Red Rock Canyon SANS - Headed West - episode 2

I was somewhere near Mesquite on the edge of the desert when the stoke began to take hold. I push down on the accelerator and turn up the tunes -- only an hour to go.

Even rolling into Las Vegas in the middle of the afternoon, the flash of the strip rivals the blaring desert sun, all of it reflecting harshly off my dashboard. Flashing lights, 400-foot fountains, monstrous mazes full of debauchery… I can’t stop here. This is bat country!

I bank west, away from the mayhem and what we really came for finally comes into view -- Red Rock Canyon. In my opinion, it puts on a show far superior to anything Vegas has to offer. This nearly 200,000 acre rainbow-colored sandstone paradise is chocked full of massive canyons, towers, and cliffs loaded with a seemingly endless amount of incredible climbs -- many of them taking you hundreds of feet off the ground. This is a place for high adventure and I felt high just thinking about it.

The short time I spent in Vegas was transformative for me as a climber and as a general human being and felt far too rich with experience to try and condense into a single piece of writing. With this in mind, I hope you enjoy this short recount of three of the experiences that have truly impacted me. It’s safe to say that, at least in this instance, what happened in Vegas will certainly not be staying there.

When life gives you lemons, climb limestone.

It sure is nice when everything goes according to plan -- but that’s not always the case.

Shortly after we arrive to the Airbnb in Vegas, the bright desert sun is quickly blotted out by a seemingly endless storm cloud. It appears that our good weather streak is up. I drive to the airport to pick up my good friend and climbing partner, Susan, and the rain becomes torrential. I look around for a break in the clouds in an effort to assure myself that this is just one of those passing thunderstorms, but all I can see is grey -- it looks like this rain plans to stay a while and unfortunately the forecast concurs.

Now, you don’t have to be a climber to understand that climbing and rain don’t exactly mix, but in Red Rock there’s a twist. Unlike the bullet-hard granite or limestone that many of us frequently climb on, the sandstone that makes up these towers is soft and porous, making it fragile when wet. When you climb on wet sandstone you risk breaking holds, or worse, breaking the rock around the gear you’ve placed to protect a fall. Even with the sun out it can take days to dry out after a storm like this and...wait, is it snowing? We kid ourselves with optimism, but deep down we all know that we won’t be climbing in Red Rock anytime soon.

Two days pass and more rain comes -- I feel the wind getting taken out of our collective sail. I text a friend to ask where people climb when the sandstone is too wet. He directs us to another friend, who tells us to look at some of the limestone cliffs in the area. There’s hope. We start looking at some of the areas that he recommended -- it’s a far cry from the climbing in Red Rock, but just the thought of getting on some rock ignites a small spark in the group so we decide to go for it.

The climbing and rock is of marginal quality, maybe a 4/10 -- “alpine limestone” we joke as holds crumble off the wall. But we have enough fun to make a 2 hour trek the next day for a limestone crag that looked even better, and this time we score. We spend the entire afternoon climbing shirtless in the sun and spend the golden hour being surprised by two of the most beautiful pitches I’ve ever had the pleasure of climbing.

Driving back to Vegas I reflect on how much fun we had the past couple days. Sure, it feels great when everything is going our way, but let’s be honest -- we have a tendency to build up big expectations about how things are going to go in our minds and life has a way of having different plans. In these moments we can choose to stay stuck, pouring our energy into a reality that does not exist, or release into flow and see what new and exciting options have emerged. It’s pretty safe to say that, had we not been in the dire situation we were, we would have never driven the two hours and discovered the beautiful climbing we found outside of Mesquite.

So I choose the latter, because even though getting shut down for the first few days was a big, sour lemon, the fun we had climbing limestone was sweet, sweet lemonade

Laughter is the best medicine.

It’s 7pm. The only light in the sky now is coming from the Vegas strip, but I feel like I’m glowing after watching the sun set in an explosion of color on our first day of climbing in Red Rock. The only hitch? We’re still about 500 feet off the ground.

Backing up a tick, we had set off up Birdland, a mega-classic, 600 foot, 5.7, around 5pm. This climb’s easy grade, short approach, and incredibly fun climbing make it a popular choice for newer climbers, but the party that we found ourselves stuck behind at the top clearly lacked even the base-level of experience needed for this climb. It became clear as the sun disappeared behind the cliffs that getting down was going to take a while.

Now, we weren’t in any real danger at this point, but when you’re making multiple rappels, the dark has the opportunity to really complicate the situation. With just a headlamp for light, finding that next anchor on the way down can get challenging, and if you think getting a rope stuck in broad daylight is an issue, well…

“Guess we shouldn’t have done that last pitch!”, Susan yells down sarcastically before starting her first rappel. I can’t tell if she’s making a joke or kind of pissed -- probably both, honestly. I’m about 100 feet below her, clipped into the anchors right next to the slow party’s leader and I can feel him cringe at the implications of her comment. “HA!” I holler back. “I wasn’t gonna settle for just any sunset!” Susan laughs and I get a tepid chuckle out of our mortified friend.

