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Alex Johnson
Aaron Mayes

Rock climbers around the world flock to Southern Nevada for its legendary climbing. many settle here to pursue a life among the rocks — a life of hunger, danger and ecstasy

Stone Temple Zealots

Desert Companion

Think back to the first time you went all the way west of town, to where Charleston Boulevard disappears into State Route 159, city giving way to wilderness, and you saw the rusty cliffs of Red Rock rising 3,000 feet over the vast expanse of beige scrub. To you, to me, to most of us, the curiosity about striped hills was probably satisfied motoring nearby, or maybe strolling casually into, the canyons; mostly, we take in the splendor at camera’s-length. From time to time, we may put a hand on a wall to sample its texture or secure our footing as we ascend a slot, mindful of the teetering stones under our feet. Eventually, though, we take the geology for granted. It becomes scenery for a tourist trip around the loop, backdrop to a musical at Spring Mountain Ranch.

But we’re not rock climbers.

To these tribal adventurers, the Aztec sandstone of Red Rock is rare magic. Its densely compressed flanks are mounds of sediment heaved up from the primordial sea, sculpted by shifting winds and cemented over hundreds of millions of years. Red Rock’s many faces are distinguished by features climbers crave: gritty bumps and knobs good for hanging or tiptoeing onto; jutting overhangs called “roofs” that offer an inverted, gymnastic challenge; infinite vertical cracks of varying widths, from narrow enough for cramming, twisting and locking fingers into, to wide enough for shimmying up like a chimney sweep. Even better, over time, the whipping rain and snow lightly shellacked the tall, north-facing crags, turning them into dark, softly dimpled hands that reach down from the heavens, an open invitation skyward to anyone who can bushwhack his way through the sand and mesquite and find the seams between fingers, where the journey begins.

Support comes from

We laypeople barely scratch the surface of Red Rock. Its 10 west-east canyons hold a wonderland of formations to ascend. More than a thousand rock-climbing routes have been logged there over the last four decades, and a thousand more probably remain to be discovered. Generations of colorful pioneers have documented their first ascents, attracting ever-bigger waves of climbers to scour the sandstone in search of a virgin wall.

You may have seen these cliff-clinging acrobats while wandering the Calico hills. They sprawl on the escarpment, gecko-like, or hold the lifesaving rope below, craning their necks and shouting skyward in a dialect all their own. “On belay!” “Nice dyno!” We paint them with simplistic labels — hippie, rebel, adrenaline junkie — and stick to our path, passing them by like a pack of coyotes, a little too wild to be trusted.

Rock climbers are, indeed, a breed apart. And within their ranks are sects and subspecies distinguished by convictions and techniques that have as much to tell us about humans’ relationship with nature as any philosophy book. Nothing could be more different from your average couch potato than a rock climber; yet, enter their world, and you find nothing could be more different from the monastic trad climber, who patiently wedges protective gear into and out of cracks, than the shirtless, techno-blaring sport climber, who works out in a gym to train for a route, or the fun-loving boulderer, who ditches gear altogether to grapple with the rocks bare-handed. And between these personalities are endless variations that, nevertheless, have one thing in common: a climber is never as alive as he is on the rocks, and that life is one of danger, hunger and ecstasy.

 

Circle of friends

Vegas wasn’t Joanne Urioste’s idea. In 1974, having just finished her bachelor’s degree in life science at Cornell, she married her rock-climbing mentor, Jorge Urioste, a Bolivian Jesuit linguist 15 years her senior, and followed him to a job offer he’d gotten at UNLV. Joanne’s one condition for the move: They had to go someplace with hills.

She smiles remembering the first time she and Jorge drove out to Red Rock. “We expected it to be much smaller than it really is. We thought it was just a pile of rubble. As we saw the profile of Rainbow Mountain — the solar slab, from base to top is more than 1,500 feet of rock, and then it breaks up a little bit and goes to the summit — we were amazed. It looked like a slab you could run up.”

