New Joshua Tree Calendar!

Bring on the New Year with images from Joshua Tree. I’ve updated my Joshua Tree National Park: Climbing and Camping Wall Calendar! Photos include Jtree’s rare snowfall’s last winter, a climber on Illusion Dweller, and other gems. You can choose what month you want the calendar to start and also how the dates are presented. And, right now you can get 21% off by using code 21% off with code NEWYEARSALEZ. Check it out here:

If you’d like an individual image as an art print, you can find them via my photography site: Eileen Descallar Ringwald Photography.

A Gratitude Chain

This bike has been a life saver for me during my stay-at-home / shoulder recovery months. At first my shoulder was so bad that even short rides aggravated it but luckily that phase was short and even though I couldn’t climb I could at least ride.

I got this bike because of social media. Not because the company sponsored me or because I won it, or because I succumbed to an impulse buy because of a pop up ad, but because of a connection I made. I first met Adrienne on Twitter and then in-person when she attended a Joshua Tree Tweetup I organized. I loved organizing those events because they allowed me to meet many of my Twitter friends and connect the old fashioned way while climbing and camping in one of my favorite climbing places. Years later, long after I had stepped down after organizing my fifth Jtree Tweetup, Adrienne offered this bike up for a song to her Facebook feed of friends. After going through a divorce a year before I had long been wanting a road bike but just couldn’t fit one in my still uncertain budget. When I saw how little she wanted for it I told her I’d drive up to the Bay Area to get it.

This is a long winded way of again saying thank you to Adrienne and to reflect on my gratitude for social media. Social media has a lot of faults but it can still contribute to filling a basic human need, one of connecting to each other in positive ways.

Snow in Joshua Tree!

I took an impromptu trip out to Jtree right before the New Year, capturing the rare snowfall. Shots include some well known climbing formations, a few climbers, and even wildlife. Go to my gallery to see each photo larger for the full effect. Happy New Year everyone!

Holcomb Valley Pinnacles Labor Day Weekend 2019

Holcomb Valley Pinnacles was a great trip, the weather was on the warm side, and downright hot in the sun, but we managed to find shade and make friends…once we got to the place!

Holcomb Valley Pinnacles, or Holcomb amongst most climbers, is a collection of crags just north of Big Bear Lake. It’s popular amongst climbers for its sport routes and the few trad routes it offers, and its proximity to large cities. I’ve been fortunate enough to go there initially with the benefit of staying in a cabin with friends, or to hook up with friends who already had claimed camping space in the free, primitive camping areas along the dirt road approach to the trail head. Labor Day weekend 2019, I was leading three other climbers out, one who had never been, and two who had been there less times than I had. I had been nervous about two things. The first was arriving on Saturday on a holiday weekend – would we find a decent area for us all to camp at or would it be uncomfortably crowded? The second, and more important concern was could I make it out driving my little Honda Fit? I’d done it once before to the South camping area but had had to carefully navigate large puddles and many rocky and rutted parts of the dirt road approach. When I arrived at the South climber camping area I was the only non 4 wheel drive or high clearance vehicle until the next day (when another Fit and a sedan showed up).

These concerns made me hatch a plan. Two of my friends I’d invited out had vehicles that were no strangers to off roading. Peter had a Toyota Tacoma. This was well and good for road conditions, but not so great for carrying three passengers for multiple hours. The other, Cliff, had a van, great for gear, but though it had high clearance (due to some modifications he’d made) it was not a 4WD vehicle and was also configured to just be a two seater (the majority of van space being taken up by a bed and van life accouterments). The weather forecast mentioned a chance of thunderstorms for Sunday and Monday. That was the clincher for me to not take my Fit on the dirt roads. So it was that I found myself wearily trying to find the Big Bear Visitor Center in Big Bear Lake City, in the hopes of leaving my car and John and I hopping in with Cliff to do the last bit of the drive in. One tip for anyone trying to get to the same visitor center… don’t follow the signs on the side of the road, they make you go through a very crowded downtown area, when you just need to stay on the 18! Once I did get there though, I found out from a guy in the Visitor Center that overnight parking was not allowed. He did helpfully let us know that any public parking lot in town was ok for overnight parking and to definitely not park in any of the businesses’ parking lots. This was good news, except that, it being a holiday weekend, parking was hard to find in the public parking lots as we had already discovered trying to find the visitor center. Luckily our helpful visitor center employee pointed us to a lot that had plenty of space – a parking lot that was for Snow Summit parking during ski season but in the summer became a public lot, not something us out of towners could have surmised.

