2011-04-4 thru 11 – Spring Climbing in the Southwest

Despite the awesome winter season I had and all the great ice climbing and mountaineering I did, I’ve been waiting for a trip that had long been in the works.  Last year I travelled to Las Vegas and Red Rocks to climb in the warm weather of the Southwest.  Determined to raise the bar for climbing this year I planned with my buddy, Mark Spain, for week long trip.  After a few emails back and forth we narrowed down a week that worked for both of us.

Mark switched from an office job to be an outdoor education instructor.  He works for National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) which is an organization strictly oriented toward outdoor education.  In that position Mark has time to train for the rock season and the Southwest is one of the best places to do that.  He informed me that he would be in the Las Vegas climbing area for almost two months.  Various friends would be travelling through and he’d be meeting up with them.  Since he’d be in Red Rocks the most he suggested taking a few days to climb at another world famous climbing area, Joshua Tree National Park, about 4 hours away.  This sounded like a splendid idea to me so we put the plan in motion. …



I was especially looking forward to climbing some of the classic grade III routes that Red Rocks has to offer.  These are multipitch climbs that take more than a couple hours and have moderately long (+1 hour) approaches.  Last season I became much more confident in my leading abilities, especially on multipitch routes.  Being able to hammer through 4-5 two pitch routes in a day at the Gunks really put me in a better position than I was on my last trip.  This isn’t to say that I’m leading 5.9 or that I’m a gear expert by any means, just better than I was.

A few days before my flight I got an email from Delta saying that they were upgrading my seat.  Sweet!  My free bump to Delta’s Silver Medalion status because of my employer was already paying off.  Though there was a bit of turbulance on the flight, it was one of my best I’ve taken.  Those seats are just so much more comfortable in first class.  Not to mention the free drinks–before you even leave the gate!

Mark picked me up and we hurried back to the hotel around 12:30am, April 5, so we could get some sleep for our long day.  Our plan was for Black Dagger (5.7+) 6 pitches, a classic in Red Rocks but far enough out in the back of Juniper Canyon so that no one is usually there.  Especially on a Tuesday.  Weather was sunny and a bit warm for the nearly 2 hour approach.

Just like last year my eyes tried to be everywhere at once.  The landscape is so different from here inthe Northeast.  Out there because there are so few trees you can see mountains, top to bottom, from many miles away.  The intensely red hills of Calico Basin,  tumble weed, cactus, scrubby bushes, and big mountains are all beautiful. 

After a while I start to concentrate my eyes on finding the climb.  It is clearly visible using the end of the canyon gunsight notch in this case, as a point of reference.  Black Dagger follows a crack to a white roof and then up into a huge right facing corner.  Mark and I discussed that I would take the even pitches which are rated 5.7, 4th class, and 5.5.

On my pitch I head up a crack to the right side of the moderately large roof.  From here a bolt protects until you traverse all the way left and then on top of the lip of the roof.  The route then sends you right, back across the lip of the roof.  The name of the game is minimizing rope drag in these sorts of double-back traverses.  I think I put in one piece on the left edge of the roof because it was a difficult tranistion up.  The traverse across the roof was relatively easy but it needed precise foot and handwork because the concequences were pretty significant, somewhere around a 25 ft whipper.  After the traverse the climbing was good but not nearly as sketchy.

After bringing Mark up to the top of my pitch he headed off into the crux.  A right facing corner on smooth varnished rock.  To top that the crack also widens at one point for about 15 feet, leaving the options for protection limited.  Mark had little trouble dispatching that pitch, even though the #5 Camalot he brough to protect it was a little bit too small.  A few more pitches and we got to the summit for a little food.  Seeing the back canyons was really interesting.  All of the fronts of the canyons look pretty uniform in direction from the loop road.  However the back canyons are much more convoluted and it would be super easy to get lost, assuming you could even travel the 4/5th class terrain.  The descent took us nearly an hour through the gunsite notch.  In many places the gully is only about a foot or two wide.  More than a few places had us scrambling down.  We even passed a couple slings around sturdy bushes that people had used to help “rap” down.  We opted for the faster method and justscrambled.  The new 5.10 Guide Tennie approach shoes I recently picked up were a must have.  We made it back to the car with plenty of time to hit up the grocery store for some beers and food for the next few days.

