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Defying the Red Rock Bolt Ban

04-Nov-2010
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Long, airy moderates like Prince of Darkness (5.10c), Epinephrine (5.9) and Crimson Chrysalis (5.8) made Red Rock Canyon famous. But what most climbers don't know about this 196,000-acre national conservation area just outside of Las Vegas is how much more potential it has -- and yet, more unfortunately, how much potential there is to lose.

In fact, many of Red Rock's best routes are new, or just neglected as climbers line up for the same old classics. Routes like The Warrior (5.11a), Adventure Punks (5.10d), Lady Luck (5.7) and Drifting (5.11c) are testaments to the area's continuing vast potential, and to climbers' willingness to continue climbing despite a bolting ban imposed by land managers.

Somewhere between the last slot-machine-equipped Starbucks and the first sighting of wild burros is a battlefront, where the war between expansion and conservation is being fought. The outcome has implications beyond the dwindling swaths of cactus and creosote bushes, threatening a loss of that wild, un-Vegas experience that climbers have long enjoyed on the majestic walls of Red Rock.

Now, with continued delays by the Bureau of Land Management to legalize anchor replacement and new bolts, and the pending construction of a 20,000-person community on the hillside facing the park, Red Rock is in trouble.

Garrett Grove and I, two Washington climbers, escaped soggy Seattle this spring for our chance to explore what I had heard described as a bunch of amazing routes nobody ever does.

On our sunrise approach to the trip's first climb, we craned our necks to look at Cactus Flower Tower, its major corner system casting a striking shadow up the wall. This face houses one of Red Rock's most obvious lines: The Warrior (5.11a), 1,100 feet of right-leaning corners and cracks that beg to be climbed. So why, until just five years ago, had no one ever climbed it?

That was the looming question Rob Dezonia, a Vegas local, would ask his brother Pat each time they walked past Cactus Flower Tower. In the fall of 2006, Rob decided to answer it with a car-to-car ground-up attempt at the new line. But before he could, he needed to cajole the late-rising Pat into a pre-dawn start by promising him a free sushi dinner. Armed with an arsenal of gear, the brothers found five varied corner pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 climbing, run-out patina face holds, and confirmation that unclimbed classics still await.

We contemplated the latest guidebook's description of this new-school classic.

Arduous approach. Yep, no problem there.

Six #3 Camalots. We've got four I guess we can run it out

Kneepads are nice. Hmm, those clouds look a little dark maybe something else today?

Garrett and I fumbled excuses, turned the page and picked another all-day adventure: a journey up 2,000 feet of rarely touched rock via Lady Luck (5.7) and Celtic Cracks (5.10a). As we veered off toward First Creek Canyon, I glanced up, and it was The Warrior that again held my gaze.

Snow and sun alternately showered our cactus-crowded ledge atop Lady Luck. We eyed suburbia's push toward the Wilderness boundary, a line we couldn't see but knew must exist beyond the mouth of these canyons. I wondered if our next visit to the park would show this boundary marked with condos rather than cacti.

==

Red Rock Canyon is a national conservation area administered by the American West's biggest landowner, the Bureau of Land Management -- or, as environmentalists deride, the Bureau of Logging and Mining. In terms of large climbing areas in the West, Red Rock (as well as Indian Creek) is an anomaly in that it's not a national park -- a difference with important ramifications.

Lost in a sea of agency acronyms is the fact that the NPS and BLM espouse vastly different policies toward climbers. With frequently updated management plans and dedicated search-and-rescue squads, the NPS can be seen as a bit like a mollycoddling parent, while the BLM acts more like a laissez-faire babysitter. While this arrangement has worked for Indian Creek, in Red Rock, the hands-off approach only emerged after the implementation of steep fines to enforce a total bolting ban in the park's wilderness. Climbers have been restricted, with little chance of redress, by an out-of-touch manager. Although the BLM does list rockclimbing right next to weddings on its recreation website, the agency, just to use one example, recommends decades-old guidebooks, ignoring the four most recent generations of guidebooks to the area.

In 1980, much of Red Rock was designated as a wilderness study area, a designation that remained in place until 2002, when the Rainbow Mountain and La Madre Mountain Wilderness areas were congressionally signed into existence. Together, these wilderness areas comprise 67,000 acres and the majority of Red Rock's canyons, walls, and most famous climbs. From the time the region was designated as a study area in 1980, No bolting was supposed to have occurred, says Sendi Kalcic, current Red Rock Wilderness Specialist at the BLM. The no-new-bolts policy was eventually put into writing in the management plan adopted in 1995. Today climbers who add bolts risk facing a mandatory appearance in federal court. And Red Rock law enforcement officer Erica Schumaker describes a penalty of probably $500 at the minimum.

Glancing through Jerry Handren's 2007 Red Rocks: A Climber's Guide, you may notice first-ascent information from the 1970s, but few similar details for the modern classics. Due to the bolting ban, officially anonymous routes are now the norm in Red Rock, and on this trip, Garrett and I were keen to learn if the clandestine efforts had produced routes that stacked up with those of the past.

