When is a 5.7 Not a 5.7? – Joshua Tree in January Conclusion

“You’ll have too much drag!” Dave shouted up to Luis, who was scouting around a round cap formation near the top of a trad climb on Chimney Rock.

As his belayer, I was standing in a position about 50 feet below and to the left of Luis, unable to see what was going on. I could; however, agree wholeheartedly with Dave. Luis had asked for some rope earlier and I had given him the slack, yet he wasn’t able to feel it at all.

“What about that crack over there?” Dave shouted again.

“It’s nothing, it just flares.”

Eventually it was decided that Luis would just belay me up to a spot on a ledge more in line with the rope than the false crack. We should, Dave said, be able to downclimb a chimney from there to another ledge and be able to go to the back of the formation to some rap rings on the other side.

The original plan had been that I was going to tail and reclip a rope so that others in our party could also follow the climb. That plan was smartly scrapped and I was just going to do a straight clean.

As I waited to make sure I was on belay I contemplated the 5.7 rating at Joshua Tree National Park and recalled a conversation I had had earlier during this trip.

“That one says it’s a 5.7” a climber had asked me.

“5.7 trad climbs here are unpredictable. They vary a lot.”

“Yeah, why is that?”

“I think some of them were rated with old school ratings, when 5.10 was the hardest there could be. That and maybe vet climbers doing a climb, just cruising, thinking a climb wasn’t too hard and shrugging that ‘we’ll just call it a 5.7′”.

I got a smile at that and continued, “There’s a climb in my old guide book that’s rated a 5.7. In the newest guide book it’s a 5.10!”.

“Belay is on!” Luis called. We did the rest of the command exchanges.

I started climbing.

Typical J Tree 5.7The climb I think we were doing according to my old guide book is West Face Overhang, 5.7 1 star. We (Luis, Dave and I) had studied it from the ground, comparing it to their newer guide book (I had left mine at the campsite). It looked like the first part was an easy, lower angle, walk up between two small cracks which then led to a chimney climb topped off with a boulder-like chunk which looked to us to be the crux of the climb to get over and/or around.  The finish of the climb had looked like a crack to the top of the formation set in another large boulder like shape above a ledge. That part is what Luis had called “nothing”.

I was on the lower angle part now – the part we had thought was going to be a “walk up” but at which Luis had already told me, in his accent, “That part is a little bit scary”. I could see how it would be a surprise on lead. The cracks were nice but the rock between them protruded outwards, keeping you a little off balance.

The next part was the chimney, it was a little bit too off width to do text book chimney moves, but it wasn’t too bad. I had noticed that Luis had gone straight up, following a crack rather than going around the roof part but I stepped onto the block instead.

A few more moves and I was at his belay. There was a small ledge which I could walk around the corner. Though I didn’t walk right to it due to rope drag, I could see what Luis had meant about the “crack” we had thought was the final part of the climb. It was not too much more than a scoop out of the rock towards the top, it might make a fun boulder problem if you could stem your way up, but there was no way to place gear at that part, and we were rather high in the air.

From the ledge I looked for the chimney area Dave had mentioned and saw it. It would be an interesting downclimb just get into place for it. As I got a closer look I didn’t necessarily like it. “So, we go down there?”

“Yes,” Luis said. “Or… you could lead up this,” he indicated a crack in the boulder like cap, which started at the ledge I was on and went all the way to the top. It was not tall at all, maybe 15 feet or so? Maybe 20 at the most.

We moved towards the downclimb but before I was about to cross I decided I wanted to lead the crack instead. I told Luis, “I’m like a cat, I like to go up more than I like to go down”.

Unknown CrackThis is true but I’m not sure why I felt so confident I could do this climb as an onsight. The crack looked lovely, hand and fingers, yet I really don’t have too many trad lead climbs under my belt, and even fewer done as an on sight. Climbing had helped me realize something though. I am good in a tight situation, between a rock and a hard place (forgive the pun), or even just an uncomfortable place.

I have been called a “rope gun” only a few times in my life since usually there’s always a better one in my group, but if one was needed, I’d step up. When I know something needs to be done and I can do it, I will. No complaints, no backing down. This situation on Chimney Rock was not dire as, say, my unexpected lead of part of Open Book (5.9 trad in Tahquitz) but it was just more convenient if I were to lead this and… I thought it would be more fun as well.

A few days before this trip my boyfriend told me of this crazy theory he had which basically said that I am like a hobbit. Yeah, a hobbit, from the Lord of the Rings. I didn’t find this flattering but he explained himself. Looking at a hobbit you wouldn’t expect them to be tough, but they came through and could kick butt. So he was saying I am tough and good in tough situations. I thought about The Open Book epic and other climbing situations I’ve been in and decided not to throw something at him. Still, I’d much rather be an elf, than a hobbit, for those keeping track.

I thought about that incident right before I started up the crack. It was fun, not as easy as I had thought, but fun. Luis had put a piece in at the bottom for me, he took it out after I had placed one of my own and passed it up to me to place again. I think I only put one more piece in. Just before the top I found that the crack widened. “I’m a little scared now, the crack widened,” I said to him.

