Epinephrine, Black Velvet Canyon 5.9
Avg time to climb route: 6-9 hours
Approach time: 45 minutes
Descent time: 1-2 hours
Number of pitches: 15
Height of route: 2000'
OverviewOne of the longest and best routes in Red Rocks, and certainly one of the best 5.9 routes in the world, Epinephrine is huge and forbidding. The ominous 600-foot-tall black chimney that forms the core of the route turns most away, especially since modern climbers often just don’t have the experience needed to safely climb hard chimneys. By Yosemite Valley standards, the 5.9 chimneys on Epinephrine are “soft”—but as anyone who has climbed 5.9 chimneys in the Valley knows, they were all put up when the world’s hardest routes were 5.9 and everyone climbed chimneys all the time. Slick, continuous, and serious, the chimneys on Epinephrine are not to be underestimated. Stretches with no protection can only be navigated with calm, collected movement upward, and the slippery rock can easily rattle nerves. That said, the climb is beautiful, fun climbing that can go surprisingly quickly, and it offers a wide variety of climbing, grand views, and one of the largest walls that climbers without superhuman skills can climb in a day.
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HistoryAlthough Epinephrine was not climbed until 1978, the story really starts five years earlier. In 1973, Joe Herbst studied the wall and pieced together a possible route. His line followed the major chimney system to the top of the tower, then veered left to the base of the prominent ramp system. The question mark was the blank wall between the tower and the crack systems above. Joe and Jeff Lansing climbed the chimneys to have a look. The steep face above had no cracks for protection. Joe bouldered a few moves to get the feel of it. The climbing seemed doable in the 5.7 or 5.8 range, but protection was nonexistent and a fall onto the top of the tower would be a bone crusher. They descended to think things over.
A bolt or two would solve the problem, of course, but that was not Joe’s way. As a strong believer in the Doug Robinson philosophy of clean climbing, Joe had climbed the entire beginning of the route hammerless. All the chimneys were done with no pitons or bolts (and, for that matter, without cams, which had not yet been invented). Joe was not about to dilute the experience by bolting the headwall. He returned to the route with Tom Kaufman on a cold day in late December. They carried one half-bag to share for the bivouac, and no pins or hammer. When they reached the top of the tower, Joe led through into unknown territory, the rope dangling uselessly from his swami belt. He reached the crack system and ledge above. It was late in the day, so they settled in to bivouac on the small ledge. The following morning they followed broken rock left and reached the base of the huge ramp. The difficulties eased, and soon they completed the first major wall in Red Rocks.
By 1978, there were some new kids in town. George and Joanne Urioste had already climbed some big routes at Red Rocks when they started looking at the Velvet Wall. Joe’s original route wandered a bit, and included the easy ramp. Maybe they could do a little better. Up and slightly right from the top of the tower was a clean, straight dihedral. With a little face-climbing to connect the crack systems, it would be the perfect finish for the wall. They added a face-climbing pitch off the ground to straighten out the bottom of the route, then climbed up the chimneys and headwall to Joe and Tom’s bivouac ledge.
At this point they needed to bear right to gain the upper dihedral. The holds were there, but protection wasn’t, so it was time to drill. With bolts for protection, they reached the dihedral. The high quality of the route was already apparent, and this precipitated a bit of a break with tradition. The prevailing ethics generally valued a highly adventurous, committed, sometimes unprotected, single push climb from ground to summit.
This could involve treading some fairly dangerous ground. George and Joanne felt that such an approach would doom a great climb to obscurity, since few would be willing to take the risks. On this route, good protection was going to mean bolts. Bolts were going to mean work. Work was going to mean lots of time on the wall. The decision was made to fix ropes and put in the “route-construction” work that was necessary to make it a safe and first-rate climb.
The use of these “expedition” tactics led to an immediate rift between the Uriostes and some of the local climbers. Despite the quality of the climbing, this approach was exactly the opposite of the highly adventurous approach used by Joe Herbst just a few years previously. As it happened, the Uriostes were at work in the upper dihedral when they spotted a hiker in the streambed far below. They recognized none other than Joe Herbst out scouting additional new lines. After a shouted conversation, they invited him to join them for the upper pitches. Since Joe scouted with jumars in his pack, he was as equipped as he needed to be. Quickly united with his friends, they finished the climb together.
Although the tactics used were none that Joe would ever embrace, he agreed with their appraisal of the route as a potential classic. His opinion was high enough that he even agreed to the placement of two additional protection bolts on the headwall and a few more in the chimneys (all of which George and Joanne had also led boltless) in order to make the route a little more accessible.
