Sunday, January 26, 2014

Epinephrine, Robert Finlay, Solo or A Rock Climb, One Guy, No Rope

Soloing Epinephrine
On the last few moves just above Epinephrine's famous chimneys...
Epinephrine is a rock climb. I've never had a rope on this climb, but over the years would climb it six times. Well, that's not quite true, I had climbed the upper pitches with a rope (a pitch is that section of a climb between two belay points) when Richard Harrison and I climbed Malicious Mischief, a route whose upper pitches coincide with Epinephrine. But that is a different story for another time. Here is my story of Epinephrine...  
A view of Black Velvet Wall with annotations...
A view of Black Velvet Wall with annotations...

Epinephrine is in Black Velvet Canyon of the Red Rocks, a sandstone escarpment to the west of the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. It is rated IV 5.9: The 'IV' indicates the grade, meaning a long day, as opposed to Grade I which is a very short day or Grade VI which is a multi day rock climb. The '5' of '5.9' indicates it is Class 5, meaning a rope is recommended or actually in fact most often needed to arrest potential falls, whereas Class 3 is simply scrambling or hiking that requires occasional use of the hands. The '.9' of the '5.9' is a relative rating. For example, a 5.9 rock climb is harder than a 5.8 but easier than a 5.10. The ratings of rock climbs are subjective and over time the rating is established by the consensus of climbers who've climbed the route. The first ascent party may rate a climb but successive parties will establish the rating by review, not unlike the reviews for a book or a recipe.

The climb Epinephrine is listed as one of the North American Classics. It is sometimes called the best 5.9 multi-pitch rock climb in the country. My description might be as follows. It is a superb climb. This climb is – well it is stellar. It is long, 1900 or so feet, varied, and exposed. The rock is solid. And the line, that aspect of a climb that catches your eye, your imagination when viewing the route from the ground – the line is a natural line, a crack and corner system up a magnificent rock wall. This line is the natural weakness of the wall, i.e. the line up the wall that would most likely allow a human ascent. And finally, the summit of Epinephrine rewards the climber with stunning views of the desert far, far below.

A view of the right side of the buttress showing the chimneys...
A view of the right side of the buttress showing the chimneys...

The highlight of Epinephrine are its famous chimneys; long, intimidating, and airy. The chimneys lead up the right side and to the top of a classic buttress, above the buttress is some exposed face climbing, then a finger crack, followed by a long enjoyable corner system (my favorite part), and finally an easy ramp to the top.

The last, or sixth time, I climbed Epinephrine was sometime in the late nineties. There just happened to be another party on the climb with a camera that day. Thus, the photos I can share with you in this article. All I can remember of that ascent was that it was a good day.

The fifth time I climbed Epinephrine was a day or two before flying out of Vegas to New England to compete in the 1996 ESPN 2 X-Games. I was competing in the adventure race of the games. ESPN would only host three adventure races, this would be the second and the second to the last. The last ESPN adventure race would be in Baja Mexico the following year and most of the entire field would end up in intensive care. The intensity of adventure racing really cannot be captured on film. The heroics of adventure racers just doesn't happen on cue. In 1996, my teammates were Duncan Smith, a Navy SEAL who would end up being the military advisor for such films as “The Rock” and “Act of Valor” and Andrea Spitzer who at the time was the # 1 woman in Europe in the sport guadrialthon (a triathlon with flat water paddling added in) and the fastest woman in the world on a surf ski. What was I doing with this team? I don't know. I could do stuff like solo Epinephrine. There were 12 world class teams participating. Only five would finish. We finished fifth. I was pretty happy with that.

But back to Epinephrine, that day, that last time I soloed it, I would climb it with my fastest time. A fastest time was not my intention when I started climbing that morning. But the climbing went smooth and when I reached the top, I looked at my watch, which I kept in my pocket when climbing, and I was up there in about 90 minutes, so I thought, “why not hustle-it-up to the bottom”. During the descent I poured it on, moving my feet as fast as they would go across the loose scree, hyperventilating, occasionally stumbling, but getting back to the base in 4 hours flat from when I started climbing. Or as a climbers would term it, 'base to base' in 4 hours. I felt buzzed and ready for the X-Games.

The fourth time I soloed the climb, I was in the Red Rocks climbing with Steve Kraft, a friend and Marine from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, CA. We were in Black Velvet Canyon on the climb "Our Father" when Steve announced he wasn't feeling well. I asked if I could keep climbing. He wondered what I meant. I explained I'd like to climb Epinephrine and he offered to walk to the base with me so he could carry all the gear to the car where he would wait, thus I would not need to return to the base but could descend right to the car. While at the base, tying the laces of my climbing shoes, my hands were visibly shaking. Steve asked if I was OK. Paraphrasing Clint Eastwood in the movie “Firefox”. I said , “Yes, I'm the best there is, just get me on the climb”. Of course I was joking but I've always loved joking at the onset or in the midst of danger. That time it was funny I guess, Steve chuckled, but usually my comments and jokes are out of place, mistimed, and not very well understood by those present. Anyway, the climb went smooth and of course, I got my buzz on.

