A Multipitch Mecca
Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas has giant sandstone cliffs that are famous in climbing lore. Kylie moved to Santa Barbara last year and since we wanted to do a climbing trip together again someday, we decided to meet up in Red Rock for a long weekend to sample some easier multi pitch climbs. I could fly to Vegas relatively easily while she could drive there in a half day and bring a car and climbing gear. It would be like old times, running up and down long multi pitch trad climbs.
MysterZ + Armatron
I flew in late on Wednesday and we got up early on Thursday for a long day of climbing. Our first objective was a linkup of MysterZ (5.7, 6 pitches) and Armatron (5.9, 5 pitches). We took the scenic drive to Pine Creek and I got my first view of the famous sandstone cliffs.
It took us about an hour to get to base of MysterZ, although we were not exactly sure where the actual start of the route was and I ultimately climbed the wrong chimney on the first pitch, which turned out to be some sketchy 5.8 face climbing on a new type of rock. Then I moved left and found the actual route. The rock texture was absolutely wild, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
After an interesting first pitch, the rest of MysterZ went smoothly and was quite fun. From the top of this route, we walked over to the beginning of Armatron, a beautiful line through the dark brick textured rock of Brownstone Wall.
We were a bit out of sorts on our first climb here. I got the pink tricam stuck early on and Kylie dropped the nut tool so I had to leave behind a nut. The loss of the nut tool threatened to become a compounding error, but luckily we were able to remove all future nuts by hand. A nice party behind us got that nut we left behind as they climbed with full packs, complete with a cooler of beer.
In my experience, I have found Red Rock climbing to be a bit runout. It was never terrifying at the grade I was climbing, but bolt spacing was large and sometimes it was 20-30 feet between good trad placements. I was not used to face climbing above trad gear, so it all felt a bit insecure at first to me.
The third pitch of Armatron climbs this incredible long black face of bricks. There are constant edges and holds, although the edges can be small. The climbing is easy, but my calves burned from all the face climbing. I placed a little nut ever 30 ft or so and just kept going up. It was a pretty amazing pitch with unreal features.
Armatron finishes with a scramble and a beautiful summit view from Juniper Peak. The terrain is so complex and dense here. It would be fun to stay for a while and learn the nooks and crannies and develop my own linkups and scrambles.
It was a great start to our trip in Red Rock. The linkup was really fun, covering so much ground to an actual summit. I definitely felt a little insecure with all the face climbing, but it always takes time to adjust to a new style of climbing. Unfortunately, rain was on its way…
The Valley of Fire and Lime Kiln Canyon
A signature of my travels is getting unusually bad weather. It rained for a good part of Friday, the first rain in God knows how long. Sandstone requires at least 24 hours to dry, so Red Rock was off the table for Saturday. Instead, we decided to explore the Valley of Fire and Lime Kiln Canyon.
The Valley of Fire is a state park an hour northeast of town. It features beautiful sandstone features, much like a small Arches National Park. We did two small hikes and it reminded us a lot of our week in Moab back during Spring Break in college, running around, doing all the tourists things. That week is still one of my favorite weeks ever, packing in rock climbing, canyoneering, backpacking, and mountaineering. It was also my first time in the desert southwest.
As we were heading out, we saw a family of Bighorn Sheep! In all her years living in Nevada, Kylie had never actually seen the state animal. It was really cool.
Next, we drove out to Lime Kiln Canyon, in far north western Arizona. The road was a bit rough, but Kylie has expanded her hobbies into off roading in Santa Barbara with her trusty old Outback, so it was no issue.
Lime Kiln Canyon is an impressive set of limestone walls in a canyon high above Mesquite, NV. The walls are steep and uniquely textured.
We decided to climb Office Party (5.10a, 6 pitches), a moderate sport route. Kylie led the first pitch on incredibly textured limestone. Suddenly, three separate parties starting rappelling down above us, on three separate routes, raining rocks all down the wall. We shouted up to them to wait briefly, and I lowered Kylie and we got out of the firing zone. We then waited for them to rappel painfully slowly before returning to our climb.
We swung leads up Office Party. The wall rock was mostly monolithic, but textured like a honeycomb. There were all kinds of finger pockets, huecos, and even telephone holds. It was the kind of features they make for gym holds, but I thought never actually existed in the wild. Honestly, it was some of the most fun sport climbing I have ever done.
We left Lime Kiln extremely happy with our “backup” day. The rain was a bit disappointing, but we were so happy to have gotten to experience limestone climbing for the first time and tour the Valley of Fire. But now it was back to Red Rock!
Great Red Book and Olive Oil
Rio was our consultant during our entire trip, and he recommended Great Red Book in the Calico Hills. We had talked to a local gear shop about the rain on Friday and they suggested sticking to sunnier climbs that dry faster and the Calico Hills, which received less rain.
The Great Red Book is high in the Calico Hills, and involves an interesting approach that resembles canyoneering, with slick rock scrambling and a slot canyon. It really reminded me of climbing Elephant Butte in Arches with Kylie back during college, except this time we got to rock climb in addition.
The Great Red Book (5.8, 2 pitches) packs a big punch for such a short climb. The climbing is very engaging and diverse for such an easy grade. There are laybacks, chimneys, cracks, and exposed face climbing. These were two of my favorite pitches all weekend and were just so high quality.
