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Off the Strip, in pursuit of Epinephrine, couple antes up on Red Rock’s sandstone walls

Words and photographs by Bruce Willey

Deep in the Black Velvet Canyon lies the 2,000 foot wall of Epinepherine, one of Red Rock's most coveted and classic routes.

“What happens in Vegas,” the city’s promotional ode to civic pride, sin and debauchery goes, “stays in Vegas.” Well, maybe so. But if you venture out beyond the city limits and out onto the Aztec sandstone of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, what happens doesn’t just stay there. You bring home a whole lot of recollections that are as hard to forget as a bad gambling debt.

At least that’s been the case for my climbing partner/wife and I. For the last five years we’ve been making an annual, sometimes bi-annual, sometimes even tri-annual pilgrimage to what has become America’s beloved desert climbing Mecca. Usually it’s our first stop before hitting holier and more wholesome destinations in Utah—albeit where the sandstone is less bonded and hard—but Vegas never fails to assume one highlight of the trip.

Over the years we try to knock off at least one big, classic route, something strong and proud that will stay in the memory banks for years to come. And we have most always gone with the intention of climbing Epinephrine, touted as one of the world’s best 5.9’s! (exclamation point not mine), but kept getting skunked.

Year One: Crimson Chrysalis
The first time you climb in Red Rock and get up high on some face you have two realizations. The first is how tailor made the rock is for climbing. From afar the walls look smooth and impossible, but up close the black desert varnish yields to what the place is famous for: perfect incut holds and edges. Top it off with plenty of splitter cracks, slick chimneys, and a roof or two to spice things up.

The other is how utterly wild it is. Most of the approaches enter into one of the ten major canyons where you’re more apt to encounter a herd of big horn sheep than a herd of chubby fugitives from the Vegas Strip who must be from the looks of them, bless their hearts, wishing they were poolside with a stiff, umbrella-laced drink in hand. Sometimes you will, too, after a long approach with 1,500 feet of gain through the hot desert scrub under the forceful morning sun. But once you get on the walls it comes into focus: All this wildness spoons a major American city that is spreading like a skin complaint. The suburbs creep as fast as the concrete dries on the foundations of another condo development while the sounds of another Southwest flight overhead bring ‘em in, one full, peanut-less plane load at time.

But if this sounds too Abbie Hoffmanesque, too “Monkey Wrench Gang,” it’s not. It’s just the way it is. In Red Rock you get used to it and forget all about the close proximity to civilization because there’s so much damn air between your feet to concentrate on anything else.

That’s how it was on the Cloud Tower as we entered the red colored band of rock that gives the climb’s name—Crimson Chrysalis. Nearly 1,000 feet up and for some reason the exposure was starting to eat at me. It was only 5.8 and my head was getting the best of me. Must have been that about every move was sustained 5.8 with nary a 5.7 break in between. Whatever the case, I was more than happy to hand Caroline the lead while I mused in my own private vertigo.

We’d started at dawn to beat the crowds. But it seems there’s always someone whose idea of an alpine start is the exact opposite of most people’s Vegas vacation. Just because you’re a climber doesn’t that alone give you the right to be a decadent and sleep in until say, 5:30 a.m.? Apparently not. So we were slowed down, waiting at the hanging belays with no hope of passing, the exposure gnawing at me, my harness slowly biting off my blood supply.

Nevertheless, it was wonderful. Topping out on the tower we reveled in the views and ate a late lunch, satisfied that the daylong vertical world had ended for the time being. Far from it. What lurked to come was going down the same way we’d come up. A Spanish couple, who’d been riding our chalk bags all the way up, made motions of returning to flat ground. We lurched ahead and set up raps with haste. In Red Rock, all those lovely incut holds can turn into little nightmares on rappel. Stuck ropes are as common as pasties on a floor show downtown. All it takes is to watch a Vegas local. They don’t toss the ropes in the air, but instead carefully coil it at their side, using as small of a knot to tie the two ropes together as possible. Euro death knot is the norm. Indeed, the formally impatient Spaniards saved us not once but three times as they followed us down. So with Crimson done, we figured we were ready for Epinephrine.

Year Two: Jubilant Song
It was a wet and wily late spring by the time we arrived in Vegas. With our Utah trip cut in half by flashfloods and soggy sandstone, the only thing to save our trip from certain disaster was to get Epinephrine done. Stopping off at Desert Rock Sports for beta, we ran into Phillip Swiny, a local guide. “Epi’s chimneys are going to be soaked,” he said. “It’ll need at least three days to dry out since the sun never shines in there.”

Phillip suggested our only option was to wait a day and do something south facing. So we settled into the camp to let the rock dry out. Red Rock Campground is a dry, dusty affair and it’s easy to grow restless there. Sport climbing to the rescue. We headed off to Calico Hills to clip bolts and get our climbing fix. Thoroughly beat, we turned in early, the lights from the Strip over the hill erasing most of the stars.

