Sunday, 27 October 2013

Desert Escapades (by Karen Varga)

Las Vegas glitz and glamour
Tucked in the southern corner of the great Nevada desert is Las Vegas, the city of sin.  Neon lights, free cocktails, glitzy glamour with the tantalizing promise of extra cash in the pocket.  But just half an hour from the infamous Strip, and only 10 minutes from the outskirts of the city, you're in the desert once more and gazing over at the Spring Mountain Range, home of Red Rocks and Mount Charleston climbing areas.

New York Hotel in Las Vegas
Our plan was simple: break up the climbing with a couple of city stints (… or break up the city chaos with some climbing peace, depending on how you look at it :). The hotels are so cheap in Las Vegas and the climbing so close that you could stay in the city and drive out to the climbing each day, but we preferred to get out into the wide open spaces with our campervan, and treat ourselves to hotel nights when in the city.
Bellagio water fountain show

We arrived in Vegas at dusk, just as all the lights were twinkling on.  The place made me feel like a hypocrite, I detest the obscene and crass use of our power resources, no doubt sucking some non-renewable energy source dry, and yet I couldn't help but oooh and aaah at the spectacular light displays. The vibe on the Strip is electric (excuse the pun :) and there is so many awesome things to see and do.  Many of the hotels have a theme of sorts, and have free shows each evening. The Treasure Island Hotel & Casino has a free show called Sirens of TI, complete with ships, temptresses, pirates, singing, dancing, and acrobatics into the water! But my favourite is the Bellagio Hotel's (a really swank posh hotel) water fountain show, which uses a dramatic combination of music, water and light to deliver a show that is breath-taking. And the best bit is that each time it's to a different piece of music so it's always changing.

Slots and cocktails
Once we had discovered our '8 cocktails for $6' trick the casinos didn't know what had hit them!  It boils down to 2 simple rules: 1) if you're gambling drinks are free, if you're not gambling you have to pay (and it's pricey too … $8 for a Gin & Tonic); 2) tip your waitress.   We would find the cheapest slot machine possible, which was sometimes a 1c per bet machine, or otherwise 5c per bet.  We'd put our $1 in and play it slowly.  That $1 would usually last for at least 45 minutes, and in that time we would get in 2 cocktail orders, tipping the waitress $1 each time.  So $3 bought us an hour of entertainment ($1 gamble) and 2 cocktails each ($2 in tips).  And so the night continued :)

After 2 nights of this we were more than ready to hit the wide open spaces and get in some cranking. Red Rocks was my destination of choice, the beautiful sandstone rock appealing to my style of climbing. But unfortunately the rock is very porous and requires a drying-out period following rainfall, and since it had been raining out in the mountains for over a week the locals said it was a no-go for the moment.  However the forecast showed the rain clearing up in a day or two, so we decided to go to Mount Charleston for a few days, then back into the city for a couple days, and then hit Red Rocks once it had time to dry out. 

Mount Charleston (photo grabbed from the internet)
Mount Charleston was an ok place, but I wouldn't rate it as one of my favourites. To be fair, I only climbed at a few of the crags, so perhaps it has more to offer than what I experienced.  It is 45 minute drive north-west of Las Vegas, and tucked up quite high in the Spring Mountains. The altitude change from Vegas is massive … from 2000ft up to 9000ft, which resulted in a big temperature drop which caught us off guard. We were so used to the overwhelming heat of the desert and Vegas that it was quite a shock to our systems to suddenly be donning down jackets and beanies.  The rock is limestone, and the style varies from crag to crag, but mostly I would say angled edges and laybacks.  The grading felt pretty much spot on actually, which was a nice change after battling up the routes at Rifle.

Robber's Roost crag
My favourite crag, and the one that I think is the most popular, is Robber's Roost.  It has some stunning long routes, the best being a 7b+ called Glory Daze, which has such a variety of moves and grips that you can't just be a one-ova-kind climber … power moves, slab moves, technical moves, pockets, slopers, crimpers, edges, flakes, nobbles, and everything in-between! It is a solid 40 meter climb too, so a wonderful test of endurance and stamina.

After 4 days in Mount Charleston we were fed up of the cold and keen to get back to the city where the heat envelopes you like a nice warm blanket (at least that's how it first feels after being chilly for 4 days, but after about 30 minutes that wears off and you're just damn hot).  
Our campervan being towed away
We had planned to spend only a couple nights in the city and then head out to Red Rocks, but unfortunately our little campervan broke down, so we ended up being stuck in the city for 4 nights in total, which was very frustrating as that meant less time in Red Rocks.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada, USA
Glorious red rocks
But eventually we did get out there and it was incredible.  Face east and you see the massive spread of Las Vegas city, face west and you're graced with a stunning red and orange landscape of rock and mountains.  Red Rocks is in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just 30 minute drive from the centre of Las Vegas.  It is sandstone rock and the dominant feature is thin flakes and small edges, which is why it is especially important to allow that drying-out period after rain, otherwise the rock is brittle and breaks, forever changing the route for the next person.  
Besides the flakes though, some of the routes have an amazing flow-like feature with rounded holes, almost as though it were carved out by water at some point (and quite possibly were).  Of course when I talk of the climbing here I'm referring to the sport climbing, but there is a whole ton of traditional climbing here too.

Red Rock Canyon Campground
We camped at Red Rock Canyon Campground which is a beautiful spot not even 10 minute drive from the climbing.  It's perfectly equipped with picnic table & benches and a large roof shelter overhead, fire-pits with benches around, and large flat tent sites.  There are vault toilets (well kept) and running water, but no showers.  But it's so hot that we just hung up our camp shower and used that.   

Walking out from The Gallery crag
Unfortunately we weren't at Red Rocks at the prime climb time; in fact we were there at what is probably the very least climbing-conducive time - midsummer! Being from South Africa I'm used to climbing in the heat, my general philosophy being that I can just chase the shade.  Little did I know that there is no shade in Red Rocks :).  Well, that's not entirely true, the Black Corridor crag does offer shade, but the grades there only go up to 5.11s and all the crags I wanted to climb at were bang-on in the sun all day.  Come autumn though Red Rocks apparently gets very busy, because not only is it cooler but there is also less rain, so more climb time.

The Black Corridor crag, Red Rocks, Nevada, USA
Since we ended up having only 3 days climbing in Red Rocks I got to climb at 2 crags - The Gallery and The Black Corridor - and both were really awesome. And there is a whole heap more crags that I never got to see or sample, so loads more for me to go back and do.  The Gallery mainly holds appeal for the routes on the far right … longer steep gym-like routes with big moves between very small crimpers.  The rest of the routes are decent but a bit short for my liking (about 10 meters high).  

The Gallery (photo from internet), Red Rocks, Nevada, USA
Unfortunately this crag (and most others) is only in the shade until 10am, at which point the sun starts to hit the lower section and by 11am it is practically glowing in the direct sun rays. Being enthusiastic climbers we tried to get there early and get some shade time, but even with getting up at 6am and getting to the wall by 8am I was barely warmed up when the sun started shining on the routes, and would manage to get in maybe one redpoint attempt before it was in full, very hot, sunshine.

But heck, I can't exactly complain … we were on a 53 day campervan cruise in the USA and it was just so amazing to get to climb at these magical destinations.  The focus for me wasn't on ticking only hard routes, it was so much more about the experience and the places and the climbing.   Red Rocks was another place that simply spoke to my soul … the gorgeous rock, the stunning open landscapes, the warmth of the sun, the Milky Way stars and bright full moon, and big roaring camp fires.  I will most definitely be back one day, soon I hope!

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