Sandstone to Granite: Life on the Road
quixotic adj. Not sensible in practical matters.
The next morning dawned with something of a glimmer of hope for the first time on the road trip. Sure, our stuff was still soak. Sure, pretty much everything we owned was covered in red sand (that I would continue to find in my belongings for weeks). And sure, Chris and I were now thousands of miles from home and a road trip that neither of us had really wanted to go on in the first place, now lacking the very reason that we had. But still, there was hope; Las Vegas was on the horizon.
You may be wondering how a mountain-loving country bumpkin like myself could be so excited for a massive urban sprawl that represents the worst of American culture and capitalism. One word: Timeshare. While Chris and I could never afford a Las Vegas hotel on our own, my grandparents have owned a timeshare there since I was just a little kid. I’ve been strolling the streets of Vegas since I was, in fact, still in a stroller. Since my grandma wasn’t planning on using her timeshare this year, she was nice enough to give us a few days of it. This meant three days of a real bed, a toilet, and a shower all in the same place.
Rather than dealing with all our still wet tents and the like, we decided to leave it for Vegas. Everything will be better in Vegas, became our mantra. We threw the tents, the footprint, and the blue shoe mat inside three garbage bags, shoved them in the trunk, and headed out. Unfortunately, since we were camped on the opposite side of the park, we had to drive through Zion once more before finally continuing on through the other side. We drove down through St. George, Utah, dipped briefly into Arizona, then before we knew it, we were surrounded by the traffic sprawl of Las Vegas. While Chris being used to city driving was a boon for me in this situation, as it meant he could navigate the six lanes of chaos, it meant that I needed to be the navigator. The only thing I’m worse at than navigating, is perhaps sewing. I didn’t get us lost, per se, but I did cause us to exit the interstate far too soon so we had to navigate those same six lanes of chaos, just this time between buildings. One long strip and an angry motorcycle man who rode up next to our window and screamed at us for merging into his lane (safely I might add) later, we were at the Carriage House.
The Carriage House is a small little hotel located one block off the strip just behind the MGM Grand. Being only eleven stories high, it is dwarfed by the 50+ level hotels and casinos that surround it. The only reason it still stands is because its ownership lies in the hands of the timeshare owners, and every single one of them would need to sign off on it to demolish the building to make room for something new. It’s not as grand or exciting as the other strip hotels that each have their own little theme and whatnot, but it’s nice and quiet, without the constant chime of people losing money that you hear in the casinos.
Instead, we got a nice, quaint little room that would provide us exactly the peace we wanted of these three days. Immediately, we collapsed not he bed, a real bed. And just across the room, we had a real kitchen that meant we could eat something other than canned goods. And even better, we had a free hot shower that we could stand in for as long as we wanted. For us, this was the height of luxury.
That night, we had no real desire to go do much of anything. We stretched out our tent along the narrow ledge of our window after stuffing it out the small crack that it would open and spread the green tent Mitchell had been using out under the car, hoping the hot Vegas air would dry them quickly. After that, we went swimming in the pool, took a hot shower, grabbed some groceries, and settled in for the night.
The next morning, Chris brought up the idea of maybe trying to find a climbing gym in the area since we hadn’t really gotten to do any climbing on the entire trip so far. After finding one only three miles away, we made the decision. The Refuge Climbing and Fitness Center was located in a strip mall filled with all kinds of weird little businesses. Despite how it looked on the outside, the bouldering gym inside was actually quite nice and decently large, with a really cool nearly 45 degree angle overhang section and even a track wall for endurance training. While the $17 student day price was a little bit higher than we would have liked, we payed the fee and spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon messing around in the gym. I could tell it had been a long time since I had been in a gym, or climbing at all really. I got tired quickly and I struggled on V2 and V3 grade problems that I should have normally been able to either to send easily or with a little bit of work. It was humbling to see how quickly the fitness of climbing goes away when one doesn’t do it.
