Red Rock Retrospective

I spent about 2 weeks in Red Rock Nevada during this Spring, enjoying the gracious hospitality of my friends Julie and Viren Perumal, and climbing obscure routes in the park with some friends and photographer Garrett Grove.

Check out our article in the November 2010 issue or Rock&Ice Magazine, or read an extended rough draft below. And see some shots at the bottom of the page for an upcoming article we hope to do as well.

An invisible line exists in the desert, somewhere between the last slot-machine-equipped Starbucks, and the first sign alerting motorists to beware of wild burros. It's bounded by an ever-dwindling swath of cactus and creosote, where the headlong expansion of modernity confronts an embodiment of conservation. And it's the story of these two forces, which is, to say, much the story of the American West, that defines our sunrise approach. We're in southern Nevada's Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to learn how "un-Vegas" of an experience can be had while crashing each night just off the strip. And that means a week of dawn-to-dusk days; schwacking, canyoneering, and being constantly "almost lost" while approaching the most remote walls of the park's 196,000 acres. With every bout of scrub oak wrestling, and each airy crux that just goes on natural gear, it's becoming obvious why these pristine canyons attract climbers from around the world. Routes like The Warrior,  Adventure Punks, Lady Luck, and Jet Stream prove that rather than a few crowded classics, many of the Red Rock's best routes are new, or largely neglected. But with a total bolting ban in the park’s wilderness, continued delays by the Bureau of Land Management, and the pending construction of a 20,000-person community on the hillside facing the park, Red Rock is in trouble.

            This morning, as each morning before, The Warrior is taunting us. It begs to be climbed. As our crowded rental car passes the last prefab housing tract and crests the shoulder of Blue Diamond Hill, the route’s massive right-leaning corner system catches morning sun on Cactus Flower Tower. The Warrior is one of the most obvious lines in Red Rock Canyon. So why was it unclimbed just five years ago? We contemplate the guidebook's description yet again. “Arduous approach”, that's what we planned for. “Six #3 Camalots,” we can scrap together four and run it out. “Kneepads are nice” … hmm, those clouds do look little dark, maybe something else for today. We fumble excuses, turn the page, and embark on another all-day adventure. And each morning, The Warrior is still what we see.

Red Rock Canyon (more accurately canyons) is a National Conservation Area administered by the American West's biggest landowner, the BLM. Derided by environmentalists as the Bureau of Logging and Mining, the agency presides over Indian Creek and Red Rock, while most US climbing destinations are run by the National Park Service. Surveying First Creek Canyon from 5 pitches up the slabs of Lady Luck (5.7 1000') it's refreshingly easy to forget the bureaucracy and focus on the beauty. But lost in a sea of agency acronyms is the fact that the NPS and BLM feature vastly different policies for climbers. With frequently-updated management plans and dedicated search-and-rescue squads, the NPS is the over-active parent to the BLM's laissez faire babysitter. And while this arrangement has worked for Indian Creek, in Red Rock, the hands-off-approach emerged after the implementation of a total bolting ban in the park’s wilderness. Climbers have been restricted, without chance of redress, by an out-of-touch agency suggesting out-of-date guidebooks for an activity it calls ‘rockclimbing.’ As snow and sun alternately shower our cactus-crowded ledge atop Lady Luck, we eye suburbia's push toward the Wilderness boundaries. And I wonder if enough time in the desert can make one blind to these contradictions.