– Larry DeAngelo
StrategyLong and continuous, Epinephrine demands an early start, usually first light. Going quick and light is the key, and most parties make the committing decision to only bring one rope (double ropes are a good idea as long as you are comfortable with keeping them flaked on hanging belays). Since nearly every anchor is bolted, and since there is little in the way of routefinding, the climbing can go very quickly. As getting stuck behind another party can cause major epics in the timing of the climb, we strongly recommend choosing to do another route if there is someone ahead of you, unless they are clearly moving fast. Many excellent routes are just 5 minutes to the left on Black Velvet Wall, and your very early start will likely leave you the choice of any route.
Skipping the first 50 feet of 5.8 by a 5.4 solo to the right is common and reduces rope-drag on the runout 5.8 friction of the upper part of the first pitch. Once entering the harder chimney pitches, the first chimney is well-protected via a 3-inch-crack in the back, and although climbing at the outside of the chimney is far easier, few leaders dare the unprotected lead. The second 5.9 chimney pitch goes up next to a large flake, past an intermediate belay, and through a scary section with somewhat loose pro to get out of the chimney to a blocky dihedral on the left. The third hard chimney section is easier due to edges on the left wall, but it is very airy and committing climbing. Above the pedestal, most find the face and dihedral climbing much more straightforward, and only a smattering of ancient 1/4” bolts and a few short runouts are to be feared. The 5.9 roof on the tenth pitch is exciting, and huge jugs on the left are the key to the roof moves.
The chimneys are often colder than expected, and when a comfortable temperature, the upper half of the climb can be hot. Climbing chimneys with bulky clothes can be hard (on the clothes as well as you), and we recommend that you check out the temperature at the base of the climb in the early morning a day ahead of time, or ask around. However, for obvious reasons, climbing chimneys in shorts and a sport top can be hard on your skin, so a balance must be struck. The climb should never be attempted in stormy or uncertain weather.
For many stronger parties, the climb goes very fast, and a great end of the day bonus is to climb Frogland, which is only 5 minutes around left from near the bottom of the descent.
Since the parking lot of Black Velvet Canyon is not in the loop, most parties drive in very early and hike up. Bivying at the base of the wall is not advisable, since it would be a pain to return and get bivy gear.
RetreatRetreat from any pitch by rappelling with two ropes from bolts, except the pitch above the pedestal, where you can sling the tree. Most anchors have fixed rap rings. Rappelling is not advised above the Black Tower, since it is common for ropes to snag.
There are many places to bivy along the descent (and a few on the 4th class ramp up top), and of course headlamps and a lighter are always a good idea on any long route.
ApproachBlack Velvet Canyon is at the southern end of the escarpment and thus the approach road is not off the gated Loop Road, so you can start in the middle of the night if desired. The approach trail is straightforward until almost at Black Velvet Wall and takes about 45 minutes. Just before the wall, climb a 100-foot 4th class cliff to the left of the wash bottom. It is steep and some may want a toprope from an experienced leader.
The routes along the main wall all start from a huge brushy slope/ledge system. Prince of Darkness, Dream of Wild Turkeys, Yellow Brick Road and The Gobbler start about 60 feet left from the bottom left of the huge arch. Sour Mash climbs up to the right end of the gigantic roof. For Epinephrine, from the top of the 4th class, walk down back into the canyon bottom, then about 100 yards up the wash to a point below the right side of the huge tower (Black Tower). Look for bolts up the gray wall straight below the ominous chimney above. The left line of bolts is 5.8, and the bolts have all been replaced by the ASCA. The right line has bad bolts and crumbly rock. While this first 50 feet of 5.8 is fun, linking it to the next part of the pitch creates a lot of rope drag, and many parties skip it by ascending the unprotected 5.4 ramp to the right.
DescentWith good light and proper routefinding, the descent from Epinephrine takes about an hour or two. However, it has been the site of epic descents lasting overnight or longer. The key to the descent is to scope it from the parking lot. The common mistake is to attempt to cut down too soon, which can lead to an epic multi-pitch rappel down a huge and loose chimney system. From the pine tree, hike southeast to a notch, then contour up and south to the main ridgeline. Follow huge cairns down the top of the ridge for almost half a mile—resist the urge to head down sooner. Several small cliff bands must be avoided or downclimbed along the way. Eventually a pile of large cairns—4 or 5 all in one spot—mark the start of the descent down steep dirt and rocks. After about 200 yards, the cairns lead back left for about 100 yards, then down through a slabby part of a cliff band to the notch above Frogland. From here it is easy going down the well-marked Frogland descent gully. It is also possible to go back to the base of Black Velvet Wall, but it is an ugly bushwacking experience and not recommended.
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