The next day, we strode the crest of a towering fin of white stone separating the Pine Creek and Juniper Creek drainages. We compared echoes down either side of the precipitous escarpment and gawked at the Jet Stream Wall straight ahead. Lacking both ambition and the required four #00 TCUs for the crux of the 600-foot Jet Stream (5.12c), we set our sights on Drifting (5.11c), a 500-foot plumb line of patina edges, discontinuous seams, and recently drilled bolts. With no other people in sight all day, we enjoyed Drifting's intricate face climbing and thin cracks protected by trad gear. Unlike the experience of climbing Levitation 29 or Time's Up, topping out on Drifting didn't leave us with the bittersweet sense of having climbed bolted cracks. After an outstanding route, we joked about owing the first-ascent team a round of beers. Luckily for our ever-dwindling trip budget, anonymous creditors rarely collect.

Early in our 10-day stay, we drove the park's one-way loop road to the Pine Creek trailhead. The planned double-header was a pair of neglected trad classics: Challenger (5.10d) and Jupiter II (5.11), 500 and 600 feet, respectively. On a day when Las Vegas registered winds of 65 miles per hour, we spent 10 hours on the Challenger Wall, a cliff of which our guidebook had warned, Seems to somehow amplify any winds that may be blowing. Despite our chapped and bleeding lips, the immaculate corners and improbable roofs tempered our discomfort.

From high on the Challenger Wall, we watched the ambient light of Las Vegas glow above the darkening vista of Blue Diamond Hill. From the sixth and final pitch of Jupiter II we pulled our rap ropes and crossed our fingers. Our ropes slid through the anchor and instantly eloped with the wind, their flapping joined by a cacophony of crashing and tearing noises that sounded like rock fall but were only violent gusts accelerating through the canyon's narrow corridor. To no avail we pulled on the stuck ropes, now a tangle disappearing sideways into the blackness. We abandoned one cord and reached the ground with our second, knowing we would have to re-climb Challenger to retrieve the first.

One of Red Rock's best aspects is the sense of isolation and wilderness you can experience despite being so close to urban sprawl. Only after the sun sets do you see the lurid glow of the Strip, and during the day you are able to enjoy desert panoramas of yucca and sagebrush from high on your route.

==

One of these lonesome hillsides adjacent to Red Rock is perhaps Nevada's most valuable real estate -- 2,400 acres atop Blue Diamond Hill. The derelict gypsum mine now forms a geographical barrier between urban Las Vegas and Red Rock Canyon. It is here that developer Jim Rhodes is trying to gain the green light for a sprawling community on Red Rock's doorstep.

Describing Rhodes as controversial is like describing Fred Beckey as prolific. This successful yet infamous developer drew the ire of environmentalists after building the Red Rock Country Club near the Canyon. In a 2009 Las Vegas Review-Journal article, written by John Edwards, about Rhodes' petition to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, Rhodes was cited as being grilled by the Arizona Corporation Commission after he admitted to illegally giving campaign contributions to Senator Harry Reid and then County Commissioner Dario Herrera. In the same article, Erin Kenny, the former Clark County commissioner, was described as someone who regularly pushed or supported proposals that benefited [Rhodes], and quoted as admitting to being paid over $200,000 a year by the developer between the time of her guilty plea and 30-month sentencing on corruption charges.

After an April 2010 county commission decision to allow for denser zoning on the land facing Red Rock was made in his favor, Rhodes decided to pay the $490,000 in delinquent taxes on this suddenly more valuable property. He can now take a major project proposal back to the county commission, an expansion-friendly board that recently saw four of its seven members convicted of taking bribes from developers.

The current development proposal facing the park is likely to mirror Rhodes' 2003 plan for 5,500 homes, stoplights and strip malls.

Evan Blythin, a local activist on the citizens' advisory panel, says, Such a development is going to ruin one of the greatest monuments in the world. It will be a visual eyesore. Rhodes' first proposed development here was thwarted by the creation of a state law preventing dense development adjacent to wilderness. But in 2009 a federal judge struck down the law, and put expansion back on the table. A suburb of 20,000 people may become the immediate neighbor of wilderness.

After finding a straight-sided chock stamped VB on our trip up Jupiter II, I phoned the long-time desert climber Paul Van Betten about the 1986 first ascent. He described early forays into upper Pine Creek as hikes up the pristine canyon, punctuated by Holy shit! moments, as more and more obvious unclimbed lines appeared on the walls.

Jupiter II is one of Van Betten's all-time favorites and he was happy to learn that the wind still plays its noisy tricks. Our conversation turned to the ban on route development inside the park, and plans for a huge development next door. Van Betten, like many locals, is disgusted by Rhodes' record of expansion, and describes the BLM as really silent on the issue. The BLM office responsible for Red Rock confirms a lack of a stance on development outside the park boundaries.

Van Betten has witnessed 30 years of changes to the park, and a decade-long delay on completing a climbing-management plan, despite the fact that over 60,000 climbers come to Red Rock each year. It's a dereliction of duty on the BLM's part, Van Betten says. Adamant about these peaks' vast potential, he insists that Red Rock has 1,000 Levitation 29s, if the bolting could go on, though he expresses reservations about the desirability of any other bolted crack climbs. Speaking candidly, Van Betten also sees the bolting restrictions as a reaction to the tactics of local climbers, whose history of chipping at nearby limestone crags has been a failure to police ourselves.

