Sun, Fun, And Red Rocks: A winter desert climbing trip

“Take”, I yelled down to Marcus, my belayer, as I double checked my anchor setup at the top of the route. I took a moment to take in the view and shake out my arms. The giant red and white domes of Aztec Sandstone soaked in the December sun. The dry desert air had the slightest chill to it but the direct sun was much stronger and felt so good on my skin.  I looked out across the valley of Red Rocks National Conservation Area and admired the towering cliffs of Rainbow Wall, Wilson Peak, Icebox Canyon, etc. I leaned back in my harness and said “Lower” and marcus lowered me down the 50 foot sport route.

Shawn leading 'The Runaway' 10b.
Shawn leading ‘The Runaway’, 5.10b.
Marcus belaying, Brooke taking in some sun.
Marcus belaying, Brooke taking in some sun.

I love the desert. And the sandstone. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau (and surrounding deserts) is where my heart is. I can’t help but smile and dance all over the rocks. I’m not exactly sure what it is but this obsession has been there as long as I can remember. As a kid I visited Lake Powell every summer and at 4 years old I remember being blown away by the red alien landscape of cliffs, domes, coves, lizards, and cactus. And it’s been stuck inside me ever since.

A handful of friends (Brooke, Marcus, and Claire, from Seattle, and Shawn and Steff, from Northern Utah) and I were on a week long trip in Nevada and Southern Utah for some sport climbing and sunshine, just what the doctor ordered for a bunch of Seattle-ites in winter. The mild and sunny winters and cheap flights and hotels in Vegas make for the perfect winter adventure. My mom lives in Mesquite, NV, which is about 90 miles from Vegas so we visited her and borrowed her car for local transport. After each day of climbing at Red Rocks we returned to the ridiculousness that is Las Vegas nightlife. We lounged in the hotel hot tubs and jumped in the unheated ‘cold plunge’ pools. Partying in Vegas is not my style but I could enjoy the spectacle for a little while. Vegas has some great food too. Mint Indian Bistro might be the best Indian food I’ve ever had.

At Red Rocks we climbed at the Panty Wall, The Gallery, The Wall of Confusion, The Magic Bus, Cannibal Crag, and others. My favorite area was the Black Corridor, a narrow canyon with routes lining both sides.

Brooke on 'Vagabonds', 5.10a.
Brooke on ‘Vagabonds’, 5.10a.

Brooke Graham

Marcus belaying in Luna Sandals.
Marcus belaying in Luna Sandals.
Shawn and Steff
Shawn and Steff on Vagabonds. Did I mention that Lunas are great approach/belay footwear? 🙂

Brooke, Claire climbing, Marcus belaying.

Brooke on Panty Wall.
Brooke on Panty Wall.


The Magic Bus. Great warmups and easy routes for beginners.
The Magic Bus. Great warmups and easy routes for beginners.

It felt great to take a little break from my life in Seattle and just hang out with my amazingly awesome friends, in a beautiful place, and just focus on climbing and fun.

After four days of climbing at Red Rocks Shawn, Steff, and Brooke headed back to Northern Utah and Marcus, Claire, and I ventured up to St. George, UT to climb at Turtle Wall and Chuckwalla wall. But not before we all met up at my mom’s place in Mesquite for some kick-ass scones (utah style) and chili, or referred to elsewhere as Navajo Tacos. Thanks Mothra!

Me, Director of Humor Affairs, Turtle Wall, St. George, UT.
Me, Director of Humor Affairs, Turtle Wall, St. George, UT.

I love that lead climbing is a perfect combination of physical skill, mental strategy, puzzle work, and risk management. Each new route requires an assessment; do I have the skills to climb this? Do I have the confidence to climb this? Are there any risky run outs between protection? Is the first bolt/piece of protection high on difficult moves? Would a fall from anywhere not be clean? As with life in general, leading favors confident boldness and can punish stupidity. The line between the two can be a little grey at times but figuring out the difference between the two for yourself can be exhilarating. Or maybe it will push beyond exhilarating, your stomach will sink, and you will start thinking ‘Why am I here? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I swear if I get down from here I’m never climbing again.’ And then you get to the ground and the (mostly irrational) fear fades and eventually your memory turns the experience into a fun adventure. The nice thing about single pitch sport climbing as opposed to committing multi-pitch trad routes is that it generally feels safer (if you follow the rules), predictable, low-key, and not very committing. This trip we were just climbing single pitch sport which is perfect for having a great time with friends out in the wilderness.

I boulder at the gym in Seattle regularly but I don’t actually get on rope that often. It was nice to have 6 days of nothing but roped climbing. At Turtle wall I was ready to push my limits a little bit and move from 5.10’s into 5.11’s.

Me on Director of Humor Affairs.
Me working in a little knee-bar on Director of Humor Affairs.

I roped up below an 5.11a that I had top-roped a long time ago called ‘Director of Humor Affairs’. I was excited to lead this route. It is a steep jug route. the start is a really cool heel hook rail traverse to some big steep moves on jugs. I tried to move quickly and efficiently through the steep moves to conserve my arm strength. And in no time I was at the top of my first redpoint (lead climbing without weighting the rope) of a 5.11. This is probably my favorite sport route I’ve ever done.

Marcus on 'Director of Humor Affairs'.
Marcus on ‘Director of Humor Affairs’.

My confidence was high and I had my eye on a slightly harder route. An extremely overhanging 5.11c called ‘Farmers Market’.

I plotted my attack.
I plotted my attack.

Farmer's Market, Turtle Wall.

me 'Farmers Market'

me 'Farmers Market'
My arms were burning by the time I got to clipping this fifth bolt.

me Farmers Market.

I had to rest a couple times but it was a super fun route! I can’t wait to go back for the red point.

We ended the trip with one last day at Red Rocks.

There were several things we didn’t fit into the trip. I would have loved to see a Cirque Du Soleil show and gone to the hot springs but they didn’t make it into the schedule. We were too busy having a great time on the rocks. Marcus and Claire headed home and I spent Christmas with my mom. We visited Zion NP and made some new friends.

Bighorn Sheep, Zion NP
Bighorn Sheep, Zion NP
Turkey and deer, Zion NP
Turkey and deer, Zion NP
Me and my mom. Zion NP, Christmas Eve.
Me and my mom. Zion NP, Christmas Eve, 2014.

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