In their enthusiasm, the pair broke out across a field and into a gully of scrub oak under the midday June sun. At the base of the formidable wall, drenched in sweat, legs covered in bloody scratches, the pale, soft-skinned 22-year-old realized how unprepared she was for the desert. Like many transplants from moister climates, Joanne Urioste initially disliked the parched, prickly Mojave landscape. But the sandstone eventually won her over. In her seminal story about Red Rock climbing for a 2009 edition of Alpinist magazine, she reflected on the gradual process of getting hooked on the “flying buttresses” of this “vertical wilderness”: “Shady walls gave us refuge from the summer heat. The sun warmed frozen fingers in wintertime. Quite simple, once you got the hang of it. Complex approaches, route finding and descents felt almost alpine at times. And the climbing here was just so good: sustained and airy, requiring problem-solving at every move and every moment.”

When the she arrived, the rock climbing scene was still in its infancy. Passers-through stumbled on it almost by accident, and resident climbers such as Joe Herbst and John Williamson were few and far between. The Uriostes, curious intellectuals who loved to entertain, embraced route development as a way to make their home city more inviting to other like-minded folks. When a climber charts a vertical path and makes the first ascent, he gets naming rights; optionally, he may place permanent anchors for protective gear along the way to make the route accessible to future climbers (a practice that’s been the source of disagreement throughout rock climbing’s history). Joanne Urioste remembers little frogs croaking at the bottom of Black Velvet Canyon where she dubbed the 770-foot climb Frogland in 1978. Six years later — and four months pregnant — she made the first ascent of Prince of Darkness, so named not only for its flat, black surface, but also because it was the site of conflict, right next to Rock Warrior, a climb developed by rivals who believed that installing too much protection opened up their hills to debutantes.

Philosophical disagreements notwith-standing, the work of prolific route-setters — from the Uriostes in the ’70s and ’80s to Tom Moulin, Chad Umbel and Ben Williams in the 2000s — has made Las Vegas what it is: the top — some say only — U.S. metropolitan area with high-quality rock-climbing a half-hour’s drive from Downtown. Everyone interviewed for this story except the natives moved here because of the proximity of Red Rock, as well as Mount Charleston, Mount Potosi and the crags of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

“The first time I came to Las Vegas, it was for a winter sports show. I stayed on the Strip, and I wasn’t impressed,” says Stephanie Forte, a PR and marketing executive who has lived here since 1998. “Then, I came to Vegas for a (Grateful) Dead concert, and during that trip, I saw Red Rock for the first time. Everything changed.  … Still, every time I drive out there, I feel that connection, that energy in the canyons.”

Rock climbers’ compulsion to be near crags, in part, gave rise to “dirtbag” culture, describing the nomads who dwell in campgrounds or vehicles they can park near routes, and who spend all their time either climbing or preparing for their next climb. Plenty of locals have had their dirtbag days, but, by and large, Las Vegas is different from other climbing destinations in this regard: You can climb all day or all weekend, and still be home in time to sleep in your own bed and make it to work in the morning. It’s allowed some climbers to get jobs in fields such as theatrical rigging and search and rescue, making money off their alpinist skills. Others are weekend warriors, earning their living as blackjack dealers, engineers and real estate agents, and spending every spare moment in the mountains. These locals play host to a constant stream of climbers parading through Las Vegas for a week or a winter, when it’s too cold or too wet to climb in other places.

World-class climber Jonathan Siegrist recently wrote on his blog, “Five years ago, when I first checked out Las Vegas, I was astonished by how relatively quiet the scene was here. There was clearly a solid, motivated crew of locals, and even more clearly there was a wealth of incredible sport and traditional climbing nearby and a rapidly emerging bouldering contingent. … That year, I intended to stay in Las Vegas for two weeks, but ended up here for nearly three months. I’ve been back every winter since.”

Climbers can be an insular bunch, dating, marrying and even procreating within the pack. Because it demands both mental acuity and physical prowess, the sport attracts smart, healthy people who share a common love of adventure and the outdoors. And, it’s the epitome of teamwork: High above the ground, relying on each other in moments of fatigue, frustration and peril, they forge strong bonds. Not only are they friends for life, but they also may have a hard time relating to people who haven’t had this experience.

