Sunday, March 8, 2009

Red Rock, Nevada - Day 4: The Return

Feb 23, 2009

Carlos was the first of us to awaken by a good bit, and had stepped out to his rental car to reorganize gear or something. I vaguely remember waking to the sound of a car door closing, then a soft, gentle knock on the motel door. Not realizing anyone had left the room, I thought it might be some random drunk person from the night before knocking on the wrong room. Bleary-eyed I got up and opened the door to find a grinning Carlos standing there. When did he get up? I never heard, but went back to bed, still bone tired from the weekend's adventures. I drifted into nap-hood for a while.

However, within an hour or so we got ourselves roused. Showering one last time, we finished packing annnnnd....back to CoCo's for breakfast!

During breakfast Francesca regaled us with stories, tales, and lessons learned from the days when she was for all intents and purposes a professional gambler. We learned you had to set win/loss limits (depending on your conservancy, <2-10%), style="font-style: italic;">everybody up, which is why private tables are more desired than open by gamblers who have a clue), how to tip, what is a "shoe", how many decks are in a dhoe (6-8 typically for blackjack), when to know when the house has changed the game rules on you (which they can if you are winning too much), etc, etc. Very educational. After breakfast we were going to need to return our cars, but we still had over 2-1/2 hours before our flights. As we were on the exact opposite side of the airport from the rental return, we figured we had about 15-20 minutes to drive further up The Strip, see whatever we missed the night before, see what we saw last night in the daylight, and get back to the airport in plenty of time.

So up The Strip we went. We saw Caesar's Palace, Italy/The Venetian (complete with a replica of the St Mark's Square tower that I got to go up in last year when I was in Italy), Treasure Island (or pirate island, or something like that; I wasn't familiar with it, but the rest of the group was), and the Luxor (which we mostly saw just at night with its beacon of light firing straight up into the air; I had tried for some night photos of it, but they failed to turn out as my little point-n-shoot wasn't up to that task).

But then suddenly it was time to go. We hustled down to the airport. Francesca, Michelle and I stopping to pick up some sandwiches for the plane flight back, Carlos and Claudia to go gas up Carlos' car before turning it in (Michelle had gassed up her car the night before on the way back from the rocks). Before splitting we said goodbye to Claudia as she was heading back to North Carolina via a different path of flights than us.

At the airport we waited for Carlos for a bit, but he hadn't shown yet. We figured we'd better just get our bags checked and meet him at the gate (since we were all going to board together). After checking bags I got separated from Michelle and Francesca at Security as I got into the slower lane. I saw them get through and be on the far side while I was still trying to get to a bin. Then they disappeared.

Unbeknownst to me, they had forgotten to empty their water bottles of water, and were being sent back around again. I figured they had just taken off to the concourse and gate w/out me, figuring I knew where I was going. So once through security, I headed on down to the gate, only to find none of my crew was there! Urrr...yep, B10, got the right gate. Where were they? I found a set of seats near the window that would allow for all of us to sit together while we waited, pulled out a book and began reading. That's when Michelle and Francesca appeared and relayed their tale of water woes. A few minutes later Carlos arrived. And our plane was here!

Before long we boarded and all ended up sitting in the rear, as we were one of the last groups to get on. I didn't get my window seat, but an aisle. Still, I was able to snap a few pics, some last views of Vegas and Red Rock before the plane turned and headed East. The flight back was uneventful.

Once we landed we made our way to get our luggage. A short time later it all appeared. Nothing lost! Either coming or going! We said our goodbyes to Francesca, who hopped the bus to the train to the metro back to DC. Carlos, Michelle and I left together, then split up ourselves later to go home.

All in all, it was a good trip. And there's plenty more to do and explore out there. I'm sure we'll all be back!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Red Rock, Nevada - Day 3, Part 2: The Night Life

Feb 22, 2009 (con't)

The sun set as we drove back to the motel. Carlos and Francesca were running a bit behind us as they decided to stop off at the in-town rock shop. But that actually helped with the logistics of everyone getting a shower without overcrowding. Once we were clean and changed, it was time to hit....The Strip!

The Strip is Las Vegas' famous line of city blocks filled with a multitude of visually stimulating hotels, casinos, shops and a plethora of other attractions, all just two blocks away from our motel. At night, the place is just lit up. Not a place any self-respecting astronomer would normally be found! But this wasn't an astronomy trip. So here I was...

Both Michelle and Francesca had each visited Vegas in the past, and knew certain things about the town: where to go, what to see, what to avoid, and even when to run (seriously). I would "learn when to run" before much of anything else this evening...

We were partially torn between wanting to see some of these sights, and wanting some food now. No one offered up any specific suggestions (other than to try and avoid chains that we can always eat at elsewhere in the country), so Francesca offered up she wanted babyback ribs. Okay! A decision made.

Michelle led us to the Excalibur, a castle-like area across from New York New York. Their motto: "You Rule". We came into a huge foyer area with several hallways and rooms leading off of it. I was trailing behind, having stopped to take some photos, so didn't get to take the surroundings fully in before I realized the group was heading back out again. "We're leaving!" announced Michelle or Francesca amid the general cacophony of the room. I noticed a young man in a black suit still trying to entice Claudia and Carlos over to a desk with what looked like a terminal on it, saying "Let me show you what I can do for you."

"That's how they suck you in," stated Francesca as she swept past me. "They give you $50 of free credit to go play, then you get sucked in and can't leave." As we departed post haste I glanced back to see the casino/slots room beyond where the young man was standing, and to see him eyeing out the crowd to find some other hapless people to draw into their tangled gambling web.

Michelle had good memories of New York New York and led us over there. She said the last time she was here, you could go past the Coyote Ugly bar and see the dancing show from outside, so no need to pay to go in. Her intent was to take us past there so we could catch a brief view, then go find some food options.

