May 18, 2014

I’ve always been an adventure climber. By “always,” I mean since I started climbing three years ago, and by “adventure” I mean the kind of self-induced scramblings typical of a newbie aspiring alpinist. My climbing roots drift back to a childhood spent backpacking and hiking, exploring off-trail, and wandering cross-country with the attention span of child who managed to evade a Ritalin prescription. It is the culmination of these past experiences that makes me favor big climbs with long approaches over single-pitch sport forays. For me, remoteness increases the allure of a particular route tenfold, and the Original Route (5.12-) on the Rainbow Wall in Red Rock Canyon definitely classifies as out there—at least as far as car-accessible day climbs go. I also have a penchant for jumping in over my head on climbs, stubbornly optimistic and always remembering Peter Croft’s sage wisdom offered in his iconic (and hard-to-find) guide The Good, The Great, and The Awesome: “Better to have a magnificent failure than mediocre success.” With this ethic firmly in mind, fellow GearCooper coworker and resident DJ Justin and I set off one February afternoon from Orange County for an adventure climb on the classic 14-pitch free climb up the center of the aptly-named Rainbow Wall.

We left work at 1pm, cruising through the first portion of the drive with ease. We planned to stop for gas and headlamp batteries before entering the park, but as we neared Las Vegas we had a startling realization: Red Rock National Park closes! Due to the park’s proximity to Vegas, the entrance and exit are closed at nightfall to reduce vandalism and crime. As first-time visitors, this was news to us, and suddenly we were both in a gigantic panic. We had already called for an overnight permit and had planned on hiking to the base of the wall that evening. Google Maps seemed to flaunt that our arrival time would be 15 minutes too late. This was unacceptable. Forty-five minutes’ worth of frantic Prius-speeding found us at the gate with two minutes to spare, zero headlight batteries, and an empty gas tank beeping constantly to remind us of our plight. We didn’t care; we were in. We relied on the Pruis’s electric motor to propel us around the loop, avoiding the gas engine as much as we could while taking in the absolute majesty of the surrounding peaks at twilight. At the trailhead we packed our gear and shared a celebration beer, cheers-ing our good fortune to make the park entrance before closure. Leaving the parking lot around 6pm, we picked our way between cacti and boulders, connecting various-use trails deep into the recesses of Juniper Canyon. After lots of circuitous navigating and backtracking by the glow of a Luci Lantern, Justin and I found ourselves at the base of the Original Route, sleeping mere feet from the start of our climb.

Morning came early, and we struggled to get moving in the chilly but sunny air. The climb comes at you quickly: the first pitch is 5.11c edging and, first thing in the morning, feels more like a slap in the face than a warm-up–our fingers and hands quickly were numb from the cold. As we moved our way up the fantastic corner we took a couple of falls, our frozen digits flash pumped and unable to hang on the perfect edges littering the face. The middle of the route drifted by as the climbing became easier and easier, and after an extended re-psych break at a large shelf named Over the Rainbow Ledge, we were ready for the truly hard climbing above. After onsighting the 11+ palming dyno move I brought Justin up. I couldn’t help but hoot, ecstatic to have just stuck a bouldery sequence (did I mention I don’t boulder?) and was stoked for my partner. He skillfully picked his own way up to the move, sussing out some options before taking a fall while attempting my “long leg” beta. After taking a moment to read the rock, he cruised the section using completely different holds and demonstrating his refined bouldering prowess. Justin, too, was ebullient, arriving at the belay and struggling to say anything besides, “That was absolutely incredible! I’ve never done a move like that.”

Nestled into the cozy ledge directly below the hardest pitch, we had a powwow regarding our continued progress. As the daylight dwindled with difficult climbing still above us, Justin and I decided that the prudent, albeit challenging, decision involved rappelling the route with some daylight still left. Without headlamps, the thought of searching for rappel anchors at night was less than desirable and we were already wrecked from the hard climbing earlier. Our descent was relatively unmemorable except for a rope incident, involving a pulled strand whipping Justin firmly on his back from 200 feet up, welting him through his jacket. He let out a guttural yell akin to the cry of some mistreated farm animal and proceeded to hunker down during the subsequent rope pulls. During our hike back to the car we discussed future plans to come back for redemption, better prepared with more daylight, warmer temps, and headlamps. Retreat wine at the car had a bittersweet taste as we pondered the Prius’s gas situation and lamented bailing below such an immaculate corner. Ultimately we made it back to the campsite, friends, and a hot meal without getting stranded, lauding the Prius’s gas tank the entire way. As we crowded around the fire and exchanged stories with others, deep down we were both preoccupied with bailing before the best and hardest pitch on route. We would be back.

