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Go West Young Man

Submitted by admin on 2011-08-03 | Last Modified on 2011-08-08

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by Luke Mehall

“The license plates were from Canada, Colorado, Wyoming, New York, most of these junkers having been babied down the road with little chance of ever reaching Yosemite, and no chance of ever leaving it. And for every head in that lot, twenty just like it had been abandoned in flames on some lonesome highway, the plates stripped off and the driver, laden with ropes and bags thumbing on towards the Mecca.”

Rock Jocks, Wall Rats and Hang Dogs by John Long

It all depended on the Freedom Mobile really. Gene’s truck had just recently broken down, and if we were going on this climbing trip we would have to roll out in my graffiti-ed red, white and blue 1988 Mazda.

When I painted the car, complete with stars and stripes a couple years ago, I thought that I’d turned it into a townie mobile for life. I was happily living in Gunnison, Colorado and the car was reaching 200,000 miles. Ever since I saw Easy Rider for the first time, I’d always wanted to paint a car in the colors of our country and I figured this was the time: my car was old and I wasn’t getting any younger.

For two years the Freedom Mobile lived out its days driving back and forth from Gunnison to Crested Butte on Highway 135, a thirty mile stretch I drove, half the time for work, half the time for pleasure. Occasionally I’d get a wild hair and drive a hundred miles or so with a ladyfriend to some hot springs, but other than that the Freedom Mobile rarely left its home in the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

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Photo by Dave Ahrens

Life rarely goes according to plans, and I was witnessing my life in the Gunnison Valley change. My dream job with the college had been cut to half-time, and I’d just broken up with the first woman I’d ever been in love with. So I decided to make some changes. Since I up and moved to Colorado from the Midwest a decade ago, I’ve realized that a leap of faith into a new situation can be exactly what the soul needs to truly live life. I was going to move somewhere, and make a fresh start. One place I’d always wanted to live was Durango, just three hours southwest of Gunnison. I made a trip down there, visited with some contacts I’d made from the local weekly newspaper and the college, and got a great feeling from my visit.

It was decided, I’d move to Durango. I resigned from my job, and started making plans for the transition. It felt right in my gut moving on from one existence in a mountain town to another, and the greatest thing about this whole transition was that it was open-ended; I could take a month long climbing trip in the interim.

For many years now I’ve identified myself as a climber. The simple designation as a climber, sharing that information with others, especially non-climbers, often solicits a response of admiration and awe from the non-climbing public. Statements like, “oh I could never do that….I’m scared of heights, etc.”

I often reply that what really scares me is not a thousand feet of pure exposure beneath my feet, or the possibility of a big fall on a rock face, but the couch, the horizontal, too much time on one’s hands. I’m terrified of what I become when I don’t have movement, exercise; time to truly live life in the wild places of the world, and feel truly alive like I’m not wasting a minute.

So in the midst of all this change my biggest fear was not about the upcoming life changes, it was that I would not make the most of the opportunity that was right in front of my face: I had no job, no girlfriend, no place to live, I had freedom, or at least the possibility to live with freedom.

When Gene’s truck broke down he called me up and shared the news. We’d been planning an autumn off season excursion to the climbing areas of the west, which now all of the sudden completely relied on the Freedom Mobile if it were to be accomplished. Luckily Gene caught me at a moment of optimism; I’d just completed a climb of the Painted Wall in the Black Canyon, at 2,300 feet the tallest cliff in Colorado, and I was in that post-success frame of mind that climbing often brings. For in climbing success or failure often lies in the mind; when the climber believes he can do something often he makes that a reality through his will.

“Do you think we could take your car on this trip?” Gene asked me.

“Sure…” I said, not completely convinced if I actually believed it.

“Well alright, then we can still do this….” Gene replied and then we went on with planning the details.

I drove to Gene’s place in Telluride with everything I owned packed into the Freedom Mobile. Like many a mountain town resident, my two bicycles on the vehicle were each worth more than my vehicle. Priorities. At Gene’s place I stored the bikes, and the domestic possessions for the duration of the trip.

