Any time my friends and I end up at Del Taco in Las Vegas at midnight, there has got to be some sort of story.
“Well, what do you want to do now?” Andy asked.
“Well, I don’t really want to cook” I said as we set our packs into the back of the Subaru; “we could go into Vegas and find something to eat.”
“I’d be down for that” she replied as we stood silent and tired in the dark of Red Rock’s Oak Creek Canyon parking lot, the current and ancestral lands of Nüwüwü (Chemehuevi),
Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), Newe (Western Shoshone), and others.† We were the only car left, and despite the late hour, there was no parking ticket; our late exit pass was supposed to be good for two hours post gate closure: seven o’clock. It was eleven thirty.
Worn, but happy to be back, we settled into the front seats and Andy searched the internet for a taco place. Less than a mile from the Albertsons on the edge of town, Google showed her a Del Taco. There was even a drive through. After a slow creep down the parking lot’s dirt road, we hit the loop road, then NV-159, turned left and headed for town.
Eighteen hours earlier we had sat in line at the loop road’s gate, waiting for the six o’clock opening. We followed a couple cars past the Calico Hills turnouts and they all found their destinations by the High Point Overlook as we continued the nearly 12 miles to Oak Creek Parking Lot. After having done the six AM walk in from the road, we decided doing the drive and cutting a mile or more off of our approach seemed to make more sense. Of course we knew there was a good chance we wouldn’t be fast, so we got the aforementioned late exit pass as well.
After the usual parking lot adjustments and bathroom visits, we shouldered our packs and made our way across the creosote and cholla dotted landscape, loose rocks and sand, paving the way. We matched pace with the sun as both crept onward: the sun down the cliffs and us toward the canyon.
Our previous foray into Oak Creek to climb the popular Jonny Vegas left us with knowledge about our approach, so we made the correct turns without consultation and took mental notes for the return as we made quick work of the distance.
By seven thirty Andy had racked up and was leading the first pitch of the Solar Slab Gully. A couple days prior we had watched a group of four solo it; it wasn’t confidence inspiring. This day, on our left a group of two that were embarking on the first pitches of Jonny Vegas were fishing for compliments and giving platitudes to each other (“sorry, I am sewing this up”—he had four pieces in—”but it is early and I am getting warmed up”). After pitch one, we stretched the rope out and listened hard to hear each others wants and needs and “topped out” four pitches higher just behind the two Jonny Vegas climbers, who were also looking to link into Solar Slab. So, we sat and waited and watched them climb Solar Slab’s runout first pitch in La Sportiva approach shoes. They inspired confidence, but Andy and I chose to keep our climbing shoes on.
We tucked in behind them for the remainder of the route, which slowly became less than Solar and their approach shoe climbing didn’t mean they were actually quicker than us. We reached the typical rappel spot, if we were going to rap and not walk, around three. The breeze had been blowing for a bit and the sun had turned behind the buttress. We looked at each other: to walk or to rap, that is the question. We were both cold. We had the beta and the sun was shining on the rock above us. It seemed if not smart, at least unanimous. As the climbers above us realized that their eighty meter rope wouldn’t do the initial rappel and were reascending the line, I scrambled up the last pitch and while passing them, bid them adieu. “I think we’re going to do the walk off” I said as I moved upward.
“Whoa, that is another thousand feet of climbing” one said.
“Yeah”, I replied, it seems better to keep moving than to be standing around in the shade waiting to rappel.”
“Well, good luck” he responded.
“Thanks, you too! Have fun”
I made the belay in the sun, slinging a huge boulder seventy feet further and belaying up Andy. We looked at each other and questioned our decision. There was still time to rappel. We weren’t too committed. A little hem and a little haw had us reconfirming our choice. We picked up the rope and walked a couple hundred feet to the base of a big, beautiful, low-angle, corner. For me, it turned out to be the best pitch of the climb.
After regrouping above the corner, we donned approach shoes and layers and scrambled upward toward a vague shoulder that the guidebook talked about. A small shoulder, then above, a bigger one. We snapped a selfie at our highpoint and looked for the cairns, small user made piles of rock, that were supposed to lead the way. Nothing. Well, one, but a cairn of one a trail does not make. Scouting brought nothing. Andy used her phone to reference Mt Project. Some pictures gave more beta and a deep dive into the comments even more, all as the daylight began to loose potency. We left our shoulder and walked back down to a lower one; sure enough a line of cairns led across a shelf—to a dead end. Below lay a pillar and a gully. Could they be down there we wondered…? I scouted. Yep, they were. An improbable down climb and then a scramble led to two small bolts on the right wall. Andy’s deep dive into the comments had her reading about the pillar and the scramble; it was not someone else’s idea of a good time.*
We clipped into the bolts and tried to make sense of the one seventy, two sixties, or one sixty meter rope beta for the rappels as we shivered in the now all encompassing dark. With the certainty that it wouldn’t get any darker, doing short rappels made sense, so we took someone’s advice and did two short rappels even though we had two sixty meter ropes, the result of a technical fix for my constant scaredness—using double ropes always meant that we had more descent and rappel options and didn’t have to carry an extra tagline, just in case. Our beta said the third and final rappel would drop away quite steeply right below our current anchor and take us into the Upper Painted Bowl. With the ropes coiled and hanging from the gear loops, I checked my carabiners, rappel device, and harness one more time before unclipping my tether. My left hand operated the carabiner while my right held the brake strand. I turned my headlamp to face downward and the pale light stuttered illegibly onto the blackness. I could see nothing. I looked at the ends of the ropes to see the knots, muttered some lame goodbye to Andy and let slack through my hand.