After only about four or five hours, which is minimal for what Chris and I used to spend in the PRG gym, we left and headed back to the hotel to shower and freshen up before the evening. That night, we finally decided to actually check out a bit of the city itself. Having been to Vegas myself multiple times in the past, I knew the city very well and had seen just about everything there was to see. Chris, however, was a Vegas virgin and that meant everything was new to him: the people in costumes posing for pictures all along the strip, the mass crowds of people moving up and down the escalators and moving walkings, and especially the people handing out stripper cards to anyone and everyone every five feet.
“What a weird place,” Chris said. Weird about sums up Vegas. We saw a sign in a gift shop that said “Vegas” with an arrow pointing one way, and “Reality” with an arrow pointing the other way. True indeed.
While Vegas is a cooky and often infuriating place filled with the worst of the worst tourists, I think it’s something to see at least once in your life, if for no other reason than to see that it is indeed a real place. And even though I do not have much use for cities, Las Vegas at night is a truly beautiful city. That is why I elected that we walked the evening down to the Bellagio along Las Vegas Boulevard, where we could see the season botanical gardens lit up at night and watch the fountain show. On our way, we cut through Caesar’s palace, strolling through all the high end retail shops (like Armani and Prada) that we could never afford in a million years. All the store workers knew the second we walked in that we couldn’t afford them, but it was fun pretending for a while.
The next day, we decided to check out the other end of the strip, a bit closer to us. We passed through Planet Hollywood, New York New York, Excalibur, and got horribly lost inside the MGM on the way back to the hotel. Funny how those casinos are designed. It’s almost like they don’t want you to leave or something.
Gambling was something we had yet to do, but it was on my list. Since I had never been to Las Vegas since I had turned 21, I was eager to actually try a bit of gambling, even though I knew virtually nothing about any of the table games and was not about to stake my fortune on a rigged machine. A guy we met in the climbing gym told us, “Just remember, they didn’t get to build all those big fancy casinos because everybody wins.” Chris and I had made the deal that we would set aside $100 total to gamble. If we lost it, we were done, and if we made more than it, we would keep that $100 always set aside.
That night, we headed a few blocks in the other direction of the strip to a place called the Ellis Island Casino. As a kid, my grandparents and I would always go there to eat, but they also had some of the lowest table minimums in Vegas, and that’s ultimately what drew us there. We decided to play roulette, as that seemed to be the simplest of the games with the highest probability of winning. You know the phrase, beginner's luck? Well, I’m inclined to think it is true. After buying in only $20 worth of chips, we were up over $100 within the hour. However, we had come to play for the experience and so we kept going. Within the next hour, we put in $40 more and lost pretty much everything. In that time, I learned that I am far too anxious of a person to gamble, and I actually left the casino for a bit to walk around and destress. When I came back, Chris had pulled us back up to even and cashed out. It was sad to think we had lost so much money, but at the same time, we left knowing that we hadn’t actually lost anything at all. In fact, including the free drink I got while at the table, we had come out just a little bit ahead. I could now say I had gambled and had no intention of doing it again.
The next morning, we were sad to leave, not sad because we would miss Vegas (three days is plenty there) but because we would miss the easy lifestyle we had been living. We still had about a week left on the road, scrounging for something as basic as showers and campsites. Mitchell had also missed us, having stayed longer at the Grand Canyon, and thus we never really got to say a proper goodbye. As we always do, however, Chris and I moved forward looking to better things on the horizon.
That horizon happened to be just outside Las Vegas, at Red Rock National Conservation Area where we had read there was some good climbing. Being only about 30 miles outside the city, we headed out to the conservation area (getting in for free with my fancy little annual park pass) and drove up the one-way scenic loop about a mile to pullout where the first climbing spot was located. As we pulled gear out of the trunk, Chris realized that his shoes were missing. After he panicked briefly, he called the rock gym we had been at and, sure enough, his shoes were there. That unfortunately meant we had to turn around, drive out the other twelve miles of the scenic loop, drive back into Vegas, and come all the way back. But we did it, Chris grumbling the entire way because he was mad himself for leaving his shoes. Shoes in hand, we headed back once again to Red Rock.