“Jorge and I have an unbelievable social life,” Joanne Urioste says. “Our house is known as the bunk house, where we have this ongoing party, but it’s not the climbing dirt-baggers that just overwhelm us, because we put limits on it. Usually we have small groups of climbers, so we have a lot of connection — never more than six or eight people at our dinner table at once.”

Unlike the infamous dirt-baggers of Camp 4 at Yosemite National Park in California, Urioste says, those in her circle have led rich, diverse lives. They’ve held jobs, raised children and enjoyed endless evenings of good food, wine and conversation with others who love climbing as much as they do. “So, in a sense,” she adds, “we could never really compete with the cutting-edge climbers in Yosemite and Joshua Tree, the Stone Masters. They always looked down on us, because we weren’t as bold or as good, but we were weekend climbers, mostly, and we really, really enjoy life.”

 

Love and war

In 1971, Royal Robbins struck out for Early Morning Light at Yosemite's famous El Capitan rock with the intention of cutting all the bolts his archrival Warren Harding had left there the previous year. Philosophical enemies since the 1960s, the soft-spoken, clean-climbing Robbins and whiskey-swilling, bolt-happy Harding set the tone for generations of rock climbing spats to come. Tellingly, Robbins would eventually abandon his mission, admitting that the climb was harder than he thought and that Harding deserved credit for completing it.

Gear, along with codes of conduct governing its use, has been a driving factor in rock climbing’s evolution. It falls into a few main categories: things to put in the rock, such as bolts and pitons (metal spikes hammered into seams and cracks); things to put on the climber, such as harnesses and ropes; and things to link the climber to the rock, such as carabiners. The 1970s and ’80s saw technological advances in the first category, called “protection” or “pro,” producing passive gear like spring-locking cams that could be wedged into cracks as needed and then removed. More invasive are bolts, circular protuberances screwed directly into the rock. The advent of the cordless rotary hammer in the mid-’80s made bolt placement much quicker and safer, but it’s easy to see how it displeased purists in the Robbins tradition.

Local legend Joe Herbst was such a climber. In her Alpinist story, Joanne Urioste writes, “The convergence between the hammerless ethics of the time (the 1970s) and the artistry of Joe’s climbing gave a unique form to Red Rock’s history. In many other areas, early pioneers tried to bag summits by the easier routes or by any means possible. Joe went directly for both the hardest, biggest lines and the purest, simplest methods he could envision.”

Following in Herbst’s path was Richard Harrison, a handsome, charismatic Stone Master from Southern California. Arriving in Las Vegas in 1981, Harrison quickly attracted a group of ambitious local climbers who would come to be known as the Adventure Punks. Among them was Paul Van Betten, a blond, green-eyed native who’d been inducted into the world of climbing while skipping school to horse around with friends at Red Rock. The Adventure Punks liked their music loud and their climbing hard. They adhered to a strict set of rules, such as no “hang-dogging,” or resting with one’s weight on a rope. (Translation: If you fell, you started over.) Above all, they believed routes should be established from the ground up.

“We didn’t even wear harnesses,” Van Betten says, “we wore swami belts — webbing tied around your waist — because it’s super-lightweight and didn’t promote hanging on the rope. It made us better climbers.”

The Adventure Punks’ hard-core approach occasionally pitted them against other climbers. Route developers like the Uriostes — ever the good hosts — saw no harm in bolting crackless sections of otherwise continuous lines if it made routes more accessible to more people. And those turned on by the sheer athleticism of the sport figured out that resting on ropes and gear after falling off a face would allow them to repeat difficult moves over and over. From this practice, sport climbing evolved. Unlike the traditional (or “trad”) climbing style of Royal Robbins, sport climbing tolerated more active reliance on equipment. With the green light to place bolts, developers began establishing routes on formations such as overhangs that would otherwise have been inaccessible to all but an elite few. It allowed sport climbers to focus more on technique than on equipment management.

