Near epic in the shadow of Las Vegas…
You know when you’ve climbed hard when the thumbprint lock on your cell phone doesn’t work anymore. I kept placing my thumb and getting the “try again” text. Apparently my fingerprint had rubbed off enough to no longer register. This, after our epically heinous attempt of Solar Slab.
Chad and I had made plans a few months previous to climb this 14 pitch monster called Solar Slab (9 pitches, but with an initial 5 pitches to get to Solar Slab) in Red Rock, Nevada. I had my reservations — which continued throughout the climb. Some reservations were:
- First multi-pitch trad climb — for both of us.
- First time setting up a trad anchor
- First time for Chad to trad — at all
- First time for Chad to set a cam
Lot of firsts. And we were planning to climb a 14 pitch monster — sight unseen. I had bought trad books, a DVD on how to climb trad, a complete rack, and actually climbed a few single pitch trad climbs to dial it all in. Chad, as far as I could tell, just indoor sport climbed.
‘I’m going to push myself to do a training fall at least once every gym session in where I touch the anchor and fall!’
Frankly, I didn’t care if he could lead 5.11. At most Solar Slab was rated 5.7, so I didn’t really care about our level of climbing, that was the least of my concerns. My main concern was…everything else. Rope management, route-finding, anchor systems, to-haul-or-not-to-haul? (Post experience answer: do not haul).
I asked Chad if he could get any trad training before the climb. ‘No, it’s too wet here’ (Portland). Goddamn excuses.
Well, I could bail, be the guy that says I’m not willing to risk my life with another trad novice thank you very little. Just because you can rock multi-pitch sport doesn’t mean you can also, off the couch, rock multipitch trad. This reminded me of the saying regarding experience: Experience is something that comes too late to benefit from. And now I know that to be true.
My goal was to get us both back alive and in one piece. I think I was the only one concerned with this, frankly.
I tried to send a download link to the DVD I had that went over the basics of trad to my dropbox account for Chad to view a couple weeks prior to the climb. ‘I can’t play it off Dropbox,’ was his answer. I seethed. Of course you can’t, numbnuts, download to your desktop, THEN view. Of course, afterwards I was thinking maybe there was a glitch in the files, which is the real reason he couldn’t view it — but whatever. How ‘bout borrowing a goddamn book from the library and boning up on our potentially life-threatening adventure?
I think you can see I haven’t quite gotten over this.
The one thing that kept me moving this forward was this: the grade was well within our comfort zone. We could basically free solo all of this if it was a “standard” 5.7. That I learned top belay the night before we did a 6 pitch multisport climb (First Kiss) at Smith Rock. That Chad was a good climber, and could be resourceful when it’s demanded of him.
But what I also knew was that he was a complainer - mostly of his job. He was an artist that was too over-worked to work on his art. He complained about the limitations of his work, and the idiots he worked with. My thoughts were: well, why don’t you quit? Stop bitching and quit. Put yourself out of my misery, why don’t you?
It was in this mindset that we started the climb. The day we both landed, I from Denver, Chad from Portland, I handed him the “How to Climb Trad” DVD. He watched it that night, the night prior to our climb. He had a bunch of questions afterwards:
‘Why don’t you keep the slings on the ‘biners? Why do you keep them around your shoulder? Wouldn’t that be faster?’
How the hell should I know? I’m a novice at this too. This was my mental response at most of his questions. Like, why didn’t you do some research, you could have found the answers to this yourself. (Answer: Sometimes you need different lengths depending on the route and how it meanders).
We arrived at the park at 6am. I had to pick up Chad, even though his mom’s car was available (his mom lived in Vegas). But maybe it wasn’t available — who knows. That meant I had to get up 30 minutes earlier than I planned in order to pick his ass up. When you start talking 4:30 versus 5am wakeup , the minutes matter. He had thermoses of this rice soup his mom had made for us. Note: this is good once. Saying you really liked it is true the first time, but doesn’t mean you want to eat this every day. On the second day it reminded me of gloppy snot mixed with unsweetened rice pudding.
We finally arrived at the parking lot to the approach. I had never been there before, so was looking at the signs and trying to decipher the guidebooks — with no luck.
‘Where are you going? Chad asked. How the fuck should I know, I thought. I knew I was going in the general direction, and there was an opening in the wooden fence.
‘Do you guys know where ‘Solar Slab’ is, I asked a group of early boulderers.
‘Yeah, it’s that way,’ he pointed. Well, I knew that.
‘Just, that way?’ I asked incredulously.
‘The trail is over here.’ he answered.
‘Oh,’ I responded.
‘Yeah, I was wondering where the fuck you were going,’ said Chad.
I just left it at that. I know it was probably a combination of the early start and anxieties about the climb, but I felt that every climber in Vegas was a grade A asshole. I also thought that if Chad did a tad more research, maybe, just maybe — he might know.
‘Those Vegas a-holes don’t know what they’ve gotten into. Now I’m gonna blog about them!’ I said.
We hiked, I with a haul bag. For some reason we got it into our heads that we needed to haul. For us, anything above 1,000 feet seemed like big wall, and big wall involved hauling.