In the morning it was snowing. An early season snow, it turned into a blizzard as we slowly rolled out of Telluride, headed west. Our first stop on the trip: Red Rocks, just outside of Las Vegas.

Vegas, Baby!

We drove out of the snow and soon we had open, clear roads in front of us, headed into Utah. Now in my experience as a freedom loving rock climber, if there is one state that does not approve of our kind it is Utah. Colorado vehicles are often profiled while driving through, and are frequently pulled over and targeted for what they may have in their vehicle, ganja. Like most climbers, Gene and I had a modest supply of the herb, legal in Colorado, but something that could land us with a stiff fine and/or a visit to the local jail in Mormon country.

With this in mind I felt uneasy and nervous about driving into Utah. Gene, on the other hand had an air of confidence about him; he wasn’t worried. Gene’s confidence wasn’t simply limited to crossing Utah, he was also extremely confident in the Freedom Mobile. Whenever I expressed doubt about the car, and the fact that we were about to put thousands of miles on a vehicle that had broken down several times in the last two years, he countered my thoughts with positivity. In many ways this trip was Gene’s manifestation, and I was along for the ride.

So we rolled through the desert of Utah, the Freedom Mobile attracting the attention of many vehicles passing us on I-70. At a gas station the attendant looked out at my car and complimented it, then asking, “Do you get pulled over a lot?”

“Well, actually yes,” I replied.

It was true, I did get pulled over frequently, mostly for legit reasons, and not profiling. At that point the Freedom Mobile was missing the front bumper, had a broken windshield, and unreliable headlights that would only work when we fiddled with the wiring.

We drove into the night, and were relieved when we crossed into Nevada. Every stop in the nighttime demanded we popped the hood and messed with the wiring until the headlights came on. Police vehicles passed by, but didn’t give the Freedom Mobile a second look. Finally, the lights of Las Vegas appeared. We rolled into the Red Rocks camp site around midnight, and did what climbers do, cracked a beer, set up camp, and drifted off into sleep under the starless Vegas night.

We woke up feeling good. It was sunny, and we were going climbing. The campsite was full, almost entirely climbers; a big storm had rolled through Yosemite, forcing the tribe out to locations with better climbing conditions.

We found ourselves at a sport climbing crag in the main hang at Red Rocks. There, with a dozen or so other climbers we monkey-ed around on the walls. It was a typical representation of the climbing community: folks from all over, a beautiful young English woman who climbed with a grace none of the guys could match, a guy who talked more than he climbed, and a crew of folks that were smelly but friendly and willing to chat and offer beta. Climbers can be some of the nicest and weirdest people one will ever meet.

Of course, one guy was a friend of a friend of Gene’s, and on that Las Vegas crag we were home amongst the climbing community. Gene and I both floated and failed on the bolted climbs, the floating taking place on the vertical terrain and the failure happening on the walls which were overhanging. However, in bolted (sport) climbing failure is all part of it, and it still builds strength.

The sun was shining, it was seventy degrees, and everything felt perfect. Off in the distance, across the desert landscape with cactuses and Joshua trees were the bigger walls of Red Rocks, where the true adventure takes place. These fantastic sandstone cliffs were split by shades of white, pink, and maroon in several separate canyons. Many of the cliffs formed in diamond shapes that make them look like high mountain peaks.

By midday they were already in shade. Our new friend told us it was really cold in the canyons, hard to believe as we sat there basking in the sun, almost too hot. Climbing is often too hot or too cold and we considered his comments, but we didn’t change our plans. We were headed for those taller cliffs the following day.

Getting ready the next morning, up early, with a sublime sunrise coming up over Las Vegas, where people were surely still up from the night before we were finally well rested and ready for a full day of adventure. Coffee ignited our excitement, and the eggs and bacon cooked over Gene’s blackened Coleman stove fueled our bodies.

Gene’s enthusiasm for climbing cannot be understated, and after a cup of coffee this guy was primed and ready to go, talking a mile a minute and animated and psyching me up during this whole process. If a climber is measured by his passion and enthusiasm, and if I can say so myself this is how they should be measured, then Gene is the greatest climber in the world.