Wednesday the weather started its turn to cold and windy, stuff we would have for a few days both in Red Rocks and Joshua Tree.  Because of the weather, and possible rain, we opted for some multipitch climbs that had rappel stations so we could bail if necessary.  The objectives were four pitches of Dark Shadows (5.8), 5 pitches of Birdland (5.7+), and possibly Big Horn (5.8) 2 pitches.

Dark Shadows is another super classic and I was pumped to be doing it.  The climb starts just above a small stream and waterfall that must be bone dry in the summer, but at this time was running well.  While this route goes to the top of the wall for some 10 pitches or so the vast majority of people do the first four.  This was our plan as well, though both Mark and I would like to go to the top since it is a significantly more committing day without having super hard climbing.  

I took the odd pitches this time.  The first is a slabby easy run up to some bolted anchors.  From here Mark did a nice finger/hand crack on varnished rock in a corner.  P3 went up some awkward bulges then finished on hueco-ed but varnished rock.  Just about the time I reached the end of my pitch it started to drizzle.  We kept on moving and Mark finished up the traverse at the top of P4 with some slick conditions.  During our rap down a number of parties bailed because of the rain.  We were lucky to have finished.  We had even more luck when the party in front of us, decided to leave their rappel rope up on the last rap.  This prevented us from having to pull the ropes and drop them in the pool at the bottom of the climb.

Thankfully the rain stopped so we headed over to Birdland only a couple minutes away.  This is another great climb in Pine Creek Canyon.  I took pitches 2, 4 and 5.  At the top of P2 we diverted left up a scramble of rocks to the base of a nice arching crack called Big Horn.  This climb was lots of fun with a nice crux pulling over a bulge with thin feet but good hands in the crack.  I only cleaned this one but it was still a very good climb.  Rapping and wandering back over to Birdland we finished up the top pitches.  P4 ended on a frictiony face which was run out.  P5 finished on an amazing thin fingertips crack.  It looks much harder than it actually is in this picture.

Wednesday evening we headed out through the desert for our next climbing area, Joshua Tree.  This National Park is situated almost due east of LA.  Our drive, all after dark, was boring except for Ferris Bueler’s Day Off that we watched.  Driving through the desert at night is monotonous to say the least.  

There are a bunch of campgrounds in the Park but they are frequently full because of the popularity of climbing there.  We hoped that our Wednesday arrival would get us a spot easily.  Well, actually we arrived very early Thursday morning and we got the only spot left in Hidden Valley Campground.  Hidden Valley is one of the primo spots for climbing.  Arrived at night we didn’t see any of the landscape.  Though we did notice from driving around the campground that there were large piles of boulders and many of the sites were nestled in them.  Our site, #29, was no different.  Just before turning in to our tents we took a gander at the sky and the thousands of stars we could see.  We saw some shooting stars, one of which was enormous.  Normally shooting stars are just that, little points of light the size and brightness of a star, but moving.  This one that Mark saw and I had enough time to turn and see was much bigger and brighter and burned across a much longer distance.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The sun rose on our hastily formed camp and we were very happy with what we saw.  Numerous formations of granite poking through the mainly flat desert landscape.  Many were very close to the campground.  By close I mean 40 feet from my tent was the start to a great 5.7 called Toe Jam.  Unlike Red Rocks, Joshua Tree is dominated by hundreds of short, 1 pitch routes with little to no approach.  This is definitely a cragging area where you can push your limits and only be 5 minute walk from your car or tent if you are completely demoralized by a climb.

The day started with finishing base camp.  Water jugs, Coleman stove, gear bins were all carefully laid out for the next few days of use.  A hearty breakfast of fried eggs, peppers, onions, and hot italian sausage started the day off right.  While the sun was out the temps were a little chilly for the area, probably in the low 60’s, and a little bit of breeze blew.  Since Toe Jam was literally in our backyard we had to climb it.  The route goes up somewhat slabby terrain along a right leaning crack.  About 3/4 of the way up the crack ends and transitions into a more vertical one.  The bottom is fun slightly frictiony climbing for your feet and decent hands in the crack.  The top crack is the crux and a polished hands crack.  I guess tens of thousands of passages by climbers has worn the normally grippy granit down.

