There are many sports metaphors that equate to struggle. Marathons, extra innings, overtime: all of these immediately conjure up the physical struggle of a human being. But perhaps we need a sports metaphor for the less demanding endurance trail. Romanian Rib could be just such a metaphor for patience.
Romanian Rib is a specific route near Red Rocks National Park. The climb itself is about 1000 feet of vertical. There is a parking lot on the side of the road, and a marked, maintained trail for about half of the 1.5 mile hike-in to the base of Romanian Rib.
That morning we got started a little later than usual, despite our promises to be out the door early. While inconvenient, in hindsight, an extra hour of daylight would have made little difference.
We sorted gear in the back of the car, loaded up packs and ropes, and hiked in, hoping we didn’t forget anything. The base of Romanian Rib is not marked, nor on a trail, so we bushwhacked through the prickly manzanita bushes to get to a place where we could set ropes.
Will and Wendy went first, the same as the day before, where we climbed in teams on the multi-pitched Physical Graffiti. Will lead-climbed for their team, Andy lead-climbed for ours.
Ready for some numbers?
The vertical was 1000 feet. Our rope was 180 feet. Quick math: if we need to climb 1000 feet, we would need to do at least 6 pitches. But! The rope was tied to both of us, needed to have enough slack to thread through protection easily. As the Mountain Project predicts, 8 pitches seemed to be a good theory for how long it would take.
Romanian Rib is rated as a 5.5 using the Yosemite Decimal System. The first number 5 in this is meant to discuss the class level of hike/climb, which is the kind that requires the use of a rope. A Class 1 hike is easy, hiking boots likely required, each higher level getting more difficult until Class 5, which requires a rope. I’ve seen grocery store parking lots more treacherous than a Class 1.
After Class 5 is reached, the decimal point describes the rating system for the actual climb. The higher the number, the more difficult it is. 5.0 is a treacherous parking lot, while the peak of 5.15 seem to require not just a rope, but superpowers.
Climbing a multi-pitch 5.5 seemed like a good fit for our quartet. Wendy and I are not fast climbers, but at 5.5, we would be well in our comfort zone, so even with the fatigue of a day-long excursion, there would be no problems. For Will and Andy, they needed to be able to free-climb without fear of injury, and a 5.5 would be very doable.
Crack of ten a.m., we were climbing. While Red Rocks is a sandstone formation, our particular route also had iron deposits. As the wind eroded the sandstone over time, shaping the formations, the iron deposits did not erode. So the face was covered in these reddish warts, which provided easy and abundant handholds and footholds. Climbing through those wart-fields went fast, and even I felt like Spiderman, scrambling up as fast as I could clean protection out of the fissures.
There were snags, of course. Because the shape of the rock meant we were often out of visual and audio range, I had to rely only on the patience of knowing I had literally no place to go. Clipped into a rock 600 feet off the ground, patience is not so much a virtue as a hobby.
Along the way, we anchored at some large ledges, and then some places that weren’t ledges at all. Those were the stations that made my feet hurt, “standing” in an uncomfortable way so as to competently belay my partner.
We also discovered that our rope was about ten feet shorter than Will’s rope, meaning that on two occasions, Andy had to downclimb from where Wendy was set up to make a new anchor for us.
After eight pitches, I stopped counting. We did a few really short stints in order to reach those monster resting ledges. Despite what Mountain Project recommended, we did at least ten pitches (if not more).
By the time we reached the top of the climb (not the top of the rock), it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon. We’d been in shadows most of the day, and it was definitely beginning to look like dark would fall quickly.
Must Come Down
We hiked across the rock to get to the rappel stations. These are where metal bolts have been anchored into the rock permanently. To speed the process, Will tied the two ropes together. Andy set the rope and headed down first. After him, I went, then Wendy, then Will, then we pulled the rope and started again, descending 180 feet at a time.
I felt comfortable repelling, as we had repelled 300 feet into the Natural Well earlier that year. Down we went, moving fast, trying to be efficient. Sometimes it was easy, walking down the rock backwards, moving my prusik (small knot type used as a safety back-up) until both that rope and my metal ATC (rappel device) were hot to the touch.
By the time we had made it down 3 pitches, it was dark. The Las Vegas Strip was visible, the floodlight at the Luxor pyramid beamed into the sky directly behind where our car was parked. I mentally marked the location because it was already clear we would hike out in the dark. To the right was the small, twinkling town of Blue Diamond.
Here, I admit that Will tied me into the rope. My knots are slower, my fingers clumsier. He would tie, I would double-check, Wendy would give me a big smile, and I would slide down to meet my husband at the bottom of the rope. When it got dark, it was still the same process, just with heightened senses.
The moon hadn’t risen yet, and the starlight was barely enough to see what we were doing. Fortunately, the white rock reflected what little light we had. Only Andy had remembered to bring along a headlamp. Wendy’s cellphone battery was near dead. Andy and Will’s were about at half, and I had about three-quarters. It would be enough once we were on the ground, but there was no way to use the cell phone lights while rappelling.
We had gone down ravines, around trees, each of us had scratches from the ubiquitous manzanita leaves. Finally, Andy said he thought we were near a walk-off. This rappel would be the last one. We set the rope around the trunk of a large tree miraculously growing in this outcropping of boulders. Unlike other sections, this one had plenty of room to sit together comfortably. Andy headed down, and the three of us huddled against the rock, enjoying the last bit of heat the rock retained from the desert sun. Directly in front of the tree was a large boulder. After Andy had been gone a few minutes, the rope slid around the surface of the boulder, straightening out due to the tension below.
Wendy asked what we should eat for dinner. I had seen a Mexican restaurant on the way into the park the other day (I have a radar for this sort of thing). We waited for Andy to call back up to say he was safe and for me to tie in. But we heard nothing.
