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Rainbow Buttress, Red Rocks, Nevada


Author: Gary Clark

Participants: Gary & Lynn Clark

I really needed to take the class. My boss wanted me to take it. The taxpayers wanted me to take it. It could have been in Topeka instead of Las Vegas, and I still would have taken it. Yeah, right . . . Five days in a windowless classroom in a low-grade hotel/casino on "The Strip" were not going to go down easy without the promise of weekends at Red Rocks.

We flew in on Friday and were approaching a climb by sunrise on Saturday. Boy, were we approaching. We had plans on the "Rainbow Buttress" route in Oak Creek Canyon, a canyon we had never before visited. The normal approach involves entering the Park, driving the loop, and parking on a spur road from which a fairly short trail leads to the mouth of the canyon. We calculated that by the time we waited for the gate to open and drove the loop, we could have hiked in directly from the road without even entering the park. This added only a mile and a half or so; didn't seem like a big deal in the wee hours of the morning. By about 8:00am, we were well into the typical Red Rocks canyon approach - up and over boulders in a creek bed, looking constantly for cairns, and consulting the guidebook frequently to try to identify features on the towering walls above us. In particular, we strained to find the outline of the Eagle on the buttress we'd be climbing. A couple of the big classic routes at Red Rocks go through this large but faint (we never saw it) feature: Eagle Dance (III 5.10), and Levitation 29 (III 5.11). We had no ambitions for anything this serious, at least not this early in the trip, but our route was just to the right of Levitation 29. Even though we coudn't make out the Eagle in the morning light, we could clearly identify the routes.

This was already the longest and most physical approach we had ever done in Red Rocks, and we weren't even close to the Y in the canyon where we were to leave our packs, have breakfast, and take a breather before doing the second half of the approach. Finally I thought I could see the fork in the canyon ahead of us. Another 15 minutes of boulder hopping and brush-beating, and we were there. We took our break, hung our packs in a tree, and headed up the side canyon. We were now seeking a big ramp that would take us to the base of the climb. Ah, that must be it . . . We started up a diagonalling ramp which seemed to fit the description, although I was uneasy about the lack of evidence of a lot of people passing this way. The climbs on the Eagle buttress aren't as popular as most in the park due to the approach we were experiencing, but still there should be a crude trail or some cairns, I thought. Finally, we found not a cairn, but a little flag propped up in some rocks. Thus encouraged, we continued around the ramp for a few hundred yards until we came to a complete dropoff.

We reversed the ramp, and went further up the canyon until another one appeared. This was some really heinous going; it pays to note that all desert plants have some way of discouraging critters from eating them, a side effect of which is discouragement to travelers. The second ramp looked a little better, but it started to neck down to an exposed traverse where a rope wouldn't have been unwelcome. It was becoming clear we had done something seriously wrong. I told Lynn to stay put while I went around a corner to be sure we were lost. The view was unmistakable. There was the Eagle Buttress in the distance, and we were in the wrong side canyon. In an instant I knew we wouldn't be climbing today. At least not the Rainbow Buttress. We had started before first light precisely because of the length of the approach, the route, and the descent, and the lateness of the season. We couldn't afford any delays in the itinerary.

Back at the car, we took stock: Let's see - we've just spent 5.5 hours "approaching". We were seriously dehydrated and hungry, and plenty tired. Time to recoup. We drove to Vegas and spent the next couple hours taking in food and liquids (especially liquids) before feeling perky enough to try to salvage the day with a little climbing. The quickest option was Calico Hills, the first area you come to as you drive toward Red Rocks from Vegas. A short approach from the parking lot led to a nice little sport cliff where we whiled away the rest of the daylight clipping bolts. What a contrast to the morning! It's difficult to say which activity is "real climbing."

The next morning saw us back at the parking spot opposite Oak Creek Canyon. We were an hour and a half earlier than yesterday, had more fluids along, and most importantly knew exactly where we were going, having easily diagnosed our mistake during the descent yesterday. By 8:00 we were roping up, rather than crashing through desert holly bushes. The route was excellent, as promised. Most pitches were pretty routine at 5.6 or 5.7. Two stood out - pitch 2 was a quite continuous 5.8 crack system that got my attention, and didn't do much for my state of mind, given that pitch 6 was to have a "scary stemming section" and was rated 5.8 PG. Generally I don't seek out routes with with "scary" in their descriptions - I look more for adjectives like "casua,l" "routine," or "wheel-chair accessible." And my preferred protection guidance is "G" - something that would pass even Dan Quayle's criteria for family values.

