About 12 years ago I sat below the wall of The Gallery, one of the most popular cliffs at Red Rock Canyon. I was maxing out at 5.11 and trying to work up the guts to try to lead Yak Crack, 5.11c.
But while I was waiting to climb, I watched this small-framed, ripped, twenty-something rock jock making links on Sissy Traverse, at the time a 13b and one of the hardest sport climbs in Red Rock.
He was wearing pink Levi jean cutoff shorts and no shirt, revealing his India-inspired elephant tattoos mirrored on both of his bulging lats.
He lowered down after his burn, joining the “Peanut Gallery” spectating along with me.
Brian Merrill, who still lives and climbs today in Las Vegas, pulled out a Ziplock bag filled with olive oil. He was apparently on an elimination diet of some sort in order to help him send this route.
To this day, the memory is so vivid- Brian sitting on the sandstone, his second-hand cutoff shorts hanging off his hip bones, slurping oil out of a bag, hands flapping as he rehearsed the moves from below, looking up at his route.
Some may have called Brian crazy or eccentric, but I somehow loved what this obsessive, quirky man represented. He was passionate and fully committed to his world of climbing.
And that’s when I knew I wanted to be a part of this weird little world, too.
“Let us cultivate our garden.” -Candide, Voltaire.
My mom was sick with cancer and my brother and I were taking a World Literature class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. We were reading Candide, by Voltaire, a satirical tale from the mid 1700s. The take-away message was that living a peaceful life, minding one’s own business and “cultivating their own garden” trumps a life filled with violence and the raiding of kings, even if the “simple” life seems less worthy from an outside perspective.
I’m sure the fact I was dealing with my mother’s imminent death had something to do with how meaningful Voltaire’s message was to me at the time, but this idea of living a simple life has resonated with me to this day.
Watching Brian working so hard on this climb, I wished my world back then hadn’t felt like such a complicated place. I wanted to become lost and engrossed and be passionate- just like this climber. To pursue a goal, be outside, and breathe in the desert air- this seemed like the way for me to cultivate some sort of happiness in a life that at the time seemed so sad and overwhelming.
In 2003 I was in college in Fort Collins, Colorado. At the time, my boyfriend and I were climbing in Red Rock for a few days over winter break. My mom had just died, I was in a new town, working and going to school to try to become a veterinarian. Returning back to Las Vegas, I felt completely uprooted, nothing was the same without my mom. And I couldn’t ignore the pressure that I should have been studying, volunteering, or working. But climbing time was always my favorite time- my guilty pleasure, my escape.
I was able to climb Yak Crack after a few efforts, and thought it would be cool to one day master something like Brian had with climbing- live life devoted to a passion.
And so today, when people ask me if I get bored climbing, or what do I do with all my spare time– I enjoy the simple things. My happiest days are those where I wake up, eat breakfast, climb with friends, make dinner, read, and repeat. And it’s a luxury to have time to think and enjoy the comfort and simplicity in things like cooking and cleaning- the things that some might think mundane can feel meditative.
Over the past month in Las Vegas, most of our days have been simple ones, waking up to coffee and breakfast then heading off to The Gallery, now 12 years later, to try the infamous Sissy Traverse, the route I watched Brian working on so many years ago. It seems so crazy to think back all those years- how much has changed and the climb is still there waiting for us- well, more or less.
Sandstone is very brittle rock, and today there are fewer holds on the wall. Our friend James Webb even has one of the jugs he broke off- one of the few rest holds- on his fireplace mantle, saving it to possibly glue back on one day in order to preserve the climb.
Since Chris and I have been working on the route (just over a month’s time) we’ve noticed a broken handhold and foothold. And so when Don Welsh got the first ascent and rated this climb 13b in 1991 I can only imagine what a different climb it was. It’s certainly much harder now.
The Sissy Traverse starts on Yak Crack and traverses the whole wall of the Gallery, ending on the burly finish of Nothing Shocking. Because there is no longer a jug on Where The Down Boys Go, there is a section of the climb with 15 hard crimp moves in a row without a rest. Chris and I wanted a route that would be warm enough to work on in the winter and would be a power endurance type trainer- it has proven to give us the challenges we were hoping for and more.
Given the Gallery is one of the most popular climbing areas in Red Rock, another challenge was it would seem difficult to work out the moves on this route. It’s not exactly Kosher to announce to the other climbers, “Excuse me but I’d like to try my route now, so sorry but y’all are going to have to wait while I take up the entire wall.”
Amazingly, it really wasn’t much trouble, even in the busiest times, as the most popular routes being The Gift and Yak Crack, which we were able to work in without anyone waiting much at all.
Yet another challenge with this route was the degree of sustained crimping it involved. For the first time in my life, I felt like my fingers were all tweaking at once. I was in so much pain one day after climbing on the route that even barely pressing on my knuckles was excruciating.
I needed to start taking care of my fingers for the first time in my climbing career. I did some research online and started doing opposition exercises, like extensions with a rubber band, icing, supporting with tape while climbing, stretching, and compression wraps while at home.
Amazingly, after doing this consistently for about a week, my fingers became much healthier and I was even able to keep from taping them while climbing on the route thereafter.
And with healthy fingers and just a little less pump yesterday, I was finally able to redpoint Sissy Traverse. And after 40-plus attempts, looking up at the route I couldn’t help but feel a bit like that quirky, obsessed climber I’d seen so many years ago, sitting on those same red rocks, just cultivating my garden.