illustration of rock climbers in the red desert inspecting the rock from afar, determining it isn't safe to climb as showers pass
Rock n’ Rain: Climbing after an event of wet-weather
Written by Joel Enrico of The Mountain Guides
AS WE GET INTO THE FULL SWING OF SPRING, some may be hanging up their skis and heading out to the many accessible rock climbing venues across the West. The western deserts are often high on a climbers list with their crimson parallel cracks and sweeping varnished faces. In the evenings, the age old discussion of “why wait to climb after it rains” becomes a common topic of conversation especially after a day of gray skies. To someone not accustomed to desert climbing, it might be the first they’ve heard of it, but it’s a question that warrants careful consideration and patience before heading back to the crag...
Dangers to your environment
Wet rock affects sedimentary rock the most. Granite and metamorphic rock are impermeable to moisture, so they dry quickly after a rain since it stays on the surface. Sedimentary rock like sandstone is very porous allowing water to permeate the subsurface.

Wet sandstone should be avoided at all costs. Sandstone areas around Las Vegas, Moab, Zion and Sedona all may take anywhere from 24-72 hours to dry. The water loosens the bonds of the cementing agents holding it together, and the wet rock may be 75% less strong than when dry.
Danger to climbers
The primary concern is your safety. Holds can break unexpectedly if weakened by moisture, causing a fall or protection to pull out. Either scenario could result in injury or worse.
The importance of preservation
Climbing routes or boulders are a journey through time. It’s like the saying, “I shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of (insert your favorite climber here.)” Everyone wants to experience the route in the same way that previous generations have. More importantly, it’s a part of Leave No Trace ethics. We want to leave things the way we found them, and climbing on wet rock can permanently alter a climb, often making it harder.

If you’ve ever walked by “The Pearl” in Red Rock or seen video of gear zippering falls, scarring cracks in Indian Creek, you’ve seen first hand why waiting is paramount. “The Pearl,” for example, has gotten significantly harder at the start, and you can still see the outline of the original hold as a constant reminder of the effects of climbing on wet rock. It is a sad loss when iconic climbs can no longer be experienced in the way they were once known to be, and as a community, we lose the connection of sharing those experiences—especially if a route becomes so challenging, the accessibility to that route or problem is much lower.
Illustration of climber falling from wet rock, rock falling
Illustration of climbers inspecting the area, putting fingers in the dirt, seeing if it safe to climb on the red rock or not
Judging when it is okay to climb
Knowing when sandstone is dry enough to climb again after a rain is challenging, but the more you know, the better an assessment you can make. Ambient air temperature, solar aspect of your intended climb, and amount of precipitation all factor into how long you should wait.

For sandstone to dry quickly (i.e. 24 hours), the ambient air temperature should be above 70 degrees, your intended climb should have a southerly aspect (sees lots of sun), and it shouldn’t have rained for more than a couple hours. As any of these variables change, it is best to wait longer. So, for cold, winter days, shady climbs, and large thunderstorms, you should wait longer (i.e. 48-72 hours).

Of course, we cannot always be near the cliffs we intend to climb as it’s raining, and without instruments to measure moisture content of rock, it’s best to use a couple simple guidelines to help your assessment...
The best way to assess if the sandstone is wet is to just look around.
Was the road, trail, and base of climb dry? If not, you guessed it, the rock is likely wet.
Go up to your intended climb and dig into the dirt six inches.
The sand should be dry and powdery. If it has any moisture, the rock is still wet.
If you are from out of town, you can use other local resources like calling a guide service or gear shop.
These are people that are climbing in the area day in and day out. Ask for their opinion on the condition of the stone and be prepared for an answer you don’t want to hear while on a climbing trip. These are professionals that have your wellbeing and the resource in the forefront of their mind. They’ll also have an array of alternative ideas, which you can ask them about, and you may end up visiting an area that you never would’ve if it hadn’t rained.
Go somewhere else.
Most sandstone areas will also have other types of rock in the area not affected by precip like limestone, basalt, or plastic. There’s always another activity, whether it be hiking, biking, or just scoping routes and getting stoked!
Be a good steward.
If you encounter friends or fellow climbers climbing or considering climbing after a rain, share your knowledge and your personal assessment. Keep in mind, tone is everything, and a lot of climbers simply don’t know or weren’t around for the rain. Tell them about alternative climbing areas if possible and offer to show them around if you know the area. It’s certainly not worth getting into a heated argument, but know you did your part by sharing your knowledge and leading by example. Slowly all this information will be common knowledge in the climbing community, so please do your part.

The next time it rains on your sandstone sending spree, hopefully self preservation kicks in, and you aim to protect the finite resource of climbs we have. It’s simple: check the dirt at the base; consider aspect, temperature, and total precipitation; wait for the dirt to dry, and if it isn’t, just wait longer. Ultimately, one day of climbing is not worth injury resulting in a month or more of no climbing or changing a route forever. Be a steward, digest this information, and spread the good word.
Illustration of climbers telling other climbers that just pulled up that it isn't safe to climb on the wet rock yet