From here we visited Overhanging Bypass (5.7) where I lead the first pitch.  By the time I got to the belay–the second pitch is only to minimize rope drag on a traverse under a roof–the wind had picked up.  A few of the more precise moves required on the first pitch were much more difficult with a 20 mph wind buffeting me, nevermind that I left my wind shell on the ground.  Mark made quick work of following me and then lead the second, crux, pitch.  The roof is a bit dicey for a 5.7 because its hand traverse nature.  I would have liked to lead it but the wind was making me cold and made things a bit more difficult.  Once on top of the formation, called Intersection Rock, we quickly rappelled down the other side to get out of the wind.  

Walking all the way back from Intersection Rock to the Old Woman formation (100 yards) we went over to check on Double Cross (5.8), perhaps one of the most climbed routes in the Park.  Unfortunately it was taken so we decided to do Sexy Grandma (5.9) a semi-bolted climb.  The first half of the climb runs up an arete and through some bolts.  The crux is a small roof that must be pulled.  The wind again started to gust just when I was at the roof and then pulling the arete which made for an exciting climb.  We headed over to Mike’s Books (5.6) back on Intersection Rock.  This is another short two pitch climb.  Mark started this one on a tricky 5.8 variation crack which leads up to the main climb in a big right facing corner with chimney-ing opportunities.  From the top of this pitch I lead the next one which was a thrasher of a chimney and off-width.  The most exciting part of this pitch is topping out on the slabby friction climbing.  There is no natural pro and a single bolt keeps you from a bad fall.  Unfortunately the sun which had shined much of the day was all but gone at this point behind clouds.  The wind again gusted here on the exposed top of Intersection rock.  Perhaps blowing at 20 mph with higher gusts.  Deciding to call it a day we headed back to camp (5 minute walk on the road) and headed into town for a few things.

Friday night brough some cool temps and even a little freezing of some water left at the bottom of a nalgene.  The sun was came back for the morning but steadily went away as the day went on.  The first objective was for me to climb Toe Jam so we could set up a top rope on Bearded Cabbage (5.10c).  This route is just to the right of Toe Jam and follows a upturned flake/rail to a vertical crack in overhanging terrain.  A bolt at the transition between the flake and crack keep you from decking.  Once pulling over the bulge into the vertical crack, the angle lessens and becomes more like 5.6 climbing.  Both Mark and I gave it a try with the intent of trying it lead it later.  I was able to get the crux by laybacks and heel hooking to get myself into the crack.  Mark had a little trouble but made it eventually.

Mark had been spying a climb we saw while doing Overhang Bypass called The Flake (5.8).  This climb is one of the longer ones in the area at almost a full rope length.  It starts as a chimney then works into an offwidth, then out onto a face with a large flake, then to a runout friction slab with a bolt at the top.  It has varied climbing and was lots of fun.  We headed over to Double Cross to see if anyone was on it.  Unfortunately there was so we decided to eat some lunch and come back after that.  So that both Mark and I could check this climb off as an “onsight” he climbed first then rapped down and cleaned his own gear.  He made quick work of the climb so I was optimistic of my chances.  The 5.8 category is one I haven’t ventured into much with my leading, particularly onsighting.  Onsighting is when you lead a climb without climbing it prior on a top rope or as a second, the opposite of what we did on Bearded Cabbage.  While the route isn’t any more difficult when you do it the first time or the 100th time, it is more strenuous to figure out the climb on lead for the first time.  It is a good measure of if you can truely climb at a certain grade since you haven’t memorized any of the moves or holds.  The first 25 feet or so are slightly unprotected but fairly easy.  Once launching into the crack it is pure hand and footjaming up the route.  The protection is numerous #2 and #3 Camalots.  Since I only had two of each I decided to move my pieces up with me.  This means I placed a piece of protection and climbed up 2-3 feet then reached down and moved that piece up higher.  This is a great way to reuse a piece of protection when the climbing is very consistent.  The climb was sustained until the last 15 feet or so but I made it.  

