After Jen and I planned a trip to Red Rock during the Christmas break, Jen found out that her friend Albert would also be there climbing with his sister, Annie. Albert, who I’ve talked to a couple times at the gym but never climbed with, asked if I’d be interested in tackling Epinephrine, a 15-pitch 5.9+ route known for its wide chimney sections. I had been looking for someone to do more challenging climbing with, so I accepted the offer. This was despite never climbing more than a 3-pitch route, having trad lead only a single 5.9 before, and never climbing with Albert before. This outing turned out to be the scariest and most exhausting thing I’ve done in my life.
The day before, I met with Albert and hashed out the details of the climb–when we would meet, what gear we would bring, what pitches we might want to do. After we met, I went over to Office Max and printed out copies of the relevant sections in the guidebook. That night, I didn’t get much sleep, sorting out gear until 10:30PM and having a fitful sleep in anticipation of the next day. I got up at 3:40AM, and Albert picked me up outside the hotel at 4:15AM.
We arrived at the Lost Trails parking lot at 4:50AM. From there, you’re supposed to take a dirt road to the Black Velvet Wall parking lot about 2.7 miles away. The guidebook says this road can be a little rough, but a passenger vehicle should be able to make it. The road turned out to be really washed out with large piles of loose gravel and rocks. Less than a quarter mile in going 2mph, we decided Albert’s Prius was going to get stuck if we continued, so we turned back to the main parking lot.
We started hiking in the dark at 5:15AM. Twenty minutes in, my phone’s GPS showed we were veering off course despite seemingly staying on the main road. We later learned there was a high gravel berm you needed to go over to remain on the path. Since it was relatively flat, we just oriented in the direction of the parking lot and walked straight. Shortly afterward, we saw a pickup truck driving along the main path. Albert ran over to flag them down. It turns out they were also there to climb Epinephrine and offered to give us a ride if they could get on the wall first. We agreed and hopped in the back of the truck. We arrived at 6:05AM, feeling fortunate to skip most of that hike which would have easily taken 2 hours.
Now came time for the actual approach, which involved some tough rock scrambling and steep sections. One part involved holding onto slings to move over a large boulder. Since we didn’t know where the start of the climb was, we were trying to keep up with the group we hitchhiked with who had been here before. We finally arrived at the base of the climb at 7:05AM very much exhausted trying to keep pace. And after taking care of business and sorting gear, we were on the wall at 7:25AM, over 3 hours after leaving the hotel.
Albert led the first slabby, bolted 5.8 pitch. Then we swung leads and I did the second 5.7 pitch. Pitches 3-6 are the chimney pitches. Albert led the first 5.8, and I led the last three 5.9s. The wide chimney pitches were really intimidating at first, but once I trusted the chimney technique practiced at the Belmont gym, it went relatively smoothly. All of these pitches required trailing your pack in order to climb the chimneys, making it easy to get stuck in cracks. By the time the chimneys were done, my brand new Patagonia pack had two holes in it! Topping out onto a comfortable ledge after being in the dark chimneys to see Las Vegas in the middle of the desert was one of the best moments of the climb. By the time Albert got up to pitch 6, it was 1:50PM.
Albert led pitch 7 (5.7) which ends at a pile of blocks called the Elephant’s Trunk. I led the next two 5.9 pitches, which both felt much easier compared to the chimneys. Albert led pitch 10 (5.7) and finished around 4:40PM when the sun was setting. By the time I followed pitch 10, it was dark and we had to take out the headlamps.
At this point, having most of the hard pitches out of the way, retreat seemed like the worse option. Rappelling off requires a tag line, which I had, but it seemed likely that the rope would get stuck in all the cracks. Dealing with that in the dark would have been miserable. Albert at this point was feeling pretty cold and tired, so I led the next 5.9 and 5.7 pitches. I remember Albert saying at this point that he was just read to get off the mountain and would probably take some weeks off of climbing after this. After pitch 12, all the serious climbing is over–the guidebook says there just remains 700 feet of 5.4. I led 3 more pitches over low 5th class and 4th class terrain, encountering serious rope drag due to the low angle. We finally reached the large pine tree marking the end of the climb at 9:25PM, a whole 14 hours of climbing, which translates into a ponderous 56 minutes per pitch.
Tired but excited about completing such a big climb, we packed up our gear and planned our descent, thinking that the hard part was over. Boy were we wrong. The descent begins by hiking up to the summit, which is another 15 minutes. At the top, we signed into the summit register.
The guidebook says to follow the ridge over to the next summit, which we did successfully. Then here’s where everything went wrong. We should have continued east from this summit along the ridge for a relatively straightforward 2 hour descent in daylight. Instead, looking at the picture from the guidebook, we thought the picture was of the bowl at the back of Black Velvet Mountain, rather than the ridge line as you face Black Velvet Wall.