The third time I climbed Epinephrine, I was with two other climbers, Kevin Biernacki who paraglides and guides with the stars, i.e. famous personalities and Richard Harrison who is a classic and well known American rock climber, an original Stonemaster, a band of 1970's California rock climbers. So there we were, the three of us soloing Epinephrine. In other words, all three of us were on the climb with no rope. I had soloed it twice before. This was Richard's first time and to Kevin's credit, he had never even climbed a Class 5 chimney before and now he was going to climb hundreds of feet of Class 5 chimneys with no rope, holly molly!

At the top of the chimneys standing on the top of the buttress, Richard and I heard a little voice, “help”. Richard said something to the effect of, you can't be soloing up here yelling help. I agreed and laughed. But, Kevin needed help and he was my friend so I down climbed what many think of as the crux of the climb, the last few moves of the chimneys are offwidth. Climbers describe cracks by the size of the crack in relationship to their bodies. Offwidth is a width of crack that is too wide for hand jambs but too narrow to get your body in. They seem the most awkward until the proper techniques are learned. Anyway, I down climbed the route until I could talk to Kevin face to face and ask him, “what's up”. I remember his face did look a little strained. Jammed in the chimney myself in classic figure four I could look straight down between my legs to talk to him. Using both hands I gave him the “come on” signal and said, “come to Papa”. That was my coaching, that got him laughing, he got through it.

Now with all three of us on the top of the buttress, the next section lead up exposed face and then to the finger crack. The consensus of concern was the finger crack. Some would say this was the crux of Epinephrine. Jamming a finger crack is not necessarily the most secure way to hang out on a 1900' wall when unroped. So our 'team solo' solution was for the first climber on the crack (who was yet to be determined), as he flew past us, in the event he should fall, to yell, “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. In other words as that climber was falling to his death, he should be teammate enough to let his buddies know the proper technique as obviously he hadn't used it (the proper technique). But the question would remain as he was falling and yelling, was he telling us the proper technique or was he telling us the technique he had used (which obviously was not the proper technique)?

Anyway, it was all good fun as we all finished the climb and walked off the top.

My second time on Epinephrine was somewhat uneventful. It was a sunny day and hot and I started a little too early. The Black Velvet Wall faces northeast and so on Summer mornings it is fully in the sunlight. In the chimneys I was in the shade but once I topped out on the buttress I was fully exposed to the sun's wrath. On the top of buttress, I remember finding just enough shade for my head. Laying there looking east I could see other climbing parties on other routes. Though fully exposed to the sun, they did have ropes. I waited with my head in the shade, I think 20 or 30 minutes until the sun crested behind the wall. I finished the climb and of course I walked off feeling great.

My very first time climbing Epinephrine was sometime in the late 80's. I was living in my truck, hanging out in the Red Rocks, climbing and mountain biking and running almost every day and on my rest days, reading. One afternoon, sitting in my folding lawn chair, in the shade of my truck, I finished reading "Adrift" by Steve Callahan. It recounts his story of survival, 76 days alone, in an emergency raft, drifting across the Atlantic. I slammed the book shut and exclaimed to myself, “I'm not getting out there enough”. My thoughts were, “what can I do”? It wasn't long before my answer arrived, “I know, I can solo Epinephrine”.

I got an early start, but when driving to a restaurant for breakfast, I got a flat. I fixed that with my spare tire, but shortly got another flat. I fixed that with fix-a-flat. At this point I needed a tire shop. While both tires were getting worked on I walked to breakfast. Now on my way to the climb again, I stopped at the intersection of Tropicana and Rainbow, to go to the climb I would need to turn left. I turned right. After a few blocks, I u-turned back, but at the intersection of Tropicana and Rainbow I once again turned away, turning into the 7-Eleven. I bought a Snickers bar and a coffee and this time turned towards and finally arrived at the parking for the foot approach to the climb. It was now late morning, seemingly late for this kind of effort but as I looked at the wall, I realized that by the time I walk in and start climbing the route will be in the shade. Things seemed to be lining up perfect.

There I am, somewhere up in the chimneys...
There I am, somewhere up in the chimneys...

I remember climbing the route, completely calm, completely in control, and completely happy. I discovered something. I discovered the great joy in climbing solo without a rope. There is complete freedom. You do not have to make a schedule with someone else. You do not have to carry a pack full of climbing gear and ropes. You are completely unencumbered. On the route you are not weighted down by gear, you are not required to place gear, you need not stop at belay stations, you need not set up belays, you need not yell the climbing commands, “climbing!, off belay!, on belay!, climb on!, etc.”, you need only climb.

I remember the experience - as I climbed I was rejoicing in the fluidity of hours of uninterrupted climbing movements, in the wonderful view below my feet of the canyon floor hundreds of feet below me, and with these sensations, there was the ever present, but subdued, exhilaration of danger, kept in check by the confidence of my movements and the strength in my fingers.

A view from somewhere near the summit...
A view from somewhere near the summit...

Thus the question of “why do you do it” was answered. 


  1. I remember back in the day, hearing you say "I'm not getting out there enough!"...Now I know where that came from. A lot of the top rock climbing soloists are soloing many number grades below their max. Back when you first did this, I believe you weren't climbing much harder than 5.9 you crazy bastard!

    1. It was exciting being way up there, sometimes a little too exciting, but 5.9 always seemed doable to me. I guess I'll always feel that I'm not getting out there enough. But thinking of Laird Hamilton's fitness laws, "In the end, if you're still just there, doing it, you win."