On the road again – I spent the summer hitch-hiking and rock-climbing across the United States. My goal was to have no plans, and no plans to plan, where I would go. All I wanted to do was to climb as much as possible and to follow the recommendations of climbers (also known as “beta”) that I would hopefully meet along the way. In the end I travelled 1250 miles (2000 km) by thumb, visited 9 national parks and had the time of my rock-climbing life.
What a better place to start such an adventure than in Colorado’s climbing capital ?! The Boulder area offers all the terrain a keen climber can ask for: airy trad-climbing in Eldorado Springs, pumpy sport-climbing routes in Boulder Canyon and free-soloing on the Flatirons. This is what I’ve expected from reading climbing magazines and talking to the locals, but as August is midsummer, Boulder’s avid climbing community escapes the heat and moves North to higher elevated crags. So after a fun session at the local gym (The SPOT) with two like-minded climbing scientists (Ali “the Clamps” and Jan “the Gecko”), I sticked the thumb in the air and was on my way. Wyoming was calling, and I must go.
Fort Collins, CO:
I came through Fort Collins and contacted an old friend from New Zealand, Shawn “the Snapshot” for a surprise visit. He put me in contact with the local climbing community living at the “Teahouse”. After a very warm welcome my new friends introduced me to the Colorado way of life: (1) Rocky Mountain Bagels for breakfast, (2) the American grading system for rock-climbing routes, (3) country music (Carolina Chocolate Drops and Dave Rawlings Machine) and (4) the correct fly-fishing knots for days off climbing (I had a lot to learn, thanks Tatum). I teamed up with Austin “the Handjam” for a rock-climbing trip over an extended weekend. Equipped with a lot of spirit for adventure, two cans of baked beans and plenty of chalk we headed to “the Voo”.
As this beautiful rocky outcrop (Sherman Granite) offers a lifetime of crack-climbing it was the ideal place for me to grow from a tight-pants sports climber to a taped-up trad climber. We started with the prominent line up the main face, Edward’s crack (5.7). A bouldery start lead to enjoyable handjamming towards a small roof. Here, an unexpected jug defused the crux as I was squashed in the crack and scratched the bare knees along the sharp feldspar and quartz crystals. We ventured to another classic line – Friday the 13th (5.10a/b), where several off-finger jams draw on your stamina until the crack widens to hands and even further up to fist jams. A crowd of other climbers ensured a great atmosphere for this route. We then came across probably the most classic boulder problem at Vedauwoo, Cupcake (5.10b) , where handjams meet heel-hooks along a right leaning crack. We continued with Hairlip (5.9+), another right leaning crack rich in variety. Here, a sporty start leads to solid hand-jams and finger-locks along the way until your entire body is squeezed in the crack. After a can of baked beans and a stunning night enjoying the stars, we jumped on the 5.11 Crack (5.9+) – the centre crack on the Fall Wall. Slaby moves that are just facilitated by thin holds in the crack, which are also your best shot at protection. The large boulder that sits in the middle of the base seemed to be made for the two of us to sit out a short rain shower. We then searched the route Strawberry Jam (5.8) that was highly recommended. This crack is well hidden between the rocks but worth spending a couple of hours scrambling around to find it – a beautiful handcrack that turns into an offwidth trough with a slaby finish. Long pants very much advised ! We returned to the Teahouse where cards and guitars were played, stories told and new friends were made – thanks Austin for an awesome trip and Ali, Ryan and the rest of the crew for their kind hospitality.
