What climbing day would you like to live over and over again as if it were YOUR groundhog day? How about enduring a surprise bivy on one of the best 5.9s in the world?
My groundhog climbing day would have to be an epic of wide open desert proportions. When my friend Rolf and I first climbed Epinephrine at Red Rock, we were in for a life-changing day. It was to be the longest climb either of us had tried. We were staying at my friend’s parents’ house in Vegas for our spring break and we were with three of our buddies. Rolf and I were biting off a bigger route than we were confident in trying, but that was part of the appeal. We both felt that 5.9 was within our abilities, but we were afraid of the chimney aspect and the length of the route. The long, 3rd-class desert scrambling descent seemed like it wouldn’t be a problem based on the description.
So we got first hand experience with what an epic was on those two days. Yes I said epic and two days all in the same sentence. Here is the story as I best recall.
Rolf and I each had our copy of the route description in our pockets as we headed out of camp. Back then you could legally camp at the trailhead of Black Velvet Canyon. There were a couple other campers there and we heard them rustling so we quickly ran out in the dark to get of head of them just in case they were trying the same route as us.
Our headlights illuminated the narrow and sometimes indistinct trail as is weaved around and over large sandstone boulders and mesquite trees. Every now and then we would get stuck on a bush and wonder if we lost a cam or some quickdraws. It was spring and the morning air was cool. We each just had a windbreaker and a bottle of water and a bar or two. Our nervousness grew as we got closer and closer to the base of the route.
We were very surprised when we reached the base of the route to find one party heading up in the dark and another waiting impatiently. We were third in the queue and not prepared for a decision before the sun had risen over the mountains to the east. We decided that since we were there without any other topos for the area that we might as well wait and follow the parties ahead of us. It would be better to follow them so that we didn’t get lost and it might be fun to climb in a group (it had been fun with our buddies when we all piled up the shorter multi-pitch routes in the park).
But two hours later our decision had proved to be a bad one when we were still not off the ground. Even so, we decided to wait in hopes that they would let us pass when they realized that we could climb the pitches faster than they could. The first group had disappeared up the route and the party above us was not moving quickly or confidently. When we eventually began it was very light outside and Rolf and I had ran out of jokes to pass the time. On his leads he easily negotiated the cruxes as did I and we always ended up too close to the group in front of us. Even though it was clear that we could climb through the party above us safely and climb the route faster, they chose not to let us through. We ended up trying our best to hang out at the more comfortable belays as long as we could. Even still we were right back up on their tails in just a few short minutes because the route’s challenges were not as bad as expected.
We were out of water and food as we ever so slowly inched to the top behind what I learned was the slowest party on earth. It was nearing darkness and I knew that we were going to have an issue finding our way down from the top. As we topped out and the party in front disappeared around a corner Rolf and I were relieved and happy to have completed our longest climb. Neither of us fell nor went the wrong way on the route and it felt way easier than we imagined. The weather was perfect all day and we were dressed appropriately. We got to see the sun set from on top of a mountain and it was incredible.
Then reality set in. Even with our headlamps on full blast we were unable to find the “obvious path” down to the mountain. After about one half-hour of searching and cliffing ourselves out, we made the tough decision that it was better for us not to move anymore. This had come as we stood on the edge of yet another cliff that was three feet wide and surrounded by the sharpest mesquite trees that existed.
The next big question was who wanted to be the little spoon! Since Rolf was a nice guy and significantly bigger than I he suggested that I be the little spoon. I of course accepted and with the rope as a blanket and pillow we lay down for the night. We could see the glow of the city, but not the city itself because we were on the backside of the mountain. Neither of us slept too much but we did get cold. Late in the middle of the night we built a small fire in between us and the wall behind us. It helped a lot and it was something to do to pass the hours before the light would guide us back to our friends and camp.
Meanwhile our friends at camp were kind of worried but not as much as we had feared. I believe that they were laughing when we hadn’t come down yet. They did however watch a team whom they believed were Rolf and I slowly work down a series of chimneys and corners via a hundred rappels. From camp they eventually hiked out to greet “us” and were surprised when it wasn’t us! It was the party in front of us describing the worst sounding epic that anyone had endured. They couldn’t find the trail down either and instead of waiting till morning they decided to rap down any way that they could. They told tales of their ropes getting caught over and over and over and over on all the trees and rocks. They reached the floor of the cliff by the time the sun was rising and had one hell of a long and sketchy night.
Rolf and I on the other hand slept under the stars with a small fire on the edge of a cliff and got to see the sunrise. We were a little hungry, but we had survived and been safe the whole time. We each learned a lot about making the safe decision that day and also learned to just go through the slower parties on routes no matter what. It was awesome and I would totally relive that day over and over and over if it was my groundhog day!