A rock climber leaves the comfort of 15-foot boulders to try their hand at 700-plus feet of multi-pitch traditional climbing.
Ten feet from the top of the sixth and final pitch, I’m suddenly staring at an overhung boulder. After more than 700 feet of climbing, this is my last unexpected obstacle before reaching the peak of my first multi-pitch climb. Exhausted, too short to reach the large jug to pull myself over, and desperate to get to the safety of the top, I cling to two crimps and haul myself over, shimmying on my stomach in a move climbers affectionately refer to as the “beached whale.” It isn’t graceful, but it’s the last bit of moxie I can muster after five hours of climbing. I take a big breath at the top and soak in the panoramic view of Red Rock and Las Vegas. Now all we have is a steep, hour-long scramble back down to the canyon floor.
In the years since I started rock climbing, I’ve seen it evolve from a niche hobby for “dirtbaggers” living out of their cars into a mainstream fascination, thanks in part to Free Solo. But while Alex Honnold’s feats of ropeless daredevilry are getting all the attention lately, almost all climbers rely on ropes to catch them. Even Honnold’s free solos comprise a small fraction of the real climbing he does; his preferred style is multi-pitch trad (short for “traditional”) climbing, where a climber links several pitches up a big wall while placing their own protection into cracks as they go up. El Capitan of Free Solo infamy is arguably the most famous big wall in the world.
Much like sprinting and marathon running are separate disciplines requiring distinct skill sets, it’s not a seamless transition between the three main climbing disciplines: boulder, sport, and multi-pitch trad. My climbing partner, Brodie, and I are primarily boulderers, so we were curious to see how two people who spend most of their time cranking on sub-20-foot boulders would stack up when faced with several hundreds of feet of climbing.
Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone
To step (or more accurately, claw desperately) out of my comfort zone, I enlisted the help of 57Hours, an app designed to pair adventure guides with people who are willing to push their boundaries. Their adventure offerings, which run the gamut of backcountry skiing, big wall climbing, mountain biking, ice climbing, and avalanche education, are designed for people who want to test their limits—both mentally and physically.
Like me, 57Hours co-founder Viktor Marohnic wasn’t a trad climber, but when he relocated from his native Croatia where sport climbing is king to New York City in 2010, he had to switch gears. The famous local crag the Shawangunks (the Gunks as it’s better known) in Upstate New York is notorious for its steep, challenging trad climbing. To try his hand at this riskier style, Marohnic enlisted the help of a guide. The experience inspired him to do another guided trip in the Tetons the following year, and he has been almost exclusively a trad climber since.
As a full-time mobile developer and an avid climber, skier, and runner, Marohnic wanted to bring more of his passion for outdoor adventuring to fellow desk jockeys who might get overwhelmed at the prospect of planning an adventure trip. It was this goal and the inefficiency of finding guides during his initial trips that made him launch 57Hours. I downloaded and signed up for the app, filled out my information, picked a date, and was paired with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, one of the most reputable guiding companies in America, within minutes. With 57Hours, clients are connected solely to certified American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) guides. Only those who have undergone the most rigorous training get AMGA certification, ensuring you’re being paired with experienced, safe, and capable people. This is critical in an industry where uncertified “pirate guiding” runs rampant and it’s your life on the line.
57 Hours in Southern Nevada
Red Rock Canyon in Nevada is a world-famous climbing destination. Just a 30-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip, the massive national conservation area boasts some of the most interesting, varied, and aesthetic sandstone climbing in the world. (It’s no wonder Honnold made Las Vegas his home base.)
But with the beauty of Red Rock came a hurdle: There was rain forecast for Saturday, which would mean climbing on the signature red sandstone would be out of the question. Sandstone has a porous quality that absorbs water, making it very fragile when wet. The ethics of the area dictate that you have to give it at least two days to dry after a heavy rain or you could break holds and permanently damage classic routes. By Thursday, our guide had expressed his concerns about the weather and began formulating alternate plans for climbing on denser limestone instead.
We met our guide Nate Emerson early Saturday morning. Despite the clear skies, it had dumped rain all night on Thursday and Nate made the game-time decision to respect the fragile area and do some single-pitch sport climbing at a nearby limestone crag instead. After a day on the razor blades and cheese graters that make up the holds at the Gun Club on the La Madre Range, our hands were shredded and we were eager to switch to softer sandstone the next day.
