Guest Post by Danny Gilbert
I drop my bag onto the conveyor and watch it slide behind the black flaps into the x-ray zone. I hope they need to search it. That way I can make a big deal about explaining what my climbing gear is for. I do my best to radiate sketchiness as I step into the x-ray machine but despite my efforts, both me and the bag slide through on the other side and nobody can even tell that I’m a climber.
There’s a buzz at the gate because a bunch of people are taking selfies with a magician of some notoriety. The magician and I are heading to Las Vegas, though presumably for different reasons. The last time I visited Las Vegas was during a debaucherous road trip, ages ago. We had traveled through Sin City on our way to Tijuana and the only clear memory I have from within the city itself is when my friend Sam shit his pants at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We had to retreat before fulfilling the buffet’s promise.
This time I intend to avoid the city proper, and after securing the rental car I make my way towards a grocery store for supplies. Not 50 feet from the airport, while sorting out the various control knobs in my rental, I rear-end the person in front of me at a red light. Shit. I jump out, stuttering apologies. The driver, also fresh off a plane, is entirely glitzed out. She wears a blue dress that sparkles glamorously in the city lights, complete with matching eye shadow. This is how she traveled, intent to lose no time preparing for the night’s festivities in this hellscape of neon. I am impressed by her commitment. Myself, I need to settle in and get my bearings before donning a harness and the jewelry that will complete my look. She makes it clear that she has no intention of bringing authority into this situation. This suits me fine and we agree to go our separate ways.
Eventually I meet up with Ryan and we head to the outskirts of town to snatch a few hours of sleep. We drive down a forsaken desert road and make camp where Ryan, small in stature, manages to sleep lengthwise in the back seat or our rental. The fender-bender was a clear indiscretion but I wonder what the rental people would think about the use of the car as a bed. I toss my sleeping bag in the dirt. Laying there, my head fills with thoughts of scorpions and the like, which are unquestionably descending upon me. It is rare that I wish to be shorter, but I’m in a land filled with creatures unfamiliar to me and Ryan sure looks comfy in the car.
After an eternity my alarm sounds off and I don’t open my eyes because they’re already open.
We choke down grocery store muffins while I drive and Ryan blearily navigates us along the dirt roads. Suddenly a frantic figure emerges out of the dust. I’m mistrustful but I stop the car. As the figure approaches I recognize many of the details my Instagram algorithm has taught me to associate with a young female climber and my apprehension grows. I turn to Ryan, ready to summarize the siren’s song part of The Odyssey, but he’s already rolling down the window, entranced by the possibilities only the young and single can conjure. She and her partner (another young lady) have gotten their van stuck in the mud and when we walk over everything seems on the level. Ryan and I push as she hits the gas. It’s a beat-up white Eurovan, which she clearly lives in. This is a classy rig, resplendent with bumper stickers indicating a well-traveled adventurer. I marvel at her substantial book collection on display in the back window. This is a strange luxury for a van dweller but vanity, it seems, is not lost on the modern dirtbag. I don’t need to ask, but I do anyway, “What route are you guys climbing?”
Epinephrine, of course. There are plenty of routes back here but this is the only one that has taken up permanent residence on the front page of Mountain Project. 13 pitches and never harder than 5.9. The opening lines when you click on the route description breathlessly advise, “This is it. THE classic Red Rocks route. And it’s just as good as everyone says it is.” My knowledge of the route can be boiled down fairly succinctly to, “It is popular, it has chimneys on it, and it is commonly finished in the dark, so hurry the hell up.”
The van gets unstuck. Ryan and I dash to the trailhead at top speed, pushing the rental to the limits as it bumps and grinds along rock and sand. It probably isn’t essential that we beat these ladies to the base given their karmic debt to us, but there’s no sense leaving the order of things in their hands. Another car sits in the lot already so we’re off to the races now. We leap from the rental and claw through bushes, hop around tiny streams, and scramble up and over small obstacles. We’re gaining, and I glimpse the slower of the duo who must have arrived in the already parked car. The trail chokes down and passing becomes impossible, just as I catch them. The race is over, but we’ve arrived at the base of the route. I start sorting my stuff and making conversation with these two. A nice couple and I like them instantly. Ryan isn’t far behind, and eventually the two van dwellers emerge. We have the day’s order and routine established.
The couple has decided that the guy will lead first, while his lady friend belays. She separates herself wisely from the pack of waiting climbers, where Ryan and I hold steady and fend off spray. One of the van ladies behind us is dead set on getting it across that she likes to climb fast, and this is how she occupies whatever length of time the guy takes leading his pitch. She notes that the guy is not fast and calculates that she will need to make a pass at some point. She is a great and powerful climber, according to her, and clearly hopeful that we will simply defer to her excellent credentials and allow her to launch off before us. I offer that passing in the chimney will be impossible, but otherwise have nothing to add. Having previously rescued these two from the mud, I feel no obligation to allow this tactic even a loose hold on my psyche.
