Multi-Pitch Trad in Joshua Tree – April 4th, 2011
“I can do this,” I said out loud. There was no one who could hear me. Perhaps the two flies buzzing around me heard, but if they did, their only reaction was to buzz me again. I idly swatted at them, while simultaneously thinking that I shouldn’t let them bother me, and more importantly that I should ignore them and concentrate on keeping my feet smeared on the rock.
My left foot slipped a little. This was the second time it had done that. I looked down and to my right at the runner I had clipped into the one bolt on the route. It looked far away. It would be an unpleasant fall if I came off. I wanted to go back down to recompose myself, but down climbing might be just as hard if not harder than moving up.
One thing was certain, the longer I stayed where I was, the greater the chance I’d come off.
“I can do this,” I said again, “I can do this.” I looked to my left to make sure I hadn’t gone on another, harder route that had bolts. I saw multiple bolts there which matched up to the harder route description, I was definitely on the right route.
I needed to move. I pressed my chalked right hand on an indention on the rock face and stepped up. My breathing was not even, but I was still breathing. I made another move and then another. Nothing was solid yet. My feet and hands were on holds that had a bit of chalk on them, I wondered if I had succeeded in greasing them with my half-hearted hand hold attempts from earlier. I moved up again, and again. The rock felt more like Yosemite granite than the famed grit of Joshua Tree. Finally I attained my goal for my right hand, a slope with a small seam in it. The seam was not big enough for my fingers, but it was more than a dimple smear at least. I still needed to step up though. I maneuvered so I could leverage my left foot up.
I made the move for my left foot and then performed a balanced standing move to get my right up. I was on the ledge of sorts, there was finally a crack starting up again, about chest high to my 5′ 4″ frame. I got a two finger jam in it. It was the most solid hold I had felt since before the small run out section prior to the bolt. I said to myself, “I’m not done yet.” Then I placed a cam in the crack near my hand hold and clipped it.
A sigh of relief. A shake of the arms and a bit of mental chalk applied. I moved upwards again. The crack was back though, it was my friend. After another move I placed a piece, extended it and clipped in then moved up. I was focused on finding the belay bolts, but there was a slight slope on the top of this crack, and I didn’t see any bolts.
“There better be bolts there,” I said out loud again, the rock seemed unperturbed by my threat. My nerves were pretty tired and I didn’t have much gear left if I had to make my own anchor.
Fortunately the bolts were there. I clipped in and made an anchor with an unnecessary back up.
Thus ended the first pitch of “Right On”, the longest climb in Joshua Tree according to Randy Vogel’s latest Joshua Tree guide. It used to be called a 5.5, the newer book puts it at 5.6. with the 5.6 portion being on the first pitch. Comments on Mountain Project mention 5.7 R for the whole route and I noticed a notable climber posted about slipping before the bolt. I call the pitch, Class 2 fun and definitely not 5.6, at least not that day.
K and I were doing “Right On” on our 4th consecutive day of Joshua Tree climbing. We didn’t know much about it except what it said in the guide book Randy had given me just two days ago at Flander’s Fundraising party. We had picked it partly because it was near Ryan campground and partly because we thought it might be a nice relaxing, easy multipitch and looked like an aesthetic line with a great view.
One thing about Jtree, is that scale is sometimes hard to make out from a distance. Sure we have funky flora like Joshua Trees, but they don’t register as things that loom very tall in the way that pines do. When I’d said I’d take the first pitch of the climb I had known that it would probably be a little run out to the one bolt on the climb, but I figured, well it’s “5.6” it’s probably got big holds on the run out, and it doesn’t look that far.
I should’ve closely examined a picture I had taken of Saddle Rock the day before this. There are two climbers at the base of the climb in it; climbers who I’m guessing are taller than me. Maybe then I would’ve guessed that the distance was farther than it looked, maybe I might’ve seen that the rock wasn’t as featured as I had hoped. Maybe, but maybe not.
K and I had already planned that he would combine pitches 2 and 3 (it was suggested in the guide that two of the pitches in the four pitch climb be combined) but after he came up to me on that belay station, he congratulated me on the lead, told me he had been scared for me while doing it, and then that he wasn’t decided yet on if he would combine the next pitches or not.