The next step was getting to the pinnacles area itself. Peter suggested we go to the North entrance because it was more likely we’d get a camping area close to the climbs. I’d never camped up there but had been a passenger once in a Honda Element that bottomed out on the way in. Cliff said he’d go for it so John and I piled into his van (John reclining on the built in bed in the back) and we went off. The ride in was rather adventurous and included miles on a reasonable, but narrow, dirt road, and then it became rocky enough that John and I got out of the van to help lighten the load and direct if needed. The travel was worth it though, we found a camping area with enough room for all of us complete with handy boulders to use as tables. There was even a pinnacle less than a five minute walk away. We were able to set up camp and get climbs in! We didn’t know what the pinnacle was called but we did some sport routes on it which some other climbers said were 10a, 10b, and 10d and I led up a mixed trad/sport route only to come down before finishing it. I was having a high gravity day.

High Clearance but no 4WD on the North Road. Photo: Eileen Descallar Ringwald.

As we were climbing, we heard what sounded like a man talking on a bull horn and saw dust clouds raised in the air. Turns out it was indeed a man talking on a bullhorn. “Gently push your way up…”, he instructed. Apparently there’s a guiding company that takes people on Jeep tours of the area and instructs them how to drive the rocky way in. The people on the tour stared at us from colorful Jeeps and I felt like an animal along an African safari route. I also thought it was funny that Cliff had made it all the way in without 4WD and these drivers paid money to drive the Jeeps. After climbing I broke out some spaghetti sauce I had made at home and froze for the drive up, as well as pre-cooked noodles. It was fun to feast as we gathered around my Luci light which stood in for a real campfire (open fires are not permitted in Holcomb).

Unknown pinnacle near our camp site. Photo: Eileen Descallar Ringwald. GoPro Hero 7.

Sunday we had a hearty breakfast compliments of John, who makes a mean bowl. After breakfast we walked over to find some climbs in the shade.

We ended up at Claim Jumper wall, where it seems most everyone else had the same idea. A veritable town’s worth of climbers and their dogs was at the wall. Rock quality is excellent at Holcomb. The granite walls are full of fun features like sharp edges, slopes to smear on, and some choice jugs and cracks. Every line on Claim Jumper wall was taken but one when we arrived. Some climbers even resorted to climbing across the way in the sun. The highlight of the wall for me was climbing a climb I had at first thought I might lead, but upon doing it on top rope found out it was on the challenging side. Some one later told me they had looked it up on Mountain Project where it had been listed as an 11c/d climb! I think my on-sight picker was a little broken. Over all, a good time was had by all until we decided to take a break back at camp for rest and food since it was so close. After lunch Cliff and I set out again looking for Pistol Pete, but on the way found something else to climb. Peter joined us (and told us Pistol Pete was being climbed) and we made short work of the climbs Cliff had found instead until we decided to head back before dark.

Busy day at Claim Jumper. I’m climbing in the bright pink tank top. John’s in Orange on the right. Photo: Eileen Descallar Ringwald. GoPro Hero 7.

Monday our small group wanted to get a few more climbs in before we had to leave so after striking camp, we walked about and found ourselves on Coyote wall. Again, we were not alone, but we all had fun. One climb in particular with a bulge was a fun challenge.

Cliff leading on Coyote Wall. Photo: Eileen Descallar Ringwald.

Soon it was time to go. We packed things up, this time making Cliff’s van as light as possible by putting gear in Peter’s truck (as well as having John ride with him). It’s a good thing we did because at a certain point, Cliff jumped out to make a ramp of rocks to help him get over a tough spot and the van started moving backwards. I jumped over to the driver’s seat and stepped on the brake with my left foot. Cliff got in, “Good job Eileen”. Once we got over that part it was smoother sailing, which was good, because before we were quite back to the paved roads, we got some rain. Luckily it was over quickly and didn’t affect the road very much.

It was with a small sigh of relief when we arrived at my car, safe and sound where I left it. I know I was told it was fine to leave it there but I had still been a little worried. Getting back into my car I left with a smile on my face.

See the complete set of my professional photos.

How to Keep Getting Outside in Hot Weather

Last Sunday I took my nieces climbing outdoors in Southern California so they could earn the new Outdoor High Adventure Girl Scout badge. I had help from their parents and I also recruited climbing friend Christina, and legendary climber and author, John Long. With Southern California going through a hot, humid, heat wave, I had limited choices of where to take my nieces for their first time climbing on real rock. I picked a spot in the Santa Monica mountains, hoping that getting up higher would help. Even so I knew we’d be in for some heat so I went over my hot weather tips with my nieces before hand and thought I’d share them here as well!