Rising early, we caught the Red Rock escarpment in alpenglow, the desert wildflowers in full, raucous bloom. Heading up a wash towards Windy Peak, a lone bighorn sheep stood on an outcrop, surveying its domain. I half expected to hear the shrill call of an Indian spirit in the form of a hawk or the whistle of “Rawhide” to add to the desert clichés. All this remoteness, but a 20-minute drive down a bone-rattling dirt road the burning lights of Vegas giving way to a restful day.

Jubilant Song (5.8), first put up by Joe Herbst and Terry Schultz in 1971, is credited with being one of the first rock climbs in the area. Fresh from the Palisades in the High Sierra, Joe came back to Red Rock with a profound appreciation for clean, bold and adventuresome climbing. We figured we’d get a taste of Epinipherine (a route also first authored by Joe) by trying out this route. Though it is rarely done and doesn’t even appear in the Supertopo book, Jubilant Song does come with one very smallish recommendation: Yvon Chouniard called it “the best desert sandstone he had ever climbed.”

Joe responded (quoted here from the excellent book “Red Rock Odyssey”) by saying, “It was such a big thing when Chouniard blessed it; it was as if he said, ‘Thou art rock!’ It made us feel like it wasn’t insane to be climbing in the stuff.”

Funny thing, this insanity—not even that long ago in the scheme of things—Red Rock wasn’t considered worthy. But by the time we reached the base of the climb it felt as though we were entering a time that was before. Unlike a lot of the classics here there was nary an evidence of a chalked hold or a padded out area under the start. This is how it used to be.

We fired up the first two pitches, finding the climbing surprisingly stout for the grade. More like old school 5.9 than the mellower ratings Red Rock is known for. Soon we were under a giant roof before the crux traverse, the wind whipping up, living well up to the peak’s namesake. Swallows zoomed by, sounding like arrows overhead. Caroline moved out under the exposed roof, balancing on thin footholds, fiddling in a piece when she could, then disappeared around the corner. Shadows creased across the face leaving me in the cold shade. I looked out over the expanse of the Las Vegas basin and thought of all the human lives down there—the fêted Vegas stereotypes with its strippers, Elvis impersonators, casino dealers, and the like, but also the average folks, too, who had had all been drawn to this desert for one reason or another. It seemed an unlikely place to plant a city, and weirder still to be so close to it from here, yet so far away at the same time.

After a slick, runout water groove we reached the summit of Windy Peak, and ate lunch. Summits in Red Rock are special somehow, almost high desert alpine in appearance if not essence. Gnarled pine trees lean from the blasts of wind and plates of rock stand weathered by the elements like the hump of a dinosaur. We walked down this landscape in the late afternoon, scrambling down through small slot canyons back to our packs. We were ready for Epinephrine, but it would have to wait another year.

Year Three: Black Orpheus
Orpheus had it bad, even by Greek myth standards. He loses his wife Eurydice not once, but two times. First time to deadly snakes at his own wedding; then when they’re granted a second chance to be together for eternity in the afterlife (because he plays such sweet, mournful music) Orpheus is instructed by the gods to walk in front of his wife and never turn around. It’s an impossible task for a man in love. Just as he’s transitioning from the underworld to the upper-world, he turns around to see if she is still behind him and she dies again.

Sad story as we walk into the beauty of Oak Creek Canyon. Ever vigilant, I keep my beloved wife ahead of me in the lead as we begin our own transition from the underworld to the upper-world.

But there’s more sadness regarding this classic route. After putting up Epinephrine in 1978, Red Rock’s most well-known and prolific climbing partnership of George and Joanne Urioste had begun to dissolve. By the time they began to put Black Orpheus up in one single push, they were divorced. Reaching the two pitches below the top, they ran into both a blank piece of slab and nightfall. Unable to continue up without drilling some bolts, the former couple, now a duo, were forced into a long-night bivy on two small, but separate ledges.

In a sort of morbid way, I was looking forward to seeing those famous, mythic ledges first-hand as we switched leads on the lower half of the route—a beautiful dihedral leading straight up to a few boring and hot fourth-class pitches to a ramp where the climbing turns spicy again. Stepping left, the wall dropped away to the canyon floor. It felt good to be back on the Red Rock sandstone. Liebacking and jams led to a roof that demanded all of my attention. Caroline got the crux pitch at 5.10a and soon we were under a huge dark roof that can be seen from the road. The wall was smooth and though only 5.6, it felt stiff. No time to fiddle in pro. Just lieback and go. At last I reached the belay ledge where one of the dear Urioste’s must have shivered away the night. I could barely stand on it. A squirrel would find it wanting.

The sun was still high in the sky and we took our leisure getting down the complicated descent route that included raps and down climbing endless swaths of slab. No divorce of our own in sight. We were more than ready for Epinephrine, but would have to settle for a beer back at camp.

Year Four: Epinephrine
Or were we? We started to have doubts after we found Beulah’s Book (5.9) and its chimney rather hard. Then we cruised up Tunnel Vision no problem, but the chimneys were featured, and after all, it was only 5.7. We kept hearing about Epi’s notorious chimneys. By chance, we met some strong climbers in camp that we’d climbed with in Utah. They had the route on their minds, so we decided to go cragging in the Black Velvet Canyon (where Epinephrine starts) and watch their progress. They were a strong team and though not spray lords, we knew they climbed 5.12. So when they took all morning and into the early afternoon just to get past the four chimney pitches and onto the tower, we became, how shall we say, very afraid and intimidated.