Sure enough the rock cut away and my feet lost purchase as the cliff steepend into an overhang. I slowly descended and somewhere over a hundred feet down, I began to pick out a small clump of trees. With my feet back on the slabby rock, I eked out all sixty meters of rope and some stretch and undid my rappel rig, yelling up to Andy that I was on the ground. Above, her headlight turned downward, and ever so slowly began its plumb line descent to me.
Reunited, we pulled the ropes. Of course one got stuck. A little scrambling around the slab found it wrapped around a small protrusion. A flick and some pulls did the trick and soon they were coiled and tied onto our backs. After more guidebook referencing, Andy spied some cairns at the edge of a slab. We followed those cairns as far as we could and abandoned them to the west where they ceased to exist. We debated why our next landmark, the “IBM Boulder”, a large round rock perched in the Lower Painted Bowl, had its name. I said something about a typewriter ball but sure didn’t have any knowledge beyond a fleeting memory from an old guidebook. We crossed the bowl, found some cairns and picked our way down a small ridge of smooth rock to a round boulder the size of a Mini Cooper. We tried to find the direction from which it blocked the wind, but to no avail. So we kept walking and continued discussing the origin of its name (check out this YouTube video as well!).
Inconsistent cairns led us across a broad ledge and eventually to a steep gully. We followed cairns only to be cliffed out again; the last cairn was perched at the likely corner of of a zig and a zag onto a dark, steep, featureless smooth sweep of rock. We scoured the dark and the shrubbery, looking for the next but found only a small juniper with some webbing, indicating some poor souls had come before and also faced our delimena; of course we weren’t the first, which gave a little solace. The guidebook nor the internet beta indicated a rappel this low on the descent, but back, deep in my memory was the grainy playback of a similar scenario almost twenty years ago where a partner and I couldn’t navigate this descent in the dark and did a fourth rappel off a tree. But the canyon’s scrub oak is brutal for bushwhacking and staying on the cairn trail seemed ideal, so we built an anchor and did a belayed scout down the slab from the last cairn. Andy’s report was less than inspiring: polished rock, dark, unknown consequence and length; just more data points. Again, we hemmed and hawed; the canyon had huge navigational guardrails, ultimately we just needed to go down—there was no getting lost, only the uncertainty of cliffs and scrub oak. We leaned onto the security of the rope and chose the juniper rappel.
“Well, its dark, and I can’t see the bottom, but I guess we have 200 feet of rope” I said leaning back and peering over the edge of the wide cliff. “Guess I’ll go down” and with that loosened my brake hand slightly and let the rope slip through my device. One hundred eighty feet lower my feet touched down where the slick aztec sandstone abutted the dense scrub oak. I unrigged and let Andy know that I was off rappel. As she rigged and slid down the rope, I scouted into the thicket; another rip on my green puffy and a pertinent negative were the only results. “We shouldn’t go into the oak”, I said as Andy unclipped her system and began to pull the ropes, filling her in on the pertinent negative. “It is pretty thick.” This time both ropes slid gently down the rock and piled at our feet. We coiled and backpacked them and inched along the oak/slab interface until the terrain dictated a descent into the sharp leaves and aggressive, angular branches of the oaks.
Technical butt scooches, rubber assisted scrambling, and perplexed “huhs?” brought us down and into the trees onto what looked like a small water course. Some slow bobbing and weaving through, under, around, and over branches, stems, and leaves had us cliffed out and me making the beeping noise of a backing vehicle as I backtracked to Andy. While I had my head down, eyes closed (literally so the oaks didn’t cause some damage) Andy had discovered some poop and a stroopwaffle wrapper, both indicators of nearing a more well traveled route and, sure enough, after scrambling under an overhanging and dislodging a typewriter (IBM Selectric) sized rock, we stumbled into the main Oak Creek Wash. With its large water polished boulders and small pockets of water, we knew our bushwhacking was done.
It wasn’t home free being in the wash, there were still numerous boulders and the occasional drop-offs that needed to be navigated. Lower down the sound of running water reached our ears and we talked about the amazing-ness of desert water. A large boulder choked the canyon and we navigated to our right, sidling high into the trees, then picking down a small user trail as the babbling of water intensified. Our lights showed no signs of the classic desert water (more pines, greener vegetation, animal prints, etc) but our ears weren’t sending mixed signals. We popped out from the sidehill’s thin cover of trees to a gravelly wash, where a small puddle of water greeted us. With not much flowing below it, I turned my headlamp up stream and we followed a short flow of water to a cave under the giant boulder. There, the water flowed out of the stone and gravel cave wall before most of it just as abruptly disappeared into the floor of the cave, fueling an ever depleted Las Vegas aquifer. Small amounts trickled down to the puddle but the disappearing act took most of the flow. We wandered onward, downward marveling at the impermanence of water, its there again gone again nature, and the specialness of finding this break in the ground on this night that right then made our hearts sing.
A deeply waning moon wasn’t due up for another couple hours so we shuffled onward in the dark. Eventually the return to our packs proved uneventful and we downed a few remaining snacks and donned a few more puffy layers before retracing our route out to the parking lot, where we made the all important decision to, unbeknownst to us at the time, drop $23 on fast food and getting the largest raspberry iced tea known to humankind; I said yes when the guy said something about making it a mega.
† as noted by www.native-land.ca*
MountainProject.com comment by Suzie Weis:
“We climbed Johnny Vegas and Solar Slab and it was an amazing day – until the descent, that is. The descent route through the Painted Bowl, while beautiful to look at, was not for us. Towards the beginning it takes a giant hop from a boulder on completely exposed rock to even reach the first rappel station, and it looks so sketchy we thought maybe we had arrived at the wrong area but we hadn’t. While the boulder jump is easy, a slight balance error would be very costly.” Apr 19, 2021
Featured Image: Sunset across the northeastern part of the Red Rock Escarpment.