Red Rock Journal

By James O’Donaghue, Staff Writer

Stay desert. That crappy piece of land better stay a desert.

I’m looking at the weather report for Las Vegas. Sunny Friday and Saturday, 30 percent chance of rain Sunday. Just stay dry. But I’m a pessimist. Worse yet, I’m a grumpy pessimist. This is why I’m threatening the desert.

Tomorrow I’m going to be heading down to Red Rock for a three-day festival known as Red Rock Rendezvous. I’ve never been to a climbing festival. I’ve never been to Red Rock Canyon, which is 15 minutes south of the road construction and the HotGurrl Nevada license plates of Las Vegas. The city comes to an abrupt halt at Interstate 215 except for a scouting party of upscale housing just past the overpass.

The next morning, after a restless night of sleep, my bags are in the street waiting for my ride. I sit on the curb reading Heft on Wheels by Mike Magnuson, which is about him giving up booze and cigarettes, and losing 75 lbs. because of his love of cycling. Aside from inspiring me to want to take up road biking, it makes me wonder if climbing might be the passion that turns my life around and makes me into a life-loving optimist.

I get in my friend’s truck and we pick up one more person, then begin the long drive south through the Salt Lake Valley, smoothly past Provo, Cedar City and St. George, down through a meandering pass at the northwest corner of Arizona and into flat desert. Billboards for the adult store equivalent of a Super Wal-Mart let you know you’re in Nevada. We see Las Vegas, a hazy brown cloud in the distance8212;it has none of the lights and vibrancy it’s famous for and looks more like a shaky, disconnected mirage. We skirt the outside of the city and are greeted by the praying limbs of the Joshua trees, the fierce wall of red and gray sandstone, the burnt husks of dead plants and the road signs for wild burros of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The conservation area protects the Keystone Thrust that was formed 65 million years ago. Red and grey sandstone are swirled together or layered upon each other like a geologic tie-dye. Some walls are scabbed with a black volcanic varnish. The area attracts bikers, climbers and hikers to its hard stone. The Red Rock Rendezvous began six years ago, bringing professional and beginning climbers, beer, food and entertainment together to benefit the Access Fund, a non-profit advocacy group to keep areas open to climbing and to open closed areas. An event patron chooses one small clinic and one day of climbing with a professional to learn a variety of different skills such as big-wall climbing or trad.

It’s night when we arrive. Event workers tell us not to touch the desert tortoises if we happen to cross paths. They give us our swag and tell us where the free beer is. The festival is organized in a rectangle8212;beer and food on one end, the stage and a solar-powered music booth on the other with the event sponsors and gear companies on either side. We grab a beer first, then go to set up camp. We arrive at the gate where a lady is waving a fake plastic arm. She is very happy we’re there and mistakes us for Chris Sharma, a famous climber, with a laugh, then points us with the arm she was holding to all the other dreaming amateurs camped on a sand arena normally used for rodeos. The area is supposedly clear of all the horse crap, but they missed a few spots. After a few more beers and some talk about how awesome this is, we bed down for the first night.

My buddy and I get up early the next morning and try to cook breakfast in the wind gusts. I manage to make some oatmeal that doesn’t seem to have much sand in it. We drive to Calico Hills to try to get some climbing in before our short clinic. We take a few wrong turns and just jump at the first set of anchors we see instead of finding our intended wall.

It’s our first climb of the year and we’re thrilled. We’re in a slot called the Black Corridor, a small path with a jumble of fallen boulders. There are a few people in here with us and the smell of Cannabis sativa, or marijuana, sneaks along the corridor, courtesy of some anonymous toker. Regardless of that, it feels great to be on a rock again.

The wall soon begins to fill up and we decide to try for the wall we had meant to find in the first place. We struggle through a side canyon full of sharp oak brush and find ourselves on the pass looking at a place unfamiliar to us. Once again, it’s not our intended wall. But we spot some chains and are again content to climb anything, so this windy crag overlooking the Calico Basin is more than enough for us. I think the trip is working8212;I’m beginning to be a life-loving optimist.

We are in a rush to make it back to the festival before our clinic begins. Mine is a clinic on ropes and knots. It is sunny and the lecturer’s quiet voice is interrupted by the gusts of wind and the announcements of the emcee. My clinic is short and is nothing I couldn’t have learned in my basement apartment in Salt Lake City, but my big class, “Learn to Trad Lead,” is tomorrow. It’s what I drove 400 miles for. I end up waiting for my friends’ classes to end and the beer truck to open. I take a seat on the grass lawn and watch the antics of the emcee. At night, there is an auction to benefit the Access Fund and other climbing organizations. One item is at $200. The auctioneer prods, “This went for $700 last year.”

“Recession,” someone in the crowd quips, just loud enough for me to hear.

When we get to our tents, the wind is the worst it’s been. We open our tents to find a film of sand covering everything. I begin to cuss at the sand. The wind is taking the loose sand of the arena and whipping it under my rain cover to filter through the mesh window and onto me. My sleeping bag begins to fill with sand. It grinds in my teeth and it gets in my eyes. In the dark, my friends want to go to a hotel. I refuse and they leave me alone, just the way I like it8212;a grumpy pessimist. I hear less and less noise from people and more and more wind. The sound seems to be the mountains speaking for the first time. The noise comes down the plain with a ferocious speed and bends my tent poles and the rain sheets are in a furor that sounds like a typewriter arm hitting the paper over and over again. I throw a T-shirt over my face to keep the sand out of my lungs. I wait.

The next morning there are torn clouds above the mountains. My friend says the chance of rain went up to 50 percent. I knew it. The event is serving breakfast and my bus for the class is leaving soon. I stuff the pancakes down my throat with my fingers and make the bus. The wind is still going, but there is little evidence of it from the inside of the bus except the dust cloud coming from the campsite. I meet my instructor, who is a wiry climber from California named Don Welsh who has been climbing for 25 years. His frame is tall, his hands large and his fingers are bent like they can’t forget an old favorite crack. We start the class. We are next to the wall when it begins to rain. I drag myself off the crag with my mind kicking and screaming.

They bus us to a climbing gym, crowded with all the event’s cancelled classes. I’m almost kicked twice by climbers being lowered. Welsh does his best, but the day quickly becomes hopeless.

The vendors have left, the beer truck is closed and the stage is empty, but I’m waiting. I’m waiting for a raffle. I’m cold and pissed and I’m waiting to see if there is any salvation in this trip. Maybe my name will be drawn and I can drive the 400 miles to Salt Lake City with something. But I know better, I know my name won’t be drawn and I will not do a 180 and become a loving-life optimist. My luck has run out in Vegas and the only thing I gambled with is the weather.

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James O’Donoghue