The best thing about America is that it gives you space. I like that. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
As a traveling modern vagabond in my postcollegiate years, I would always end up in Las Vegas. I was lured there by the climbing in Red Rocks, and inevitably my comrades and I would end up partying in Sin City. Thus, “Twenty-Four Hours of Vegas” was born.
by Luke Mehall, publisher of The Zine. This piece is an excerpt from his most recent book,Graduating From College Me, A Dirtbag Climber Grows Up.
Inspired by a liberal arts education, coupled with the belief that I could live out of a tent and always be happy, I was a dreamer. I dreamed of the open road. I dreamed of climbing forever. I dreamed I’d find myself out there somewhere in America.
Sometimes, as a solo road dogg (that’s right d-o-g-g), I would arrive in Las Vegas alone, and alone is the best word to describe that feeling. I had a penchant for gambling, and I would park my car and then walk to find the cheapest casino. I’d have a couple drinks, walk alone down the Vegas strip, and after miles of walking, find the cheap, sad casino at the end of the line, where dreams go to die. Now, why I never started right there at the sad, cheap end, I’m not quite sure. Las Vegas is full of illusions—maybe I thought I’d gamble a little where the people with money did and win big.
Of all the times in my five years wandering from climbing area to climbing area, with the hopes of finding myself, or simply finding something, these were the moments I felt the saddest and loneliest. I don’t think I was necessarily sad about my own life but sad about the human condition there. Especially the old folks, those who smoked cigarettes and played slot machines. There were too many to count, and to peer into their empty souls, when I was in these days of hopefulness and openness that life could be beautiful, was simply too much to take.
But I looked—I looked at Vegas and took it all in, similarly to when I was out in nature, studying a climbing area, and drinking in the vastness of the wild. I studied Vegas too much, like looking into the sun too long. I’d been warned. I’d read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and knew enough that Vegas was where the American Dream went to die. I knew the town was started by mobsters. I knew that, environmentally, this place was on borrowed time; a place that consumed so much water, energy, and resources was out of place in this desert. But, I was there, and I would drink it all in.
I was a college student in the George W. Bush 9/11 days, a fact that shaped me more than I probably realize, even nearly fifteen years after the event. In college, I was upset about the war, upset about the conditions of the environment, and upset that the world was an unjust place. Some people go to college and figure out what they want to do for a career. After graduating from a liberal arts college in the middle of the mountains in Colorado, I only knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was to be a part of the sheepish American mainstream.
So, this was where I was. Of course, I was full of contradictions, and though I was a college graduate, I was a freshman in life. I made my living by washing dishes and living in my truck. When the work dried up in the seasonal mountain town, I drove said truck across the United States and Mexico and slept in the back. I was going to be a writer, but I’d yet to truly write much. I was searching.
Red Rocks was one of my favorite climbing areas. It was a featured, forgiving array of pink, red, and maroon sandstone, juxtaposed with the sprawling Vegas landscape. When you awoke just before the sun prior to a big multipitch climb, you won at life—you won because there were so many others losing, still awake from the night before, partying, searching to feel, perhaps sinning so much they would hardly ever recover from such transgressions. I didn’t know much at this time, but I knew it felt good to do good. And, climbing all day, that was good.
Of course, I liked to party too. I was young. I’d ruined more than one climbing trip to Vegas by celebrating before I had anything to celebrate. A hangover leading up to its name—the partying hung over my head as I sweated in the hot desert sun, my simple sinning dripping over, spilling onto a cactus, and I stumbled through the desert, begging my climbing partner to retreat from our planned mission.
And, this was why we came up with Twenty-Four Hours of Vegas. We would climb a big two-thousand-foot route, Epinephrine, by getting up early, and then stay awake through the night until we’d been awake for twenty-four hours straight. Plenty of outdoor events were centered on the theme of exercising for twenty-four hours; we’d just throw in a little partying for good measure.
We awoke in the dark and quietly exited the industrial BLM campground, an ugly area set on the edge of this beautiful red rock world. Soon enough, the sky was pink, a sunrise that felt a little man made, the light pollution and smog mixing with the beauty of Mother Nature’s sunrise. And, we headed into the canyon.
We are the climbers of a new age, the age when climbing exploded in popularity. My generation knows no difference; we don’t know the era when climbing was an underground culture, before there were climbing gyms in every city and bolts on every crag. We do know a simple rule: you have to get up before they do. We needed to be the first people on the climb.
We were also a party of four. We needed the space and time to move fluidly together up the two thousand feet of stone. After thirty minutes of hiking up a drainage into Black Velvet Canyon, we arrived at the base of Epinephrine, relieved to be the first ones racking up for the climb.
Years ago, we’d been snaked by another party at the beginning of the climb; we were racking up at the base, and they scrambled up forty feet above us to the right and snuck up into the route, forcing us to wait until they got higher. They only got a hundred feet up and then decided to bail, to rappel. By the time all this ensued, we lost our interest in going up; they’d killed the vibe with their unsportsmanlike manners.
But, as the sun came up this day, creating a pink sky, we looked above to a massive chimney system and knew we had our chance. There was no one was above us, and we were the only ones at the base of the climb. It was ours for the moment.
We climbed in two parties of two—myself and Mark, and Tim and Tim. The nervousness of a rushed morning turned into solid, efficient movement up the chimney system. It was featured and forgiving, and we set a good pace to be successful on what would be one of the longest climbs I’d ever done.
