Monday, May 7, 2018

Red Rocks Spring Break

It was a long winter this year so getting away for a sunny spring vacation was just what Kyle and I needed. We planned to climb in Red Rock Canyon, just outside of Las Vegas, on either end of our rafting trip on the Grand Canyon with my family. We started the trip off with 4 days of climbing with Angela and Connor, who were in the middle of a climbing road trip through the western USA. We were also extremely stoked to meet up with David and Tyler! They had decided to drive out from San Fran to surprise us and climb for the weekend! 

We spent the first few days warming up (and getting sunburnt) on sport climbs in the Calico Basin and Calico Hills. Right away, we could tell it was going to be a good trip. All the gym climbing this winter looked like it had paid off and we were both pushing ourselves to get on some harder routes than ever before!
Day 2 crew - Vancouver reunion brought to you by Patagonia hats
Slabby sandstone approach to the Black Corridor
Welcome to the Black Corridor, essentially an outdoor climbing gym that was full of other Canadians! 
Enjoying the evening light and a cold beverage back at camp 
Chuckwalla lizard sunbathing on the rocks
The last day before rafting, Angela, Connor, Kyle and I all climbed the Cat in the Hat as two parties of two. This is a 5.7 trad route in Pine Creek Canyon. We climbed the first 5 pitches, then rappelled the route which is the typical way it is climbed. It was a fun, leisurely day out and we all got on the sharp end of the rope at one point! An early start ensured that we were off the route by early afternoon and only behind one other party (its a very popular route!).
Angela following me up the first pitch of Cat in the Hat 
Kyle leading pitch 3 of Cat in the Hat
Angela takes the lead on the traverse (pitch 4) 
Pitch 5 of Cat in the Hat high above the Red Rock Canyon and Las Vegas
Smiles at the top of Cat in the Hat with Pine Creek Canyon behind 
Rappelling the route
Beautiful Pine Creek Canyon
Post climb parking lot beers
  Six days later, Kyle and I were back in Red Rocks for another five days of climbing on our own. We had upped our climbing dirtbag game by renting a minivan to house all our stuff. Travelling with climbing gear, camping equipment and rafting stuff meant our lives were a constant battle to keep ourselves organized. Having the extra space in the van proved useful both for organization and as a cozy place to sleep. The first night at the campground it was totally full. Fortunately we had met some people from Canmore earlier in the trip and they let us crash on their site for the night! There was plenty of room for us to sleep in the van when the stow and go seats were tucked away. We ended up sleeping in the van all week after a big windstorm shredded our tent on our first day. We had also cleared some space to cook in the van when the wind kept blowing out our stove. The weather had been unseasonably warm earlier in the trip, but for the second half it was cool and windy. More on that later!
Kyle following me up the first pitch of Frigid Air Buttress
 The first route we got on was Frigid Air Buttress, a 7 pitch 5.9+ trad route in Icebox Canyon. Despite the name, it was sheltered from the crazy winds that were affecting the rest of the park so we didn't even realize how bad it was until we got back to the campground. The climb was great, it followed an interesting line that included huge chimneys, corners and a really challenging final crack to the top. Kyle convinced me to get on lead and I led the chimney pitches!
The 5.5 chimney pitch on Frigid Air Buttress
My first 5.9 trad lead! Stemming outside the chimney on Frigid Air Buttress
Life is good at the top!
 Route-finding had been straightforward until we arrived at the top of the route. Then it got pretty complicated. We had to solo a short 5.2 pitch up from the big ledge at the top, then follow cairns to a big boulder that was wedged into a chimney. The book says to down climb below the boulder but it was crazy! It seemed like many others had the same thought as us so we used the many pieces of tat to rap down instead. We down climbed and followed more cairns until we arrived at a tree with a rap station. We followed what we thought was the beta, rappelling down climbers left but we ended up totally off route! Two rappels later, Kyle was at a really sketchy station and I was re-rigging the rappel on a set of bolts with rings that were right above a series of pools and a waterfall. Needless to say the ropes ended up in the water multiple times. Fortunately the waterfall wasn't flowing, but we still got soaked on the way down!
Off route rappel down a trickling waterfall
 We had arrived at another big pool that we had to navigate our way around. The ropes got wet again and Kyle almost ended up in the water. Once past that obstacle, it was a scramble back to the approach trail. Somehow we had managed to get down the route in only 3 rappels instead of the 6 that you are supposed to do, but decending had taken us almost as long as the climb.
Using a tension traverse to get around a big pool
Desert blooms
 The next day was our biggest of the trip. We actually ended up sleeping and missed our early start. The park doesn't open until 6 am so in order to get on the route first, you need to get up early and line up at the park gate before 6. We left the campground at 6:30. Its a short drive to the park gate but you still have to drive around the park (on a one way street) to access any of the canyons. Its a 13 mile loop so it can take a while to get to the trailheads. We were optimistic when there were only 2 other vehicles in the parking lot since the route we were planning on climbing, the Crimson Chrysalis (5.8+, 9 pitch trad route), is really popular. Unfortunately, Juniper Canyon is accessed from multiple trailheads so we really had no clue if we were going to get scooped. The approach is an hour and a half approach and we could see other parties up ahead of us on the trail. It was going to be busy up there! When we arrived however, we were surprised to find a single party a few pitches up and nobody waiting to climb. Apparently three parties had arrived at the base of the within 5 mins of each other. One party of 3 bailed so they wouldn't hold up the other group, and then one of the other climbers realized they had forgotten their shoes so they left too. I guess the sleep in was a good thing!

