My fingertips are smooth as glass. It feels weird and I can’t stop rubbing them together. I turn my palms toward my face and inspect them. I imagine my prints have been sanded off, but they are still there. It seems I have not climbed so much that I lost my identity. I look to the horizon, and can barely make out the Las Vegas strip. A row of skyscraper casinos peek out just beyond a small, distant mountain. From my perch on Frogland, a rock climbing route in Red Rock Canyon, the city looks like a scale model. I gaze over a ledge. The ground is thousands of feet down, all cactus, yucca and cholla. Amongst the speckled patches of green on the desert floor is a weave of skinny trails. I see mountain bikers pedaling through. They look like ticks on a carpet. I suddenly wish I could fly down and join them.
Behind me, Adam says he’s ready. I stand up, grab the rope, and thread it into my belay device. I check his figure eight knot, double check my locking carabiner, and tell him he’s on belay. The sun is hot on my neck. I think about cold air in Salt Lake City, where snow pastes the cliffs of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons like melted frosting. It’s the wrong time of year to be climbing, but in southern Nevada, it is prime time. In fact, it’s almost always climbing season in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where temperatures are suitable for daytime ascents but for the hot summer months. As a result, this enclave of massive, varnished cliffs is a haven for Utah climbers who seek a respite from winter weather.
This place has a long history among climbers, as thousands of ascent routes were pioneered since the 1970’s. Today, the bolted and traditional routes have never been more popular. Every March, thousands of climbers converge here for the annual Red Rock Rendezvous – an extravaganza of climbing clinics, parties, and even pancake breakfasts. The event always sells out. Unfortunately, we are too late to buy tickets for the festivities as our corn-skiing priorities kept us occupied in our backyard mountains. But with the snow rapidly melting, and our fingers itching to sense the sandy grip of stone, I pack my Pathfinder with camping and climbing gear, pick up Adam Symonds and Chad Burt, and point my car’s rusty hood south.
The sun is low when we arrive. Although we are in Vegas, I resist the urge to turn my steering wheel toward The Strip, where free beer and nickel slots could easily entertain me all weekend. As I drive around the city core, I purposefully avert my eyes away from the glittering neon and focus instead on the red cliffs that rise like a dam against Vegas’ west side, where the sun is already painting an amber glow.
With little time to lose, we immediately drive to the first pullout in Red Rock Canyon, gear up, and start hiking. Although this place is lousy with multi-pitch trad climbs, we have little time for that. What we do have time for is the Panty Wall.
The Panty Wall is a collection of moderate sport climbs with underwear-related names. I hope the moniker is a tribute to “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” exploits and imagine a collection of thousands of women’s underwear on display, much like the panty trees beneath lifts at ski resorts. The truth is disappointingly mundane as it’s actually named after a stroke of black varnish in the shape of panties in contrast against the red rock.
We follow cairns to the cliff base, and I rope up for our first climb called Sacred Undergarment Squeeze Job. The route is a 70-foot, 5.8 sport climb with easily the best route name I’ve ever heard. It is perfect as a warm up before our full weekend of multi-pitch trad routes. After belaying Chad and Adam, I pull the rope and lead the route. Weathered edges around eroded, desert varnish provide bomber holds, and my shoes find ample traction against the Aztec Sandstone. I reach the crux, make what feels like a sketchy move, but once past it I find it isn’t nearly as hard as it looks. At the two-bolt anchor, I set up a rappel, then clean the route on the way down. Overall the climb seems overprotected and easy for a 5.8, but it transformed my mind into climbing mode.
As dusk stretches out over the canyon walls, we have just enough time to climb two more routes: Brief Encounter and Boxer Rebellion. As we climb the former, a debate ensues about whether the word “brief” alludes to tighty whities, or if it just means the climb is short. Either way, as I clip quickdraws into the route’s six bolts then get lowered from the chain anchors, I decide that it’s the most fun route of the three.
As Adam and Chad finish off the final climb, I sit alone on the sun-warmed sandstone and take in the desert. Although the rock looks and feels like climbing in southern Utah, the rest is almost alien. Joshua Trees reach to a darkening sky, thin agave plants sway in a light breeze, and bulbs of cactus with seemingly millions of needles dot the ground. I pack up the rope, sling it over my shoulder, and we leave to set up camp.
I am enveloped in darkness. It takes a long time for my eyes to adjust from the blinding sun to the cool, damp confines of what appears to be a cave. It’s day two and we’re at the crux of Tunnel Vision, a six-pitch, 5.7 trad climb that soars over 700 feet high on the Angel Food Wall. In this section of Red Rock Canyon, the red gives way to white. I slide under a rock flake at the opening of the tunnel and walk deeper into the cave. It’s dark enough that I wish I had brought a headlamp. Chad drops the rope and prepares to lead.
To get here, we enjoyed four pitches of corners, chimneys, and hand traverses on high quality rock. Huge ledges and deep cracks practically ate protection for anchoring and belaying. But the route’s namesake is what drew us here. Now that I’m inside the tunnel, claustrophobia starts to creep in. I belay as Chad goes first, stemming up between the chimney walls. He stops frequently to try and place a cam or nut, but the featureless stone is almost impossible to protect. Instead, Chad climbs on until a fall would mean hitting the deck. With great relief, he makes it to the top and sets up a belay anchor. Then it’s my turn. I initially find good holds, but before long I slip and curse. The walls are slick, making this 5.3-rated pitch far more difficult than it looks. Chad locks off my belay from above as I regroup, finding more traction where the walls come closer together. I struggle up, grunting through an off-width that’s probably even harder than staying in the tunnel proper. I traverse back out and once again use a stemming technique until I emerge out the tunnel back into the blinding sun.
