Little climbing, lots of vibes on this Feb 2023 Great American Road-trip
Seeking a distraction from my miserable job (which I rage-quit months later), I got together with my friends Erin, Alexey, and Eric to plan an all-american road-trip over spring break, crisscrossing several states with the end goal of climbing some world-class sandstone in Red Rocks, Nevada. Our friends Justin, Rosalie, and Ewan were driving to Utah and we were planning to meet up somewhere along the way. The trip began at rush hour on a friday evening as we picked up Alexey in my temperamental Nissan van. In anticipation of the border wait, I had chugged several red bulls and worked myself up into a caffeine fueled rage. After putting up with my overly aggressive honking and evasive maneuvers in the rush hour slog, I was summarily banned from driving my own car before even leaving metro Vancouver. Grumpily swapping seats with Eric, I sipped on my red bull in the backseat next to Erin, who was chatting away energetically.
We eventually made it through the border, and wove through innumerable towns as the scenery changed from pacific fern to eastern desert. Somewhere around 3am in Baker City, Eric decided that he was near delirium and required sleep. We hadn’t planned this part out at all, so with only a couple pre-saved pins on my phone, we pulled up to a rundown looking motor inn flanked by an armada of rusty pickup trucks, and buzzed the front desk. The night shift clerk looked at us suspiciously and asked if we were from town (we weren’t). She explained that she did not rent to locals after 10pm due to their proclivity to shoot up in the rooms, which gives you a good idea about the kind of quality town we had stopped in.
Dragging our expensive gear from the car to the room, we got ready for bed and passed out inside our sleeping bags on top of the stained mattresses.
The next day, we rubbed the sleep from our eyes and crawled into the kitchen for the complimentary breakfast (cheetos and orange juice in a styrofoam cup). We then gassed up and hit the road again, the car replete with what would become classic road snacks: for Erin, fried chicken – for Alexey, fig apple red bull (which he would drink any hour of the day), and for me and Eric, pack upon pack of HiChew.
We drove through arid desert dotted with snowy hills. Feet on the dash, I read from Alan Steck’s climbing autobiography while Erin and Eric swapped driving and Alexey practiced his Kanji quietly in the backseat. We stopped in Winnemucca and Austin along the way, where we feasted on cheap burritos (to the detriment of the car air quality) or stocked up on groceries and snacks.
We ran out of gas around Goldfield, and spent a frustrated half hour driving through this ghost town trying to find a gas station. There were many art installations and innumerable dusty car chargers, and even a forest of upturned cars – but no gas (damned hippies!), unless we turned back the way we came into, at Tonopah junction.
That’s the fascinating thing about Nevada: it’s so wide, empty, and sparsely populated that there is nothing between two towns except the road linking them. You can drive hours in any direction and see only one or two other cars; it feels immense, and suffocating all at once.
After a brief rest stop at a smoke filled casino near Beatty, we began the long descent into death valley. With starry sky above, and cool air rushing past our windows, we rolled slowly downwards toward sea level. We arrived in Death Valley at 3am, ravenous and exhausted. We threw our tents together on the hard packed sand and stealthily cooked some ramen noodles on top of my alpine stove while Eric crunched on his gas station nachos. In the inky darkness we could barely find our bearings. Scared of scorpions and bandits and god knows what else, Erin and I held hands while peeing behind a bush only meters from a group of snoozing open air campers.
We snuggled into our sleeping bags beneath a glorious starry sky, and drifted to sleep dreaming of rest and nothing else.
We were brutally awoken mere hours later by a disgruntled ranger who demanded we register and pay our fees. He was insistent and would not let me fall back asleep. Welcome to capitalist america! After a quick snack, we did the skedaddle to avoid paying for 3 hours of rest in the dirt.
Slightly delirious and increasingly dehydrated as the sun increased in intensity and the air grew thick with heat, we decided to visit the famous salt flats. While Alexey ran laps around the salt perimeter, Eric and Erin took photons and I laid on the ground, licking the salt to try and get some electrolytes back into my system. The salt deposits were really cool: from below sea level, I was lying in an ancient ocean staring up at a blazing sun and still-snowy peaks. Eventually, the heat grew unbearable, and we left to go recharge in the air conditioned tourist traps at the resort.