Well, Coyote Ugly's was not a happening place when we arrived. No dancers. Just people sitting in there drinking. We didn't even linger. We were seriously getting hungry.

We wandered through a stretch of NY NY, but Michelle couldn't find what she was looking for. So we exited and continued going up the street.

One of our goals this evening, other than food, was to catch the water and music show in front of the Bellagio. If you ever saw the movie Ocean's Eleven, towards the end of the movie, after the heist is pulled off, the gang is standing in front of a city lake while a water and music show plays out. This is the same lake we were going for.

But first food.

We wandered down a few more blocks, past some construction, when I spied a Harley-Davidson BBQ place across the street. Wait, BBQ? I pointed, and the group made an immediate right turn and bee-lined straight for it.

Being a Sunday evening, it was all that crowded. We were seated within a minute of entering. Our waiter was a friendly dude named Bob, who heralded from Ohio many years ago, but was now living out here. He took our order and made sure we were well-stocked with drink. The thirsty desert climbers that we were.

Looking around, there were vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles all around - on the main stage (where, for a price, you could have your photo taken by an in-house photographer), suspended in the air, etc. As well as various paraphenalia and photos and posters related to Harley-Davidsons. I wondered if the quality of the food would suffer and the real reason you came here was for the ambiance.

But the food, I have to say, was quite good! I would certainly go back here again. And the prices? Not that outrageous. About what one might expect to pay at a moderately expensive restaurant in the B'more region - $15-25. We even decided to get some desert, which I chose to share with the group the Harley-Davidson's version of a chocolate lava cake. It was pretty darn good. Michelle, Francesca, and Claudia helped me eat it. Carlos decided he was going to get his own and polished that off himself. Hungry boy!!

Satiated, we headed out to just take in the sights at this point. Made our way up to the Bellagio and caught the water/music show. It was pretty cool. When we first arrived, the lake was quiet. Music was playing from loudspeakers hidden in the palms aligned around the lake. We stood along the concrete railing and chatted a bit. A few minutes later we noticed that a line of dark objects had protruded slightly from the water out in the middle of the lake. Then the music got quiet...


The first wall of water shot into the air, illuminated by white lights, as the music swelled and soared. More walls of water FOOMed into the air, as the lights illuminating the lower half of the Bellagio itself subtly changed from yellow-white to purple. Then, to the music, the water spouts started...dancing. Swaying back and forth, criss-crossing at times, rising and lowering in a sinusoidal wave patterns, and even spiraling about. I should have taken video instead of stills. But you can get an idea from these photos, anyway.

It all lasted about 4 or 5 minutes. Then with a final few FOOMs, the music quieted, the lights dimmed, and the water walls died off. The nozzles sank slowly beneath the surface of the lake once again, as if nothing at all had just happened...

We headed across the street to see (but not enter) Paris, and back down the direction we came until we got to the MGM Grand, which was located diagonally from Excalibur, across from New York New York. From there back to our room, where we began an initial packing of gear. Our flights tomorrow were around 10am, so we wouldn't have a lot of time to organize come morning.

The long day took its toll, though, and in the midst of the repacking and organizing, we dropped off one by one. Morning would be coming all too quickly...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Red Rock, Nevada - Day 3, Part 1: The Last Climb

Feb 22, 2009

During the wee hours of the night, neighbors in the room next to us decided to have a party. 3am it started, 4am it continued. They were carrying on loudly with conversation and music. Then there were voices, loud, immediately outside our door. I got up and opened the door. Two people were standing there next to it, in their hands beers in plastic cups and cigarettes. They looked at me in surprise. I asked them if they could hold it down just a little, there were people sleeping in here. They didn't seem to comprehend this statement. People sleeping? at 4am?? I asked again. They moved away from our door, and the noise from the party did die down somewhat. Enough to drift back to sleep again...

Daylight. We slowly arose. No one was in a hurry. We grabbed showers (those of us, anyway, that like morning showers), got the wall pounded on by someone trying to sleep (it was 8am; my guess it was the people next to us who were up until 4 or 5am drinking and didn't appreciate us talking), then back to CoCo's again for breakfast.

As this was our third morning there, we were starting to become known by the staff (same five people walk into a restaurant every morning for breakfast, SOMEone's gonna notice!). Today we were treated with a double story. First, the waitress apologized for being slow in getting to us. She had precisely two tables - at opposite ends of the restaurant. We were one of the two. The other table apparently had a couple of, ah, professional girls at it. We ended up talking to our waitress at length about these types of girls. They always come in starving, always very picky about how they want their food, but tip very well. Probably better than we did. :-/ Our waitress also told us a tale of the corner table we were at (this was our second morning at this particular table).

Apparently, before the cops cleaned up the neighborhood a few short years ago (and it's still not a very nice neighborhood, really), the pimps and drug dealers used to commandeer this table, to keep tabs on the (lower-class) working girls who would be coming/going to/from the two motels here (making sure it's their girls coming/going, and not someone else's), and to do drug exchanges. The corner table had a commanding view of the street and access drives to the two motels. So they could see everything.

When the cops cleaned the neighborhood up, the waitress said she put up a "Drug Free Zone" sign on the table. A few of the pimps and dealers did come in afterwards, but not in the mass group they used to. No one said anything about her sign.

