It’s 5:45 in the morning when we leave the casino and head into the streets. I’ve been here before, but certainly not like this. The people wandering the streets, still clearly in last night’s party clothes, all look surprisingly sober. Early morning in Las Vegas is a blend of people going to work and people coming home from a night out. They are easy to differentiate.
Gambling is the heart of Las Vegas. People come to take risks in a semi-controlled environment. Learn the rules, mitigate the chances of failure and maximize the potential for success. There is a thrill of winning against the odds. It fueled the growth of the city. The city has changed and no longer relies on gaming solely for bringing the tourists in. But, there is a subset of people who still come for the risk and reward. Those of us who get up at 5am to beat the heat and leave the crowds. The trunk of the rental car is full of equipment. We leave our hotel and head for the outskirts of town, far from the glitz, glamour and gaming of Sin City.
A twenty-minute drive brings us to the gates of Red Rocks national park. The gates open at six am and we want to be some of the first into the park. Thousands of climbing routes await us. The temperatures are forecast
to creep up into the triple digits. People out exercising in the early hours. Folks who got up earlier than us to get a morning ride or run in. When we get to the park, we are pleasantly surprised to find that no one is on our intended route. It’s a “classic” route, a very popular climb. We would be the only ones on it the entire day. There would be no one above us kicking dirt and stones down on us. There would be no one below us providing motivation to climb faster. This would be me, my climbing partner J., a rope and a few bits of metal against a sheer rock face. No permanent anchors are in place, so it will be entirely up to us to mitigate the risk.
The difficulty of the route is well within our skillset. J., being the stronger climber, will lead the more difficult sections, placing little bits of metal in small constrictions in the rock to protect against a fall. I will pull them out as I follow behind him. About half way up, we come to a decision point, go left or go right. My interpretation of the map we brought along indicates we should go right. J., having done this route multiple times before, assures me we should go left. I look left and look right. I’m certain we should go right. But, he’s leading it, he’s in charge of placing our little lifelines along the way. He sets out left. I watch, holding the other end of the rope as his hands and feet search the blank rock for anything to support his weight. He succeeds and soon is out of sight. I rely on subtle tugs on the rope to determine whether to hold tight or pay out slack.
We shout brief commands at one another, made easier by the lack of wind or other parties on the route. He has reached the top of this section and set up an anchor to securely attach himself to the wall. From there, he will belay me up.
It’s my turn.
The first small blank section goes smoothly. There isn’t much, but it’s enough. A single toe is plenty to balance on. Ledges just deep enough to get a few fingers on to the first knuckle are, apparently, enough to launch out on. It goes smoothly.
Until I hit a section requiring a traverse out into oblivion; there is nowhere for my feet. I stand on a ledge and place my left hand into a pocket in the rock. It is wide enough for two fingers. Deep enough to get those two fingers to the second knuckle, I feel secure. Six feet away, the blank wall slopes out enough to get my feet onto. But I have to get there. There is a ledge for my hands on the other side of the two-finger pocket. Below me is air. 500 feet of open air. Risk. We have mitigated it as best as we can, but it cannot be completely reduced. There is still risk. Clutching the two-finger pocket, I take a deep breath and extend my left foot. Nothing. I bring it back to my six-inch platform. This dance move is repeated two more times. Deep breath. Pushing out with my feet and pulling in with my fingers to create enough friction to hold just long enough to cross my right hand over my left and onto the next ledge. My feet maintain their grip against the blank rock. A gentle slope develops into a ramp for my feet. The ledge for my hands continues for another few feet. Both hands are now on the next ledge system. It’s two knuckles deep, secure enough to breathe again. A gentle breeze picks up. Or it was there before and I was too focused to notice. Above me is a small, vertical constriction to wedge my fingertips into and continue upward. Thumb down, I place my index and ring finger in the constriction and twist my hand. The torque provides a secure connection between me and the wall. It doesn’t hurt as much as it should, but it’s certainly not comfortable. It holds. A short while later I come to the most famous section of this route. A large rock is wedged directly above me. The route goes between the large rock and the wall. It’s a tunnel not much more than shoulder width. My small backpack is dangling between my legs, attached to my harness, because the tunnel is too tight for me to get through with the pack on my back. This is grunt work, no finesse. So I grunt. And emerge back into the sunlight.
“Dude. That was spicy” I remark to J. “Spicy” is climber lexicon for “yeah, that may or may not have just terrified the hell out of me, but it was fun.”
“That was the 10a variation.”
“Mother. Fucker.” Climbing routes are rated by difficulty, from 5.4 at the easiest end to 5.15 at the most difficult, with a, b, c, d added to further clarify the difficulty. I’m a 5.8 climber on this style of climbing. J just jumped it up 2+ full grades of difficulty, without so much as a heads up. Which was probably better. The anchors were secure, the placements were solid. The risk had been mitigated. We had succeeded.
As the rest of the tourists were shaking out the cobwebs from the night before, praying for relief from their headaches, heading to the pools seeking respite from their hangovers in sunshine and more cocktails, we stood above the city. We looked down on the tallest hotels. We came to Las Vegas to test our skill. We studied the rules, looked at what the house had stacked against us and succeeded.
And then headed to the pool and cold beers.