In the darkness, when you can only see 20 feet ahead of you with a headlamp, we relied too heavily on cairns. At the top of this nearby peak, we couldn’t find any more cairns going east, and the drop-off seemed too steep. After some exploration, we found another set of cairns that led us westward. We rationalized that this would eventually take us around the bowl and eventually head eastward.
After scrambling around for 2 hours trying to stay on the ridge and losing sight of cairns, Albert said his body was depleted and had to rest. We settled down next to some rocks and Albert took a short nap. During this time, I scouted out the next set of cairns about 5 minutes away. When I came back, I let Albert rest another 20 minutes or so before waking him up and moving on. After another 1.5 hours, we came to a point where it seemed there was just a steep drop-off. The cairns disappeared, and there appeared no way to continue along the ridge.
Albert sat down wearily and said we should just wait until morning–it was too difficult to navigate in the dark, and we’re just wasting water and energy wandering around the ridge. While my energy level was okay, I was cold and getting dangerously low on water (about 10 oz left)–I just wanted to get off the mountain now. I took a GPS reading of our location and told Albert I couldn’t stay up here overnight, but I would go down the mountain and contact rescuers with his location as soon as possible. I’m glad Albert decided to continue on down the mountain with me, because he would most likely have gotten hypothermia and I wouldn’t have reached rescuers in any reasonable time.
After Albert convinced me not to rappel off of some hollow sounding rock, we backtracked a bit more until we found a steep descent path into the wash. We followed this for a couple of hours, and it seemed we were making good progress. Around every turn, we thought we had to be at the desert floor. But as we got down deeper, it would just get darker as large rock outcroppings blocked the moonlight. While we could just scramble down the path so far, we finally got to a 25 foot drop-off that needed to be rappelled.
We thought this would be the first and last rappel before being home free in the flat desert, but we immediately faced an even steeper cliff 60 feet tall. Someone else had come down this path and had set up some rappel stations, fortunately, so we didn’t have to part with a lot of gear. Before I rapped down, Albert fell asleep again. I called his name a few times, but didn’t get a response. I didn’t think he had enough energy to continue, so I again told him I would continue on and contact rescuers, but he woke up and followed me on rappel.
At the bottom of this cliff there was now a large pool of water blocking further progress. After some scouting, we scrambled up a ledge on the left to bypass the pool. Once we got past, we had to do yet another 25-foot rappel into a pool of water. By this point, most of my rope was completely wet. Here, I collected some of the standing water in two water bottles in case of emergency later on.
Immediately after that, there was a fourth rappel about 50 feet into a larger pool of water about 2 feet deep. Someone before had tied webbing to a dead piece of shrubbery, which didn’t inspire confidence, so Albert backed it up with a #5 cam. I rapped first, threw my shoes onto the surrounding rock ledge, and lowered into the water. Albert saw the shrubbery hold for me and took back the #5 cam before rapping down.
We walked over and looked over the last cliff, maybe 70 feet tall, which would be the fifth and last rappel. Our spirits were high, since we were certain this was the desert floor. Once we got down to the ground around 4:30AM, we started our trek out. However, instead of flat desert, we were hiking through uneven terrain and brush that would always snag my rope. We continued on for a couple hours following a dry river bed, but it never seemed to end, and we couldn’t locate the parking lot we had seen from higher up.
In the distance, I saw a white van–the only indication of human presence in the past 12 hours and told Albert I would be heading to it for help. I ran/walked toward the vehicle waving my hands, but preparing myself that it was some abandoned vehicle with no one in it. As I got nearer, I broke into a short run with my climbing rope dragging on the ground. A couple came out to meet me, and I was overcome with relief. They had been notified by the local sheriff that there were some missing climbers. Albert made it a few minutes later, and we were given food and water. The couple were from Utah and were just camping in the area–there appeared to be no other vehicles for a few miles. The guy then drove us back to Albert’s car, where the sheriff happened to be. Albert spoke to them and told them we were safe.
If that couple hadn’t been there, it would have been another 3 hours trying to find Albert’s car, and I don’t think I would have lasted that long. I only had 2 sips of water left in my bottle (and two bottles of dirty water). My body was shutting down by the time we got rescued due to dehydration, sleep deprivation, and exhaustion–I had just been running on adrenaline the past 12 hours.
Back at Home
During our climbing adventure, Jen and Annie were having a low-key sport-climbing day at Calico Hills. I had sent Jen updates around 5PM that we were close to finishing the climb and would probably be back by midnight.
