Jubilant Song

There are moments in climbing that come to fully embody and realize all of the work that led to that instant.  These are the times outside of our thinking monkey minds, when the realm of what is possible is investigated and expanded.  They are the moments of hard-earned bliss that justify all of our effort.

In October of this year, I traveled to Red Rocks, NV for the first time.  I had just lived at Indian Creek, UT for eight days, learning the self-contained art of crack climbing.  I had pushed myself there, and was satisfied to have chosen appropriate challenges, and to have engaged with the unknown several times, with surprisingly good outcomes.  I felt prepared for new experiences in the Nevada desert.

My climbing partner from the Creek accompanied me, but had tweaked his knee and didn’t feel like he could climb.  Thankfully, my long-time climbing mentor cum partner Rodney Sofich flew in from Portland to join us.  His experience with the intricacies and unique challenges of Red Rocks was welcome.

Though they are within view of the glowing city of Las Vegas, the climbs of Red Rocks have an alpine feel.  They’re long, committing, and often the descent offers its own cruxes.  Approaches can be long, the sun hot, and the vegetation quite unwelcoming.  We set to the job of climbing and in just a few days had climbed almost thirty pitches in the park.  We mulled over our choices for the following day while cramming down blue cheese burgers at the campsite, and we settled on a remote but interesting climb called Jubilant Song on Windy Peak.

Windy Peak lies down a long and bumpy BLM road in Black Velvet Canyon.  The following morning, parking on a gravel strip, we took off along a winding trail through strange conglomerate boulders and spiny cacti.  The trail rose and steepened, gaining several hundred feet in the heat of the desert morning, but it was surprisingly clear and easy to follow– a blessing on an approach here.  The face was impressive, rising in broken crack systems and imposing roofs out of view and into the sky.  The first ascent was established by Joe Herbst, a prolific Red Rocks climber, and one who’s routes I’ve come to really enjoy.  They follow lines of natural weakness and require a creative, open mind to solve their various problems.  They hold in them a true sense of adventure, the unknown, and even a sense of humor.

Rodney took the first lead (5.5) so that I could, as he said, have the “money pitches”.  I followed and was soon looking at the long second pitch, an undulating 5.7 crack stretching a full 160′ into blocks above.

My time at Red Rocks thus far had been filled with actively engaging the fear that I experience climbing this alpine-like terrain.  The remoteness, the length, and the many unknowns had weighed on me, even in easy terrain that I knew I could climb.  But for once, leading off onto this pitch, I was focused solely on climbing.

The pitch flowed by, despite getting fully stuck inside of the body-width crack mid-pitch, and as the air grew beneath our feet I became absorbed by the climb.  At the top of the pitch, I found relief from the sun in a deep chimney, and brought Rodney up.

As Rod led into the third pitch, over me and out of sight, I had time to consider what was approaching.  My next lead would require traversing under the imposing roof and had been growing over our heads, and for the sake of avoiding hanging belays, I planned to link it into the following 5.8 crack pitch around the corner.  Dread settled in.  Self-doubt.  Fear.

Nevertheless, as a good partner there is no choice but to be game and take what falls on your shoulders.

I stood at the tiny ledge on the left side of the roof, next to Rod at the belay.

“May I take you off the anchor?” he asked.

“Climbing”, I said, and looked right across the roof.  One problem at a time, I thought, as I took a large step to a smearing foot and worked away from the corner.

One good piece of gear in.  Good, not going to swing back into the dihedral below the belay.

I probed around the next turn of the roof, staying high up under it’s reach, placing gear at what I thought a prudent interval.  I needed to conserve gear to link the two pitches, and the gear under the roof needed to be extended with runners to minimize the rope drag after I turned the corner of the roof.  If I fell I was looking at big swings.  Clean, but big.

Moving further, the weight of the lead rung in a silent chaos inside of my head.  The will to maintain control was greater than the noise, and progress continued.  I stretched away from the belay.  “Maintain a sense of possibility”, I told myself.