The belay station was slightly under the route of the 2nd pitch which went up and over a bulge before settling into a crack. I belayed for a bit, hearing breathing sounds and clinking of gear, eventually I heard K call out that he’d string the pitches together but also something about watching him. There was more breathing and less clinking of gear, and very shortly I couldn’t hear him at all anymore. Eventually I heard him call out an “off belay”.
The second and third pitch were very interesting. After getting out from the belay area, the crack slanted up and away in a book like formation which I climbed using part crack climbing technique, part chimney, part layback, and part over hanging technique. I guess a shorter way to say that would be proclaiming it was closer to off width technique than anything else. It took a lot of energy. I got to a certain point where I was secure and K took a picture of me before I had to stem over a chasm to reach the belay station. I was a little nervous because my legs seemed like they might be a tiny bit too short to wedge me securely but I got through it. Apparently K had used some of the face to my left to climb this pitch, which made it a bit run out for him and I’m sure much scarier.
K took the last pitch as well, it looked pretty easy, though he had a small bit of route finding and both of our nerves were a little frazzled due to the surprise difficulties on our pitches. I followed up no problem and then we were treated to a fantastic view of the park. We were already starting to forget the Fun Class 2 portions of the climb, but were not quite ready to proclaim that we’d to it all over again. It was enough to enjoy the view before attempting the down climb to find some rappel anchors that were supposed to be around.
How’s the saying go? At the summit, you’re only half way done? Fortunately the down climb was easier than it looked, and once I was off belay I found the anchor bolts right away. We rappelled one 60m rope length down then had a bit more scrambling to do before getting to the level of where the first pitch started.
By the time we got back to the car, we were already talking about how great the climb was.
Arriving in Joshua Tree – April 1, 2011
K and I arrived on Friday, two of our friends had already gotten a site in Ryan Campground after having had to spend the night in a motel Thursday night, it was a “zoo” they had said, not even Jumbo Rocks campground had had spots. We told them it was Spring Break and that with over 140 people RSVP’d for Flanders (Doug Nidever) Fundraiser party at Todd Gordon’s house, perhaps a lot of folks were out for the weekend for that too.
After K and I unloading some things we all went over towards Headstone rock, where our friend had said he’d seen some interesting cracks on the shady side. Shade was key, it felt pretty warm in the sun, temps were high 70s, low 80s. Sure enough, there were some fun looking cracks. Our friend took one, and I decided I’d like to give another an on sight go. It looked like a fist jam sized crack with a sloping crack a definite ledge to rest on and then a crack finishing off with a gentle slope. As I started up it, I realized it was pretty gritty, probably not one that was climbed a lot. I got to a part that was on the slope which turned out to be slightly harder than I had predicted, mainly because of the body positioning it put me in with my arms forward and my feet a bit back. After that it was back to a crack.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my right hand, “Ow!” I said, “Ow, Owww!” I jerked my hand out of the crack, examining it, “Something stung me!” I said, suspecting that perhaps one of the bees that were buzzing around the bushes as the base of the climb had somehow flown up to get me. I stayed on the climb though. The pain faded and I finished.
K laughed, “Eileen is the only one I know who says, ‘Ow!’ when she gets stung, anyone else,” he said, “would be cursing.” I smiled, I suppose it might be true, and it wasn’t that I didn’t curse, but well, sudden pain I guess just makes me say what I mean… “Ow!”
Down on the ground after a short down climb, I took an allergy pill, I always carry at least one with me because I am hyper sensitive to all insect bites (and stings). I was already suspecting that I wasn’t really stung though because I didn’t see a tell tale bump or stinger. I thought maybe it was a spider bite or maybe even a stinging nettle type plant that had fallen in the crack. At any rate, I was happy my hand wasn’t turning baseball mitt sized (which is what happened the first time I was stung by a bee).
I ended up trying two other routes on the formation, both fun and worth doing. We didn’t know the names of the climbs, but there was supposedly some 5.8s, 5.9s and one 5.10 on this side of the formation. It was fun to just do them and climb in the shade. We tried to find a site in Hidden Valley, but weren’t successful.
