TRIASSIC SANDS CYCLE, RED ROCKS, NEVADA (April 1972 -- March 2000)

Larry Hamilton, October 2001

If you had twenty-four hours to live just think
Where would you go?
What would you do?
Who would you screw?
And who would you wanna notify?
Or would yo' ass deny that yo' ass about to die?
--- Ma$e

I hate rap music. I explained this to my teenage son Dave. The thudding beat instantly gave me a headache. It destroyed my concentration on the important task of driving at high speed across the Mojave. The lyrics were socially objectionable. And their urban-gangster themes clashed with the vast desert and mountain vistas around us, which properly ought to be accompanied by old Grateful Dead tunes. So there were multiple reasons why I could not tolerate, and Dave could not play, that rap mix tape he had brought along on our spring-break climbing trip.

This fatherly edict fell down the well, as so many had before it. Four days later I knew all the songs, and the tape played continuously through long desert drives. While my 1970s nostalgia wrote the climbing script for our 2000 road trip, Dave's dark and all-too-contemporary music became its sound track. The red walls and deep shadows of ancient canyons seemed to pulse with the ominous lyrics of "Niggaz Wanna Act" and "Only God Can Judge Me." Our trip, like parenthood, had taken unforseen turns. (At right: Dave Hamilton on Triassic Sands, March 2000.)


In October of 1971, I was in Yosemite Valley looking to find a partner for El Cap. Someone pointed me towards a VW microbus and said "There's a guy named Joe, he wants to do it." I walked over and banged on the door. It was opened by Joe Herbst, who had burned out two partners on recent Nose attempts. After introducing ourselves, we made plans to start up the next day.

Morning came, but now Joe had another idea. He had been talking with Doug Robinson, a wise older climber who advised Joe that it was foolish to attempt El Cap with a partner he had not known for at least three years. Joe and I had known each other less than twelve hours, so Joe proposed a shorter get-acquainted climb instead: the Prow. "I've already done the Prow," I replied. Joe digested this briefly, then reverted to Plan A: We would climb the Nose after all. We began borrowing the necessary gear, and recruiting friends to help carry it to the base.

Although the weather was hot, Joe drank only half of his two-quarts-per-day water ration through our first two days on the wall. Finally, at Dolt Tower, he began drinking more, and explained the reason: his previous partner had insisted on backing off due to thirst. Joe was conserving his own share so that he could offer some to me, in case I should come up with the same excuse. Impressed by his determination, I also realized that I had been on probation, and apparently had passed the test. We swung leads all the way, and topped out after five days on the wall with the feeling that we made a pretty good team.

On the Nose and our next climb, the Lost Arrow Direct, Joe told stories about the sandstone walls near his home in Las Vegas. I had never heard of this area, nor had anyone else. I doubted that something so unknown could be as good as Joe said. Still, it sounded intriguing. As we made plans to reunite in Yosemite for the Salathe Wall next spring, I promised to stop off in Las Vegas and check it out.

When I reached Las Vegas in April 1972, Joe had projects in mind. The first of these was a crack system on a clean buttress at the mouth of Velvet Canyon, which he had attempted several times with other partners. Joe and Betsy had named Velvet Canyon after the strange soft appearance of the rock. It did not yet contain a single completed climb. Indeed, the Red Rocks as a whole held only a few climbs, all done by Joe and none at what we considered a modern "Yosemite" standard. We approached Velvet Canyon with an El Cap rack, and over two days made the straightforward first ascent. Marveling at the novelty of climbing fossil sand dunes, and guessing wrongly about their age, I suggested the name Triassic Sands.

A few days later, Joe and I made a nearly disastrous attempt on the Red Rocks' preeminent challenge, the Rainbow Wall. We hiked up the arduous approach, bivouacked at the base, and began climbing the next day. Five pitches up, I found our crack system blocked by a stack of lose flakes. Standing on a tied-off knifeblade, I gingerly lifted the fifty-pound top flake, thinking to toss it aside and then deal one by one with the rest. But it turned out that the top flake was somehow holding the whole stack together. Several hundred pounds of rock hinged outward against me, trapped between my body and the wall. Joe was thirty feet below at a hanging belay. With rising fear I told him to get out of there fast. He had nowhere to hide. The flakes creaked each time I moved, and my arms were getting tired. Joe tied off the ropes and began rappelling on what slack he had, looking for any possible cover. About 20 feet down he found a horizontal crack that extended out the right side of our dihedral. He reached around this corner and began hammering a piton in blindly. After just a few blows he clipped in a carabiner and swung out of the corner, hanging by one hand. As soon as Joe was out of the way, I let the rocks fall. They smashed through the station where he had just been, cutting our rope in three pieces and tearing open the haul bag. Goose down from a mangled sleeping bag floated like snow as Joe moved back into the corner. Rattled by this close call, we tied rope segments together and slowly made our way down. We left the next day for Yosemite, where the Salathe Wall posed a less fearsome challenge. I wrote to Leslie that I'd "had enough of this sandstone!"


