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Red Rock Trip Report March 2009, part 3: Eagle Dance

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
10 min read

Finally, here’s the detail on the epic day of the trip. As alluded to in earlier posts, our day on Eagle Dance didn’t go without its hitches. Shawn and I had planned the trip hoping to do at least three big, long, traditional classics: I wanted to do Johnny Vegas and Solar Slab; and his ticklist was Eagle Dance (on Eagle Wall, in Oak Creek Canyon) and Epinephrine (in Black Velvet Canyon).

We crossed my objective, Johnny Vegas and Solar Slab, off on Friday with KT and Smitty. Taking the Painted Bowl descent instead of rapping off Solar Slab allowed us to get a really good look at Eagle Wall, as well as to drop gear near the base so that we could make a faster, lighter approach for Eagle Dance.

Here are a few links for additional Eagle Dance information:

Eagle Dance goes at about 10 pitches of 5.10c / A0 (the aid section is a closely bolted ladder through an overhung, traversing section on approximately pitch 6). The route is mostly 5.10 climbing, with two reported pitches of 5.10c.

This was an ambitious undertaking for Shawn and I, given that I only have a few 10c and harder pitches under my belt, and given that we knew we’d be up against the clock to try to get down before sunset. It was also ambitious given that we’d just done Johnny Vegas and Solar Slab (10 or 12 pitches of climbing) the day before, with a long hike in and out both days. But, when Shawn knocked on my door at 4:45 on Saturday morning and asked if I was in, I grumbled an unpleasant animal noise of pain then jumped up and said “Yup, I’m in.”

Smitty dropped us off at the Oak Creek Trailhead outside the loop, since the loop road hadn’t yet opened (I think we hit the trailhead right about 5:30am). We had a beautiful, peaceful approach, light and fast since we were basically only carrying food, water and my little bag of emergency gear having stashed the ropes and racks near the base of Eagle Wall on our descent from Solar Slab. Use that approach at your own risk, of course, but it worked well for us this trip. It was also extra motivation to actually get up and get out of bed that morning, knowing we’d have to get our gear back sometime and we’d only hurt worse on Sunday!

What I knew of Eagle Dance came from a variety of sources. My local friend, John, had indicated that our ticklist was “ambitious,” and he’d mentioned that he’d climbed the first four pitches of Eagle Dance and wanted to get back to it.

I heard from a number of sources that the pitches above the bolt latter were very hard. During my last trip to Joshua Tree, I’d overheard one of the staffers at the gear shop talk about how incredibly difficult the section above the bolt latter (pitches 6 and 7) were, so I expected the top of the route to be “5.10c My Ass” rather than just 5.10c. I’ve climbed a few pitches between 5.10c and 11a so I figured even if it wasn’t pretty, I’d be able to make it up in relatively good time. I also reviewed (but, didn’t practice) my aid technique.

We opted to carry a second rope, so we climbed on my 70 meter BlueWater 9.7, and Shawn trailed his 9.8 rope. I’d heard that we could rap the route on a single 70 meter, but hadn’t seen that across sources, so we erred on the side of two ropes. Shawn (at least, what he told me) didn’t find the trail line to be a problem even while leading, and it proved handy over the course of the day for passing the pack back and forth and cold belays (e.g. one in particular when Shawn hit the bolted belay and I knew he’d be freezing, so sent the pack up the haul line with his jacket).

We went fast and light — we carried one small pack with water, food, our two headlamps plus my Petzl e-lite backup headlamp, a warm layer for Shawn and my puffy for me. I brought my point and shoot camera, but took approximately two pictures, so that’s a bit of a bummer. I think some in our party took pictures of Eagle Wall during our Solar Slab Painted Bowl descent, so if any of those come my way I’ll add them when I get them.

We left our packs at the base of the climb, containing some additional food, first aid items, approach shoes and socks, and my 2-person emergency bivy (JUST in case) and started a-climbing.

