Randy Vogel leading Bighorn Dihedral (photo by Holden Harris)
Randy Vogel leading Bighorn Dihedral (photo by Holden Harris)

If you’ve been climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, you’ve probably seen Randy Vogel’s work, for decades his Joshua Tree Guides have been the number one source for route beta for climbers there. His first guide, Joshua Tree Rock Climbing Guide printed in 1986 was a hefty tome, and its Second Edition printed in 1992 contained 616 pages of information and went on to have an update and reprint in 2000 which is probably the most widely used park wide guide book in Jtree today. In 2006 Randy published the first of a comprehensive series of Joshua Tree guides, Rock Climbing Joshua Tree West: Quail Springs to Hidden Valley Campground, which included first ascent information as well as a more comprehensive look at the history of climbing in the park. He has currently released Classic Joshua Tree Routes – 1st Edition which came out earlier this year.

Randy’s first ascents in Joshua Tree include: Swept Away (1977), Poodles are People Too (1978), Importance of Being Ernest (1982), Scary Poodles (1982), I Can’t Believe it’s a Girdle, Figures on a Landscape (1978), Last Unicorn (1980), Spirited Away (1992).

It was my pleasure to interview him for Rockgrrl.com.

Q. Where did you grow up and how and when did you get into climbing?

A. The then small Southern California suburb of Tustin was where I spent my youth. A friend in High School had done some climbing and took me out to Mt. Rubidoux (near Riverside, CA) and later to Tahquitz. Frankly, climbing wasn’t something that came naturally at all. In fact, at first I wasn’t sure that I even liked it. A trip to Joshua Tree changed my mind, the place really resonated with me and the climbing was fun.

A year or so later, I started hanging out at a local climbing store and was lucky to meet some more experienced climbers, like Matt Cox and Dave Evans, who were willing to let me climb with them. Perhaps it helped that I had a car. After this, I began to climb several times a week and would spend every weekend at Joshua Tree or Tahquitz & Suicide.

Q. What made you decide to write a guide book? The first time… the second time.

A. When we first started climbing at Josh, the old paperback John Wolfe guide was really the only information available. It contained less than 100 routes — the hardest being 5.9 with most 5.7 or lower. There were lots of aid climbs listed. And, by 1974 it was totally out of date. People were doing new routes every weekend, there were lots of 5.10s and even a couple 5.11s, and almost every aid route listed had been freed.

Matt Cox, who lived and breathed climbing, began keeping notes on what was new and who did it. Rather than have to consult his notes, I began keeping my own notebook of information Matt had gathered and then updated it constantly. Pretty much everyone stayed in Hidden Valley and knew each other. The campfire scene was a perfect source for gathering information.

This notebook became known as The Toads’ Guide (The Toads were a non-climbing club of some friends). It was copied by several people and passed around. When John Wolfe and Bob Dominick were working on a new edition in 1976, I offered my help and gave them much of the information about new route activity. By 1978, so much new stuff had been done that another edition was planned, to which I also contributed.

John Wolfe and I were from very different generations of climbers and I felt the need to do my own type of guide. In 1980 I did a Topo guide to Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks and then various Selected and New Route Guides to Joshua Tree. After a lot of help from others, in 1986 my first complete guide to Joshua Tree was published. Since then, there have been a variety of Selected Routes guides, sport guides, and comprehensive guides.

Q. What is/was your “day job” at the time?

A. In the late 1970s I was in college, then worked as a rock climbing guide for a few years. While lots of fun, at that time, it wasn’t a particularly profitable profession. So I went to law school and graduated in 1983. Since then I have been a lawyer, specializing in Business Transactions and Litigation.

Q. Did you ever think you’d become a climbing historian?

A. Its funny that you say this since I remember that John Wolfe felt I didn’t appreciate climbing history. In truth, I always liked history, but when you are young you don’t really consider what is going on around you as history.

There has been a strong oral tradition in climbing, but rock climbing never seemed to be “historical” on the same scale as Mountaineering. Certainly the Old-Boy Mountaineering network viewed rock climbing as a lesser activity. As the 1960s and 1970s generation of rock climbers have aged (and in some cases their exploits become lore), there has been a huge increase in interest in climbing history.

But rather than just writing about the history of climbing in Josh, I thought it would be much more interesting to have the climbers write about their own experiences. Classic Joshua Tree Routes and Bouldering has over 130 of these First Ascent stories, Histories and Historical notes throughout the book.

Q. Any surprises while doing your research?

A. The early climbing history of Josh had always been shrouded in mystery. With the help of several people (most notably John Ripley who located some critical early Sierra Club reports), it turned out that the conventional wisdom that not much happened in Joshua Tree until the mid to late 1960s just wasn’t the case. Considerable evidence was unearthed that a lot of fairly high standard climbing had taken place in Josh throughout the 1950s and early 60s.

