Relish the Red Rocks
Words and photography by Mike Hutton
Sandwiched between California and Utah is a red-hot land of canyons and creeks on the periphery of the Mojave Desert. With the world class venues of Yosemite, Indian Creek and Joshua Tree just a stone's throw away, you might wonder what is it that makes Red Rocks so unique. Rumours of big walls, single pitch splitter cracks and crimpy sport climbs all within a 10-mile radius were just too tempting for Mike not to pay a visit.
Touching down on the outskirts of the biggest gambling city in the world was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a culture shock. Buildings of biblical proportion immediately captivated us. Limousines, neon lights and casinos dominate just about everywhere you look. The Vegas strip is so in your face it’s almost not that offensive. Questing out of the western suburbs of the city the mayhem, lights and gambling all become but a distant memory and very soon you are aware of something far greater. The Calico Hills on the edge of the La Madre mountain wilderness area are perhaps most people’s first view of this world class climbing destination. And what a view; the Canyons reveal a truly exquisite colour palette with three distinct rock bands in this 3,000ft thick finest Aztec Sandstone.
Robin Nicholson in a fine position on the extremely photogenic arete of Caustic (5.11b) at Cannibal Crag.
As the rock has lithified over the years a complex array of over 10 canyons has formed into a relatively accessible area with such a diversity of features its possible there will be something to suit all climbing styles. Unlike Indian Creek in nearby Utah it’s not all about splitter cracks in these parts. The rock is coated with a veil of desert varnish that on the more exposed faces has eroded to create an abundance of helpful holds. In contrast the north-facing dark walls have less erosion and lines often rely on the amazing corners and grooves. You may encounter beautiful red spots, which are due to iron concretions, where the subsurface water has precipitated iron oxide around a nucleus in the sandstone. These concretions have resisted erosion and weather into little balls called Moqui Marbles. Thanks to all these features the styles of climbing are endless and on first acquaintance it’s very easy to be overwhelmed as you gaze at the massive playground of rock.
I imagine this is exactly what it felt like for the early pioneers, Joe Herbst and Larry Hamilton, when they discovered this blank red canvas in their new back garden. Their ascent of Rainbow Wall or 'The Sandstone Half Dome' as it was known in 1973 set a milestone in climbing history and a message that these guys meant serious business. Although it wasn’t quite that simple as Joe, the off-width specialist, not too surprisingly struggled to get people to join him on his skin-grinding exploits. It was the later efforts of George and Joanne Urioste that shaped the way for a whole new concept to tackling these big climbs. Where others would run it out or simply back off due to lack of protection they would think nothing of placing vast numbers of bolts to make these huge and beautiful face climbs a possibility for mortals. As you can imagine this didn’t sit well with other folk. At one point there was a big divide, with climbers like Richard Harrison and Paul Van Betten putting up routes in the purest style possible whilst the Uriostes claimed routes only yards apart with humongous numbers of bolts even next to gear placements. Relations weren’t good and led to Harrison’s friends refusing information for the 1984 guidebook by the Uriostes. The controversy continued when Mike Tupper introduced the art of hangdogging and bolting from rappel, skills he had picked up in Europe. Whilst this was common practice in France you can imagine it didn’t go down too well with many of the locals.
The situation soon reached a pivotal moment when Tupper and friends were working the serious Risky Business (5.10c R) in Pine Creek Canyon and later discovered, to their annoyance, that they had become the first victims of sabotage and a mystery enemy had cut their fixed lines. After a decade of fighting and accusations the dust had settled by the 90s. It had been an eventful 10 years for Red Rocks and it wasn’t long before the Calico Hills became the most popular winter sport climbing destination in the USA.
Red Rocks also attracted its fair share of epics over the years with some pretty experienced Yosemite climbers narrowly avoiding disastrous consequences. In 1999, Brian McCray and, pioneer, Warren Hollenger tried to aid the colossal roof to the right of the Original Route on Rainbow Wall. Hollenger took a huge whipper and ripped so much gear he was left smashed up and dangling in free space. Thankfully McCray had just become the owner of the latest all singing and dancing cell phone so was able to instigate a full stage rescue that involved a helicopter landing on the top of Rainbow Mountain. Hollenger was so mentally scared by the experience he never climbed again. McCray went back and soloed the line soon after which became the hardest wall climb in Red Rocks at A4.
