My experience in Joshua Tree this week was deeper than anything I could ever give justice to in this post. Joshua Tree National park is truly an alien place, and its clear the minute you pass into the park. Cell phone signals and power lines disappear, and you’re constantly left with the feeling that some Dr Seuss character is waiting for you behind every boulder.
Alex and I arrived mid day after driving across 520 miles of California in his bombed out multi-colored 1996 subaru impreza, loaded to the gills with all forms of food, beer, camera equipment, climbing and camping gear, and even a little firewood. A stop at Natural Sisters Cafe for breakfast smoothies and vegan biscuits helped keep our energy levels high as we entered the park, but Alex threw on the aptly named U2 album just to be sure they stayed there. We quickly set up camp at sheep pass and then bolted off to scout out some of our climbs for the week.
We would end up climbing about 25 classics over the course of the week, climbing almost without pause from dawn to dusk about every single day. I had heard that the JT granite is relentless, and this proved to be true. So sharp, its almost as if little razor blades had been cooked into the quartz monzonite granite. I swear all I had to do is look at the stone and my finger tips would bleed.
As inspiring as entering the park had been, my first encounter with the Joshua Tree climbing scene was not nearly as inspiring as I had imagined. Within minutes of pulling up to intersection rock, we saw some of the sketchiest rapping I’ve come across, including someone pausing mid rappel on a perch to untangle someone elses hopeless rope mess, leaving their own brake line unattended without any sort of backup whatsoever. Minutes later we saw another couple doing the same rap – unsure if her partner was actually on or off, she just started to shout down “belay” in a confused manner before setting off. Puzzling. Luckily this would prove to be an anomaly and not the trend – the rest of the week we would see plenty of excellent and safe climbing technique from many people.
The headstone is an unmissable spire, and anyone who has any propensity for climbing at all will immediately want to climb the headstone once seeing it from the road. The easiest route (SW corner 5.6) makes it seem like its well within the grasp of intermediate climbers as well. However the low rating belies the terrifying and exposed pull onto the arete, which is poorly protected by the bolt placement on the route. I pulled up to this move and backed off several times, getting totally tricked out by the potential fall onto the ramp several feet below me. Luckily another climber came through and led it up for us and we climbed it with no problems. Amazing how much easier things seem on top rope.
Run outs and mind games would set the pace for the trip though. And I learned quickly that ratings and protection were pretty loose concepts in the park. Also, since Alex had no leading experience, it meant that I would be leading the entire trip. After a few routes I was able to find a bit of a groove though, and got plenty of leads in without incident, despite wild slabby 20-30 foot runouts that really kept me on my toes (no pun intended).
We got into a pretty good groove – getting up just after dawn, sometimes to the shrill cry of the coyotes, whose calls would echo all over our camp alcove and mix into this horrifying electronic alien-like call. We’d always have a good breakfast with the other CHAOS crew and everyone would discuss their plans for the day. Once we had some sort of rough plan in place, we’d set off from camp and pretty much climb till sunset, stopping briefly at some point for a quick lunch.
Alex warned me before we came on the trip to not wear any clothing I was too attached to. Alex, having spent the previous thanksgiving here, had become well acquainted with the various forms of desert flora that are all too happy to rip holes in that pretty new down jacket – from just the slightest glance. While walking from climb to climb – vigilance at every step was a must, lest you be relieved of your latest digs and left with only tattered cloth and loose down in their place.
It seemed as the week went on the climbing just got better and better. On our 3rd ( or 4th?) day, Alex’s friend Nate from LA met up with us. On our list that day was one of the classics – touch and go (5.9) – touted as a perfect hand crack up to a juggy roof. After a bit of searching and scrambling around, we finally got settled and set up to climb. The start was a super satisfying lieback that transitions smoothly into the promised perfect hands. Although slightly strenuous, and almost feeling a bit rattly in the mid section, it was easy enough to find great feet to keep it all together. Solid hands crack climbing happens to be my favorite, and this was about as good as I’ve had so far. Jam after jam led me up to the gentle roof, and pulling out onto the jugs from the crack was fairly seamless. Stepping out on top of a climb as satisfying as this is a rare treat.
The road that leaves the echo rocks area takes you past one of the more famous and popular climbing formations – cyclops rock. Named for a distinct tunnel that passes through the top center of the 170 foot high formation, it looks like it has an ever watching ‘eye’, much like Sauron from lord of the rings. And in fact, the staple route, aptly named ‘the eye’, (5.4?…) has you climbing up the main gully directly into the socket. This route, also a super-classic, almost always sports a good long lineup. Alex had told me about this route from the previous year, and since he never actually had the chance to climb it, we were both just as eager to hop on it.
Leaving echo rocks with Nate in tow, we took a pass by the cyclops to get a glance over at the base and scope out how busy it was. Low and behold there was only one party finishing up – the time was now! We hurried all the necessary gear into our packs and set a brisk pace on the approach to our climb. As with any popular climbing area, the pace you take on your approach can be the difference between being first on route, or having to come back another day.