As we descend and accept our reality our mood begins to improve. We make up songs and dance like happy fools as we wait on the belay ledges in between rappels, our cackles cutting through the darkness of the canyons. I’m grateful for our high spirits -- not everyone in our shoes would be laughing right now.

The rest of our descent, though painfully slow, all went smoothly. We bid farewell to our new friends and set off hiking back to the car, still chuckling about what had just transpired. Sure we had just had a mini-epic, but laughing our way through it was exactly the medicine we needed.

Go All In

It’s 9pm on the night before our last day at Red Rock and only our biggest objective remains unticked -- Levitation 29, an impressively sustained, 7-pitch, 5.11c. If that doesn’t sound burly enough, getting to it is no cakewalk either -- the 1.5-2 hour approach (if you’re fast) involves some hiking, boulder-hopping, bushwacking, and a 1000+ foot 4th class scramble. It’s safe to say that going for this climb offers a truly “full-value” day.

We know tomorrow is our last opportunity but we have some hesitations. Susan has a flight to catch in the evening and the forecast was showing some stiff winds blowing in for early afternoon. Dark visions of the wind getting our rope ends stuck in some random crack 30 feet off-route creep in. An epic like that would certainly mean a missed flight or worse. We sit in hesitation, endlessly pouring over the “what-ifs”.

It’s time to make a choice. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and notice the butterflies in my chest pitter-pattering in just the right way. If I was over on the poker tables, this would be the moment where I push all my chips in. “I say we just go for it”. And it’s settled -- without saying much, we both pack our bags and quickly head to bed. Like it always does before a big day, it takes me a while to fall asleep.

My alarm goes off at 4:45am and we’re out the door by 5:30. My anticipation (and caffeination) builds as we arrive at the gates of the park just before it opens at 6am -- four cars are already in line ahead of us. The doubt creeps back in. What if some of these people are also going to do Levitation and we get stuck behind another slow party? We take a tip from earlier and laugh, acknowledging our nerves and start setting our intentions for a smooth expedition. As luck has it, the four cars in front of us have peeled off into different parking lots, leaving us as the first ones heading for Levitation -- a great start.

Now let’s zoom out and talk about these nerves. In my experience, there’s a real sweet spot for experiencing “fear” or “nerves” -- that sweet spot where you’re not in any immediate danger, but your mind knows that you’re about to be outside of your comfort zone. It can take some practice to notice that this is happening, but these are the moments to lean in. Our minds are powerful and very effective at keeping us safe by tying us up in the what-ifs, but what does that actually serve? We all know that growth happens outside the comfort zone.

We set off from the car just as the first light falls softly on the canyon. The first 30 minutes or so is just simple hiking -- simple enough for those thoughts to creep in again. This time though, I’m thinking more about how I’ll perform. Will I even be able to climb this grade after this approach? The internal chatter quiets as the approach gets more vertical and before I know it we’re standing at the base of one of the most impressive faces I’ve ever seen.

I feel like we were just racking up, but in what seems like a flash we’re 500 feet up sitting below the hardest pitch on the climb and it’s my lead. I’ve been here before in my mind, seen this pitch in the guidebook so many times. I’m far from fresh but I’m feeling good -- calmer than I imagined. Deep breaths. Susan asks if I’d like more beta (beta = info about the moves), but I’ve had enough thinking for now. “Sending!”, I announce, as I take off climbing.

I move smoothly through the first 20 feet of the pitch and quickly arrive at the crux -- a long reach over a bulge with barely anything to stand on. I take a deep breath and make the huck, my fingers barely latching the tiny hold above the bulge. My feet search desperately for anything that can possibly hold some of my weight. “FIGHT!”, Susan yells from below. I pull as hard as my body will allow, trust my insecure feet, and keep moving.

A couple of improbable moves later I’m over the bulge. My mind tries to kick back on and compute what I just did, but this pitch isn’t finished. I keep moving -- dancing, it feels like, over the miniscule features on the face. My mind is silent because my body knows exactly what to do. I clip the anchors and let out a yell of success that echoes through the canyon -- the onsight was mine. I couldn’t believe what I had just done, and come to think of it, I couldn’t even tell you how I did it.

11 hours and many vertical feet after setting off, we’re back at the car enjoying the sunset over an ice cold beverage, basking in the success of the day. We laugh at all the doubts that had plagued us earlier, seeing more clearly now that they were simply tricks of the mind -- we had blown our own expectations out of the water.

So the next time your mind is getting chatty, tune in to what’s really going on, because it could be one of these moments. Sometimes we have to go all-in to see what we’re truly capable of.

The next day, after a mezcal- and campfire-fueled night of celebration, I bid a heartfelt farewell to the magical canyon that had given us so much and set my sights further west. As Vegas disappears in my rear view mirror, a famous Hunter S. Thompson quote comes to mind that seems to tie a little bow on my experience climbing here, so I’ll leave you with this.

“Buy the ticket, take the ride...and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well...maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”