As we hiked across the beautiful pink and orange swirled sandstone rocks attempting to find the climbing, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the desert was, even so close to the city. Only 30 miles from one of the most densely population cities in the U.S. and we were in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. And as we failed to find the climbing wall we were looking for, a place called Panty Wall, we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Going to a brand new climbing zone with no guidebook or beta of any kind is incredibly difficult. not only do you not know how to get to the walls, but you have no idea which climb is which or what their grades are. It becomes a blind climb essentially. Something can look easily and end up being a 5.12. Climbs, I have learned, are never as they appear.
We eventually found a wall with some bolts all along it and hiked up to its base. It was the hottest point in the day and the rubber of our climbing shoes was soaking in the heat off the dark rock like water does a sponge. We could hardly stop and prop ourselves in one position too long before our feet started burning; add yet another level of difficulty to sandstone climbing. I sent the first climb and struggled on the next, having made it through one difficult section with a fall, onto a beautifully smooth and bubbly section of sandstone, only to fall for good on the final overhang hump to the top chains. It wasn’t until I got down that Chris admitted to me that the climb was probably a 5.11, a full grade above what I even usually attempt, so I tried not to beat myself up too hard about not finishing it.
Though we had only done two climbs, the sun was starting to set and we still had no idea where we were camping. We decided to call it a day, planning on coming back tomorrow, and headed back to the car. We threw our gear inside then walked a farther distance than either of us anticipated across the barren field in the middle of the area to the visitor center to refill our waters for the night. We knew it would have been closed by the time we drove back around and didn’t want to mess with the hassle of making the loop yet again all for some water. As we lugged our bottles and gallon jug of water back up the road toward the pullout, we stuck out our thumbs on the off chance that someone might be feeling kind. It was a one-way road after all, so we knew they were going out direction. Car after car passed us.
“You know, it was never this hard in Europe. There, everybody is so much more willing to pick up hitchhikers. Everyone is so afraid of everyone here in America.” Not a minute later did a white convertible drive by us, brake, and back up. Naturally, by this point we had walked so far that pullout with our car was actually in view.
"You guys need a lift?” the guy driving asked, with a heavy European accent of some sort. How very ironic.
“Nah, it’s okay. We actually just saw the car come into view as you stopped,” we told them.
“That’s okay. Hop in anyway. We’ll take you there.” We shrugged, and hopped over the back tire into the pit of the convertible, me directly on Chris’ lap like some kind of 1950s film. They drove us all of 200 meters to the car and bid us a good evening.
We ended up car camping outside a tiny little town just down the highway form Red Rock, between two willow bushes to be exact just for the illusion of privacy. Now that it was only me and Chris, we could actually sleep in the car because there was space to recline the seats back. It wasn’t comfortable by any means, but it would do, and it opened up a whole new world of sleeping possibilities for us.
We woke in the morning to find raindrops on the car and puddles on the ground. Luckily, we had been in the car so our tent didn’t get wet yet again. Unluckily, rain weakens sandstone to the point of it being stupid to even attempt climbing, so our plans to return to Red Rock and climb more were completely ruined. Such was what seemed to happen anytime we seriously tried any climbing on the trip. Sad and frustrated at the rain’s ability to continually screw us over, we drove on toward California and Death Valley National Park.
I want to be able to say that Death Valley was interesting. The very name sparks some intrigue, after all. In reality, Death Valley is not nearly so dramatic as its name. Instead, it is a long stretch of road surrounded by the hot, dusty, and grey. The land is flat for miles until until you finally cross through some of the Sierras on the other side of the park and nothing at all seems alive there (except for the lone coyote on the side of the road that had enticed enough people to stop and try to photograph it). All in all, Death Valley was nothing special.