Roadtrip, CO and Utah:
The next morning, I was picked up by Gemma “the real Irish” to meet with Madi “Mad-dog the Madinator” for a couple of days road tripping around beautiful Southern Colorado. While looking for our first campsite, we ended up at the access road to Mt. Evans (14,271 ft or 4350 m) just outside Denver. So we spontaneously decided to go for a little morning walk – which quickly turned into a proper hike with absolutely gorgeous views towards the Rocky Mountain National Park. Struggling with the altitude, we were glad to hitch a ride down on one of the many cars returning from the summit area. We continued our road trip through the sporty town of Leadville and spent the night in the wild Gunnison National Forest. Here we toasted marshmallows to perfection while we mummed John Denver songs… after a chilly night in the tent, we headed over to the little town of Crawford and visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. These overwhelming vertical cliffs of Precambrian rock have been sculpted over the past two million years by the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering and erosion (thanks to Bob “chief of the camping ground” for the detailed explanation – funny guy; he said the park is not worth visiting, guess he wanted to keep the views for himself). Infected by the “landscape-virus” we quickly drove to Grand Junction and visited the Colorado National Monument. These red sandstone monoliths within a vast plateau and canyon panorama were a first sign of the nearby desert land – it was therefore quite easy to convince “Irish” and “Mad-dog” to go further west into Utah. With over 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius) blazing heat, we explored the unique sandstone formations in Arches National Park. This was absolutely the place to be ! Just after the park entrance we passed the remnants of ancient sand dunes “Petrified Dunes”, then a large rock balancing on top of a monolith “Balanced Rock” and continued to the “Towers of babel” and “The Three Gosspis”. The highlight of our visit was a hike up to “Delicate Arch – the iconic symbol of Utah” and seeing the Ute Petroglyphs on the way down. These Native-American images were carved sometime between 1650 and 1850 and show stylized horses and rider surrounded by bighorn sheep and dog-like animals. We spent the night camping at the shore of the adjacent Colorado river, where a clear view of shooting-stars completed a perfect day in the desert. We woke up early in the morning and watched the first rays of the sun restore the red colours to shapes that at dawn were grey already. Enraptured, the desert had cast its spell all over us to lure us into the Canyonlands National Park. Here, the two rivers (Green and Colorado) have carved two large canyons into the plateau until they flow together through Cataract Canyon. Their tributaries, however, have formed countless canyons and mesas in the colourful landscape giving Canyonlands its name. Finding the Confluence was one goal of the adventurous Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869: ten men were on this first thorough cartographic and scientific investigation – only six completed the entire journey, one pulled out at a resupply and three others hiked out of the canyon and were never seen again. The Green river can be seen from the Island in the Sky – what a unique desert atmosphere ! We returned to the Colorado river, where it was hard to say goodbye to such happy travel buddies, but everyone left in high spirits and looking forward to next time when we all meet up again for more “outdoor shenanigans”.
I was on the way back to town, as a car stops and a kind woman asks me if I would like to have peaches for breakfast. Refuelled with a stomach full of fresh fruit, I walked into the first café to start my search for local climbers. I quickly noticed a guy with his hands covered in scratches, who must be climber – Evan “Smiley”. It didn’t take long and we were on the way to climb at the Theatre and the Cinema crag. With only a quick hike off the road, there were climbs of varying levels and styles and Evan was a great guide showing me around. Afterwards, he dropped me off at the Lazy Lizzard Hostel (“Cheap but worth it”). Here I met Chris “Multisport”, who was also in the Moab area for a couple of days and looking for people to team up with. Early in the next morning, we drove East towards the rising sun and quickly rappelled into a narrow slot canyon. Here, the steep sandstone walls gave “Medieval Chamber” its name. Stoked to be in such a unique setting, it was hard for us to leave this canyon behind, but Chris had a surprise waiting for me… the exit of the slotcanyon was on top of the Morning Glory Arch – a second free-hanging rappel was our only way down ! The abseil off the top was completely overwhelming and just the beginning of our upcoming three day long outdoor marathon. We hiked back out through a landscape, more a playground than a desert, which was just made for us to interact with. Bouldering, river-crossing, scrambling and even an exciting free solo climb out of the Negro Bill Canyon had to be done to finish our loop. Afterwards we beat the heat by jumping from a 10 ft (3m) cliff into a refreshing swimming hole – what a relief from the baking sun. As temperatures cooled down towards the evening, we went to one of Moab’s famous crack-climbing areas, “the Wall-Street”. Here, Wingate sandstone walls are lined up along the roadside with more than a hundred climbs in too small an area to keep track of the routes we climbed that evening. The following day, we drove up into the mountains south of Moab to get some more canyoneering done (as the sun was baking hot already). We repelled down into the Pleiades canyon with its extraordinary beauty and charm. Seven waterfalls, dancing water fountains in a gorgeous orange lighting and the energetic Chris as my adventure buddy – good times ! We left this canyon behind and continued up to the La Sals range, where Zen “Climbing is my art” gave us a tour around Mill Creek. The good face climbing on compact quartzite was a more than welcome respite from the relentless splitter cracks from the days before. We finished the day in true Utah style with a “Tequila Sunset”… Another day, another adventure – it was the time for climbing the Looking Glass arch South of Moab, a beautiful sandstone formation with a huge amphitheatre and a rope swing (watch out for rattle snakes at the start of the climb). Its 3 pitches of 5.5 to the top after enjoying the view we rappeled down this insanely gorgeous rock while installing the rope swing! We set this up to put a little cherry on top of our adventure marathon – Thanks Chris !