So we parked the Freedom Mobile and began hiking up the canyon to the wall. The hike warmed us up, but by the time we reached the wall we were already in the shade. A couple was standing there, all bundled up in coats and hats and gloves, and looking cold. They were waiting in line behind another party, for the popular climb, Crimson Chrysalis. They were friendly and from the East Coast, where Gene is from, and they struck up a conversation about something from that region of the country.

We carried on to our climb, and started up the Cloud Tower. I was leading the first half of the route, and Gene would finish up. I led up stuffing my hands in the crack, and breathing on them to stay warm. It was indeed cold, and almost cold to the point where it really wasn’t much fun, just work. But crack climbing goes beyond fun, and we carried on, not really thinking about retreat. Another great hand crack led up to the crux pitch, a thin finger crack, one where just the fingertips slide in, and you’re searching for dime sized edges for the feet.

I started up this pitch, with some face moves necessary to get in to the crack. Cold and unsure I made some awkward moves, bumbling gear into the tapering cracks, stepping above it, not feeling confident at all and doubting myself. Above my gear I felt exposed and out of my element, sketching a couple more face climbing moves and finally reaching the perfect thin crack. I yelled down to Gene, “I’m not really feeling this, do you want me to lower off so you can give it a go?” Just as I said this we looked down to see another party below us, racing up the wall.

Knowing if I lowered off and gave Gene a chance to do the crack in better free climbing style it would slow us down, causing a traffic jam on the wall, we figured it would be best if I just got the thing done. Trying not to be frustrated with my lack of mental mojo, I started aiding up the crack, pulling on thin cams, and stepping in slings.

Feeling a sense of urgency as the other climbers were quickly reaching Gene’s perch on the wall, I motored up the crack, stuffing cams into the crack, and just getting er’ done. I figured that at least, we were destined for aid climbing in Yosemite later in the trip, and it would serve as practice, which it did and which I needed.

I clipped into an anchor and belayed Gene up. Just as he started up the pitch, the leading climber from the other party started up directly behind him. I had a feeling of dread that this would cause an argument between us, as the climber didn’t give Gene much space. Gene quickly climbed up the pitch, blowing on his hands for warmth. “It’s a couple of Euros behind us,” he said. “That guy is super strong. You see how he’s floating up the crack.”

I looked down and sure enough there he was, happily floating along where I just struggled. “This is hard…it is cold,” the Swiss guy said in broken English.

We were impressed, and didn’t have any sort of conflict when he arrived at our belay. In fact, he was friendly and cheerful as could be. Gene set off on the next pitch, a hand crack through a small roof with face holds up a steep, almost green colored, lichen-covered face. I sat shivering with the Swiss climbers as we joked in broken English about being cold. It was their first trip to the United States, and their first time on desert cracks. Geez, I thought I’ve been climbing in the desert for a decade and these guys are already better than me on their first trip. But stronger climbers always have lessons to teach, and Dave and I both watched the duo in awe as they passed us after the next pitch.

After Dave’s lead, I climbed through a small tunnel to a nice perch, which we would have enjoyed more if it wasn’t so damned cold. We laughed at how incorrectly described the pitch was on our topo, from an old Falcon guidebook, which made it sound runout and scary. The Swiss climbers happily and quickly climbed above, with inspiring, jealousy inducing efficiency up another splitter, mostly hands crack.

All of the sudden we heard a loud chopper noise piercing through the canyon, echoing off the many red rock walls that surrounded us. It was a helicopter, and it likely meant that a climber was hurt.

Helicopters are all too common in Red Rocks. Climbers are injured or killed every season, and all rescues are performed by the local police with helicopters. As Gene was midway up the next pitch the noise of the helicopter grew louder and louder and finally was a hundred feet behind us. All of this was distracting to him, as he just wanted to climb the pitch in peace and quiet. I watched in amazement as the helicopter landed on a small ledge hundreds of feet off the ground and parallel to us, dropping off a rescuer and then flying away. The rescuer, a police officer started yelling at us, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, we are,” one of the Swiss climbers yelled back, and then generously adding in an adorable accent, “Do you need our help?” Strong climbers and humanitarians!