But there was no backing out now. The weather forecast was perfect finally, without high winds, wetness, high heat, or other previous excuses, and only a month separated us from the longest day of the year—hopefully enough daylight to squeeze in all 15 pitches with a few hours to spare for getting down the long descent.

Oddly enough, we slept well, resigned to the fate that tomorrow would be our day. We already knew the approach, having walked up to the base numerous times to stare at it. In fact a year earlier we’d climbed the first three pitches in the evening to gawk straight up into the dark yaw of the chimney. We looked like scared dweebs, eyes wide, jaws dropped before rapping off into the canyon in utter trepidation. As Larry DeAngelo puts it in the Supertopo guide to Red Rock, words that by then I had nearly memorized, “Slick, continuous, and serious, the chimneys on Epinephrine are not to underestimated. Stretches with no protection can only be navigated with calm, collected movement upward, and the slippery rock can easily rattle nerves.”

My nerves were well on their way to being rattled and we hadn’t even climbed the dang thing. Then again, Epi also boasts the distinction of being one of the best 5.9 routes in the world. Pretty high order, and since 5.9 is about my favorite kind of climbing and all that I’m much good at, we figured we must give it a try. Plus, I like the fact that 5.9 is a highly ambiguous rating. You know when you’re on a 5.10 because it could be 5.9, or vice versa. 5.9 is where the off-widths dwell, where undefined weirdness and wildness gets a randomly assigned human number, where in the days of climbing yore, bad-asses in woolen knickers got out the aid gear for anything harder. 5.9 was the limit of human possibility. Only angels knew the pleasures of anything harder. In essence, 5.9 is where the wild things are for the common climber. Or was …

I suppose I’m stuck in another time in this age of gods and godesses like Sharma and Davis. But that’s okay, too. Being retro has its positives, especially when you can still get excited (and wobbly) over a mere 15-pitch 5.9 route that’s been done so many times now the dark desert varnish in the chimneys is buffed alabaster smooth by humanity’s collective ass in a harness.

And that gives me calm as I move up the first pitch of chimneys. So far not so bad. Easy even. The pro comes and goes and I begin to wonder what all the fuss was about. Second pitch (the wife and I agreed that we’d do the leads in chunks to save time; somehow my straw must have been short that day) the chimney tightens down and I’m leaving knee skin on the wall. It begins to feel desperate, and it’s not helped by looking down between my thighs at the last piece socked in 15 feet below. I inch up slowly but feel the feet slipping. My legs are too long to fit. No handholds, no footholds, just the polished rock to wedge into. Only hope and many curses to echo around the walls of the chimney. Caroline encourages; her voice from far below sounding in this chamber like she is next to me.

Finally, I arrive at the belay and clip in. I would rather not look up at another heinous chimney pitch above, but can’t resist. This is the one I’ve been dreading, the exposed pitch that jaunts heartily out over the rest of the chimney. Yet somehow it looks friendlier, inviting even, and possesses some features on the otherwise black walls. I bring the wife up, she groveling in the same places I did. Her encouragement is forged, as if she is outdoing herself in case I suddenly say I’ve had enough and hand her the lead. But we have a deal, and I head up the last chimney, which turns out to be one of the most memorable and enjoyable pitches “in the world!”

We lunch atop the tower. It is only an hour till noon. At this point it would be a shame to insert some edifying chestnut about overcoming life’s fears at the end of this piece, so I’ll do it now before the next 11 pitches.

Here goes: Perhaps it’s best not to make parallels between what happens in the lowlands and what happens when you’re climbing. Save the cheap cheese for those corporate climbing life skills camps where CEO’s learn to trust each other for one day, then go back to being sharks. But it must be said that in climbing at least, it’s all about what happens in the now. Foresight and hindsight are where it gets all twisted out of reality. Sort of like the lowland life, but not even close.

Caroline cruises the next few pitches, leading up into a beautiful dihedral. I lead the last pitch before the exposure eases, up a corner and under a roof, 1,500 feet of air under my back. It feels satisfying and good. Then wandering up fourth class slabs to a spirited traverse that ends on one of the desert’s proudest pines.

There, we eat a burrito, mashed to gooey shreads by chimneys. We take off our shoes and sit a while facing the immense backcountry of Red Rock, our backs to the Vegas Strip.

“I could do that route every year till I get very old,” I say.

“So could I,” Caroline says, a smile spreading to her eyes.

We drink the rest of our water and begin the long descent with plenty of light to spare. We take our time, walking the long ridge, then cutting down to the desert floor. Like all good days we want it to last longer, but there was no stopping it.

Bruce Willey caught the desert climbing fever when he met his wife in Joshua Tree. Since then, they have climbed all over the Southwest when they’re not climbing in their hometown of Bishop. To see more of his writing see www.brucewilley.com and photography at www.plumephotoproductions.com.