As promised, here’s some more detail on our two long days in Oak Creek Canyon during the recent Red Rock adventure. No new photos yet, so only a little bit of eye candy on this post. You’ll find additional eye candy, and more information about our trip here and here. Thanks to Shawn and KT and Smitty for letting me use any of these photos, since I can’t remember/can’t tell who took which.
First up, our long day on Solar Slab in Oak Creek Canyon, at Red Rock.
One of my wishes for this year was to lead the whole of Solar Slab, in Oak Creek Canyon. It was a bit ambitious, given that I’ve only got about a solid year of trad leading under my belt, and much of that has been two steps forward one step back. I’d also had an unsuccessful attempt on the Solar Slab Gully during my first Red Rock trip… so the place had some memories attached to it.
After reading a bunch of trip reports, and getting some tips from Luke at DreaminVertical and my Vegas local buddy John, I felt ready to make that goal part of my trip this March. We divvied up partners and gear (Shawn and KT teamed up, and I was lucky enough to have this smiling face as my partner for the day)
my buddy, Smitty. I’d be on lead all day, and I was excited about that challenge. From what I’d read and heard, the climbing wouldn’t be terribly difficult, but leading is still a head game for me, so I knew it would be a long, hard day mentally even if physically the climbing was easy. Shawn loaned me doubles in mid-size Camalots, since I don’t yet have a full rack myself — of my own gear, I had with me singles in Black Diamond Camalots from purple to blue; three mid-range Metolius Master Cams; two sets of nuts (one set of DMM Wall nuts; one set of Black Diamond stoppers); and a handful of slings, biners, lockers, and quickdraws. Shawn and KT set off in the lead, and once they were on their way, I headed up the route. As I started the first pitch, a friendly voice from around to the left gave friendly and helpful advice… I thought it had to be John — he and climbing partner Matt were on Beulah’s Book, calling out helpful encouragement and support to get me off the ground. Only fitting to meet a “climbing friend from the Internet” for the first time in real life one pitch up in Oak Creek Canyon.
Johnny Vegas was just, plain, fun, the whole way up. I’d heard ratings from 5.6 R to 5.7, and I’ve seen descriptions of three and four pitches. My recollection is that we did it in four pitches, and that we did a 5.9 variation on one of the pitches (but the day is a wee bit of a blur, and I don’t have the guidebook myself, so I can’t say for sure). The only climbing that felt hard was the 5.9 variation we took — it was one move for the taller folks, two or three moves for us shorter folks — but it was well-protected (I downclimbed to put in extra gear when I sensed a difficult/cruxy move coming on) and then protected by one bolt once you executed the crux move. We took a variation at the top (the reported “best pitch” is a 5.9 variation to the right; I, by mistake, took an off route easy variation to the left) so I’m a bit bummed I missed that pitch, especially since the rope drag was pretty terrible on the variation I did take, but that’s life.
Overall, the belay ledges were comfortable, the bolted anchors confidence inspiring, the pro was reasonable for the grade, and I had a blast (and so did Smitty).
We kept the speed up on our changeovers pretty well, despite being a newer climbing team together and despite this being my first really big route as a leader. We were right on KT and Shawn’s heels leaving the ledge to start Solar Slab, and its 7-ish pitches going at 5.6 climbing.
Despite being “easier” on paper, the fatigue of that much time on lead caught up with me a bit on Solar Slab. Those pitches really run together… I remember a few pitches feeling extremely run out, although they were on really easy terrain. I know I was placing gear, since I’d wind up with an empty rack by the time I reached each bolted anchor — but it sometimes didn’t feel like I had enough gear for the pitches. Smitty was awesome, though — he stayed positive even when his energy started to drop, and although our changeovers slowed a bit by the last few pitches, we still made reasonable time given everything. KT and Shawn left us in the dust about three pitches from the top of Solar Slab, but that we’d kept up with them that long made me feel pretty good.