At some point we decided to start getting ready for our guests that night.  My sister and her boyfriend were driving out from San Diego to spend the night and next day climbing with us.  On the way into town that night to pick up some supplies we got some bad news from the rangers at the gate.  The government was having trouble agreeing on a budget for 2011 and the latest short term extension wasn’t approved.  This meant, the rangers said, that at 9am Saturday law enforcement might be sweeping through the Park getting people to pack up and leave.  This was super bad news.  Not only would we not be able to climb with my sister we would also be “homeless”.  We wouldn’t even be able to go back to Red Rocks to climb.  Much of Red Rocks is on the 13 mile loop road which is federal land.  There are only a few areas outside this and more than likely be swamped because of the number of climbers forced to climb there or climb nothing.  Needless to say we hoped this didn’t come to pass.

My sister and boyfried, Jamie and Jeff, showed up just as we were cooking dinner.  We cranked up the fire and passed out some brews.  We gave them the bad news and decided to hope for the best and continue with our plans until the government shut us down.  Talking late into the night both Mark and I decided to have a few extra beers given that the next day might be a bust and if it wasn’t it would be an easy climbing day with our guests.

Saturday morning we all woke up, probably around 8am, and started to get breakfast going.  A little while later a ranger showed up at a little turnaround in the road between the sites and set up a table with what looked to be coffee.  “Well, they are going to try and soften the blow of kicking us out with coffee” we thought.  Jeff went over while Mark and I prepared strawberry pancakes and found out that they normally set this information table up on weekend mornings for the visitors.  The ranger manning the table said that he had gotten up at 4am and it wasn’t until 5am that they were instructed they wouldn’t be kicking people out of the Park.  Yay!  

After downing our pancakes we headed off to Thin Wall in the Real Hidden Valley area about 15 minute walk down the road from our camp.  Here Mark and I set up a couple top ropes on a very crowded wall.  There was a Single Pitch Instruction class going on so there were lots of ropes set up but not much climbing.  There was a family that had a couple small kids there were scampering right up a 5.9 next to us.  As the clouds completely moved in Jeff started climbing.  He climbed a little bit back in college and was able to negotiate the 5.8 route called Chocolate is Better than Sex.  Once finished we started tying in Jamie.  While doing this we noticed some clouds and obvious precipitation that appeared to be heading in our direction.  Luckily the wind was less than the last couple days but the temps were lower as well.  Perhaps only in the low 50’s, but it seemed colder than that.  While Jamie was climbing it started to snow!  This was a welcomed surprise compared to if it was rain.  The snow didn’t really stick and it was a very dry styrofoam shaped snow.  Jamie was a real trooper and stuck with it and climbed through the snow shower.  With a little advice from all of us she was able to get to the top.  I lead up the route they had been climbing which was a fun one.  The bottom has a high first piece but after that is very well protected.

After the snow shower the sun came back out and warmed us up a bit, enough so we headed back to camp for lunch.  After that Mark decided to take a nap leaving Jamie, Jeff, and me to fend for ourselves.  I brought Jeff up Toe Jam so he could experience cleaning gear.  He struggled with a few pieces, especially the ones on the last section, but I didn’t loose anything.  After this the sun was getting lower so we headed over to The Eye (5.4).  This route is on a formation called the Cyclops because of a large hole or eye at the top in the center.  This eye is a window of rock that leads from the west face to the east face.  While walking over I saw a couple rappelling off a set of anchors and come up short on the bottom.  Luckily it was not vertical terrain and they got down OK.  I decided that the walk-off on theback side of the route would be a better option when the three of us got to the top.  Leading up the large flairing crack wasn’t too hard, kind of like climbing a tree.  Lots of holds on the sides of the flaring crack prevented us from having to climb it like a real crack.  While at the belay in the eye I had a beautiful view of the sun setting.  Unfortunately it was setting and the wind was out of the west which became funnelled through the eye.  Jamie started up and had a bit of trouble so I lowered her down.  Jeff came up and the two of us walked off the backside where Jamie met us.  I wish she could have made it to the top because of the view.  Maybe next time.