It was cold, windy and shady all day on the route. By the time we had arrived at the top of the 4th pitch, Kyle was basically hypothermic and we had a brief chat about bailing (you rappel the route so you can turn around at any time). It was so distressing looking all around the valley at the sunshine while seemingly being on the only shady wall in the entire park. Kyle was miserable but wanted to push on so I gave him my puffy and he got on lead to warm up. After that, things got more tolerable and we were able to finish the route, swapping leads all the way. We topped out into glorious sunshine but started rappelling right away. We had been slow on the route and wanted to get down before the park closed for the night at 8 pm because we didn't want to get a ticket.
Cold Kyle at the top of Crimson Chrysalis 
 The route was really amazing, but we didn't get to enjoy it as much as we should have because we were so cold. It was a good reminder to be prepared for the conditions on committing routes as we had been lulled into a false sense of security from the weather the week before. I loved the stemming and interesting face climbing and was very happy that we only had some minor issues with getting our ropes stuck on the rappels. Many people we spoke with had got their ropes stuck really badly on the descent. In the end, it was a 12 hour day car to car. We slept really well that night in our van. 
The Crimson Chrysalis on the far right side of the formation in the foreground (with the red top!)
Desert hike back to the car
We had a sleep in and a big breakfast the next morning. The plan had been to go cragging to recover but we were feeling fired up and decided to go check out a less committing multi-pitch on White Rock Mountain - Tunnel Vision (5.7+, 6 pitches, trad). We made it up the route in good time, although the 5.7+ chimney proved to be a challenge, both to protect and to squeeze up. The feature attraction of the route was the tunnel pitch which starts in a big cave and climbs vertically. The climbing was very three-dimensional and required stemming on various walls before the route traversed out of the cave to join a fun crack. It was way more mellow and enjoyable than our suffer day on Crimson Chrysalis, and had a nice, straight-forward scramble descent that was well marked by cairns.
Kyle starts up the airy start to Tunnel Vision
Belaying in the chimney on Tunnel Vision
Kyle fakes a smile when really he wants to scream in terror
Tunneling into the unknown on the money pitch of Tunnel Vision
Tunnel Vision top out 
Cactus blooms
Our last two days were spent at the crags in Calico Hills and Calico Basin. Camping karma caught up with us and we had a few people ask to share our campsite with us with their fleet of vans. After crashing on JC's site earlier in the trip, we had to say yes and it was awesome. Most of them were from Squamish and somehow they knew some people that Kyle knows. Small world! The crew was super stoked and we enjoyed the burst of energy that they brought to our trip. 