The Calico Hills
Cruising out of town on Highway 159 our minds and body were in a state of shock. Having been exposed to the superficial monstrosity of Las Vegas we were in need of some therapy. This came in the form of the beautiful red, pink and white swirls that decorated the rock in the Calico Hills. These are the first crags you will encounter on the start of the one-way scenic drive loop and whilst not offering the grandeur of the distant canyons they contain a wealth of high quality sport climbs in a low stress setting. The tantalising seam and crack line of Running Man (5.11c) is just one the many high quality challenges that tempted us on our evening exploration. The entire hillside was decorated with bolts and the number of climbs was simply overwhelming. In the fading hours of daylight we scampered round the maze of canyons to discover hidden delights round every corner. The varnished soft sandstone was littered with small edges and completely unlike any style I had encountered elsewhere in the States. Very soon the lights of Vegas beckoned our jet-lagged bodies back to our abode for the evening and we would have to wait till the next day to experience the climbing for real.
Next morning we sought the shade of the idyllic sand-filled Black Corridor. This east-to-west steep-sided canyon is so narrow you literally have 30 north-facing routes and 30 south-facing routes just metres apart. Littered with routes in the 5.9 to 5.11 grade range and the option to always find shade it's not surprising we felt like we had entered some kind of outdoor climbing gym. Tucked away in the next canyon we discovered the delights of the Sweet Pain Wall. After getting stuck in it didn’t take us long to discover the quality of crimpy sport climbs this place offered at the 5.11 grade. Routes like Sweet Pain (5.11d) and Glitter Gulch (5.11a) come highly recommended. It was a mesmerising place to spend time as whilst we climbed in the comfort of the shade the reflected rays from the opposing cliff added just enough light to render the hues and patterns in this amazing rock architecture. The east-facing Stone Wall proved to be even better with an abundance of longer routes to serve the needs of the aspiring 5.10 climber.
Keen as we were to quest out into the bigger challenges of the Canyons, these venues served to keep us amused on our rest days and offered hours of low stress fun with the company of the knowledgeable locals. One such guy was Rob Wolfe, a man who with the help of Leo Hensen back in 1994, had put up the famous Original Route on the gob smacking Rainbow Wall. He would recount tales of his ascents and kept us endlessly amused with his past antics and was never shy to recommend to us lines of the highest calibre. He told us a tale of an amazing 5.10d continuous crack-line going by the name of The Fox in the Red Springs area. On a previous attempt he had arrived at the alarming off-width finale only to realise his size 5 and 6 Camalots were not on his harness. We were instantly hooked by the idea of this Indian Creek style crack and with no further ado made tracks for it the very next day. As the dawn broke, the roadside venue of Cannibal Crag at the parking was glowing a magic shade of pink as the rock picked up the morning rays. Although our hearts were set on The Fox it was hard to dismiss the photogenic and bolted arête line of Caustic (5.11b). A classic of the modern day that is well worth doing just for the views alone.
Robin Nicholson and The Fox (5.10d) in the Calico Basin.
Having been only temporarily distracted by the offerings of Cannibal Crag we finally arrived at our goal after just a gentle slog up the adjacent hill. The guidebook is entirely justified in asking 'How did a beautiful Indian Creek style corner end up in the Calico Hills'. What can’t be disputed is that this is one of the grandest crack pitches of its grade in Red Rocks. This 140ft north-facing corner starts at a very amenable tips width; proceeds to perfect hands and finishes up an obscene off-width. It was the off-width that was to eventually spit me out with my tail between my legs. If you can be bothered to make the effort there are many more cracks hidden away from the view of the car park. The 300ft and very amenable 5.6 crack-line of Physical Graffiti was justifiably popular, as it really is that good. However, it was my night-time ascent of Shit Howdy (5.10d) that has to be one of the most memorable moments of the trip. We had barely recovered from our earlier experiences on some horror show of a 5.9 off-width which involved a tormented owl flying out of the crack and spraying shit all over me when suddenly we were completely blown away by a stunning sunset over Vegas, the rays of light shimmering through a localized sand storm, so much so we forgot to check the watches. Climbing in the dark was one thing but stuffing cams into the barely visible finger crack was not my brightest stunt of the trip.
