As a full time climber I generally avoid large climbing events. The Red Rock Rendezvous in Las Vegas, Nevada in March of 2015 was an exception to this rule. The gravitational pull of spending a week climbing in Red Rocks with good friends and fellow Planet Granite staffers was too strong to allow my apprehension for climbing among the crowds to keep me away. For months, PG staffer Max Stuart and I had been scheming on a particular route, and this trip would afford us the opportunity to “have a go”. It was an ambitious mission, but we both felt fit, stoked, and confident in our ability to execute. Our target was to free climb a big wall route called the Original Route, 5.12b, 15 pitches, on Rainbow Wall, car-to-car, in a day.
This type of climbing mission requires you to move light and fast. It means that most of your typical “big wall” climbing amenities must be left behind. We could only afford to bring items that were absolutely required, nothing more. To add a layer of difficulty and complexity, the route we chose has a long, steep, and technical approach/descent. The crux of the approach is about a 1500’ tall slab guarding the base of the wall, which includes two low 5th class sections. The reality of our scenario was that we would need to safely navigate this terrain in the dark, in both directions. Neither of us had been to this wall before, so we would have to on-sight the approach, pre-dawn in order to be racked up and climbing by sunrise. Conversely, we would have to negotiate the decent in the dark, mentally and psychically exhausted after free climbing a big wall.
In the days leading up to our mission we spent time bouldering with fellow PG staffer John Dennery, as well as a cast of other PG members including Sheila Canasa and Daniel Improta. Two days prior to liftoff we learned that John and Sheila, while being absolute crushers, had never been on a multi-pitch route, or climbed higher than 100’ feet off the deck. Immediately Max and I decided this was unacceptable and that we should take them up a rad first multi-pitch route. We wanted to put them on something moderate so they could focus on learning and getting comfortable with the systems, and let the climbing be 5.fun and mostly autopilot for their ability levels. So after minimal debate, we settled on Prince of Darkness, 5.10c, 8 pitches, on Black Velvet Wall. The night before, we racked up all the gear and did a 2 hour lesson on the ground with the basics of the systems we would be using to get up and down the wall. The next day, John and Sheila cruised their first multi-pitch route. They learned the systems, became comfortable with the exposure, and had a blast climbing to just over 1000’ off the deck. John even swapped leads with me and took the crux final pitch, on-sighting with no hesitation. The climbing was, of course, very easy for someone of John’s strength, but it’s a very different experience to lead 1000’ off the ground, and John adapted beautifully and showed the composure of someone with far more experience in that style of climbing.
“The crew on top of Black Velvet Wall”
For Max and I, this run up Black Velvet Wall with John and Sheila was the perfect warm up prior to our assault on Rainbow Wall. Now with one more day remaining, we secured our permit from the park service, rested, and made final preparations to begin our adventure in the morning.
3:45 am came very early the next morning. We slept well knowing we had done our homework, our gear was sorted, and our bags packed, but with that bit of excitement that inevitably occurs before a huge mission, we were restless. Once our alarms went off, we sprang up ready for battle. In the next 45 minutes, we slammed coffee and breakfast, then hit the trail by headlamp promptly at 4:30 am. For the next 2.5 hours we slogged up the steep drainage canyon towards Rainbow Wall and surmounted the final crux slab of the approach to arrive at the base of the wall. While we knew we needed an early start for our mission, we had no idea that there would end up being 12 or so people on the route that day. After all this was a remote big wall with only hard climbing, how many people could be out to climb this thing on a Tuesday?
Fortunately for us, we were first to the wall, and therefore first in line. Max and I planned to swing leads all the way up the wall, and because of the way the difficult pitches lined up, this meant we both got an equal number of 5.12 and 5.11 pitches. The crux 5.12 pitches of the route are on the bottom and top of the route, which meant that Max and I had to choose between a crux cold off the deck or get crushed near the end of the climb. I volunteered to get us started and take the first lead, which included the first 5.12b crux on pitch 1. In and of itself this proposition was a little daunting, but to add some anxiety, I now had to do it in front of a horde of people waiting to get started on the route behind us. This crowd included Ethan Pringle, Spenser Tang-Smith, and product folks from Trango shooting Ethan for the new Cinch belay device. The pressure was on!
