“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” – Edward Abbey
Autumn rains and cold temps descended upon Park City early November. As the trees prepared for hibernation, we prepared for escape. The daily mundane of schedules, lists, responsibilities, expectations had overwhelmed me long enough. Chris and I filled the carefully constructed truck/home with climbing gear and life essentials for a month. When we finally began the drive south along I-15 all the chaos that surrounded my life began to dissipate, lose its grip.
Our first stop was Red Rocks, a playground rising straight from the desert floor watching over Las Vegas. The suburbia of Vegas sneaks along the highway and ends only miles from the entrance of a sandstone heaven. Red Rocks is sanity for city dwellers and the power of the wild desert air is shared with hordes of locals. The campground is a gravel plot with metal pavilions. We sought a piece of sacred BLM land and after a genuine hunt we found something. A piece of BLM land so different from what I am accustomed to. A recreational highway of its own, dirt bikes, mountain bikers and hikers greeted us each morning. My vision of Red Rocks was tainted with the encroaching suburbia and masses that endlessly streamed from Las Vegas.
As we entered the park the first day and started walking the base of sandstone mountains, I began to see clearly. We were there to climb and we had entered into a climbers paradise. Inviting elephant ears along sidesplitter cracks, huecos and red slabs beckoned us. Our first climb was the iconic Cat and the Hat, a wildly popular Red Rock classic. We waited cordially at the base, in a line of climbers and silently wondered if the whole park buzzed with constant commotion. It was worth the wait, as I tested my newly acquired trad climbing skills, I was falling for the rock. Watching the sunset we bailed off the last pitch with no hard feelings; a three star, six pitch 5.6 is bound to be a hot item. Dodging and pacing with other parties on the wall, we had a little taste of city antics as a woman in cat ears and her partner jumped our rope and simul-rapelled down without even bothering to ask.
Hunting for quiet, our second day we headed to First Creek Canyon and found solace. We played in an area called Romper Room and enjoyed single pitch climbs with names like Doobie Dance. Next we explored Black Velvet Canyon and were pleased to encounter just several parties of climbers. The park was revealing its sweet spots of serenity and we were drinking in the desert vibe.
Five days into our trip we were eating aluminum and dirt with our stained hands and dirty utensils, so we headed to Pahrump for a warm bed and a hot bath. One night at Granny’s and a bingo game left us rearing to return to our playground. We met a friend from Salt Lake City at The Panty Wall and brought him ‘home’ to our piece of BLM land. Under the stars and sipping beer, we schemed over ascent possibilities. Our first group climb was Geronimo. We each took a turn on lead and savored the unique experience of climbing a face while placing protection in a crack.
The next morning we drove towards Red Rocks in the dark and prepared for a 1760-foot ascent. At the Oak Creek parking lot the rising sun provided light as we packed our bags with gear and water for a full day on the wall. Racing to leave the car before the other parties, we began the hour-long approach. As we arrived at Solar Slab Gully I was prepared for 13 pitches of fun. Our arrangement was to reach Solar Slab by climbing Johnny Vegas, we reevaluated our plan as we listened to the party on Johnny Vegas repetitively call up to their guide “take!” We saw an opportunity to bypass this guided group by climbing Solar Slab Gully. With some simul-climbing and soloing we managed to make the base of Solar Slab in 2 pitches.
We had the route to ourselves and eagerly began the ascent. We relished 1200 feet of high quality, insanely awesome sandstone climbing. Running pitches together and taking turns on lead we made it to the top in 6 pitches with just over 2 hours of daylight left. My adrenaline was pumping and my face was plastered with a perma-grin. In the height of our excitement my long time love, Chris took my hand and asked how I liked the climb… then he asked if I would marry him? I said yes on the summit of Solar Slab! Our friend took a few engagement photos and we spent a moment looking out across the desert and welcoming a new life.
The ascent of Solar Slab was complete, but the journey was only half way finished as the descent waited and we rushed to begin 12 rappels with our shadows cast long against the rock. As night fell we found ourselves relying on faith as we held our breath and pulled our rope. The rappel stations were completely off the ascent route and if a rope were to get stuck it would mean unprotectable vertical wall climbing…scary. Miraculously we made it to Solar Slab Gully where we ran into a grumbling group who did not share our same fortune of topping out. We held our tongues and tried not to act giddy as we waited for them to sort out their ropes. Fourteen hours later we floated to the Oak Creek parking lot exhausted and sublimely satisfied.