No, it didn’t. I led the first pitch, and then we set up a “Z” pulley system in order to haul the bag up.
‘I’ve used this system to haul small children up trees,’ Chad said.
Apparently, he hadn’t used it on small haul bags, as this haul system, while easier than simply hauling straight up, was a ton of work.
‘What’s taking you so long?’ Chad complained. ‘Well, why don’t you try hauling both a bag and manage your belay, asshole,’ I thought.
On the 3rd pitch I ran into another Vegas climber, with his girlfriend, descending. I asked him a couple questions on whether the whole route had anchors, as the guide books were all unclear.
‘Yeah, I think so.’ Great, whatever. He suggested he let us use the rings, and that we build an anchor. I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you wait your turn, and we’ll be off the rings in a few?’ But, I realized this was a good opportunity to use those hot build-an-anchor skillz I learned off the YouTubez.
Chad: ‘What’s taking you so long?’
Chad came up, the guy and his girl went down, and Chad went, ‘Vegas climbers are assholes! I would have made them wait.’ Yeah, that guy was kind of a dick. But maybe we were just a couple of trad novices that didn’t know what the hell we were doing.
I showed Chad how to build a proper anchor, you know, if we needed it?
We struggled like this for 3 pitches. On the 3rd pitch, Chad was coming up and I could hear him saying, ‘Well, I know we had our difficulties today, but tomorrow, I think we can make it all the way to the top.’
What. The. Fuck.
I rarely display anger. But, at that moment, I almost did. What comes out is probably deadlier, as I get all rough-throated. Restrained anger.
‘In what universe do you think we can make it 14 pitches after struggling with only three pitches?’
‘Well, we if we ditched the haul bag…’
In the fog of anger, I can’t remember my exact words. Something like: If we had any experience at all we probably would know that we didn’t need to bring a haul bag. None of the other climbers we’ve seen had one. That comes from inexperience. And in this case, inexperience kills. My only concern is not topping out on this. That to me is not remotely possible for us. My goal is to get us back in one piece, me back to my dog Nubi, and you back to Masha and the kids. That’s it.
I could see Chad give up on his dream of getting to the top. One thing: he was always game for a challenge. But sometimes it bordered on foolhardiness, and this was one of those times. We descended, got lost, but luckily found the trail again. It got dark, headlamps on we trudged back.
I picked Chad up at 5:30 again. His mom packing us the rice dish I later thought of as rice-snot-sludge. Apparently, she heard that I really liked the stuff and made extra.
Chad complained about his mom on the way to the route. ‘She doesn’t do anything, she doesn’t get out, is not interested in anything.’
If anything, I was in a worse mood than yesterday. How bout a can of shut-the-fuck-up, hmmm?
We started on the trail again, without the haul bag.
‘Okay, I don’t care if we go to the top,’ Chad said. Well, there’s that, I thought.
On the way up, we ran into a couple climbers. After chatting with them, I realized they were nice guys, good to talk to, smiley and joked with us.
‘You guys aren’t from around here, are you?’ I asked.
‘No, we’re from Denver.’
Vegas climbers are assholes.
We hiked with them for a bit, then promptly passed the start of the climb, and had to backtrack.
When we got there, a couple climbers from Massachusetts were there, gearing up.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll climb fast,’ they said.
I eyed their equipment: Cams and ‘biners around their harness loops. Slings around their shoulders. No #5, or for that matter #4 cams.
We were dumbfucks with no clue. We were wearing shoulder gear slings, and because all the cams were weighted in front of us, they tended to catch on edges as we climbed up. Why not use the gear hoops on our harnesses, after all — that’s what they were for.
One of the Massachusetts climbers told us that Alex Honnold was in the area. I joked with Chad, we should ask every climber we meet: ‘Are you Alex Honnold?’
They left their packs at the base, trusting. I decided to do the same.
We went up faster, the first three pitches falling in a row.
4th pitch goes.
Chad leads the final 5th, and when I follow, I realize he climbed nearly the entire 45–50' without setting a cam. And while I had done a similar thing, running it out 20 and 30', I did at relatively safe areas. His runout went across the ragged edge of an arete, which didn’t feel safe to me at all.
‘What do you think of that runout?’
I thought either he was bold, or that he couldn’t recognize a proper pro placement if it whacked him across the head. We were novices, but at least he could climb well. Because he basically free-soloed that last part.
The problem was that he wasn’t thinking about his follower, a.k.a. me. If I fell, I would have fell to a ledge because of his runout.
At the base
We’re finally at the base of Solar Slab: The wall rises forever into the sky, like something from science fiction. And the sun is hitting it in all its glory. It looks massive, and sheer and impossible.
We get up the first pitch of nine and:
‘I need to take a crap,’ Chad says. ‘Can you belay me down?’
‘Need some toilet paper?’ I asked.
‘You got some?’
‘You mean, you don’t?’ I thought. What were you going to do, just pinch a loaf and climb on? I handed him what I had, and hoped I didn’t need the squares later on.
Near Death? Or an unplanned Free Solo?
