“I think the petroglyphs say, ‘Beware of the rock-knockers,’” said Joe Haynes, a wayward Kentuckian who is now a Las Vegas local climber/developer. He was giving Keith Ladzinski and me the extended tour of greater Mesquite, a town with all the bad parts of Vegas and none of the goods. He spun the tires of his new red F150 truck in reverse. We screeched out of the lot and drove wildly toward the limestone mountains above the desert.
“Ceüse—it’s here, just 20 minutes away,” Joe promised, mashing the accelerator like a crazy redneck visionary thrusting the uninitiated toward sport-climbing heaven. In this case, heaven was Arrow Canyon, a newly developed defile just one hour from Vegas, but lifetimes from the shadow of its excess.
Arrow Canyon gets its name, we learned, from the many arrowheads that lie on the ground amidst the green grass and white pebbles. These remnants of an old Native American battle tell the story of one tribe that was chased into the dead-end slot and massacred by its enemies.
“There’s thousands of routes out here,” Joe said. “Just tell them all to bring bolts and beer and no damn red tags!”
About a year ago, Joe was instrumental in resolving an access issue with Arrow Canyon. The approach crossed a corner of private land, and now it no longer does.
Twenty minutes later, the truck slammed to a halt.
“Get out, slow—and don’t close the door!” Joe screamed. He had just put the front driver-side wheel of his truck over a 200-foot abyss. Keith and I weighted the back bumper as Joe inched the tire back onto what more closely resembled an ATV trail than a four-wheel-drive road.
I had known Joe for precisely two hours.
The next day, our group of eight climbed in an isolated fold of Clark County, Nevada, several hundred feet down at the bottom of an otherworldly limestone slot canyon. We hadn’t seen the sun all afternoon but, despite the fact that we were heading straight into winter, temperatures were ideal for sticking dynos and pulling on slick stone.
While other climbers worked on sending steep routes out of the Swamp Cave, I walked over to the “slabs” (which were really vertical and bulgy) with Chris Miller (aka Pistol), who had been pulled out of middle school, presumably with someone’s permission. At 14 and with only half a year of climbing under his belt, Chris has already onsighted a 5.12a. Quiet by nature, he spoke with his confidence on the stone as we enjoyed a couple of routes.
I pondered having climbed longer than Pistol has been alive, and thought further on old age as we cranked on stone half a billion years old. The fossil-riddled rock is glassy with cobbled sections reminiscent of Maple Canyon, Utah. The routes are sporadically situated along the course of less than a mile crunch up the canyon wash, with sometimes less than 20 feet between the walls.
Arrow is a geologic anomaly, loaded with tamarisk, thorny acacias and grasses—it is both beautiful and unique in this scorched, eroded and dusty landscape. Barrel cactus and creosote grow from the walls, which are, in some places, decorated with Anasazi artwork—animal figures, calendars, clan names or boundary markers—thousands of years old.
Joe shared a story with us about a summer flash flood. As a storm passed, he said, the plateau above drained into Arrow Canyon, which was acting like a huge funnel. Joe, his wife, Stacy, and their friend and local route developer Johnny Groppenbacher decided they wanted to witness this powerful phenomenon firsthand. They stripped and swam the low spots in the wash and then persevered with a wet 5.9 solo to reach the lip of a nearby dam, passing the overflow spout, which shot water like nails from a blunderbuss.
“The rain flushes the desert, kind of like a big toilet, and we were swimming in it—effluvium, that’s the best way I can describe it,” Joe said.
Natural effluvium is fine, but imagine what that might look like if local real-estate developers have their way. Plans are in the works to build 80,000 homes and 10 golf courses just to the west. It would be a shame to lose this amazing place to careless land developing. For climbers, it’s easy to head elsewhere, but what of the Southern Paiute who live just down the wash bordering the Arrow Wilderness, on the Moapa Paiute reservation? A former chairperson for the tribe was quoted, “You non-Indians can move if you pollute the land on which you live, but we are created for this place, so we must face whatever happens here.”
One evening before we left I sat in the mouth of the Swamp Cave deep in the heart of Arrow and stared up at a swath of starry sky fringed by the jagged edge of the wall. As daylight faded, pockets of air shifted through the canyon. A kind of breathing—giant respirations—lent credibility to the local Paiute belief that everything in the natural world is alive.
Hiking back out, beneath the daunting canyon walls, I pondered how I might achieve the harmony and sustainability I had observed in the natural confines of Arrow Canyon.
A professional transient, Bennett Barthelemy attempts to balance his love of climbing and wild places with the goal of sharing them with others.
You need a 4WD or high-clearance vehicle to reach Arrow Canyon. Travel north on I-15 to the Glendale exit (45 minutes from Vegas). Turn left (west) on State Route 168 and travel roughly 9.5 miles to a paved road on your left. Turn left and follow the paved road for 0.3 miles. On your right will be a two-tracked dirt road. Follow the two-track for 1.0 mile, to the wilderness boundary. The mouth of the slot canyon is 1.3 miles from the wilderness boundary. The vertical climbing starts at the mouth of the slot canyon. The cave climbing is roughly 0.6 miles from the beginning of the canyon.
Las Vegas BLM
In progress for adjacent Wilderness (to include climbing).
» A Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is on the left side of Arrow Canyon as you enter. Currently no climbing is allowed there.
» The rock art is protected by law. Climb at least 100 feet away from it.
» Arrow Canyon is a sacred religious site to the local Moapa Paiute.
» The 3-mile canyon is Federally designated Wilderness so driving up the canyon is prohibited. Park just before the Wilderness Boundary and walk the last mile.
» No new bolting is allowed in the Wilderness Area.
LOCAL CLIMBING ORGANIZATION
Las Vegas Climbers Liaison Council. Website: lvclc.org