Daybreak 1,000 feet off the Juniper Canyon floor is different, more visceral and opaque, the sun crashing into the massive cliff above us, the stone breathing in the rays, and shouting them back across the horizon in a huge red exhalation. We’re awake, swimming in the rock surrounding us, fractured as it is by the gold red light shimmering off the cliff face above and the shadows cast from the sun rising over Las Vegas. The Original Route on Rainbow Wall looms.
It was a mini ordeal arriving at this spot. Patrick Hudson has traveled from Albuquerque and negotiated a break from research as a graduate student. Adam Scheer has flown in from California and his own projects as a post-doc. Chris Rolling has managed to find a weekend despite work and a newborn. We’re all busy, and we’ve managed to meet at the trailhead just as dusk falls, Adam coming directly from the airport, where Kristen kindly braved another day in Vegas proper to pick him up.
A headlamp-soaked hike of several hours spent navigating from cairn to cairn in the dark led to the approach slabs – 1800 feet of smoothly rolling, hand and foothold-free rock wavering between third and fourth class scrambling with packs loaded down by climbing and bivy gear. I struggled with the approach, anxious with inexperience at the angle, and worried by heavy-soled hiking shoes that were rock solid on steep gravel, but felt less than solid on solid rock. Chris and Adam sprinted ahead to find the bivy ledge as Patrick slowed to stay with me. Thankfully, the time spent on the slabs ended without incident, and we ate, passing around whiskey and wine in the dark. The lights of Las Vegas cast a small glow our way, but not enough to illuminate the wall under which we lay. Even without visual clues it feels big. We zip into our sleeping bags with air beneath us, and a cliff above.
A bare instant later, we’re awake, stretching into a cool morning and taking in the glow reflected off the Rainbow Wall, fourteen pitches await. Patrick and I had planned on tackling Birdhunter Buttress, a long 5.9, with Chris and Adam ascending the Original Route, a 5.12b with most pitches ticking in at 5.11 or 5.12. Upon arrival in Vegas, however, Patrick expressed interest in trying the Original Route as well.
I am skeptical. My hardest trad lead to this point is nowhere near what we’re going to see on this route. This is almost double the number of pitches I’ve tried in a day – and we have to get back down. I don’t know if I’m up for this, but Patrick is persuasive, his excitement contagious, and we decide to split up parties and go for it. I’ll be climbing with Adam, and Patrick with Chris.
A series of corners, flakes and faces lead up the first ten pitches of the route, mostly in technically challenging, spectacular fashion, to the Over The Rainbow Ledge. Here the route cuts left into the Red Dihedral. This stunning feature continues for two or three pitches, offering continuously difficult, fantastic climbing. The second-to-last pitch splits, offering a 5.12b variation, or an .11 option. A final pitch with a small chimneying section leads to easier ground and the amazing summit. We have our reference – a printed version of the mountainproject description, and we set off in shadows cast by the massive cliffs surrounding us, the glow of the early morning light fading as the sun traverses the sky towards the earth in front of us.
The first pitch is slippery 5.6, and deposits us on a belay ledge underneath a blank-looking corner. Adam gears up and heads off, clipping a couple of bolts, taking a solid whip and finally stabbing left off a right-angled arete to easier ground. The route is on us already, two pitches up, and the first crux to meet us a slippery balance act of 5.12 barndoor avoidance. The rock feels surprisingly familiar. It’s similar to Eldo, with technical face climbing on sloping rails and small edges, broken up by strenuous locks and smeared feet pasted onto blank faces. Fun, engaging, and unrelentingly tricky. Well, I think at the anchor, only twelve more pitches to go, and the specter of the descent hovering around.
The next pitches leading to the Rainbow Ledge fly together. We’re making good time, with Patrick and Chris cruising along behind us. Everybody is climbing well, and the route is tenacious. The rock is clean, the gear good. Cracks come and go, inviting thin hands, fingerlocks, laybacks, and cams. The route is strenuous, with pitches 2-5 clocking in at 5.11 or harder. Pitches 6-9 ease up, with only a couple sections of burly offwidth to break up a ledgy, rightward traverse. And here’s the thing. Every pitch is fun. Really fun. Techy, involved, forearm-busting fun. This climb is a blast.
Everywhere we go, the views are incredible. Starting so high off the floor gives the route an added dose of exposure, and the almost purely vertical rock leaves nothing but air beneath our feet. It’s an amazing feeling, dangling on a free-hanging belay with a few thousand feet of clear view below. I can see the parking lot where we started, a tiny speck on the horizon with a spindly thread of road laying across it. The Brownstone Wall sits across the valley for perspective in the expanse, its peak falling below us as a tips layback here leads to a tenuous stem leads to a difficult traverse on bad footholds, the Original Route giving just enough purchase to keep us moving, small piton scars for our fingers through blank corners, friction for our feet.
