(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times)
Seventeen miles west of the Strip and two miles past where construction workers are hammering together yet another housing development lies the most spectacular sight in all Las Vegas: a 7,000 foot high band of sandstone, riven into a series of canyons and crags, all painted with huge horizontal strips of crimson. This is the 197,000-acre Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where my friend Eric and I drove one sunny morning with the modest goal of climbing Mescalito, a 5, 440 foot tall gray pyramid of rock topped by several hundred feet of red sandstone.
From the road, Mescalito looks like the runt of Red Rock, only about half as tall as the surrounding peaks. There are two ways up Mescalito: The Cat in the Hat and the technically more difficult, not to mention ominously named, Dark Shadows. We picked the easier climb, six pitches of 5.6.
“What could go wrong,” I asked, “on a route named after a Dr. Seuss character?”
We soon found out. That morning we had gotten up before sunrise, driven to the trail head and hiked for more than an hour to the base of Mescalito and started climbing at 8 am. Our guidebook suggested the route should take three hours. Since Eric and I pretty much suck at climbing, we guessed it might actually take us twice as long, which would still put us back in Las Vegas well before the start of cocktail hour. We were, as it turned out, wildly optimistic.
The climbing was fantastic. We followed a series of vertical cracks up Mescalito, the sandstone face fractured into a craquelure of hand and foot holds that made upward movement a joy. By 2 pm we were on the top of the route, a small bulge of gray rock half way up Mescalito with a bolted anchor for rappelling down. Most climbers turn around here, rather than continuing up to the summit, which involves more scrambling over boulders and up gullies crowded with thorny plants than technical climbing.
Eric and I found a flat spot, threw down my backpack and had lunch. Behind us the neighboring peaks were patched with snow, thousands of feet below the desert bloomed green after a winter of unusually heavy rain and in distance the Las Vegas Strip rose like some fairy tale kingdom.
We talked about whether or not to go on. We have a rule that if one of us wants to quit a climb, we quit. Eric said it was getting late; he wanted to head down. I said I wanted to head up.
Ok, Eric said.
We left the pack and headed higher. Two hours of bushwhacking, a short traverse out onto a narrow ledge and a long body-wedging climb up a red chimney and we were on the summit. The sun was low above the rimrock. I noticed that lights were going on in Las Vegas.
“Let’s get the hell down,” I said.
We spent the next two hours retracing our steps as the sun dipped below the horizon and the Strip began to blaze with lights. I grew alarmed that we wouldn’t reach the backpack before dark, when it would become impossible to find, and I rushed through thickets of plants, ignoring the pricks and scrapes. The backpack not only marked our route back to the rappel station amid a myriad of possible paths but also held food, water and extra clothing. If we couldn’t find the pack we might have to spend the night on the mountain.
Eric had hurt an old shoulder injury on the final clamber to the top and was downclimbing carefully. I pushed through the inky twilight and down the gulley to where we left the pack. Rocks rolled away under my feet as I raced the gathering dark. The pack wasn’t there. I had gone the wrong way.
I climbed up again and found Eric, who had fished a headlamp in his pocket (mine was in the pack). He suggested we find a sheltered spot to spend the night. I said there were still a couple of places where the pack might be. Eric began checking out a rock crevice for accommodations and I borrowed his headlight to look for the pack. The next gulley was another dead end. The last possibility was a steep climb along a ledge. Rounding a corner, the headlamp beam illuminated four points of reflective tape on my pack, shinning brighter than any star in the sky. I was elated.
We were soon at the rappel station, tying two ropes together and throwing hundreds of feet of coil off the cliff into the dark. Our headlamps illuminated a few feet of the vast night as we stepped backwards off of the ledge and into the void. There were four double rope rappels between us and the ground.
At the bottom of the first rappel we unclipped from the rope and started pulling it through the anchor. Then it got stuck. The fractured rock face that makes for such great climbing can also make for a rope snagging nightmare. Velcro rock, local climbers call it.
I had to reclimb 200 feet of rock in the dark without any protection and free the rope. Regaining the rappel ledge, I dragged up 400 feet of rope and started trying to unknot what looked like a giant mess of spaghetti. Then it started to rain.
The rain stopped before I ran out of knots. I rapped back down and started pulling the rope through the anchor. Again it snagged. I climbed back up and repeated the entire process—something I would do twice more that night before reaching the last rappel at 3 a.m.
One hundred feet above the ground I rappelled over a bulge and found myself hanging in mid air. The Prusik loop that I used as an emergency brake when rappelling had locked up, meaning that I could no longer slide down the rope, nor could I climb up the rock, which was just a foot beyond my reach.
I tried pulling myself up the rope. I tried swinging to the nearest ledge. I tried unclipping the Prusik. Nothing worked.
Stamp collecting, I thought, sounds like a reasonable hobby.
I tried jumping up and down on the rope so that I could reposition the line where it draped over the rock above. It occurred to me that this was a good way to saw the rope in half.
Finally, the rope moved a few inches and I was able to swing toward a rock where I could get a toehold and climb up enough to reset the Prusik.
At 4 a.m. I was on the ground. We had been on the rock for 20 hours.
Hiking back to the car we got lost. I stumbled over the trail like a drunk. Eventually we found a marker that told us the parking lot was a quarter of a mile away on an easy grade. About a mile later we gave up.
Eric threw down his rope and gear on the middle of the trail and lay upon it.
“I’m going to sleep,” he said.
On the horizon clouds were turning pink.
After sunrise we found the spur trail we had passed in the dark and the car, a few hundred feet from where we had laid down. An hour later we were in a restaurant eating breakfast and talking about our next climb.