Red Rocks climbing

Red Rocks from campground

After getting shut down by rain a few weeks ago, I was determined to make it back to Red Rocks and climb this season. I had that chance this past weekend, spending three days climbing a grab-bag of routes, and two nights socializing with a grab-bag of climbers in one of the large group campsites. Quote of the weekend: “Bears are basically giant wolf-pigs.” Think about it.

Of the routes we climbed, the best were Black Magic, with 2-1/2 excellent pitches, and Dark Shadows (all the way to the top), with lots of good climbing and an amazing second pitch. Lotta Balls was also very good. Rainbow Buttress, though it has three stars in Handren’s guide, was a mediocre climb in a very scenic area.

Lotta Balls Wall (Lotta Balls, 5.8+, 3p; Black Magic, 5.8, 3p; Trihedral, 5.8, 3p)

Lotta Balls Wall (black, lower left)

After both arriving late, Jen and I spent our first day on several shorter climbs on Lotta Balls wall, a popular area a short hike up First Canyon, a trailhead outside the scenic loop. Finding another party at the base, we let them get on Black Magic first while we climbed Lotta Balls. Jen led P1, climbing a flake/block to a corner and some cracks. I led P2, the highlight of the route, which climbs a face covered in marble-sized but amazingly durable balls to another crack/corner. Pinching and standing on the tiny sandstone balls was unnerving at first, but fun and quite secure. P3 continues up the crack/corner, over a sort-of roof and onto easier ground.

The descent is somewhat obnoxious, with 2-3 rappels through oak-brush and cracks which catch at your rope. The first rappel was a rope-stretcher for our single 50m, but was just doable by aiming for the high side of a slot on the climber’s right. The second, short rappel can be avoided by a bit of awkward chimneying. The third, from two brand-new-looking bolts, leads to some scrambling.

Next, I led P1 of Black Magic, which starts up a face with two bolts, then steps right across a vertical-to-overhanging wall with the help of a huge edge. I could not resist pulling a “Cliffhanger” and letting both feet swing free. The pitch continues up a steep face with awesome holds in the black varnish to a belay at a bolt and slung column. P2 consists of more fun, steep climbing on varnish holds. P3 has one steep move to the right, but soon tops off in scrambling terrain.

Reaching the base after a second obnoxious descent, we found a sizable crowd on both of the routes we had done so far. With plenty of daylight left, we decided to climb Trihedral, which follows the corner to the left of Lotta Balls. While P2 had some fun stemming, it could not compare to the first two routes. However, it did give me a chance to chat with and snap pictures of fellow climbers on other routes.

Mescalito (Dark Shadows, 5.8, 10p)


After a proper night’s sleep, we got an early start for what we knew would be a long day. While most people only climb the first three pitches of Dark Shadows, the route continues to the top of Mescalito, the small-looking peak between the north and south forks of Pine Creek. For a peak-bagger like Yours Truly, the choice to continue to the top was obvious. The descent via the north fork proved as “adventurous” as promised: we took full advantage of our late exit permit.

We reached the base of the route to find an older man seconding the first pitch (the absurdly short P1 and P2 in the guidebook), and sat down to let them get ahead. P1 starts with a step across the creek onto some slabs, threatening soaked feet and/or a wet rope, then continues up a crack to a comfortable belay ledge. Jen spent awhile on this ledge waiting for the other party’s second to start climbing, then belayed me up to join her, where we spent most of an hour waiting for the other party to clear the next belay. This was an inauspicious start to a long climb, but we hoped to pass them higher up, and passed the time reading the guidebook and talking to a friendly British couple climbing behind us.

P2 started with what I chose to climb as a bit of ugly, awkward offwidth/chimney, then turned awesome, following a straight, near-vertical corner with fun stemming and miraculous holds on the right wall. I clipped into the two-bolt anchor on a comfy ledge, then hung out staring up at the huge roof and down at other climbers. P3 skirts the roof to the two-bolt anchor where most people stop. We continued for six more pitches from here, repeatedly trying to pass the other party and being cut off at choke-points on the face. While the climbing could not compare to P2, it was still fairly good; I would have enjoyed it more if I was not watching daylight tick away while waiting for the other party, dreading a long and complicated descent in the dark.

