Epinephrine, Black Velvet Canyon, Red Rocks

By: Larry Hamilton | Climbers: Larry Hamilton, Eric Dearing |Trip Dates: October, 2000

Photo: Gary Clark

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In the early 1970s, Las Vegas pioneer Joe Herbst identified three big walls as the Red Rocks' outstanding challenges: the Rainbow Wall, Velvet Wall and Mt. Wilson. Of these three, the Rainbow Wall seemed the most appealing. Joe and I made its first ascent, drawing on our El Cap experiences, in April 1973. In December of that year, while I pursued my second unsuccessful attempt on Candlestick Tower, Joe teamed with Tom Kaufman to establish a route up the Velvet Wall (as it was then called; "Black Velvet" came later). Joe and Tom's Velvet Wall route began right of what is now Epinephrine, then climbed the main Epinephrine chimneys and the pitch above Black Tower, before angling left to more broken ground, and ramping back right to the top. Joe and I had looked up at this 2,000-foot wall when we topped out on Triassic Sands back in 1972. That great view, and the sense of an adventure waiting (or later, of adventure passed by) stayed with me for 28 years.

During three windy days in March 1975, Joe and I completed his Red Rocks triptych by climbing a new route up Mt. Wilson, which we named the Aeolian Wall. Two years later I moved to New Hampshire, far away from Las Vegas and the desert-climbing lifestyle. Joe retired from climbing around 1981, after contributing to a new generation of Red Rocks classics including Epinephrine itself -- a better route using parts of the old Velvet Wall.

Many years later.... In late October 2000, Eric Dearing and I flew back to Las Vegas, with Epinephrine in mind. We had prepared like academics: studying all written accounts of the route and discussing the fine points of gear. Our actual training consisted of two weekend ascents of the 120-foot Rusty Hammer at Pawtuckaway. On the afternoon that we flew into Vegas, we hiked up to the canyon and climbed Epinephrine's start to get a feel for the route. We rapped off after three pitches, fiddling about to descend with our single rope. Several trip reports had mentioned the virtue of going fast and light, taking only one rope. Our reconnaissance highlighted the other side of that coin: if the weather turns bad, or anything goes wrong up high, bailing out with one rope is not easy. As we hiked down, some passing climbers warned us that a big Pacific storm was forecast to roll in the next day. That settled it; we would take two ropes. With this comfort in mind, we retired for the night to a depressing casino hotel, our alarms set for 4:20am.

I've learned that it's easier to find happiness at the Red Rocks, in these "crowded classics" times, if one arrives in bad weather, on a weekday, and starts up in the dark. It was dark Thursday morning, as we raced up Epinephrine's 5.8 first pitch by headlamp. Gray dawn broke while we finished the second pitch, but no sun ever came; the clouds remained heavy. I felt tense, sure the storm would strike soon. The only question was how high we'd get before it forced us down. Since there was no tempest yet, however, it was too soon to quit. Eric and I had bargained beforehand to lead in blocks: I could have all the chimneys, then he would take over on the face climbing above. This fit our respective strengths, but it added to the oppression I felt once those chimneys were actually at hand. As I started the hard climbing on the fourth pitch, apprehension slowly gave way to activity. The moves got tougher as I got tired towards the top; my last few meters to the belay had no grace.

Eric found that section strenuous too; it might be the crux of the route. He ignored my hints about backing off, though, which left me still with some leading to do. The fifth pitch starts out with an awkward section, then another one, before settling back into the big chimney proper. Abandoned cams and inaccessible bits of sling ascending the chimney's narrow depths spoke to me of frightened leaders. After contemplating this prospect, I opted instead for a friendly crack on the right wall, which led out to a scenic belay. From there the black clouds looked forbidding, and I could see that no other parties were following us up the wall. When Eric reached my belay he still showed no interest in going down. (He later admitted that if I had said "Maybe we should rap" one more time, he would have agreed.) The top of the Black Tower appeared closer, now, but before that came the infamous two-bolt chimney. I'd read that this pitch was run out, forming the psychological crux. I started to lead apprehensively, then soon brightened -- it was fun. As I worked towards the top, I could not help reflecting on Joe and Tom's winter ascent of these chimneys in 1973 -- without topos, sticky shoes, long ropes, camming units, fixed anchors or a single protection bolt! Quite a different level of commitment, compared with modern ascents like our own.

Atop the Black Tower at noon we relaxed briefly, sitting back to gulp Gatorade and Gu. For the first time, I believed that we might finish the climb. I was especially happy because now it was Eric's turn to lead. He made quick work of the steep, slightly loose 5.7 pitch above. The "loose" part was emphasized when his rope dislodged a rock that whizzed past me and sliced through our haul line, before bounding out in a dramatic arc to explode on the ground a thousand feet below. Following this pitch, I again thought about the old Velvet Wall route. In its modern form, with two bolts, the headwall just above Black Tower seems tame. On the first ascent, with no bolts, it was serious.

The three subsequent 5.8-5.9 pitches required careful work, not always with gear close at hand. Eric solved each puzzle; if he were writing this story, these leads would get a richer description. Coming second, I could enjoy the moves and amazing exposure in a peaceable state of mind. I wondered whether my ten-year-old shoes would fall apart before the hard climbing ended. We made steady progress as the afternoon wore on. The storm seemed to be holding off, but nightfall certainly would not. We resumed swinging leads after the last 5.9 pitch which, like my dreaded two-bolt chimney, felt easier than we expected. We expected the exit ramps to be easy, and they were. There was no temptation to unrope, however, as we negotiated wet slabs amid rising wind, roaring out of the gulf below. Four more 70-meter ropelengths passed, making 15 pitches in all, before I tied in to the great tree at the top of the wall. It was 6pm, sunset if there had been any sun. Half an hour later we had coiled the ropes, scrambled to the summit, and sat down to regroup in the dark. We reveled briefly in the wonder of our no-cheating, no-falls and almost-no-bungling ascent. It was the biggest climb Eric had done ever, and the longest for me since Aeolian Wall, a quarter of a century ago. Reality cut through with the biting wind. Overhead in the darkness, we could feel the storm coming on.

We had sneakers, headlamps and remnants of food and drink. These supplies, plus navigation, sustained us through a halting descent. The experience was made prettier by the brilliant lights of Las Vegas -- which ordinarily, we both find appalling. Deeply weary, we came in sight of our car at 10:30pm; 17 hours after we'd left it. As we clanked towards the door, a climber camped by the parking lot asked laconically, "Long day at the office?"

Drenching rain arrived during the night, and was still pouring down by the time we woke up. Thankful that we had not bivouacked, or even camped, we met Joe Herbst for breakfast amidst the ducks at Bonnie Springs. Later we visited Joe and Pam's cozy home, and drove off on a rainy tour through the Valley of Fire. The four of us went out for dinner, while Joe and I brought each other up to date on our divergent lives. Long retired from climbing, he's transferred his need for adventure to precision-team skydiving, and his love for wilderness to backcountry horse trips with Pam and their dogs. We fell to reminiscing about old times, and telling stories of the climbers we knew.

Editor's Note: Larry Hamilton is a true Red Rocks pioneer, with many significant first ascents to his credit, most notably the Rainbow Wall, also in the NAC collection. This trip report is also linked from the author's web site, which contains stories of some of his other climbing adventures.