Early on the trip, we drive the park’s one-way loop road to the Pine Creek trailhead. The day’s double-header is a pair of neglected trad classics: Challenger (500’ 5.10d) and Jupiter II (600’ 5.11+). The lights of Vegas glow above the darkening Blue Diamond Hill, and five pitches off the deck we pull ropes and cross our fingers. On a day when Las Vegas registers winds of 65MPH, we’ve spent 10 hours on a wall which, to quote the guidebook, “seems to somehow amplify any winds that may be blowing.” But the immaculate corners and improbable roofs overshadow all temporary discomfort. Our rope slides through the anchor and flirts with gravity before eloping into the wind. Again we’re caught off guard by crashing and tearing noises overhead. Through lips chapped and bleeding, we debate the cause of these eerie sounds, rule out rockfall, and credit the anomaly to swirling gusts ripping through the canyon’s narrowing walls. We wait in the dark as no rope falls, our tangle instead flaps sideways and off into the blackness. We abandon one rope and reach the ground with our second, happy to return for a daylight rope-retrieval-repeat of Challenger. After sunset, glow from the strip makes the city’s presence obvious. By day, one forgets about it entirely. And it’s a hillside of yucca and derelict mineshafts, perhaps Nevada’s most valuable real-estate, which makes this escape possible. The same hillside, facing the canyons of Red Rock, is where developer Jim Rhodes wants to supplant sagebrush with suburban sprawl.
            Describing Rhodes as controversial is like describing Fred Beckey as prolific. It’s an accurate, if not-at-all adequate description of the man whose unpaid taxes and corruption connections have become legend in southern Nevada. After winning an April, 2010 decision to apply for denser zoning on the unsettled hillside facing Red Rock, Rhodes decided to pay the $490,000 in delinquent taxes on his suddenly-more-valuable property. He can now take a “major project” proposal back to the county commission, a group which has shown little historical deference to the advocates of restraint. Any development facing the park is likely to mirror Rhodes’ initially-thwarted 2003 plan for 5,500 homes, stoplights and strip malls. A suburb of 20,000 may become the immediate view from Red Rock.
            After finding a straight-sided chock stamped VB on our climb, I phoned long-time local Paul Van Betten about his 1986 first ascent of Jupiter II. He described early forays into upper Pine Creek as hikes up the pristine canyon, punctuated by “oh, holy shit!” moments, as more and more unclimbed lines emerged. Jupiter II is one of Paul’s “all time favorites” and he was happy to learn that the wind still plays its noisy tricks high on the wall. Our conversation turned to the ban on route development inside the park, and plans for a housing development just outside. Van Betten can’t hide his disgust for Rhodes' plans, and describes the BLM as “really silent” on the issue. This lack of any stance on the development is confirmed by the BLM office responsible for Red Rock. Van Betten has witnessed three decades of changes to the park, and he sees the wilderness bolting ban as a “dereliction of duty on the BLM’s part.” Adamant about the area’s untapped route potential, he insists that Red Rock “has 1,000 Levitation 29s, if the bolting could go on.” But Van Betten also sees the restrictions as an obvious reaction to the tactics of local climbers, whose rampant chipping and scarring at nearby limestone crags “has been a failure to police ourselves.”
            On our fifth day in Red Rock, May temperatures finally make an appearance. This will be our first climb without a recurring fight over the highly-prized belay jacket. I've brought two pairs of shorts and one pair of pants on the trip. After living in the same pants for four days, pride, if not prudence, demands I implement the unused 2/3 of my wardrobe. But what was worn as a great choice for the morning's two-hour hike now looks like a recipe for disaster. I'm racking to lead the last pitch of Adventure Punks (5.10d, 600').  The route's crux looms overhead. And it's knee-scrapingly, ankle-scarring wide. I'm always nervous about the ".d" grades, more so given my knowledge of the pitch’s history. The 'Adventure Punks' were a prolific cadre of 1980s hardmen who favored boldness over bolting. Richard Harrison, Jay Smith, and Paul Van Betten, perhaps the most adventurous of the ‘punks’, trained on Red Rock’s crags, and carried their skills ground-up to summits throughout the park and around the world. Their attitude contradicted the era's prevailing 'route construction' philosophy, but lead to some of the area’s best and hardest climbs. And as I rack up to lead, I recall how it was the crux offwidth on the group's signature route which nearly put an end to the Adventure Punks.
Richard Harrison had onsighted the route's offwidth finale with a hip belay from partner Nick Nordblom, one #4 Friend, and an apparently more-than-adequate set of brass nuts. Sixty feet of leftward-leaning 5.10 separated Harrison's stance atop the route from his last piece. And while following the pitch, the swami-clad Nick Nordblom violated one of the Adventure Punks' rules. He fell. With no other gear in place on the arcing corner, Nordblom’s fall sent him spinning across the wall. The shouts of both men filled Pine Creek Canyon, joined by the distinctive "PING" of metal coming undone. Harrison was pulled onto a piton, the piton was pulled from the anchor, and both climbers dangled from a single 1/4" Rawl which the bolt-shy Harrison had begrudgingly placed.
