The Illusion of Control
Note: this text was originally published by Adam S. on an earlier version of Climbing House.
We stood around the blue light of our headlamps discussing the options. Do we sit tight and wait it out? What supplies do we have? What are the skies doing? Is that the howling wind or rushing water? These questions needed to be asked to ensure the right decisions were made about surviving the night or at a minimum until the storm passes.
Up until this moment all climbing epics that I have experienced have been minor: forgetting a head lamp and being benighted, it gets cold but not cold enough that motion can’t keep you warm, or having your rope stuck and having to make do with a cut short rope. All these situations are simple mistakes or circumstances that have the potential to turn into something more serious however never have. Our current situation was different and we were faced with serious consequences if a wrong choice was made.
We embarked on our week long climbing trip to Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas with large amounts of ambition and a long list of routes that we wanted to tick. Rainbow Buttress 5.8+, 8 pitches on the Eagle Wall was first up. We were a group of 3 so moving fast was key. The hike was supposed to take a hour and a half however we quickly learned that this time was only achievable if you are superhuman! After 2.5 hours of trail hiking, boulder scrambling, and steep slab climbing we arrived at the base of the route.
Chris Smith, Kevin Farrell, and I made our way up the route with little problems and huge smiles on our face after every pitch, each one being as good if not better than the previous one. Pitch 5 was my lead. The guide book says “Step off the tower to a crack”. This gave me some pause since the tower was 4 feet away from the main wall with hundreds of feet of air stretching out below you. The wind was being funneled up and over the tower making any movement to the main wall very unpleasant. Just go. This is not difficult. Do it. One foot on the tower, one hand on the wall, second hand on the wall, one leg in space. Safe. A quick 40 foot traverse and minimal gear ended my lead.
The top of the route was another 2 pitches away and they were completed with some grunts, swearing, and the disbelief at the 5.8 rating. We estimated the sun would only be our friend for the next 2 hours so the decision was made to repel Levitation 29 instead of the long arduous walk off. Storm clouds were gathering in the west but seemed to be keeping to themselves. 5 double rope repels later we arrived safely on the ground.
Our initial estimation of the storm was incorrect as the air was becoming thick with the smell of wet desert. Pinpricks of cold water warned us of the coming storm. Within 20 minutes the full fury of mother nature was upon us. Intense wind gusts hurled the cold rain against our unprepared bodies forcing the cold into our bones. Our headlamps had become useless in the blowing rain. The trail was somewhere but nearly impossible to detect in the wet darkness. After 30 minutes of walking in the onslaught, something needed to be done.
A cairn! Then another, barely visible on the fringes of our vision! As if being guided to safety by the spirit of nature, we stumble upon a sliver of protected desert, untouched by the wind and rain. A wave of relief and reality swept over us. Relieved that we were out of the rain and wind and at the same time being faced with reality of the situation. From our current position, the first part of the descent involved navigating slippery and dangerous slabs to gain the bottom of the valley. The remaining trail out included a labyrinth of boulder hopping, easily navigated in dry conditions. In wet conditions the way is blocked by crystal clear pools 8 feet deep, rivers of running water, and waterfalls all eagerly making their way downhill. Flash flooding was a major concern since we had no way of knowing if the worst was past or yet to come.
We decided to sit and wait out the storm. We had shelter and could battle the cold by huddling together under a space blanket. The plan was to wait for the rain to stop, reevaluate the situation, and make the decision to move on or to stay. After moving to a more sheltered area of the our overhang, a place we could lay down, we hunkered down for what could be the entire night. As the rain turned to snow our world gradually became smaller as the view across the valley evaporated into the white nothingness of the storm. The hours passed, our core temperatures slowly decreased causing us to shiver uncontrollably. Our shared body heat was no longer enough to fend off the shivers. We got up and started a mini dance party in our alcove sans music, each of us doing a unique jig to get the blood flowing. In my mind our dancing was so bad that the rain and snow decided to find someone else bother but who is to say. We began to see the far side of the valley highlighted with snow in the dim light and the stars poking through the diminishing cloud cover. We waited another half an hour to ensure the storm was moving on, things were looking up.
We decided to start making our way towards the car once again. We crab walked down water gunnels, gingerly navigated water rushing down the slab, zigzagged our way around pools and through manzanita trees, and avoided being cliffed out by slinging and repelling off bushes and trees barely clinging to the rock faces. Cairns marked the way to easier ground and we were finally on an established trail, exhausted,wet, and cold. The hovering headlights of the highway marked our destination as we made our way back to the car only to find that we had inadvertently walked to the wrong trail-head, adding 2 miles to our hike. Not ideal after such an experience. We made it back to the campsite after 22 hours of movement and were greeted by a good friend of mine, Kris Linstrom, in from LA.
While conveying our epic, we found out that Kris was looking out for us in the front country. I had left a note for him describing the route we were on, its location, when we left, and when we planned to return. The same storm that hit us hit the campground and when we did not return he called search and rescue. A police officer came to the campsite and started gathering information about us and our location. Kris and the officer found our parked car and made the necessary arrangements. Unfortunately (or fortunately), a helicopter rescue would have to wait to the morning and a ground rescue was not feasible given the conditions. The Clark County Search and Rescue team had training planned the next day and we were being added to the itinerary. Since we made it back to camp safe and sound, dispatch was notified and everything was called off. It was very comforting to know that someone was looking out for us. I am very thankful that Kris’s planning was not needed.
Epics can teach you a lot about your limits and how to be prepared in the face of accidents or extreme weather. Making calm decisions and being prepared can make all the difference. I learned on a previous epic on Castleton Tower that not having a headlamp can make repelling very difficult or impossible. On this adventure I will now be adding a lighter, space blanket, and an extra waterproof base layer to the list.