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Travel Nevada: Red Rock & The Spirit of Adventure

The following article was written for Travel Nevada and can be found published here.

The spirit of adventure is alive and well in Las Vegas and you don't need a reservation, players card, or your name on a guest list to experience it. The Red Rock National Conservation Area, located 17 miles outside of the entertainment mega-hub of Las Vegas, is attracting people from around the world for a wildly different reason. From hiking, canyoneering, rock climbing, or sightseeing it seems that this impressive stretch of the Mojave Desert has the world's attention and people are exploring the canyons with a youthful enthusiasm. So gather your friends and strap on your hiking shoes because there's adventure out there, and I hope you're excited to find it.

Red Rock National Conservation Area, or "Red Rock" as it is commonly referred to is most easily recognized by the 3,000' thick Aztec sandstone escarpment that stretches for nearly as wide as your eye can see. This main escarpment sits within 195,819 acres of wilderness and is home to 10 major canyons with several highly distinguishable peaks. Amongst these large formations are numerous other lower elevation peaks, in addition to sub-peaks and even smaller sandstone "hills." The most recognizable formations from left to right are Mt. Wilson (7,070'), Rainbow Mountain (6,800') and Bridge Mountain (6,995'). Keep looking right and you will begin to see the Calico Hills, the smaller yet still impressive formation that is often explored by newer visitors looking to experience Red Rock at a more manageable scale.

At first this wilderness may appear desolate and better suited for the likes of cacti, snakes, or the elusive Desert Tortoise. But as you begin to explore you will soon find that it is thriving with all sorts of other life, activity, and its own unique entertainment. Some of the first to explore the depths of the canyons were the Southern Paiute people native to the surrounding Great Basin region. With a sharp eye visitors can still see signs of past life by observing petroglyphs, Agave roasting pits, and natural rock shelters. There are hiking trails throughout the entire area that make access more enjoyable and many of these trails are interconnected and could take the hiker on quite a journey. For those looking for a different type of adventure the trails won’t end at the ground, but rather they’ll shoot straight up into the sky.

Spend enough time in Red Rock's and you will undoubtedly discover that the most common "wildlife" is probably the desert Rock Climber. These individuals spend their days, and sometimes nights, climbing to the high summits of the escarpment. The first known rock climbing was first recorded in the late 1960's when a few pioneers realized the great potential for this type of adventure in Red Rock. A few of these individuals became the first to craft technical climbing routes, some of which still get climbed to this day. This form of adventure climbing, now casually referred to as "Rockaneering", blended skills from both mountaineering and rock climbing to allow access throughout the wandering cracks, ledges, and gullies of the Red Rock escarpment.

Most early routes in the area were climbed up large distinctive features and formations that could often be seen from the ground. These types of features were more approachable to the climber and the larger cracks allowed something for them to wedge their body into for security. This security meant that the likeliness of a fall would be lessened throughout, providing a more enjoyable experience. The climbing gear available at the time was also fairly minimal and climbing less precarious terrain was often the most realistic path to take. A few of these same individuals continued to pioneer gradually more technical and difficult rock climbing routes on the escarpment for many years to come, and one could only imagine that they discovered much more potential for adventure along the way.

A few decades later technology had advanced in climbing equipment and it also became more readily available to the public. Ropes started to become safer and more comfortable to use, carabineers were much lighter and there were even special shoes with sticky rubber designed to help with traction. The protection placed into the rock also became much more sophisticated as well as easier to use, which allowed climbers to push their physical and mental limitations much further with less risk of injury. Entire walls and summits were made possible with the advent of this advanced gear and climbers also had an increasing amount of technical resources to learn from. More people started to learn rock craft, which in return meant more routes were being established on many of the formations.

But beyond the massively long multi-day adventures, shorter routes were also being sought on the lower portions of the escarpment and in the Calico Hills. These short, roughly 1-8 pitch routes could more easily be done in a day, and wouldn't require such commitment, amounts of equipment, and time like some of the larger formations. Often done with traditional climbing practices, these routes were mostly climbed using gear that could be removed from the rock, leaving minimum evidence of ascent behind. These routes were a step-up in difficulty from the routes being established by the early pioneers, and the modern equipment changed what type of adventure was realistically possible.

New routes were spotted and new methods employed to now ascend some of the blankest walls and sections of rock. It seemed that the idea of big adventure was always still out there just waiting for the next generation to come find it.

Turn the clock forward to today and you'll see that this same spirit of adventure is still here. The push to develop routes to help improve one’s personal climbing ability and experience level created a whole new realm of adventure. One realm, now referred to as Sport Climbing, is climbing routes generally between 30'-100' feet long that have bolted protection for maximum safety and ease of use. When the climber reaches the top they simply clip into an anchor and lower back to the ground, where they can then take turns with their partner by belaying or climbing another route. Once again, the improved climbing equipment and safety considerations meant that climbers where able to push their psychical limitations with little risk of injury. It appeared for some, the adventure wasn't always about a remote or fearful summit, but rather a personal drive to see what was possible within themselves and their own physical capabilities on the rock.

In addition to Sport Climbing, another increasingly popular realm had been created called Bouldering. These even shorter routes once climbed for practice had now become an entire pursuit of its own, and luckily there was no lack of routes to climb. Bouldering routes, or "problems" as they are referred to are generally very difficult routes that ascend for a short length. The climber's focus is applied to figuring out the often-improbable moves to gain the top. These problems are found on large boulders that are scattered nearly all over Red Rock, turning a short approach hike into an entire day of rock climbing or more. These boulders, climbed without ropes, are even more easily accessible to most because they require less equipment to get started climbing on. This focus on difficulty in combination with ease of access has turned something that was once just practice into an activity much greater than the sum of its parts.

With all of these evolving ways to enjoy rock climbing in Red Rock, one may think that the sense of adventure has dwindled. Luckily, the diversity of climbing combined with seemingly endless amount of rock has created an environment where everyone has an opportunity to find whatever climbing adventure it is they are looking for. Climbers of all disciplines are now going out and pursuing rock formations previously overlooked, or not considered climbable by past generations.

In many ways we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Some of these pursuits may still be in the hopes of establishing new routes, others simply for the enjoyment of being in the mountains, and others as a means of sharing the experience with the next generation. In whatever way we choose to explore, we must all choose to embrace the idea that we are stewards of the land we most enjoy. By acting responsible and respectfully to the natural resources and Aztec sandstone we are allowing more opportunities to share this experience with upcoming adventure enthusiasts. Whether they will be locals or travelers from far away places coming to experience Red Rock, we must allow them the same unchanged spirit that we were all attracted to in the first place.

So as we go out and embrace the beauty of this place, lets not allow our personal adventures distract us from the need to preserve the area in which we so deeply enjoy adventuring in the first place. Now it’s only my opinion, and I may be right or wrong, but I think we will all agree in Red Rock at sundown.

-Matt Kuehl

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