Annie was staying with Jen at our hotel room since they had already checked out of their Airbnb. Around 4AM, Annie woke up and realized we weren’t in the hotel room yet, so she woke Jen up and discussed what to do. Jen had previously looked up search and rescue contacts, but wasn’t seriously considering calling them before. Annie was more decisive, saying that even though the boys could probably make it out on their own, if they’re in trouble we should send help their way. By 5AM, Jen had called Red Rock Search and Rescue, providing details of what climb we did, where we parked our car, what we were wearing, and what provisions we had. They also notified the local sheriff, who went around to the locals in the area and told them there was a group of lost climbers to watch out for. By the time we had reached the white van several hours later, the couple already knew who we were and offered assistance.
When Albert and I finally reached the hotel room, Jen and Annie were ecstatic and relieved to see us, and I hugged Jen for a good minute. I was so happy to see her again and be alive. I told her I probably wouldn’t be climbing outside for awhile.
Albert and I are so thankful for the couple in the white van that saved us and took us back to civilization, Jen and Annie for watching out for us even when we didn’t think we needed it, and the local sheriff and Red Rock Search and Rescue for notifying people in the area. It’s tough to think what could have happened if we didn’t have these people watching out for us.
Things I learned
- Before you go out, download an app like Gaia GPS. Download the topo maps of the area you’ll be in, and set waypoints beforehand or along the way to indicate where you parked your car, where you started hiking, and points you expect to hit along the descent trail. This would have been really helpful (assuming my phone still had battery life) in showing that we were going in a completely wrong direction.
- Especially for longer climbs, notify a family member of your plans and expected return time. Talk through specific details, like when you’re leaving, who you’re going with, where you’ll be parking, what route you’ll take, and what food/water/equipment you’ll be bringing. These are important pieces of information for rescuers if something did go wrong and there was a search and rescue.
- Print out topos/descriptions of your climb rather than bringing the whole guidebook. I photocopied two copies of the topos which we both kept in our pockets for easy access, and it was really great not having to take off your pack to pull out the guidebook (and not lug the guidebook all the way up). This is especially good if you know exactly what route you want to do.
- Bring a battery pack for your phone. A phone can be used as a last resort to call for help, notify people at home of your whereabouts, and use to navigate using its compass and GPS.
- Even during cold season, bring more water than you would think into the desert, which is very dry. I only brought 54 oz. of water (1.6 L). This actually might have been enough for me if we didn’t get lost, but I didn’t drink much at all for the climb.
- Don’t carry your headlamp on the outside of your pack. When you don’t need your headlamp, keep it securely inside your pack. Keeping it on the outside like I did makes swing around and knock itself on rocks as you climb. The back of my headlamp fell off, which was holding in the batteries. Luckily, the batteries stayed in and I was able to wrap climbing tape around it–if not, we would have been screwed.
- Having belay gloves could have been nice, especially on long climbs where you’re moving the rope a lot. And during our descent, which had 5 rappels, pulling the rope through and coiling it each time rubbed my palms raw by the end.
- Bring a lighter. Not only to seal your rope ends if you need to cut it, but if you need to stay overnight, you can start a fire to keep warm or make your location clearer.
- Don’t use cheap non-climbing carabiners to clip essential gear to your pack. I’ve been using these Nite-Ize S-shaped carabiners which hold like 50 lbs, and the gates always seem to get misaligned, resulting in that piece of gear falling off. On the approach, I had one of my climbing shoes come off, and during the climb, we lost a walkie-talkie which fell hundreds of feet. I’m going to replace all of these cheap carabiners with real, light climbing-grade ones.
- Get a lighter, thinner pair of approach shoes. I brought along these bulky, normal hiking shoes which didn’t fit in my pack. They were so annoying attached to the back of my pack (and Albert’s pack for most of the climb) and got in the way when doing the chimneys. Something like the Evolv Cruzers.
- It’s a lot more efficient to lead in blocks. Swapping leads and gear every pitch, especially if you have a large rack, is really time-consuming. Additionally, one person has to climb two pitches in a row, and the other person rests (and gets cold) for two pitches.
- I led all my pitches using the Metolius gear sling. By the end, my neck was being rubbed raw by the strap. I think if we had a smaller rack I would just put it on my harness and move all non-essential gear to my pack.
- Trailing a pack during a chimney section. Here, I used a double-length alpine draw to attach the bag to my belay loop to keep it below my feet. The pack did get caught a couple times and developed 2 holes.
- Carrying the 60m tagline in my pack in case we had to bail was a big pain, especially hauling it up the chimney pitches. Maybe consider trailing it next time or not bringing it at all–if we needed to bail we would just leave some gear.