Our Red Rocks climbing finale was a 6 pitch sparsely traveled route, Dodgeball. Limited beta and lack of crowds supplied Dodgeball with an adventurous flare. My final impression of Red Rocks was so different from the first. I realized that the park is many peaks, begging to be explored. Crowds are to be expected, but solitude is accessible as well. We experienced both throughout nine days of climbing. With aching bodies and bloody hands we rewarded ourselves with an all out night in Vegas and a six-course gourmet meal at Marrakech.
The restaurant had no windows and painted boldly on the outside was a silhouette of a woman and the words “belly dancers every night”. As we opened the door heavy velvet curtains shielded our view of the interior and I began to panic that we had chosen a strip club for dinner. How wrong I was. The inside was draped with tapestries and velvet. We relaxed on soft sofas while we had our scabbed hands washed in rose water. We ate with a fervor and enthusiasm that can only come from many days of hard climbing and repetitive meals of bars, beers, and chips. Five courses and two bottles of wine later we had to take dessert to go. The staff must have found our enormous appetites to be quite amusing, as we left they insisted we take complimentary hummus and babaganoush.
Two weeks and two showers into our journey of dirtbag-hood and we drove our home into the Mojave Desert. Anticipating what we would find in Joshua Tree, we arrived in a place that does not exist on most maps, Wonder Valley. We were wondering, what is this place? Cinder block houses with no windows and rotting woods structures dotted the horizon. Cars with doors open and patio furniture indicated human life, but we saw none.
Joshua Tree is starkly different from Red Rocks. There is not an expansive city threatening to consume the desert floor and it is not the sole source of mountainous recreation for 600,000 people. Joshua Tree is playful. We left the dedication and reality of a full day, full commitment long multi-pitch climb in Nevada. Fortune was on our side as we rolled into a secluded campsite in the esteemed Hidden Valley Campground. Our camp spot was perfect, quiet and complete with a personal cragging wall.
We played on the granite and the days began melting together. Pitch after pitch, exploration after exploration we were changing. I wrote of the metamorphosis.
I am becoming the desert. I’ve lost track of the days. The sun basks the glittering rock in a fresh morning glow. Sparkly and still cool from the night, granite winks at the endless sea of blue above.
The desert taps you on the shoulder, then stares you in the face. Daring – urging its dwellers to open up and feel the heavy pulse of the earth.
A friend from Carlsbad met us at our campsite and we found joy in providing him with his first experience climbing, at Cyclops Rock. We fondled the granite to climb The Eye. Then I clawed the granite leading Penelope’s Walk, which was not a simple walk for me. Penelope’s gave me my first taste of whipping on my own gear. Only feet from the top, I desperately tried to jam my hand in the crack and as I flew off the wall I trusted my life to a Black Diamond .4 Camelot. Hanging on the rope breathless and giddy I realized I was not on the ground and had no injuries! The system worked and I was filled with reassuring joy as the idea of protection protecting me sunk in. I eventually made it to the top, but the sight of a flailing friend deterred our buddy from giving it a go.
Hours, days, and weeks melted together in the desert sun. We spent a few days exploring the area by foot, admiring cacti and investigating granite boulder piles. We savored our last night in Hidden Valley campground.
The desert feeds the soul – the world of concrete and consumption feeds our ego. The happy chatter in Hidden Valley Campground is the sound of souls being tickled awake by granite and egos being quieted by the power of the desert abyss.
Our friend headed back to Carlsbad and we eagerly climbed Double Dog Leg and Split Personality before going into town for our third shower of the trip. We indulged on several occasions at The Natural Sisters Cafe. We relished two more days climbing and spent one night with dozens of other cars, trucks and campers on a small plot of land along Sunflower Road. The last couple days under the warm desert sun we climbed the agreed favorite Mental Physics and the essential Ain’t Nothin’ But a J-Tree Thing.
We departed Joshua Tree and headed towards the Mojave desert, passing by the curious Wonder Valley. For the first time in my life I was completely ready to return home to Park City and leave the desert South.
We had found sublime happiness from dirt embedded into our fingernails and strange sores covering our hands. We were filthy from head to toe and slept atop tiny pieces of granite. The filth was a path to happiness. The dirtier we became – the more the desert clung to us, the freer we became. Free from the ever demanding mundane of daily life. Free from the call to be modern and constantly connected via electrical currents. Free from page updates. Free to check in with ourselves and view from within a true reflection of our status.
As a newly engaged couple we felt closure to a long, transforming journey and drove into the setting sun. The sky was a larimar and amethyst cocktail for the soul.