to her, "Um you won't like the end of this pitch!" She's not a fan of squeeze chimneys, but she was able to figure out a way up without having to squeeze through the gap!

The scramble pitch and the beautiful black varnished corner of the final pitch above

We were finally done with the technical climbing and it was 3:00. 1.5 hours till sunset. Not too bad, but at this point I knew we would at least be walking in the dark some before we got to our car. We still had to scramble uphill along slabs to get to the top of the shoulder we'd be going around. Shelby's feet were killing her because her shoes were too small, but eventually we got to a point where she could take them off and put on approach shoes. 

The final scramble and the pre-sunset shadow

We made it to the top of the slabs and saw another climbing couple topping out a different route. They pointed us in the direction of the descent route, so we headed down a narrow ledge for a ways, looking for rappel anchors. We got to a point where you had to jump across a gap to a giant block. It looked doable, but we set up an anchor with gear so Shelby could rappel the short section and I followed by making the jump after taking down the anchor. At the end of the ledge we found two bolts that we could rappel from. Since we only had one rope, we had to rappel diagonally to another ledge, which lead us to an old gear anchor which had a nut, a piton shoved into a large hole, and a bunch of slings. It didn't give us the most confidence in the world, but it was good enough. Finally we made the last rappel from a tree and were done with the rappels for the day, just in time for it to start getting dark.

The ledge leading to the rappels

Down we walked, traversing along angled slabs. Sometimes they would get steep and we'd have to walk carefully, other times we'd be able to walk at a decent pace. Eventually we started heading down after seeing the ringtail and with minimal route finding errors found our way to the base of the canyon. The last obstacle to the base was a 20 foot long polished slab that our sticky rubber shoes would not stick to! You just had to squat down on your feet and slide down the thing. Turned out to be a lot of fun and a tear may or may not have been shed when we were finally off the slabs. We had been back tracking all the way up till this point, so we still had a long way to go. Hiking through the wash was pretty tricky at points with lots of wandering around boulders and butt-sliding down boulders. Eventually we made it out of the canyon and onto the main trail which brought us back to our car.

We had been going 14 hours and were exhausted. Eating burgers at a restaurant in Vegas, we looked like a mess with our hair flattened from our helmets, just staring at each other we were so tired. It was obvious that we'd be taking a full-on rest day the next day. We needed it after this climb.

Despite being so tired, it was a great climb and a really fun adventure and it was only our first day in Vegas!

Mmm sweet potato fries

The next climb we did was the climbing highlight of the trip. Solar Slab was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work and left us exhausted, so we were happy to have a more mellow climb. The climb of choice was Birdland, a 5 pitch 5.7+ route. After a 13 pitch day, 5 pitches sounded like a casual day out and it turned out to be so. We "slept in" and started our hike in around 7:30. 

The hike was pleasant and along the way we could see several parties on the climb already, so we had no reason to rush. We'd just join the congo line and enjoy climbing slowly. We arrived at the base of the climb right after two Air Force ER Doctors who were getting ready to start the first pitch. They were really friendly and we talked to them at all the belays on the way up. It was also nice to have them right in front of us so we didn't have to do any route finding!

Shelby led up the first pitch, which was fun and juggy, up to a ledge with two other parties on it. In their conversation, Shelby realized that one of the climbers rappelling was one of her instructors from her NOLS course! The climbing community is relatively small and it's neat to find the connections we have with other people we meet on the rock. Another connection we realized was that the doctors climbing in front of us happened to work at the same medical center as our friend Erin, who lives in Vegas. Small world.

Shelby, finishing up the second pitch

The next pitch went up some chimneys and then up the face to another big ledge. This was a pretty good pitch, but the next pitch was one of the highlights for me. You climb diagonally up an angled ledge, then traverse across the face with thin feet and good hands until you get to a steep crack. The crack goes straight up and then you get to a small ledge for the belay. The traverse on this pitch was a lot of fun!

Matt working on the traverse ahead of us

Shelby at the top of the fourth pitch

Climber on neighboring route

One pitch led us up the face to a bunch of huge pockets in the rock that were big enough to stand in comfortably and belay. The final pitch was probably the best pitch on the route. It goes up and bypasses a roof, leading to a sweet, long finger crack. The climbing difficulty on the finger crack was pretty sustained with only small edges to stand on. It was tricky standing on the small edges while placing gear, but the climbing was a lot of fun. This led to a tiny, one person ledge where we took a couple celebration photos and turned around to rappel the route.

The beautiful crack

Shelby, about to finish the route

Happy to be done well before sunset

We rappelled the route without getting our ropes stuck at all and packed up for the hike out. No epic stories for this climb, just a fun day out climbing a great route, enjoying chatting with the other climbers. 


The rest of our trip involved a couple days of sport climbing and just relaxing with our friends Erin and Cookie. We had a great trip, enjoying the beauty of Red Rock Canyon, the fun climbing, and good times with friends. 

Feeding peacocks at the park

Rue listening in after an exhausting game of frisbee

The hike to the Panty Wall

Cookie on a fun route at the Panty Wall

 No caption needed

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