Then came the fantasizing about burritos the size of footballs, the discussion on what makes a good guacamole great. Finally, we heard Andy’s voice yell up from the rock. We looked at each other, all of us asking, “What did he say?”
One of the least effective things to do in this situation is to stand on the edge of something and yell “WHAT?” as loud as you can.
I’m not saying we did or did not do that. But finally, when we understood an “OK” from Andy, I tied in.
I started down the rope, picking my way through the vegetation that had started to dominate our landscape. Much of it was safe to downclimb, but in the dark, we didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I slid the rope through my equipment as I walked backwards, until I got to this strange plateau with a small manzanita tree and a cave opening roughly 18 inches tall.
Out of nowhere, I heard Andy’s voice loud and clear: “I’ve got you.”
I looked around me, not seeing where he could be, then finally realizing his voice was coming from the small hole in front of me. “Where are you?”
He explained that there would be a free-rappel after this plateau. He said to follow the sound of his voice.
“Into the cave?” I asked, because that did not make any sense whatsoever.
“Just follow the rope,” he said.
What else is there to do at this point? There’s no light, I’m tied to a rope, and I have a massive craving for a burrito football.
Peering over the ledge near the small manzanita bush near the ledge, I saw how the rock dropped away into nothingness. Andy turned on the red light of his head lamp to show me how close I was, maybe another 30-40 feet. Going over the ledge seemed like the hardest part, so I took the plunge, holding my feet straight out as I sat myself into thin air, as if sinking into a dining room chair.
I held my prusik still, giving myself a second to collect myself.
“I’ve got you,” Andy reminded me. “I can control the rope down here.” By pulling tension at his end, he could give a safety stop.
I nodded, but before I could move the prusik and finish my descent, the rope dropped, and my body jerked downward.
My heart stopped. Above me, the rope had rolled over the first boulder, just as I had seen it do while Andy descended. Shaking, I moved the prusik to end the rappel. I slid down the remainder, the scaly sound of the rope shushing through my equipment the only background to this activity.
My feet touched the ground and I untied quickly. Both of us screamed “OK” back up at Wendy and Will.
“I hope the rope doesn’t get stuck,” Andy said.
I stopped him. “Let’s get them down first.”
Then I did what I do best: I got out of the way. I clambered over to a rock outcropping to look at the valley below us. When I looked up, I began whooping.
“The moon is rising!” I yelled. “It’s big and orange and perfect!” We were only one day past a full moon. The extra light was almost immediate. By the time Wendy reached us, the moon was fully risen.
Will came down next, and after he detached himself, Andy pulled on the rope like ringing a bell in a belltower. Nothing happened. Will grabbed the rope and they pulled again. Nothing. I tied into the back of the rope, Andy climbed up a few feet, and the three of us put all of our weight against it. Nothing.
“Well,” Andy said, hands on his hips.
“Yup,” Will said, same stance.
I returned to my pack to eat some trail mix and a honey packet since I was getting to the point of shaking from lack of calories. By the time I got called back to the rope, Will had attempted an ascension system, then Andy tried, and I got tied into the rope that was supposed to be pulled up, around the tree and then back down again. That way, when Will climbed up again, he wouldn’t fall on the ground from a sudden rope-slip.
There is probably not a way that I can both accurately describe the ascension system as well as convey how much physical exertion it took for Will to climb up the rope that hung away from any wall. Watching Will roll himself up over the ledge alone was exhausting.
None of us were talking, so it was easy to hear the animal noises near the overlook. Andy was controlling one end of the rope, I was tied into the other, and Will was ascending, which meant Wendy was left to investigate the strange noises near our packs.
She disappeared over to the ledge where our backpacks were, and then we heard the sound of small rocks hitting the outcropping. There was some more shuffling, and then Wendy returned.
“Sorry Andy, I think a fox peed on your pack. But he’s gone now,” she said.
It’s funny now, but at the time, it was difficult to even register. I was thinking about how we might just sleep there, huddled in a big puppy pile and wait for morning when we could find a way to retrieve the rope in daylight.
Once Will had accomplished the ascent, however, he went back up to the tree, freed the rope and downclimbed to the ledge where he re-set the rope and descended again. This time, when we pulled, the rope came down.
During all of this, Wendy and I had investigated whether or not this was our walk-off point. We both thought so, but it had not been borne out. There was still a possibility that we might encounter another rappelling situation. Still, we changed out of our climbing shoes into hiking boots and our quartet set off in the moonlight.
There were a few points where we had to turn back on our bushwhacking trail to the car, but for the most part, the 1.5 mile return trip was pleasant. We sang childhood camp songs, I belted out a few choruses of Pocahontas (“Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?”), and we fantasized about crispy tortilla chips, hot with grease.
We were giddy with relief: relieved that we wouldn’t be spending the night in a manzanita bush tangle, relieved that we would eat hot food that day, relieved that everyone was safe and unscathed.
By the time we got back to the car, it was after 10:30 pm. Andy and I split a hot, stale vanilla zinger stashed that morning in the driver’s console. The sugar had crystallized and melted on our tongues.
Once again, Las Vegas came through: despite being 11 pm on a Tuesday night, the Mexican restaurant was open because it had video poker, and was technically a gaming establishment. 24 hour chips and salsa. Our waiter literally ran across the restaurant to get us our hot, crispy chips, and bowls of red salsa, green salsa, and bean dip. I ordered a cervezerita for the first time in my life.
We ate like animals, though none of us could finish. All of us were tired, endorphin-flooded, and ready for few more days of climbing (and a good night’s sleep).
Our first major multi-pitch climb was a good adventure–and as Andy likes to say, “It’s only a good story if something goes wrong.”