This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 228 (August 2015).
One … two … three … Four counts of silence.
SMASH! The barrage of blocks exploded across the ground almost a thousand feet below. “Is everyone OK?” Sean yelled. My heart pounded in my ear. Either no one was below us, or everyone was to badly injured to answer. It was November 2005. Andrea and I had just spent a few days in Indian Creek on the way to Las Vegas. We had made plans to meet our friends Sean and Ken, who were training in Red Rocks for their upcoming AMGA Rock Instructor exam. They had heard that the walk-off from Dream of Wild Turkeys might be on the exam.
“If you’re down for some free guiding,” Sean said, “we’ll do all the work.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.” Thinking: That would cost someone about $500. And: Good—I don’t have to climb with her.
Driving here from Indian Creek, Andrea and I had argued for the entire seven excruciating hours. We pulled into Mile 13 Campground screaming. The only thing we could agree on was that when we got home we were breaking up. We arrived to a freak desert storm raging outside, reflecting our mood.
In the morning the skies were clear. Sean and Ken (not their real names) came over to our site to say hello and make plans for the climb. They found us silently stewing, trying to make coffee but were so psyched to be climbing they were oblivious to the tension. We were happy just to talk to anyone else.
“This is going to be awesome,” Ken said. “Neither of us have done the upper pitches and walk-off, so this will be full adventure mode. It might take all day.”
Most climbers rappel after the seventh pitch rather than finish the last several hundred feet and walk miles down through the desert labyrinth.
The next morning we started at 6:00 a.m., hoping to reach the route ahead of other teams. We moved quickly up the first seven pitches of the dozen-pitch Dream of Wild Turkeys (5.10a), with fun edging, cracks and positive flakes on hard sandstone. Pitch eight, 900 feet up, was a 5.0 transition into more 5.9+/10a climbing. A wide, flat belay station led to sloping ledges and vegetated ramps, with a final short leftward traverse to an even better belay. Ken, Sean and Andrea all stood above as I cleaned the pitch. We joked and talked easily, and the act of climbing dimmed the tension between Andrea and me.
Following the last ramp directly to the right of the team, I felt something move. I was just beginning to mantel when, with a low grinding sound, the thick, dining-room-table-sized block under me peeled away from the wall. Grass and dirt crumbled as a crack opened before my eyes. I was acutely aware of details: the gritty sand surface of the block, the sudden smell of the fresh rain-soaked dirt behind it, and a rush of speed as we accelerated. I looked down at the blurred treetops and red sands as, for long seconds, I rode the block.
The rope finally tightened. Ken braced for my 30-foot pendulum, and the giant block fell away from my hands, rotating slowly, hurtling toward the slabs at the start of the route. It bounced and broke into television-sized pieces, all spinning toward the valley floor. I watched them disappear as my feet and hands hit the wall.
Oh, no—were there people below us? All four of us screamed, “ROCK! ROCK!”
We had been hearing voices behind us, and others up canyon toward Epinephrine and nearby on Prince of Darkness; Black Velvet Canyon is historic and popular. Fear shot through me. Visions of smashed bodies filled my mind. Could I have possibly just killed someone? I prayed no one was hurt.
Quickly, Sean extended his anchor and stretched out for a better view. “IS EVERYONE OK?!”
Well below us, on Prince of Darkness, a team yelled up with astonished faces, shrugging their shoulders. One climber gave a tentative thumbs up.
“I think everyone’s good!” he yelled.
I scrambled the last 30 feet to the belay and slumped on the ledge, hands shaking.
“Dude,” Ken asked. “Are you OK?”
“Uh … Yes. I think so. I rode that thing.”
“Yeah, well, I saw that. Do you want to keep going?”
“Uh …” I was still shaking. “How many pitches to go?”
“I don’t know, maybe five. We could rap down the Prince to see if everyone is OK,” he said, scanning the canyon floor for movement.
“It may take us more time to get down than up,” said Sean.
I knew that was true and that rapping can be more dangerous than climbing.
“But if you want to head down, we get it,” Ken said.
We sat for 10 to 20 minutes, peering up and down the canyon and straining to hear any commotion below us. Nothing. Only wind. We drank some water. We waited.
“OK,” Sean said. “Let’s get moving. If we hear Flight for Life, we rap back down. We aren’t far from the top.”
Each pitch was terrifying. A white nick showed in the rope, 30 feet from the end, where my pendulum had abraded the sheath to the core, reminding me each pitch of what else could easily have happened.
As we approached the summit, the sun arced to the horizon and the rock quality deteriorated. Chicken heads snapped and footholds crumbled in sandy chunks. November days are short, and a long cold night loomed. We reached the summit just as the sun set, and dug through our packs for shoes and headlamps.
“Wait,” Andrea said, as she shuffled through her pack. “I don’t have my headlamp.”
We all looked at each other.
“OK. We’ll take it slow and stay close,” Sean said.
We struggled through the scrub, cactus and boulders high above Las Vegas, following each path, but all kept ending at a shrubbery cul-de-sac or worse: Once I froze just above a cliff, stopping Andrea and myself only because my headlamp failed to reflect off any plants.
The distant lights of the Strip oriented us east, toward the car. Finally, well after midnight, just as the night cold was settling in and our breath rose in the headlamp light, we reached the desert floor. We were down.
“Should we go back up the canyon to see if anyone’s hurt?” I asked.
“It’s 1 in the morning. I think they would be in the hospital by now,” Andrea said.
“Or the morgue,” Ken added.
Andrea and I looked at each other, with no bitterness now, only sympathy.
“I’m done trad climbing,” I said. “Only sunny sport climbing for me. Near a beach, with beer.”
“Really?” she said, eyes lighting up. “Can I have your rack?”
The next day we asked around the campground to confirm that we got lucky in not hurting anyone.
Two weeks after the Red Rocks trip, Andrea and I were trad climbing again, together. We married in 2009 and still haven’t been back to Red Rocks.
Charlie Boas lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Andrea, and their two children. He works for Black Diamond Equipment.