Special Correspondent Naomi Stock flew to Las Vegas for her 21st birthday. But it’s not what you think. This is her story of rock climbing with her sister and her friends. They’re really into it…as her story demonstrates. Great photos, too! –Scott
I have scabs on the backs of my hands, raw skin on my fingertips, blisters on my feet, sunburn on my nose, and dust in my hair. All this, just like the huge grin on my face, is the result of a perfect week.
I left Anchorage on March 3rd and flew to Las Vegas, NV where my sister, McKenzie, picked me up from the airport in the car she has been living in since I saw her last, in October. I put one bag in the back on her makeshift bed and one on my lap and we drove to the Airbnb I had booked, catching up as my nose adjusted to the smell of a well-lived-in Subaru Outback.
Kenzie has found herself a great family of nomads, coming and going as they wish, climbing their way across the country. That night I walked into an Airbnb full of seven dirtbags, including my sister, who were delighted to have running water and the chance to shower. Dinner was served and I started to get to know everyone.
Above: Cody and Naomi basking in the sun at Yin and Yang cliff.
Elias and Cody are carefree young men, psyched on rock climbing, and worried only about how and where to have the most fun. They left a few days after I arrived in pursuit of good times in a different climbing area, but made plans to meet back up with everyone soon enough.
Moira, affectionately called “Mom” by most everyone, quickly including myself, is a sweet and affectionate woman who thinks of others before herself. There’s a lot of strength and grit packed into her small frame. This is her third winter since she moved into her van, affectionately dubbed “Hippopotamus.” She’s 29, and I heard her say “Now that I’m almost 30…” at least once a day, though her birthday isn’t until November.
Mark, though closer to my own age at 22, has clearly become one of my sister’s best friends. He reminds me of a close friend of mine, but more than that, their friendship reminds me of ours. They watch out for each other, anticipating each other’s needs and joys. He’s the strongest climber of the group, somewhere between the recreationist and the professional. She’s not far behind, and that pushes her to try hard. As she plans to upgrade from her Subaru Outback, Mark’s experience with his van, “Rhododendron,” has been helpful. Mark knew how important my experience in Las Vegas was to McKenzie, and paid special attention to make sure I was getting the most out of it.
Mark’s friend Maddy left the day after I arrived, so I didn’t have much of a chance to get to know her, but another friend of his, Conrad, came to visit on the last day of my trip. He’s not a pure dirtbag because he has a permanent address (he lives in a shed in Washington), but just bought a van and when it’s ready will most likely join the others on the road.
Tim is shy at first, but take him to the Vegas Strip and his alter ego, affectionately dubbed “City Jerry” (after his middle name, Gerald), emerges. Once a chef in New York City, Tim cooked many of our dinners, and each one one was both exquisite and healthy. He’s 33, possibly 34, has probably been on the road for the longest, and can be quite cryptic.
It’s hard for me to see McKenzie’s place in their group, because all I see is my sister. During this period of her life, I can see how she walks the line between edgy and reasonable. Willing to take risks and be spontaneous, she will also be the voice of reason to the mostly 20-somethings around her. She is motivated and responsible, loves climbing with her whole soul, and takes care of those around her, as she always has. She gets that from our mother, though she’d never admit it.
My first day in Las Vegas McKenzie, Moira, Tim, Cody, Elias, and I all piled into Moira’s van and headed to Calico Basin in Red Rock Canyon. We hiked about 20 minutes from the parking lot to Yin and Yang Cliff, where we focused on three crack climbs, each about 35’ tall.
Crack climbing is pretty self explanatory: climbing up a crack in the cliff (rather than using features on the face). To do this, climbers employ techniques of hand and foot jamming, placing a hand or foot in the crack in such a way that it can be used to move up the crack. It’s a notoriously painful type of climbing, hence the scabs on the backs of my hands.
After everyone had their fill of the climbs at Yin and Yang Cliff, we packed up and headed to a long crack climb called “The Fox,” a beautiful, long line up a cliff that widens at the top. Elias led “The Fox,” which means he was the first of our group to climb it, placing gear in the crack and clipping his rope to it to protect a fall. McKenzie, Moira, and I followed him up on top rope, which meant that we did not have to place any gear in the crack because the rope was already running through an anchor at the top of the climb, thanks to Elias.
Crack climbing is rarely protected by bolts in the rock (that’s sport climbing), but rather by what is called traditional protection, which can be passive or active. Trad gear, as it’s more often called, comes in many shapes and sizes, for different types of cracks in rock. The gear is placed in such a way so that if the climber falls, the gear stays in the rock and catches the climber, but so that it can still be removed after the climber is done. It can be dangerous, and it takes skill, training and practice to be proficient at placing gear, so trad climbing is considered a more advanced, albeit purer, form of climbing than sport climbing.
The next day we did go sport climbing, which is my strength, but after a long day of crack climbing, which I have rather minimal experience with, and after a long winter without climbing outside at all, I was very lethargic. Tim took a rest day, and Cody and Elias left Vegas, so it was just McKenzie, Mark, Moira, and I at Wake Up Wall in the Sandstone Quarry area of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It was a beautiful sunny day, and all I wanted to do was bask in the sun after five cold, dark months in Alaska. I got a few climbs in, but mostly just enjoyed the company of good people and the warmth of the sun.
Saturday was an amazing day for me. We had a nice slow morning and then climbed a nice long route (about 900’) for most of the day. A route like that is longer than climbing ropes, so it has to be climbed in sections. This is called a multi-pitch route (each section being a “pitch”). The leader climbs to the top of each pitch, sets up an anchor and a belay station, belays the follower (or followers) up to that anchor, and then the follower belays the leader to the top of the next pitch.
