It's a climbing migration. Every spring, snow bound and rain soaked climbers head in for the southwest to do their best imitation of a rock lizard. If you are similarly reptilian inclined, and looking to get some spring sun and your hands on warm rock, set your GPS for the Red Rock Rendezvous.
Having first scrambled around Red Rocks some 20 years ago, during an escape from a Sports Industry Trade Show, I didn't rope-up at Red Rocks until the 2006 Rendezvous. After 30 plus years of climbing my knowledge was entrenched in old school thinking, and my skills had a couple layers of rust that need some scrapping off. I went to the RRR again this year to challenge my thinking, and get up to speed on the state of the art. I came away with new found technique.
The Red Rocks Rendezvous is a festival of unique proportions. Over the last four years climbers have made the pilgrimage from all over North America, as well as the world, to ascend the red sandstone, and learn from a host of world class mountain masters (See the guide list). This season I joined some 500 climbers in total and over 1000 participants who attended the festival. Each year the event packs more punch, with a broadening range of clinic topics, manufacture equipment demos, festival activities, parties, slide/video shows, competitions, games, as well as on-site food. Think of the Rendezvous as a gathering of the climbing community (Red Rock Rendezvous Sponsors).
At Red Rocks base camp, I talked with one of the event coordinators and dabbling vineyardist, Dennis Gafvert of The North Face, and learned that the Rendezvous was launched from the casual musings of Paul Fish, a long time climber and outdoor retailer. Fish wanted to give something back to climbing. With the primary goal being funding for The Access Fund, a national non-profit organization dedicated to keeping climbing areas open and conserving the climbing environment. The perfect venue was found just a half hour drive from one of the most unlikely mountain villages imaginable, Las Vegas. Spring Mountain State Park, and adjacent Red Rock Canyon Campground, which features an outside center stage where bands this year entertained on consecutive nights.
Living up to the climbers creed, "It's never enough," Friday night's band spontaneously migrated to the middle of the Base Camps tent city and played until the wee hours. A stones throw away is "attendee camping" (a virtual tent city) where there's never a pause in the action as slack lining, portable wall climbing, and trail running spontaneously happen in the extensive open glade environment. Manufacturers demoed gear and distributed an abundance of swag daily. Foraging for food came easy, as numerous event sponsored meals, some to benefit the Access Fund, were regularly scheduled. The main course of clinics was scheduled both morning and afternoon in four hour blocks throughout the weekend. Easy access to the climbing walls, Red Rocks National Conservation Area, was provided with luxury buses delivering attendees to the various climbing pull-outs within a short jaunt of the sandstone walls.
On Friday, I choose to tag along with some of the mountain guides from Seattle based American Alpine Institute that were teaching the all day Intro to Climbing classes ($239 for Friday Intro plus the weekend activities package). I spent most of my morning at the 'Magic Bus Wall' with Mike Power's group, as they got a quick 1/2 hour overview of ropes and technique. Soon, the attendees threw themselves at first go up a 5.10. I watched with curiosity. Mike had Brendon, Dave, Jason, and Kevin, the clinic newbie's, back up each others belays. I've got to hand it to them; all had notable success in gaining altitude. I asked them how they felt about their experience. Dave, who succeeded in topping out said, "I was really nervous on the wall and I wasn't too confident of my belay, but we all are trying to figure out how we can do this kind of thing each year".
At that point I took my leave to scramble the inner reaches and crestline of the main outcrops of Red Rocks. I ran into Joe's American Alpine Institute group in the highly active Black Canyon. One can achieve an overpowering sense of 'flow' while rambling these friction slabs of sandstone. The fluid movement, texture of the rock and the 'Buena Vistas' is worth the price of admission.
Saturday, before I headed out on my afternoon clinic, I took a solo tour up the Spring Ranch Canyon (said to once belong to Howard Hughes), behind the RRR base camp, to top out on the high back country. It reminded me of canyoneering in southern Utah, only going up hill. Up-down-around-through, I had to consider whether I could reverse numerous sections before committing myself to go on, let alone remembering the correct return route in the ever complex terrain. With prickly bush and a lack of water, the climate is much like Baja Sur. Venture too far and too long without a sun hat, sun screen and water and you might end up lying down for good. Nobody is going to come looking, and only the occasional mountain goat will know you were ever there.