On the way out we all caught view of our waitress' other table. The professional girls, who looked rather plasticky with more make-up on than I had seen anyone wear in my life, were sitting with their, ah, boss. I thought about surreptitiously snapping a photo, just for complete documentation purposes, but opted not to. Maybe another trip... :-D

Today's plan was very fluid. No one wanted to really commit to anything, but everyone wanted to do SOMEthing. I had gotten two nice, solid days of climbing in, and would not have minded just exploring some of the trails further afield in Red Rock Canyon, and perhaps go up one of the nearby peaks. Also, there were petroglyphs and pictographs in the park to be viewed, and I was interested in that. I had some geocache information that would bring you to a little-known set of pictographs behind Turtle Peak (itself a 5 mile round trip hike; getting to the pictographs looked like adding another 1 mile to the round trip trek). There was some talk about some of the others accompanying me, but everyone wanted to do at least a LITTLE more climbing before hiking (though Carlos was quietly hoping someone would want to do some multi-pitch climbing ;-) ). So I suggested maybe we hit Magic Bus Wall, which has a half dozen routes ranging from 5.8 to 5.9+, all short bolted routes. I figured we could "run up" to the wall, squeeze in a couple leads, top rope the neighboring routes real quick, be down and out and still get a nice afternoon hike in.

This was not to be.

After breakfast we headed out, and stopped once more at the Visitor Center. Francesca was jealous of my Red Rock shirt and wanted one herself. :-D And I wanted to ask about the trails back behind Turtle Peak (forgetting this is BLM land, not a state park). I learned that there were no "park maintained" trails back there once behind Turtle Peak, but the ranger was sure I'd find my way easily enough to where ever I wanted to go (heh). Francesca got her shirt (one of the last!), and each of us browsed through the exhibit area (where I learned about Horace Wilson's homestead farm mentioned in the previous post, and where the rangers had a live chuckwalla lizard hanging out, both items I had missed on the earlier visit two days prior).

They also had a weather forecast up on the wall. Hmmmm. Didnt look too promising. It was sunny out now, but the forecast called for cloudy, with possible rain by Monday. Well, that was a full day away. We'd be okay.

Our plan was to head to the second Calico Rocks pulloff. Carlos and Francesca went on ahead, while Michelle, Claudia and I stopped short to do a geocache and drop off some travel bugs we (Claudia and I) had brought with us from the East. Then we headed up to the second overlook.

When we Carlos or Francesca. Urr??? Where were they? Didn't see them at the first overlook. Could they have missed it??? No way! Sign says "2nd Overlook". We tried calling them. I found my cell didn't work out here, but Michelle's did. Yes, they had missed it. Carlos' guidebook said it was 5+ miles into the park, so he kept driving. Only to realize the error when they got way into the loop road. However, they had no choice but to continue driving alllll the way around and come back into the park again! So Claudia, Michelle and I geared up and started working our way in.

Once again, our extensive knowledge on negotiating the maze of rock and canyons led us to not take always the right path. We found ourselves twice in either dead-end ravines or in narrow slot canyons that forced us to bridge up (because trying to "walk" along the floor would have been...full of issues, even without carrying packs of gear). Or we found ourselves scrambling over or through areas that most people probably don't go, given that there are other, easier paths to take. One helpful group called down to us at one point and said "Easier this way!" before moving on and out of sight.

Nearly 40 minutes later, some of them exasperating, we finally found ourselves within 100' of Magic Bus Wall. And there we saw were already a dozen people up there climbing. Looking at my watch it was already after 11am. If we went up to join the throng of people, we would we sitting in line for quite a while before we'd get to climb. No hiking would happen, and while the Magic Bus routes were supposed to be nice, they weren't worth waiting in line for to miss out on something else.

It was at this point Carlos and Francesca made it back around to the parking lot. We were around 0.1 to 0.2 miles apart from each other, shouting back and forth since cell phones were not working for anyone at this point. But communications were....well, garbled. We finally managed to convince them to stay there while we made our way back, quicker this time than when we tried coming up to the rocks.

Back at the cars we learned what had happened to them. And we learned that the park was filling up fast with cars and people. I suggested maybe we should push on to the Sandstone Quarry parking area, the next one up by a mile or two, as this is the parking spot for the trailhead to Turtle Peak, and there was climbing there, as well. Only the density of easy and moderate level routes was lower. I picked out a couple potential candidates and we drove up.

We got lucky finding parking. Good golly, Miss Molly! The lot was full (we snagged the last two legal spots) We spied the wall I had suggested climbing on and Michelle and Claudia ran over to 'reserve' the routes while Carlos and I got the gear out. Carlos and I started talking about the routes. I had reread the description of the 5.6 route, and it took gear larger than I had available. Rereading the slab route, it indicated that it was fairly runout, meaning the bolt placements were few and f-a-r between. I wasn't comfortable leading up a crack so large I had no gear for, and Carlos wasn't comfortable leading up an extremely runout climb, so the idea to climb here was now dumped.

We weren't doing very well with our climbing plans today.

Exasperated, we called Michelle and Claudia back. I knew Carlos wanted to do a multipitch route (he kept suggesting going to Oak Creek Canyon and climbing around the Solar Slab area). At this point it was getting on noon.

I noticed that the clouds were starting gather darkly to the west. Hmmm. And, say, isn't that a lenticular cloud to the south? That really didn't bode well...

(ed note: Whenever you see lenticular clouds - which look every bit like 1950s flying saucers - in the mountains, it's time to They generally are heralds for serious changes in weather, which usually equates to Bad Ass Storm A-Comin'!)

Hiking Turtle Peak, and trying to get to the pictographs was pretty much a no-go option at this point. I finally came up with Plan C. We would hike out Oak Creek to the Solar Slab wall area. Carlos could take Michelle and Claudia up Johnny Vegas (a 480' 5.7 route) and I would work with Francesca on doing her own lead climbing up the 500' 5.3 Solar Slab Gully. I figured she has seconded Carlos enough times that she has a decent idea of how gear goes into the rock. I would work with her on more thoughts/strategies/tactics on placing gear (the how/when/why of it all), and let her lead up a pitch or two on something WELL within her ability levels. Carlos could then climb something reasonably challenging, as could Michelle and Claudia. And everyone would get a little more climbing in. To this everyone heartily agreed. We loaded back in the cars and drove around the loop road and out of the park. Down half a mile or so to a pull off on the side of the main road for the trailhead to Oak Creek Canyon.