“You are good,” he encouraged.

It was silly to tire myself out just hanging there, “When in doubt, run it out!” right? So I moved up and finished.

There were bolts at the top and rap rings. I happily told Luis.

When he got up I discovered I’d been climbing with my Flip MinoHD in my pocket so I took a quick video.

I gave Luis a high five.

The story of the 5.7 wasn’t over yet though. We rapped down to a ledge of sorts on the other side but not to the ground. I could see rap rings on a rock face through a chimney crack. We ended up going up and through this chimney, at first not knowing if we could reach the rings.  When we made it to the ground I gave him another high five.

This is what I remember about my early trips to Joshua Tree: a 5.7 can take all your strength and then send you on an epic downclimb (though in this case it was easy once we saw there wasn’t a chasm between the chimney and the second rap rings).

So, when is a single pitch 5.7 trad climb not a 5.7? When it’s an old school Joshua Tree 5.7 that’s when. Then it can become a route finding surprise 2 pitch climb with an unknown way to get down. The funny thing is, I know this about the 5.7s, yet I keep trying them anyway, a girl’s gotta have some unexpected fun doesn’t she?

Feel free to add your own “5.7” stories!

More:

You can also read a trip report from theclimbergirl (no relation, though we should be huh?), she posted about a hard 5.7 as well (and was in the park just days after I left from this trip).

Links to my other articles about this particular Joshua Tree trip (January 15 – 19, 2009):

Joshua Tree in January Part 1 – Campsite Conflict

Joshua Tree in January Part 2 – Climbers

Joshua Tree in January – Trip Photos

Joshua Tree in January Part 2 – Climbers & Climbs

It was late for winter campsite hours, past 9pm, on Sunday night. Luis, Peter and I were walking the Hidden Valley campground loop trying to find our friends who had taken off to visit a campfire to which we’d all been invited. The directions at the time had been, “We’re at the really big bonfire”.  Problem was that there didn’t seem to be any “really big” bonfires left. Luis and Peter had taken awhile to get back from their errand so we had started off late, we figured the “really big” part might have burned down to “moderate sized”.

Still, we walked along, looking at the stars and checking out campfires. We got to one that two guys were near, their backs partly facing towards us. “Dave and Eric?,” we asked, pretty sure it wasn’t them but feeling like we had to say something since we had obviously been walking towards them.

“Yeah?” One of the guys said, “We’re Dave and Eric.”

“Wha?” Peter said.

I took a step closer to get a better look at their faces, I really didn’t think I was wrong.  The other guy who hadn’t spoken yet said, “Hey we know you, from Thin Wall.”

The first one added, “And we watched you climb Sexy Grandma today!”

I finally got a good look at the guys, It WAS Dave and Eric — just not the Dave and Eric we were looking for.

We all had a good laugh about this, and I thought it was a great example of just how social this particular climbing trip had been.

I love climbers. In the span of 4 days,  between the comings and goings,  I ended up meeting 14 people for the first time, some of whom I shortly there after put my life into their hands and vice versa. And that’s not counting some folks we met at the ranger sponsored “Climber’s Coffee” on Saturday morning or the party of three who we saw on Sail Away.

When taking off for this trip all I knew was that Peter and myself were going with 100% certainty (my boyfriend couldn’t make it because he had to work). I also knew that some climbers who did not lead trad were coming up one of the days and that on Monday Peter wanted to climb with a woman he had met previously. My only expectations were then centered on me following routes, putting up some sport/ top rope climbs and maybe doing repeats of trad leads I had done but Peter hadn’t. I also expected it to be very cold, day and night, for the entire trip.

My weather expectations were a little off, it was cold at night and in the shade but on Saturday it was so warm that the guys took off their shirts and Nicole and I went down to tank top / short sleeves layers.

My climbing expectations were also exceeded. With the addition of Eric to the mix I got to follow a 10c friction climb that I would not normally have done (leading a run out J Tree 10c slab climb just doesn’t appeal to me at this point in my climbing life). I also got to try a 10a friction climb that Dave (from California, not from Arizona) put up and then I got to follow Luis (who I had just met that day) on a 5.7 trad climb which turned out to be much trickier than you’d think… and also turned into a 2 pitch climb in which I led some unknown crack climb to the summit as an onsight.

This was in addition to some of the more expected climbs, for example, Peter got to lead Sail Away for the first time (I’ve led it in the past so opted to second it so we could more quickly get out of shade that day).  That same day I did however,  get to lead a 5.8 crack climb on Thin Wall (which is when we’d met Dave and Eric from Tucson).