Getting Tunnel Vision
With 15 years of experience guiding everywhere from Denali to Red Rock, Emerson is personable, passionate about adventuring, and knowledgeable about the area’s history and surrounding wildlife. After testing our strength and climbing styles at the Gun Club, Emerson hand-picked our mission for Sunday: Tunnel Vision, a classic six-pitch, 5.7 route that takes you through a wide variety of climbing styles and unique rock features. His excitement about the route and his assurance that I was capable enough to do it put me at ease, but the idea of climbing more than 700 feet was making my stomach turn.
Tunnel Vision begins on a short, easy 5.6 pitch, into a long, fun chimney, through two pitches of exposed slab climbing, then to its namesake fifth pitch—a tunnel up through a dark cave. The final pitch throws a few technical moves at you before you get to the top, 770 feet above our start in the canyon below.
After a recap of the safety basics, rope management techniques, and how to remove the gear he places (known as “cleaning”), Emerson effortlessly led the first pitch and disappeared around a bulge 20 feet up. Once he was at the top and had set our belay anchors, he called down for me to start climbing. I was barely 15 feet off the ground before I had already gone into a full-on panic, manifesting into what climbers like to call “Elvis leg”—an uncontrollable, almost comical leg tremor. The grade is about as easy as climbing gets—5.6 would be a ladder by sport climbing standards, meanwhile 5.6 moves on a boulder problem would barely register as a grade. But there I was, shaking uncontrollably and the next 700-plus feet of progressively harder climbing suddenly felt pretty daunting.
I had forgotten that multi-pitch meant hauling a backpack, and the shift in my center of gravity came as a shock to someone who’s used to climbing unhindered. I managed to talk myself through the first pitch, fueled by my embarrassment and a lot of words of encouragement from Brodie below. After overcoming that mental block, we settled in and made quick work of the next chimney pitch before tiptoeing left to tiny footholds on a wide, blank face to begin the next two pitches of stomach-churning exposed climbing. You’re pumped and terrified and the thin length of bright blue rope that’s protecting you from a 300-foot fall is little comfort. Now that we had stepped out of the relative safety of the chimney, the reality of that fall became abundantly clear.
Already petrified on a top rope, where any unexpected fall would be arrested at no more than five feet, my mind is spinning imagining taking a fall on lead. Trad climbing falls of 20 feet or more are common, stopped only by a piece of temporary protection you placed yourself. These devices have the potential of ripping out and making your fall even longer or, worse, causing a zippering effect where the subsequent pieces below it are overloaded and torn out in succession.
This increased risk is the reason most trad climbers only do routes that are well within their ability, but even then, outdoor climbing comes with a set of variables no level of due diligence can control. Emerson told us about a friend who took a huge, but thankfully safe, fall in Joshua Tree when a snake lunged at him from inside a hole in the rock. He himself had taken a 30-foot fall and broken his ankle when a foothold broke and his belayer had left too much slack in the line to catch him before he hit a ledge. It put into perspective that despite choosing routes that were within his comfort zone, he was assuming all the risk and trusting us to give him a safe catch in case the rock had other plans.
Emerson cruised through the route—which had me shaking and panting on a top rope. By the time we reached the tunnel pitch and the rock had taken on a slick, almost glassy quality, I was mentally drained and clawed my way up, driven almost exclusively by fear. Despite my discomfort, after making my way through the tunnel, the appeal of trad climbing became clear—you’ll never encounter routes, not to mention views, like this on a sport climb or a boulder. When we reached the top, the fear melted away and all that was left was an exhilarating sense of accomplishment. Tunnel Vision would have been a casual, fun day for seasoned trad climbers, but for me, it was a marathon, challenging me in ways my mind, endurance, and poor blistered feet never thought it would be.
Ultimately, this experience might not have converted this boulderer into a trad climber. But to look down from the peak to the base of the canyon, it was thrilling to think that we had made our way up hundreds of feet of some of the most unique climbing I had done in my life, and now we were rewarded with a panorama of Red Rock Canyon and the Las Vegas Strip in the distance.