Todd Gordon’s Party / Flanders Fundraiser – April 2, 2011
One of the reasons I’d been excited to go to Joshua Tree during this time period was because Todd was having one of his famous parties. Mutual friends of ours had attended these in the past (and we’d been invited) but timing had never quite meshed. Now ironically two of our mutual friends were both out of town so we’d be going on our own. A bonus though was that Randy Vogel would be there and he had a book for me since I’d just interviewed him. I recognized a few other names of folks on the RSVP list but one had called asking us for a ride which we unfortunately couldn’t provide so I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it either. Anyway, we were all still game to go, and I even had a shirt to donate to the cause, so we made it part of our Saturday plan.
First we wanted to get some climbing in. We went out to Hall of Horrors and all four of us did “Nurn’s Romp” and then when 3 of us rappelled down to “Exorcist”, I stayed up with the rap rope and rigged it so I could take photos of leaders on the route. “Exorcist” is a great line, a 5.10 crack that ends with a small blank area (it has one bolt here) and then a jug before finally finishing with another, bigger crack to the top. Even though I’ve climbed this cleanly, I have not led it yet, as I still need to figure out the bolt area to my satisfaction (only other climbers I’ve seen lead it can all reach the jug before I can). Today was picture day though so I literally hung out and jugged up and down my rope using a Gri Gri and a Tibloc. I did get one top rope run on “Exorcist” at the end.
After climbing and a short scouting hike to see if we could squeeze one more climb in, we parted ways so my friends could resupply before the party and K and I could see if we could get a better campsite. By the time we made it to the party it was 7pm. We parked a bit away from the house after a line of cars but could still hear the band playing. Fortunately I was still able to include my shirt donation for the table and we found Randy right away. The party was a lot of fun, we saw two live bands and a slideshow and bumped into more folks we knew than we thought would be there. We also made new friends and chatted with some true old school climbers. We wished we had arrived earlier so we would have had more time to chat, it was pretty inspiring to hear the BITD (Back in the Day) stories and to see these guys still partying. It was comforting because I’ve recently come to realize that I might actually need “real rest” days on multi-day trips which made me feel “old” – but here were folks older than me and still going!
April 3, 2011
Our friends had to leave earlier than they expected. K and I packed some of our stuff up, thinking we might relocate to Hidden Valley campground. As we did we saw some of our friends who had been at the party drive by, one rolled down his window and invited us to join them on the back side of Snickers. We said we would after we cruised over to Hidden Valley to check for sites (and to see if Diane and Charlie Winger – climbers and authors of The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree – had arrived). K and I went to HV and left a note for the Wingers then we headed to Snickers. Unfortunately we overshot the parking lot and ended up parking at Barker Dam. However this turned out to be a kind of happy accident as we ended up talking to a guy who had just pulled into the space next to us and was looking for rock climbers to photograph just for the day. Now, since I’m usually the one with the camera, I thought it’d be fun to actually be in some pictures this time so we said he could come along with us as we were looking to join more climbers.
By the time we got to Snickers we didn’t see our friends, however we did see a climb I thought I recognized called “Funny Bone”, which also had another climb right next to it that I hadn’t done before. As we eyed it some guys came up with the Trad guide book and we were able to verify that it was indeed “Funny Bone”. We offered the climb to the guys who had shown up since we weren’t on it yet, but they said they were a party of three and didn’t mind waiting. So K and I went up, no problem. I didn’t lead it after K had done as I was conscious of the guys waiting for it and thought I’d just lead it after they had finished. However we did set up a top rope for the 5.10 something climb near it so we could do that.
Well it turns out the guys had also gone to the party but had left early so we hadn’t met them. K did recognize one of them from SuperTopo though, and oddly enough, one of them recognized that I was on Twitter because “Steph Davis retweets you”. I found it funny that we were connected to these old school climbers due to internet message boards and Twitter. Who says technology divides the old and young or even outdoor and indoor people?
Back at Ryan Campground, K and I decided to do a quick run up Headstone to watch the sun set. Headstone, famous for its exposure, can still get the blood pumping even if you’ve done it before. The top of it is not a bad place for sunset watching, not at all.
April 4, 2011
This is the day K and I did “Right On” which is the story with which I started this article.