1. Adjust your schedule. Start early. For my outing with my nieces I had logistical limitations because of people coming from different directions, but I still made our rendevzous point as early as I could. When going out with my regular climbing partners I tend to shift to an early morning schedule if the weather’s going to be really hot. This is particularly advisable if you are somewhere like the Sierras where afternoon thunderstorms can develop. Locally in Southern California, we’ll sometimes climb early, take an afternoon break and then climb well into the evening. Always having a headlamp in your pack gives you great options.

Wearing a hat on South Six Shooter. Indian Creek, Utah.

2. Dress accordingly. Some might think this always means shorts and tank tops (or no shirt if you’re a guy) but if you’re going to have a lot of sun exposure you might think about wearing a wicking long sleeve shirt. I’ve sometimes been cooler wearing my white long sleeve sun shirt than sporting bare arms. Also, don’t forget about a sun hat. You may not wear it while climbing but even short approaches can be made more comfortable if you’re bringing some portable shade with you. Think about your footwear as well. Approach shoes with mesh or Chaco sandals are my top choices for when it gets really hot. I’ll sometimes wear Injinji sock liners with my Chacos on a long approach where I want to be careful not to get blisters. Speaking of blisters, I try to air out my feet whenever I can on a hot day, for example if we take a break from the approach before climbing, I’ll take my shoes off for air. Moisture can mean blisters (and smelly climbing shoes!). Also, I know you know this but… wear sunscreen!

My niece with a frozen Gatorade

3. Drink lots of liquids. I think we all know how important it is to bring water. When it’s hot it’s best to bring even more than usual and to add in something to replace the electrolytes lost when you sweat. For this reason I like to bring some kind of “sports drink” in addition to water. I also find a flavored drink helps me consume more than if I just stuck to plain water. There are two ways I might bring a sports drink. The first way is to bring a powdered or tablet version of an electrolyte drink to add to water. Gatorade comes in powdered form and Nuun tablets work well. If you do this then you can decide how strong you want to make your drink, and it lets you time when you want to switch away from water.  My second, and favorite way, to bring a sports drink on a hot day is to bring it frozen. I freeze a Gatorade bottle and pop it in my pack. You can let it melt a little, drink some of it off and then add some regular water to dilute the drink. You can shake up the bottle to make a refreshing slushy. During the climbing day with my nieces I brought two frozen Gatorades and let them use them while still frozen to press against their face and necks to cool off after our approach hike.

4. Find the shade. This is how I was able to climb in Joshua Tree National Park in August. Do a bit of research before heading to a new place and find out which climbs will be shaded. If you can’t research before you go to a place, ask some locals. A nice waitress in Mammoth steered my friends and I to a new crag with advice for shade. We were quite grateful for it. On the other hand, climbing day with the nieces we did not have any shade during the climbs and we all had to limit our exposure and get shade in between climbs.

5. Keep Water in the Car. I keep an insulated bottle of cold water in the car so I can refresh myself as soon as I get to it. If the car is still hot, I can let it cool off a little while I have a cold drink.

What happens if you don’t follow the tips?

While I have successfully climbed in many very hot places all over the country, unfortunately the day I took my nieces out, I didn’t completely follow my own advice. For one, it would have been better if we had met even earlier than we had to beat more of the heat, being up higher on the mountain did not help as much as I had hoped. Secondly, while I did bring more liquids than usual, I ended up giving one of my Gatorades away, and sharing the remaining one, leaving me with just one liter of plain water. I also didn’t have access to the water in my car because we carpooled some of the way and I had left it in my car at the first rendezvous point. Lastly, we did not get any shade during the actual climbs. As a result, after getting down from the mountains, I found myself with a headache and feelings of nausea. Fortunately by the time it really came on I was already sipping a cold drink in an air conditioned restaurant.

Heat Exhaustion

What had likely happened to me was that I was experiencing heat exhaustion, type of heat related illness. What I was already doing (stopping exertion, moving to a cool place, drinking electrolytes) was what the Mayo Clinic recommended and I soon felt a lot better.

Hopefully, you’ll follow my tips better than I did Sunday, and can go on to enjoy your summer!

By the way, my nieces loved climbing outside and want to go again!