This continues, with the leader and the follower often trading roles, until the climbers reach the top of the cliff. I love multi-pitch climbing because of how high and how much you get to climb. Tim and Moira made one group of climbers, and McKenzie, Mark and I made another. For a group of three, the leader ties into two ropes, with one follower attached to each.
Though the route we climbed, Purblind Pillar, is objectively easy, but it only has a few bolts and is mostly a trad route, so I was proud to lead three of its six pitches. The view of the canyon from the top was beautiful, and everyone enjoyed our day on the wall. I even FaceTimed our mom from a ledge in the middle to give her a proper scare. We arrived back at the van just in time for a stunning desert sunset.
Saturday night was a slightly less amazing experience for me. We made plans to go out on the strip (I did just turn 21 after all), but I was unlucky enough to get food poisoning only a few hours after our arrival, and spent most of the night rather indisposed. All in all it makes for a good story, but for now let’s just say I left my mark on the strip that night.
Sunday morning was a rest day for everyone. Climbing was never on the agenda, for any of us. Mark made us blueberry chocolate chip pancakes, we visited gear shops and Coldstone, and settled in for an early night watching the Princess Bride and climbing films.
After a lazy day and an astounding 36 hours without climbing, we set out early Monday morning, piled into Mark’s van, for Arrow Canyon. About an hour outside of Las Vegas, Arrow Canyon is full of one of climbing’s favorite rocks, limestone. Unlike the sandstone of Red Rock, limestone can be slippery or sharp, but tends to form some of the best sport climbing in the world (e.g. Oliana, Spain).
Deep in the canyon, past a small dam, is a limestone cave dubbed Swamp Cave where we all pushed our limits on harder grades and technical climbs. After a few hours, the wind picked up and we found ourselves in a kind of wind tunnel filled with sand. Though the climbers on the wall were away from the sand and kept comfortably cool by the wind, belaying quickly became tortuous. Around sundown we packed up and piled back into the van.
Back in Las Vegas we stopped by a local restaurant for burritos and margaritas, but we were soon back in the Airbnb, watching “History of the World, Part I,” the Mel Brooks film. It seemed everyone underestimated their exhaustion, because we were all asleep in the living room within 20 minutes.
Tuesday would be my last day of climbing, so we all knew it had to be good. Mark picked up his friend Conrad from the airport, more pancakes were had, and again we were piled in Moira’s van, not quite speeding toward Red Rock Canyon. This time, we hiked past Wake Up Wall to an overhanging wall, called Trophy Wall, with quite a few hard routes and nothing even remotely easy. I quickly found a project, a route at the threshold of my ability, and focused all of my energy on it. It’s called “Keep Your Powder Dry” and is graded 5.12a.
First, I climbed it on top rope, trying all of the moves, testing the waters so to speak (with the rope at the top of the route, the climber has less to think about when it comes to safety). When I knew it was doable, we pulled the rope and I led the route, clipping quickdraws into bolts as I went, and clipping the rope into those for protection from falls. Though there is more risk involved in lead climbing, it is considered a more legitimate form of climbing a route.
In climbing, a “redpoint” is achieved when, after practicing as much as necessary, a climber leads a route from the ground to the anchor at the top without falling. This was my goal, and I didn’t quite reach it. I was able to do the route on lead from top to bottom, but I took some falls on the way.
The truth is, I don’t mind leaving Las Vegas with my project unfinished. I have a connection to Red Rock Canyon now, something pulling me back there, even when my nomadic sister moves on to the next climbing area on her list. I am still motivated to get the redpoint, but I’m not devastated that it didn’t happen on this trip. I got a lot more out of this week than another route to put on my climbing resume. I was able to experience climbing on sandstone, a new rock for me. I made new friends, ones who I hope I see again one day, because I know they would still have my back. I got to spend time with my sister, an increasingly rare phenomenon as we follow our ambitions around the world.
A lot of people ask us if our parents are big travelers, big adventurers, if they took us to a lot of places growing up, because they can see the desire McKenzie and I have for travel and adventure. I do believe that they’re a part of our influence – my parents do travel a lot – but they never really did that with us as kids. For my parents travel was always a before-kids and after-retirement sort of activity. I think, to an extent, that McKenzie and I feed off of each other when it comes to exploring the world we live in. I see what she does, and it shows me that I can do it too. She sees what I do and is inspired, as the elder sister, to show that she can do it too. When circumstances allow, we get to share our ambitions and adventure together, and that is the best feeling of all.
If this story has sparked an interest in rock climbing, the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage, Denali Fitness in Wasilla, and the Ascension Rock Club in Fairbanks are all great places to get started!
For community events like cleanups and trail work, check out the Climbers Alliance of Southcentral Alaska! Summer event dates will be announced by April 2nd.
Looking for gear? Check out local shops like the Hoarding Marmot or Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking!
You can also find some great online resources and support at the American Alpine Club.
See you out there! -Naomi
Above: McKenzie coiling the rope as we prepare to leave Yin and Yang cliff.
Desert turtle! Tortoise?
Above: Naomi panting and sweating on the steep approach to the base of The Fox.
Silly faces on Purblind Pillar.
Hiking back to the van on the last day.
Found a wild Kenzie in Moira’s van!
The Subaru Outback that McKenzie calls home. Tim’s van is also visible in the background.
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