I started up the long first pitch, climbing slowly and carefully through the mostly unprotected but easy first 100’ of the pitch. By the time I reached the steeper and more difficult middle section I felt solid and was climbing strong. I had fleeting thoughts of how it would feel to on sight the first 5.12b pitch, and how much relief would come from not creating a junk show in front of the herd below waiting to get on route. As I neared the top of the 200’ pitch and entered the 12b crux, I gritted my teeth, planned my sequence and started the execution of moves. I let out several grunts, giving everything I had to make the technical and powerful moves through the crux statically. But alas, I was simply too short to make the final reach to the crimper rail that would allow passage beyond the crux. I was too committed to down climb and re-position for a dynamic move, so in a final moment of desperation, I lunged for it, got the tips of two fingers on, and promptly took the whipper as they peeled off the hold.
“Looking down the first pitch 5.12b crux with Max following”
As I sat for just a moment on the rope to rest, all my anxiety diminished. It helped that Ethan and the other folks below were cheering me on with encouragement. After a couple minutes working out how to get around my height challenge for this move, I fired through the crux and carefully climbed the remaining 25’ of 5.11 ground to the chains and let out a hoot with elation. Max immediately started following the pitch with amazing control and fluidity, and proceeded to on-sight the first 12b crux! We were psyched!
“Max following the final 5.11+ pitch high on the route”
Over the next several hours we got into a harmonic rhythm of on-sighting pitches and swinging leads up the route. We pulled away from the parties below us to the point they were no longer visible, and we only occasionally heard the tell-tale tones of someone trying hard below us. It was like we had the entire wall to ourselves.
“Max stemming the overhung corner, leading the final 5.12 pitch near the top”
With only 3 pitches left to the top, it is was Max’s lead on the final 5.12 pitch of the route. He started up, carefully placing his pieces and making the sustained powerful moves up the overhung corner. Letting out a grunt at the apex of the difficulty he gritted his teeth and gave it his all, but ultimately peeled off and took the fall. His gear held the fall, he took stock of his situation, and rested briefly before pulling back on and started back up the final hard moves of the pitch. On his second attempt he fired through and let out a hoot as he made the chains. We linked the last couple pitches, and in what seemed like just a couple moments, we were standing on the summit basking in the evening glow of the sun.
“Max psyched to find the summit register”
It was surreal standing on the summit with daylight left to spare. We took the time to enjoy the glow and sign the summit register. We were psyched! However, now it was time to negotiate the descent. We efficiently simul-rapped the wall in the dark, and even though it was still a ton of rappels, in what seemed like just an hour or so, we were finally back on the ground. Ethan and Spencer were also still on the wall and rappelled shortly after we did. We all took a moment to decompress, re-hydrate back at our packs, and then started the long slog back down the slabs and canyon. It was great hiking out with Ethan and Spenser because Ethan had done this descent several times, and he guided us through the 5th class slab sections. So long as you went the right way, it was no harder than a 5.2 slab. However, there were deadly consequences if you made an error, so we were psyched not to wonder if we were going the right way, down climbing in approach shoes in the dark.
“Me looking ready to be done rappelling after more than 10 rappels, with 5 more to go”
After the slab descent crux, we all fell into a rhythm and marched down the canyon at a near jog. Even though we were all crushed, the idea of getting a real meal and sleep was enough to make us giddy. We made it back to the van at 10:45 pm, putting our car-to-car time at just over 18 hours. We were elated! Though we cannot claim the glory of having on-sighted the wall, we came close. We made every move free, with Max and I each taking a lead fall on the respective 12b crux pitches. We could not have been more stoked!
Spenser and Ethan did not have a permit, so they were parked outside the loop. The least we could do in return for the descent beta was to give them a lift back to their car, saving them an additional 10 miles of hiking. Once we dropped them off, we made a b-line to Denny’s and proceeded to gorge ourselves.
It was the perfect end to a perfect day out in the mountains with the perfect partner.
Dustin Moore is a contributing writer for the Planet Granite Blog. He is also professional phtographer and climber. You may find him scared on ice, clipping bolts somewhere in a steep cliff haven, or climbing high on the big walls of Yosemite.