My First Time Glacial Mountaineering: A Mount Baker Trip Report

Mountaineering is hard. This was one of the thoughts going through my head as I tried to keep pace with Matt as he transitioned from one direction to the other up a steep section of the Easton glacier of Mount Baker. I needed to follow his track and then make the direction switch as well, stepping my crampons over the rope length between him and myself and not stepping on the rope length leading from me down to Christina. I also needed to switch my ice axe to my uphill hand, and my trekking pole to my downhill one. Exactly where we were on the 10,781 foot tall mountain, I was not certain, but it was almost inconsequential. I knew the important things at the moment, which all seemed to revolve around facts. Matt, Christina, and I were Team Green Rope. We were being followed by Team Orange Rope (Harry, Kim, Lily, and Dan), and all seven of us were taking advantage of the nice weather window that had opened up for us in Washington to go for a summit attempt. We had thousands of feet in elevation gain to go and I was already winded trying to keep up with Matt’s pace. The last, and most immediate fact I knew was that I needed to do my transition.

I carefully stepped over the rope with my left foot, watching my crampon spikes, and then did the same with my right. I switched my ice axe to my left hand, putting my trekking pole in the other. The slope we were going up was steep and if I slipped I’d need to self arrest with my axe. I had no time to enjoy the fact that I had done my transition without causing rope drag, because it was back to making sure I kept up with Matt. I moved on. Step, stab, step, chunk. A few moments later, Christina called out “Hold!” and we paused as a team. Someone on Team Orange needed to adjust something. I was grateful for the brief rest and took a moment to look around. We had been climbing in the dark but now the sky was starting to lighten. The snow around us was visible in a larger-than-headlamp radius. The landscape was white, slashed with a few dark brown rock outcroppings and numerous small, and not-so-small-crevasses in shades of grey or icy blue. We were all on the Easton Glacier route only because a large crevasse had opened up a few days ago on the Coleman-Deming route, causing us to switch to Easton instead. Even before we learned that, our whole Baker climb was called into question due to weather reports which forecasted straight days of snow or rain, and strong gusts of wind. Looking around me though, I could see that the growing light showed no particularly dark clouds in the sky, instead, a lovely alpine glow was turning misty clouds pink and the snow took on a rosy glow. Mountaineering, I thought, was hard, but magical.

“Ok, go on!” Christina called, and so we did. After awhile of trying to high step my way following Matt’s steps, I realized it was easier to break out and make my own. I used the French step Matt had just told me about the day before, when we had all practiced mountaineering skills after a beautiful hike up to our base camp at 6,000 feet. The French step, as he demonstrated, was basically a cross over step in your desired direction, it saved some knee strength if you were already trending a path right or left. I liked it a lot, it reminded me of the fun I’d had doing a cross over turn when ice skating or rollerblading. Now I French stepped my way on to icy snow and left little slash marks behind me as my crampon blades cut out on my own.

I contemplated the fact that sometimes it’s easier to make your own path to achieve the same goal. Perhaps I should accept this in life as well. I’ve often been surprised at turns my life has taken and been aware that I have not been following the established trails many others have forged. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though, if I get safely to where I want to be. Step, stab, step, chunk. Step, stab, step, chunk. We continued for a long way, up and over another steep section. When I crested that I found that Matt was in a somewhat less vertical section. We decided to let Team Orange catch up to us before moving on. Matt coiled me in, and then I did the same for Christina, letting us all gather in one place. “That was a good stretch there,” he said.

“I was doing the French step!” I said excitedly. Matt added, “Mountaineering is not like hiking, where you can go at your own pace. You have to move as a team. You have to constantly be moving at the fastest pace you safely can.” I could only nod. I understood what he was talking about. I was also aware that I was the weakest link on our team. Christina, a long time friend of mine, had been working out 4 days a week and her husband Matt had been training as well. They were also experienced mountaineers. I, however, had sporadically trained, then gotten lazy when I had a wisdom tooth pulled and full recovery from that (and additional dental work) took longer than I thought. I felt like I was doing this climb nearly “off the couch”. I had also never climbed a glaciated peak before. Maybe all of that is why, for the first time, I was experiencing altitude sickness. This surprised me. I’ve climbed in Yosemite’s high country many times and I summitted Mt. Whitney twice, once as an all day hike, and another time via the East Face technical climbing route. Whitney’s summit, at 14,505 feet, is the tallest in the contiguous United States and significantly taller than Mt. Baker. Of course, as Christina reminded me later, the speed at which you gain the elevation is a big factor in getting sick, as well as dehydration and over-exertion levels. I certainly wasn’t used to the exertion of kick stepping and the different sort of rope management / pace keeping needed for glacial travel. Whatever the reason, I was not feeling my best, and had an upset stomach, but I was still moving, and that was key.