Prior to leaving for the climb, K and I had found a site in Hidden Valley campground, went back to Ryan to pack up and then headed to the climb. After getting back to the new campsite at HV, we started unpacking. Two figures came out of the darkness. It was Charlie and Diane. It was fun to meet them. I’d interacted with Diane on the Rockgrrl forums (as far back as the first incarnation of the forums even) and also on Twitter. This was further proof that technology doesn’t have to be something that outdoor enthusiasts curse but something that can bring us together instead.
April 5, 2011
K and I were thinking around this time that we hadn’t really had a rest day as we had planned. We had prepared for staying in Jtree for about 9 days like our previous trip but wanted to have a real rest day because we both felt we paid for it when we didn’t have one on that trip. However, we wanted to climb with Charlie and Diane so were game to go where they wanted. Some in their group wanted to go to Hemingway but Charlie and Diane wanted to head to Rock Garden Valley, which is where the four of us ended up heading. As we climbed and scrambled higher towards the walls, I couldn’t help but note that Charlie was like a mountain goat, he had no problem with the boulders and quickly did the route finding up the approach. K told me later than he figured out Charlie is 75 years old. He is one spry old goat if so! And talk about multi-day trips, he had come to Jtree from Death Valley and was going off again from Jtree to go to Red Rocks!
I really had a great time at Rock Garden Valley, the climbs were really nice. I led “Double Dog Leg” (not technically an on sight because I took a few pics while Charlie led it) and at one point on it, I had to adjust my thinking because it wasn’t a climb where you had to use the crack the whole time. We also climbed “Young Lust” though there was some debate as to which climb that was as Randy’s book looked like it conflicted with the Wingers’ book and memory. K and I ended up doing 4 routes each, with an added pitch for K on top rope. I want to go back and lead more in this area. While we were up there, we met two climbers from San Diego, one did his very first trad lead, which was “Double Dog Leg”, and his 2nd trad lead on a crack we were guessing was a 5.8. Here we were again at the intersection of new and old. From Charlie’s umpteenth trad lead to another’s very first. All while the rocks look on, for the most part, frozen in time.
April 6, 2011
It started to rain early in the morning. It was a light rain, but the dark clouds above us did not seem to be in any hurry to leave. We had heard rumors around the campground that the weather for Saturday was going to be a high of 50. We didn’t know if that meant this rain was going to stick around till then or if strong winds were on the way to accompany such a drop in temperature. K and I at first tried waiting it out, finally taking that rest day we had talked about. The Wingers, we figured were also figuring things out. Finally we saw them drive by, they told us they were headed into town for food, showers, the internet to check the weather and maybe a movie. K and I stuck around a bit longer. The rain started to come down in heavier squalls. Our immediate neighbor had left for town and had come back, his news wasn’t that cheerful, he confirmed the 50 degree high and added that wind was coming, he and his dog were leaving. K and I decided to pack up and then decide in town, we needed to buy groceries anyway. After we packed up though we decided to hike around to try to find some Joshua Tree climbers’ points of interest.
On our last extended trip we had finally been successful in finding the Chasm of Doom, something I had done once years ago but that K had started to think was a myth. This time around I was able to lead us right to another interesting place, the Iron Door. We also found a Hobbit Hole and a bunch of cool boulder problems. Eventually though we left for town. We checked the weather once there and found a dire prediction of 80 mph winds for the next day followed by a chance of snow for the weekend!
We both agreed that it might be neat to see and photograph snow on the weekend but it wasn’t worth sticking it out for the rest of the rainy day and then have to survive crazy winds for another whole day after it. We were going to get our “real rest” day after all, it would be spent driving home.
I didn’t really push myself grade wise at all during this trip, but I felt it was great mentally. My very first climb of the trip was an on sight, one that none of us even knew its name or rating. Though it was probably a 5.8 or maybe even a 5.7. I think it was a good thing for me to do (despite getting bitten on it) because it helped put me in a leading mind set for the rest of the trip. It was great meeting other climbers too who helped me see that it’s not all about modern grades and that one can keep climbing and finding adventure everywhere… which was definitely proven by “Right On”. It may have once been called “just a 5.5” but it was definitely an old school route and needed knowledge of many types of climbing to climb it well.
I came away from this trip both humbled and encouraged; and with photos and fond memories of old and new friends. What more can you ask from a trip to Joshua Tree?
I have trip photos up here and here’s a video I put together with some of my pics and some pics taken of me by my friends.