Once on the other side, however, the landscape began to get more interesting, with the sharp, craggy mountains of California growing closer and closer. While all the peaks on the profile were sharp and jagged, one peak in particular seemed to jut above the rest, piercing the sky. We soon found out this peak was Mt. Whitney, not only the highest peak in California, but the highest in the the lower 48, standing at an elevation of 14,505ft. To hike the peak from its portal, it is a whopping 22 miles round trip, and to climb its face, it is still 11.
We didn’t discover any of this until we reached the portal to Mt. Whitney, a little dot-on-the-map tourist town called Lone Pine. If it weren’t for the fact that it hosts the mountain’s portal, Lone Pine would be one of those blink-and-you-miss-it little places along the highway. While we had no intention of climbing Mt. Whitney (though I do hope to one day), we still intended on stopping in Lone Pine for other reasons. Not only was it an important mountaineering location, but a prime rock climbing one. Just outside the city, along the Mt. Whitney Portal Rd. is a climbing area called the Alabama Hills. Alabama Hills allegedly holds hundreds of bolted sport climbs on the many granite crags that littered the dry and parched area. That is, if you can find any of it. The area is a maze with little dirt road criss-crossing every which direction. While Mountain Project is a fantastic website for finding free climbing area Betas, it is nothing compared to a full guide and it falls short of really giving you clue what an area is like. If you ever go, I recommend buying a guide book, or at least talking to a local climber in one of the climbing shops in town.
We did neither of those things, which was why we circled the dirt roads, scanning the boulders for anything that looked climbable. Finally, as we were on our way back into town to ask someone, we noticed a car parked at the base of some larger rock crags. Squinting, we noticed a couple guys up on the wall, We pointed our wheel that direction and finally came upon the some bolted rock. As we got out to explore, we found that the granite crags had formed in layers. Behind the first, we found a narrow alley and another of rock with bolts on both sides. And on it went. Within two minutes of walking from the car, we had perhaps 50 different routes at our disposal. We immediately got out our climbing gear, put on our harnesses and shoes, flaked out the rope, and set to work.
Since we had no guide book for the area or even an idea of what wall we were on to look online, we were climbing blind, picking routes that looked the easiest to warm up on and working jut from there. It’a an ineffective way to go about climbing to say the least. Climbs that looked easy from the bottom soon because 5.12’s that Chris fell on (which he rarely ever does) and I could hardly get a few moves off the ground. These were no beginning routes. And to make matters worse, the rock was all granite. If you’ve never climbed on granite, here’s how it works; granite has the remarkable ability to be both sharp and smooth. As a whole, it is comprised of tons of compressed little rocks that tear your skin away and dig into your hands with each hold. Yet this rough texture provides no traction because each little rock that comprises the whole is smooth and polished. It is the worst of both worlds. Since I had been spoiled on soft sandstone that provided an almost unfair amount of traction, this granite felt like I was climbing up knives. My bleeding knee would attest to that by the end of the day.
Since it was already relatively late in the day, we didn’t get in a ton of climbing before calling it quits in favor of making dinner. Since the land was so dry, we would need to be careful with our fire. We selected a dirt mound in between two of the climbing crags that would provide the best shelter from the wind. We gathered dry hunks of sage and built ourselves a fire just large enough to get a bed of coals that would cook two can of chili. Afterwards, we elected to just camp in the car again. While the area would have been perfectly secluded for some outdoor camping, Zion had broken our will to set up the tent again and risk any chance of it getting wet. Sleeping in the car was just easier, even if it was less comfortable. Since Chris had slept in the driver’s seat the night before, I volunteered to sleep there that night, as the steering wheel made it much more cramped than the already cramped passenger seat.
The driver’s seat did not proffer a good night’s sleep, but at least we could start climbing immediately in the morning. Right away, I could tell my climbing game was off. I sent the first warm-up climb, which was little more than a corner slab, and struggled on every climb after. Days like that are frustrating for me, days when I feel like I’m regressing instead of progressing. Climbing in general can be a very frustrating sport for me because it’s not something one can just instantly be good at, and I’m not exactly used to not being good at things. If the progress isn’t happening from day to day, week to week, I have trouble seeing it. It’s a lot easier to se weekly progress, and measure it, when you’re climbing in a gym. Outside it’s difficult, as Chris has tried to remind me.
