“Fuuu…*$k!” I said, drawing out the vowel in the word with such feeling that my friends at the base of the climb busted out laughing. I was at the top of “Imaginary Journey” in Joshua Tree National Park, hanging on a rope under a large roof which was pulling me towards the crack in the middle of it. I was keeping myself from swinging out by grasping onto a stone block with my hands and using a toe hook to assist my hands at keeping me where I was. Cliff had just confirmed what I already knew. I’d have to hang on the block, weighting my tired right arm, do a toe hook on its right side while placing my left foot on its face, and then reach far left and up to a flake above my head with my left hand. After that I’d have to match hands, and then swing from one side of the formation to the other. When Cliff did it, he did with a yell and looked like Spiderman leaping from one side to the other, or maybe simply Superman flying between the walls. I didn’t think I could even get the flake, let alone execute the leaping swing. It had taken quite a bit just to get to where I was. And I was tired and pumped. This is what had driven the expletive from deep within me. My friends laughed because I rarely curse, and certainly not with that tone.
I shifted my right hand on the block, set my toe, pushed off with my left foot and reached for the flake. I felt three fingertips of my left hand grab the edge of the flake… but I couldn’t get myself to let go with my right hand, nor the tenuous toe hook. I feared shockloading my fingers and then falling off in an uncontrolled swing and hitting the rock. In that moment of hesitation, I dropped and hung on the rope, letting Charlie catch me. “I didn’t commit,” I said, “I’m going to shake it out and try again. I’ll give it one more try, I can’t quit on a chickening out try! I gotta do a try hard!”
I was saying this out loud to my watching friends but I was really telling this to myself. I had come so far on this odd climb. It had five parts to it, the first part was a climb unto itself called “Gravel Shoot”. It was deceptive looking at it from the desert floor, looking like two parallel cracks set in the back of a corridor of parallel walls. But it turned out that the walls were narrow enough that one could chimney or stem up most of the climb, with the crux being at the top where you had to transition to the left side and go up and over. I did it with a lie back, a few edges, and a hand jam. Once on the left side I carefully balanced up a small ramp of sorts and then crawled under another portion of rock to get to the start of “Imaginary Journey”.
That was where the real climb began. From the base of the routes, I had eyed the small crack which marked the start of the climb. It looked like it could be a lovely finger crack for me before it launched itself into an overhung section, and then transformed itself into a wide crack which went up to sky, splitting a large roof in half. What one couldn’t see before actually getting to it, was a nice rail that was a seam which ran under the right split of the roof. If you followed this rail, and then took a right angle, you could swing over the roof onto the opposite side and then finish with the crack again, up to the top of the formation. The climb looked improbable but oh so aesthetic and enticing. I can see why John Long got the first ascent on it, hiking in this area of Lost Horse, the eye was drawn to this formation from all points. To see it closer though, he had to have had the vision to see it as an actual route.
I had the advantage of watching someone do it before I did. Though, Cliff had also added two directional pieces as he climbed, making it harder than my top rope attempt.
The day before I had tried to do an onsight of an unknown climb in Echo Cove we spotted on our way walking back to the cars. My friend Colleen at first wondered if it was the climb I had been talking about during the day, “Mental Physics”. It had been several years since I’d seen it in person but I got excited at the prospect and made everyone stop so I could investigate if it was possible to even scramble to the base of the crack. After some scouting I excitedly waved everyone my way between some boulders I had scrambled up. However, with everyone on their way, I made my way past some more boulders and plants and found the base not as I remembered, it wasn’t “Mental Physics” at all. But it was a climb which looked intriguing. There were even some bolted routes near it. I announced that I’d be willing to onsight it unless someone else wanted to but no one else did and I racked up.