I wait for him, then we go up the 2nd official pitch of Solar slab, the 7th total pitch. I am about to lead the 3rd (8th) pitch, and see a horizontal traverse…and a vertical crack system. I don’t have much crack experience, and it looks daunting to me. I make the traverse and start up the vertical crack, sliding my feet in sideways, then turning them flat. I jam fists and cammed hands into the crack as best I can. I set a nut, tugging on it, at 15 feet, then climb another 15 feet and set a bomber cam.
Or what I thought as bomber.
I climb past it, and knock it loose as I rise above it. It hits the nut sliding down, and blows the nut out.
I’m now 30' from the last pro, facing a 60' fall that looked to be a grounder. This while feet and hands are jammed in a vertical crack, feeling like I could just pop out at any minute.
It was one of those cinematic moments where I thought, ’Wow, I could die here.’ I’m sure, ten years later, hard-bodied and gruff, I will look back at this experience as a sort of non-event. It was 5.7 and we were inexperience, but was it as sketchy as I thought? Time would soften the edges and in light of the savage climbs to come it would be a footnote.
But in that moment, at that moment, I had to talk myself down from certain failure.
‘It’s starting to rain,’ Chad said.
Breathe. Slow your breathing. Relax in your footing. Trust your feet. Relax the death-grip. Anchors are only 15 feet away. There’s no down-climbing here, nothing to save you but yourself.
And so I climbed. reached the anchors and hooked in. ‘On belay!’ I yelled down.
I was done. It was 5:30, and we would descend in the dark. Headlamps on, Chad said we should do double-ropes. He held the ends of the two ropes in his hands, then pushed them towards me.
‘Why don’t you tie them this time.’
I took the ends from him and started…then realized why he handed them to me. It was because he didn’t know how to tie two ropes together. Jesus.
I tied an EDK, or the “Euro Death Knot,” which Chad immediately questioned, like didn’t I know of a more secure knot?
No, I didn’t. Despite its ominous sobriquet, this knot is recommended, despite its appearance, of being safe, and least likely to get its knot stuck when pulled. Perhaps he should have researched a tad prior to the trip, and maybe he would have had an alternative knot to suggest?
To cap off this sad story, descending on double ropes on Solar Slab was a mistake, at least the path we took. The length just kept getting caught on the infamous knobs and chickenheads of Red Rock. I don’t recommend descending in the dark, if you can help it. At one point Chad ran into a knot as he rappelled. I didn’t know what was going on. He told me to stop at an anchor he had passed and just tie myself in. Little did I know he was undergoing his own struggle, swinging to the wall and unclipping, running a second rope to allow me to descend.
About the 10th time our rope got stuck on these infernal Red Rock chickenheads, we both paused for a moment, exhausted from attempts to free the rope and burnt out from frustration.
Looking up into the darkness where our rope was stuck, Chad murmured, ‘I wonder what would happen if Alex Honnold happened by and saw us in this predicament.’ I said, ‘He’d probably go — ‘Just a second guys,’ and ascend into the darkness armed only with a headlamp.’ A few seconds later all we would see would be the freed rope sailing down, with no sight or sound thereafter from Monsieur Honnold. He seemed like a superhero compared to us. Not quite human, more than human.
In the end, we finally made it to the base — then promptly lost the trail. What should have taken an hour to get back to the parking lot took us 4 hours. I joked earlier that it was still a good time as long as we weren’t forced to drink our own urine.
Hour 2, I went: ‘Can you believe it? Some people do this for fun!’
On hour 3 of our hike, I thought, ‘Omigod, I think I might have to drink my own urine!’ On the 4th hour we made it back to the car. I’ll have to save my urine for later. Chad insisted that we needed to stop at aÂ Taco John’s or something. I just wanted to drop him off and sleep this nightmare off. He complained that he really needed to eat and we needed to stop, blah blah blah.
That night: it rained. Since it was sandstone, the rule was to wait 48 hours, otherwise you can destroy the rock. We decided to hike around our last day. We saw other teams climbing, despite the downpour the night before.
‘We could have climbed,’ Chad said.
No we couldn’t, I thought. I wouldn’t anyways. That’s how crags get closed down. Climbing on wet sandstone destroys the rock. Conservation.
The end of something
The day of our flights Chad offered to buy me lunch if I drove him. ‘But my flight leaves 5 hours later,’ I said.
‘Well, in exchange for lunch. My mom and I get into arguments if I drive, she gets freaked out and…’ And I was done. On top of everything, he wanted me to cool my heels for 4 hours.
It was an easy ‘No.’
It was then I knew, the guy who had first taught me to climb: I knew we would never climb together again.
When you climb with someone, especially when it turns into a heinous epic, you really find out their true colors. Whether they cave to stress, or have a sunny attitude. Get angry at every little thing — or make light of what will eventually be known as inconsequential. For myself I found him to be childish, a complainer, unsafe at any speed. And the worst: a bad partner.
The night prior to my departure back to Denver and Home, I watched Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt the Dawn Wall in Yosemite. I couldn’t help but see parallels between their experience and ours. If anything, our struggles, because of our ignorance, Â were more dangerous. I felt a sense of kinship, of shared struggle, thinking: ‘I’m just like them, I’m just like them!’