We reach the Rainbow Ledge, a great flat shelf of rock where we kick off our shoes for a bit, drink some water and grab a quick bite. One runout 5.8 traverse, pitch 10, sits between us and the iconic Red Dihedral. This feature is a great left-facing cleft in the rock that yields to delicate stemming and powerful laybacks on terrible feet. The first true glimpse of the dihedral does not come until climbing around the exposed corner of pitch 10. But we know what lies ahead – sustained and difficult, 5.12 climbing the entire way.
I arrive at the first crux of the Red Dihedral, the corner devoid of cracks for purchase, with the right face offering a series of miserably tiny scoops and credit card edges. Adam led through the section with a graceful series of ticky tack hand moves off of a right foot so small as to be almost unusable. The section is not long – a boulder problem – with a good finishing edge, and I spend some time trying to unlock the sequence Adam used. I’m not confident in my ability to pull hard enough on the tiny rails and shallow scoops to get me to the edge, and try a handful of unlikely hand and foot configurations, fighting just to stay on the rock as I experiment. Each attempt is met with an ever more feeble retreat to a marginal rest. Chris and Patrick are at the belay below, murmuring encouragement. I have to commit to something, or I’ll simply burn out on the wall without having even given a real effort at the edge.
Here’s something I’ll never forget. The air is clear and cool this high up. The ground so far away it would barely be visible if I wasn’t so focused on the rusted brown sandstone. Everything is big in this place except the tiny set of features that yield this singular riddle I must solve. The burn in my forearms is a growing feature in the set of limbs and tension keeping me on the five-foot panel of vertical earth that is the limit of my awareness. I have a heartbeat, thump-thump. I have a hard breath. I have a handhold. I have an edge with some rubber attached to a foot that might let me jump. Might let me jump. Jump. Jump goddamnit. Jump. Right hand on the high spot of the tiny, sharp, vertical rail. The hold bites hard. Foot to the scoop. Load that left hand.
I jump, and it’s just a single move, one hard move out of all the moves that I’ve ever found hard, but I hope it remains crystalline in my memory forever. I jump, my right hand springing from the rail, my right foot staying on just enough to propel me up, and I latch the edge above, the rest of the world crashing in around me as my feet cut, my left hand flies off the low hold, and I’m dangling from one hand on this gigantic piece of stone, Chris and Patrick shouting below as I slam a foot back onto the wall and pull myself up.
There are lots and lots of memorable instances surrounding a route, but sometimes one single moment is a distillation. Sorry for the self-indulgence.
Chris and Patrick take their turn on the cryptic pitch 11 and we meet below the next Red Dihedral pitch, a brutally sustained stretch of corner with one hard stem after another, fingers stuffed into tough locks and tip-deep laybacks. This pitch is the most representative section of the route, a confounding combination of tech, burl, and arms built of tendon and lactic acid-stoked fire.
The final two pitches are above us, and Adam continues up the Red Dihedral, the 5.12b variation. This is a super technical slab on thin vertical edges, leading to a traverse under a roof. The crux requires bearing down on a frictiony chunk of near vertical stone over the roof while trusting nonexistent footholds. A stab left to a miserable crimp leads to the first foothold in ten feet, and the pitch finishes on 5.10 face. Adam onsights this pitch with nearly the entire route below us, filling the canyon with a yell of excitement upon latching the crux. We work up the final stretch of rock to the summit, and take in the views as Chris and Patrick cruise the final lap.
It’s beautiful up here, the tallest point around, and we indulge in a few minutes of rest, looking out over Red Rocks below us. We’re thousands of feet off the canyon floor, about the height of eight Nebraska Capitol buildings stacked on top of each other, more than two Empire State Buildings off the ground.
We can’t stay long – the sun will be setting in an hour or so, and we have twelve rappels to negotiate before navigating the slabs back down to the ground and a two-hour hike back to the car. Patrick snaps a quick photo of us on the summit, and we start back down.
We get back to camp around midnight, wiped out, hungry, and basking in the experience. An amazing climb behind us, the hardest thing I’ve ever tried. This is one for the scrapbook – it’s not everyday, year, or decade that great people, and a truly world-class rock climb can come together in these busy lives of ours. I’m thankful for the experience, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
TLDR: If Patrick wants to climb something… do it.
Congrats to Patrick and Sanders! Patrick proposed on top of Crimson Chrysalis the day after climbing the Rainbow Wall. I’m assuming he was flashing a winning smile the entire route while doing pinky pullups on every decent mono pocket, because she said yes.