Moving itself though is not enough to guarantee success. While rock climbing multi-pitch routes in the Sierra, I’ve often thought of the saying, “Speed is safety” because we wanted to be off the rock before afternoon thunderstorms began. As the day went on and the sun warmed the snow, it became more strenuous to ascend. This was another reason why moving safely but quickly is a good idea. I found myself postholing in prints left before me, not just from Matt but from other parties also heading to the summit, and my axe would sometimes plunge deeply enough into the snow that my rhythm was thrown off. “Step, stab, step, chunk”, would sometimes become, “Step/slide, poke, step, crush”. We were ascending though, and we were on Roman Wall, the steepest part of our journey. When I’d seen it from below, it had looked very intimidating. Now, I just concentrated on following the steps, even at the cost of taking larger strides than I normally would. I did not want to slide down. I was very tired, my breath coming noisily as I mouth-breathed. But, we were getting closer and closer to the summit and that mentally energized me. Finally, I saw the  horizon above me turn white and blue, instead of being an all white wall, and I knew that I would soon be at the top of this steep section and on the plateau. One more step did it. I saw Matt and could walk normally now, my ice axe uselessly dangling too far above the snow to be used as an aid. Now we had one last uphill to the true summit. I was so tired, I did not look around the plateau but doggedly continued on.

At the base of the last uphill section to the summit Team Green Rope left packs, ice axes, and our namesake. It was time for the last push. I was very tired and dehydrated but I started up the gentle slope. I was still breathing heavily, and my nose had been running for awhile. Still, each step I took was instilled with the confidence that I was going to make it. I took the last steps, and saw a blanket of clouds spreading out before me.  I cracked a smile. Matt gave me a high five. Christina joined us. We had made it! I smiled more broadly. I had reached my goal. It had taken a combination of following the footsteps of others, and choosing my own tracks, but I liked where I was. I liked it quite a bit. Matt had told me to save some energy for the way down. The thought of going down some of the steep sections we had come up made me a little nervous, but I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew I’d get there and meanwhile, in spite of being tired and sick, I was still enjoying the journey.

Christina and I on the summit of Mt. Baker. Photo: Matt Valentine

Post Script: My Nitty Gritty Trip Report

Friday, July 5: From Baker trailhead, hiked to base camp along the Railroad Ridge trail. Spoke to other climbers on their way out and asked them about conditions. Their responses were sometimes along the lines of “Well, we summitted.” One said, “We had some views but we had 30 mph wind gusts”. They did not seem terribly enthused. The weather continues to hold. No rain. Set up camp, practiced self arrest, glissading, and roped team traveling. Had food. Tried to sleep early. We were squeezing 3 in a tent, and in spite of that I got a little cold and didn’t sleep well. Stomach wasn’t feeling good.

Saturday, July 6: Our alarm went off at 12:30 AM. Our target time to leave was 1:00 AM. By the time both teams actually started climbing it was around 2:45 AM.

Reached the Roman Wall after the sun had already come out. Snow was getting quite a bit softer, and thus it took more work to travel upwards on it. Team Green Rope summits at 11:11 AM, after leaving packs and ice axes at the bottom of the very last bit. We go back down to eat snacks while waiting for the Orange Team. Orange Team shows and everyone goes to the summit again, this time with ice axes, for group photos and to enjoy the views again. Everyone goes down to the packs and a group snack break happens. We start heading down as a whole group, Orange team in the lead this time, Dan in front. Green Team also changes rope order, Christina on lead, myself in the middle, and Matt last. Snow is very soft but we get down the steepest challenging part alright. The way down takes a long time. We are walking down into fog. Soon it’s hard to see. We carefully find the route. At one point we are off the glacier though still on snow and think we can do some glissading. Kim goes down as a guinea pig but suggests that we not do it. “If we go down here, we’ll die”. We all put our crampons back on and hike down. We get to the snow field right below our tents and stop to remove our crampons. Matt and Christina want to hike out all the way to the car and ask me my opinion. I say, “I won’t make it”. They leave me alone to finish removing my crampons and when I get to our tent they hand me a bowl of miso soup, which I drink gratefully. Before I finish the soup, I’ve agreed to hike all the way out and we hurriedly pack in the light rain which started as I was having the soup. The rest of the group decides to stay so we give Dan a bunch of our food. Matt, Christina, and I hike out. Matt soon goes on ahead, as I had warned that I was already tired and would need to take breaks. At one point Christina and I get confused by Matt’s turn direction and end up adding another half mile to our hike out. I am beyond using my last reserves now. However, we do get to the missed fork turn before daylight ends. We manage to hike out, me at the tail end. Hiking not in snow is much easier, but the hike still feels very grueling and each section with uneven rocks hurts my feet and challenges my mental skills. I finally make it to the parking area. We drive back to my friend’s place in Seattle and arrive Sunday, July 7, around 2:30 AM after stopping for drive through fast food and coffee. We had been awake for 26 hours. I was mentally exhausted but still thinking about what I had learned. I started writing the start of this blog post on the flight home.