Eric making eye contact with his belayer
Eric making eye contact with his belayer

The people were as diverse as the climbs. Dave (the California one) is an architect and an avid mountaineer, he is in training for Mt. Ranier and has been up Mt. Shasta and I’m sure a number of other peaks. Eric was currently on his 8th month of being a climbing bum and had started his trip climbing in Croatia. He also had a neat camera gadget which he used to make some cool climbing videos. Eric from Tucson, did his first 10a trad lead on No Calculator’s Allowed but unfortunately hurt his finger pretty badly the next day, which went along with his partner Dave twisting his ankle. Peter P. (who we met at Echo Cove) is originally from Munich and had a dry sense of humor, his friend Brian from New Jersey is a newlywed and seemed happy to be out enjoying West Coast weather. Risa and her friend James are in the Military. James is an airplane “operator”, he flies unmanned aircraft and told us that therefore they don’t call themselves pilots. Luis came to the US from Spain three years ago and is a math teacher in the LA Unified school district. I liked him immediately when, after doing a section on the 5.7 trad climb which we had all eyeballed from the bottom as being the “easy part”, he said, “That part is a little bit scary”, in his Spanish accent.

To me anyone who is willing to admit they are scared in front of some girl they don’t know is alright by me. I’d rather know what I was getting into then have some guy hiding it because of bravado.

As far as the “usual suspects”, Peter can’t hear from one ear, lives on his boat and is the oldest of our bunch but is in crazy great shape, Matt is, well “Matt”, if you meet him you’ll know what I mean (he and Eric really hit it off well). Michael is a very “zen” climber who is into martial arts and also does movie effects related work. Nicole and Casey are great climbers and a lot of fun, they just aren’t keen on trad so much (yet),  and me well, I’m just a generally laid back climber who is also a bit of a geek and photographer.

Next time you’re out at Josh perhaps faced with limited options due to weather or partners, look around. Try going around yelling, “rockgrrl!” or Dave, Eric, or Peter and maybe you’ll get a holler back.

Me, Luis, Peter, Dave, Nicole, Casey - Saturday Group
Me, Luis, Peter, Dave, Nicole, Casey - Saturday Group

Joshua Tree in January Part 1 – Campsite Conflict

Sharing campsites
Peter at camp

My first trip to Joshua Tree was when it was still a National Monument. I arrived late on a Friday night with a crowded car of climbers there for our first time. It took us a moment to figure out that the “furry trunk” trees lit by our headlights were the giant cactus namesakes of the park.

This past Thursday through Monday, was my umpteenth trip to the climber’s playground now known as Joshua Tree National Park but it was my first trip there during the month of January.  A few weeks before my departure I had seen pictures of Intersection Rock and the surrounding area covered in snow. I was prepared for cold days, colder nights and setting up ropes for some newer climbers who were going to join the group.

As usual, J Tree surprised me and taught me again that you can never really know all there is about a place,  a group of people, yourself or your climbing abilities. Like Joshua Tree itself, my trip report will be structured a bit unconventionally and sometimes jump in time.

Matteo and Oberto

My friend Peter and I arrived in the park around 1AM, glad that we knew a campsite had been set aside for us by a friend. But when we got to our spot we were quite surprised to find a stranger’s car parked in the middle of two spaces, another campsite ticket placed over ours and a tent in the spot.

My stomach sank. It’s one thing to ask folks if you can share a site, but to take up all the car spaces AND put your ticket OVER another person’s ticket? That meant you had to have seen that the site was already taken. I really didn’t want to have to search for another site so late at night, and my friend Peter was also concerned because we were expecting more friends to arrive at this particular site the next morning.

Peter parked his truck on the side if the turn out, we set up our tents in another part of the same campsite and went to bed. Peter had read the ticket and told me that the guys were from Italy.  I started reviewing what little Italian I knew and wondered if I they would understand a very bad Spanish explanation of camping etiquette. I thought idly that if it came to it, a ranger could check the payment box and see who had paid first.

It was a cold night but I only woke up once to put more clothes on.

The next morning I opened my eyes to a warm, partially sunlit tent. I heard some voices outside and waited a little bit. I was chicken to be the first to step out into a possible confrontation and was still drowsy from the 1 AM arrival.

Instead of a dreaded Italian curse, I heard an accented voice say, “I’m sorry” and then heard Peter say something about it being ok but he’d be right back.

Turns out the Italian guys, Matteo and Oberto, had also arrived late at night (though obviously not as late as we had) and had thought our site was just going to stay vacant. They were very friendly and were from the Dolomites area in Italy. They had come to the US and bought a used car to travel in, hoping to sell it back when they were done. We swapped climbing route recommendations and cultural stories.

The $50 Ticket

“… I got a $50 ticket… they took my plates… $50!” I was half awake Sunday morning when I heard those words. From what I could hear through my tent and in between drifting off, someone had been reported on by some fellow campers, been forced to move to a different campsite, had their driver’s license plate number taken down and been given a $50 ticket.

I got more of the story from another climber who knew the person who got the ticket. Turns out there was a debate on who had gotten a site first,  a ranger than asked some folks in the site next door who had gotten there first and the neighbor incorrectly said the other guys. Ticket, etc ensued. All of this is third hand information, but I had clearly heard the unpleasant results in the morning.

Joshua Tree lesson learned: don’t prejudge a situation and don’t bring anger to a discussion if you can bring understanding.