The first few pitches were hands down, just plain fun. Granted, I was cleaning, so anything’s fun when you’re cleaning — but Shawn had fun on lead, too. The plan was for him to lead, with the possibility of me perhaps taking one of the easier bolted pitches, if conditions looked good for it — but fast was the M.O., and I’m not necessarily fast on lead, so I didn’t have my heart set on leading anything. I don’t remember anything really specific about the first four pitches… just that they were FUN. Some of the belays were hanging and/or uncomfortable, but the climbing was just so much freaking fun, and the reported “10c crux” shown in one of our topos lower on the route wasn’t really distinguishable from the 5.10 climbing around it. In other words, the first four pitches were fun, confidence inspiring, and we made great time. The belays weren’t all ideal, but that’s life.

Shawn lead up the bolt ladder pitch like an absolute pro. Watching him go, I rehearsed my own technique in my head, and felt pretty confident about my ability to execute the aid sequence and get up that pitch.

Until, that is, I had to actually *do* it.

What had been a well-oiled, smooth sequence in my head, turned into a total cluster in execution. For one thing, I had an autolocker on my long anchor, which didn’t help at all. Next time I’ll use a regular twistlock, instead. Trying to hold the autolocker open, and make clips, was an unnecessary challenge; a twistlock would have eliminated that difficulty. For another, I just needed to have practiced before trying something like that high up, tired, as part of a very long, time-sensitive day. Shawn was over the top patient with my slow progress despite being on an uncomfortable and cold belay, and helped me refine my system and get smoother toward the top of the ladder with his encouragement and coaching, but what he made look so easy I found incredibly hard even when I got the sequence down. Before I take on the Pioneer Route at Monkey Face, another climb I’m considering for this year, I’ll be figuring out how to practice aiding bolt ladders until it’s much smoother and more efficient.

Shawn, consulting the topo on Eagle Dance, Oak Creek Canyon, Red Rock NV

After the bolt ladder, I was pretty well exhausted. Shawn set off on lead, in a bit of a hurry since the belays had been cold and uncomfortable, among other things. We moved briskly up the
last few pitches.

The pitch above the bolt ladder was extremely hard, even as second. I didn’t aid, but I did fall several times, and did take once or twice to clean gear (so, actually, that sounds a lot like aiding). I found the feet poor, the hands challenging, and the rock quality much more suspect than on the earlier pitches, requiring delicate hand and foot placements.

I was pretty well knackered at that point, but we somehow managed to make reasonably good time up the final pitches of the route. I’m sure they were fantastic — Shawn seemed to think they were — they just felt HARD to me at that point. Hard, and serious. The descriptions I’d read — that the climbing got serious at the bolt ladder — were spot on. Eagle Wall is a big wall, and that was a big climb — the biggest, hardest I’d tried. When we hit the final bolted belay, despite both of us being the type who likes to reach the very top for a summit, it was late enough in the day, and were were tired enough, that we didn’t even discuss doing the hike up to the summit. We had a snack, drank some water, and started rigging ropes for our rappel off the route.

A view from one of the few decent sitting ledges on Eagle Dance, Red Rock NV.

I don’t know exactly what time it was when we rigged our first rap, but it wasn’t super late. My instincts were that we had enough daylight to get down through the raps, and get most of the way down the slabs before sunset if we moved efficiently.

The details here get a wee bit fuzzy, but I’ll hit the high points.

On our first rap, we set up a two rope rap with knots in both ends, and one of the ropes promptly got stuck STUCK. After resolving that issue, we rigged our second rap, and we both rapped down to our destination bolted anchor (a fairly long rap, but not near the end of 60 meters, and started to pull the ropes — this time, the ropes had twisted RIDICULOUSLY, making pulling the ropes impossible. We tried untwisting the ropes from our belay location, to no avail. After trying to unstick the ropes for some time, with me trying to figure out just how on earth one of us (meaning, most likely, Shawn) would re-lead that pitch (or pitches) to free the rope, with how tired we both were and the waning daylight, the solution was to ascend the rope using his ATC to lock off, and then free the rope. I don’t know where he found the energy, but Shawn did just that… he ascended the rope (at least a pitch – it may have been more, since he went out of my line of sight) to anchor in and then untwist the ropes and free them.