We clambered out of the cars and started getting our gear out. The wind had picked up considerably in the past 30 or so minutes, and the temperature had dropped noticeably. Oh, and the clouds pretty much covered the sky, leaving only a hazy bright spot where the sun was (photo of sun and Mt Wilson, one of the highest peaks in Red Rock Canyon, near Rainbow Mountain). Yeah...we might get some rain...

We hiked on in. The trail wasn't too bad, but there were a few side trails that converged and met with our main trail on the way to the rocks. I tried to keep a mental note of these side trails for the trek back so we wouldn't inadvertently wander off on one. Which could make for a LONG hike back to the cars!

The Solar Slab is an enormous wall of rock rising along the flanks of Rainbow Mountain (photos to right and lower right; Solar Slab Wall is encircled in yellow). It doesn't quite go all the way up, but it does soar some 2000' from start to end, and involves some 13 pitches of climbing: 4 pitches of an "approach" climb (doing something on the lower headwall, like Solar Slab Gully), followed by 9 long pitches up the main Solar Slab. It is not a climb to be taken lightly. Or in the threat or promise of bad weather.

But that was not our goal this trip.

We continued on, and after over an hour of hiking we were just a couple hundred feet away and below the base of the main wall. The trail at this point grew a little confusing as it wound its way between truck-sized boulders. Carlos and Francesca went off in one direction, while Michelle and Claudia another. I was lagging behind, but it seemed to me that the path Michelle and Claudia took looked more trail-like than the direction Carlos and Francesca went, to I followed the more obvious path.

Eventually we met up again, Carlos and Francesca having bushwhacked through some desert mountain foliage to get to us - and discovered they were covered in ticks! Apparently they found a nest. Ick. Said ticks were quickly removed. We carried on until we got to the base of the rock and stopped for lunch. We could see a party of people on Johnny Vegas, the 5.7 Carlos wanted to do, but they appeared to be moving slow. We didn't realize there was more than one party on that route until later.

All this time the air temps were cool, the clouds remained thick enough to allow only a hazy ball for the sun, and it sprinkled on us a couple of times. It was started to get onto mid-afternoon. I was thinking that if Francesca and I just do the first pitch of Solar Slab Gully, we'd call it good. I decided that I'd give her the option of doing that as her first lead. Claudia was not overly enthused about climbing at this point, as her climbing moods come and go with the sun. She opted to not climb today and after we finished eating and began sorting gear, she took one of Carlos' radios and the keys to Michelle's rental car and hiked back out. Carlos was waffling, and finally bailed, on the idea of doing Johnny Vegas. Instead he and Michelle would climb with Francesca and I.

To kind of put things in perspective, in the photo to the left, Solar Slab follows the green line up and right out of the image. Johnny Vegas follows the blue/teal dashed lines. The first 100' of Solar Slab Gully follows the solid yellow line, with the rest of the climb following the dashed red line to end at the start of the green line. Yes, this is a big rock...

I talked to Francesca at great length a number of different aspects on leading: how one can get tunnel vision while going up and not see holds or gear placements just a couple feet to either side, how gear should go in and how to clip it while looking ahead to where you will be going next so it doesn't pull out sideways or something, etc. During this time I also suggested to Carlos that he and Michelle climb first. This way they would be up at the anchors when Francesca arrived, at which point I would be of little use to advise her as to what to do next. Carlos agreed and went up.

In his guidebook, Solar Slab Gully is listed as 5.1 - about as easy as you can get and still call it technical climbing. In my guide it's listed as 5.3. Not really that much more difficult, but yes, a couple levels. Carlos got about 3/4 of the way up and called down asking if this was really listed as 5.1 or 5.3. I said yes. He said it seemed much harder than that and continued up to the belay. Michelle followed.

I gave Francesca my rack of gear at this point and she shrugged it onto her shoulders.

"This %&@*ing thing is heavy!! You climb with this?!?" To which I nodded, "Mk II Rack, standard issue. Weighs in at about 10 lbs. I made a few modifications. Get your ass up there."

She went up. 10' up a 4th class section she admitted that she was suddenly a little nervous. Being on the "sharp end" of the rope will do that. But she pushed through and pressed on (photo to right of Francesca about 35' up the pitch).

She made good progress, going up a few moves, getting a stance, putting some gear in, clipping the rope, repeat. Then she got to the hard section. I could barely see where she was given the position I was in to belay and the interposing tree. She decided to "take" (hang on the rope and rest a bit) while she puzzled out the next section. Carlos, 20-25' above her, gave some advice and suggestions. She shook her arms out, plugged in another piece or two, then continued up. A short bit later she was at the anchors. "Off belay!!!"

While she pulled up the slack in the rope I got my climbing shoes on. As soon as she had me on belay I started on up. I brought my little point-n-shoot camera along with me to take photos of her gear placements so she could try and remember the climb and have a visual image to go along with it. Help her with future placements. I photo'd all of her gear until I got to the crux of the climb. Image to the left is of the #2 "blue" Alien in a horizontal crack.

Hmmm! This was harder than 5.3! I paused for a moment, considered my options. I was balanced on the side of a small right-facing corner with a crack between it and the main wall. The wall suddenly got very steep, and footholds kinda...vanished. I looked around, looked up, saw what I had to do, and made the moves. Yes, definitely harder than 5.3, to say nothing of 5.1. It felt more like the hardest moves I made yesterday on Cat In The Hat, 5.6. Damn! Nice lead, Francesca! Right up there with my first lead (The Nose at Looking Glass Rock in North Carolina - a 5.8 friction route I climbed in tennis shoes back in the mid-80s - yeah, an eon when pteranadons patrolled the skies :-P ). After that the climbing was easy once again.

