Prince of Darkness (Red Rocks)

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary Clark, Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: April 7, 2000

Photo: Gary Clark

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Touched by the Angel of Darkness

May 1997, Attempt 1: After a "crack of noon" start on a very hot day, we arrived in Black Velvet Canyon to find most of the routes in which we were interested already occupied. In mid-afternoon there was an opening on Prince of Darkness. I could see from the topo that I hadn't brought enough quickdraws, but I improvised from slings and set out. The second pitch was long, sustained, and humbling. I got up without a fall, but my fingers were screaming. By the time I belayed Lynn up, my feet were complaining as well. Pitch 3 let up a bit, but the damage was done; we had now done the equivalent of about 6 sport routes in enervating heat. Not only were our appendages on strike, but the sun was on its way down and a cold beer in town sounded far better than another pitch.

October 1999, Attempt 2: We had done enough sport climbing on small holds to feel ready, and brought our most comfortable shoes and belay seats to ease the pain of the hanging stances. We arrived just after sunrise to find a single car in the parking area. "It's a big canyon," I said, "The chances they'll be on Prince are pretty small." It's a good thing I don't rely on my prescience to gamble in Vegas, because when we arrived in sight of the route, they were already at the first belay. "Well, I'll bet they'll be fast, and will be well up by the time we get on the route." Good thing I don't gamble at all . . . . I hung at the first stance for an hour, but they still hadn't cleared the next anchors. Straightening out snarls in their ropes had consumed a good 45 minutes. We rapped and tried to salvage the day.

April 2000, Attempt 3: We've been regulars at the rock gym and weight room all winter, and are anxious to see if it will make any difference. However, on this day we are starting late with ambitions only for some shorter routes. "There's no way in the world that Prince will be free," I pronounce, and sure enough as we round the corner in the arroyo we can see a leader on the first pitch. However, he seems to be climbing down, not up! We arrive at the wall to find him back at the base. "I thought this route went with just draws," he says sheepishly. I suspect others have fallen into this trap. A casual glance at all the bolts on the topo makes one think this is a sport route. Only a careful reading of the description yields the important advice to "bring a few medium stoppers." Even though the first pitch is only 5.6, the crux is 80 feet off the deck.

I'm amazed to realize we finally have the route to ourselves. I quickly get ready and start up the first pitch before something happens to change the situation, although I can't imagine what that might be. I climb pitch 1 in about 5 minutes, placing only a single chock. Then I wriggle into my butt bag and belay Lynn while contemplating the first real lead. The key will be to relax the mind and not over-grip so I can preserve some finger strength for the upper pitches. The wall is covered with the flakes that make Red Rocks face climbing possible on a wall as steep as this. Climbing in balance is possible the entire way if I can just convince my brain that a 1/4" flake affords a huge foothold; nay, a veritable bivouac ledge! The brain isn't buying it, though, and I'm slug slow. Near the top of the pitch I have a mental lapse, blow a sequence, and grab a bolt hanger rather than reversing the move or falling. OK, now I've ruined the redpoint, the goal is just to get to the top.

I learned long ago that there are really only three difficulty grades in climbing: EASY (I can do it with some style and actually have fun), HARD (can barely do it, scare myself) and IMPOSSIBLE (will fall, danger of soiling myself). Pitch 2 was HARD, 3 and 4 are EASY. They follow a shallow intermittent crack that provides a few finger jams, but, more importantly, stopper placements for stretches where there are no bolts. Hanging at the top of 4, I don't understand why I can't see a single bolt above. The topo shows a continuation of the long line of little X's, but I don't see a single hanger. When Lynn arrives, she agrees. I start up anyway, figuring something will materialize. It does - a stud without a hanger. I slot a wired stopper in a small crack and continue. Another stud, then another. In all, there are about 4 bolts missing their hangers along about 40 feet of climbing. I necktie the last stud with another wired stopper, since the crack has disappeared. I guess someone decided to correct a great moral wrong by removing fixed protection where it was possible to use gear. The benefit to humanity of this act is a bit lost on me at the moment, but maybe their altruistic leanings will lead them to solve world hunger in the future, who knows?

