Dark Shadows, Mescalito North 5.8
Avg time to climb route: 2 hours
Approach time: 45 minutes
Descent time: 1.5 hours
Number of pitches: 4
Height of route: 1000'
OverviewIt’s hard to believe that the steep, dark, and ominous dihedral of Dark Shadows is rated only 5.8. The route is capped by a huge roof and has walls so black and polished that they shine. Located in a tight canyon with large trees and pools of water, the atmosphere is distinctly unlike other Red Rocks climbs. While the route goes all the way to the top of Mescalito, it is rare for anyone to venture above the 4th pitch, especially when faced with the choice of a convenient rappel or a nasty and infamous descent from the top of the route. The only drawback to this amazing climb is the crowds…and the soaked ropes that are hard to avoid on the last rappel!
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HistoryBack in the 1960s, this formation was known as Red Cap, and access was limited due to private property. Jeff Lansing was dating the caretaker’s daughter and thus had the connection needed to get easily to the base of the routes. Both caretaker and daughter fit very well into the 1960s hippie psychedelic scene. When Jeff and Peter Wist climbed the East Face in 1968, they named the formation Mescalito, which had the proper hallucinogenic overtones.
As a friend of Jeff, Joe Herbst was able to include the Mescalito formation in the thorough scouting he applied to all the Red Rocks canyons. Joe’s knowledge paid off with first ascents of several good lines on Mescalito in the company of a number of Red Rocks regulars. The logical question is how did Joe miss such an obvious line as Dark Shadows? Joe says simply, “I don’t know. There’s a lot of rock out there—maybe we just didn’t get around to it.”
Joanne Urioste’s 1984 guidebook credits Nick Nordblom and Jon Martinet with the first ascent of the complete route in 1979. Nick was fairly “old-school.” He and a few friends did their initial climbing with a handful of Eiger oval carabiners, and a dacron rope liberated from its former function as the mainsheet on a friend’s sailboat. Not quite starting with the family clothesline, but close. In the middle 1970s, Dark Shadows was a four pitch route leading up to the big roof. At that time the initial slab pitch had no protection bolts, but Nick and his partners climbed it anyway, wearing their heavy Vasque mountaineering boots. “Really good edging,” said Nick.
On the day they started their complete ascent, Nick and Jon headed up the “short route” with just one 150-foot rope. The concept of going all the way to the top of the peak had not really formed in their minds. They reached the belay position under the large roof and evaluated their situation. With only one rope, the rappel option did not appeal to them. The alternative was to continue up to the summit. The decision was made and they continued up. They climbed another nine pitches wandering up the upper crack systems before they pulled onto the summit ridge. Their problems were not over. Neither of them was certain of the descent route. They bushwhacked through manzanita, scrambled, rappelled, and downclimbed, eventually reaching the north fork of Pine Creek. The arduous descent must have made an impression on Nick. Despite countless ascents at Red Rocks, he has never returned to the summit of Mescalito.
Nick had a mystery of his own. High on the wall, he and Jon found an old Cassin steel carabiner and a tattered scrap of webbing. Even back in the 1970s, this was not common hardware. I recently had the chance to ask Joe Herbst if he ever carried Cassin steel carabiners. “All the time,” he said. “Usually used them as leavers.”
– Larry DeAngelo
StrategyAn early start is one way to avoid a big line at Dark Shadows. Unfortunately, at present the gate to the loop road has limited hours often resulting in a race to the Pine Creek trailhead as soon as the gate opens. However, Dark Shadows is relatively short, and it is not uncommon to find no one there in early afternoon on a beautiful day.
The first pitch is “only 5.5,” but is slab climbing on small, crumbly edges. Luckily, while somewhat runout, the two 1/4” bolts were replaced by the ASCA in 2001, and a relaxed attitude can help on the slab climbing. The second pitch has a bit of tricky liebacking, but great holds appear just in time. The third pitch has a few sections of awkward jamming/stemming, but juggy holds on the face offer relief high on the pitch. The fourth pitch is the crux, with one wide section of the crack that must be face climbed around, but it has great pro right before the crux and a very clean fall.
It’s possible to toprope several hard climbs below the rappels on Dark Shadows, but care should be taken on rope length, and if it appears that you will interfere with others rappelling above you, it’d be best to descend.
Stronger leaders might consider rounding out the day on the first two pitches of Risky Business (5.10 R).
RetreatRappel to descend. One 60m rope will suffice, but you must be VERY careful on the first rappel—a backup method such as an autoblock is recommended. It is difficult to avoid getting the rope wet. Rappelling twice with a single rope from the second pitch will make it easier to keep ropes dry.
ApproachThe Pine Creek parking lot is most of the way around the loop road. Popular with both climbers and hikers, the rush is on as soon as the gate opens and the lot can fill early. The trail is large, well-worn, and easy to follow until almost at Mescalito, where one branch dives down left into the creek bed (almost always completely dry).
While it is possible to thrash along the streambed of the right branch, it is much easier to gain the climbers’ trail on the right bench. Just as a line of 40-foot-tall red cliffs seems to force you into the stream, climb up the bench and around a prominent huge boulder. A beautiful trail leads from here straight to Dark Shadows. (Thanks Access Fund volunteers!) Dark Shadows begins on a rock above a 6-foot waterfall between two pools of water.
DescentRap the routes, and reverse the approach. Please do not travel in the wash, the main trail was built specifically to reduce traffic in this sensitive riparian habitat, one of the few in Red Rocks which nearly always has flowing water.
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