Looking back down I suddenly understood that the route actually climbed the main crack until it got too wide, then stepped right, whereas we had gone left, following the secondary crack. After stepping right, the route went straight up over a ladder of holds, then came back left again to the main crack and followed that to the belay. This wasn't very clear from either of the guidebooks. BUT, we live and learn. :-)

At this point it began sprinking again, a little harder than before (but not soaking). I looked at Michelle, Carlos and Francesca. Yeah, we were done. Time to rap down.

While Francesca had been climbing up, another party was rappelling down Solar Slab Gully. They got 'stuck' behind us while we were clustered around the anchors while coming up. There were three or four of them. One from Utah, the rest from Canada. As "my" group rappelled down (I was going to go last), they asked if they could rappel down our rope. "Yeah, sure." Always good karma to share rope out on the rock when possible. After all, that's what Aaron did for me yesterday on Cat In The Hat with the #4 cam. :-)

However, I do have to say, in all my adventures and travels over the years, this is the first group of Canadians that turned out to be fairly unfriendly. They followed me down the rappel, then pulled our ropes down, but never offered to coil it or anything. Just left them piled in disarray on the ground and wordlessly went on their way to get their stuff. Later they would just as wordlessly pass us on the hike out. Up to now, every Canadian I've ever met has been warmly friendly, like Aussies and Kiwis. Well, whatever.

Photo at left is another perspective of Solar Slab Gully, with Solar Slab itself high overhead. The first 100' section we climbed today noted in yellow, showing the start and stopping points with X's. Solar Slab starts quite a ways above us. Next time...

We coiled our ropes, packed our gear, and started out. I was kinda in a less than great mood, partly due to the weather, and partly due to so many of today's plans being dumped for various reasons, and so kinda hung back to have a little quiet alone time. Michelle and Francesca had forged ahead. I didn't have an opportunity to mention to them about the splits in the trail, and in fact, didn't even remember about them until they were nearly a quarter mile ahead of me and I came to the first trail fork. Urrrr....

Carlos was about halfway between me and the girls at this point. Michelle and Francesca seemed to be charging forward, so I shrugged, figuring this wasn't the junction I remembered, and continued following.

By the time I got a quarter mile down the trail, past a second (and last) split in the trail, Francesca and Michelle had made it to a parking area (not ours). At this point I realized the last junction I passed was the one we were supposed to take. Durrrr....

I eventually caught up to them. They kinda figured out they missed the junction, but by this point it seemed easier to just continue down the dirt road to the loop road inside the park, follow the loop road out, then down the main road to the cars. Michelle and Carlos started on down the road, while Francesca hung back with me to chat climbing and photography, and both of us tried taking photos of the kinda wild looking clouds and sky to the north and north east (where we had been earlier in the day, and where we could see it was raining; good call to not have done Turtle Peak!). Photo right is of Calico Rocks in a light rain shower (difficult to tell on the photo)

A long hike and good conversation later, we made it to the cars. Carlos and Michelle had long reached them before Francesca and I did. But they were hiking straight. We had taken another parallel trail in the desert and were stopping to take photos. :-) But, Day #3 was drawing to a close. And we were all hungry. We loaded up and headed back to the motel, where we all grabbed showers. Tonite was our last night in Vegas - we were going to go visit the Strip and treat ourselves to a semi-expensive meal!

I will be back again one day, and I am going to climb the entire length of Solar Slab. That thing just looked too damned cool for words.

Photo left is of one of many Joshua Trees scattered about the landscape out near the parking area, looking back at Juniper Peak which sits to the right of Rainbow Mountain.

(continued in part 2)

Red Rock, Nevada - Day 2, Cat In The Hat, pt 2

Feb 21, 2009 (con't)

As I crained my neck to catch any kind of clue about the 5th and final pitch, Aaron showed up and said that I would be best served combining pitch 4 (the traverse pitch) with pitch 5 (the final pitch) into one 170' long pitch. Yeah, okay. Still didn't know anything about pitch 5, other than remembering Carlos telling me that most of the way up the wall the crack you follow utterly disappears and you have to climb a slab to a bolt and beyond that another 30-40' to the anchors. Crap, I hate climbing unprotected sections of rock. But I had to remind myself, I've done stretches of unprotected 5.7 to 5.9 slab at Stone Mountain in North Carolina. I could handle this.

'He's going to be shitting his pants,' thought Aaron as he also told me about the unprotected stretch to the bolt. But at the moment I was more nervous about the downclimb and traverse.

So down I went, and over I sauntered, getting in a few pieces of gear to protect Michelle's traverse. Then I looked up. A long, broad black wall, split by a widening crack, was before me. The first third of this looked okay, but the wide section?? Crap, crap, crap, crap. I hate offwidths (offwidths are extra wide cracks, larger than hand or fists in width, that you can insert part or most of your body within; they usually suck for climbing and protecting adequately).

Normally my palms do not perspire while climbing. As I gazed at the offwidth crack (large enough to swallow me sideways with all my gear, and far far too large for even a #4 Cam to protect), my hands began raining sweat. Which evaporated quickly away in the dry desert air. Sighing, I continued up. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap. And a few other choice words I've edited for family viewing. :-D

The wide crack proved to not be quite as daunting as I feared it was. There were holds on either side. And I could reach into the back of the crack for a couple of moves. But it was still unnerving, and I was unhappy until I got above it and got some more gear in the rock again.

20' later the crack utterly vanished as the rock went from black to white. I was at the slab...