He successfully unstuck the ropes, rapped back down, and then from there we were extremely careful to not allow the ropes to twist, and also both switched to rapping on our low-friction modes (we were both on ATC-XP like devices) which significantly reduced the rope curl. We also did shorter raps, from there, and got down with relatively little incident from there despite a few small rope hang-ups.

The last two raps were by headlamp, but we were both relieved to get down, since the rappels had been more serious than anticipated. We quickly put on our approach shoes and polished off some water and a snack, backpacked the ropes and headed carefully down the steep slabs back to the trail. I was thankful we’d done the descent the night before at dusk, since those slabs would have been pretty scary doing them for the first time in the dark. With each step (finish the raps; getting down the slabs) we got happier and less stressed. When we hit the base of the slabs, and just had two and a half or so hours of boulder hopping and a half hour of good trail ahead of us, the mood was practically light. Usually boulder hopping is pretty hard on me — that night, boulder hopping felt incredibly easy compared to slippery and loose slabs by headlamp, and, the prospect of spending a night shivering on a ledge halfway up Eagle Wall.

We were able to get a text message out to Smitty and KT at about 7pm from the base of the slabs to let them know we were okay, and would be ready for a pickup about 10pm. Sure enough, we reached the car right about 10pm, devoured the water bottles Smitty and KT were so thoughtful to bring us, and grabbed dinner on the way home. Smitty and KT wanted to hear the story, but Shawn and I were both just so exhausted… about all we could manage was that the day had been really serious, and really great… and really fun now that it was over and we’d made it safely to the car.

Things I learned…
When more than one source says that something turns serious at a consistent point (e.g., the beta that this route got HARD or serious after the bolt ladder) pay that heed. I had a few really nervous days before Eagle Dance, wondering if I’d be able to do it — wondering if I was the best available partner choice for Shawn to meet that objective — on the up side, we did it. On the down side, I wasn’t as fast as I could have been, which contributed to us running out of daylight. If I had it to do over again, I’d still go — but maybe even with an earlier alpine start, and, I’d have more practice on bolt ladders under my belt.

Next, rope management on rappel is not optional. I’m always very careful to not allow the rope to flip or twist on rap … even with that care, that twistied and stuck rope was an eye opener. Had it been me and another partner out there, it would have taken me at least twice as long to ascend that rope as it did Shawn, if not longer. Paying very, very close to rappel setup, keeping the ropes managed as best as possible on rappel, and even doing shorter raps if the terrain allows might have eliminated some of the epic aspects of our raps off.

I did spend a fair amount of the day marveling over the level of discomfort we subject ourselves to, willingly, as climbers. My feet were killing me before I even put them in my approach shoes that morning, as were my knees. About three pitches from the top, Shawn cut open a cuticle, and I poked through to bleeding on three of my fingertips. The belays … well … uncomfortable might be an understatement. Some of them were just plain painful. Our descent got cold, even though we were prepared for it with layers.

But, I’d do it all over again, given the chance.

Some things went very well, given the seriousness and difficulty of the route. We made relatively good time up the route, all things considered. Our approach was smooth and fast, and we found our stashed gear quickly. The first four pitches really were just plain fun. And, even when we ran into hiccups, we worked together (though no question, Shawn carried more of the burden) and stayed positive and constructive, even under stress.

I do think I’ll enjoy some practice closer to the ground, in less remote locations, before taking on something that big and serious again. It was a fantastic adventure, I’m thankful that Shawn was up for it, very thankful for him getting us down safely, and I look forward to going back when I’m a bit stronger and more experienced so that I can share the leading burden the next time around.

Car door to car door was about sixteen and a half hours, I think. After that, we were happy for a relatively light day the next day, and we didn’t get a weather window for our other long objective. Epinephrine will have to wait for another trip.

Trip Reports

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.