Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My Times on Dream of Wild Turkeys, Red Rocks, Nevada

Manipulated image showing me soloing Dream of Wild Turkeys
A manipulated image showing me free soloing Dream of Wild Turkeys, top of the 2nd Pitch

Dream of Wild Turkeys: Black Velvet Wall, Black Velvet Canyon, Red Rocks, Nevada


Dream of Wild Turkeys is a 1400 foot rock climb. Back in the day, most climbers considered it 5.9 with maybe a move of 5.10a. It is a ten pitch climb. Pitch is climbers talk, it is the distance you can go on a rope before needing to stop and set up a belay. 

It is a spectacularly fun climb the whole way with plenty of climbing adventure. There is finger and hand crack climbing, there is easy off width climbing, there is water polished face climbing, there is sharp edged face climbing, there is exposure with big air below your feet, and the climb and the setting are beautiful everywhere you look, there are great views of the canyon below and of the desert beyond, and of cliffs left, right, and above.    

I think I've done the route 6 or 7 times. Of those times, I've soloed it 4 or 5, I can't remember. 

I do remember the first time I soloed it...


It was in the middle of Summer. The wall faces northeast. If you are on the wall on a Summer's morning, you'll be climbing in the sun's full wrath. I walked into the canyon in the afternoon. No one was at the trail head, no one was in the canyon. My only company as I walked in was a wild pinto. A stallion, he was separated from his herd. He was solo too.

This would be my first free solo of a multi-pitch route. I was in no hurry. I climbed slowly but confidently and smoothly. You make good time when you are not encumbered with pack, food, water, rope, or gear. 

The most striking memory of the day was the quiet. There were no climbers yelling, "on belay", or "off belay", or "climbing!". There was no wind to rustle the leaves of the shrub oak. There was only the occasional high pitched, scratchy sounds of White-throated Swifts, a common sound in the afternoons of Western canyons.

White-throated Swift in Black Velvet Canyon
White-throated Swift in Black Velvet Canyon 


Swifts are very cool birds. They do almost everything in the air. Except when they are nesting, swifts spend almost their entire lives in the air: they eat, drink, and often mate and sleep in the air. No other bird spends as much of its life in flight. Research has shown they can spend up to 200 days in flight without coming to the ground. They are total aerialists. Their sound to me is the sound of the love of life, of flight, and freedom. When I hear their sound, I am reminded of climbing in Red Rock canyons.

That day my eyes were sharp. My legs moved smoothly. My fingers gripped strongly. It wasn't long before 1400' of climbing came to a close and I was at the top. But, I still had to get down.  


A view of Dream of Wild Turkeys from the end of the descent canyon
A view of Dream of Wild Turkeys from the end of the descent canyon 
A view of Dream of Wild Turkeys from the rim of the canyon's wash
A view of Dream of Wild Turkeys from the rim of the canyon's wash


The route tops out on the wall's left shoulder, a wide low angle ridge with a deep cleft behind. If you read descriptions of Dream of Wild Turkeys, in every instance, you'll find the descent as being described as either rappelling from the top of Pitch 7 or climbing all the way to the wall's true summit and then walking off from there.


Ascent and descent of Dream of Wild Turkeys
Ascent and descent of Dream of Wild Turkeys

Oddly enough, I've never descended the route by either of those methods. There are two other descent routes I've used. Usually I've walked down/down climbed the summit ridge down and to the left. This is a mountaineer's descent for sure, with some sections being a little dicey. And actually, there is a fourth way of getting down, which I've only taken once. There is a rappel route with established anchors in that deep cleft behind the wall. That cleft is a deep, steep walled, and water polished channel; a true mountaineer's corridor. It is a challenge to rappel it safely. I can see where it easily could become a nightmare down there. I met a French party who had spent the better part of two days in the summer, with deplenishing supplies of water, trying to exit that thing. Their story was epic. They told me, "mountain descents in the Alps are easier".

This first time that I soloed Dream of Wild Turkeys, I walked down the ridge. At the bottom, just as I stepped off the rock, I found a coyote's skull, for which I was compelled to set it on a boulder facing the descent route as a greeting to the next party.

Walking back out to my truck, I saw the pinto again. We didn't say anything to each other. Neither of us wanted to disturb the quiet.

On the way home my mind was still very quiet. I stopped in the village of Blue Diamond for a couple of beers, actually a six pack of tall ones. I ran into Randy Grandstaff who asked me what's up. I told him I had just soloed Dream of Wild Turkeys and he replied, "That qualifies for Climb of the  Month". I smiled back and nodded, acknowledging his compliment and went back to drinking my beer in the quiet of the afternoon.

It was good running into Randal. He was one of Red Rock's first climbers, a man with many first ascents to his credit, a guy who truly loved climbing and who loved the Red Rocks.

A make believe image showing me during deluge on Dream of Wild Turkeys
A make believe image showing me during a deluge on Dream of Wild Turkeys

Anyway, the main reason I wanted to share this story is; once while roped with a friend, I did not reach the top. Here is that story.

It was a mid-Summer day in the afternoon, I think it was July, I remember it was a Sunday. Terri McGhie and I were going to swing leads on Dream of Wild Turkeys. This would be her first multi-pitch rock climb. There was not a cloud in the sky when we were walking into the canyon.

From the parking it's about 45 minutes to the climb's base, another 20 minutes to set up and get ready to climb, 20 minutes as Terri lead the first pitch, 20 minutes as I lead the 2nd pitch, maybe 15 minutes more for Terri to climb to within just a dozen yards of me; just 2 hours in all, and then I heard lightning.