Hoping for the best, I left Moab to visit Indian Creek northwest of Monticello. However, I found only one climber without gear in the whole area ! After some easy free-soloing and exploring the place, I sticked my thumb again in the air – and here begins the story of an unforeseeable journey through southern Utah. I was picked up by a woman who claimed to be Jesus’ wife and that the Grand Canyon was actually formed by the hull of Noah’s ark… quite an entertaining 4h ride ! She dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, where I was lucky enough to be picked up by an awesome Colorado couple before I ran out of water in the blazing heat. Kc had just retuned from a trip to New Zealand and Eric was an experienced hiker with some great advice for my upcoming adventures in the Sierra Nevada. We had a fun ride while listening to the music of the Doobie Brothers and having lunch at the world-famous “Whoremade pie shop”. They were on their way to the Narrows in Zion National Park and kindly took me all the way to the visitor centre at the Southern park entrance. My friends at the teahouse had recommended a place called “Namaste Wall”, unfortunately the ranger said this would be at the Northern side of the National Park – and left me with the choice between leaving the park immediately or hiking a couple of days across it (what would you do?). I got my back-country permit, approximately twenty Cliff bars from the gift shop and said goodbye to my new friends. There were 3 days of hiking between me and the crag, I should better hit the trail !
Zion National Park, Utah:
The Zion Canyon is 15 miles (or 24km) long and up to half a mile (or 800m) deep, cut into the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone. I started hiking at the Grotto Picnic Area as the sun was already setting and nightfall finally forced me to bivy up on the top of Angel’s Landing (what a pity !). After another unforgettable night under the shooting stars, I had to move on as my water supply was already running low and the next spring was half a day’s march away. I walked along the West Rim Trail which traverses across the high alpine elevation with sweeping views and reached Wildcat canyon via Lava Point in the evening. After a short night in my “mobile home Hubba” I reached the road where two park rangers stopped and shared their Gatorade and trail-mix with me. However, they didn’t want to give me a ride in their federal vehicle, so I gave them a sweaty hug and was off in the woods again. I continued along the trail to Kolob canyon, where I spent another beautiful night with Cliff bar supplies running short. Namaste wall is quite an isolated place and far from the crowds, so the nature is more pristine. What a privilege this was to walk barefoot on white sand, through a light-green paradise sheltered by orange sandstone walls. There was a lot of peace in the air, but only two climbers who were packing their gear already for their way back. I quickly made friends with them and John “Belay for a Hooray” gave me a catch on two routes (Thanks man). I stayed at this beautiful place for another night and had to leave the next day because I had eaten all my food and nobody else showed up – Namaste I will be back !
Interstate 15 and Las Vegas, Nevada:
I easily hitched a couple of rides out of Zion, but got stuck in St. George. Hundreds of cars must have passed me while I was waiting in the searing heat of the day. As a pastime I mimed the passing trucks to sound their horn – until one of them finally stopped and a cheerful Mexican welcomed me on board. He was listening to Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan chan” and laughed out loud when I started singing along in broken Spanish. I was his first hitch hiker and Joel was thrilled by my happy-go-lucky attitude and stories from the road. “Why do you travel by thumb Senior Salvaje ?”, he asked, “Haha, because you never know what will happen next and that’s the ultimate adventure”, I replied. He immediately jumped off his seat and invited me to drive his truck (while we were still driving on the high-way). I quickly sat down on the driver’s seat and took the wheel, while Joel operated the controls from the side. What a surprise ! It was an absolutely fantastic experience and I kept driving his truck until we reached a fuel station just outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Here, truck drivers can get free showers and as I was one of them now, I went to the register and pointed to my parking truck and the waving Joel outside at the fuel pump. The cashier handed me a fresh towel while I was trying hard not to smile. After my highly overdue shower, we arrived in Las Vegas and Joel dropped me off near the famous Las Vegas Strip. As a farewell present, he gave me a bag filled with more oranges than I could possibly carry – so I distributed them among the many homeless people around. A very sad situation : flashing Casino lights and all-you-can-eat restaurants on the one side of the road and homeless guys sitting on cardboard on the other side. I stayed at the “Hostel Cat” for a few days where I had a fun time with many people from all around the world, but I was here for climbing !
