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We're Here With the Gear

or: Real Life with Doctor Kodos

by Larry DeAngelo

So, it's mid-September and I actually hook up with Doctor Kodos (aka Richard) for our first climb together. Mid-September is still pretty warm, so we make a plan to head for the shady side of First Creek at Las Vegas's Red Rock. Our intention is to visit a small cliff near the mouth of the canyon. There are two routes on it. I have already done Lucky Nuts and found it to be a challenging offwidth and hand crack. My partner that day lost his taste for old-school crack climbing, so I have not yet done the other route. Mudterm is a thin crack just a few feet to the right of Lucky Nuts, and gets high praise in both Joanne Urioste's and Todd Swain's guidebooks. The plan is simple: one route each.

Richard and I meet at the First Creek trailhead. There is a minor snag. His main climbing pack is in the trunk of his other car, and it is in the shop. The only gear he has is the stuff he normally never takes, such as a few giant cams. No problem-- I've got enough to get by, so we start hiking. Since we are in the sun and the temperature is a hundred or so, the walk is not insignificant.

cliff overview

The Mudterm cliff in Red Rock's First Creek canyon.

We get to do a little talking. I have a vague idea of his personality from reading his online posts, so I am somewhat prepared for his contrarian proclivities. No matter what position you take, he is willing to argue the opposite. This is not because he is some kind of jerk. He is more like the archetypical Zen master who brings enlightenment to his pupils by challenging their belief system. I suppose this might cause consternation for those who have not thoroughly thought through their positions. Woe betide the climber who casually states that a Gri-Gri is superior to an ATC, or vice versa. Kodos will smell the blood and confront you with seven good reasons why a hip belay is better than both. As it happens, I have been a hip belayer for over thirty years, so I am ready when he confronts me with its shortcomings.

Interesting conversation makes the hot hike easier, but by the time we dump our packs at the base of the route, we feel like we've had some exercise. I take the lead on Mudterm, an old Joe Herbst 5.9 that seems almost an anticlimax following the rigors of the approach discussion. Richard does not enjoy the route. He had been hoping for some relaxed climbing on solid varnished rock, some good "getting-to-know-you" climbing where two climbers could learn a little about each other. Much of Mudterm is on soft white sandstone that provides an increment of stress beyond that hinted at by the rating. The spirit of the outing is not agreeing with his expectations and he has lost interest in climbing Lucky Nuts. The psychology is not right and he is ready to call it a day.

Things don't seem right to me, either. We hauled all this hardware all the way up here in the heat. It seems like we should do something. I tell him I have an idea. On the right side of our cliff there is a clean dihedral with a beautiful offwidth crack. I had noticed it on my previous visit and had considered it unprotectable. But today, of course, we have Richard's giant cams. For some reason, he seems to think I am crazy. This must be a first: Kodos thinks someone else is crazy! But logic does have a place in his convoluted mind. He has no interest in coming back to this piece of rock, let alone hauling up the heavy hardware. Now, we are here with the gear. Inasmuch as offwidth cracks have almost no overlap with his expectations of gracefully gliding up some elegant face route, he stipulates that the sharp end belongs to me.

I arm myself with his big cams and start up. At first the crack is wide enough to chimney, so the going is easy. When things narrow down a bit, I place the Number 5 Camalot. Now the climbing is very strenuous. I work my way higher and push the cam up the narrowing slot. Exhaustion overtakes me and I slither down the crack for a rest. I make a plan. The Number 5 cam is now as high as it can go. I will try to get a little higher, place the 4.5 and then go for it. Unfortunately, when I try to put the plan into action, my fatigued hands fumble the cam and it drops into the back of the chimney fifty feet below. Richard is losing patience. I slither back to my semi-rest spot, confess my exhaustion, and offer him the lead. He bursts with anger. The gist of his answer is, "No way!" His colorful phrasing, however, expanded it into a short paragraph composed primarily of expletives.

rest spot

At the "rest spot"

This is all so wrong! This partnership is not working. What ever happened to the "brotherhood of the rope?" The bonds of the team seem to have disintegrated and I am filled with dismay. The allure of the route is still strong even though the psychology of the day has been blown to hell. Even without the 4.5 cam, I resolve to give the crack one do-or-die try. Climbing above the Number 5, I can almost reach a fist jam when strength deserts me. I fall about ten feet or so and end up hanging from the cam. I am totally wasted, and can't even consider cleaning the cam and downclimbing, so the fuming Kodos belays me all the way down to the ground.

My failure on the route has completed the disastrous divorce of reality from Richard's expectations. He storms around the corner to cool off, but there is no escape: his hundred-dollar cam is firmly jammed near the top of the offwidth. Glowering, he returns. I try to apologize, I try to explain, but my words do not connect. He alternates between anger and despair, but there is no getting around it; his day has become a horror. My day has not quite lived up to my hopes either, but I have another idea.

"Go for it," I tell him. "I know you could do it. Save your strength to the high point, then jam in the 4.5 and crank for the top! There's even an edge if you've got the strength to use it!"

I don't think my salesmanship would have convinced him, but his Number 5 Camalot wouldn't be going home with him if he stayed on the ground. Reluctantly he ties in. He moves up and is soon at crux. He swears and shouts, the bitterness he felt at me now seemingly directed at the sandstone in front of him. In the midst of his raving, he somehow cranks the moves and is soon at the top. I knew it! I knew he could do it! Now all I have to do is follow.

Richard waves

Richard waves down from the top.

When I get up to the Number 5 Camalot, another problem surfaces. In my attempt to lead the crack, anxiety motivated me to push the cam too high in the narrowing crack, and now it won't come out. Additionally, the lactic acid overdose in my forearms has left me without even the strength to work the cam trigger. I don't have the heart to tell this to Richard. Instead, I take a spot of tension and get to work. It takes ten minutes of poking, pushing, pulling and twisting, but finally the cam comes free. Hanging that long in my swami belt was no picnic, but there was a side benefit: I recovered sufficient strength to reach the upper fist jam and pull myself to a rest spot just below the top.

A wave of emotion overtakes me. The contrast is overwhelming. Twenty minutes earlier we had been at the lowest of low ebbs. Now we are together at the top of the route and it was teamwork that got us here. I am absolutely blown away.

Epilogue: After the climb, I was not sure whether Richard had forgiven me or not. It was a couple of months until we climbed together again. I have warm feelings toward him and consider him a friend. If everyone on the Internet had half the regard for him that I have, his posts would probably not be nearly as much fun to read. I recounted the story to Red Rock pioneer Joe Herbst and wondered if he had done this route back in the 1970s. (It is far from certain that lack of protection would have stopped offwidth master Joe.) He had no particular recollection one way or the other, but felt that our proposed name, Critical Cams, kept with the flavor of the cliff and paid appropriate respect to the "Lucky Nuts" name given by the now departed Randal Grandstaff and Dave Anderson. Richard must have liked it too. Shortly thereafter he wrote up the route for the rockclimbing.com route database.

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