Pitch 5 is EASY, but I know the picnic is over. Six is the crux, and unfortunately I arrive with an attitude. A friend had previously told me that the rating was a "sandbag" - that it is actually much harder than the reported 5.10c, but the bolts are spaced close enough through the crux section that many people just pull on the draws rather than risk repeated falls. (Keep in mind these are 16-year old, rusty 1/4 bolts in sandstone - not at all confidence inspiring). While belaying, I study the moves, which are decidedly different than those on the lower pitches. Rather than a face covered with sharp-edged plates, I'm looking at a slippery slab of desert varnish, interrupted by a very shallow vertical groove. It is clear from the chalk that the fingers have to somehow lock off in that groove. It looks HARD. Perhaps IMPOSSIBLE. I had already grabbed a bolt hanger below, so I'm feeling rather like a bank robber on the run who shot some people in the last botched job - what do I have to lose? Las Vegas is known as the 'City of Sin.' Surely using a couple more points of aid won't measure up to the awful crimes taking place on 'The Strip' right now - maybe the judge will be lenient.

So . . . a foot in the anchor slings, clip a sling to the first bolt, step up, repeat process. "Hey, this isn't so hard!" The first 10 feet thus disposed of, I get back on the rock and try to salvage some dignity for the rest of the pitch. When I'm about 40 feet up, a guy rappelling from 'Dream of Wild Turkeys' passes. "Hey, you're past the crux - good going!" he calls over. "Well, thanks, uh, yeah, well, er, I cheated a bit." Jeez, like George Washington, I can't even bring myself to tell a lie. The judge will throw away the key after I break down in court and confess all! About 50 feet up, I come to yet another impasse. My eyes are drawn to chalk on handholds off to the left, but there is nothing for the feet. I try some things, but they are not going to work. The last bolt is a good 4' below my feet - a screaming whipper, to be sure . . . I try again, but can't discover the combination. Finally I high-step a dimple in the face, pulling for all I'm worth on slick sloping handholds. Just when I think I might be able to pull it off, the foot blows into space. To my surprise, though, I find myself hanging from my fingers instead of the bolt, but they are complaining loudly to my brain that they've had enough abuse for one day. Fiddle-fart around - try something else. No better. Try the same move again . . . . It isn't going to go. No way to cheat, the next bolt is about 5 feet above my fingertips. I need a miracle.

And so it came to pass. As I look beseechingly to the heavens, I behold an angel descending a little off to the right. This is clearly a sign. As soon as she's close enough, I say "Would you mind moving over this direction a little?" As a good personal angel should, she accommodates, and soon I find a plethora of handholds of the vertical 11mm variety! (OK, she has a rope instead of wings - this is a climbing angel). I'm quickly at the next bolt and back on the rock. Nobody watching this can quite believe their eyes, but that's the way it is with miracles.

The final 60 feet to the final anchor (and the first ledge) are EASY. Lynn uses the first two bolts for aid, but climbs facilely over the section that turned me to Jello. "There were better holds to the right," she says later - Oh sure, easy enough for her to say - she wasn't out there on the sharp end facing eternal darkness! The rappels are routine. We've finally gotten to the top of Prince of Darkness and back to earth safely. Maybe someday we can actually climb the route without divine intervention.

Beta: Bring 16 draws, two medium chocks or cams (1/2" - 1"), 6 wired stoppers small to medium (nothing tiny). The wall faces NNE - in shade in winter; probably too cold except on an exceptional day. In spring and fall, there is sun for a few hours in the morning, shade thereafter. In summer, it would be uncomfortably hot until the sun leaves it in mid-morning.

Editor's note: The author is currently serving a life term without possibility of parole in the Nevada Correctional Facility for Incorrigible Climbing Style Offenders. The death penalty was waived due to his recent religious conversion.

Postscript: The rusty ¼" original bolts on this route were replaced with modern ones in April of 2001 by the American Safe Climbing Association. Send them a donation as I have.