On top of Angel Food Wall, views of vast desert and the Las Vegas Strip glittering in the distance lay below our feet. I ponder the meaning of the wall’s name and can’t decode the “food” part of it. But it certainly is a fitting perch for angels, who can settle here above the sin in the devil’s city. Without much fanfare, we down-climb a small canyon in tennis shoes except Chad who, much to my amusement, wears flip flops. More walls close in. It is dusk when we find a sandy wash that leads us to the approach trail and my car. I am dog tired, thirsty, sunburned, and happier than I have been in a long time. At camp we eat freeze-dried dinners, drink lukewarm beer, and prepare to do it all again the next day.
The hike to our third climb is almost as intimidating as the route itself. As I walk over cobbles, careful not to step on cactus or a tarantula, I can’t keep my gaze away from Whiskey Peak. It’s a towering, white and amber buttress that juts out from the surrounding cliffs. It looks riddled with exposure. Our route for the day is on that massive ship’s prow, and it’s called Frogland.
Frogland gets a ton of traffic due to its moderate rating of 5.8, and the fact that all of her six pitches are classic climbs. There is not a skunk move along the route’s entire 700-foot length. Sure enough, as soon as we arrive at the base of the cliff, a party of three is gearing up before us – a man and two women. All three are classic Vegas stereotypes. The dude looks like a high-rolling gambler. He sports expensive shades, flips back long bleached hair, and wears a tank top that showcases his ample biceps. His lady friends both look like they just swung off their stripper poles. Long painted nails, cherry lipstick, big hair and boobs to match – neither seem like they’ve ever climbed in their lives. If we need any more evidence that we aren’t in Utah anymore, these folks are it. As we prepare to settle in for a wait, the guy offers us to go first, saying they will be slow. Knowing that our group is also slow, I worry they will be nipping at our heels. But we thank them and start climbing.
The first pitch is everything that we came to Red Rock Canyon for. Solid rock flakes allow infinite protection for cams. Above that, super fun layback moves on a dihedral propel me up for what seems like forever. The pitch is so long that I almost run out of rope before topping out at the first belay station among a stand of scrub oak. Far below I can hear the two women giggling.
The rest of Frogland is much of the same: bomber holds, tons of rock features that are easy to protect, and the best views of the trip. I climb through more layback moves, small ceilings, and another dihedral for a few more pitches. But these are all 5.6 and 5.7 moves – fun, but easy. At the bottom of the fourth pitch, I know the real fun is about to start. As Adam and Chad lead and belay, I find a perch and stare at the rectangular forms of casinos in the distance. I have no desire to ever set foot there again, as Red Rock Canyon has proved to be the only reason to travel to Vegas. The rest is artificial. I look down and see the party of three just below my dangling feet. They are catching up.
When it’s my turn to climb, I step out onto the fourth pitch. It starts out easy enough as a mellow face climb with a nice crack. But that soon ends at a small roof that has to be traversed around. I go left and immediately get spooked. The security of ledges and holds fall away. I slowly make my way out over heart-pounding exposure. There are no foot holds, only smooth rock. I smear my shoes and they slip. Thank God for good hand holds. I regain my feet and smear again. This time my shoes hold. Finally, I reach a thin crack and am able to climb upward once again. I breathe a sigh of relief when I reach the top, but am ashamed at my fear. Coming up second on top rope, this route should have been nothing. I congratulate Adam for a brave lead.
Ready for the fifth pitch, I bow out for the lead, even though it’s my turn. I’m shaky from the last climb. I don’t know if it’s exhaustion from three days of climbing, lack of sleep in the windy campground, or if I’m suffering from sudden, irrational fear. I see mountain bikers pedaling on trails so far below I can’t tell if they are male or female. There are so many of them it must be a race. It looks more fun and I suddenly wish I was down there with them, riding my bike on flat ground. I’m tired of the vertical world. But there is more climbing to be done. I take a deep breath and put rubber to rock.
The first section does nothing to calm my nerves. Tiny features are all that are offered. Foot holds feel like a dime’s edge. My right heel starts to jiggle. I laugh at the irony of contracting Elvis leg in Vegas. About 20 feet off the deck I come to a bolt where Adam had placed a quickdraw. I remove it, clip it to a harness loop, and continue on. Finally, the featureless face becomes two cracks where I can jam my feet. The dual cracks lead to a chockstone where a narrow tunnel is the only way through. Still sketched out, I jam myself behind the stone, thankful for something solid to press against. On the other side, I pull a small roof then climb up an easy chimney to the next belay. Once again I congratulate Adam for a stout lead.
Thankfully, the final pitch is an easy 5.4 climb that gets us to the end. After only a few minutes of rest atop Whiskey Peak, the Vegas crew behind us tops out. They don’t even look tired. I berate myself for judging them earlier, as they are clearly better climbers. We talk to them a bit, but they obviously are not interested in chatting. I get the sense that they want us to leave. So we pack up our rope, organize our cams and slings, and begin the long walk down the backside of the mountain to the car.
Still, I find it odd that they are acting so strange. But as I scramble over boulders a few hundred yards down the mountainside, I hear moans of pleasure coming from the summit. It all makes sense now. We are in Vegas after all, and what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I guess the saying also applies to climbers in Red Rock Canyon.