It's early December but with the proper geography, rock climbing season is just kicking off. Out in the Mojave Desert the temperatures have dropped from Summer's triple digits, down to what us Angeleno's consider "freezing" (anything below 70 degrees fahrenheit) and the time to climb is now. We had originally planned a big soirée of friends to camp and climb in Las Vegas's Red Rock Canyon, but as the date arrived the overnight lows got closer to actual freezing and the herd thinned down to just four of us. In a split decision we decided to tackle a long and adventurous route, quintessential climbing at Red Rock Canyon, but really only conducive to small groups.
I'm a new trad leader so we kept the climbing straight forward but the height high! The route is called "Solar Slab Gully" and is a 5.3 yds rock climb grade (easy) but yields 540' of climbing plus a 3 mile hike to the base, 5-6 rappels off the top and a 3 mile hike back to the car (carrying heavy climbing gear).
The days are short in Winter, with first light at 6am and sunset at 4:30pm. We knocked out early and slept very cold on Friday night. Woke up at 5am on Saturday, made coffee and a hot oatmeal breakfast and headed to the trail head by 6am.
In the small parking turn off for the Oak Creek Canyon trail we studied the landscape and maps to determine where the base of the climb would be. It was chilly but our excitement was high.
The sunrise in Red Rock Canyon is beautiful, it was great to get moving on the trail. First light turned to sunrise and our extremities started to warm up. Although the walk out is long, compared to the typical Southern California rock climbs, the views are pleasant and it's relatively flat.
We saw quite an impressive amount of wild life in the morning, We first ran into 3 wild burros. Although not native to the area, they're now a mainstay. Before that we saw desert hare and even a coyote.
We had a few wrong turns here are there, pretty typical, and we got to the base of the climb at about 7:45am, an almost 2 hour hike. We quickly met another party of two there, then a party of three, we were 4 people, then two more heading up an adjacent route, and before you know it, there was a climbing queue for the wall. The route is a Red Rock ultra classic. It's also one of the longest in the park, so it requires as much time as possible to make it happen, hence the importance of an early start. In the Winter sunlight, it might be very challenging to do the entire route. The route called "Solar Slab" is two tiers, the combined climb is 1220' (372m). The lower half is called "Solar Slab Gully" and climbs 540' (165m). We were just resolving to climb the lower tier and call it a day, doing the entire thing would raise a large challenge unless you're planning on rappelling and hiking out in the night.
Here I am with my beard getting bigger (although some of that is just my long hair giving an optical illusion). I am racked up and ready to go. We were a group of 4 splitting into two teams of 2. Brad would lead while Melissa cleaned and I would lead while Jaime cleaned for me. It was Jaime's first multi pitch climb and my first multi pitch lead, makes sense!
The route was supposed to be very easy, and most of it was. However I had a rough start, these long and large routes offer the task of terrain navigation and it's easy to go off course and make the climb harder than the grade, which I usually do and did here (although never on purpose). I was getting pretty pumped right away, I hit some overhang and real physical moves, abandoning good technique. I also didn't extend some of my pieces and created a heavy rope drag, exhausting even more of my energy early in the morning. I was hitting a wall instantly but I was encouraged to keep going and my attitude changed and my spirits raised. A calm came over me and at one point I think the fear disappeared it became sincere fun.
Time is so much of the essence on these long days, you need to be efficient. Rope management isn't my strong suit (working on it!) but Jaime is definitely confident with the systems and makes for a proactive climbing partner. Her she is after coiling a rope from one of the belay ledges.
Although there was a crowd at the bottom, things thinned out on the wall and we never felt like we were waiting for anyone in front of us or pressured by any groups behind us. Melissa and Brad climbed in front of us, and we would catch up from anchor to anchor and kept a good pace. Overall it was far more efficient than going as one large party of four.
Whenever I get into these labor intensive projects I either forget to take photos or just can't for safety reasons, I kind of need a GoPro or something! At the top of the last pitch sat the crux of the route, an off width chimney. This rock feature is actually a waterfall when the rain comes or snow melts. It's short but awkward. It's touted as the hardest move on the entire 540' of climbing, but I thought there were at least 3 harder parts below.
I was able to squeeze a little cam in above my head and then start the chimney move. It was a real pain with a backpack, you have to push and pull and inch up. I actually got 3 cams in here and made it to the top safely.
The other option is to do a wide stemming technique, it's up the climber and how long your legs are or what you're most comfortable with. Here's Melissa doing her Spiderman impression, or perhaps Ninja Warrior moves?
I can't remember what time it was when we got to the summit, a gigantic ledge that serves as the division between tier 1 and 2 of Solar Slab. It was somewhere around noon. The view from the top was amazing. If you look close (or click the photo to enlarge it) you can see the highway road running horizontally, that's where our car was parked! We got a long way back, and getting to the top only means we're half done.
Doing the entire upper Solar Slab climb looked awesome, I think the 4 of us agreed we'd love to come back and send it. Here you can see a party starting the first or second pitch of the upper tier.
Time to go, you head back the same way you came up! Having to rappel down the climbing route (opposed to an alternative descent path) means the same other crowds doing the same, so we used both our ropes to leap frog the rappel set ups and tried to get down and out as fast as possible.
Here goes brad exiting one of the more crowded anchors, we were pretty jammed in there together, FRIENDS!
Jaime rapping off, getting closer to the bottom! We finally made it and we're excited to be back to land. Gathered our packs, hydrated and hit the trail to get back to the car, but first a group photo!
The hike back is always harder than the hike in. You're sense of accomplishment is there, but your enthusiasm is sort of gone, plus it's getting colder and you're getting famished!
We took a quick break to stare back at Oak Creek Canyon. I drew a pink line on this photo so you can see the scale and direction of the route.
It was also easier to hike back because we were able to stay on the climber's trail the whole time, it connected us quicker to the main hiker's trail. Oops, happens every time!
The sun started setting over the desert around 4:30 - 4:45pm, full sundown around 5pm. Check out how East Peak looked with the sun going down, magical!
What a blast, already reliving the fun and funny parts of the day before we even got back to the car. I caught a little cell reception and told my wife I was safe and started to really think about creating a nice warm campfire back at our tents.
We got back to the parking lot just before 5pm, making it about 10 hours car to car. A successful send for me! This marked a big accomplishment in my skills and a great new experience for everyone really. It was Jaime's first multi-pitch ever, Melissa's first climb in Red Rock Canyon, and Brad's first long route in the park.
Alex Lowe once said "the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun" I guess on Saturday December 5th, 2015 I was the world's best climber!
Took one more look into the park from our car, just stunning. We all agreed we wanted to come back in the spring when the days are longer and send the upper tier of the route. Next time!!