Selfie on the trail while hiking to base camp
Grant Peak, Summit of Mount Baker. Washington, USA. The whole gang (Green Team went back up to the summit just for the photo). Kneeling: Lily, Christina. Back, L-R: Dan, Kim, Harry, Matt, me. Photo: Member of another team who was at the summit.

Father’s Day Gift Guide

I think it’s pretty easy to find great gifts for climbing and/or outdoor loving Dads but I thought I’d highlight a few that caught my eye and would make some pretty good gifts year round!

Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights

These are great! I love giving people my blue #3, letting them heft it and then handing them my Ultralight #3. The result is usually… “Wow!”. Check them out here.

Five Ten Tennies

If your Dad is Old School or likes the vibe, get him a new pair of the re-introduced Five Ten, Tennies the classic approach shoe! Take a peep here.

Slim Clip Phone Case

This phone case is slim enough to just clip onto a waistband. So Dad can run, hike, or work out without holding it in hand, or needing a separate case or holder for his phone. See the Slim Clip Cases here.

The Skeeter Beater

Does your Dad car camp? Get him this handy mesh screen that attaches with magnets to a car frame so you can enjoy some air without letting pests in! You can see this (without no-seeums) here.

3.0 Gallon Summer Shower

Solar showers aren’t new but this one has a water temperature gauge and a pocket with a mirror. Check this out here.

Alex Honnold Spatula

This one’s for the Dad who watched Free Solo and has a sense of humor. It’s a real product (and raises money for a worthy cause), check it out here.

Spring at the Red River Gorge with the AAC and Adidas

So what do you say when invited to be second camera for a shoot in a well known climbing area half way acress the country that you’ve never been to? You say, “Yes, I want to go!” Even if you don’t know when it might happen, and even if it just so happens to end up being the same week that you’ve already taken a day off to make it a three day weekend trip to Red Rocks, Nevada.

So it was that I found myself bound for the land of Muhummad Ali, green hills, Bourbon, and the Red River Gorge. The shoot was for the American Alpine Club and Adidas Outdoor and I had just had the good fortune to have just been accepted as an Adidas Outdoor Grassroots Ambassador so I was there doing double duty. The main on-camera talent consisted of Adidas athletes, Molly Mitchell and Kai Lightner, and American Alpine Club Education Manager, Ron Funderburke. We were there to shoot a video for the ACC’s Know the Ropes series with help from Erik Kloekker, Muir Valley volunteer and a local climbing guide.

From the parking area for Muir Valley, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, you can’t see anything that would clue you into the climbing potential of the place. Instead, there are chalked space lines and a rain shine shelter with tables, computers and papers for waivers, and a vending machine that promises the bubbly drink of choice for the area, Ale8, a ginger ale / citrus soda concoction that I’ve been told is great for mixed drinks.

Kai Lightner and Molly Mitchell hiking in. It was a cold wet morning in Kentucky.

From the parking area, the path to the crags was well maintained, not very steep, and there were signs at each juncture for various cliffs. When we arrived at our destination for the day, Drive-By Crag, I was impressed by the height and steepness of the climbs. The rock look featured enough, but challenging nonetheless. First bolts were stick-clip high and I found myself thinking I really should make/get myself one since I’d had the same thought when I went to Smith Rock.

Kai Lightner on Easy Rider. Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

After getting several scenes in the can and getting inspired by Kai and Molly basically gliding up steep routes, including Easy Rider 5.13c, Ted and I found ourselves with some free time when Ron had to leave to take Kai and Molly to the airport. The weather was still wet enough that it had been hard to tell throughout the day whether or not it was raining, or if we were just hearing the sounds of a few small waterfalls created from earlier rain fall. The crag was still quite crowded, and included a group of kids that Molly had coached before. I was jet lagged from the combination of my red-eye flight and long car ride and was not quite sure how I’d fare onsighting something. We did find a route that was supposed to be 10b with draws on it already. The first bolt didn’t seem to require a stick clip so I got on it. The start was a little deceptive but I got the first bolt. All well and good but what happened then was I got too set on a hand jam I had found (yes, I found a hand jam on a sport route) and I knew the next move was actually supposed to be a jug above me but that the steepness of the climb was already messing with my head. The combination of moving up above the bolt and possibly falling backwards did not sit well with me and I could only guess how tired I’d be further up the route. I backed off. Not my proudest moment. Ted and I moved along the cliff wall to another 10b I had eyed earlier. There was a group at it but since there wasn’t much choice of routes that were in my onsight range, Ted and I decided to relax a bit and wait and watch. The leader on the route was about two thirds of the way up when she fell, turned upside down, and continued to fall a few more feet. It was a rather dramatic fall. Various people called out, “Are you ok?” She came down and checked herself. She was a bit shaken up, but minor scrapes and bruises were the final tally. I did feel I didn’t want to lead the climb though so asked another person in the group if they wouldn’t mind giving us a ride on their rope. They didn’t mind but the plan changed to one of them leading with our gear so that they could leave and another in their group would just use our stuff to get a top rope climb in before they too left. During this conversation, we were asked how long we’d been at the Gorge. Ted answered it was our first day climbing, and in fact our first climb here. The gal we talked to look surprised, “Well, you picked a stout wall to start!”