On our fifth day in Red Rock, proper spring temperatures finally arrived, and it looked like we wouldn't have to fight over the single belay jacket. The day's objective was Adventure Punks (5.10d), a five-pitch route in Pine Creek Canyon that Van Betten, Richard Harrison and Nick Dordblom established in 1983. These climbers, along with the likes of Jay Smith, were the original Adventure Punks, a prolific cadre that established some of the area's best and hardest routes, adhering to a mentality of minimal fixed gear.

We completed a two-hour hike, and 500-plus feet of stellar climbing, and then I racked up beneath the route's last pitch: a knee-scraping, ankle-scarring 5.10d offwidth that I realized too late would surely punish me. The wide maw loomed overhead, and I contemplated how I al ays get nervous about d grades. Knowing the history of the final pitch of Adventure Punks, which nearly ended the lives of its first ascentionists, only worsened my anxiety.

==

Harrison, climbing on Nordblom's hip belay, had onsighted the offwidth finale, running it out on the last 60 feet of left-leaning, arcing corner. While seconding the pitch, the swami-clad Nick Nordblom violated one of the Adventure Punks' rules. He fell. With almost no gear in place above him, Nordblom cartwheeled out of the corner and across the wall. The shouts of both men filled Pine Creek Canyon, joined by the distinctive ping! of a piton coming undone as Harrison's belay ripped. Both climbers ultimately found themselves dangling from a single 1/4 Rawl bolt, which the bolt-shy Harrison had grudgingly tapped into place.

With courage derived from the presence of the multiple cams unavailable to the Adventure Punks at the time, I squirmed and squeezed up the slot. Moving my chalkbag and #6 out onto my left hip, and walking the #5 Camalot up the crack, I imagined Harrison, 27 years prior, adjusting his swami until his knot was on the side, placing his single #4 Friend, and committing to the head-spinning runout. It's a different story today. I placed all my big cams, clipped two retro-bolts, and finished. I claimed success, though perhaps not style.

The Adventure Punks avoided bolting to preserve a tradition. Today's climbers avoid bolting to preserve their bank accounts. And those who do bolt, avoid admitting it. When $150-per-bolt citations were proposed by a ranger at an early meeting of the Climbers' Liaison Council in the 1980s, Van Betten stood up and offered a ranger $300 on the spot. I'd just seen a new splitter crack and wanted to buy an anchor. The ranger wasn't amused. Bolt installation went underground and has remained there ever since.

Prior to 2008, Red Rock actually had a resident climber ranger who would occasionally allow anchor replacements. In theory anyone could get a re-bolting permit, recalls Greg Barnes of the American Safe Climbing Association, but in practice it was nearly only the ASCA. But the ranger left and for the last two years, due to an expired Environmental Assessment, even the ASCA has been barred from replacing any aging hardware. In March of this year, the Las Vegas Climbers' Liaison Council pushed for a renewed Environmental Assessment, which would allow 1-to-1 replacement of dangerous bolts. Such a document was written and planned for plementation by June, but as of September no action had been taken. The BLM now hopes to update re-bolting policies during the winter of 2010-2011.

Given the BLM's history of delays in addressing this issue, anonymous replacement and new routing are likely to continue. According to Lee Kirk, the BLM's Lead Outdoor Recreation Planner, the BLM is currently working with the Las Vegas Climbers' Liaison Council to develop a memorandum of understanding of its plans for interacting with the community. Although an overdue step in the right direction, the memorandum will not change the area's new bolting rules. That will require an updated Climbing Management Plan. And climbing policy, Kirk says, is contingent upon a new Wilderness Plan. The first draft of such a plan isn't expected by the BLM until early 2011, and according to Kirk, a completed plan is years away.

By our final day in Red Rock, Garrett and I had run out of excuses and, with a decidedly minor arsenal of gear, set out to answer the call of The Warrior. A derelict roadbed, these days the domain of climbers and coyotes, led us toward an obvious brush-filled gully. Shaded by the initial chimney, we pulled gear from our packs, and pine and cactus needles from our shirts and underwear. Then we were off.

Living up to all expectations, The Warrior was a demanding line: at times excellent, at times scary, and ultimately unforgettable.

Atop the spire we pantomimed the endless fist jams on pitch three, still thrilled. Having finally reached the summit, the last one of the trip, we were reluctant to go down. The pointed shadows of the mountains, like a yawning line of teeth, stretched eastward on the desert floor. We tried to spot our silhouettes, imagining them extending above Cactus Flower Tower toward an invisible boundary between wilderness and whatever lies beyond. The evening sun dimmed while the lights of Las Vegas grew, directing our gazes toward development and the very thing we had sought to escape. Just over the hill, it was approaching.

Blake Herrington learned to climb in the North Cascades of Washington, and now resides in Denver, navigating the wilderness of part-time employment and full-time climbing obsession.

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