I could bullshit and embellish, but I don’t actually remember the vivid details of the climbing that day. My mind’s eye can recall the chimney, and that once it was over, there was a nice ledge with maybe eight to nine hundred more feet of climbing, moderate featured climbing that seemed to go on forever.
Reflection makes me think of another climber, a man they called The Gambler, John Rosholt. He went to college in Gunnison, where we all did, but dropped out to pursue climbing. Heard that story before. What made The Gambler unique was that he was a professional poker player, and full-time climber. And, when we did this climb around 2007, he’d been missing for a couple years. Years later, in 2010, the mystery would come to an end when a team of climbers found a body part of his on the wall, the very same wall in Black Velvet Canyon that we were climbing on. The general conclusion was that he was hiking around and scoping a new finish for his route, Texas Hold ’Em, located near Epinephrine, and fell to his death.
His sister, Jane, searched for him for years; given that he was a professional gambler, many theories existed on his whereabouts. His sister was relieved when DNA tests revealed that the remains were his. I had the chance to speak to Jane a couple times on the phone, while we brainstormed ideas for a story that never took shape. She wasn’t a climber at all, but she loved her brother, and she cherished the legendary stories about him and all his adventures and new routes. Even though the story never came to fruition, to listen to her talk about her brother put so many things into perspective. As climbers, danger and risk become routine; it’s good to be reminded that our lives are on the line, and we risk it all for this thing we love.
Epinephrine gave me a dose of what I love the most about climbing, being way high off the deck with a thousand feet or more of air below your body. Such exposure puts you deeply into the moment. And those moments are gone once you reach the belay and stop. Gone forever. Sometimes makes you wish you didn’t have to stop and belay. But on the end of the rope is your buddy, and it’s nice to share those moments.
All four of us made it to the top just as the sun was going to bed. We didn’t dream of rest and sleep at that point—we dreamed of more; Twenty-Four Hours of Vegas was happening! The hike down was a little complicated, a series of having to make the right decision about where to go. Fortunately, Tim and Tim had climbed Frogland, a route just adjacent to Epinephrine and had scoped out the descent. We stumbled for a while, maybe an hour and a half, until we were back in the canyon. The light of the Luxor blazed into the sky, seemingly showing us where the next step of the night was. We emerged out of the wash, back at the truck.
And then we drove into Vegas. We ate some fast food, just as the place was closing down for the night. We dreamed of partying, gambling, and karaoke. Tim was a karaoke king and could rock the house with some AC/DC or Vanilla Ice.
Somehow it didn’t occur to us that it was Sunday, and by the time we got downtown, it was midnight. We wandered the strip and put money in slot machines and did the things people do in Vegas. We drank beer openly, as you can there, and made jokes and screamed, Twenty-Four hours of Vegas.
We kept wandering and wandering, and I found a karaoke place where I once performed the MC Hammer dance in front of a hundred people. I’d told Tim about this, and he was superpsyched to check the place out. But, once we found the joint, it was closing for the night. We looked in like we’d missed something. The time for fun on the weekend had passed. But we had to make our twenty-four-hour mark so we wandered some more. We got on a shuttle train and rode it back and forth several times, all of us falling asleep at one time or another. Finally, four in the morning rolled around, and we called it a day. The most sober of us drove back out to the Red Rocks campground.
It could have been just another Vegas trip, where people take their sinning to a certain level that they are comfortable with, or go beyond it and regret it. In those days, my heart was hungry, and my soul was yearning. I believed in doing good, and probably more importantly, doing what feels good and will still make you feel good the next day. Climbing was exactly that, and the part that made me feel the best in those twenty-four hours was the climbing. Sometimes, I try to imagine
dealing with my hunger and my angst without climbing, and I simply can’t do it. Places like Vegas would have swallowed me and spit out a weak man.
I haven’t been to Vegas in some time now. Inevitably, it seems to be a central place in the West for a climber; it’s easy to end up there. These days, with all the water issues, I often wonder if we’ll see the demise of Sin City. I always did think Red Rocks would be much more appealing without Vegas right next to it. Who knows though, if the city did collapse, surely some seedy characters would still persist in the remains. We humans sure are resilient, for better or worse.
Like the famous statement by René Daumal in Mount Analogue about the climber always having to leave the summit, yet he still knows the glory about the heights above him because he has been there—the same applies for Vegas. Alone, I felt the sadness of this island of sinning. I still know that desperation, the sadness of someone nearing the end of their life, alone, looking into a slot machine for some sort of salvation, or maybe just looking into that, cigarette lit, because they gave up long ago. You can’t dwell too long on the sadness of things you had nothing to do with creating though; this world’s full of too much of it.
So, I cling to the joy, those moments with friends, like that day on Epinephrine, feeling like we won at life because we could experience such freedom in a free experience. Because in one twenty-fourhour time period, I stood thousands of feet above Vegas and realized that high up on a perch is the best place to be, where wonder and amazement dominate. And later in that day, I also experienced the doldrums of America, that one telling you all America’s gimmickry will make you happy. Knowing too, the answer to happiness in America is not so simple, and it lies somewhere in between the ether, the mountains, and civilization.
Graduating From College Me (on Amazon)
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine, and author of Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.