Red Rocks Revolution

Bighorn sheep keep an eye on us during the hike to Brownstone Wall.
It’s amazing to see wildlife like this only 20 minutes from Las Vegas.

This week my old climbing partner PaulM and I made a quick trip to Red Rocks for some climbing.  Despite a forecast that called for rain, the weather cooperated for two out of our three planned climbing days and we did some fantastic routes.  I’ll get to the details of our climbing, but first I’ll digress…

In some ways this trip represented a breakthrough in my climbing.  My goal in rock climbing has always been to become a competent 5.10 traditional (trad) leader.  In my opinion, being competent at a grade meads that you can successfully onsight just about any route of the grade.  For those of you that don’t climb, the difficulty of rock climbing routes in the U.S. is measured by the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS).  The YDS divides hikes and climbs into five classes, with Class 1 being an easy stroll on relatively flat terrain and Class 5 being technical climbing that requires ropes and protection.  Class 5 climbs are further divided into decimal points, from 5.0, which just about anyone can climb, to the current difficulty limit of 5.15, which only a handful of people in the world can climb.  (To further complicate things, routes that are rated 5.10 or higher are sometimes subdivided into a, b, c, and d because there is such a big step up between number grades.)  Without getting into too much technical detail, leading a climb is significantly harder than following a climb because you’re placing protection and the level of risk and mental challenge is higher.  And leading a traditional climb at any given rating is more difficult than leading a sport climb of the same rating because you have to carry much more gear and using the gear requires more skill.

Although it’s debatable, many trad climbers consider 5.10 (pronounced “five ten”) to be the point at which you’re in advanced territory.  But my goal of becoming a 5.10 leader was based on a more practical considerations:

  1. Many of the best climbs at popular climbing destinations such as Yosemite and Red Rocks are rated 5.10.  Harder routes tend to have steeper and more aesthetic (that one’s for you Arne) moves.
  2. I believed that 5.10 was about the highest level that could be maintained by a climber with a full time job and a  family living in a city with no rock nearby.  Like any sport, climbing requires practice, and my practice time (especially outside on real rock) is severely limited.

Over the years, I’ve slowly worked my way up the YDS, starting with 5.6 and moving up by a number grade every year or two.  A couple years ago, I reached a point that I felt solid at 5.9 and was able to onsight most of the 5.10’s I attempted.  At this point I considered myself a somewhat competent 5.10 leader but it wasn’t clear whether I would continue to progress.  Then a couple of things happened:

  1. I started cycling, which increased my overall fitness in a big way.
  2. More recently, I bought a Treadwall for my home gym, which has enabled me to train more frequently and at a higher level of intensity.

Which brings me back to this week’s trip to Red Rocks…

On Day 1, our first route was Triassic Sands, considered one of the best routes at Red Rocks.  It’s  4 pitch route, with three rated at 5.10.  What a fantastic route!   And it felt pretty casual – I never felt near my limit.  After finishing TS, we hiked across the canyon to do Arrow Place, a 3 pitch 5.9.  It’s a quality route, but not one that I’d make an effort to do again.  7 good pitches for the day – A great start to the trip.

The imposing 4th pitch of Triassic Sands.

On Day 2, we decided to tackle The Nightcrawler, a route that I’ve had my eye on for years.  The Nightcrawler is on Brownstone Wall, which is a strenuous 1.5 hour hike up Juniper Canyon.  The route starts with a 5.6/5.7 approach pitch followed by a spicy 5.9 chimney pitch, and then two pitches of sustained 5.10b/c corner.  The burly third pitch and techie fourth pitch may be the best I’ve ever climbed.  It was definitely a challenge to lead, but again I never felt at my absolute limit.

After finishing The Nightcrawler, we hiked to Mescalito and climbed The Next Century, a 2 pitch 5.10c/d route that is somtimes rated “R” (or “runout”, meaning it has sparse protection).  This was definitely one of my most challenging leads ever.  Hard moves combined with the uncertainty of what lay ahead required a lot of focus — especially since I had already hiked and climbed for about 6 hours.

Successfully leading this route gave me a lot of satisfaction and left me feeling that I had made a breakthrough in my climbing.  I feel like I’ve reached my climbing goal and, if I was willing to dedicate myself to it, can even imagine breaking into 5.11 trad.

On Day 3, we woke up to rain and lightning so we decided to pack up and head to the airport rather than wait out the storm.  And truthfully, I was pretty beat up from two hard days of climbing with lots of hiking.

All in all, it was a great trip.  Great climbing and I got to hang out with Paul, who climbed really well considering he’s been out of the game for a while.   As usual, the trip left me hungry for more.  I’m already plotting the next adventure…

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