18 November 2003
The socialization of a climbing partnership is a tricky
thing. There are just so many things about which two
people can feel differently--style, difficulty, long
approaches, how much to carry, one rope or two, lead
racks, whether and what to eat, and so on--it's amazing
we ever get to the top of anything together. Or even to
It starts with a conversation that slowly becomes a
negotiation. Sometimes it's a dance on tiptoes;
sometimes it's two full-antlered bull moose circling
warily. Sometimes one or both people say they don't much
care, and sometimes they even mean it. Sometimes the
socialization is mutual, other times more one way than
The socialization of a climbing partnership with Las
Vegas Larry--Larry DeAngelo that is--is more or less
unlikely, more or less onerous, and more or less one-
way, depending largely on the type of climber *you* are.
Larry himself hasn't changed much in 30 years of
climbing. Undeniably, the list of things he needs to put
onto the table early on in the socialization dance is
longer than most of us have, and things that used to
need no discussion now do. A "harness" made of blue
webbing. Hip belays. No helmet (of course). A rack that
by any standard is thin, filled with old Forrest Titons,
and Dolt nuts (more about these later)--made even
thinner by stringing several each to homemade two-foot
slings. Doubling as one's extra runners, that reduces
even more quickly one's placement options over long Red
Larry's route selections, and 30-year-old climbing
ethic, can also be disconcerting, though only to the
unsocialized. In hindsight I shouldn't have been
surprised on our first day climbing together a few years
ago. After simulclimbing the first several hundred feet
of an obscure route named Sunflower, which starts
halfway up Solar Slab, I found Larry hip belaying me on
a small ledge with no anchor whatsoever--no placements
were to be had. "I had a good seat," he told me as I sat
down next to him on the three-feet-deep ledge. "I think
I could have held a fall." And after all, the climbing
was low fifth class. As was the first 20 feet of
unprotectable climbing until a bolt on the next pitch,
my lead. Anyway, the leader must not fall, right?
Even though my climbing career started in the early
1990s, well after the time of webbing harnesses and hip
belays, I found Larry's habits charming instead of
terrifying, and we've climbed together a couple of times
more, always tied to my business trips to the city of
sin. For some reason we didn't get to climb together
when I went to Red Rocks last spring on a pure climbing
I must have thought I was already fully socialized when,
earlier this month, email came back from Larry accepting
a one-day invitation for the following week. I had
written him that I would be in Vegas for the annual
Comdex conference. "Any chance you can get out? Long or
short, hard or easy, whatever, I just want to touch that
lovely sandstone again. Let me know." With the trust of
the socialized, I took at face value his reply: "Good to
hear from you! Yes. My particular 'whatever' at this
point is the Original Route on the Velvet Wall."
In hindsight, blessedly useless hindsight, I should have
been more suspicious. Don't get me wrong. I really meant
it when I wrote "whatever." And, after not finding the
route in the Swain guide, I had enough sense to send
back email asking how hard it was. I was told it was to
the left of Epinepherine, and there were some chimneys.
There was, in fact, no sandbagging by the socializer.
He also wrote back: "Joanne Urioste's guide rates the
Original Route as IV 5.9, so it is not an insignificant
undertaking (maybe 10-12 pitches plus 1000+ feet of 4th
For some reason I couldn't find my Urioste guidebook
before leaving. Whatever. A grade IV, on a short
November day. On Black Velvet Canyon's chilly north-
facing wall. *Whatever.* But after eating brunch at
Bonnie Springs with some non-climbing friends a few days
prior to my climbing date with Larry, the alarm bells
rang. Driving back on Charleston, I stopped in at the
climbing shop to take a peek at the guidebook. The route
isn't even in the index. I looked up Epinepherine, and
found it listed right next to it. Sure enough, the
Original Route starts a little differently, but climbs
all the hard chimneys of Epinepherine, breaking left
only after the top of the Tower is gained.
I called Larry that night. "You're insane," I told him.
"It's the same as climbing Epinepherine. In November."
Remembering Larry's rack, and not wanting to bring my
own for a single climbing day on a business trip, I
asked, "Are you willing to lead all the chimney
pitches?" "I would welcome the opportunity," he said, in
his particular way of speaking. It's a way that I, the
socialized, remembered. "I would wel-come the op-pour-
tune-it-y," is what he said. "Okay," I told him.
* * *
Larry picks me up from my hotel promptly at 4:45.
There's a single car already parked at the trailhead.
A late-autumn weekday. The sun is already coming up as
we hike in. There's more water in the canyon than I
remembered from my odyssey up Epinepherine the previous
April. On that occasion, my partner from back home and
I had done the mammoth route in a day. A day and five
minutes, to be precise--car to car in 24 hours and
5 minutes. This time, the plan was to do almost the
same route and get down before dark. Back in April, with
hours more daylight, Mark missed his 1:00 a.m. flight
back home. This time, I had a business dinner at 7:30
that I warned my colleagues I "might be a little late
for--if so, start without me." At least Larry knew the
descent. Five or so hours of our epic day was taken up
by Mark and me getting onto the wrong set of cairns high
up on the ridge.