The next day the weather had changed considerably. It was no longer cold and rainy but on the sunny side. Ted, Ron, and I joined up again with Erik and we went about getting scenes done for the video. I was called upon to also act in it so I guess you’ll see me in the final video. In the course of getting our shots we needed a rope up at times so we got to climb a little. Once I got on these routes, I understood why the gal the other day had been surprised we were starting at Drive-By Crag. These crags had more variety: a larger warm up range of climbs, different heights, and steepness.

We capped off the day with a stop at Skybridge Station for a cold one before getting back to make dinner at the cabin. We were invited to Trivia night but were having guests for dinner so had to decline. Here I was miles from home but still making friends and even meeting a friend’s family. In other contexts people might say to never mix business and pleasure or your social circles but I’ve found that climbing / outdoor folks often do so with great results.

The next day it was my turn to leave to catch a plane before the day was over. I had to get myself to Louisville International Airport. Luckily we cranked out some scenes and had time for me to lead something finally. It was just a 5.7 but it felt good. I also got to top rope some harder routes, finishing my climbs with Little Viper on Bruise Brothers Wall and letting me leave directly from the area with a smile on my face and pumped forearms. So long Kentucky, I hope to be back soon!

Ted, Me, and Ron on my last day.

Finishing a Climb

This past weekend, I took a day off and shot out to go climb in Red Rocks, Nevada. My friend Michelle had grabbed a group campsite months ago and had invited friends out and I’d gone ahead and asked for time off to make a 3 day weekend. My goal (which had been stymied the last time we did a group camp here) was to finally finish Ginger Cracks (5.9, 955 feet, 7 pitches). Years ago I had been on it in a party of three but we had bailed for reasons based on weather and fatigue.

I’m happy to say my friend Eric and I pulled it off this weekend with relatively small glitches: had to wait for a party of three we had not seen waiting at the base during our approach hike and Eric at first took a wrong chimney but quickly realized it. The weather was overcast during our morning hike in which made it tolerable and rather pretty. We came upon a group of deer who didn’t seem too concerned about us. We found the trail easily enough by following our guidebook beta and it seemed to take us the predicted hour and a half to get to the base from the parking area.

The climb itself was fun and varied, requiring a variety of gear (cams up to a Black Diamond 4, and nuts) and techniques (crack, chimney, face crimps, and traversing skills). The movement was fun and interesting and the views spectacular. I had originally planned to lead some pitches but seeing as we had not just one but two parties of three ahead of us, and hopes to get down before dark, I talked myself out of leading (though I almost took a higher pitch we thought might be the 5.0/5.2 pitch but turned out to be the crux!). I was happy to follow though. As I climbed I thought about how fortunate I was to be able to climb; to have access and the ability to get on something this great even though it had been awhile since I’d been a multi-pitch this tall, this hard, and with this long (and tiring) of an approach hike.

Three brothers from Seattle were at the base of the climb when we arrived. Another party was on it.

All I could do was smile as I climbed higher, the shade following me up the pitches and keeping me from overheating. We did have to wait sometimes for belay stations to clear and as the day progressed Eric and I both put on light jackets. A very light sprinkle, and thunder accompanied our last pitch but both ended before we finished our descent rappels.

Though we finished our rappels while there was still light, our hike out was in the dark which made it more challenging in terms of finding the right way to go and in staying upright on the steep and sometimes loose terrain. We eventually made it with only a few, quickly corrected wrong turns.