I had a little routefinding issue toward the end… Our plan was for both parties to stick together, since he had the topo and was in the lead; I had the topo *just about* memorized, but things got a bit foggy for me there at the top. Next time, I’ll be sure to have my own topo in my pocket, no matter what. Anyway – toward the top, I saw Shawn skip a belay on what seemed to be a very short pitch, so I did the same (I was climbing on a 70 meter, he on a 60 meter, so I felt confident at that point in skipping the belay). I mistakenly cruised right past the one-bolt anchor that I should have used to belay (with additional gear for a proper anchor), and kept climbing. For a long, long time. I finally reached a ledge, with a great, well-seated boulder, and figured I had to be just about out of rope even on my 70 meter. I had one yellow Camalot left on my rack, so I braced myself behind the boulder for Smitty’s belay, with a well-placed yellow Camalot for an acceptable but not optimal anchor. I called as loud as I could, but guessed that Smitty couldn’t hear me. I put him on belay, and started tugging up rope until I could tell he was climbing, and belayed him up.
When he got up to the ledge, we lost some time. Our changeover wasn’t super fast, and I wasn’t exactly sure where to go from there since Shawn and KT had already topped out. It looked like slabby, easy terrain up to a steep chimney / crack finish. I backed up the anchor with gear Smitty had cleaned, and went back on belay. Just above and to the right of where I’d anchored was a set of bolted anchors, but in chatting with Smitty later, my instincts were right to belay where I had since I was very nearly to the end of my 70 meter rope. I don’t believe I would have had enough rope to reach that bolted belay, and while I’m comfortable simulclimbing in some settings, that would not have been one of them.
I climbed the easy slabs up to the impressive left-leaning dihedral. I climbed that, placing gear as I went, to a very short (fun) chimney section, then popped out on top. Shawn met me there to help me belay Smitty up. We had time for a quick high five and to change into ou
r approach shoes to head back down since we’d planned the Painted Bowl descent rather than rapping off. KT and Shawn had a bit of a wait for us at the top because of my routefinding issues at the end, so they were chilly, windblown and ready to rock and roll off of there.
I need to accumulate more slings (I ran out on every single pitch, leading to some really remarkable rope drag in places), and I’m happiest and most comfortable climbing with a full double rack including small cams (which I was very, very light on for this trip). The parts of the climbing that I felt could have been better protected would have easily protected with C3s or TCUs.
I also need to have my own topo and descent information, in my pocket, no matter what, when I’m leading multipitch routes. Had something happened, I would have gotten Smitty and I up that route no problem, even without the routefinding coaching from Shawn. I would have been utterly lost at the top, though, without my own descent beta. Even climbing with other parties, I need to be responsible for my own ascent and descent beta, just in case.
On the other hand, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that I *can* do it. I can lead on gear, and I can lead big, tall, multipitch routes on gear. At no point during the day did I chicken out, or did my head go negative. I just knew that for that day, I was responsible for keeping myself and Smitty as safe as possible; making the best possible choices to do so; and for getting us up and down that route safely. It was a bit of pressure, but it was so much fun, and Smitty was so much fun, that it wasn’t too heady.
There were a few sections of the runout climbing where I had to channel Steph Davis and stay calm and flow, and push any fear out of my brain since I did feel (even though I was only on 5.6) like I was soloing. Any potentially scary parts, I knew wouldn’t last long, and that there would be good pro or a nice bolted anchor coming up in just a little bit. I smiled and sang my way up much of the route, and really, stayed much more relaxed than I usually do on lead…. I think, in part, because I had no real choice.
All in all, it was an unbelievably memorable day. I learned a lot, I had a great time, Smitty had a great time, and we did the best we could all day. I appreciated Shawn and KT’s patience, despite unpleasant conditions at the top, and appreciated Smitty’s positive attitude and pack-mule willingness, since he did the bulk of the hauling for the approach and hike out.
We hit the trail head about 6:30 in the morning (we parked outside of the loop, so that we didn’t have to bother with a late exit pass). We reached the car, after a trailfinding mishap on the way out which lead us to the Oak Creek parking area (inside the loop) at about 8pm, I think, for a car door to car door time of 13.5 hours. Had we made the right trail on the way out, we probably would have shaved a half hour to 45 minutes off that. For the length of the approach and having done the Painted Bowl descent, and, the length of the climbing day, that was pretty respectable time-wise. We were down and off the slabs into the boulder-hopping by the time it got dark, so the trip out really wasn’t bad even by headlamp and moonlight.
That day will go down as one of my proudest ever, despite the fact that there are many things I could do better. I’m thankful for the experience, and for the fun we had, as well as for the safe ascent and descent.
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