Death Climb Canyon, 3AII
Spring Mountains NRA; Las Vegas, NV
After finding 3 awesome canyons on Mt. Charleston, Rick knew the area held a lot of promise and wanted to explore as many drainages as he could. This time we were gonna check out the watercourse beyond where Big Falls branches off. We brought along a new guy, Adam K.(not the same Adam I always mention); a rock climber who is new to the area and willing to try any sort of outdoors adventure.
We decided not to bring wetsuits…a scary decision, based on our experiences in Little Falls & Big Falls the month before. However, it was blazing hot, the canyon was in direct sunlight most of the time, and there wasn’t a traditional waterfall in the area; these factors led us to believe there would be little snow melt still going on. For once, we were led correctly.
We headed up the Big Falls trail, but continued straight when the trail branched out from the main watercourse. We began boulder-hopping up the canyon but it soon gave way to…log hopping? The creekbed was jammed full of huge downed trees, where the only way to move forward was to evaluate a sequence of interconnected balance beams. I actually had a lot of fun with this part; I remembered the only trick I ever learned in my kiddie gymnastics class, where you bend one knee and dip the other foot below the the balance beam before stepping it forward. I did this trick 17 times and the boys weren’t impressed even once.
After the log jam, the creekbed narrowed and quickly became steeper. Cliffs began forming on either side so we jumped out of the watercourse and began plotting our course to the top of the canyon.
This proved to be pretty tricky; we had to navigate ourselves to the top of this cliff, scrambling up a steep, chaucy (i.e. rocks not attached to the earth) slope & climbing up and around cliff bands.
Not impressed? Maybe you’d like to see it from further back…
We had to backtrack more than a few times at the beginning as we kept getting cliffed out. The hike quickly became a a 3rd class scramble upwards and I found myself wondering for the 304th time why I continue to go hiking with Rick.
By the time we faced our first 5th class climbing section I was already exhuasted & shaken up from the dangerous scramble. I still had faith that I could climb the 15 foot section, until the boys sent a softball-sized rock hurtling down at me from above. I had time to drop one F-bomb, grab onto a bush, and shield my helmet with my forearm before it hit me. It bounced off my forearm, hit my upper arm and then my shoulder before continuing on its tumble down the steep slope below me. I don’t like to think about what would’ve happened if I’d lost my balance, because the big bloody knot that quickly developed on my forearm was scary enough.
The added adrenaline of that could’ve-been accident rendered me incapable of trusting myself to the climb, so Rick hooked me up to a rope from above to save me if I fell.
We kept climbing. And climbing. And climbing. We climbed for FOUR HOURS!!!! Every time we brought up the option of heading back down (and it definitely came up), it was immediately dismissed. The only thing scarier than going up was to go back down. When we weren’t 3rd, 4th, 5th class climbing on limestone cliffbands, we were hauling ourselves up loose limestone chips on a slope so steep that we could/had to touch the ground in front of us for balance. The loose rock was a little problematic and made the already scary ascent a little more dangerous. There were a few more rockslide-at-Kristi’s-head moments during the day but I was able to gracefully (??) sidestep the rest of the incoming missiles. At one point there were four or five good size rocks that came tumbling down from above all 3 of us. I’m convinced this was the work of a Yeti.
The rock climbing didn’t get trickier, per se, but as we gained altitude our exposure increased dramatically, making our margin of error that much smaller. I forget geometry but the slope we were on was angled in such a way that a fall would not be broken for a LONG time. Plus I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but I am NOT a rock climber!!! There were a few more instances where Rick belayed me on a climb up, but even clipped into a rope I was so shaken up that I had trouble being brave.
I was exhausted (I’m not in good enough shape for mountaineering!!!), shakey from adrenaline, and beginning to feel the altitude. I had to take frequent breaks, slowing us down even more. Finally, finally we reached the top of the cliff band and some relatively flat ground. The thick trees fell away in an avalanche chute, and this is where we found the top of the canyon.
Alright wait, can we go back to that avalanche field? What was that thing behind it?
Is that…is that… Holy Mackeral Andy, that’s Charleston Peak! Only THE tallest peak in Southern Nevada at almost 12,000 feet. That puts us pretty fricken high up if we are so close to the peak.
After that rated R hike/climb we just did, the LAST thing we expected was to find evidence of previous descents. (We forgot about the cairn markers we found, I guess). But lo and behold, at our first rappel we found an existing anchor. And what a great one, at that! All the equipment looked VERY new, so this had been a recent descent. What confused us was the absurd construction of the anchor; you’d think that anyone willing to rock climb the face of Mt Charleston to check out a potential canyon would be able to construct a solid anchor.
Wait, I’m being pretentious. I cannot vouch for the strength of the anchor. I can only observe the unconventional setup involving 2 slings (different brands, no need for uniformity here), connected to each other around a tree stump by 4 non-locking carabiners. It’s worth noting that these carabiners were not facing opposite directions. All this mumble-jumble likely means little to most of you, but to me it means that Adam and I each got a free sling and 2 carabiners. Rick didn’t make us share with him since he kept the Canon camera he found earlier in the creekbed.