The start of that climb was easy, but it had been a long time since I climbed with a rack. I had nearly a double rack plus some nuts since it was an on sight, I had no idea what I would encounter. I did know at least that some anchors had been spotted at the top at least. The crack wasn’t just set into the rock face, it was inset into it. I made my way up the friction part to the base of the crack and was dismayed to see that the crack was not very clean. I wasn’t sure I could trust gear in it. I did find a good spot and moved up a few moves to put in another. The next part was very vertical though and the crack flared out, making it not very good for cams, and it also looked crumbly inside. In addition to that, the space I was in seemed like I could do a lieback off of a rail on the left of the crack, though placing my foot would be iffy. I didn’t relish trying it on lead. I put in another piece but it didn’t inspire confidence. My friends suggested I double it up. I put in a nut as well. These pieces were above me. The next move would be to lie back up in the awkward position. I remembered then that ICU beds were taken up in San Bernardino. I told everyone that I was losing my lead head. I couldn’t step back to look at the climb due to the overhanging nature of the spot I was at. I could not longer see my path up, except for a difficult few moves before I could probably stand and then see if I could place pro in the crack above… assuming it was not crumbly. Such is the nature of an on sight though, you don’t know what’s ahead or what you might need.
Cliff had already gone to the top of the formation and was lowering a rope down on the line. I told my friends I’d downlead the climb, though I left my top pieces in, for Cliff to remove as he rappelled. I did go up on top rope after. The crack was fine after that crux but then disappeared into just a seam. The top was easy. It made for a good exercise though, it was a very odd body english climb. Not straightforward at all. Unfortunately we lost enough light of day that we didn’t even try the climbs around it. I felt good though. I felt I had made the right call to back off of it.
The very next day I was looking up at what looked to me was an improbably climb. It looked difficult and I had no idea how the roof was to be surmounted, the crack was way too wide. I can usually get by with chicken winging my way on some cracks, but this one looked too wide for that. Then when I saw Cliff do it, I knew I was in trouble, I rarely can do his exact beta since he’s quite a bit bigger, and a heck of a lot stronger than me. He normally climbs quietly for the most part. So when I heard him making try hard sounds, and then actually yelling. I decided I’d just see how far I could get.
I started Impossible Journey attempting to crack climb it. Cliff hadn’t done it but I thought I might get my smaller fingers into the crack. However, the wall of the left made it awkward to go straight in. I spent a lot of energy trying it that way before realizing that a strenuous lieback, fighting for every inch with my feet high up near my hands, was the way to get past that section. At the start of the overhung section I put in a cam I had brought up specifically to use to rest on (hanging on the rope would make me swing out too far to get back on route). And then when I got past that part, I had only the roof left. My arm was pumped though. I heard Cliff telling me there was a rail on the right. Sure enough it was there. I could either hand over hand it or try to stem across to help. I could barely reach the other wall though. I had to hand scoot over instead, smearing on nothing. I finally made it to the block.
And that’s where I was now.
For much of my climbing career I could “see” a route from the beginning, and if I couldn’t, I could figure it out on the fly. This route though, didn’t afford you the time to figure it out on the fly. I needed the beta I got to just get to where I was. I didn’t really expect to make it to this point but here I was and I wasn’t going to come down just yet. I had my try hard face on, and my try hard language apparently. It was time to go for it.
I set myself up again, this time setting my leg as a hook, not just my toe. But I could tell that wasn’t going to work. I needed the reach of a mostly extended leg to get me to the hand hold. And besides, If I came off wrong, I’d wrench my knee or worse, break my leg. I had to use my arm and core strength again and go for it. I set up again, and lifted up. I got the ledge with my left hand again. This time I felt it with a little more than my fingertips. I didn’t hesitate this time but let my toe hook go and swung my right hand over to match on the same hold. The momentum made me swing left a little but I managed to stay on. Unfortunately once the momentum left I was left literally just hanging from my fingers, my feet dangling. “I got it!” I said, “But now I can’t go anywhere!” I looked down at Charlie, with a smile but gave him a thumbs down and a nod with my head. This was my victory for the day. I had done my try hard.
I wondered later on, how does one see the possibility on a climb like this. Surely it was eye catching from below, but I hadn’t seen it. It did look fun though and needed several types of climbing styles to do it. I felt like the next time I tried it I’d get it.
I wondered if John would remember it much. I sent him a photo of me on the bottom, it didn’t show much of the route. He wrote back right away though, “Imaginary Journey!”
Some tidbits about the route: John remembered right away about the swing. I asked him, “How did you know it would go? Did you on sight it from the bottom?” He said they rappelled down from the top to look at it and then did it. He and his friend Richard Harrison got the First Ascent. John led it with hexes more than 20 years ago!
This is why I find first ascent ratings interesting. Climbing something with modern gear, knowing it can be done, is something quite different then venturing out on a climb not knowing anything.