The lead on this one was super fun. Big pulls onto ledges, into and out of a very stemmy corner, and an abundance of cracks for gear made the climbing both low key and exhilarating. But the fun part was really the top. On the final move, I pulled up into the eye. The dark, cool cave gives way through the rock, and opens up into a wide expanse of desert on the other side, like a portal. I set up the belay anchor, and took a seat on a fin of rock that gave the feeling of riding a bull. With the portal behind me and a view of the climb in front, I popped off my shoes, took in the view from my perch, and prepared to bring up Nate and Alex. These were the moments I’d remember most from my week in JT.
We would come back to the cyclops formation later in the trip, but our second time around we would climb on the south face. The photo below sums up pretty well how each day ended – at the top of some climb, cleaning gear, while the sun lit up the stone before quickly disappearing, leaving us scrambling back to the car in the rapidly fading light, eager to get back to camp for dinner and to share stories with the rest of the CHAOS crew.
One cannot underestimate the importance of food on a week long climbing trip. Especially when that trip leaves you with scant chances to replenish supplies. One has to balance out the need for calories with the ease of cooking them, and with limited resources, as well as making sure nothing will spoil. I had spent a good amount of time before the trip planning out a menu that would hopefully satisfy all the above constraints, but we wouldn’t know until we were actually in the park if my plan would satisfy.
From apple-cinnamon french toast, to fried glass noodles, to superb fired potatoes and scrambled eggs, we were the culinary envy of the camp. And the grand finale would be a full camp-wide thanksgiving dinner potluck with the entire CHAOS crew, complete with at least a couple turkeys (some more burned than others), and all the fixings we could hope for. I’ll post up our complete menu at a later date.
Near the top of the list for me was our mid-afternoon tuna-melt sandwiches. We would carry our portable grill wherever we went to be sure that we’d always be ready to grill these babies up. There was nothing quite like pulling up to a trailhead and plopping the grill on the hood of Alex’s beat up subaru.
Unfortunately, spatulas were in short supply, and left our beautiful tuna melts in serious risk of charring. Luckily for us, climbing gear – if nothing else – is versatile. Just like your mother always told you, always carry a nut tool!
Alex found another key ingredient for any sunny joshua tree climb – mustache glasses! As useful for protecting your eyes as they are for protecting your upper lip, mustache glasses are also extremely handy at fending off any marauding femininas. Plus, if that first ascent is no longer up for grabs, or that on-sight is still out of reach, just pop on some trusty mustache glasses for your very own FMA!! (First Mustache Ascent!). Alex would go on to tick off many, many FMAs over the course of the week. During the walk off of a particular climb, a woman even stopped me to give me a warning – “you know – your climbing partners mustache is fake!” “Yikes!” I replied. “Thanks for the warning lady – I’ll be sure to double check his belay technique on the next climb.”
One of the charms of climbing in Joshua Tree with 30+ year old climbing guidebooks – aside from the brutal ratings (assume everything is sandbagged, and run out as hell) – is trying to decipher just where the hell that particular climb, formation, walk-off or belay station really is. Truly we’ve sacrificed something with slick supertopo guidebooks that can lead even the blind to the most inconspicuous of climbs. Also an interesting game is trying to figure out the logic behind some of the formations namesakes. One such formation, the ‘Oven Mitt’ had a couple great 5.8 climbs – one with some grunt-inspiring rattly hands and stemming, and another with a great roof to start, which pulled into beautiful, but razor sharp, fist jams. Both required starting the climb off with belayer pinned tightly between some thorny bushes and the rock itself. In addition to obscuring our view of the formation, the tight space imposed a more immediate threat; If I were to slip off lower on the climb chances were better than not that both Alex and I would end up tangled in a thorny mess. Both climbs went splendidly – however, they left me wondering just why someone would name this the oven mitt? Was it the rattly hands, leaving the climber wishing they had the extra padding such a garment would afford? Or was it the extra protection a first ascentionist wishes they had after an unfortunate run in with the aforementioned thorny mess? Perhaps, we would never know. Or, perhaps, the explanation was much simpler. Walking out of the bush, I took a quick last look back at our pair of climbs, staring at nothing in particular. Then it jumped out at me in my late-afternoon post-climbing comatose stupor. A perfect 25 foot tall solid granite oven mitt, buttressing the very climbs we had just left. I laughed hysterically in the way that only someone exhausted and sun beaten can – us pondering the oven mitt, while climbing right over it!
Sunset is by far the best time to be climbing in Joshua Tree. The granite glows like its on fire, and the texture and holds of a climb are never more vibrant. You can also get some pretty great photos! One such evening we were once again at the cyclops, this time on the south side. We set up a belay at the top and ran back and forth to climb the fantastic ‘Are We Ourselves’ and ‘Penelope’s Walk’ while the sun dipped down. Unlike the sun, we were not done. The climbing, too good to give up, necessitated headlamps being pulled out of backpacks while we finished.
In the end the week was so much more than the fantastic sunrise to sunset climbing. The food, the stories shared around campfires, the late-night scramble missions, the new friends made, as well as sharing the experience with my good friend Alex, have made my introduction to this special place as unique as the landscape itself. I’ll hopefully be returning to Joshua Tree for many years to come.