As luck would have it, the next opportunity to climb the route coincided with the annual Red Rock Rendezvous event in March. This time GearCooper Nolan and I planned to climb together, opting to hike in early from the park exit to give us even more time. Driving in the night before, I don’t think either of us slept more than a couple of hours, excitement and nervousness building, and 4am arrived uncomfortably early. The air seemed especially cold as we trekked towards the trailhead on the paved road, making us feel more like mountain climbers than desert craggers. Nolan had elected to do the approach in sandals, but opted for a pair of my backup Sanuk slippers after experiencing numb toes almost instantly. After a much shorter and easier approach than I remembered, we stood at the base of the perfect splitter corner, gazing skyward and murmuring in amazement at the slightly overhanging wall dominating our view and demanding every bit of our attention. Both Nolan and I fell on the second pitch, a pumpy 11+ layback followed by thin face climbing. Rather than be disappointed, I felt like the pressure to climb perfectly disappeared after these falls, resulting in more relaxed and efficient climbing rather than forced staccato movement. We methodically made our way up to the ledge before the corner pitches, taking a break to eat and lounge around. We noticed another party on the route below us and wondered if they would catch us. They appeared to be moving quickly so we figured we would hang out for a bit longer and let them climb through with the comfort of a large platform rather than shenanigans at hanging belays. Minutes later we met Scott Bennett and Blake Herrington, fresh off a morning ascent of Cloud Tower (5.12a) and enroute to Levitation 29 (5.11) via Original Route. Any self-aggrandizing thoughts quickly disappeared as we chatted with Scott and Blake and let them scoot ahead of us. Watching them simul and short-fix up the hardest pitches on route gave Nolan and I a glimpse at the elite level of climbing we both aspire to. Just as quickly as they caught up to us, they were out of sight, the only evidence of their presence the constant hooting and grunting echoing against the red and black walls framing Juniper Canyon. We returned serve, hollering jungle noises back, re-psyched and ready for the hard leads ahead.

After a short easy scramble up to the corner, Nolan embarked on the dyno pitch. Sussing out the moves and pondering possible techniques, he committed and stuck the jug first go, pulling through the remainder crack moves smoothly. He clipped the anchor and called “Off belay!” with the excitement of a young child on Christmas Day. Despite my previous success on this move, I fell going for the jug following up after Nolan. Slightly demoralized, I reset myself and struggled to remember how I had climbed it before. With a more measured second go, I landed the right hand firmly and climbed up to Nolan, worried about my next lead graded slightly harder than the pitch I had just fallen on. Suddenly I remembered the fall from earlier in the day and a feeling of happiness rolled over me. There was no pressure anymore–we were climbing because it was fun, adventurous, and at our limit. After relieving some of the self-inflicted pressure I was ready to give pitch 11 every last bit of energy I had. I grabbed gear from Nolan and set off on the money pitch of the route: a tips dihedral crack with lots of cruxy stemming and creative palming. There are two glue-in bolts on this section, but the rest of the pitch takes small gear. I grunted and huffed my way upwards, welcome encouragement drifting up from Nolan below me. Constantly on the edge of peeling, I dug deep to pull through the corner, feeling exhausted with trembling legs and shaken confidence as I transitioned out of the corner way above seemingly marginal gear. I knew it wasn’t in the bag until I clipped the chains, but after a few tenuous moves I perched myself on the smallest hanging belay of the day, euphoric and ecstatic after onsighting the hardest pitch I’d ever tried. I glanced down gleefully, spotting Nolan and the 1,000 feet of exposure threatening to swallow him up as I cheered, “Off belay!”

