Epinephrine, Black Velvet Canyon, Red Rocks

By: Yoav Altman | Climbers: Yoav Altman, Ilona Barash |Trip Dates: May 31, 2002

Photo: Gary Clark

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Ilona is an optimist, and I'm not. Simple as that. Maybe it's because she's never had to splint an ankle with a couple of nut tools and a ridge-rest, never had to spend an unplanned night on a ledge she chopped out of ice, never retraced a line of blood up the glacier from a climber's fragmented helmet to the rock that did him in. Or maybe Ilona just has a better outlook on life than I do. Either way, I thought it was a bit premature when she said "We're gonna do it!" upon reaching the top of the Black Tower. After all, we had 5 long pitches of climbing to go, a couple hundred meters of scrambling, and an unfamiliar and potentially loose hike between us and the car. Lots of things could still go wrong. Epics happen on the descent too, y' know.

Ilona claims that she hasn't had any epics because she plans conservatively. I respond that we certainly didn't plan to sleep under a boulder on the way back to the car from Bear Creek Spire two years ago. "Yeah, but it was only a one hour nap and we were never uncomfortable", she retorts.

Bear Creek Spire was a 20+ hour day. It's 9:30 p.m. and we've been on the go for over 16 hours. "You don't consider Bear Creek Spire an epic, do you?" she asks.

"No, of course not."

"Then when does a climb become an epic?"

"When the outcome is uncertain," I reply. We finally decide that an epic is underway anytime the participants deem it so. We are 30 minutes away from the car and this adventure will not turn into an epic. But as recently as 30 minutes ago, I was still guarded. Epics can happen on the descent, y' know.

4:00 a.m.: my watch alarm rouses us from sleep. The moon is glowing in the west, and the Luxor is up to the East. Good omens, I think. Yesterday was a mellow day. We climbed the first four pitches of Dark Shadows in two to practice linking pitches and get reacquainted with the sandstone. Our trip to Red Rock last month wasn't a great success for me. Sure we climbed some great routes, but I never managed to feel comfortable on the rock. Something about sandstone gives me the willies. I climb with 3 points of contact, over-gripping as if a foothold could break off at any given moment. I feel disconnected from the fluidity that I enjoy on Joshua Tree cracks. When I didn't experience this hesitation on Dark Shadows- actually enjoying the climbing and exposure- I knew this would be a great trip. The two "fixed" nuts and the 0.75 Camalot that I rescued from the crack didn't hurt either. The last heat of the day was passed napping in the tent, and after sunset we racked and packed for Epinephrine.

4:45 a.m.: Ilona hits the brakes and swerves to the right barely avoiding 3 burros in the road that she saw just in the nick of time. Bad omen. Now we're both awake, and I'm wondering how I, a rational human being, got to be so superstitious?

5:15 a.m.: I have a Camelbak, the lead rope and the rack. Ilona carries a backpack with 4 liters of water, clothing, slings, and the tag-line. Two hours and three craps later Ilona is edging her way up the gray face of the first pitch past 3 or 4 good bolts and running the rope to the end of the second pitch. I struggle to follow with the heavy pack, and am glad to be rid of it as I take off on lead. I really enjoy the third pitch leading out on good incut holds, traversing right and then moving up an incipient flake system that pinches off occasionally denying me protection for 15 feet. I'm forced to make a few moves above my gear and after pulling onto the 4th class ramp am elated. My head is where it should be. Off belay, and I'm one pitch below the other party, who's grunting leader sounds like the wild burros we almost creamed a few hours before. The chimney looms above me, and I'm glad that I ran out of rope before I could get to it.

Ilona takes over and 30 feet into it, she places a blue Camalot and exclaims, "This is going to be hard!" A few moves later she's walking a 3.5 Camalot up the crack and milking the straight-leg rests that the chimney affords. More full body grunting from the party above reminds me of my plight. I'll be on the sharp end soon enough. I follow Ilona up this physical pitch managing a few grunts myself, and head off on lead. There's a bolt out on the face near the outside of the chimney, but I'll have none of that wide stuff and stay deep in, close to my source of protection-on-demand. The thin crack I'm jamming with my right hand gets steeper and I pull on two pieces to get onto a ledge. A couple of wide moves gets me to a nice thin crack and a comfortable ledge. I still have 100' of rope left, but call "Off belay" so that I don't have to lead the final chimney pitch.

Ilona dispatches the last chimney pitch with aplomb, even getting in some protection and singing the praises of her kneepads. I meet her on top of the Black Tower at half-past noon, 30 minutes before our turn-around time. "We're gonna do it!" she says. I grunt in response, and head up a beautiful face with two bolts, throw a foot up to turn a roof, and run out some easy face climbing to reduce rope-drag as I traverse above. At the end of this rope-stretcher I'm perched on a little tower and we're only 4 pitches from the top. "We might do this" I allow myself to think. Ilona runs up another rope-stretcher pausing only to sing the praises of a "blessed handjam" and then it's my turn to lead what I consider the best pitch on the route. 60m of positive face holds, hands, fists, lie-backs, and stems take me to a 3-bolt stance. My right leg burns from 60m of outside edging. Ilona's last lead turns two roofs on jugs, and I take an easy pitch to the last set of anchors.

6:00 p.m.: Ilona, smiling, joins me at the last belay and proudly exclaims, "We did it!" I grunt again, thinking about the simulclimbing ahead, and the 2,000 feet of elevation we have to lose before I can take off my harness. Epics can happen on the descent, y'know.

7:15 p.m.: Summit shot on top of Whiskey Peak. Vegas is starting to go into shade. We have less than 1 liter of water left. I decide to leave my rock shoes on and cover as much ground as possible while it's still light out. I know that our pace will slow when the headlamps come out, and I want to find the way off the ridge before it gets dark.

8:15 p.m.: Headlamps come out, rock shoes come off and we change into sandals. We're already off the ridge and heading down towards Frogland.

9:00 p.m.: "I'm looking forward to some orange juice", I say. That's my version of "We did it!" We're at the Frogland descent, familiar territory, and my mind relaxes. There will be no epic today and I can start thinking about the climb in retrospect instead of the here and now. We're both amazed at the quality of the climbing. Almost every pitch stretched our 60m rope to the limit, and had interesting and sustained climbing and clean lines. We climbed conserving gear and ran it out a little more than normal, enjoying the freedom of movement and long stretches of uninterrupted climbing on beautiful and solid rock.

Ilona and I agree that this is the best rock climb we have done, and we know that we will be back to climb Epinephrine again.

10:15 p.m.: The Exxon at the intersection of 159 and 160 has Dole Fruit 'n Juice bars. In between bites I look at Ilona and say, "We did it!"