I’ve been having a hard time this winter finding any climbing. I’ve tried four times to get out there but rain, wet rock and cold have limited my climbing to a single handful of pitches outside in the last two months. Jeremy, Sophia, Sadie and myself are here for five days to change that. However, flying into Las Vegas on Christmas Day to snow capped canyons and a high in the mid-30s looked like this trip might be the same. After spending half the day finding the only open Albertsons on Christmas Day off Chestnut for provisioning. We tried to get some great single pitch trad in at one of the warmest walls, Brass Wall. While the rock felt dry, the dirt at the base was damp. A sign Mountain Project advised us meant we could damage the delicate sandstone if we climbed.
In a desperate dash to climb on our first day in Red Rocks we next rushed out to Calico Hills to hop on anything in the sun. The solar warmth at least made the rock climbable. We found a line of cars filled with gawkers backed up several hundred hards just to enter Red Rocks Canyon loop. Blocked out of the park (which is a one way) we skipped over to Calico Basin, struggled to find The Playground and then I labored my way up a 10d sport climb with cold rock, numbing hands and two lead falls caused by holds breaking off. Three weeks earlier a friend led a group out here where people were in a shaded canyon wearing T-shirts. This was not going to be my experience…
Aside: If you are just reading for beta on what climbing areas are warmest in the winter, choose anything South facing like: Solar Slab Lower Tier (until afternoon), Solar Slab Upper Tier, Brass Wall, Olive Oil, Calico Hills or Basin, possibly Sweet Thin and a small part of the day on Mescalito.
Emerging from my sleeping bag at 7am I shrugged off the chill of a 20 degree night to make breakfast. We couldn’t find stove fuel Christmas Day so this meant cold jelly on muffins. The water was turned off at the campground (I guess so the pipes don’t freeze) so we took whatever we had and headed for Brass Wall again. Figuring it had to be dry by now.
Hopping on Birdland (5.7+, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, 560 ft) we swapped leads up what was supposed to be a classic. It was a good climb with quality rock, but route wasn’t consistent enough for me to call it a classic. After pitch three it became overcast and our solar warmth was stolen. The crisp air became colder than the rock itself as we layered up. The slower Austrailians in front started to rappel but we decided to finish P5 and rappel in waning light. It paid off. P5 was the money pitch. The route ended in a really solid forward facing 5.7+ finger crack.
From here we rapped the route and I grabbed one last look at The Big Horn 5.8 to our left. It’s gapping and varying sized crack splitting a large flat face calling on me to return to send it and reminding me of corrugation corner at lovers leap.
It’s 5:20am. Voices bellow off the canyon walls of two climbers discussing their plan to climb Leviathon. They rev their car engine to warm it up and scrap the ice off the windshield. The near constant ambiance of tires on gravel from cars leaving Red Rock Campground begins.
A cold morning and a warm pot of oatmeal prevented our group from moving as quickly. Time slipped away until we arrived at the base of the sunny and aptly named Solar Slab (Lower Tier) at 9:30am after an hour hike. We struck up Solar Slab Gulley to try to beat the climbers already on Johnney Vegas (5.6 R, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, 600 ft) to the enormous ledge above that hosts the goal of the day. Solar Slab (5.6, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, 900 ft).
Looking at Solar Slab Gulley it’s clear that the mostly 4th class rating is pretty soft. Its steep. We rope up to simulclimb the route. It takes about two hours of adventure climbing and a couple chimneys (one wet) until we reach the Upper Tier.
A party beats us to the massive ledge and their follower is starting the first pitch of Solar Slab when I top out. They slow down significantly on the second pitch and it’s two hours until I start climbing again. The route is glorious and rewards are efforts to reach it with superb, fun, quality climbing.
However, any hope of completing the route was been doused given this loss of precious winter daylight from waiting. We make it to the top of pitch 4 at 5pm, break out the headlamps and start our four double rope rappels to the Upper Tier.
It’s full on night by the point we get to the upper ledge. We pull the rope on our last rappel only a few feet until it snags and I have to reclimb the near entirety of pitch one by headlamp. Auto belaying myself in guide mode on the rope opposite the knot, tying off backup knots behind me and on a fireman belay.
