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Soft Rock, Wet Rock: A Public Service Reminder from Red Rocks

Submitted by camhead on 2014-12-17

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by Paul Nelson

If you are just skimming this article, here's the short version: don't climb on wet sandstone. Keep reading for the long, confessional version.

This winter, I finally got away for something I have not done in seven years: a month-long climbing road trip in the American Southwest. I love my current home in West Virginia's New River Gorge, and had a very good winter there last year, but still the cold humidity of the place had been getting to me. I was born, raised, and learned to climb in the West, and miss its broad vistas, long and scenic National Park-quality approaches, big routes, and especially the dry air.

So, last week, a friend and I headed west, for Red Rocks, NV, via Indian Creek, UT. We were psyched for warmth, sun, and dryness. But no road trip ever goes exactly as planned, and it seems that the rain and cold we were trying to escape in Appalachia decided to rear their ugly heads in the desert! We got one unseasonably warm December day at Indian Creek, which was a treat, before a large storm that had hit the Bay Area breached the Great Basin desert and soaked Indian Creek's Wingate Sandstone.

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Wait, it doesn't rain in the desert, does it?

So we drove south and then west across Navajo country and Arizona, hitting the fringes of the storm around Kingman. Desert storms can be violent, and the fact that there is very little loamy soil or vegetation to absorb the rainfall means that tiny washes can become huge funnels for flash floods. We didn't see any floods first hand this time, but saw the debris and pools of many as we drove north toward Hoover Dam.


At this point, it is time to introduce the rule of thumb that soft rock aficionados have gone by for decades: after a rainstorm, give sandstone at LEAST 36 hours to dry. A heavy, prolonged El Niño-type storm might require up to 3 days to dry. The Navajo or Aztec sandstones (you can recognize them by their white color and the "bread loaf" roundness of many of their formations) of Red Rocks, Zion, and the Moab area can be hard enough to climb. This sandstone frequently gets a nice brown iron oxide "patina" layer to its outside that forms good faceholds, it can form cracks that take pro well, and even its blank slabs can provide decent friction for those with good enough technique. It's not granite, but it's climbable. The Wingate sandstone of Indian Creek? It's older than the Navajo layer, and is usually quite a bit harder, with better patina layers, more vertical cliffs, and even more frequent cracks. I've heard the best of it even called "desert granite."

But here's the thing– both of these sandstones are porous. While precipitation flows over granites and even harder sandstones like water on a duck's back (forgive the cliche), it can soak INTO Navajo and even Wingate. That's why the water that emerges from places like Moab's Matrimony Springs is so good: it's made a long gravity-fed journey through hundreds of feet of sandstone, until it hits a harder layer of shale and gushes out of the cliff.

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Thanks, geology!

What does this have to do with climbing? It means that the rock gets soaked not just from the outside, but from within. This severely weakens the binding agents that make the difference between "sand" and "sandstone," and in very wet cases turn the ouside into this combination of sand and water that geologists call "mud!" Do not climb on this: faceholds weaken, cams can track out of cracks, and even bolts can lose their efficacy. I learned an eery trick years ago at The Creek– if you get a cam stuck, squirt a bit of water on it, and it will slide right out. A friend learned this the hard way, when a few hours after a storm had passed and the sun had come out, he fell and pulled out four perfectly-placed green camalots, breaking his back.

Once a desert rainstorm has passed, hot sun can dry out the surface of the rock in less than an hour, but if there has been prolonged rain, the interior is still a sponge, hence the 36-hour-minimum rule. Just let the desert aridity do its work; the rock is much softer than the sandstones of the Southeastern US, but it also dries more quickly.

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Sunlight doing its work over Red Rocks.


By the time we got to Red Rocks, just outside Las Vegas, we had reached the point of insanity from spending 30+ hours in a tiny Prius. It had stopped raining in the area for maybe 12 hours, and most of the canyons were still clouded in a misty haze, but we HAD to climb! So we did what thousands of other visitors have likely done– we made excuses to justify us climbing that day: "well, we'll just do single-pitch sport." "it rained yesterday, that's basically 24 hours, right?" "We'll climb really lightly and not pull hard."

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A view of Red Rocks' Mount Wilson as the rain was clearing. Photo by Chris Whisenhunt.