The rescuer yelled back, “Do you know where Crimson Chrysalis is?”

All of this fuss continued to frustrate Gene. We both later agreed that the rescuers should know where one of the most, if not the most popular route in the canyon was. The Swiss climbers finally yelled back directions, and the helicopter returned to pick the officer off the ledge. We continued the climb in the cold. The helicopter continued to circle the wall, finally reaching the injured climber.

We were bummed about the injury, which was probably one of the couple that we had talked to just before. We never really found out exactly what had happened, but it was a sobering event to start the trip with.

The injury and subsequent rescue was all too familiar to Gene, who had recently been in a climbing accident. It was the result of a fifty foot fall in the Black Canyon in Colorado the previous spring; a fall that could have killed him, but luckily only resulted in a broken hand. A man of incredible spirit, Gene fought heroically to get back in shape and eventually return to climbing. When he couldn’t climb he channeled his energy into epic runs in Telluride, running up multiple mountains in a day, putting in up to twenty miles a day.

The first thing we decided when we got off the Cloud Tower was that it was indeed too cold to comfortably climb in the shade this time of year. So the next day we would climb something that was south facing. We wanted to keep our good momentum going, so we decided to do another longer route the following day.

We celebrated with just the right amount of spirits the night before, and got to bed at a decent hour. We woke up again with the sun. Red Rocks always has these sublime sunrises, with an orange, red, pink fusion of color. Sometimes I think about the souls who have been up all night in Vegas; it’s a feeling of pity really because I know the feeling of getting up early and doing a physical activity is much superior to the feeling of partying all night…and better for the soul.

All jazzed up on coffee we drive the Freedom Mobile from camp over to Red Rocks. It’s a shame really that one has to do this, because you can’t camp inside Red Rocks, and then you have to pay an entrance fee every day that you enter the park.

So we paid the fee, parked the Freedom Mobile and then hiked up the trail into the canyon again. It’s basically the same thing we did the day before, waking up early, hiking through a wash and then finding a big chunk of rock to climb.

We followed the wash up Oak Creek Canyon, almost to its end for over an hour to the Eagle Wall. The wall was basking in the sun, and that was exactly what we were looking for, almost a thousand feet of vertical rock in front of us, all to ourselves. The only other people in sight were up on the wall on a different line, the classic and popular Levitation 29.

At the base of the dark, varnished wall we are assembling our rack together for the climb and we hear, “roooooock,” and a softball sized chunk crashes to the ground from 300 feet above next to our gear, barely missing us.

I wasn’t surprised by the rock fall, the word is that Red Rocks has just received an unusual amount of rain in the weeks prior, and we’ve already heard multiple stories in the campground about broken holds.

We begin up the wall. I led up a relatively easy crack, carefully placing gear in the cracks. The rock is wonderful, perfect edges that feel like they were designed for a human being to grip. On the second pitch the difficult increases, but there are bolts to supplement the gear, very safe climbing. Pushing our way up the wall is joyful, the temperatures are perfect, we’re basking in the sun, and most importantly getting a good workout in the vertical with good company.

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Photo by Luke Mehall

After more and more delicate edging up the wall, we were at a perch where we could look out and see the Las Vegas Strip, it almost seemed small from the view we had; so different from driving in at night and seeing the light pollution from an hour away, then getting closer and closer and the light just dominates everything. The perspective in the vertical is always much different than the horizontal. The mighty walls of Red Rocks that nature made are much more impressive than the monuments of hotels and casinos.

With just the amount of daylight left we’ve arrived at the last pitch, with about 800 feet of air below us. Looking at our topo from that old Falcon guide, it appeared to be a casual finish, only 5.9 and just eighty feet of climbing. I’m perplexed when I hear Gene struggling up the groove. “This is hard Luke, I don’t know.”

“You got it,” I say, it’s what I always say.

