Conquistadors of the Useless

It was cold. I laid in my tent playing the same game I always play with my climbing partners on cold mornings with looming scary days in the mountains ahead, and waited to see if they will stir or if I can sabotage the day by going back to sleep. But I always decide to jump up and make coffee–not out of obligation to myself or some route, but I think more out of allegiance and respect. We drove nearly five hours to get here, and we didn’t do that to sit in a freezing ass tent staring at each other. 17 degrees, and I stare towards the east watching the glow of a soon to rise sun illuminate the horizon. I guess 17 degrees isn’t all that cold by some standards, but, then again, most standards don’t include climbing up a vertical sandstone face using only feet and hands for a thousand feet to stand on an even colder and more exposed summit. I don’t know about you, but that’s my idea of a good time.

By the time Dave emerged from the tent I’d watched the sun rise, bringing with it warmth and hope to an otherwise freezing and desolate landscape; scarfed down a hearty portion of oatmeal, bringing nourishment and warmth to my body; and was working on my second cup of very strong black coffee, bringing the senses to life and a spring to the step. When faced with improbable circumstances I tend to flood my woes with a grin and a wholehearted laugh. That was what Dave woke up to. Me in a crazed state of mania implemented to detract from the heinous Red Rock conditions. And you know why I know it works? Because it’s infectious, and he greeted me back with a big real shit eating grin.

The Red Rock park loop doesn’t open until 8am, so unless you’re really trying to get a huge day in, there isn’t all that much need for an alpine start. It was my first time really focusing on routes that were within the park loop, but with true winter conditions and potential storms incoming later in the week, the crowds were thinned down to only the gritty, willing, and desperate who were prepared to face the cold. I don’t know if we were all that willing or desperate; I think that we just dropped everything in life for a week and drove 400 miles to get here and weren’t going home empty handed. We certainly made the right choice.

It was still cold when we got to the trail head, and I set a heart thumping pace to keep our bodies warm and minds off the cold. I knew from experience that the ground was the least of our worries. The ground is warm, and the ground provides shelter, even in the desert. Not until you’re exposed on the face of a sheer cliff hanging in a harness with nowhere to run or hide from the frigid wind or any control on the pace of your partner can you understand how the wall can become a prison of sorts, and the elements your tormentor.

The approach was for the Brownstone Wall on Juniper Peak, an approach that will get anybody’s heart rate up, and by the time we made it up the slabs it felt like we’d already climbed a few thousand feet. Yet, the sun was still hidden, and as I climbed the first two pitches together in one long 230ft pitch I battled to keep the feeling in my fingers. When I passed the crux I sprinted 100ft without placing any protection before reaching a bolt 20ft shy of the belay.

Pitch after pitch the sky grew darker, and the air colder, and the freedom of the wall stopped feeling friendly. I only brought one rope, so there was no going back; the only retreat was up. After 6 world class pitches we were about 800ft off the ground and I found a ledge with a little nook. I belayed Dave up and we sat in our wind protected haven of stone and trees. Little speckles of snow and ice started to shower down on us. I looked to Dave and asked him if he had me on belay. He nodded, yes. I climbed.

Fifteen minutes later, sitting atop the summit with of shit eating grins and infected with childish crazed laughter we forgot about the perils we imagined, and we disregarded the moments of doubt that crept in while we were hanging stationary on the wall getting blasted by the frigid wind. We ran around like children screaming on the top of a mountain.

When we woke up the next morning, we did it all again. As Yvon Chouinard would have it, we are the conquistadors of the useless.