The Valley of Fire, that is...
Regular type: Dad's words.
Italics: Dad's translation of (and elaboration on) Jack's thoughts and words.
Before he was even born, my wife and I decided we would make every attempt to share our love of the outdoors with our son-to-be. So while he was still in the womb, we took a trip to Arizona and New Mexico, hoping he would somehow take in the air of the desert mountains and badlands (well, it sounded good). Just six months after his September birth, we took him to Las Vegas (pity the ears of the other passengers on our return flight) with us to visit several of southern Utah's national parks, wilderness areas, and slot canyons; he might be able to vie for the title of youngest kid to "climb" the chockstone in the route from Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch. In May, he got to visit the neat canyons and cliff dwellings of New Mexico's Tent Rocks National Monument and Bandelier National Monument. In August, he got to join us on several off-road 4wd outings in the mountains of Colorado in my new Xterra (bad, bad idea-- not the Xterra, though) and also got to "climb" his first fourteener, Mount Evans, in Mom's Baby Bjorn (he did get to stand at the summit and play with rocks, though, clearly his favorite part of the trip).
That was 2004-2005.
In July 2006, this lucky kid had the blessing of spending a week each in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. He got to hike on several trails, and he got to see a bear (I didn't really care), but his favorite parts were easily running up and down the boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone and chucking rocks into the lakes at Glacier. He also got to visit one of America's two best mountain wildernesses, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where, word has it, and photographic evidence allegedly supports it, I tried to get rid of him while his mother wasn't looking so I could climb a mountain.
August saw him in Michigan's incredible Upper Peninsula, rambling to and among waterfalls, sand dunes, and lakeshores both cobbled and sandy in and near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Come January 2007, trips to the Great Beyond stopped for Jack. His sister was born, and my wife and I realized that even if that kind of travel wasn't yet cost-prohibitive, it certainly was not going to be any fun. Trips to the outdoors didn't stop for me (alone), for my wife and me (bless my parents), or even for the kids (we shifted our focus to local areas such as Great Falls Park and Shenandoah National Park), but big trips as a whole family were over for a few years. The birth of our third child in August 2008 cemented that (but it didn't keep me from three glorious solo weeks in Montana in July, nor will it keep me from two weeks in Wyoming this July-- that kind of thing was part of "the deal").
But Jack is older now, more confident of himself on the rocks, and in search of adventures. He's been camping with me a few times now, but until recently, he had never been out just with me in the great West. That, plus Spring Break, plus a place to stay with my brothers in Las Vegas, equals "no excuse." So we went.
Jack went on three separate outings in the Vegas area, all of them, somewhat unfortunately, to places where any women encountered were likely to be fully clothed (and they were, but actually fortunately for the most part, as it turned out). This trip report tells the story of one of those outings: the hike of the White Domes Loop Trail and later the climbs of the two White Domes in Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park. My brothers Chris and Mike joined us; without their help with Jack, we probably would not have made it to the summit of the eastern (higher) peak.
The 1.25-mile White Domes Loop Trail is perfect for a 4-year-old kid. It begins with a steep but short descent on sand, and the climb back to trailhead elevation is gradual and hardly noticeable. Except in winter, there are lizards all over the place. There are countless rock outcrops and sandstone ramps that are both suitable and fun for little kids. There is a short slot canyon. And near the end, there is a red, honeycombed wall, and if you are willing to boost a kid up to one of the higher honeycombs, he or she will have a great time emptying the hole of all the sand and rock he/she possibly can and defying your requests to come down.
It was fun hiking down the sandy parts; I kept saying it was like the beach. Dad said there was no ocean, but I told him that there was a pretend ocean and just rolled my eyes. Sometimes I think he's like that grown-up in The Little Prince who sees the picture of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant and thinks it's a hat.
After Dad told me to climb up some rock so he could take pictures that would make the thing look scarier than it really was just so he could upset Mom, I finally got to climb the rocks I wanted to, and I got to play around in the wind tunnel we found. We all had a good laugh when Uncle Mike scouted out the way down and said that we would have to go back the way we came, only to be one-upped by Dad and Uncle Chris, who found an easy and obvious way to walk right down and rejoin the trail ahead of where we'd left it. But I still like Uncle Mike; after all, he has a pretty girlfriend who was very nice to me later that night.
A little bit later, Dad made the mistake of lifting me way up so I could climb into one of the honeycombs on the red wall near the end of the trail. Actually, it wasn't a mistake from my point of view; I had a lot of fun up there, but Dad seemed ready to move on before I was anywhere near ready to go, and since I was high enough that he needed me to slide or jump down to him, I held the cards for a change. And I played them the way I wanted to.