Then there was hail. So much in fact, that while at my hanging belay at the top of the 2nd pitch the space between my body and the wall filled with hail. Then the rain started, and it didn't start with a sprinkle, it just started raining, hard. A few minutes later, Terri was washed off the wall.

Climber at the top of the 2nd Pitch, Dream of Wild Turkeys
Climber at the top of the 2nd Pitch, Dream of Wild Turkeys 

If you look at the photo above, that climber is at the top of the 2nd pitch where I was, so when Terri was washed off the route, she fell to the right to more or less a plumb line below me. I knew I could not lower her to the ground, we were already to high for that, but I could lower her to below that huge roof of an overhang and I knew there were ledges under that overhang for Terri to hang out on until I could set up rappel and join her.

But the roar of the water was already too loud for me to convey that information to Terri. So I just lowered her and lowered her until she was out of sight, until I was out of rope, until there was not an inch left of rope to pass through the belay plate, until the rope was taunt - because she did not find a ledge. Thank God I had set up the belay off the anchors and not off my body, had I done so I doubt I could have disengaged the weighted rope of Terri's body from myself. In which case, I would have drowned.

With our climbing rope completely taunt, it was useless to me. I could not use it to rappel. We had a second rope. That rope I had draped in a sling at the belay station, but the force of the water had already dislodged it from the sling and it was now 165' of tangled mess, hanging below me in the rain.

But the rain now was becoming a waterfall and thunderstorm rain water is cold and I was beginning to shiver. But I still had 165' of tangled mess to undo. To get an idea of that task - take a climbing rope, put it in your washing machine, put it on a full cycle, take out the resulting knot, now go into the shower with the rope, turn the shower on full blast but only use the cold water knob, now undo the knot while standing up. Do not take your face out of the water to breath. When you need to breath, drop the rope, squat down, cup your hands over your mouth, hyperventilate, get a breath of air, now stand back up and start undoing the knot again, repeat as necessary. Do not leave the shower for any reason. The knot must be undone.

But, I was on a hanging belay in a full, torrential waterfall and I could not get air by cupping my hands over my face. I was drowning. The realization of that struck me in a clear, untroubled kind of way. I looked around as though I could see everything and I thought, "well, this sucks, dying right here on this Sunday afternoon". And then something hit me, something hit me inside, a force like I've never felt, it came up my bowels, up my spine, into my neck, and hit my head like a thunderbolt. I felt the pain from that jolt, or perhaps it was the pain from the force of the water on my head, but I felt that pain for another two weeks.

But with that pain, it suddenly became clear exactly what I needed to do. I took some slack from the rope I'd been working on, I tied into it with about 8 feet of slack, I unclipped from the anchor, and I jumped off the route. I had remembered that there was a wide box-like space in the crack below me and now that wide space was right in front of me. I cupped my hands over my mouth, hyperventilated, and breathed!

With a breath of air and new purpose in life, I climbed back up the rope, and started working. I would work on that knot until out of air, then I would unclip, jump, get air, climb back up, and start working again. I did this over and over and over. A party on the ground, on the other side of the canyon, who I would talk to later, told me I was in that waterfall for over an hour.

Now I was working, holding my breath and working, and I was shivering uncontrollably. I would only have so much time before I would be unable to function. But, until then, I would work, and jump, and breath, and shiver.

Eventually, the knotted rope was clear and I set it up for a rappel. But, it would be a partially and somewhat useless rappel, it would get my out of the waterfall, but it would not get me to the ground. I needed two ropes for that. It would, however, get me down below the overhang, where I would find Terri and see if she needed help, but there we would both be stuck and unable to descend further.

So, I jump to take one more breath, and I climb up and get myself on rappel, and I unclip and start to rappel, when suddenly the other rope, the rope that Terri has been hanging on, is slack. "Oh My God", I think. I get off rappel, I jump again, I get more air, I come back up to combine the ropes and set up a two rope rappel. And I jump, and I get more air, and jump and I get more air, until I am on rappel on both ropes.

When I rappel down to Terri, she is now on the ledge I had envisioned her on. She told me that she thought I could lower her to the ground, but then the rope stopped, she had just hung there in the rain not knowing what to do, shivering herself, and not knowing what to do, but finally she understood that if she climbed the rope, climbed back up the rope 15', she would be able to get on a ledge and clip into the bolted anchors she had passed earlier. No easy task climbing a single line, wet climbing rope when you're cold, scared, and shivering, but she did it, and she waited.

Now we're both on that ledge, and I can now pull two ropes down from that 2nd Pitch belay station above, and set us up another rappel, and soon we'd be back on the ground again - and I did, and we were.

That's the story, almost. We couldn't just walk to the canyon floor and then walk to our vehicles, the canyon floor was a white water river, but we could contour the talus slopes of Black Velvet Wall and Whiskey Peak and eventually get there. But the drive out wasn't quite straight forward either. We had to wait for the rain to subside because some of the washes weren't passable, they were also rivers.

We each drove home, well not quite. I drove to Albertson's to get some rum, and coke. As I was sitting at the kitchen table, there was a knock on the door. Druce, my son who was about 5 years old at the time, answered, saw that they were climbers, and in an exclamatory fashion asked, "Do you know my Dad, he's crazy!"

It was, I believe, Red Rock climber Greg Mayer and his climbing partner or partners who had come to the door. It was they who had witnessed the whole thing from across the canyon. While I was drinking rum, they had gone to a 1-hour photo lab to process a photo of me in that waterfall (this was before digital). I'm not even sure if that's true. They did come to the door and Druce did ask the crazy question, I remember that. I think I remember a photo. But, if there was a photo, it has been lost to the passing years.



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