On our second last day we joined the van dwellers at the Gallery for a morning of really pumpy cragging before realizing that we were way to tired to try hard. Instead, we drove out to the Hoover Dam to have a half day of rest and sightseeing. We need to get better at planning out rest days on climbing trips.
The amazingly red rocks of Calico Hills 
Chilly morning at Calico Hills
Intake towers at the Hoover Dam 
Checking out the Hoover Dam
It rained on our last night so our plans to finish the trip off with another multipitch were ruined. Sandstone gets really soft when its wet so you need to let the rock dry thoroughly before you can climb it after the rain. We had a slow morning to let the rock dry and took our chances with a crag called the Fringe as it looked like it had been missed by the brunt of the storm the night before. When we got there the rock was dry and good to go! We actually got on some of the hardest and most fun routes of the whole trip, and they were pretty damn aesthetic too!
Kyle on Lunatic (5.11b)

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Best Mom Ever! - Rafting the Grand Canyon

My mom is awesome! For her 60th birthday, she wanted to do something special so on her request, the whole family met up in Las Vegas. This was not to hit the strip, but to venture down the Colorado River in a raft for three days with Western River Expeditions. Let me put this in a bit of context. My mom is very outdoorsy and the opportunities Angela and I had to spend our childhood skiing, camping, hiking, and at the cottage in Northern Ontario significantly influenced my passion for my current outdoor pursuits. As a kid, mom taught me how to J-stroke a canoe, run rapids, windsurf and waterski. She is definitely the water lover in our family! When she suggested rafting the Grand Canyon for her birthday, I was surprised, but not shocked. She wanted to do something special that the whole family would enjoy and remember forever and try something new at the same time!
Running rapids on the French River with my mom back in 2007
We all met in Vegas the night before the trip but spend the evening eating way too much mexican food and packing before passing out around 9 pm (7:30 for Kyle). It was a 6 am departure the next morning. The logistics of getting into the Grand Canyon are complex, but the Western River Expeditions staff made the whole ordeal run like a well oiled machine as we were shuttled by bus from Vegas to a small plane in Boulder City, followed by helicopter transfers from Bar 10 Ranch to Whitmore Wash where we met our guides and rafts.
Boarding our charter flight from Boulder City to Bar 10 Ranch
Aerial view of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
Birthday girl looks out the window at the Colorado River below
The huge airport and airstrip at Bar 10 Ranch
Boarding the heli for the short flight to Whitmore Wash
It was unseasonable hot for April with temperatures in the high 80's. We spent the remainder of the morning on the beach at the side of the river getting briefed on safety and an overview of how the trip was going to go. After a quick shore lunch, it was time to board the rafts! There were about 24 guest on our trip plus the 4 river guides. We were split into two groups on two rafts, but we traveled down the river together and stopped for breaks and to camp in the same places. The other guests ranged from having never camped before to experienced outdoors people. The only 2 people on the trip that had ever been down into the canyon before were in our party - Kyle and Connor (who had done a private raft trip last year and knew the river really well)!
Excited to get on the river
We had flown into the canyon to meet the rafts at Whitmore Wash. The guides had been on the river since Lee's Ferry with another group of rafters that were just finishing a 7 day trip from the start of the canyon. As we unloaded the heli, they loaded in to head home, while the guides stayed behind to continue down the river with us. Our trip three day trip would travel from Whitmore Wash (mile 188) to Pearce Ferry (mile 277) in three days thanks to the motors on the back of the huge custom-built rafts.

Day 1 was mostly mellow water as we got used to life on the river. It was quite relaxing motoring down the river (you could barely even hear the motor) and checking out the amazing scenery from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We passed through a few small sections of rapids but stayed mostly dry, which was lucky because despite the warm weather, the water was COLD!
The first of many splashes
After a few hours on the river, we arrived at our campsite for the evening. The wind had picked up through the day and the fine sand that lined the waters edge was picked up in gusts, sandblasting us as we set up camp. As one of the guides said early in the trip, "embrace the sand." Through the rest of the trip, I often reflected on these words as sand carried by the wind filled my eyes, nose and toothbrush. Newty's recommendation was simple, "just grab a handful of sand, put it in your pocket and you will be good to go."

