After a 13 hour flight, a 12 hour layover and a brief subsequent connection, I landed in Las Vegas for the second time. Each visit was possessed of a drastically disparate character – the first had been dedicated entirely toward the pursuit of hedonism, whilst the second would largely be spent in the quasi-wilderness of Red Rock Canyon, only 30 minutes and yet an entire world apart from the neon insanity of The Strip.
What can I say about Las Vegas that hasn’t been said a million times before? Probably very little. Before I left home, I’d decided to stay in an inauspicious casino on the outskirts of town, far away from The Strip and its myriad of temptations which threatened to ruthlessly deplete my already meagre budget. This physical distance allowed me to view the cultural anomaly that is Las Vegas with somewhat more objectivity than I’d previously possessed.
I wandered around in a constant state of morbid curiosity, reflecting on the fact that my sobriety was a major contributing factor toward my newfound ability of detached observation. The fact that Hunter S Thompson had been able to maintain a constant drug frenzy and yet still keep his finger on the pulse of the city’s erratic heartbeat speaks volumes as to the depth of his genius. Not similarly endowed, I relied on the juxtaposition of my relative sanity against the twisted normality of Vegas.
When staying on The Strip, locked into an exhaustive but thoroughly enjoyable party regime, it’s fairly easy to assume that it forms the epicentre of gambling, drinking and other forms of excess. From your hotel window, one can see a smattering of large casinos amongst the city’s sprawling outskirts and assume they are outliers struggling for attention outside the hot zone of The Strip. As soon as you enter one of these fringe casinos, you realise that this simply isn’t the case. The beast is just as well fed out here on the edge as it is in that central, glittering oasis.
But it’s not until you walk into a dinky 7-11, replete with 4 occupied slot machines, that the myth is completely dispelled. Gambling is not a side-show attraction in Las Vegas, it truly is a way of life. Out here on the edge of the desert, the players are not your typical tourist folk, but entrenched locals. They are a motley collection of faded Americana – aging retirees dying under the Nevada sun and the fluorescent glare of their local haunt. Every face is a caricature, sharing an expression of resignation after a life of minor wins and heavy losses to the ubiquitous one armed bandit.
But, as Ian said in the quote of the year, you can turn anything into heroin. Having well and truly had our fill of the city, we were about to engage in our own chosen addiction. After retrieving Kate and our wayward luggage from McCarran Airport, we made the confusing drive west to Red Rock Canyon. What we saw there virtually made us weep with anticipation of the weeks to come.
Red Rocks is an impeccable natural counterpart to the culture of excess embodied by the city it borders. As man’s tenuous foothold on the landscape gives way and the desert takes hold, you crest a small knoll and the full splendour of the canyon is revealed. Even to the layperson, the canyon is something to behold, but for climbers, the sheer extent of rock is truly incredible. There is more than enough climbing strung along this one magnificent valley to account for several lifetimes.
The first thing you notice about the landscape is the amazing colour pallet of the hills. The Aztec Sandstone is not entirely red as the name might suggest. The first formation on the scenic loop takes the form of the Calico Hills, a lengthy spine of rounded, jumbled domes running north to south. Formed by the processes of sedentary layering of oceanic deposits, the hills are marked by diagonal bands of distinctly coloured rock. First, there are the chocolate and vanilla swirls of the foothills, followed by deep red, then tan and finally bone.
Across the valley, separated by a deceptively large expanse of shrubs and Joshua trees (and, if the signs are to be believed, tortoises, horses and burros), the big walls dominate the skyline. Monolithic peaks, shaded with striations of the eponymous red rock, stretch an impossible length southward, punctuated at various intervals by deep canyons. This wonderland would be our home for the first portion of the inaugural Rock 402 course, the great Dirtbag climbing roadtrip.
Once situated in the amenable Red Rock campsite, we began with an introductory week of climbing. This was spent largely on the shorter routes in the Calico Hills, getting a feel for the rock, the grades and the style, as well as weaning us back into action and honing a few vital skills. At night, after dinner and relaxation by the fire, we would retire to our tents, surrounded by conversations that hinged upon cam placements, discussions of possible routes and recounts of the action on the rock that day. It seemed that even out here, in the desert, addiction still retained pride of place.
As the first week came to a swift end, we prepared to undergo a week long course on the fundamentals of rigging for rescue, but more on that later. The longish days necessitated by the course left little time to spare for climbing, though we had a few afternoon outings here and there. As the course drew to a close, our trio began to hear the siren song of those big walls increasing in volume by the day. We’re hungry for more rock, and the canyon has plenty to satiate our appetite.
From here, we have another two weeks or so of exploration and ascension before we hit the road, bound for Indian Creek, Moab and City of Rocks. Stay tuned for more tales of adventure on the road and the rock.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originially published in March 2015