Cold in the desert

Day 2 of running in Las Vegas. Our climbing friends wanted to do a longer climb and Kristen and I had an insatiable itch to have an excursion on our feet. So we parted ways at the trailhead after some directions from our local friend and took off in the crisp desert air. The high in Las Vegas today was supposed to be 31 degrees (counting wind chill). And our goal on this bright New Years Eve day was to summit Rainbow Mountain, part of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Rainbow Mountain stands tall and colorful over the 13 mile scenic drive that skirts the valley of the Conservation Area, but at only 6,800 feet seemed a very doable half day, 12 mile trip. Our friend said the trail ran into a riverbed. From there we’d begin a “hike” until reaching low angle slab, which we would scramble up to get to the ridgeline and eventually the summit. To be fair, our climbing buddy did mention that this summit involved a lot of scrambling and would become more of a hike than a run. But to me, a summit sounded more fun than a flat run in the valley, so we gave it a go!

From the car, the trail was flat but rocky and fun. Then we descended into the riverbed and became instantly excited. We marveled at the huge sandstone boulders with yellows and oranges of every hue. We rock hopped and scrambled our way up the canyon, with 1000 foot walls rising into the sky until just a strip of cold blue could be seen above. Our curiosity was piqued when we heard plates of glass shattering below us. The gravel riverbed between the boulders had a layer of suspended ice. During the last rain the top must have frozen so that when the flash flood was over, nothing but floating sheets of brittle ice remained. We marveled and took pictures at first, but later frustrations would cause us to hike through the loud webs of frozen water with little remorse. A few hundred more yards of scrambling and I began to feel the first signs of my lifelong nemesis: frozen fingers. The rocks were cold, probably below freezing, and moving off them to scramble upwards was already taking its toll on my poorly circulated digits. Then suddenly icicles dominated the scene! Frozen trees, frozen rocks, frozen bushes, frozen sand. We were beginning to see a trend. One poor little tree was completely engulfed, every one of its bare branches saturated and thickened by shimmering white ice.

Continuing up the riverbed we started catching glimpses of our path ahead. The canyon continued with large rocks and dense brush for at least another mile, banking left and out of sight. As we scrambled further the pace slowed. Attempts were made at skirting the river by edging along the blank slabs of the canyon walls. This was slower, and things got cold. 12:30 pm and it should’ve been getting warmer. But the walls were high and we remained in the shade. An icy breeze blew down the canyon and found its way under our clothes. The bottle I’d been carrying hit the ground, startling me. I had dropped it but my frozen fingers couldn’t feel the release. Kristen and I looked at each other, looked up the canyon. Another breeze brushed our faces and necks. It echoed our thoughts: bail.

Once the decision was made, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We scrambled rocks, stopped occasionally to warm our hands and generally flailed our way back down the river. We found the trail again and began to run. Moving fast was wonderful. And just as feeling came back into the extremities we burst into the sun. And all was well. We floated back to the car amongst the desert sage and jumped in the little cab of my truck. It was warm. The sun had been beating in on the seats while we were away, and the shell of aluminum and glass was gloriously impermeable to the wind.

As we drove back into town, I felt no remorse. Our goal was to summit a mountain and get in a bit of a run. As the day would have it, we ran three miles and scrambled three more. It took three hours to complete our six mile excursion. Getting shut down can be difficult, as I know you know. We’ve all been there at some point. Looking back, you have to decide if you’re happy with the decision you made. Did you give up at the first sign of hardship or did you simply avoid disaster? I’m friends with quite a few outdoorsy folks and their answer to this varies about as much as the (very) interesting clothes they wear. But like every subject that’s ever been argued, there’s always a happy medium. And it depends on nothing but you. Some people would’ve kept on. But then again, some people climb 1000 foot rock faces alone with no rope. Some people would’ve never gotten out of the car. But then again, some people are satisfied with suburban life and a BMW. Kristen and I find ourselves somewhere in between. We’re happy with that.

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2 thoughts on “Cold in the desert

  1. Sounds like a rad adventure! I know what you mean about deciding when to bail and the dilemma between wanting to push your limits and wanting to be smart. I recently cut short a run with a friend when we were out in the middle of nowhere running in cotton and it started pouring. To us another couple miles weren’t worth the risk of backcountry hypothermia. We still had a beautiful (cold and wet, but beautiful) run.

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