Frigid Air Buttress is a ~5,400-foot (~1,646-meter) formation located among the cliffs of Red Rock Canyon in southern Nevada. A prominent sight along the Red Rock Scenic Byway, it rises more than one thousand feet sheer from the frosty floor of Ice Box Canyon. The canyon and buttress are both named for persistent wind gusts that come whistling down the narrow, shaded gorge and batter the exposed sandstone escarpment.
The namesake route on Frigid Air Buttress, a 9-pitch 5.9 trad climb, carves an adventurous path across a variety of classic terrain features. All of the nine pitches are memorable in their own unique way, with seemingly every possible style of Red Rock climbing represented.
SUMMARY: I climbed Frigid Air Buttress with Steve in mid January of the year 2016. We met in Red Rock Canyon for two days of multi-pitch trad climbing, doing Bourbon Street (7-pitch 5.8+) on the first day and this route on the second.
18 January, 2015
After a night of stealthy sleep in our cars parked inconspicuously among the residential streets of west Las Vegas, Steve and I drive into Red Rock park. It’s MLK Day, so admission is free. It’s also 40 degrees and blustery, causing us to reconsider our decision to climb a route in “Ice Box Canyon” called “Frigid Air Buttress”. Concluding that it’s good for the soul to suffer outdoors on occasion, we organize our trad gear at the empty trailhead and set off toward the mouth of Ice Box Canyon.
Once inside the creekbed, our objective stands directly above us, a veritable sentinel dividing the two main forks of Ice Box Canyon. We bushwhack along a faint trail to the base of the formation and locate the flake that marks the beginning of the first pitch.
Pitch 1 (5.5)
I lead the first of nine pitches, which turns out to be the easiest. It’s a simple climb of a large flake that sports a multitude of large handholds on either side; classic Red Rock romping, the kind of stuff I would be content to do all day. The three-bolt anchor at the top of this pitch is the only artificial belay station on the route.
Pitch 2 (5.7)
I continue on to lead the second pitch, starting with a short 5.7 finger crack that leads up to a rounded arête. Above the arête looms an ominous roof block, which is avoided by climbing a shallow class-4 gully on the left side. The top of this pitch is marked by a pine tree on a sizable ledge – the first of many luxurious belay stations on this adventurous route.
Pitch 3 (5.8)
Feeling confident, in large part thanks to Steve’s encouragement, I again take the lead on the third pitch. It’s my first 5.8 trad lead, and a sustained one at that. A jumble of cracked blocks leads up to a prominent dihedral with just enough steepness to inject me with the adrenaline required to power through to the top. I bypass an obvious belay station, instead choosing to run out a 5.5 face to an even more comfortable ledge. Below me, I hear Steve’s muffled grunts as he evidently struggles to haul the heavy rucksack (containing our second rope, among other essential items) up the steep dihedral.
Pitch 4 (5.5)
Steve has certainly earned a break from the rucksack, so he takes the lead on the upcoming 5.5 chimney pitch. It’s an elegant, sweeping feature with perfectly planar walls on either side and an interior crack in which to place gear. Steve makes the moves look graceful, while I on the other hand stubbornly force myself and the rucksack up the chimney together in a brutal full-body effort.
Pitch 5 (5.9)
Steve leads the fifth pitch, which starts as a 5.9 hand crack that later widens to an evil 5.8 offwidth. It’s difficult to say which section is actually more challenging, but the upper offwidth is definitely a more daunting proposition. After cruising through the technical 5.9 segment and the lower part of the offwidth, Steve heroically runs out the last several meters in which the width of the crack exceeds the size of our largest trad pieces.
Pitch 6 (5.8)
The sixth pitch becomes one of the most memorable of my entire life, featuring outrageous moves on highly unique terrain. It starts out in a chimney that quickly runs head-on into an impassable roof. Navigating around the roof calls for a blind reach to a sharp handhold outside the chimney and then a hair-raising horizontal traverse with only handholds – nothing for the feet. Steve hollers encouragement from below as I swing from the blank slab like some sort of desperate monkey and mantle up to the safe ledge above the roof.