In ours minds though, the crème de la crème of the Calico Hills has to be the renowned north-facing crack-lines on the varnished Winter Heat Wall. Perfectly positioned these routes are just far enough to filter out the quick hit brigade but not so isolated that an afternoon jaunt isn’t practical. If you decide on the longer anti-clockwise approach round the back of Kraft Mountain you get to check out the best bouldering in Red Rocks. It may not be quite Hueco Tanks but there are endless opportunities for highball British style headpoints on the huge cluster of boulders. The rounded prow of Ethan Pringle’s Clockwork Orange (V12) has repelled many attempts over the years by top climbers. Jared McMillen’s 30ft Fear of a Black Hat (V9) on the eye-catching cube is big enough to warrant its own contour on the map according to the guide. Having managed not to succumb to temptation we landed ourselves at the foot of the shady Winter Heat Wall. The lavish chocolate-coloured walls looked smooth and devoid of holds, but on close inspection faint cracks marked the way for some brilliant lines with ample protection. The amenable wide crack-line of Couldn’t be a Schmooter (5.9) serves as the perfect warm-up for the harder offerings, the best of these being the exceptional thin corner of Winter Heat (5.11b). And if that wasn’t enough we got to witness the short but sweet crack-lines on the Yin and Yang Wall on our return leg to the parking.
If you’re after solitude and a proper adventure then the Canyons of the Rainbow Mountain Wilderness area are most definitely the places to head. This area is vast and even after decades of development the possibility for new routes still exists if you’re prepared to walk. Many of the crags have the advantage of being outside the controlled loop road so no fines exist for late returns to your vehicle.
As our totally impractical hire car struggled on a trail that was more akin to a dried-up riverbed we soon got our first glimpse of the renowned Black Velvet Canyon. We had set our hearts on the 64 bolt, six-pitch line of Prince of Darkness (5.10c) and although we didn’t quite make the top due to a freak rainstorm every bit of climbing we did was of the highest standard. This may have been good but not in the same league as Dream of Wild Turkeys (5.10a) to the right. There cracks, corners and face climbing were combined to make a superb outing at a very amenable grade. The first ascensionists had used a record number of bolts and siege tactics that had earned them the name of Naughty Turkeys by the climbing community. As it was their dream come true the name Dream of Wild Turkeys prevailed.
Many routes in this area seem to have an epic story associated with their first ascent. The intimidating chimneys and corners of Epinephrine nearly claimed Jorge Urioste’s life as he was severely bitten in the mouth by some hideous insect that caused his throat to swell to the size of a tennis ball. It was the visit to Vegas A&E for a shot of Epinephrine that save his life. The same couple narrowly escaped drowning when the entire canyon turned into a raging torrent of chocolate-coloured water. Thankfully it was only their beer and food and not them that got swept away and buried somewhere between their camp and Lake Mead.
Dave Sutcliffe on 4th pitch of Chrimson Chrysalis (5.8).
Juniper Canyon was on another level of brilliance. We approached in the dead of night when most were still in their beds. As the sun rose to welcome the start to another fine desert day the whole of Rainbow Mountain Wall beckoned us with its pink glow. We had come to ascend the world class 960ft Crimson Chrysalis (5.8+) and as you can imagine our expectations were of something great. At no point on the route did we experience poor rock. The line was as true as they come weaving its way through the three colour bands of pigmented Aztec sandstone. Initially cracks gave way to chimneys leading to an incredible finale on an aesthetic wall of rugosities. We agreed that this was possibly one of the best multi-pitch routes that we had ever climbed.
As the trip progressed we climbed in just about every canyon we could hoovering up the best lines. Routes like Dark Shadows (5.8) in the incredibly lush Pine Creek Canyon and the bold stemming groove of Mai Tai (5.10d R) in the Yosemite-esque First Creek Canyon were some that really stood out. Finally, a return visit to the gigantic Juniper Canyon to climb the super sustained stemming corners of The Night Crawler (5.10c) made for a brilliant end to an incredible two weeks of traditional climbing.
Steve Dunning on the eye catching seam of Running Man (5.11c) before a storm chases its way into the Calico Hills.
Direct flights to Las Vegas are convenient but pricey. On an extended trip it makes sense to buy the cheaper flights to San Francisco or Los Angeles and do the nine-hour drive. The camp site is squalid and expensive so a good option is to stay in accommodation on the west side of the city. It is often possible to buy package deals for less than the price of a flight.
Due to the fact the canyons face just about every direction it’s certainly possible to climb all year round. There are plenty of higher altitude north-facing walls for the summer and suntraps for the depths of winter. The main issue is after a prolonged wet period the rock remains soft and fragile for several days and should be avoided
A large diverse rack of Rocks and cams is essential but rarely is there a need for multiples of the same sized cam as most of cracks are short lived and varied in size. Many of the routes can be climbed on a 70m single rope but it’s advisable to take a spare 60m half rope to allow for the option of longer abseils.
Red Rocks - A Climbers' Guide by Jerry Handren is the best definitive guide whilst Red Rocks Climbing by Greg Barnes details the best 100 routes.