But really, I had not. I came back for great adventures over the next few years -- the high points included first ascents of Solar Slab, Aeolian Wall, Frigid Air Buttress, Saint Stephen, Centerfold, Deep Space, Five-Pack, Varnishing Point, One-Armed Bandit and our "sandstone Half Dome," the Rainbow Wall itself. I never revisited Velvet Canyon, though. Eventually this canyon saw development of some of North America's finest long climbs. Triassic Sands, now all free, had become one of its minor routes. In a magazine I read that it was considered a classic, and began wondering what it would be like to go back.

Wondering inspired my March 2000 travels with Dave. I envisioned a "roots" trip, climbing with my college-student son in some places that had been pivotal to my life when I was about his age. Triassic Sands stood at the center of this vision.

Dave and I started out in Joshua Tree, warming up with a slightly epic ascent of Mental Physics accompanied by my brother Jim and his 14-year-old daughter Laura. Underestimating the ambition of our party, I did not bring enough ropes or shoes for this route, but we had fun nevertheless. Laura's eyes shine brightly in my photo of her reaching the summit. Later that day we fit in a second climb, and hiked down by moonlight as night fell on Wonderland.

Jim and Laura returned home, but for Dave and me the trip had just begun. The next day we headed east toward Las Vegas. At the start of this drive I made my speech against rap music, and Dave -- thinking Dad was a drag, or worse -- put his favorite tape away. We drove tunelessly to Las Vegas, and there checked into a downscale casino hotel. At Dave's insistence we had dinner at an upscale casino downtown, and saw a bad movie, before turning in for a short night's sleep.

Dave was cooperative but unhappy when we got up at 5 a.m. to climb Triassic Sands. He became even grouchier after twisting his ankle on the dark approach. This plan was not his. On boulders and sport routes, Dave climbs grades I can't touch. On this trad route, however, the motivation was up to me.

I was surprised by Triassic Sands' climbing. The last time I'd been here, 28 years earlier, Joe and I had nailed past the steep parts with pitons and bong-bongs. Even using aid, our adventure level on this unknown cliff had seemed high, and we felt extra daring each time we stepped out of our slings to push some section free. From my recollections, I expected the main crack would look intimidating today, but just the opposite was true. The rock bristled with good footholds and rests. After a few moves of simple 5.10, the crux pitch settled back to a cruise, over ground where free climbing had seemed scary at the height of my big-wall days. Where were all these holds in 1972? Changes in knowledge and gear had totally transformed my perception of the "objective" rock itself.

Bemused by this transformation, I belayed Dave up the crux. He reached my stance grinning, his earlier ill humor washed away by the flow of a perfect pitch. We climbed another ropelength to the halfway ledge, reaching in mid-morning a height that had taken one day of the first ascent. There we relaxed for a while. I pointed out a 3/8" Star bolt that I had placed long ago. Its distinctive homemade aluminum hanger now spins freely over the eroded rock surface. Dave laughed in recognition. There is an aluminum hanger just like that one, attached to a lag bolt on the oak tree that I converted to a sport crag in our New Hampshire backyard.

Dave would have been happy continuing to the summit of Whisky Peak, but I was tired. Moreover, I distrusted the loose rocks above us. My frightening miscalculation on the Rainbow taught a lesson that I've never forgotten. So we threw our ropes off the ledge, and began rappelling with hamburgers in mind. As we descended towards lunch, Dave pointed out how unnecessary had been our disagreeable pre-dawn start.

But at least we had plenty of time that afternoon to drive on to St. George. Mellowed by success on Triassic Sands, the trip's big objective, I said OK now to Dave's rap tape. Strangely, the music no longer ruined my mood; I realized how tense I must have been the day before, when the climb loomed ahead. In fact, as his tape played over and over, I came to appreciate that Dave had put together a striking collection of songs, from a genre I knew nothing about. Their content still seemed appalling, but also compelling, and artfully done. Dave's stories about his wild lifestyle at college, through which he was telling me who he was, gradually became less disturbing and more interesting to listen to as well.

Over three days following Triassic Sands, Dave and I climbed sport routes at Shinobe, the Stolen Chimney on Ancient Art and The Wave at Indian Creek. Each of these was a peak experience. Finally we headed west again, and drove back toward Dave's college with stops at Snow Canyon and the Virgin River Gorge. Desert campsites, highway restaurants and hours in our rental car, listening to rap music, punctuated the vertical adventures. The long-planned climbs, and unplanned conversations, together formed one of the best climbing trips I'd ever done. (At right: Dave Hamilton on Ancient Art's corkscrew summit, March 2000.)

"Best trips" tend to have life-cycle components, which make them as irreproducible as first ascents. People move on; our opportunities don't line up in the same way again. I gained a sharper sense of this transience, and the value of fleeting things, from two equally wonderful but wholly unalike journeys to Triassic Sands -- one generation apart.


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