Eventually, the first party is entirely on route and Ryan leads up, the benefactor of a rock/paper/scissors battle. Alone with the van ladies, I do my best to talk shop without betraying that this is my first climbing trip, I don’t know how to hand jam, I have never climbed a route this long, I have never climbed a chimney feature like this, and in my life to date I have climbed about as many pitches as a fairly average climber manages in a single year.
When Ryan calls down, I place hands on the soft sandstone for the first time. Being from Boulder, sandstone is kind of my jam, but this stuff is clearly a different breed. The first pitch passes with ease. Ryan placed almost no gear and barters for another lead when I reach him, on the grounds that he still wears nearly the whole rack. The second pitch follows with more of the same, but now we’re at the base of the chimney, it’s finally my lead, and trouble is brewing above. The guy has backed off and is now bringing up his partner so she can finish the pitch for him. How embarrassing.
I lead up right beneath her. I assure her I’m not trying to pressure them but its freezing cold and I just need to get moving. She reaches the guy, and while they sort out their shit I rest in the chimney as best I can. Eventually she climbs through the crux, now on lead. Fear laces her words when she shouts down apologies that are not warranted for going slowly. I’m the one that wanted to follow up directly behind, and now I’m faced with the practical consequences of that choice, pushing against the chimney walls with fading strength endowed by fear. She’s doing fine but I’m dealing with a strange brand of climbing that I’ve never seen before. There are no holds in here. Just a black streak rubbed smooth from the passage of thousands before me, and my attachment to this vertical path feels tenuous at best.
Time passes, but eventually I’m climbing again. Just below the crux, I realize I’m all out of appropriately-sized cams and massively run out. Freaked out, I toss in a #1 as deep as I can into a flared crack meant for a #4. I don’t trust it, but it’s better than nothing. As I quest into the difficulties I don’t recognize an important jam for what it is, and try to transition from the chimney to a mantel of sorts. I’m not stable and my fear is pure. The rope stack from the party above is dangling tantalizingly close to me and I consider grabbing for it. The guy above senses my distress but from his position of safety he has forgotten whatever mental state had him backing off this thing earlier. He tells me that I shouldn’t worry, because if I fall I won’t go anywhere. I’ll just slide down a foot or two and my body will wedge into the chimney. Neat.
I slip and go somewhere.
Something like 30 feet later I’m caught by my poorly placed #1. As I dangle there I glance over at a #3 that would fit perfectly in the difficulties, but it doesn’t even occur to me that I could pluck it out and use it. I just start up and try the exact same thing, expecting different results. Insanity. When I fall the second time I clip a rock hard with my left foot. My confidence, and now my body, are shot full of holes. It is time to admit defeat and bring up Ryan so he can finish the pitch for me. How embarrassing.
It takes Advil in my blood and the relenting of the chimneys before I feel up to leading again. The remainder of the climb is fun and uneventful even though I’m hobbled. After the chimneys, Epinephrine evolves into well-protected face climbing, maxing out at 5.8. My decision to continue after the fall was largely based on not letting Ryan down, since we had both committed a fair bit of effort and resources to be here. These upper pitches refill my reservoir and by the top I have a smile on my face again. We catch the party above us only on the unexpectedly complicated hike back down, and from our position down low we spot the poor van ladies high on the wall climbing by headlamp, still with several pitches to go. I lament the small role my whips played in their timing. Their remaining distance is too great for them to blame me for the darkness, but I’m sure they will. I probably would.
The next day I can barely walk. It is clear that our original plan to climb another big multi-pitch route would need to be scrapped, so I belay Ryan as he half-heartedly ascends a few single pitch sport climbs. This was to be a smash-and-grab weekend in which we climbed two big routes (by my standards) and yet by the strictest definitions, I didn’t climb any routes at all. I feel appropriately defeated. On the return flight, as I’m sadly limping through security, my bag is searched and I have to explain my cams. “Are you a climber?” asks the security guy, and I hesitate.
Some days I’m a climber, but some days I certainly am not. Some days climbing just stresses me out. Occasionally, I find myself hundreds of feet in the air, wishing I was on the ground. Often I wake up when I would rather sleep and labor over this strange art in a gym which costs a small fortune and contains nothing that can prepare me for a chimney in Las Vegas. I stuff feet into uncomfortable shoes which I paid too much for. I spend untold hours contemplating the merits of going deep into debt for a fully kitted out Sprinter van. I shiver in the cold holding the rope or I quake fearfully as I grasp for a cam. Sometimes I fall and hurt myself. Always my family asks why I bother and never am I able to articulate a reasonable response. Something about the pursuit of self-improvement, I guess? It is difficult to place importance on something so trivial though it is clear that I have and will continue to do so.
Of course, I didn’t tell the security guy any of that. When I hesitated he just moved on to the next bag. He doesn’t give a shit if I’m a climber. Nobody does.
Danny Gilbert is an avid climber, husband, and father of two living in Boulder, Colorado. This is his first (and hopefully not last) piece for Thundercling. All photos provided by Danny and Ryan Marsters.