GETTING DOWN THE CRUX
I avoid alpine starts as if they were a cactus on a climbers’ trail. I never grasped the point of losing sleep to bag a plum route when the low-hanging fruit seemed plenty tasty.
But lately this cragger was hungry for altitude, so I made plans to fly from Seattle to Las Vegas before Thanksgiving with the goal of climbing Black Orpheus, an 11-pitch 5.10a deep within Oak Creek Canyon in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada. My climbing partner, Jane, an experienced climber and Las Vegas local, shot me an email warning that doing this route meant that we would need to start “super early.”
Red Rock Canyon is known for long classics with monster approaches, route finding, fragile rock and dicey descents. “Black Orpheus” brought all of this to the table. I was ready to dig in.
For the next three days, I lost sleep worrying about getting up “super early.” What’s that all about?!
When the big day arrived, the buzzing alarm clock flashed 3:50AM at my sleep-deprived pupils. I glared back at it. My heart was set on doing this climb but the early hour was testing my fortitude. I felt like I was still a cragger in a multipitch climber’s harness.
Once I downed a mug of strong tea, my resolve rekindled and by 4:30AM I was veering the rental car into the gravel lot at the Loop road exit. The emptiness echoed the uncertainty rumbling in my gut. I turned off the ignition and watched for my partner Jane’s headlights to appear behind my car.
When she pulled in, we exchanged greetings and quickly organized our gear. Despite it being “super early,” I had the uneasy sense that time was already working against us. We shouldered our packs and pointed our headlamps toward the canyons. I caught glimpses of other tiny lights snaking their way across the sleeping desert, like a silent procession of zombies. The bizarre scene stirred my qualms about getting up a serious route on so little sleep.
I was heartened when the rising sun transformed the cold night air into a crisp dawn. The shock of the alpine start faded with the brightening light and we finally reached the slabs below the Black Arch Wall just before 7:00AM.
After stashing our packs in the shrub oak, we worked up a sweat scrambling the last few hundred feet of third-class slab to the base of Black Orpheus. This would be the longest route I ever climbed as well as my first 5.10a multipitch.
My mind raced ahead to the prospect of leading the crux pitch. (Pitch 9) I had read that the crux was short but intense with the potential of a hard pendulum if the leader peeled. The questions began nagging at me, “Should I lead it? Could I lead it?”
Jane and I had not discussed the leads yet. Part of me was afraid to because I wasn’t sure what I wanted the answer to be. As if reading my mind, Jane suggested that she take the first pitch to get us off to a quick start. It was a beautiful 5.8 corner and before I knew it we were on our way up Black Orpheus!
I took the second pitch, a 5.8+ with an awkward lieback section which got my leg bouncing like Elvis on Red Bull and reinforced my distrust of route grades followed by plus signs. I hoped my nerves would settle once we got into the rhythm of the climb.
We proceeded to swing leads in blocks through the easier middle pitches of the route. We were gaining altitude quickly and time seemed to be on our side. The warm sun had us climbing in shirtsleeves and enjoying the sweeping views of Oak Creek Canyon and the far-away skyline of Lost Wages.
More concerned about the crux than about the clock, I tracked the pitch count like a player working a blackjack table, trying to predict on whose turn the lead would fall. It wasn’t until I was building the belay next to a dihedral did I realize exactly where we were in the count: the start of Pitch 8, Jane’s lead. The next pitch, the crux, was going to be mine. I felt my stomach tighten and tried to psyche myself up for it as I belayed Jane.
She placed a nut, slid smoothly across the exposed traverse and disappeared into the steep corner. I remembered the description of this pitch reading, “5.9. Now the fun starts….” I nervously waited for Jane to call “off-belay.”
When it was my turn to follow, I carefully eased across the traverse and got my first look at the long, polished corner Jane had just styled.
“Now the fun starts…” The words mocked me as I struggled to sink a solid jam in the rounded hand crack and fought against the slick walls for purchase as I stemmed and chimneyed and swore. I expected to hang on the rope at any second. It was hard to imagine how Joanne and Jorge Urioste did the first ascent of this thing with hexes!
By the time I yarded myself up to the belay, I felt anything but confident about taking the next lead, the crux. Stalling, I studied the fingercrack splitting the smooth wall above us and pulled out the topo hoping to find reassurance in the beta. It called this move 5.9+. Great. More pluses.
We were losing precious time. Shadows were growing across the belay ledge.
Jane’s voice broke through my stupor and snapped my confidence back to life. I clipped the bolts, stepped beneath the crack, reached high for the finger pocket and cranked. Before I knew it I was shouting “Yaaayahhh!” from the ledge above. Believing the crux was now behind me, I underestimated the challenges that lay ahead. We still had two pitches to climb.
The gentle breeze made the shade feel colder all of a sudden. We needed to push through these last two pitches, but the fatigue which had been stalking me all day was overtaking me. My newbie enthusiasm was no substitute for experience on longer routes.
Following the sustained 5.7 lieback of Pitch 10, my calves and forearms burned in protest. I led the final pitch of fragile face-climbing which would take us to the 1370 foot summit of the route. Unaccustomed to the wild exposure, I quivered on thin edges of pink rock, slowly advancing from one bolt to the next, expecting the sandstone to crumble beneath me at any moment. I took a few minutes to catch my breath once I reached the top and prepared to belay Jane up to me. She quickly followed.