Down below Aaron was chuckling, "Man, that guy is going to be shitting his pants soon!" :-D

I paused and gathered my wits. Looking around, I saw subtle bumps and small features to delicately climb on. I stepped up, transitioned my weight, reached up, palmed a bump, stepped up again. Delicate moves and then I could reach the bolt! I clipped it with a quickdraw, clipped the rope to it, and breathed a LOT easier again (it was a long way down to my last piece). I looked up to where I had to go next. And actually saw lots of slab-style foot holds and hand bumps to play with until I got to an overlap of black rock. And then I saw the line of weakness that broke the overlap above me in a crack-corner system. That's where I was heading, and I could get gear in there!

Partway up the overlap and crack I had the presence of mind to turn around and look down. Heh! Long way to the bolt! And a much, much longer way down to the ground. :-D But I was okay at this point. I plugged in a #1 Cam and continued up (in the photo above, the quickdraw to the bolt is the short dark line perpendicular to the rope at the edge of the visible white rock as the rope disappears over the lip to down below).

Moments later I was sitting pretty at the anchors, all tied in and happy as a clam. I could now finally breathe. :-) I brought Michelle up. As she climbed, I could take in the scenery around me. And off into the valley. Very nice views.

As the pitch was 170' long, it took Michelle a while to come up. And from my stance I couldn't see her for most of the climb. She had a nervous time doing the downclimb, and scolded Aaron and his friend for not talking to her to distract her more, but she got through it. Then over and up the crack, then onto the slab.

After that she got lost.

She had apparently wandered too far to the right below the overlap, entirely missing the crack that split it (I had not placed any gear at the overlap, but much higher above, feeling very confident on that section of rock). Finally she got course-corrected and came up the crack past the overlap. At this point I could see her once again. Moments later she was at the belay station, clipping in.

Hot on her heels was Aaron.

"So, how'd you like that slab section?" he asked mirthfully.

"Actually, not that bad. I've been on runout slab before in North Carolina. And it was quite easy after the bolt," I replied. We ended up chatting about climbing and then about caving, as Aaron is also a fairly active caver.

All the while we had been climbing up we had been wondering what became of Team Carlos. We figured we should have seen them at some point, either going up or coming down. Or at the very least heard them. Aaron then mentioned there was a guy and two girls coming up the climb below the 5th pitch of Cat. Might that be them? Had to be; no one else was on the climb today! Cool, they were coming up. We hadn't somehow missed them.

Anyway, our climb was done, and it was good. It was to go down.

The rappels basically followed the route up, but seemed to be set up in such a way as to be (mostly) out of the way of anyone climbing up. Especially on the last pitch, the rap down did not cross the climb up at all.

Michelle went down first, then I followed. As I was rapping down, I saw the Polish guy at the bolt on the slab, casting around for something to climb on.

"How's it going?" I called out.

He turned to me, and with a slightly nervous grin responded, "I am shitting my pants!!!"

This first rappel ended at the belay station at the top of the third pitch. From there we could look over to a ledge below the final pitch of Cat and could easily see Claudia and Carlos. Francesca was still 100'+ below, coming up.

In the photo above you can see the Calico Rocks in the background. Through the trees in the lower left corner of the photo is the Pine Creek Trail. The large boulders on the hillside to the right of Carlos are single-family home-sized rocks. For scale. :-)

We reset the ropes for the next rappel. As Michelle went down, I could see Francesca, 50' below, working up the final section of Cookie Monster (see photo right).

Finally it was my turn to rappel down. I took a bunch of photos of Team Carlos on their ledge, then started down. When I looked up again, they were all taking photos of me! Crazy kids...

The rest of the rappeling went smoothly. Michelle even practiced working with the autoblock, allowing her to go "hands free" on the rappel.

In short order we were down on the ground again, wrapping up ropes and gear, and making our way out.

We collected a few rocks, found a more continuous "climber's trail" out to a couple of stream crossings (photo right), then were on the main Pine Creek Trail once again. On the hike out we weren't so focused on Mescalito, and could relax and look around at the surrounding terrain. Some very nice scenery around here (photo lower right).

As we continued on out we came upon the remains of a foundation. We would later learn this was the ruins of an old house built and lived in by homesteader Horace Wilson in the early 1920s (photo below left). Michelle took a nap while I explored around a bit.

The final leg of the hike we turned offtrail to tackle a geocache that someone had set out barely a month before. It took a bit of trail and error to find the right trail back, as we kept getting blocked by thick short trees and walls of cholla cacti. But we eventually found the way in, signed the log, and headed back to the car. There we waited a while for Carlos and crew to come out, but it was getting late. At 5:45 we decided to wait outside the park at an overlook maybe half a mile up the road from the park exit. We left them a note and went out.

Half hour later we tried calling them. They apparently had already left the park and were heading back to Vegas! They had somehow misinterpreted the note to say we had gone back into the park to wait for them, and they couldn't figure that out at all. We were all tired and starving. After some miscommunicating phone tagging, we finally settled on a restaurant for dinner.

After dinner, back to the motel. Showers were had, and to sleep we went...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Red Rock, Nevada - Day 2: Cat in the Hat, Pt 1

Feb 21, 2009

The next morning I awoke once again very early local time. Everyone else was still snoozing. I tried to go back to sleep, but it wasn't meant to be. I looked at my watch in the dim light of the room. Hmmm. 5:30? Maybe I should get up...

I got up, grabbed a shower, then quietly back into the room. No one's moved. I heard Michelle's voice ask what time was it. I went back to my watch, this time with a flashlight.

It read 4am.

"Urrrr....4am", I whispered, realizing I had misread the time earlier.

"What the #&%@ are you doing up?" as she threw the covers back over her head and went back to sleep.

I was well awake now (it was 7am East Coast time). While the rest slumbered, I decided to take a walk around downtown Vegas for an hour or so. There were some geocaches in the area I might be able to try for, and the walk would do me good (the 'fresh' air of downtown Vegas was crisp and invigorating, compared to the warmer atmosphere of five bodies in a cozy motel room ;-) ). I slipped out quietly, trying not to disturb my companions any further, and set out to do a little exploring Vegas, using the geocaches to guide me.