But what really outraged the Adventure Punks was the practice of rappel bolting. “There was an influx of people — usually from out of town — who would start at the top and rappel down, leaving bolts for sport routes as they went,” Van Betten recalls. “We were doing it from the ground up and it would take two or three of us all day to finish a 1-pitch route. We’d come back the next day and there’d be bolts everywhere, from the top to the bottom of a route right next to the one we’d been working on. It was like the surfers back in the day who said, ‘Hey! This is our beach.’ This was our rock, there’s a finite amount of it, and we were trying to develop it our way.”

Territorial bandits would cut the offending usurpers’ bolts. Arguments broke out in the canyons. Van Betten says he barely avoided fistfights on a couple occasions. Some in the rock-climbing world branded Las Vegas as an unfriendly place to climb.

Eventually, Van Betten concedes with a sigh, he and his compatriots lost the battle. As the ’90s rolled around, sport climbing exploded, and rock alteration moved from mainstream to extreme. Particularly at Mount Charleston and Mount Potosi, whose jagged limestone is more challenging to climb than sandstone, route developers began chiseling holds, drilling finger pockets — creating gym-like routes in nature. Las Vegas had never been considered particularly eco-conscious by outsiders to begin with, notes Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ Las Vegas Director Mark Limage. Now, some climbing magazine writers openly mocked the area as the epicenter of route manufacturing, coining the term “Mount Chiselton.”

“It actually got to be an art work,” Limage says. “They’d use epoxy and spray paint and you couldn’t tell it wasn’t natural rock. But it doesn’t matter, because traditionalists are still going to feel like you’re altering the rock to dumb it down to your level. For them, it’s a blatant aberration.”

In the January 2011 issue of Rock and Ice magazine, Bill Ramsey — a philosophy professor who left a position at Notre Dame for one at UNLV and the abundant nearby rock climbing — penned a controversial article calling attention to the hypocrisy inherent in criticism of route manufacturing. “Consider this:” he wrote, “If you are a serious climber who climbs relatively hard sport routes, there is a good chance that you have done a route with at least a few manufactured holds. Moreover, there is also a good chance that, despite the manufacturing, climbing the route was gratifying and rewarding. Now what should the appropriate attitude be toward the route preparer who spent time, money and energy so you could have that experience?”

Over time, Stephanie Forte says, manufacturers backed off their extreme practices and the community found balance on the issue. “In the ’90s, things got out of hand,” she says. “But I think that every climber would agree that you’d always rather be climbing a natural route. It’s more beautiful, more pure.”

 

Making a plan

Traditional climbers aren’t the only ones who frown on route manufacturing; so does the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for Red Rock.

“Both drilling holds (aka chipping) and drilling holes for anchors is prohibited in the 2005 Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Resource Management Plan,” BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon says. She adds that the bureau is in the process of amending the plan to address permanent fixed anchors in Red Rock’s congressionally designated wilderness areas, Rainbow Mountain and La Madre Mountain. The plan is expected to undergo public review this spring and summer and be finalized in 2016. Then, the BLM will create a timeline for implementing a climbing management plan.

Local climbing veterans are skeptical this will happen as outlined. They say they agreed to the moratorium on bolt drilling a decade ago with the expectation that a climbing management plan would be done soon after. When one failed to materialize, route developers began drilling anew — on the down-low.

Behind the bureaucratic waiting game is a more widespread conflict between climbers, who view bolts as critical to their wilderness experience, and wilderness advocacy groups, which define fixed anchors as prohibited “installations.” Each side points to the 1964 Wilderness Act as support for its stance. And then there are those who consider themselves both climbers and conservationists; they simply wish the BLM would do more to discourage civilization’s encroachment on Red Rock.

But Xavier Wasiak isn’t letting politics hold him back. As current president of the Las Vegas Climbers Liaison Council, an affiliate of the national climbing nonprofit Access Fund, one of his responsibilities is to inform the BLM, National Park Service and other public agencies how the climbing community benefits the economy and what tools it needs to make the activity safe and enjoyable for the public. Wasiak says he has a great working relationship with the BLM, and he’s hopeful the management plan will get done.