These first nine pitches led to a large plateau below Mescalito’s summit, which we reached by hiking west, climbing one pitch up a wide crack, and scrambling up some easier terrain. After very briefly enjoying the summit view in the late afternoon light, we scrambled west along the ridge, picking up a line of cairns and bits of use trail on the north side of the ridge.

Things started well: while the path led west and away from the car, it also lost elevation with very little bushwhacking and no rappels. However, somewhere in the slabs still well above the canyon floor, the trail disappeared. We first followed some sporadic cairns to what looked like a very long rappel. Doubting that our rope was long enough, we found another rap station into a narrow, twisty slot. This looked fun and doable with our single 50m, so down we went. Another rap off a tree took us into a brushy slot, where the way forward became less obvious.

In the fading light, I spotted another rap station in the next gully east. After finding that it led to a drop much longer than our rope, Jen prusiked back up, and we dug out our headlamp. Singular. Sort of. For some reason, I mistakenly believed that I had left mine in the car. Taking the lamp, I made a diagonal bushwhack/rappel farther down our original slot, where I was overjoyed to find more slings around another bush/tree. Jen took the lamp and got a prusik ready for the blind rappel over the edge. Though the moon had not yet risen, the canyon walls were faintly visible Vegas-light from the east. After a seemingly endless wait in the dark, I heard a joyous shout of “ground!” Rapping the twisty sandstone face in the dark, seeing my shadow cast on the wall by the lamp, was a surreal salvation.

Fearing a costly ticket at 8:00, we hiked back down the canyon as quickly as we could with one headlamp, reaching the car with minutes to spare. Looking back from near the car, we saw a lonely headlamp making its way back from Mescalito; I like to think it was the party who cost us so much time.

Eagle Face (Rainbow Buttress, 5.8+, 6p)

Rainbow Buttress

Despite our late return, we were up early again (too early — neither of us remembered the time change, so we had to wait at the loop gate) for another potentially long day. Determined to avoid waiting in line, we chose a route with a longer, more strenuous approach. There were several parties on nearby routes, but we had Rainbow Buttress to ourselves. Though the scenery was spectacular, and the walk-off would make a fun hike/scramble by itself, the climbing did not come close to deserving Handren’s three stars. We climbed the route as 6 pitches on a 50m rope, linking the guidebook’s P1 and P2 with a bit of simul-climbing, turning P3-P5 into two long pitches, and finishing on the last pitch of Mountain Beast, a 5.8 sport climb.

After reading P2’s description, I led P1, which starts off with some easy scrambling, then finishes up a surprisingly strenuous left-facing corner to a hot, sunny belay ledge. I hung out and sweated while Jen writhed up P2, taking every opportunity to engage in painful-sounding chimneying and offwidth. Following, I was able to reach some holds that let me avoid nearly all of the suffering. I scrambled up a face and through a tree to find her belaying from a comfortable, shady alcove.

P3 follows the crack between a pillar and the main face, then makes a fun, airy step across the gap before traversing to (for me) a semi-hanging belay near the base of the crux left-facing corner. P4 involved some thin but well-protected face moves lower down, and a short section of tricky stemming higher up, but allowed several comfortable rests. The short P5 started with some chimneying, then easier ground to the plateau below the final pitch. Rather than continuing along the original route, we finished up a fun, sport-bolted face to its left.

Heading west and slightly north — don’t be tempted south too soon! — we eventually found a well-used hiking trail which led back into Oak Creek. After some fun slabs and some boulder-hopping, we rejoined the approach route, reaching the car in time to quickly check out the visitor center on our way out of the park.

2 responses to “Red Rocks climbing

  1. Pat Hadley says:

    Awesome pic’s, love the views looking down :)

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Thanks! This was my first time climbing at Red Rocks, and it was pretty amazing.

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