I wandered about for about an hour. I found all three of the caches I set out to find (two of them were virtual caches - caches that have no container, but you have to locate and identify an object, or take photographs of it; in these cases one was the giant MGM lion and another was the M&M World store), and got to see a mostly, but not fully, quiet Strip. Still a fair number of people walking about (and about half of them drunker than a college frat party), but it wasn't wall-to-wall pedestrians. And of what little I got to see of the Strip, New York New York was still the most impressive thing.

Back at the hotel room the gang was slowly stirring. The sun was juuuust starting to brighten the eastern sky as we resorted gear and piled it all into the cars. Over to CoCos for breakfast again, and this time the food was better. The wait staff was still very personable and fun. Even the manager. No pretentiousness or anything between anybody. It was all very cool. After breakfast we headed out. I was to climb with Francesca today up Cat In The Hat, while Carlos would take Michelle and Claudia up Cookie Monster, a 5.7 route that ran parallel to Cat In The Hat, and finished on the same last pitch of Cat.

Part of the reason for my non-sleep was the time shift; I was still on East Coast time. The other part was today's upcoming climb, Cat In The Hat. I could easily climb at the difficulty level of that route (5.6), but it was the unknown nature of the route that was nigging at my subconscious. I tried to ignore it so no one would know (after all, I had been climbing since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and other than Carlos, was the only other experienced multi-pitch leader of the group; I didn't want to let anyone down - besides, I really did want to climb the route). But Francesca and Michelle picked up on it pretty readily, discussed the situation amongst themselves, and made a command decision to swap places. They both figured I'd be more comfortable climbing with Michelle (since I've climbed with her more than Francesca), and since Francesca has climbed with Carlos a fair number of times, he'd have someone who he knew, whereas he has only climbed with Claudia a few times, and I don't think ever multipitch. Decision made, we headed out.

As we drove out, I noted again (but forgot to mention in the Day 1 entries) that some of the overpasses along the beltway were decorated with interesting rock art or petroglyphs. I snapped photos of several, but haven't "decoded" what they mean yet. It was a nice touch to the bridges, especially considering the rest of the highway between overpasses was just grey gravel rocks.

Cat In The Hat is a 500-1100' tall 4-5 to 7 pitch climb, depending on whether or not you climb to the very top of Mescalito. Most parties just climb the 500' 4-5 pitch section, as the last 600' of the climb is not as well explored and getting off is...well, a bit of an adventure (the guidebook referred to it as "serious"). For the lower half of the route, there are rap stations set up at each belay ledge. Easy exit action. In the photo here, Cat In The Hat climbs the southeast buttress following the red line until it ends. The dashed portion of the line means it is climbing up the other side of the buttress.

The guidebook I have listed the pitches to be 5.5, 5.5, 5.6, 5.4, 5.6 in difficulty. As I climbed, I would have rerated the pitches to be 5.6, 5.5, 5.4 or 5.5, and 5.6, combining the last two pitches into one. But I get ahead of myself here.

As Michelle and I stopped so I could grab something to eat for lunch, the others continued on to Red Rock. As we followed behind, I could see in the distance the Mescalito (denoted by the red arrow in the accompanying photo lower right). Being a mere 110o' tall, it was dwarfed by the neighboring mountains. Size is amazing out here. And to this little pyramid of rock is our destination of the day...

We arrived at the parking area to Pine Creek Canyon, same one Carlos and Francesca were at the day before, just as Carlos and Crew were getting on their packs to head in. We ended up milling about a little bit, then they headed down the trail. 15 to 20 minuntes later, after I finally got things reorganized in my bag one last time (still a bit nervous about the upcoming climb), Michelle and I followed.

The trek in was mostly straightforward: follow the Pine Creek Canyon Trail until we had to turn off. I knew from the Supertopo guide and my guidebook where we had to evntually end up. The getting there was the trick. From the main trail there was an intermittent "climber's trail" to the corner buttress, and we lost it several times, bushwhacking or doubling back around thick foliage, and crossing an active stream several times. As we drew nearer, we heard someone calling out from the rocks above. It was Claudia, waving at us, letting us know they were there. We could just make her out from her red jacket, and Carlos and Francesca from their yellow and green helmets respectively (in the adjoining photo, the red arrow points directly to a blue-jacketed dot that is Carlos). They hadn't started the climb yet, but were at the base, getting the ropes ready. Well, we'd see them higher up. While Carlos was climbing in a team of three, they were already at their route, and I figured they'd beat us to the top, particularly since I'd be going slow, even in a team of two. Plus they were about to start, and we had yet to get to the base of our climb. Thoughts of leading some of the scariest 5.6s I'd ever done at the Gunks suddenly came to mind. My palms began sweating all over again. We headed up.

Moments later there was very friendly and cheerful guy on our tail named Janis He and his party (somewhere behind him) were also going to Cat In The Hat. There were four of them, in two groups of two. Janis and his leader, Aaron, were from Colorado Springs, while the other two (Pawel and Agata) were from Poland. They all eventually caught up to us as we scrambled up the steeper slopes of the approach to the beginning of the route. Aaron cheerfully pointed me at the route, and told me where, in his opinion, the crux (one of two) of the route was ("right there, 25-30' up"), how to do it ("smear your feet against the wall on the left, because there are no footholds"), and what I needed to place at it ("a #4 Cam"). Urrrr...I didn't own a #4 Cam (which is rather big). Largest I had was a #3, and that wasn't going to fit in the crack at the crux. Far too small (the #3 covers a range from 2-3.5 inches; the #4 covers from 2.75-4.5 inches; this was a 4 inch crack). I always considered the #3 to be large, and the #4 a boat anchor sized thing. Never wanted to drag that thing around climbing. Already carry too much gear as it is.