From below, the 5.8PG pitch looked like it would live up to it's description. A very steep corner shot straight up for 75 feet or more. There was a good crack for the first 25 feet, but it tapered down to almost nothing at the same point that the holds on the face vanished. Oh well, we are here, and Lynn would forever cast aspersions on my manliness if I backed down now. The heat didn't help on this directly south-facing wall. I must have used a half-block of chock before I finally figured out a sequence of moves I felt comfortable doing 10 feet above a tiny stopper I had barely worked into the crack and in which I had no confidence. It was probably the hardest move we made during the trip, including several 5.10- routes. This is typical of Red Rocks. Treat ratings with great suspicion, particularly on the older traditional routes. (Recent sport areas are much more consistent in my experience.)

Above this the route backed off considerably. In another demonstration of perverse rating, pitch 7 was in the guide at 5.6, but was actually 4th class! I put in no protection whatsoever in the 5 minutes required to scramble up it. The final pitch was rated 5.5X. I had heard from others that there was almost no protection on it, and the exposure was considerable, but at 5.5, it didn't worry me. An enjoyable but careful scamper up a heavily featured wall, and we were on top! The best part was, we had plenty of time to descend, and had good beta from Eric and Lucy, who had climbed Eagle Dance the year before, but had gotten lost for a while on the descent. Rather than the "30 minutes back to your packs" predicted by the guidebook, they had spent 3.5 hours! We didn't want that at all, so were very careful to read the description and keep Eric's advice in mind.

It wasn't 30 minutes, it was about and hour and a half, even armed with extra knowledge. I don't think there is a person alive who can do it in 30 minutes. Nevertheless, it was very scenic - first a traverse across the top of the Eagle buttress with wide views of multiple peaks and canyons, then a traverse around the back of a big tower to gain the head of the N.Fork of Oak Creek. The key to this section is to not be sucked downward (North) into the wrong watershed. Stay high up close to the base of the wall after you turn the initial tower, and keep headed strongly west. Even with the advice, we occasionally found ourselves drawn downward by the terrain and what seemed to be a trail. The descent of the North Fork of Oak Creek is memorable. The creek has eroded a fantasy in sandstone. Pool followed sinuous stream followed pool such that we frequently commented on the beauty, even though ravaged with thirst and quite fatigued. Finally I said "to hell with this" and filled my water bottle from a pond alive with pollywogs and algae. (The water was delicious, and I have no health effects to date).

Lower I tried an alternative route to our approach to avoid a particularly miserable stretch of brush. This did not go well - we finally got the ropes out and belayed, wasting a good part of the last bit of light for the day. The full moon was well up as we completed the long hike across the desert to our car. Several times I asked rhetorically whether it was worth suffering this much for a route, but of course there is no answer. As a chronic sufferer from the special form of Alzheimer's that afflicts all climbers, I'm sure I will recommend it highly to anyone who ask - "Oh yeah, Rainbow Buttress - Great route, a bit of an approach, but pitches 2 and 6 are awesome!"

Nothing we did the rest of the week could compare in adventure factor. We kept commenting on the ease of the approach as we made our way up other canyons toward the "route de jour." We did some other nice routes, including "Cat in the Hat,, one of the best 5.6+ routes around but plagued with overcrowding, and "Frogland" (7 pitches, 5.8-), which we started up at 2:30pm. We had arrived in Black Velvet Canyon early to get on the great classic "Prince of Darkness," but it was not early enough. I hung at the first belay stance for about 30 minutes before giving up - the party above was clearly in over over their heads, and I didn't have the patience to deal with it after our day on Cat in the Hat. This is becoming a consistent theme at Red Rocks. It was fun to find Frogland completely free of people, and to see if we could get up it and back to the car before total darkness, about 3.5 hours away. We made it, although the headlamp came in handy for the last stretch of trail to the car.


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