The west peak is a little lower than the east one, and the climb is easier if you go by difficulty of the hardest pitch, but it is more exposed and has more scrambling overall. Because the peak was an unknown and we hadn't managed to get a really good look at the route along the upper reaches from below, we agreed on taking turns while the others stayed at the car with Jack. I went first. But when Jack saw me way up above him and called to me, which resulted in a call and a wave back, he took off on his own to start the climb up. My brothers followed, and before long, after I'd climbed the summit and a nearby (harder) pinnacle, we all met up.
Dad wouldn't let me climb the exposed Class 4 pitch that he and Uncle Mike had just climbed, so I didn't go on to the summit of the west peak at White Domes even though I could have handled the scramble up there. Instead, I hung out by some cave-like holes in the wall, having fun throwing rocks (there were no climbers below me), while Dad had to sit there and watch me when he'd rather have been climbing.
Dad says he has a Mark Twain quote for me to read someday, something about how at 16 he thought his father was so dumb but at 21 was amazed by how much his father had learned in five years. We'll see.
The east peak is higher than the west one (not by a whole lot). It does not have the interesting pinnacles and the exposure that the west peak does, but it has its own features to recommend it: red and white sandstone that takes on an intense hue in the right lighting; wind tunnels and honeycombed walls; and, although the overall climb of the east peak is easier than that of the west, a short section that is more challenging than anything directly on the way to the summit of the west peak.
The formations below are near the start of the route, just a short distance above the parking area. Jack saw these and immediately felt drawn to them, but we had business with the summit. He was not happy about being diverted from his plans, but I promised he could play there on the way back down. And I did keep that promise, allowing him to resume his role as the "tunnel monster" who had to scare off all intruders. Three grown men playing this game with a four-year-old probably looked a little stupid (and probably sounded stupid, too, given the growls, roars, and cries that almost certainly could be heard by people in the parking area), but something I've learned as a father is that sometimes it's okay to look and sound stupid if it elicits honest and healthy laughter from a kid. Parenting is a sure-fire cure for self-consciousness.
We ran into a little trouble early in the climb.
Just beyond the wind tunnels is the “crux” of the route. There is a headwall about 8-10’ high. You have to make use of friction and small holds to get up this wall, and it is a Class 4 pitch. What adds to the difficulty is the sandstone, which lives up to the first part of its name as your hands and feet slide while you seek decent purchase.
I boosted Jack up as high as I could and encouraged him to do the rest, but he had a hard time finding holds for his hands and grip for his feet, and he quickly got it in his head that he couldn't do it. At that point, there was no point in pushing it, so we tried another spot a few yards to our right. Same results.
My brother Chris had taken one look at these pitches and decided to look for something easier. Off to our right, he found and climbed an ascending gully much like a slot canyon. It took a little Class 4 chimneying for him to get up from the end of the gully onto the sandstone ramps above.
There was no way Jack was going to be able to do that, and there was no way I was going to be able to climb the gully while holding Jack with one arm. Chris unhelpfully announced that he didn't think Jack could get up there. It looked as if the climb was over unless someone was going to take a turn watching Jack while I went to the summit.
Stubbornly, and some might say recklessly, I put Jack on my shoulders and began working my way up the gully. When I reached the narrower sections requiring chimneying or stemming, I felt more comfortable stemming, and Chris and I discussed my passing Jack off to him when I got high enough, as I knew I wasn't going to be able to pull off the exit moves while keeping Jack balanced on my shoulders. Jack was a little scared by the awkward movements and positions (typical kid-- complaining about a free ride), but we pulled the transfer off without a problem. Then I finished the climb out, and off to the summit we went. The rest was easy-- mostly hiking but some rock-hopping that translated into easy scrambling for Jack. And the colors and the views up there made all the trouble worth it. In the section shown below, Jack got his first reward for his troubles. The second reward was playing in those wind tunnels.
I had a good time hanging out in one of the honeycombs near the summit of the eastern peak of the White Domes. And after you all scared me half to death by trying to force me up that pitch with no good holds for me and then making me ride on Dad's shoulders as he stemmed his way up a steep, narrow gully before passing me off to Uncle Chris above, I deserved it! Too bad on you guys if I spent longer than you wanted playing in the honeycombs and wind tunnels. But I had a good time, and I enjoyed my nap during the drive back home. You got to have a cold beer, and I got to have a good nap. Everyone was happy.
No, I'm showing you guys where I want to go next; now take me there!