As Nolan readied himself for the endurance dihedral, I couldn’t help but lose myself in the moment. Staring into space, down the canyon, and to the miniature cars and motorcycles inching along loop road I reflected on what a special day it had been. Climbing truly amazing rock with one of my best friends backgrounded by stunning scenery and stellar albeit cold conditions, I was exactly where I wanted to be. “Climbing!” Nolan shouted up to me and suddenly I snapped back to responsibility and belaying, eager for Nolan to join me at the belay and fire the remaining three pitches. Cruising through the first crux directly above the previous belay station, Nolan climbed smoothly, appearing to float up towards the six-inch ledge I precariously stood on. As the moves became more and more difficult, I urged Nolan on, repeating “C’mon” way too many times. After a valiant battle and lots of primal grunting, Nolan pumped out just before reaching the less vertical upper section, mirroring my battle with the dyno move below us. A short rest and he was back on the rock, linking the upper thin moves to the small rock protuberance and a big celebratory hug. Finished with the mental (and physical) crux of the route we moved quickly to finish the climb, feet and toes urgently demanding to be taken out of climbing shoes. Our new goal became chasing the fading sunlight, slowly moving away from us yet dancing enticingly close; the warming rays slowly fading from the bushes and trees lining the top of the wall. Feeling like eager Pagans anxiously awaiting the return of the sun after a long winter, we moved quickly towards the top, scrambling up the last bit of fractured blocks towards the flat summit plateau and glorious brightness.

Hugs and exalting satisfaction preceded our hard man, Huber Brothers-inspired summit photo in the dwindling warmth of the setting sun. After a quick jaunt to the true summit (after all, as Peter Croft said, “Summits do matter”) it was time to head down. Rappelling the route is surprisingly easy, due to the continuous and unwavering nature of the line. A minor–and ultimately inconsequential–safety hiccup punctuated an otherwise uneventful descent, leaving Nolan and me especially cautious for the remaining rappels. As we neared the beginning of the route, I couldn’t help but fondle the miniscule holds and smears adorning the otherwise blank face of the direct start 12b dihedral, a direct start we had skirted by ascending a diagnoling series of micro edges. I pondered the seemingly impossible moves and knew that I would be back, stronger, more experienced, and tougher. Lighted by the moon above we meandered through intricate boulder pathways and under tree branches, the pungent smell of juniper and pine filling our lungs. Unfortunately for Nolan, some of the descent involved angled slabs, proving too steep for smooth-bottomed Sanuks. Despite extremely tender toes, he was forced to do a solid chunk of our hike out in down-sized climbing shoes. My toes were aching in my approach shoes, so I can only imagine how miserable Nolan was. We practically ran down the slabs towards the relative comfort of a flat trail.

An hour or so later we limped into the parking lot, washing our growing sense of accomplishment down with a bottle of red wine. With the Rainbow Wall behind us, we trekked out the loop road towards the park exit and cell reception, hoping one of our buddies would give us a ride back to camp. While waiting in the dirt pullout for our friends, we saw a lone set of headlights slowly winding out the loop road; two minutes later, Scott and Blake pulled up to the exit. We exchanged pleasantries, congratulating them on a truly epic link-up and thanking them for offering us a ride while assuring them we had friends on the way. In my tired state, I thought I had more wine left and offered them swigs, handing them an empty bottle without thinking twice. Slightly stunned, they looked at us quizzically, “You know there’s nothing left right?” I awkwardly mumbled something about being tired or forgetting. They laughed goodnaturedly and handed us one of their extra beers, congratulating us on the day before driving off into the night. Minutes later our ride arrived, and Nolan and I piled into the backseat, thoroughly beat and glad to be off our feet. I don’t remember much of the following days, no doubt clouded by an epic day in the mountains with a good friend, enjoying the impeccable rock and a visionary line. While the day easily goes down as one of my favorites spent climbing, I know I will be back to the Rainbow Wall in the future, searching for redemption and a clean ascent, always following the sun.

Jake is one of Gear Coop’s strongest climbers and all-around athletes. When not at the Coop is he out nearly every weekend climbing in the Eastern Sierras, Tahquitz, or Joshua Tree, or out skiing the Sierra backcountry. To Jake, every passing season brings newer, bigger and grander adventures, and thus his stoke is always high.

Cover photo by Ed Ruiz