We constructed a much simpler and much safer anchor and rappelled down 20-30 feet, walking down a log for most of the way. After that rappel, the canyon was kind of bleh. It was pretty much just a wide, rocky creekbed with not much going on.
Just as we were getting bored, a fantastic fluted rappel presented itself before us, the likes of which I’d never seen before. It looked like I imagined the Southern California canyons to look like, with moss and springs and stuff. The only water canyons I’d been in were wet because of flash floods and snow run-off, but the one we were in now had a steady supply of trickling spring water, allowing the moss to grow on the limestone.
Because I wanted to practice going down single-strand and using a prusik knot as an autoblock, Rick signed me up to go first down this 2 stage 150-ish foot rappel. I set up the anchor all by myself with Rick’s watchful eye (and helpful hands, since I got stage fright and couldn’t tie a water knot), set up a biner block and my prusik knot below my rappel device, and I was off like a prom dress.
The rappel was gorgeous, and I did the best I could to stay off of the moss. I had just recently read about how the So Cal canyons often have a wear-path down rappels from people trampling the moss. Eventually I had to step on it, and it hurt my heart a little. The boys did not share these emotions, and as I gave them a fireman’s belay I was slapped in the face with several wet clumps of plant-life.
We anchored the second stage of the rappel from this precariously balanced but enormous and presumably permanent fallen tree (want some adjectives? how bout some alliteration? I can do it all), taking advantage of it’s fancy root matrix to tie on our webbing.
We’d hoped this awesome rappel would transform the canyon into something worth the deathclimb we’d endured, and the narrowing cliffy walls led us on for a bit longer but it soon became apparent that we were still in a boring creekbed.
Boring, yet choked with angry, nasty plants. There were at least four types of spiky plants proliferating in the creekbed, and the canyon’s toughest challenge turned out to be the dodging of all these heinous plants. I don’t know what they’re called and I don’t care. They are awful. One in particular has it out for me. I first met it in Little Falls as I brushed unknowingly against its unthreatening exterior. I was immediately overcome with the sensation of fourteen thousand fire ants enjoying a Thanksgiving feast of my right leg. Pulling my pants up, I saw no obvious irritant but my skin was raised and red within seconds. I washed the offending area but it didn’t help. The sensation felt like the pins-and-needles of a sleeping limb, if the needles were the size of acupuncture needles and injecting snake venom. The feeling didn’t subside, and when I got home I performed a Google search to find out what devil plant I had fallen victim too. The only thing that sounded reasonable was Stinging Nettles, but the proposed treatments didn’t alleviate my symptoms. I eventually succommed to the discomfort and popped some Benedryl. In the morning the stinging felt more like tingling, and while it was still noticeable it did not overtake my entire thought process. It took a full 24 hours for the feeling to go away all together, and I was left with a shiny burn mark for my trouble. Needless to say, I was the picture of caution as I tiptoed around all these spiky plants, not being entirely sure of what my nemisis looked like. A brief brush up against this seemingly harmless leafy green announced itself as the culprit (luckily with a more subtle reaction).
We were met with one final rappel…
…and as we packed the rope we had just pulled, I began to muster up daydreams of veggie burgers and beer. Just as I’d worked myself up a good appetite, I thought of something important.
“Where’s the pull cord?”
Um. Shit. That was me. I had been carrying the pull cord, and I had set it down at the top of the rappel. Oops.
With the rope already pulled, we had limited options. We couldn’t climb back up the rappel, because it was partially overhanging and slippery with moss. Adam, our climber, looked for various ways to climb up to the ledge but the slippery limestone offered little in the way of holds. After 20 minutes of brainstorming, Adam saw a way he could climb up above the last rap.
Once up there, he had to scout around to find a way to climb back down INTO the canyon. He then lowered the pull cord down, we tied his harness and the rope to it, he pulled it back up and Rick yelled up instructions on how to set himself up for rappel. With a little trial and error and creativity (see pictures below), Adam managed just fine and saved the day.
With that last ordeal behind us, we began the slog back down to our car. It seemed like it took forever, and it probably did. I took a picture from the parking lot of where we’d ended up before dropping into the canyon but the angle just doesn’t appear very impressive. I think we climbed to the top of the green slope in the back.
All said and done, we started hiking at around 7000 feet and ended up around 10,000 at the first rappel. Charleston Peak is 11,918, so we weren’t QUITE as close as we felt, but it’s still a pretty good feat. Bagging Charleston, the highest peak in Southern Nevada, is kind of a badge of honor for Las Vegas hikers and something I wouldn’t have considered to be within my physical capabilities. However, the trail to the peak is a TRAIL. If I can rock climb 3000ft without falling over dead, I think it’s safe to assume I could walk on a trail for 5000. I would be slow, for sure, but I could do it. And now I kind of want to…
As far as this canyon goes? Meh. The approach is ridiculous, and save for a few neat rappels, the canyon was boring. The rappels were so pretty that I’m tempted to say it’d be worth it just for them, but I think I’d be kidding myself. I’ve just never seen mossy waterfalls before, but I’m sure California canyons would show this one up in a heartbeat. And besides, I don’t want to encourage anyone to damage the moss up there. SAVE THE LICHENS!!!
PhotoBucket Album: Death Climb Canyon