La Carretera Alta, Part 1 – The Turtle

Like a fleeting vision in a clouded crystal ball, the needle of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Casino appeared intermittently in the brown haze. Furious winds whipped across the streets, carrying the detritus of the city and half of the Mojave with them.

Locals said it was a once in a decade dust storm. Some said once in a lifetime, and that includes a woman who moved to Las Vegas shortly after she’d literally been picked up by a tornado in Oklahoma. True story. Given that we’d spent the previous week camped in the desert and this was our first night sleeping in our new van, the timing of this storm seemed rather prophetic. Or perhaps serendipitous is the word. Either way, we were grateful.

It took a leap of faith to secure the purchase of our new chariot. Morag had been indefatigably poring through the daily forums on DriveTheAmericas.com for months, scouring the pages for something that fit our needs. This was one of the key areas of our pre-expedition research, a process you can find out a little more about here if you are so inclined.

One day, our dream vehicle turned up – a 2005 Toyota Hiace with a diesel engine, 4WD, comfortable bed, solar panel, and all the other important accoutrements needed for overland travel… such as a bottle opener. It was perfect.

Riki and Martin (a Swiss couple, not to be confused with Ricky Martin) had been driving the van across the Americas for almost 3 years and were finally ready to return home. Our timeline didn’t quite meet up with theirs, but we sent them an email anyway. Although we suspected that asking them to hang on to the van for longer than they’d planned was a bit of a pipe dream, we couldn’t let such an awesome purchase slip by without at least trying. To our surprise, they were keen to make it work and delayed their travel plans.

After several months of communication, we flew to Las Vegas to meet the couple and the van. It is a somewhat unnerving experience to fly halfway across the globe to purchase a van you’ve never seen from a couple you’ve never met, but we figured if it all went pear-shaped we’d just have a leisurely climbing holiday and cut our losses.

As it turned out, these worries were totally unfounded and the entire process ran like clockwork (not an intentional Swiss joke). Martin and Riki are wonderful people. They camped with us, shared tales of the road, offered sage advice and, finally, handed over the keys before flying to Zurich.

The wind began to pick up as we left the airport and had reached fever pitch by the evening. Ensconced in the Walmart carpark, we contemplated our good fortune as the gusts rocked the van on its suspension. A diminutive tent on an exposed desert plain would have been a rather unhappy place to be.

This was the beginning of our cheesy love affair with our van, which we named La Tortuga. For the next two weeks, we bonded with our new home on wheels… By day, we drove it to the various crags and valleys of Red Rock Canyon where we climbed pitch after pitch of Aztec sandstone. By night, we cooked dinner and drank beer inside its cosy two-toned shell before racking out for the evening on the side of the road.

It was bliss. These #vanlifers are onto something.

Our climbing ticklist mirrored the wild success of the van transfer, encompassing some 3000m of vertical terrain in 3 weeks. Hardly a day passed without the ascent of a classic line, but the highlight would undoubtedly be Epinephine ­(5.9, 670m).

The ultimate Red Rocks megaclassic, Epinephine is everything they say it is. Not only was it the finest climb of the trip, but I consider it to be the finest climb of my entire climbing career. The climb can be broken into three sections, the first of which is the sustained, smooth chimney climbing for which the route is famous. These physically and mentally demanding pitches give way to a sublime face climbing section, where flowing movement combines with extreme exposure. Finally, a low-grade scramble takes climbers to the summit of Black Velvet Peak, from which a complicated descent must be achieved. All up, it took us 14 hours to tame this beast and I’m super stoked to have it under my belt.

Other highlights included the unique tunnel/offwidth/crack combo of Community Pillar, an exposed but cruisy day on Frogland, sustained, committing face climbing on Unimpeachable Groping, and getting snowed on high on Solar Slab. Well… those and a visit to the Korean Day Spa.

All good things must come to an end, and soon we were prepping the van for storage. It was with no small amount of lamentation that we pulled the cover over the vehicle and left it to languish in a West Vegas storage lot.

But we will be back. Red Rock Canyon was a mere test run, a taste of things to come. Come February 2018, we’ll be living the dream for real. Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and beyond… the sky is our oyster!

Keep your peepers peeled for updates. We’ll be publishing a monthly column at Climbing and additional bits and bobs here at Zen and the Art of Climbing. I hope you’ll join us!

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
July 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?