Rope free, we start our next five single rope rappels down Solar Slab Gulley. The first rappel is wetter than I remember. The rope flops into more than one pool of water by the time we reach the anchors. We become machines as we repeatedly simul rappel, find the anchors, pull the rope, free snags, wait for our friends to see us at the anchors and repeat. Finally our feet touch the ground, our arms fly through arms of warm clothes and trail mix dumps into my mouth. We woke up at 6am and it’s now 9:35pm. We end the night by hiking 1.5 hours back to trailhead in the dark, cooking chili in our friends’ hotel room at midnight and passing out at 1am.
We gave ourselves a break by waking up at 7am after our previous 19 hour day. Only seeing a handful of climbers thus far in the canyons we figured we could saunter out later to climb Olive Oil (5.7 R, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, 600ft) at Rose Mountain. The last bit of the approach to Olive Oil was a super cool narrow canyon hike so you cannot see the start of the route until you are right up on it. After the 1.5 hour walk we found one party on the wall and two waiting at 11am.
Looking for another climb, we approach Geronimno to discover the same situation. Having racked at the car, we now found ourselves without proper gear to do any of the other awesome climbs like Saddle Up, Sweet Thin or The Black Pearl. Not looking to get into another 1am night from waiting in line we decided to hike out, go to Calico Hills and find something else to climb. The good trad was in the shade at Calico Basin so we climbed what we could on Tuna and Chips wall… which wasn’t much.
I’m not too fond of runouts on poor quality rock where the holds could bust out. For the first night of four we left Red Rock Canyon while there was still light. Rewarding ourselves with amazingly delicious Mexican food while planning to hit it hard the next day.
Given how busy things were the prior day we were ready be efficient and make the most of our last climbing day. Eyes opened at 5:45am, feet stomped the trailhead at 7am and bodies arrived at the base of Solar Slab Lower Tier at 8am. The Lower Tier was already a shit show. There was a party of 4 (one leader, three followers) on Johnney Vegas and another similar situation of four people going up Solar Slab Gulley. A two person party would follow on Johnney Vegas shortly after and a guided group of one leader and 3-4 followers was going up Horndogger. Within the next hour I would find climbers to my left on Sundog and on some unknown route up a right Pinnacle. In all I’d see 20 climbers on the Lower Tier this day!
Luckily we were doing something harder, Beulah’s Book (5.9,⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, 600 ft), which kept us away from the guided parties. The second pitch of this climb is the money. A short 5.9 chimney with tons of protection from a bolt and a #4 cam followed by 100 ft of beautiful crack in a book that you can lieback with good feet outside the crack. It was maybe my favorite pitch of the trip!
Our followers took some time on the chimney given they had backpacks and we arrived to Solar Slab a little later than we had hoped. We could either reclimb Solar Slab or partially climb some other 5.9s (Sunflower or Sun Dog) and rap those routes to stay away from a mess of people on Solar Slab. I thought of the intense looking squeeze chimney on Arch Enemy!
Instead we decided to rap Johnney Vegas for a quicker descent and avoid the cluster sure to be going on in the Solar Slab Gulley. Our rap was great until we had to huddle four people onto a small ledge with only rap ring anchors and no chains at the top of pitch one. A couple natural anchors helped us spread out as we collected and then rapped, last person cleaning the gear. My feet were killing me from banging them into gulley walls rapping two nights earlier so we called it and hiked out at dusk. We had an early flight the next day anyways.
Driving out we talked about all those climbs we really wanted to do but we couldn’t due to wet conditions, little light and cold temperatures. Climbs like one of the best 5.9s in the world, the 1600 ft of Epinephrine which has a 600ft chimney or the 1500 ft of Black Orpheus or the iconic amazing crack streaking up 1000 ft of Crimson Chrysalis or the freaking vertical tunnel you have to climb through on Community Pillar! There is SO MUCH to climb here that I would love to return and do if weather, light and crowds cooperated.