In the depths of a desert canyon, below a massive wall of streaked, multihued stone, Amanda Wicks reached up to touch the gritty rock face. The climbing rope at her waist, a pink cord of knotted nylon, pulled tight as Wicks stepped forward to start the ascent.
"OK, I'm climbing!" she yelled out, signaling her guide a rope's length above, 49m up on a small sloping ledge. Scrub oak and juniper choked a streambed below. Across the canyon, a rare dusting of desert snow coated the hillside, white powder on red sand.
Feet gripped on small edges, fingers on cold stone, Wicks worked through the initial moves. It was 8:30am on a Monday in March. The Nevada sun blazed overhead.
The climb, a sheer vertical route, stretched 610m into the sky. It would be well after dark, casinos blinking in the far distant night, when the climbers would return from the summit and again set foot on flat ground.
Wicks, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had signed up for a daylong climb in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a barren, craggy park 27km west of the Las Vegas Strip.
Since the 1970s, when climbers first came to the area, more than 2,000 rock climbing routes have been pioneered on Red Rock Canyon's tall cliffs and sandstone domes. Recent surveys show that more than 100,000 climbers visit Red Rock Canyon each year, according to Jed Botsford, an outdoor recreation planner with the park.
Red Rock is an austere wilderness of arid plains and Joshua trees. Mountain peaks rise thousands of feet off the desert floor. Petroglyphs bake in the sun. Wild burros and desert tortoises track the park's coarse sand.
The strange geology of the region, including giant petrified sand dunes, strata thrusts and sedimentary capstone, make Red Rock Canyon a unique and varied climbing environment. Difficult single-pitch (one rope length) climbs flank roadside crags. The mountain faces, reached via wilderness hiking trails, are among North America's most unrelenting formations: Some cliffs reach above 914m, more than twice the height of the Empire State Building and nearly as sheer.
The route Wicks and her guide chose to climb, a line up the south face of 2,085m Rainbow Mountain, had 13 rope lengths, or pitches, of technical climbing. Its crux section, rated an intermediate grade of 5.9 (the 5 indicates the class of climb; the 9 is in the middle range on a 1-to-15 difficulty scale), requires subtle balance, long reaches and precise footwork on a slab of polished sandstone. "I'm expecting an epic," Wicks had said while lacing her purple climbing shoes at the base of the mountain buttress.
After climbing 48.7m, on the top of the first pitch of the day, Wicks squeezed onto the ledge with her guide, Roxanna Brock, a 39-year-old climber who works for Mountain Skills Rock Climbing Adventures, one of four companies licensed to guide in the park. Carabiners snapped shut as Brock clipped her client into a system of safety lines.
"I'm freezing -- I gotta' get climbing," said Brock, who was working to manage the rope coiled at her feet.
Draped with nylon slings, her harness gear loops stocked with carabiners, cord and protection anchors, Brock began climbing the next section. Their roles leapfrogged: Wicks now belayed the guide as she prepared to ascend an exposed arete.