I had almost calmed down until Aaron mentioned the #4 Cam and lack of footholds at the crux, then I got unnerved all over again. :-( I offered to let him go first, if just to see how to get through the crux. As I looked at where he was pointing I thought I could see a smaller crack where I could get a smaller piece of gear in just above where he indicated the #4 should go. But he insisted, and in a show of amazing generosity, loaned me his #4. He just asked that we leave it in place for when he comes up behind us. Sweet! Thanks, man!!

I was still having second thoughts about going first, but finally Michelle said, "Get your ass up there!" So I tied in and started up pitch one.

Note: I didn't take many photos while climbing up. ;-)

At the crux I saw that I could reach a little higher and probably slot a smaller cam, but hey, I had this big, beefy, heavy boat anchor on my rack - no sense in carrying it up 150' if I could ditch it here! So I got it in, to the cheers of Aaron and his buds. I felt...okay, and continued on up.

As I climbed, I found lots of places for placing gear. I found lots of places for hand and footholds (but occasionally I'd have to actively look for them, as they weren't always obvious or apparent). I got to within about 15' or so below a huge ledge, the end of the first pitch, and was a fair bit above my last piece of gear. Still feeling nervous (this was my first real trad lead of the year), I slotted a small camming device in a bulge to my right, and looked up at the steep, steep ramp of a detached pillar before me. All I could see was the 6-inch wide maw of the crack that ran up for 20' to the top. And all I could think was that the #4 Cam was way, way, WAY down below me! I had nothing that could protect that cavity! Yep, I began feeling really unhappy at this point.

I looked to the right, at the bulge where I had slotted the Alien. I looked back at the maw that threatened to engulf me and everything I had on. I called down to Aaron, asking him which way I should go.

"Go up the crack to the left!" came his voice, some 130' below me.

I looked at it one more time. Oh, screw that! I could see a way to go up and along the bulge! And I was right at my protection piece, no penduluum swings should I slip in the crack (I never, ever saw the plethora of hand/footholds on the face just left of the crack, so absorbed by the scary darkness was I). So right I went, struggling up and over the bulge, willing my feet to not slip on the couple of friction moves I had to make,! I made it to the ledge! Sweet!!

I started to set an anchor to belay Michelle up on, but stepped around the corner only to discover there was a three-bolt anchor already there - woo! I clipped in, felt MUCH happier, went off belay, and pulled up the slack in the rope (which was 200' long, so barely 35' on this 150' pitch; remember that the knots we tied in with take up almost 5-7 feet of rope alone).

Michelle came up fairly quickly, and as we were restacking the rope to move it over to the next belay, Aaron arrived. As he brought up his second, Michelle and I moved over and up to the start of pitch 2. This would be a shorter pitch, 50' instead of 150'. And looked imminently easier. It had two "hard" 5.5 moves on it at the start, but the rest was pretty easy and straightforward. Not boring, but not "spicy", either. I made it to the next belay in short order, then belayed Michelle up.

From our belay position at a nice tree we could see the first half of pitch 3. I gazed at it, seeing two cracks about 10' apart, running up to a short roof. I couldn't remember what the guidebook said, other than "climb the crack to the roof, traverse under it to (one side or the other), and continue to the top". Hmmmm. At that moment Aaron appeared. He indicated that I should go up the right crack, then at some point below the roof traverse left and follow the left crack up to a small belay ledge. Yeah, okay, sure thing. I got my gear from Michelle, reracked while she restacked the rope, then headed up.

The first couple of placements I felt nervous on. In fact, at the second I wasn't in a good stance, but wanted to get something in and worked a nut into the crack, feeling just slightly off balance. Once the nut was set, I moved up and for the first time I really began to feel the flow of the climb. I dropped in a couple more nuts and continued up. Then 10' below the short but wide roof I got stymied. I saw some chalk on some holds straight above me, but wasn't sure I saw easy traverse moves to the left. Looking left I saw two chalked holds up to my 10 o'clock on an otherwise blank, featureless and sheer rock wall. There were no fricking footholds over there! I called down to Aaron, asking him his opinion. "Yeah, just traverse someplace up there". Great, THAT helped!

But then I saw them. On the blank, featureless face were...footholds! They weren't there earlier, I swear. But hey, I could TOTALLY do this now! Plugging in a small nut where I was, I made my way over and up diagonally to the left finger crack, on fun moves across the face. At the other crack I plugged in a small Alien cam. Never felt nervous the whole time - in fact, it was downright fun! (photo to left is of me just before the traverse up to the left corner of the roof) I continued up and out of sight from Michelle to the upper belay ledge. The climbing from this point up the rest of the pitch was pretty uneventful.

On the next pitch (#4) I saw that I'd have to downclimb to a ledge (downclimbing is always harder than going up, because you can't easily see where your feet are to go), traverse over and up a ramp, then around a slight corner which I couldn't see where to set up a belay. All the relaxation I felt on the previous pitch evaporated from me into nerves again. I really wasn't looking forward to doing the downclimb, and knew that Michelle would be nervous as well, having to follow and have no rope above her, but rather below (thus if she slipped while downclimbing the 7' to the ledge, she'd take a much bigger fall than if the rope were above her). From what I could see from my perch on the belay station I could not make out any ledges for me to set up a comfortable belay. Blurg. That could suck.

Also, I could not see the fifth and final pitch of the route, so had no idea what I was in for. Carlos' voice came unbidden at that point, as I remembered him telling me that the final pitch is a crack up a wall to an unprotected slab with a single bolt, and the crux was getting to the bolt. Then another runout section of slab.

A crack that disappears, an unprotected slab except for one bolt around the crux, and an unprotected runout finish. Gee, that last pitch sounded like fun...

(continued in part 2)