There is always a mental struggle when a climber is leading, to climb above one’s gear, to take that risk of falling, of failure or worse getting injured. Knowing that Gene has recently hurt himself in a big fall, he’s more prone to the voices of doubt inside his head; voices and fear that will now be harder to harness and quiet.

But Gene completed the section without falling, and I followed up. The climbing was different than the solid, dark brown, varnished rock we started on, up higher it is white and sandy and really difficult. I started to make some funny whimpering voices as well as I inch up on top rope, and when I finally reach Gene’s belay I congratulated him on a job well done. “That was some hard 5.9,” I said and Gene agreed. (Later when we purchase an updated guide, we learn that the pitch was actually much harder and considered to be the most difficult, crux pitch on the climb.)

We rappelled down the face, and of course the rope got stuck in a crack. We had to climb back up to retrieve it, and by then the daylight was quickly fading. I took one more look back towards Vegas, and the sunset is quite similar to the sunrise, a set of colors that will soon be replaced with the light of the nights.

By the time we got off the wall, we had just a few minutes of light left, and then it all went away. We were a bit bummed because this meant there were more chances for getting lost on the descent, and that is exactly what happened. Instead of going down the way we approached the wall, I led us down a different slab, and then we entered a long chimney system, choked with trees and bushes, and just a generally unpleasant place to be. By now, it was pitch dark, and we were down climbing a steep chimney system with our backpacks. At one point the dirty chimney narrowed down so much I decided to throw my pack down; when I did it fell fifty more feet than I thought it would. I then realized my camera was in the pack, and my car keys, and I’m hoping I can even get to my pack, and if I can’t, well we’re fucked.

But I climbed down to it, and everything was fine and Gene hucked his pack down the chimney too, and we climbed and climbed down out of the gully, finally reaching the wash. The sandy wash was like a rabbit hole, on and on, until finally we were out of it and we hiked back to the Freedom Mobile to celebrate.

After three days of climbing we were ready to rest, and sick of the fees that Red Rocks demands, so we figured we might as well go down to Joshua Tree, just four hours away, to celebrate Halloween. I lived in J-Tree for a winter and had always heard Halloween was a great time, so we decided to check it out.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series. Stay tuned for part 2 and 3 coming up over the next few weeks.

For more of Luke's writing, be sure to check out his blog:

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8 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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Great trip report but kinda long for my attention span. I might point out that hiking into Levitation 29 only takes you part way into Oak Creek Canyon. You'd have to hike another 2-3 hours to reach the end of the canyon--well worth it 'cuz there's good climbing way back there.
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Well... what to say...

I thought it was great. I enjoyed the length because I literally felt like I was tooling along as the 3rd wheel in the backseat the whole time letting the two of you do the work.

I cannot wait for my turn to do a leg like this. What a testament to the red, white and blue and the men and women who make it, and the country they live in a great place. By country I don't mean the politics, the politicians, the special interests or anything else that could easily cause an argument.

By country I mean the mountains, the valleys, the rivers and trees. The things that call all of us out to church and we are thrilled to hear the preaching voice of nature and it's abundant expression of freedom.

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Okay, honest feedback here—for editors, not the author. This is terrific... so far. I haven't finished, and I don't know if I will. The article is >12,000 words long. To give you some perspective, a very long magazine article is in the neighborhood of 2000-3000 words. I wrote a book that came in around 40k. I think you should edit it into several parts (which, admittedly, entails more than simply breaking it into pieces) and post it as a series. That will make it readable by the average Internet user and give you weeks of content, instead of one rarely completed article.
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Bit long for me too. Lovely blue hair!
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5 out of 5 stars I've gone ahead and split this article up into 3 sections. The next 2 parts will be published over the next few weeks.
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i dig it
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I've gone ahead and split this article up into 3 sections. The next 2 parts will be published over the next few weeks.

Thanks!!! The people have spoken, stay tuned for part 2...-Luke
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Listening to some flatlander transplant spew about climbing is getting to be a cliche, since you people have unfortunately become ubiquitious in your overcrowding the West.

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