A more urgent task for the climbers council, he says, is educating climbers and the public on responsible stewardship of natural resources. Popularity of outdoor activities is a double-edged sword for recreational groups: They want people to get out and enjoy nature. But the more people there are on a rock, the greater its chances of getting damaged.

And rock climbing’s popularity is exploding. The BLM gives five full-time special recreation permits for commercial guided rock-climbing tour operators (Limage’s Jackson Hole Mountain Guides is one example). Cannon says these five average a total of 5,000 user days per year for climbing today, compared with 3,500 in 2010. And this represents a fraction of all climbers, since most will go out on their own, not in organized excursions. That’s a lot of hands and feet on the red rock walls.

“I can stand outside and see the big picture,” Wasiak says. “When people walk past a cliff and see chalk on it, they might think it’s not very pretty. We have to talk to people and let them know what our culture is about. Education, signage around sensitive areas — those are going to be good issues for us to work on for the next five to 10 years. And, of course, waste disposal is never going to go away.”

“Waste disposal” is a polite euphemism for an unpleasant reality. About five years ago, Climbers Liaison Council members began to notice a sewage-like smell around areas where popular climbs start. Since climbers may spend many hours on the same remote route, they are unlikely to hike back to trailhead restrooms every time they need to relieve themselves. Etiquette dictates that they take compact shovels to dig holes and bury their excrement, but Wasiak acknowledges that many people simply won’t do that. So, the council came up with “potty bags.” Volunteers built six large brown boxes mounted on poles, labeled with instructions and filled with bags for human waste disposal, and then placed them in popular areas for rock climbing. The biodegradable bags are to be brought back to dispenser stations and left in the trash. The council maintains the stations, restocking bags and emptying trash.

The council’s dedication to this task reflects its devotion to the Leave No Trace ethic. But fortunately for volunteers, the council’s not all dirty work and no play. The Access Fund  sponsors the Red Rock Rendezvous, billed by organizers as “the country’s largest outdoor climbing festival,” and council members will be there March 27-29 teaching attendees not only how to climb, but also how to watch where they climb and pick up after themselves when they’re done.

 

The way up

When Alex Johnson was a tiny, blond thing in Hudson, Wisconsin, the managers of her daycare center would occasionally call Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and threaten to ban their daughter. It seems she wouldn’t stop climbing on top of the swing set and scaring the bejeezus out of staff.

“I was kind of a terror,” the 25-year-old Johnson says today. “I’d climb anything — trees, ladders, buildings …” She can laugh now. Sponsored by North Face, she’s one of the country’s top three female climbers.

Since moving here a year ago, Johnson has had the occasional shock of witnessing environmental degradation firsthand. In the last few years, more professional boulderers have been doing first ascents at Red Rock, inspiring outsiders to come and experience those routes for themselves. Many of them don’t know the rock, which is fragile, especially 2-3 days after a rain.

“We’ve had people break off holds on a couple classic climbs,” Johnson says, frowning. “The Kraft Boulders (at Calico Basin) have taken a huge beating. People who climb during the week at the gym go out there to climb on the weekend and just throw their gear everywhere and step on the plants. They treat it like a gym. The Access Fund is working to educate people, and I hope it helps. It’s not your bedroom!”

Bouldering has had a lot to do with rock climbing’s recent spike in popularity. Requiring only a chalk bag and crash pad, it has a lower barrier of entry than the gear-heavy trad and sport climbing. Also, it’s fun — acrobatic, fast-paced and often quite social.

Gyms have also played a role in the rock-climbing boom. Last October, Jeff and Beth Clapp opened a bouldering-only gym, Refuge Climbing & Fitness, where Johnson works out during the week. Andy Raether, a rising star in rock climbing, plans to open another, Origin Climbing and Fitness, in Henderson this spring. It will be two-and-a-half times larger than Refuge, the valley’s largest existing facility, and offer the full gamut of styles — bouldering, sport, trad — as well as weights and fitness equipment.