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Red Rocks is located about 15 miles (24 km) west of Las Vegas and a popular rock-climbing area – well known for its dramatic landscape of sandstone formations called the Keystone Thrust. Oxidation of the iron minerals in some of the rocks resulted in the red colours, further movement of the fault forced the older gray sedimentary rock over the younger red rocks, forming the varicoloured landscape that can be seen in the mountain today. I climbed with Rebekka “the Globe-climber” who I met on the travelling rock climber’s facebook group. She had been “globe-climbing” for over a year already and had some great stories to tell from exotic places like Japan and Thailand (guess I need to go there too now…) However, it was still early season and we were the only climbers staying at the Red Rock camp ground. We started climbing at the first pull-out of the 13 miles (21 km) long loop road in the National Conservation Area and moved on to the second pull-out as the sun hit the wall. We were pretty good at finding shady canyons and especially a crag called “Black Corridor” seemed to develop its own micro-climate. A climb called “Vagabonds (5.10a)” was very enjoyable, with sustained pulling on good holds. Also, “Foe (5.11a)” was great climbing with a scoop over a bulge leading to a small mantle at the top. Red Rocks also offers exciting multi-pitch climbing, so we continued to the third pull-out to get our hands on the reddish layer of rock that goes all across the wall – thanks for the good vibes Rebekka, and especially for the M&M surprise at the top anchor !
Death Valley, California
I left Las Vegas early in the evening and managed to hitch-hike via Pahrump all the way to Death Valley Junction. Two days were left until I would meet my parents in Lone Pine, California. I thought that two days were plenty of time to get there, but there was still Death Valley to cross… I woke up way before sunrise, as it was baking hot in my tent already. No traffic was going towards the park entrance, except two super-fit Brazilian guys on their bicycles. They had been riding for 2! years already from their home town and were on the way to Alaska. We laughed a lot and even started dancing Samba on the road, while singing “Olodum’s Requebra” – a song that every Brazilian seems to love… They topped up my water bottles and wished me good luck (“Alles gut, alles blau, cara”) to reach Lone Pine in time to meet my parents. It didn’t take very long and I was picked up by Dimitri “nice shades” who showed me the Death Valley sand dunes at the heart of the National Park. Here, the sand from eroded canyons and washes has been trapped by the mountains on all sides. Some of the sand dunes are relatively stationary because they formed at a point where various winds converge, others are relentlessly moving through the flats and give the desert its unique shape. Death Valley’s Furnace Creek still holds the record for the highest recorded air temperature in the world, 134 °F (56.7 °C) on July 10, 1913. Its hard to describe the smell of this gigantic sand box, but its best described as “very very dry driftwood”. Dimitri stayed for a little while longer at the sand dunes, and I hitched a ride with a group of six Slovakians who took me along on an epic off-road adventure through Death Valley’s back country (“Go mental, it’s a rental”). We drove along a dry river bed and discovered an abandoned mine, where we explored the items left behind by the miners about one hundred years ago. The seven of us spend the rest of the day driving through the extensive landscape and arrived in Lone Pine at 5pm sharp.
Lone Pine, California – Good Karma
I was just hugging my Slovakian friends and declined their very tempting offer to continue travelling all together, as I heard my father’s signature whistle… I looked across the road and saw my parents arriving in Lone Pine at exactly the same time as me ! What a coincidence !!
- Hitch-hiking is a great way to travel ! There wasn’t even a single ride that I regret to have taken and I am still overwhelmed when I think about the kindness and generosity of the fellow human beings that I met along the way. Those who give the most are the ones with the least to spare.
- Rock-climbing in the USA is absolutely inspiring and has the power to unite people from different backgrounds, classes, ages and countries in a way that little else does.
Stay tuned for what my parents and I have been up to next… all I can reveal is that: “Wild by name, wild by nature”