Me on lead on my “reach” move making the climb look harder than it should. Michele Watkins belays me, John Long looks on. Photo: Ted Distel

“Eileen I’ve got a climb you should lead,” Todd “The Mayor of Joshua Tree” Gordon told me. It was Saturday. With rain predicted locally for my birthday weekend, I had taken off on an unplanned trip to Joshua Tree and found myself amidst blue skies, a bit of wind, and good company.  Todd led the route first, then left an anchor for me to then lead it after him. I hadn’t warmed up on anything so this would be my first climb in weeks, but it looked great so I tied in. I moved up the easy start, then on to the steep section. Moving up from that I reached up but didn’t quite get the hold in the ideal spot on the rock spine. I was keenly aware that I was on lead so didn’t let go. I growled a little to myself but stayed with the hold, got my feet higher then stepped up. A few more moves and the climb was over too quickly.

I’m not one of those climbers that feel that when they climb, they should always lead. I’m just as happy following a route and I take pride in being a good “cleaner” of trad routes. I appreciate leading though as a skill and a unique way to bring oneself to focus on the moment so I practice when I can. Since my re-entry to climbing, I can count the times I’ve led on one hand. I know I’m not physically back to where I was. Mentally I’m not either. I was initially nervous to even just climb on toprope on a long friction climb on Suicide Rock. Re-entering climbing has meant challenging myself both physically and mentally.

Sunday, others in my group pointed me at a climb called Sand Donkey in Indian Cove. It was tall with some vertical cracks mixed with face climbing. I decided to try it as an onsight upon seeing that the first bolt seemed to be at a reasonable distance. I climbed up a few feet. I felt good on this low angle start. I even paused to smile at Michelle for a photo.

Me leading Sand Donkey, Ted Distel on belay. Photo: Michelle Watkins

I soon had to get down to business though. One of the verticals contained a bulging section that I needed to get over. I saw a bolt that would’ve been nice if I could have clipped from where I stood but I was just out of reach. I would have to move up somehow to do it. There was a chalked hold I could see that seemed to be the obvious one to go for before stepping up. I decided to basically hop for it. One. Two. Three. Hop… and fail. I repeated this with the same result. John “Wrote the Books on Climbing” Long, was in our group, and called up to me that the climb shouldn’t be that hard (it’s only supposed to be a 5.9 I think) and if I was making all that noise maybe it wasn’t the move. I said, “You’re right.” I shuffled my feet right to take a look at what I hoped was a crack I could use. It turned out to be just a flare. It seemed like the only thing to do was to go for the chalked hold. I shuffled back and discovered a small ledge I could use for my left foot so I could get a little higher. It was not ideally placed, it was too much inline with the hold I wanted… making my center of gravity a little off for such a move. It was worth a try though. I placed my foot carefully on it then tried a hop from there. My hand touched the hold! But I could not keep it.  I did feel though that it wasn’t a jug, it was more of a slight mound. I’d have to make it work.  One. Two. hop! I got it on it’s lower part but, still I was going to make it work. I held on. My hop momentum hadn’t brought me high enough to rock onto my foot so I did a slow push down on my left leg before being able to straighten and step up. That move was definitely not in line with a 5.9 rating.

Me leading Sand Donkey. Photo: Michelle Watkins

I had some adrenaline going as I prepared to move on to a face section. This required some calming on my part. I started to puff breathe. I remembered some advice given to me a long time ago… place your feet carefully, don’t reposition them. I stepped and moved. Stepped and moved. I got to the next bolt. There was one more vertical and then another face part. This seemed harder and steeper, and I still felt adrenaline from the move lower in the climb, but the anchor was so close. Step and move up. Step and move up. Keep your balance! I carefully did the last move and reached the anchors.

After I was down on the ground, it was interesting to watch the other climbers in our group do it, and to find that two of them found the second to the last face climbing portion of the climb to be a challenge as well as the part I felt was the crux. I realized that my mental space and muscle memory for friction, small edge type of climbs is still with me and may in fact be making it hard for me to properly judge those type of climbs since other types of climbing seem hard still. Or maybe it was just that I had been so relieved to get past the bulging vertical below, that the rest seemed not as bad in comparison. Of course, climbing routes are often great physical puzzles – there are no colored holds outdoors – and one can be creative when trying to figure out the next move. What may work for my body frame, may not work for others and vice versa.

That’s all part of the fun though. I love how climbing is good for the body, mind, and I’ll add, soul.

Getting my lead head back. Photo: Ted Distel