We also visited the sand dunes there, which appeared out of nowhere but stretched for miles. We hiked up to the summit of the largest peak, christened “Big Dune” by Erin, and surfed down the grainy, hot sand.
From there, we made our way slowly to Las Vegas, stopping at alien-themed points of interest along the way. In the backseat, Erin and Alexey discussed the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
‘Do you think aliens really would, like, probe you and stuff?’ asked Erin. ‘I mean, how much data is there inside a butt anyways?’ Erin pondered, ever the scholar. Alexey, a quiet, polite academic type, shook his head while tapping away at his kanji app.
Around late evening, we arrived in Vegas and checked in to our airbnb where Alexey cooked us hotplate rice and mushroom stir fry. Eric pulled out a set of 80s all-blue fleece pajamas, prompting much snark from the group as he was dubbed “Little Boy Blue”. Road trip induced delirium had clearly set in.
The next day, we loaded up the car with our climbing gear and headed to the “moderate mecca” area, which did not require a park pass (we had unfortunately forgotten about the American obsession with entry passes, and did not make the cut for the day). After flailing about on some entry-level climbs we attempted a 5.8 offwidth, where Alexey promptly got a cam deeply stuck in a deep rack and was unable to extricate it. To top that off, my .5 blew a spring mid-climb on that same route.
Having inadvertently made this first sacrifice to the gods of red rocks, I was hoping we would be blessed with epic climbing the next day. Excited, I bought a guidebook at the local climbing store and planned out some epic routes around black velvet canyon for the coming days. We spent the evening downing ungodly amounts of pineapple juice and excellent mexican food at our local dive, while Alexey cooked some nutritious vegan meals on the hotplate at the airbnb and chugged can after can of fig apple redbull. On a whim we decided to visit the vegas strip, which impressed neither Erin nor Eric due to the consumerism and pedestrian unfriendly infrastructure.
The next day, we got to explore the famous Calico basin area where we did some classic face climbing on the varied sandstone walls. Jumping from crag to crag, we experienced everything from soft, curved sandstone holds to iron-rich cracks. Erin learned how to clean her first anchor, Eric led one of his first climbs ever, and Alexey and I sent a bunch of incredibly fun 10s.
On the third day, our luck ran out. We left our sunny airbnb and arrived at the crag where it was pelting ice, snow, and rain; clearly our sacrifice had not impressed the Gods. Knowing that it is forbidden to climb wet sandstone, Erin checked the forecast for the coming days and to our horror, we saw an entire week of ‘unprecedented’ winter weather. That night, it snowed in Death Valley, and we decided to pivot the focus of the trip from climbing to simply ‘vibing’. Some of us adapted better than others. By which I mean, some of us adapted better than me. Driven near mad by the winter-long hunger for rock, I found my rock climbing dreams cruelly dashed and pouted for a full day.
In the coming days, we visited the Hoover dam, and met up with some of Erin’s bouldering friends at Arizona hot springs where we found some unexpectedly good bouldering, in addition to the fantastic mineral springs. This was the real stuff (unlike the tourist traps of Radium). Despite the water coming with a warning of brain eating amoeba, we greatly enjoyed ourselves.
Our friends Justin, Rosalie and Ewan joined us for dinner while passing through town on their way back to Vancouver: they had gotten rained out of Moab, then arrived in Red rocks and gotten rained out of here too. They left a day before us and got caught in a California blizzard (how many times can you say ‘unprecedented’ before it gets old??), where Justin had slid off the highway and nearly hit a lamp post, ripping a side mirror clean off his car.
We decided to avoid this fiasco and drove up through Utah, stopping for a brief visit at the washed-out Bonneville salt flats before driving back home to vancouver. All in all, not much climbing was had- but we had so much fun, and made so many more memories than can be relayed in this short report. Thanks to Eric, Erin, and Alexey for a marvelous time on this great American road trip.