My watch now read 4:30PM. The daylight was all but gone and the wind became stronger as we coiled the ropes and searched for the first rappel station. On our way up to it, I noted the bivy cave nearby. I thought of this cave again over the course of the next few hours. By the time we finished the second rappel, night had fallen.
It was difficult to get our bearings once we unroped in the "Painted Bowl", an immense expanse of exposed slab and ramps that seemed to drop off in all directions. The wind gusts had now built up enough force to knock us over if we stood upright. In the lulls, we carefully traversed the brittle slabs, crouching low to prevent being swept downward and into the unknown.
I did not know where we were supposed to be going — the darkness and danger had dulled my sense of direction — but Jane was moving with surety so I followed her like a new puppy on strange street. Somehow, she steered us through that sea of sandstone to a rappel station hidden below a ledge at the far left edge of the Bowl. We debated whether we should attempt the rappels in such windy conditions. We knew there was the option to hike out via a long, arduous canyon descent but Jane’s lingering knee injury had flared up (and the thought of back-tracking over all of that exposed slab was not a prospect I relished). It was a difficult choice. We agreed to rappel.
We clipped our leashes to the bolts and uncoiled the ropes. Jane went first, keeping the ropes tethered to her with slings so they would not be ripped from her grasp as she lowered into the windy chaos.
I switched off my headlamp to save battery power. Alone in the black night with my thoughts and fears, I tucked myself into a tight ball to stay warm as the howling gale beat against me. The worry which had haunted me hours earlier about leading the crux was long-forgotten and unimportant. The discomfort of an alpine start paled in comparison to the dread which coursed through my veins. All I could think of at this point was how much I wanted us to be safely on the ground.
The powerful gusts must have measured at least 60mph by now. (a speed later confirmed by checking NOAA)
Knowing I would be unable to hear Jane call “off rappel” in the fierce storm, I kept my hand on the ropes so I could feel when they went slack. The energy of the taut ropes between my fingers reminded me that this was our lifeline, our connection to each other and to eventual safety.
In the darkness below me, Jane was battling the full wrath of the windstorm.
As she recounted later, “I was being slammed 20 feet across the wall as the gusts cut loose. My throat tightened as I eased over the lip of an overhang… becoming like a dangling spider being whipped around in all directions.” She hoped her headlamp’s tiny circle of light would find the next anchor.
When the ropes went slack, I triple-checked my belay device, wound my autoblock, then slowly dipped into the darkness, glad to be on my way to join Jane. Shivering together on the thin ledge of the next station, we jokingly reminded each other that we do this sport for fun. As we pulled the ropes, my headlamp soon caught the welcome sight of the knot approaching us. We mouthed the prayer that every Red Rocks climber has uttered, “PLEASE don’t get stuck!”
Most of the rope suddenly flopped down, but our prayer went unanswered. The end stopped hard, caught somewhere in the darkness on the featured face high above. The rope gods were in a funk.
Faced with the choice to climb up to free it or fix a single rope so that we could rappel its full length, we agreed it was safer to leave behind the stuck cord and continue our descent on the remaining rope. We struggled to keep our balance as the sustained gusts blasted us while we set up the final rappel.
Jane lowered first. I felt my heart beat faster at the thought of soon escaping the chaos and being back on the ground. When I felt the rope go slack, I started my rappel.
The darkness made the ground merge with the night and I could only half-guess where my feet would meet the earth. I could hear Jane’s voice now, calling out for me to do something with the rope. Too late, I grasped her message. The knotted end had caught higher up, out of the range of Jane’s headlamp, so that she did not know to free it on her way down. The bight of cord that dangled free barely reached the ground, just enough for us to get our balance on an upper terrace of the slabs.
It was all seeming like a bad dream. Maybe I was still asleep, catching those last precious minutes of slumber before the alarm announced an impending alpine start.
We unclipped our belay devices and turned our backs on the snagged lines suspended above us in the darkness, an offering to the rope gods of Red Rocks. We still had a few hundred feet of exposed slabs to navigate, again facing the penalty of death or injury if we lost our footing and rolled off of a cliff band.
At 9:00PM we reached the main trail out of the canyon and retrieved our packs from their cache in the scrub oak. My mind was still swirling with images of the frightening descent; my body still electrified from the adrenaline rush.
Retracing our steps across the desert, the wind seemed less menacing now though it blew hard enough to knock us down yet. We were still wearing our helmets and with long wisps sticking out from under them in every direction, we got a laugh out of seeing each other’s “troll hair”.
On the horizon where I had watched dawn appear that morning, the orange halo of the Strip’s neon sun now lit our way. When I set out to climb Black Orpheus this morning, the cragger in me perceived the crux of the climb as what I would need to do to get up the route. As Jane and I neared our cars almost 15 hours later, I understood that the real crux can be getting down.
Behind us, I saw faint headlamps blinking from other canyons and I wondered about the tales their wearers would spin that night in their tents and cheap hotel rooms. While the dark descent in the windstorm was as close as I had ever come to a experiencing an epic, to the seasoned climber perhaps it was just another day on a multipitch in Red Rocks.