The Time I Attempted to Learn Trad Climbing on Sandstone

In theory, hiking to the Lost and Found Crag was easy enough: a short 15 minutes composed of a brief walk and a minor scramble up the walkoff of the N’Plus Ultra crag. We could see it from the parking lot. This short and obvious trek was marked with no more than what felt like a thousand cairns, some as tall as three feet, rocks the size of the roast I wish I brought for lunch instead of a tuna sandwich made with the strangest dill flavored mayonnaise I could find. After 25 minutes, I began to wonder when the last person up there had been. There was no shortage of cairns, yet there was also no shortage of overgrown foliage ripe with thorns, threatening to eat my favorite shirt and catching on everything I left hanging from the outer straps of my overstuffed backpack. It didn’t take long for me to build an immense level of confidence that we’d be the only climbers at this crag today. Immediately upon this realization, I turned my attitude around and found great joy in being able to pee anywhere I pleased without worrying about who would be offended by my bare ass.

The base of the crag itself was an awe-inspiring alien landscape: rocks with swirls of purple, rings of minerals like someone left a beer can sitting for too long, white sandstone with perfectly formed knobby protrusions, soft moss like a welcome mat. The crack before us was an 80’ line called Lost and Found, the crag’s namesake. It’s 5.5 rating and “well-protected” description lead me to believe it would be a perfect opportunity for me to practice placing gear, building confidence in my ability while walking up a route I could crush in my sleep. The crack was obvious and featured, about 3” at the widest point, with large huecos dotting the vertical surface on each side before veering off to a moderate slabby section and ending atop an enormous ledge. The plan was to spend the day here, practicing what little used trad climbing skills I possessed.

In spite of getting an alpine start of 10:00 am, I was scolding myself for forgetting my headlamp in the van; we’d walked out after dark the last two nights and I should know better. I brought an emergency bivvy, spare batteries and a jacket I had no intention of wearing — you would think I could have managed to bring the headlamp. Two nights ago, after dark, I was thrashing my way up a route above my outdoor grade, begging my belayer to take in rope faster so I wouldn’t have to repeat the wretched crux sequence again on top rope. I just wanted to clean the damned thing so I could get back to the van, where we keep the gin. With this in mind, I set a timer for 3:00 pm so we could get the hell off the wall with plenty of time to wade through the thorn infested scramble that someone dared to call a walkoff. The early sunsets were putting a crimp in my style — which was mostly a lot of sleeping in and slow approaches as I bitch about how heavy my pack is while my poorly conditioned legs scream at me every time there’s elevation gain.

I eagerly put on my harness and began flaking out the rope while my partner sorted and racked the gear he’d use for the lead. Harness check. Knot check. Belay check. Chalk check. Jacket off. Shoes on. Climb on. He climbed. And climbed. And the quick combo crack and face climb turned out to take longer than I anticipated. I just wanted to get on it. I listened for the command to take my partner off belay. I heard a very faint, “take me off belay,” and I complied. When the rope didn’t start moving, I wondered if I actually heard, “keep me on belay.” I looked up.

“Did you say off belay?!”

No reply.



I yelled a few other things. No reply. I silently waited, rope in my hand, ready to throw an emergency full-body belay, if needed, listening with my head cocked to one side, sifting out the sounds from above me while trying to ignore the parade of autos and motorcycles rumbling around the scenic route below. Before too long, the rope started moving and I quickly pulled on my shoes. I was ready to get on the rock.

“That’s me!” I hollered. And waited.

“THAT’S ME!!” I tried facing the opposing wall to create an echo.

“STILL MEEEEEEEEEE!” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, finding ironic joy in the strained communications of climbing, and finally hearing from above, “Climb on!”

The climb itself is a bit of a blur. I recall sticking my hand in a hueco, dipping into a bowl of sand, pausing to feel the soft, yet firm tips of what could only be a fungus or lichen I’d never seen before. The feel of the sandstone under my hands was foreign, a different kind of rock than what I was used to. The surface felt unsure. I struggled to remove a nut about halfway up the route. I adjusted my stance and tried again, finally removing it from deep within the crack. This is about when I began to panic, my breathing becoming erratic, nerves on edge, fingers feeling unsure of what they were holding on to. All I could think about was the frangible surface and the easily eroded sandstone crumbling away beneath me. Pat could hear me cursing to myself and assured me the anchor was bomber. I paused and focused on my breathing – in and out, calm. I relaxed my grip, found my footing, moved onto the face and scrambled over the top as quickly as possible, collapsing at the anchor, declaring that trad climbing was dumb and I wasn’t going up that crack again. I had to laugh: I was at the top of a 5.5 sandstone crack full of features, and I was on a top rope with a bombproof anchor, being belayed by my most trusted climbing partner. We had a good laugh and I decided that I didn’t want to try leading that particular crack.

We secured ourselves, coiled the rope and went off in search of our walkoff. What we  discovered was that what should have been a simple walk off, and was described as such in our guide book, was actually a thorn riddled bushwhacking experience that would have been reasonable had I brought a machete. I began to feel like alien tentacles were grabbing at me from all directions, trying to devour me as I struggled through, and if they couldn’t devour me, there were certainly trying hard to devour my clothes.

We eventually made it back to the base of the crag, yanking cams and slings from tree branches, winding our way through the thorny leaves. We climbed one more easy line (with an entirely different, yet equally terrifying walk off), and made it back to the van well before sunset. The wonder of this place again filled my soul as we scrubbed the dirt from our hands in a shallow stream, and savored a cold cider as we watched the sun go down on our last day of climbing in Red Rock Canyon.

Two days later, as I prepared to jump on my first gym route of the week, I dipped my hand into my chalk bag only to find that remnants of the torturous thorned trees had invaded my life at home. I groaned for a moment, and I remembered that I somehow earned the scrapes on my arms and the bruises on my knees. I did something that terrified me and I lived to laugh about it. I have found myself asking “why” on more than one occasion — but in reality, the “why not” is more important. I have learned more about life, myself and what I am capable of by saying “yes,” by pushing my limits, and by doing what I am afraid of instead of staying comfortable. I often look back at the moments I was afraid, and I think to myself, “I’m so glad I did that.”

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