We sat atop the classic pillar and looked out over the descending stone sculptures to the urban glitter of Vegas. Steve slowly ground out the stub of his Drum spliff and squinted into the haze, lips pursed in contemplation. Like me, he was calculating.
We had hiked into the Red Rocks during the annual government closure of the Parks over budget squabbles, reasoning that the closure of the loop road would reduce likelihood of competition for this classic moderate route. A ranger met us at the gate, stepping from his idling truck into the morning chill with a laugh as we parked at the wrong end of the canyon Road and preparing to hike in. After determining that we were properly supplied and veterans of at least survival level experience, he shook his head and chuckled, but nonetheless gave us a lift as far as the trailhead parking lot, where he eyed us thoughtfully before giving a final shake of his head and wishing us good luck. We were already hiking as he drove away into the dawning light.
Our reasoning of the closure greatly reducing competition for the line proved correct. As we thrashed and wandered through the brush, feeder washes, and cactus groves, tacking towards the base, we seemed alone in the canyon, and, for a time, the world. Winded, sweating in the rising heat, we dumped packs after the last brutal approach march to the foot of the wall and sipped at tepid water like panting hounds. but we were three weeks in the Vegas desert, and recovery came quickly in the face of our hunger. We were ready for this.
Racking and the flaking of the rope was accomplished swiftly, the first pitches delegated and dissected the night before over beers and buds, the rack minimized for light flight. I took lead and swung up into the open 5.5 first pitch, a long run with little gear worth wasting time on, and beautiful views of the desert. As I set belay at the second Pitch, Steve began climbing, gaining the first twenty feet before I could take in slack. I shouted to him, and he paused, until I tugged his knot and he resumed, swarming smoothly through the pitch, relaxing at the belay to sip a cupful of water as I snagged off and sorted the cleaned pieces, then handed over the rack.
Four pitches or so passed in this fashion; smoothly, just the two of us, the occasional laugh or comment, and the clear quiet desert, with even crass, tasteless Las Vegas somehow beautiful in the afternoon light.
Then the next party appeared. We heard them first; lost, crashing through the brush, cursing cactus encounters and falls into washes, shouting incoherent instructions to each other. Finally we picked them out of the heat shimmer and dust.
I looked at them, and the sun, and thought of how long it had taken us. True, we were taking it very easy, but we were still strong climbers, and climbing quickly enough. They were cutting it VERY close.
We cruised the top, the final 5.8 section the easiest panel of rock on the entire upper pitches, just balancey, with perhaps one truly 5.8 move, and then the summit, Steve cruising casually up the moves and smiling at the view as he topped out. He glanced down at the group, still struggling to finish the second pitch, and shook his lean head.
"Not likely those fellas are gonna get up much 'fore we get down." he drawled in his broad cowboy way. I smiled at the character, but then frowned at the sun sinking behind the horizon, limning us in fire, and painting our silhouettes against the cliff behind our perch. We rapped the already-rigged ropes back to the previous stance, pulled, and re-rigged, dropping to the next belay. One rap below that, we ran into the ascending group.
"You guys make the top?" the kid asked. He was wide-eyed in the dusk, helmet askew as he absently belayed his partner up to the already crowded stance. Behind him, Steve grimaced and shook his head, eyes on the coiling rope as I sorted runners, attempting to stay out of the macramé creation this lad seemed intent on weaving.
He had no headlamp, no water, and wore only a t-shirt. His partner, when he arrived, had a can of soda and some cheese crackers riding in a cargo pocket. Nothing else, save harness, chalk bag, cleaning tool, and shoes.
Steve's glance met mine with a single shared thought.
As the sun set, the radiant heat drew moisture from the wicks of our bodies, even as the night winds became chilling, sweeping down out of the canyons. We set the rap, as they began to shiver, and shared our water, measuring those few cups of compassion against a desert hike in the dark, over three miles in total length. At our patient insistence, they rappelled s-l-o-w-l-y to the next stance, with gentle encouragement to "get the f*** down from here...NOW!!!"
We waited, sipping slowly and talking about the great climbs of the last weeks. Prince of Darkness. Dream of Wild Turkeys. Frogland. Triassic Sands. The afternoon we spent finding out that the 10b/c crux of "Children of the Sun" was either some other climb, maybe a 12 moderate, or broken beyond the abilities of the average 5.11 climber. Wandering the neon Babylon of the City, on rest days, swimming in the excess.
We rapped, and found the rope still threading the anchors. I clipped in around them, and called all clear. Steve followed, and still no motion. He looked down, just as the first really large puff of smoke rose up past us. His lips compressed in a thin line, he observed that the "little shmucks are getting STONED..." I thought longingly of our own cold beers and fine greenery waiting oh so far away in the bus, and finished pulling the rope with a shouted warning.
Steve finally lost all pretense of courtesy. He leaned over, and with a voice no doubt by now well-known on Mt. Hood, shouted-
No response save another drifting puff of smoke. He looked at me and smiled, inhaling deeply and leaning out once more.
“YO! On the LEDGE” Heads finally craned up in recognition.
“Hey, bro-“ someone began below, but Steve had by now lost all pretense of any brotherhood with these dead-end branches of the spiral helix.
“The F***ing SUN is SETTING! Please PULL YOUR ROPE!"
There was an interminable moment, and finally, slowly, the rope began to move; first pulling the knot tight against the anchors, then, after another tug confirmed the mistake, reversing to begin moving downward. Steve snorted, and helped it along with several mighty pulls, yelling "ROPE" as it cleared the anchors and whipped out into the falling gloom. I quickly brought the end of our rope through the anchor and knotted it, then threaded the anchors and pull from the rap station above all in one economy of motion and effort, pitching our lines before the Darwin Days finalists below had even begun to coil their own.
Darkness was upon us when we finally reached the base, now in the lead, our headlamps lighting the other party as they finished their descent, the last courtesy we offered these failures of Darwin Days. Without a word, we turned, packed bags, and left them there, in the wastelands and the dark, without water or resources or, as far as I could tell, a single blessed clue.
If they were still missing the next day, I didn't hear about it.
But, then again, I didn't ask.