All the tents and sleeping bags were provided and you had the option to sleep out under the stars on a cot. We all opted for the under the stars experience and set up our camp as the guides (Newty, Joey, Parker and Ben) got to work on dinner.
Camp for night #1
Cots set up under the sky
We went for a wander up the big wash by our camp. Our guides told us that if you kept following the wash, you would end up in Salt Lake City! We didn't make it that far, but we got some amazing views of the high walls of the canyon and beautiful colours as the sun was setting.
Exploring up the wash from camp
Who invited these two along??
Amazing light on the walls as the sun goes down
After a delicious dinner, we went to bed. It was a restless night with strong gusts of wind. We were woken by the sound of the trumpet signalling that coffee was ready shortly after 5 am. There was sand in my hair, teeth, and sleeping bag and I did't feel like I had slept much. Nonetheless, we quickly packed up our camp and joined the group for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and fresh baked muffins straight out of the dutch oven.

The crew loaded up the rafts and we were back on the river. Everyone was appropriately dressed in rain gear and splash jackets in anticipation of the larger rapids we would encounter through the day.
Day 2 - ready for rapids!
Parker and Ben getting the rafts all set up for the day
Drowned rat after a big slash
Staying dry on the cooler seats
Kyle is ready for some more rapids
Splashes for everyone!
Photo-bombed by Newty

Someone is having a great birthday!
The wind on the river was cold and despite the layers, we were shivering as we pulled ashore for lunch. That didn't last long because as soon as we were out of the wind we were cooking. Our clothes dried instantly as we hung out on the beach for lunch. After lunch, we stopped at Travertine Grotto. A short walk up some ladders in the canyon brought us to a beautiful warm waterfall we enjoyed a good rinse in the falls.
Taking a shower at Travertine Grotto
Mom and Dad at Travertine Grotto
Through the day, we passed numerous other groups of rafters. There are a limited number of trips down the Grand Canyon every year and the majority of the trips are will commercial guiding outfits, like Western River Expeditions. The minority are private trips. It is difficult to secure a permit and it requires entering a lottery every year for a small number of private groups. A trip down from Lee's ferry can take about 3 weeks and requires a lot of logistical preparation. The smaller rafts are rowed and it can be a struggle to fight the strong winds in a boat loaded down with camping and cooking gear. In addition, you need to pack all your food in, and all your waste out - including your human waste. There are very strict rules about all the little details of paddling in the Grand Canyon to allow the area to be enjoyed for years to come.

We had our motor and passed the private groups with ease. I did not envy the river runners that had to paddle the whole way and it was a nice change that we hadn't had to do any of the research, organization or prep for the trip. Our guides were fabulous, telling us stories about different historic characters in the Grand Canyon story, pointing out the various layers of rock in the canyon walls and sharing folklore about the rapids and beaches along the way (what was fact and what was fiction was difficult to discern).
Our rafts vs. their rafts for scale
Big waves ahead! Mom was frequently front and centre on the raft through the biggest rapids
Our second night was spent on another beach and we were treated to a fancy dinner of shrimp cocktail and steak, followed by two types of birthday cake! The guys pulled out their instruments and provided a sing-a-long as night fell. We were in bed early and were treated to magical views of the stars overhead and a much calmer night than the one before.
Camp for night #2
A poop with a view
The final day started early again to the sound of the trumpet. We broke down camp and hit the river again for a few final rapids before the flat section of river before Pearce Ferry. We were met by a jet boat that sped us down the last 40 miles of flat water to Pearce Ferry, where we were met by a bus that shuttled us back to Las Vegas. It was surreal after spending 2 days in the quiet, remote canyon to leave the National Park and enter the Hualapai Reservation. Suddenly there were numerous helicopters, tourists on the edge of the river and visitors high above us on the Grand Canyon Skywalk!
Blueberry pancakes with Newty and Joey
Family photo!
Happy Birthday Mom! What an fantastic way to celebrate the amazing lady who continues to inspire me to explore new places, try new things and celebrate the importance of family. I love you Mom, this has been a trip we will never forget!