As I headed for the bus at 1 pm I was reminded of the self-rescue clinic with Mark Synnott that I took in 2006. The class challenged my old school habits and made me rethink all my harness gear. Shortly there after, I armed myself with an number of prussiks, cordalette, ti-blocks, and reverso to bring myself more up to date... a long way from hip belays, pulleys, and dumb luck. I looked forward to a similar kind of technique infusion on crack climbing with Peter Croft that afternoon at Willows Creek. Renown for his fast-paced one-day traverses of entire mountain ranges, my inspiration came from his complete Waddington Traverse, an enchainment of all of 11 significant summits in the Waddington Massif over 11.25 miles, including almost 13,000 feet of vertical ascent in 1985, ED+ to 5.9 to 60 degrees. Having attempted Waddington three times and summitted some of the Serra and Tellot peaks, I developed a strong appreciation for the commitment required on Croft's Traverse.
At Red Rocks my desire was simply to be around the inspiration of Peter Croft's rock climbing passion. To observe how he moved on the rock, and to understand what motivated him. On 'Black Track' and more we all got our rock climbing fill after some preliminary instruction. Four of Peter's technique points stuck in my head: First, try to always climb with thumbs-up hand jams as they are more powerful and secure. Second, stiffer shoe soles will save energy. Third, be deliberate on foot placements so that you nail it. Fourth, relax.
After a round robin of obligatory belaying it was my turn. When it comes to using my legs I'm a master, but I've always been imbalanced with forearm intolerance, and after 10 years of avoiding stiff rock climbing I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. With a couple of fists full of dirt as chalk I turned to my belayer and simply said, "I haven't climbed in a while". The response, "no worries, I got ya". It went straightforward until I got to the arm-pumping finger crux. Unlike Peter, who breezed through the section, I had to shake out my arms repeatedly to find just enough strength to climb through. It was an in-my-face reminder that I'm woefully inept off the couch, and that squeezing some tennis balls would be in order.
At 8 am Sunday morning it was off to Ammon McNeeley's big-wall speed climbing clinic. Ammon is arguably on the leading edge of fast aid technique, having climbed El Cap some 52 times. The bus dropped us off at the first pull-out where all the appropriate rope was hanging in ready on 'Fixed Wall'. Before doing some hang dogging of our own Ammon asked us to tell something about ourselves. When it became my turn I said, "I'm from Seattle, climbed for 30+ years and I hate aid climbing". Ammon gave a knowing chuckled and turned to the wall to demonstrate direct aid, jumaring , and tie-off lower-out traverse . He was so smooth that it had little resemblance to any fear factor-life totally committed to gear experiences I've had.
It was clear he had become one with the process, while every move required me to re-think it five times before committing. Ammon summed up the way he approaches speed aid climbing: "above all relax, be calm, and don't get frantic". He conveyed additional technique by saying that the order of preference of piece use should be cams, nuts, pins and lastly, heads. He was adamant about testing all pieces and then committing, "you waste time second guessing". An added note was not to look up when testing, if a piece pulls, "you don't want a grill like mine". Ammon suggested that the leader climb in blocks, and plan to finish each pitch as the follower does. For efficiency he recommended racking quick draws in threes, and organize while cleaning. In short McNeeley is the master of Place - Test - Commit - Clip Lead - Dock Aider - Move to top 1 or 2 Step - Repeat.
With the Red Rocks Rendezvous coming to a close I basked in the sun near the main stage venue as lunging and jumaring competitions took place on the climbing wall. Having tested my climbing edges I made some mental notes: add a Grigri to my collection of gear for self-belaying, practice more aid and self rescue technique, recommit to squeezing tennis balls, and above all when it is spring go to Red Rocks.
The Red Rock Rendezvous benefits The Access Fund, the American Safe Climbing Association, the American Alpine Club and the Las Vegas Climbers Liaison Council.Red Rocks Rendezvous clinic instructors for 2007