“Climbing is all about how you define success,” he tells me repeatedly. It’s a lesson I haven’t learned yet. and I tend to beat myself for not being about to do a climb that I “should be able to do”. Unlike Chris, I don’t find joy in the failure and frustration of climbing, which in turn is frustrating for Chris that I don’t enjoy his favorite aspect of the sport. But the situation is reversed for us when it comes to hiking. I enjoy the push, the pain of the ascent itself, whereas Chris enjoys the reward at the top. Our perspectives are reversed for our respective passions.
That day was one of those days where nothing I did seemed right and I sunk lower and lower into a climbing depression. Finally, I took off my shoes and offered to belay for Chris for as long as he wanted to climb. I wasn’t getting back on the wall. Chris being Chris decided to call it quits as well, not wanting to keep climbing without me. Disappointed that it had been a bit of a flop climbing day yet again, we loaded up the car and headed back into Lone Pine.
There we stopped at a small cafe for some coffee and wifi, and later a to-go sandwich because they had been so nice to us. Across the street from the cafe we noticed a hiking and climbing shop called “Elevation.” It didn’t look like anything remarkable: a small pale yellow building on the corner of the main street with the word “Elevation” painted on in simple font. Inside, however, it was perhaps the best climbing shop I had seen. It was indeed as small as it looked, but it was also crammed from back to front with all manner of Kuhl clothing, climbing shoes, guide books, lightweight backpacking gear, you name it. Over the next hour or so, we went a little crazy.
Naturally, as the piles in our arms got bigger and bigger, the manager of the store began getting friendlier and friendlier.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“Well I’m from Montana and Chris is from Philadelphia.”
“Oh, whereabouts in Montana?” he asked.
This was the part where I usually said the name of a place no one had ever heard of. Only this time, when I answered, he exclaimed, “I have an uncle that lives on Sunburst Drive!” Once again, I felt the world shrinking around me.
“By the way, guys, the more your buy, the more of a deal I can give you on everything,” he said. That was all the incentive we needed. Chris and I were in desperate need for some new climbing gear. Our rope was only 50m, limiting the crags we could take it up, and it was so old the fabric was beginning to fray just slightly. Both our shoes were well worn and broken down from all the outdoor climbing we had done over the summer. In the end, we made our with quite a haul, including a new harness for Chris, some nice clothing from Kuhl and Helley Hansen, chalk, and the items below. I would like to brag that the Red Chili Spirit Lady VCR climbing shoes for me are regularly $130 and I got them on sale for $40.
On top of the sale prices many of the things were already set at, the manager then gave us what he called the “local discount”, which took another 20% off each item. A haul that would have been over $1,000 (including the sale prices) came down to just over $700. Realistically, we knew it was more than we should be spending give the massive trip we had coming up in just a few weeks. At the same time, we needed these things and we knew we could never get them for such a steal ever again. I had been living on a tight budget all summer. This was my reward.
Having spent way more time and money than either of us had intended, we packed our stuff into the car and set our minds to the next task on our list: a shower. Lone Pine actually has one single hostel in the town, and we figured the hostel might allow us to pay for showers. They would allow us to do that, provided we each pay $7 for only 5 minutes. It might seem silly to gripe over $14 considering how much we had just spent on gear, but this seemed a silly expense so we left, still grungy and smelly.
Luckily, after a quick search online for showers in the area, we discovered a hotel and gas station in the town of Big Pine, just 30 or so miles up the highway in the direction we were headed, offered 5 minute showers for only $3. It sounded to good to be true, but for once it wasn’t, and we got back on the road, freshly scrubbed and smelling lovely. We had only one more big stop on the trip and we were perhaps more excited for this than anywhere: Yosemite.