Realizing that I would need to depart from the safety of where the wall met the roof, I could see no possibilities for protection ahead, so I placed and equalized two pieces.  An all-else-fails sort of thing.

I smeared away from the security of the roof and out onto small foot nubbins.  They were reachy, but stretched improbably to another rest.  From the rest, I needed to climb down slightly, and under a large block, where there was obvious, good protection available.  But still I was 15′ from my last gear, and the next moves looked to be the crux.

“I may build the hanging belay under there, Rod”, I said, “to give my mind a rest”.

He encouraged me to stick to the plan.  At that moment he was better aware of what I was capable of than I, and he knew how rewarding the success would be.

I spent a long time at that rest.  Rising onto a foothold and returning to the rest again and again, I looked for protection, acutely aware of the energy that I was using.  Several nuts popped after a test-pull, but one finally slotted horizontally into a little pinch between some nubbins.  The roar in my head was getting louder, but oddly, my center remained quiet and focused.

I told Rodney not to tell me if the nut came out as I moved past it.  I stepped down, and around, clinging to sloping hands until I could stem and rest under the large block.  The block took a great cam, and after another moment of pondering the improbable, a heel hook and mantle let me pull the lip.  Some more interesting slab moves took me to a good placement, and the crack above revealed itself to be quite short.

A few finger locks, a tenuous stem, and a nut placed with my face practically in a cactus led me to easier terrain above.  Two cams in a slot, equalized, extended, and then tied off, and it was over.  I had no idea how long the pitch had taken, but I silently thanked Rodney for pushing me through.

With the call of belay-on, Rod followed, and was soon at the belay, beaming.  It was one thing to be proud of what I’ve done, but it was another to see the rewarded look in his eyes.  From all that he has given me over the years, it was as much his success as mine.  I was still decompressing, showing only a stressed sort of wistful smile, but he was full-on grinning.

Rod led on up an easy squeeze chimney and then into a water groove with truly tricky stemming and we were soon below the summit block.  I led out and around a large chockstone on steep but easy terrain and then ambled up a huge, black edge-of-the-world ramp.  At the top, I tossed the rope over a rock horn and gave Rodney a hand belay as he came up.  We walked from there to cairn on the peak’s flat summit.

We sat elated in the sun, eating smoked clams and watching mountain goats move comfortably across exposed slabs.  I felt that it could get no better.  Rodney had wanted to climb this route with his longtime partner and climbing mentor, but the man’s age had started to catch up with him.  The tides were turning, and for better or for worse, Rod was becoming the old guy.  Instead, his vision had been realized with a new partner.

It is in times like these that we become acutely aware of how far we’ve come, and of how the loose ends of our efforts can inexplicably come together to allow us to cross, if briefly, to the other side of our expectations; When we can, briefly and blissfully, overcome ourselves and explore the world’s possibilities.  Rod had a glint in his eyes, a small flame burning out from behind the blue.  I shared that energy.  Even as some part of the unknown is triumphantly incorporated into the known, through our sweat and work and fear, so does the unknown enticingly expand and beckon us further.


Zebra Zion
Following the final pitch of Zebra Zion, one of my first climbs with Rod, circa 2007.

Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingClimbing & Mountaineering


    1. Thanks! I’m glad that you liked it. I’m sure that pretty much any climber of any ability can relate to having an up-and-down relationship with uncertainty.

  1. Thanks for this post- your stories are really inspiring. I’m a new climber, just starting to lead sport..and hoping to get into trad climbing in the next couple of years. Thinking a lot about the mental side of things (;

    1. Ruby, you’re welcome! If I get you psyched, then it was worth all of the effort.

      It’s a great time to be a new climber. Go slow, keep it fun, and pick appropriate challenges for yourself– so long as climbing serves you and not the other way around, it’s an awesome sport.

      All the best! -P

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