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)

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