As far as multi-pitch climbs go, it went incredibly smoothly and yet, I felt a great sense of adventure and accomplishment. We in the climbing community sometimes make a lot of noise about first ascents, speed ascents, free soloing, and pushing the limits but I think every climber knows what the public may not – that most every climb for us can give us a quiet pleasure and the enjoyment of experiencing a climb and touching rock. When we topped out on the last pitch and looked out on the wilderness we had hiked through, I smiled again. How fortunate we all are.

Some more photos from the weekend

Black Diamond 9.9 Rope Review

Black Diamond, long known for their climbing hardwear, joined the ranks of climbing rope makers a few years ago. I was provided a Black Diamond 9.9 60m rope and I’ve been using it as my main climbing rope for a few months now.

I chose the 9.9 to review partly because it seemed to be a good “if you could only have one rope for years” type of rope. Meaning, I wanted a rope that:
1. I could trust
2. would take some abrasion abuse (I climb a fair amount in Joshua Tree National Park)
3. would work in a reasonable amount of belay devices
4. would be a decent trade off between having the qualities of 1 and 2 but also be long enough to do most climbs / pitches and
5. wouldn’t break the bank with its price point.

The Black Diamond 9.9 rope on its first outing

According to Black Diamond their ropes aim to “strike the perfect balance between weight, durability and handling, Black Diamond ropes feature a unique combination of weave and sheath [the 9.9 uses a 2×2 weave construction] that’s merged to create a cord that’s supple yet not too soft. This construction enhances the ropes’ ability to knot and feed through your belay device easily, without sacrificing longevity.”

So have they accomplished this goal?

Use Environments

I used this rope on sandstone at Echo Cliffs and Texas Canyon, on the famously gritty quartz monzonite of Joshua Tree National Park (and at Alabama Hills which has the same rock), and on the granite of Yosemite. It was used for both top rope and leading (and for multipitch in Yosemite).

Using the 9.9 on lead in Alabama Hills

A total of 12 people used the rope.

The first thing everyone seemed to notice was that the rope was fairly supple, and seemed smooth and a little slick. For my friends used to using thicker, older ropes, they noticed the slickness but easily adjusted to using it in a first generation Grigri. I noticed the slickness right away and thought it was great for tieing in however I did feel like I had to watch it when using my Trango Cinch. The sleekness was barely noticeable when using my Petzl Universo (think Verso permanently attached to a carabiner if you aren’t familiar with that device). It performed similarly in the Black Diamond Guide as well.

Endurance / Longevity

The rope is not as bright blue anymore – it’s quite dirty now. However, aside from discoloration, it otherwise has that smooth look of a new rope – no snags, no lumps, no unevenness. I have appreciated the suppleness of the rope when using it during trad leads and in creating rope anchors. It hasn’t lost the suppleness nor its dynamic qualities but I’ve only been using it a few months, not years so we’ll see as time goes on but for now I do think it will have great longevity and the handling of the rope is great.

A clear winner for me is the weight and size of the rope when carried either backpack style or in a rope bag or a backpack. I own a Petzl 9.8 60m but the Black Diamond 9.9 seems smaller and more compact, more than the .1 diameter difference would account for. When comparing the Black Diamond 9.9 to other diameter options, I think the trade off for the diameter of the rope versus having a lighter, skinnier rope is worth it. If you mainly do longer routes or like combining pitches for multi-pitch climbs, I’d consider the 9.4 70m instead, or perhaps even the 80m (assuming you have specific climbs in mind and it won’t be your one and only rope).


I’ve already mentioned that some climbers had to adjust to using the rope in their Grigri – but this may be the newness of the rope, and in the case of one climber – it was the skinniest rope he’d ever used. Still, be mindful of use if you have an older device where 9.9 is on the narrow end of its use.

I had a small issue with the middle mark, it is simply a small section colored black. When the rope was brand spanking new – practically glowing electric blue – it was pretty easy to notice this mark but once the rope got even a little dirty, it was much harder to spot. I love the convenience of the reverse pattern ropes to show you the two halves of a rope but understand that’s a bit costly. However, I have seen ropes with warning stripes before the middle mark, I would have liked to see that on this one as well.

Lastly, a small “con” – when I received the rope I didn’t do any special uncoiling or laying out of the rope, and I did notice it get a bit kinky during the first top rope routes, however it settled down pretty quickly.


The Black Diamond 9.9 60m (also available as a 70m) is a versatile rope that does the job without breaking your back.

Using the rope in Joshua Tree

More Tech Specs:

Rope Type :  Single
UIAA Factor Falls :  6
Weight Per Meter :  64 g (2.3 oz)
Static Elongation :  7.6%
Dynamic Elongation :  32%
Impact Force :  8.4 kN
Sheath :  Standard
Sheath Slippage :  0
Half Mark :  Yes