But the excitement on pitch 6 is nowhere near from over. Above the first chimney rises a second chimney that starts very wide but then narrows to an nasty slot. Once again, a wild swing-out maneuver is the recipe for getting around the impassable feature. In order to protect this exposed move, I actually have to shimmy up to the gut of the slot and place a #4 cam (our largest piece) before downclimbing to the wide part of the chimney and finding the correct handholds based on Steve’s advantageous perspective from below. I then utilize these handholds to swing out onto the exposed face and scamper up to the ledge above, where I am able to set a belay from another well-placed pine tree.
Pitch 7 (5.6)
I start the next pitch on one of the limbs of the pine tree, using it to propel myself onto a vertical 5.6 corner adorned with a plethora of large huecos. About 25 feet above the tree, I come to a broad ledge. Upward progress from there consists of 100 feet of 5.5 face climbing on totally unprotected rock – probably my longest runout to date. The maneuvers are simple enough, but I am all too aware of the consequences of a mistake under such circumstances. Needless to say, I’m relieved to reach the next belay ledge where I’m greeted by stellar views of late-afternoon shadows cast upon the cliffs of Ice Box Canyon.
Pitch 8 (5.9)
The feelings of relief on the ledge are short lived due to the fact that the pitch above us is the most difficult on the entire route. The first 25 feet of the pitch ascend a splitter 5.9 crack with smooth, varnished sides that offer no refuge from the in-your-face angle of the wall. Above that, slightly easier (perhaps 5.7) terrain leads up to yet another broad belay ledge. This section is a tad out of my comfort zone, so Steve bravely volunteers to lead it – and does so with impressive composure. The climbing on this pitch is truly magazine-worthy: fluid jamming techniques on a sheer vertical wall hanging more than 800 feet above the canyon floor.
In fading daylight, Steve leads the final pitch to the top of the buttress. This consists of a short boulder problem (many variations ranging from 5.6 upward) followed by about 100 feet of class-4 rambling to the summit.
The two of us crown the ~5,400-foot buttress just as the final rays of sunlight grace the smog-filled valley of Las Vegas. Taller cliffs dwarf our position on the north, west, and south aspects; the gaping maw of Ice Box Canyon opens to the east, permitting a view of Sin City behind the kaleidoscopic sandstone outcrops of the Calico Hills. We could sit and watch the city lights illuminate, but there’s simply no time for that; we’ve got a notoriously convoluted descent to execute.
The descent from Frigid Air Buttress consists of five separate rappels and a bit of scrambling in between. We’re thankful to have a bit of daylight left to help us on the first two rappels. The first utilizes a slung chockstone as an anchor from which to abseil a narrow chimney that just barely fits me and our bulky rucksack.
The second rappel is only fifty feet long, swinging us out onto the exposed southern aspect of the buttress where we are able to appreciate the incredible depth of the south fork of Ice Box Canyon.
We find ourselves in full darkness by the time we’re rigging the third rappel. This one is about 200 feet long, requiring both of our ropes tied together. The tricky thing is: we have to blindly descend a completely vertical wall of blank sandstone. This calls for an incredible amount of trust in our internet (Mountain Project) directions, as well as a great deal of confidence on behalf of Steve, who valiantly takes the lead.
Sure enough, Steve reaches a bolted anchor station 200 feet down from the ledge; I hear his whoops of exultation from my lofty perch above. He later admits to being slightly freaked out while hanging midway down the massive cliff. Now the moon rises above the canyon wall and illuminates a string of idyllic pools at the base of the wall. Here I am suddenly struck by an incomparable sense of serenity as I sit cross-legged atop the wall, soaking in the moonlit scene with an intense feeling of inner peace. This somewhat transcendental experience prompts me to recall vividly the true reasons why I love to climb. It’s an inexplicable sensation, and the reasons are completely intangible, but it warms my heart to feel it so strongly all of a sudden.
In this tranquil state of mind, I follow Steve down the final two rappels (each of them approximately 100 feet) and then down the gully back to the trailhead with the moon over our shoulder the entire time.