We did not break any holds that day, but the fact that nobody at the crowded sport crag was a Vegas local should have told us something. And, when we got on a few harder, steeper routes, we did notice some loose bolts. I even scoped out a cool looking, steep crimpy boulder problem below the crag, and noticed that a few of its holds flexed quite a bit.

The next day, we made the hike out to Oak Creek Canyon to climb the classic 1500 foot 5.6 Solar Slab. By this point it had not rained for probably 36 hours. We cruised the route, but my partner, who had never climbed soft rock before, was pretty sketched at the sugary quality of the sandstone. I did not break any rock, but he did crumble a few footholds.

That night, I posted a photo of myself standing in the parking lot after a killer day of climbing Solar Slab and then taking a very adventurous descent down three rappels, a steep slickrock traverse across the "Painted Bowl," and then a couple miles of boulder hopping through the beautifully riparian canyon bottom. I've long made a habit of making fun of gumbies who put their harnesses on in the parking lot (seriously, at the Gunks? Joshua tree? You don't need to do this! You look ridiculous!), so the self-mockery of this pic was in full effect.

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Direct all hate mail to this guy.

However, within a few minutes of posting this pic, a friend of mine who is a Vegas local responded by chiding me for climbing on wet rock. "No, I waited for 24 hours!" I said. He replied with a glib, "Wet ground = too wet to climb." I could not argue with that, and hung my virtual head in shame.

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Just the next day, I came across this piece, written by Alex Johnson, one of the nation's strongest female boulderers and currently living in Vegas. It turns out that, after the same storm, and likely on the same day that we had gone sport cragging, someone broke a hold on one of Red Rocks' hardest boulder problems Meadowlark Lemon (v14). This line, first climbed by crimpmeister Paul Robinson in 2010, has been lauded by the world's best climbers for its combination of both power and technique– in other words, it has big moves between very small holds.

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Mirko Caballero on Meadowlark Lemon.

But unfortunately, these small holds were also very weak after the unusually heavy rains this past weekend. We don't know who broke the hold, but it is likely that they probably had the same attitude that I had that same day– "I'm on vacation, have limited time, and the sun is out. It will be fine."

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"Come to the desert," they said! "Climb in the dry sun," they said!

So here's the final takeaway: I know it is hard to just sit around and wait for a day and a half after a rainstorm. Red Rocks is perhaps THE most popular mid-winter destination for climbers throughout North America, due to its warm weather, close proximity to an airport with cheap fares, and huge variety of routes from 5.5 to 5.13, single pitch to grade V. When it rains in the midwinter, as it just has, there can be hundreds of climbers sitting around, looking at their calendars and thinking about how they just got hosed out of a precious climbing day of a limited vacation they've probably been looking forward to all year.

But we HAVE to enforce and restrain ourselves. Don't make lame-ass excuses like I did. "Just cragging" is not necessarily safer than multipitching on wet rock; you may be more likely to break holds on harder sport routes, and will be stressing bolts even more. Remember, soft rock destinations like Red Rocks, Zion, and Moab are not just great for climbing. You can still go hiking, site seeing, or even driving through some of the world's most beautiful and distinctive landscapes while you wait for the rock to dry. You can seek out nearby limestone crags that are not as susceptible to moisture. Hell, even take a trip to the Las Vegas Strip and see the disgusting displays of American consumption excess that we've dammed up the Colorado River to produce.

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You might even see these guys!

There are reasons other than climbing that the US Southwest is such a tourist destination. Just give the rock some time, and as soon as the ground is dry, you'll be back on your way to putting your harness on in the parking lot and crushing Crimson Chrysalis with the rest of the masses.

Paul wrote this article while sitting around in a Vegas apartment, drinking coffee, and waiting for the rain to stop. He won't be climbing tomorrow, either.


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5 out of 5 stars Don't feel bad. You're an honorary East Coaster now. It's a veritable rite of passage to fuck something up on a desert climbing trip. I once caught an earful for peeing on a ledge. And the guy who gave it to me was shaking a Nalgene full of his own piss in my face while he did it. It didn't even occur to me that the ledge would smell like pee until the next rain... whenever that might be.

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