With courage derived from the presence of cams unavailable to the Adventure Punks, I squirm, squeeze, and chimney my way upwards and into the slot. Moving my chalkbag and #6 out onto my left hip, I walk up my #5 Camalot and imagine the scene 27 years prior. Harrison, facing the same squeeze, adjusts his swami until his knot is to the side, places his #4 Friend, and commits to the head-spinning runout. I place my big cams, clip the 2 retro-bolts, and finish off the lead. I'm able to claim success, if not exactly style. But hey, Harrison’s rack was a whole lot lighter than mine was. And he was probably wearing pants too.
The Adventure Punks avoided bolting to preserve a tradition. Today’s climbers avoid bolting to preserve their bank accounts. And those who do bolt, carefully avoid admitting it. When $150-per-bolt citations were instituted by the BLM, Van Betten stood up at a meeting and offered a ranger $300 on the spot. “I’d just seen a new splitter crack and wanted to buy an anchor.” The ranger wasn’t amused. The installation of bolts, sans pre-purchasing, went underground.
Prior to 2008, Red Rock had a resident climber ranger, and would occasionally allow for anchor replacements. “In theory anyone could get a re-bolting permit,” recalls Greg Barnes of the American Safe Climbing Association, “but in practice it was nearly only the ASCA.” For the last two years, even the ASCA has been barred from replacing the park’s aging hardware.
We glance through Red Rock’s newest guidebook and notice first ascent information from the 1970s, but few similar details for the modern classics.  Officially “anonymous” routes are now the norm. And we’re keen to learn if these secrecy-inspired shenanigans are worth the extra effort. A towering fin of white stone separates the Pine Creek and Juniper Creek drainages. Striding the crest single-file, we compare echoes down either side and stare ahead at the Jet Stream Wall. Lacking both ambition and the required four #00 TCUs for the sandbagged crux of Jet Stream (600’ 5.12c), we set sights on Drifting (500’ 5.11c), a plumb line of patina edges, discontinuous seams, and recently-drilled bolts. Intricate face climbing and thin cracks typify the climb and again we don’t see another party all day. Unlike Levitation 29, Time’s Up, and older nearby routes, topping out on Drifting wont leave the bittersweet taste of bolted cracks in your mouth. After such an outstanding route, we joke about owing the first ascent team a round of beers. Luckily for the dirtbags among us, anonymous creditors rarely collect.
Given delays by the BLM, anonymous new routing is likely to continue. According to Lee Kirk, Lead Outdoor Recreation Planner, the BLM is currently working with the Las Vegas Climbers Liason Council to develop what's called a "Memorandum of Understanding" of its plans to interact with the local climbers' group. Although an overdue step in the right direction, the Memorandum of Understanding wont change the park’s bolting rules, which will require an updated Climbing Management Plan. This climbing plan won’t be started until the adoption of a new Wilderness Plan. And a timeline for the park’s completed wilderness plan is vaguely described by Kirk as “years.” Given the aging alternative of quarter-inchers and soft sandstone, illegal replacement is likely to continue.
            We weren’t the only climbers who felt drawn each morning to the long corner on The Warrior (1100' 5.11a). Rob Dezonia, a Vegas local, also noticed the route each time he’d approach the park. But unlike Red Rock climbers of the prior four decades, Rob decided to do something about it. In the fall of 2006, he cajoled a semi-willing partner into a pre-dawn start for Cactus Flower Tower.
            The partner, his brother Pat Dezonia, had been bribed with the promises of a free sushi dinner and full day of adventure. The duo embarked with a “whole arsenal of gear” and, in the words, of Rob, a lingering question as to “why the hell that hasn’t been climbed”. What the Dezonias found was yet another untapped line, this one featuring five varied corner pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 climbing, runout patina face holds, and  the confirmation that unclimbed classics still await the ambitious. By our final day in Red Rock, we could submit excuses no longer. With our “minor arsenal” of gear and carefully memorized approach instructions, we set out for The Warrior. We found a demanding route, at times excellent, at times scary, and ultimately unforgettable. In short, it typifies what makes these routes worth climbing.
            Atop the spire we compared scraped knees and pantomimed the endless fist jams of pitch three. Having finally reached it, we all felt reluctant to abandon our trip's final summit. Pointed shadows of the mountains, a yawning line of teeth, stretched eastward across the desert floor. The early-evening sun and the peaks of the park were calling our attention towards Las Vegas, towards development, and towards the very thing we sought to escape. And just over the hill, we could see that it was approaching. 