Mark whipped up some Indian-esque dinner for all of us and we had a few smores just before Jamie and Jeff headed out.  They didn’t really have the right equipment for another night in chilly temps which were down around freezing.

Sunday, our last day of climbing, we headed to another area, Echo Rocks.  The plan was to hit some classics there then perhaps come back to Real Hidden Valley so Mark could climb Illusion Dweller (5.10b).  After the snow the weather had been getting better and better.  Sunday morn was warm in the sun.  After a few minutes walk and a little bit of a scramble we got to the base of Touch and Go (5.9), another classic.  Marked headed up this 50 ft double crack in a left facing corner.  There was a little struggling but he didn’t have any major problems.  He rapped and cleaned off his anchor and I headed up so I could onsight it as well.  This was the first 5.9 I’ve ever tried to lead, nevermind onsight.  The good thing about the climb is it’ll take as much protection as you want to put in.  I was able to get up to the lower crux and I had to hang on a piece.  After a few more of these I was able to get up.  I think the hardest thing about the climb was how sustained it was.  All hand jams all the way and since it’s in a corner, one of your feet is almost useless.  Mark then lead up Cornerstone (5.10a).  This route is really a 5.9 with a couple 5.10 moves protected by a bolt, but what a few moves they are.  After getting to a ledge Mark clipped the bolt and attempted 4-5 times to negotiate the friction climbing above the ledge.  I only followed this route and I still had to go back to the ledge before I could figure it out.  A great lead by Mark!

Following the sun we switched over to Pope’s Crack(5.9).  This climb starts out at 5.9 and doesn’t stop for about 30 feet.  Even then there is only a small rail for you to rest on and back into hand and foot jams.  This was probably one of my favorite climbs of the trip even though I didn’t lead it.  Had I not gotten crushed on Touch and Go I probably would have tried to lead it.  Our late start had pushed us into the afternoon at this point.  Mark decided that Illusion Dweller being at the limits of his abilities to lead decided it might be better to end on a good note and not climb it and potentially fail.  I seconded this opinion so I suggested going over to Eff Eight (5.8), a short left leaning crack.  Mark was able to lead the route in his approach shoes.  He then rapped and cleaned so I could lead it.  From the very start I knew the route wasn’t going to be good for me.  The left leaning nature of the crack meant that my left foot had little to nothing to support me.  The jams and even the protection were tough to place securely.  I started to panic a bit and had to hang on a piece.  After getting back on the wall I didn’t have much better success and had to hang a couple more times at the crux.  Finally after some encouragement I was able to get through the crux and just climb, not fiddle with gear.  This climb pretty much tapped us out and we headed into town for some gas and other supplies before our drive back to Las Vegas the next morning.

Our drive back Monday was interesting since we were able to see the landscape that was shrowded in darkness on our way in.  Despite being the desert it was remarkably green this time of year.  Only the rugged mountains were more of a brown color.  Just before getting to the Mojave desert we drove through a salt flat which was pretty interesting.  The stuff is amazingly hard and dead flat for miles.  On the way back Mark and I debated the pros and cons of speed limits in this type of terrain.  After a few errands and a welcomed shower at the hotel, Mark dropped me off at the airport for my flight.  I forgot my emergency knife on my harness and it was confiscated.  But I can’t be too troubled by that because my seat was upgraded once again to first class, :-).  The red eye flight was good and I was able to get some sleep in before arriving at JFK at 6am.  I drove from there straight to work and did an 8 hour, sleep deprived day.


My spring break vacation, if you can call it that, was great.  I was able to get some good climbing on some long routes and plenty of cragging in on shorter ones.  I’m really glad that I got to experience Joshua Tree and have my sister visit.  The weather was a bit unseasonablly cold but coming off an ice climbing season it wasn’t that bad.  Even after two trips to Red Rocks there are still dozens and dozends of climbs I would like to do out there.  Joshua Tree is the same way.  I could do a week long trip to both of these places for the next 10 years and still not climb all the classics.  The trip has definitely jump started my leading for the year.  I feel about as strong as I did at the end of last year, which should prove for a productive and fun season for me!

Red Rocks Pictures

Joshua Tree Pictures

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