By unspoken agreement, Larry leads all the pitches, even
the easy ones. We'll move faster. Part of the problem
is those Titons and Dolts. The Titons are anvil shaped
wedges that, in ideal placements, cam better than hexes.
In mediocre placements, they suck. Ditto for the Dolts,
which are ratchet-set-looking striated round nuts that
Larry has run webbing or supertape through, several to a
sling. They're even harder to find good placements for,
and more than a few times the sling would be uselessly
dangling from the rope by the time Larry was done
leading a pitch. He placed only one regular nut in 10
pitches. He carries three Camalots--red through blue.
At pitch four, the one that starts the infamous 5.9
chimneys of Epinepherine, we catch up to a threesome.
Of course they have to be on the one route that overlaps
ours. It will turn out that there were only four parties
on the whole wall, one on Frogland, and one somewhere in
the middle, maybe Dreams of Wild Turkeys.
Larry has already chatted up the seconds. As I come up
introductions are made, and almost immediately they're
ready to start climbing. Larry shouts up, "If we both-er
you too much climb-ing be-hind, feel free to drop
Cam-a-lots on us. A three-and-a-half would be nice."
Almost immediately, one of the seconds shouts "Rock!
Rock!" A cam comes whistling past us, and lands about
10 feet below me. It skitters another foot, and comes
to rest barely making contact with the rock. Larry and
I joke that they've erred--it's only the blue Camalot,
the number 3.
I assure them I'll try to retrieve it, but they're
worried it may cut loose if I'm even slightly careless.
By the end of the pitch, they're considering rapping
down, and I know almost the only thing preventing them
is that they don't want to reclimb the pitch. I, on the
other hand, am worried about them slowing us down even
more than they already have, and I reassure them again
that I'll get it. Larry soon finishes leading, stopping
at the intermediate anchor below them, and puts me on
belay. I gingerly downclimb and get the cam.
The chimneys don't kick my butt at all this time, except
for the second one, with the big flake, the one that
nowadays is almost always linked with the first. With my
back on the left wall, I have an easy time of it until
about the last 10 or 12 feet. Then facing that way is a
liability, but you can't switch sides. Whatever; it's
going to kick your butt a little either way. I didn't
fall the first time I was here, and I don't this time
either. In fact, if not for that little section, I'd be
happy to have led any of the chimney pitches this time--
with a bigger rack, that is. That time, Mark and I each
climbed with small packs, leading and following. This
time, I have our larger one the whole time. It doesn't
affect my climbing much, but my lower back, injured a
few years ago in a bad fall, starts to ache. It doesn't
matter much whether I have it on my back or dangling
from my harness. Whatever. It's a beautiful, windless
day on the Velvet Wall.
By contrast, the party ahead seems almost overmatched by
the chimneys. They all get up without falling, but can't
stop talking about how hard it is. They do them in only
two pitches, though, linking the last two as well as the
first. I have the feeling they're more sport climbers
than trad. The one who dropped the cam, and who was
effusively grateful at its return, asked me if knew the
meaning of the name Epinepherine. "I guess I do," I say
tentatively. because I don't really know the medical
explanation. Misunderstanding my hesitation, he asks,
"If you tell me, would you have to kill me?" I tell him
it's the hormone that releases adrenaline into the body.
Larry amplifies. The first ascent party was stung by
bees on route, he says. If they had been allergic, they
would have needed a shot of epinepherine.
We get to the top of the chimneys around noon, but Larry
takes a long time leading the first face pitch, the last
one the Original Route shares with Epinepherine, even
though it's only 5.7 or so. After a puzzling roof that
I remember, and had led last time, we have one more
serious pitch before the ramp. Some back and forth
scrambling on easy ground leads to a deep-throated wide
slot with another tricky overhang. You can stem your way
through it, but the gear is a bit thin, and a key
foothold is on slick varnish. Nice lead, Larry.
It takes us to a point on the same ramp that
Epinepherine ends with, but much lower. The climbing
is easy fifth class, but not something to do unroped.
Larry runs out 180-foot pitches, but we don't simulclimb.
A couple of times I scramble past him 50 or 70 feet
using only the gear I've cleaned. Anchors are minimal.
The second as well as the leader must not fall. We're
getting tired, and the post-daylight-savings-time sun
keeps getting lower. It's almost set when Larry coils
the ropes on the summit, as I repack the pack. The
lights of Vegas twinkle from the ridge.
Larry remembers the descent perfectly--going around the
back side of the ridge, scrambling through a notch back
onto the front side, the five or six cairns that mark
the start of the long downward trail. He calls his wife
a couple of times along the way, apologizing that he'll
be home later than he had said. We agree the route is
really no easier than Epinepherine. Finally, we're on
the Frogland descent, and get down to the car at about
7:15. I've brought work clothes and change in the car as
Larry drives. I call my colleagues to say that I'll be a
bit late. Cellular service is spotty as we head toward
the lights on the horizon. I have to leave messages.
Start without me. Whatever.