And a few more for something we hope is coming up...


  1. Blake! My copy of R&I just came in today's mail, and I got to see...YOU!! Feature article! Read parts - will do a cover-to-cover read on Monday - really nice work.

  2. Thanks Chris, although I hope you take the time to check out this version as well.

    "Weak ego climber clips Illegal Bolt"
    (i.e. fuck you BLM and world climbing community)

    This was an incredibly selfish article. YOU!! upset quite a few of the Red Rock Masters, hopefully not the BLM land managers, too.

    What a terrible mistake in your quest for personal fame and glory. In the future please consider that there are other climbers beside you.

  4. Hey Mr./Mrs. Anonymous:

    If you want to discuss this, or anything else, as adults, feel free to email me or give a ring: (206) Spy-Plan

    If you send me an email, please don't repeat the mistakes of thinking that your demonstrated ability to use the 'Caps Lock' key or include ad-hominems will suffice for lack substance.

    Perhaps a little background:

    I researched and wrote the text of article, and I'm proud of having done so. None of the BLM employees I spoke with were upset, defensive, or unwilling to speak about the ongoing challenges they face. The layout, photo selection, military-stencil font, etc were unknown to me until seeing things in print and they would not have been my choices. However, when you own the magazine, such decisions are your prerogative.

    I'm not sure who the 'Red Rock Masters' are, but the two long-time locals I interviewed were happy to chat by phone and email. Joanne Urioste volunteered to help, and Paul Van Betten was gracious and cordial after I contacted him. All quotes from Mr. Van Betten were used with permission, and after secondary confirmation/clarification in writing of their initial context.

    I wrote the article in order to bring attention to what I view as three major issues at play in Red Rock National Conservation Area, and why these matter to climbers. The first is construction of a huge new suburb, planned for Red Rock's doorstep. The second issue is the queue for spots on the few "crowded classics" as many world-class climbs sat empty. And finally, due to a variety of factors, the BLM's policies there prevent both new bolting and anchor replacement. For an area with such a rich tradition of climbing as a legitimate recreation activity, I wanted to learn how this could have come about. The fact that I'm the one pictured clipping bolts on 'Drifting' is random chance, as I shared leads on that route with a friend, and Garrett and I climbed with probably ~6 other people during our time there. I remember being pretty worked after that route's second pitch, and probably tried to goad my partner into leading all the following pitches, clearly without success. I'm sorry if this fact inconveniences your theory that my 5.11 sport climbing is actually a "quest for personal fame and glory".

    we climbed and profiled stellar routes from 5.7 to 5.12, including sport and trad, new and old, but just one such route with modern sport pitches. My hope is that climbers and the BLM would value this incredible resource, and develop both regulations and routes that the area deserves.

    Rather than jump to a series of false assumptions about the photographs, our motivation for the article, or the effects which it may have, why not contact me in any method other than an anonymous, invective-laden E-tirade, with no discernible positive account?


  5. Blake-

    You are my hero!

    Albert Newman

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