Q. It sounds like folks were pretty competitive in getting First Ascents in the park, were you Switzerland in any of the feuds?

A. I don’t think anyone mistakes me for Switzerland. While some climbers definitely got their noses out of joint when someone snagged a route they had their eye on, most climbers didn’t get that upset or just found another new line to do. After you read a number of the First Ascent histories in Classic Joshua Tree, it is interesting to see how competitive, yet mostly friendly this was.

Q. What was the biggest change in grade from Book 1?

A. Pinched Rib is a good example of a route that has changed grade over the years. I think it was originally rated 5.7. It climbs a vertical dike, but over the years large chunks have fallen off and the route is now generally considered 5.10a.

Q.  It has been a pet theory of mine that some of the old school climbs in Jtree have stout ratings simply because the rating system used to not go higher than 5.10 so FA’s may have been reluctant to grade a climb at the top of the scale. I’m thinking of climbs rated 5.7 or 5.9. Do you think that theory holds water?

A. Because most of Joshua Tree’s new route development was done in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the old school rated climbs you mention were done well after 5.11 or even 5.12 was established. Rating standards for routes in the 5.1 to 5.9 range  (which were devised at Tahquitz in the early 1950s), have evolved over time. But, at one point of time, there was a noticeable difference in the difficulty of even routes in the 5.1 to 5.5 range. Nowdays, many of these “easy grades” are considered trivial. Thus, when a modern climber gets on an “easy” old-school rated route, it sometimes seems harder than it should. This is true throughout the grades and ratings have suffered grade inflation to meet current expectations.

Ultimately, it is my belief that what matters is if ratings are consistent in a particular climbing area, not whether they are consistent with some other climbing area.

Until the last 30 years or so, climbers did not travel as extensively as they do now, so you often found areas where ratings were developed with little feedback from other climbers. Also, locals (at any area) get used to the peculiarities of their home crag and develop techniques that visiting climbers may initially lack. This too can lead to routes seeming harder from one area to the other.

Q. Why was British Airways named that?

A. It may have been the day after we established this route, we wanted some positive feedback and coaxed Jonny Woodward into climbing it. Jonny was still somewhat new to Josh slab climbing, but a tremendous climber. We expected him to romp up it (though we hoped he would struggle at least a bit). Maria Cranor was belaying Jonny while simultaneously holding forth an animated conversation with the rest of us. As Jonny neared the top, and Maria’s attention wandered a bit, a large amount of slack had formed. Suddenly, Jonny was off. And, as the slack was drawn upward, he kept falling. It was a clean, but spectacular fall of some 40 feet. The name for the route seem obvious to us.

Q. What’s your favorite route name?

A. There are so many great route names at Josh, perhaps more so than any climbing area, that it is hard to pick one. Also, a lot of names evoke memories associated with the route. But, if forced to pick one, it would be Poodles Are People Too. It bred a spat of “Poodle” named routes, many of which still bring a laugh.

2nd Edition (1992)
My copy, 2nd Edition (1992)

Q. What’s your next book coming out and when will it be available?

A. Central Joshua Tree is the next guide to come out. After being delayed due to a change in publishers, it is expected out December 2011. It will be like Joshua Tree West, but be full color. It will cover Echo, Barker Dam, Comic Book, Southern Wonderland, all Ryan Valley areas (Love Nest, Cap Rock, Ryn CG, Saddle Rock, Hall of Horrors, to Sheep Pass CG.

Joshua Tree East will cover Queen Mt, and everything east of Ryan Mt. including Indian Cove and Rattlesnake Canyon.

Q. Did the rise of climbing websites influence you to change any information in your books? Ratings, names, credit for First Ascents etc?

A. Climbing websites have been a great source of information and help in compiling a guidebook. The most significant information I have found has been the development of better consensus ratings. When you have a lot of people, who you may never otherwise have a chance to talk with, climb a route and rate it, ratings tend to reach a better consensus.

Even so, there is always a certain amount of “static” and inconsistency that arises when you have a user generated database and commentary. So, you still have to do your own research and climb routes and figure out descents.

Q. What did you think when the first online web resources came out? Did your opinion of them change over the years? do you see them as competition for hard copy guide books?

A. On line sources are, at least at this point in time, not competitive with a written guidebook. However, at some point, digital devices will advance enough that digital versions of guidebooks will become predominant. While we are creating phone aps for the new guides, it will be a few years before the hardware and technology really makes digital versions of a rock climbing guide a practical substitute.

Q. Before writing the Jtree guidebook, did you have any writing experience?

A. It has been a learn as you go venture and certainly there were some significant mis-steps along the way.

Q. How has writing the guidebooks changed your life?

A. It has solidified my love of climbing and forced me to get out and explore and climb routes and areas that I might otherwise have been too complacent to enjoy.

Randy Vogel leading Leave It To Beaver (photo by Andy Blair)
Randy Vogel leading Leave It To Beaver (photo by Andy Blair)