Next, we drove over to Pine Creek and hiked in for the ultra classic route Olive Oil (5.7, 5 pitches) on Rose Tower. Incredibly, we saw not a single party ahead of us on route or descending. We began up the climb in the cool shade. I linked the second and third pitches, making for 200 ft of absolutely splitter hand crack, finger crack, knobs, edges, and dihedral. It was totally sublime, easily one of the best pitches I have ever led, anywhere, rivaling the shield pitch on Outer Space, which I climbed earlier this summer with Jacob, another one of my OG climbing partners.
A guy named Mike caught up behind us. He had attempted both Crimson Chrysalis and Ginger Cracks earlier that day, only to be thwarted by crowds and slow parties. Then he looked across the valley and saw no one on Olive Oil remarkably and came over. He happened to live in Leavenworth in the past and was actually friends with Jenny, one of my partners this summer. Small world!
The final pitch was long and very fun. I did not think that it was as run out as the description warns, but I agree that it would not be suitable for a 5.7 leader. In general, Red Rock climbing seems like the gear can be sparse and rather tricky. Hopefully it gets better at the higher grades, or I would not want to push it on gear for fear of a huge lead fall.
I led each pitch and arrived at each belay station in the sun, only to move into the shade as I belayed Kylie up (note: the P1 belay station is one of the best belay spots I have ever encountered). Our timing was impeccable. The temperature was absolutely perfect and the climbing was incredible. It was so peaceful and we were definitely getting into the zone with sandstone climbing. Olive Oil is now my favorite 5.7 climb and my favorite from our weekend at Red Rock. We walked back to the car across the desert to the chirping of crickets and another beautiful desert sunset, content from a great day.
Frogland, Plumber’s Crack
Continuing with our theme of unlucky weather, a poorly timed low pressure system was forecasted to hit Vegas Monday afternoon, dropping temperatures to record lows and stirring up a dust storm with high winds. We got an early start, aiming to get up and down the classic Frogland before the worst hit.
Frogland (5.8, 6 pitches) is located in the famous Black Velvet Canyon, home to the ultra-classic Epinephrine. We had lofty goals of climbing it before we arrived, but a combination of poor weather and realizing we were not quite in shape to climb a dozen pitches of 5.9 face and chimney convinced us otherwise.
Everything about this day was perfectly timed. We began hiking from the car just as the sun rose over the desert horizon. It was already gusty at the base of the route, but it was still fine to climb and we knew it was a walk off.
The climbing on Frogland is a little harder than Olive Oil. Most of the pitches involve solid 5.8 climbing with sometimes slightly sparse gear, just like the other climbs. I linked the 4th and 5th pitches, the famous roof traverse and squeeze. This long pitch reminded me of Orbit in Leavenworth with the heady face traverses, but maybe slightly easier overall.
We topped out on the route in 3 hours from the base, which we felt pretty good about for a 6 pitch climb that had long, sustained pitches. At the end of this trip, we were finally regaining our form from the summer 2018 trip, where we sprinted up long alpine climbs in the Sierra and Winds. Honestly, this was the first time I really got into the same headspace that I had during that trip. On Frogland, I was moving quickly and decisively, unfazed by large runouts, just totally in the zone. Yes, it was easy climbing, but so was all that alpine climbing we did. It is just a different experience to feel completely calm and sharp, versus fighting nerves and thinking worst case scenarios always.
It was oddly calm and sheltered from the wind as we walked off Whiskey Peak and back to the car. But our timing was impeccable, because as we began to drive away, the mountains just a few miles away began to disappear in a dusty haze.
As we drove back towards town, the dust still had not quite hit, so we made a quick detour over to the Kraft Boulders so I could take a lap up the Iconic Plumber’s Crack (5.9, V0), a 30 ft tall split boulder.
I groveled down low in the squeeze but it got better as I got higher and could actually chimney. As one friend told me, “if you don’t get this photo, did you even climb at Red Rock?”
Dust began blowing in our faces as we got back to our car and returned to the metropolis of Vegas. We snuck in as much climbing as we could, and now it was time to rest.
A Multipitch Mecca
So what’s the verdict on Red Rock? Here are some of my thoughts:
- I have never seen a place with a greater concentration of quality multi pitch climbs, especially at the moderate grades. This is place is absolutely stacked.
- The climbing is diverse and super fun. You can get face climbing, crack climbing, dihedrals, and chimneys all on the same pitch.
- The rock seemed mostly trustworthy, although gear placements are less straightforward. We only broke off one hold, and fortunately Kylie was following then. Cracks just tend to be irregular, flaring, and discontinuous. Nuts and tricams work well. It does not seem like the place to push yourself on trad gear, compared to a safer crag like Index. This does not strike me as a good place for a truly beginner trad leader.
- Bushwhacking here would be heinous. Desert vegetation is sharp!
- There seems to be huge potential for rad linkups if you get more familiar with the locations of climbs.
- Approaches are short compared to alpine approaches, but significant enough that it is not the easiest after-work crag.
Is Red Rock “alpine rock climbing”? Kylie and I defined many years ago three characteristics of alpine climbing. If a place has two of them, then it could be considered alpine rock climbing:
- Bad weather. At least for us it was windy and wet…
- Loose Rock. Not really…
- Route finding. Definitely.
So it checks almost two of the three boxes. Call it alpine!
I enjoyed my time climbing in Red Rock but most importantly, it was my first time spending extended time with Kylie in over two years. We got back to doing what we did best together and it was mostly like old times, making up onomatopoeias, showing each other new music we found, and laughing at our past debacles, like the time a bear climbed on top of our van while we were sleeping at Whitney Portal. Some things have changed, like being willing to pay more than $5 for a quality dinner. Like climbers, friendships evolve but remain rewarding if we stay true to who we are.
Only in Vegas.