The community has also developed an insatiable appetite for social media, especially videos and alerts about daring ascents. Potential sponsors see a gold mine in the hours climbers spend on YouTube, Twitter and online forums. Clothing and gear manufacturers plaster their young, attractive spokes-climbers in branded gear and fly them off to exotic destinations to shoot slick movies that, some say, are little more than commercials.

The pressure to perform has its downside. World-class climbers push the envelope, taking risks that may look brasher to the uninitiated than they actually are, such as Alex Honnold’s ascent of huge walls free-solo style — that is, with no safety gear at all. (Insiders say Honnold practices his climbs extensively with protection before free-soloing them.) And the lighter a climber's body, the better he climbs, which has led to rampant eating disorders in the sport’s top echelons.

Johnson says heavy competition has created a lack of cohesion among the few females who climb at the elite level, too. Because climbers have a short window — their youth, basically — to win competitions and land sponsors, they have to work extremely hard during that time and are loath to give any secrets away. Men, on the other hand, have the luxury of numerous peers in their class, so there are plenty outside their competitive sphere with whom they can collaborate on challenging projects.

Generally, today, climbing is seen as equal-opportunity, but one nasty vestige of sexism remains: males’ tendency to downgrade climbs after females do them. Both Johnson and Forte have experienced the bitter let-down of completing an extremely challenging climb one day and, the next day, reading comments posted on forums such as MountainProject.com suggesting the climbs’ ratings should be lowered.

“People get ultra-competitive over it, which I don’t understand,” Forte says. “It’s not like I was going to do that (climb) and then come home and get a six-figure deal from Cover Girl. It took me six weeks, and it came down to one move that I had practiced over and over. So, when I was finally able to do it, it felt really good. It’s devastating to have that taken away, just because you’re a woman.”

Bouts of testosterone may be nothing new to rock climbing, but traditionalists say they’re also easy to circumvent. The sport has diversified so much that, unless you’re a professional, it’s just as easy to have a spiritual experience in nature as it is to have a heated duel in front of an electrified crowd. Record numbers of people may be introduced to climbing through bouldering and at gyms, but those who stick with it are likely to at least try sport and trad climbing, too. Professionals integrate a little of everything into their training.

But those professionals — with their sponsorships and competitions and professional pressures — never forget the essence of the rock-climbing experience. At 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, Johnson pulls on her stretchy clothes, zips up her puffy North Face jacket and steers her Toyota toward the 159. Afternoons, she’s at the gym, and weekends often feature a quick trip to California or Utah. But weekday mornings are reserved for the solitary work of practicing difficult moves on familiar faces. Parked at the end of Calico Basin Road, she pulls a crash pad, folded backpack-style, out of the trunk and heads into the foothills of Kraft Mountain. With the pad placed carefully on the ground below, she claps chalk between her palms and steps onto the rock. By 1 p.m., having done a full circuit of boulders with the rising sun, she’ll be meeting friends for lunch at Sambalatte. 

TimelineWhen I tell people where I live,” she says, “I get a lot of wrinkled noses, ‘Vegas?

Really?’ And I tell them it’s not what they think. … Since I became a professional climber, I haven’t stayed anywhere more than a year. You just travel and live in a van. It’s nice to have a home base in a place that’s so much less expensive than Boulder or Tahoe. And the climbing here is endless. Amazing and endless.”

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Joanne Urioste
by Aaron Mayes

Since the 70's Joanne and Jorge Urioste have been among Southern Nevada's most prolific route developers.

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Joanne and Jorge Urioste
by Aaron Mayes

Joanne and Jorge Urioste

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Paul Van Betten

Paul Van Betten and his fellow Adventure Punks established hundreds of routes in Red Rock since the early '80's.

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UNLV Philosophy Professor Bill Ramsey

UNLV Philosophy Professor Bill Ramsey

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Alex Johnson
by Aaron Mayes

World-class professional climbers like Alex Johnson, who moved here in 2014, show increased interest in Vegas.

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