Joshua Tree Christmas 2011
Here I sit at this big glass screen, pushing on these little plastic keys. How can this compare to the happy go lucky life of a dirt bag rock climber? Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the climbing life.
We went down to Joshua Tree for the holidays. Do you know this Joni Mitchell song?
“It’s coming on Christmas they’re cutting down trees
Putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
If you know that song, then you will understand when I say that Jtree was my river this year. I drove down with Merica and we climbed for a week in puffy weather. I exchanged Merica for Randy and Sue on Christmas at the Palm Spring airport. Craig, Ashlie, Michael, Ammon McNeely, Vladimir and Des also showed up and stayed for all or parts of the trip.
Merica and I got down in 23 hours, arriving at 6 AM Sunday. We crashed in a vacant site until 10 and then got up and climbed the bong.
On the walk back through the campground, Merica saw some climbers leaving site 27 and we snagged it for the duration. On Monday we were climbing at Quail Spring Picnic Area and Craig walked up, having driven down in 19 hours, including a 3 hour nap. That means he shaved 6 hours off our time. He says he just drove faster, but that doesn’t seem possible. I think he got abducted by aliens.
Ashley showed up in a few days with Michael and Ammon McNeely. Ashley, Michael and Ammon are all living and working in the skydiving industry in Lodi, California. Ammon has been called the best aid climber in the world and a google search will return many great stories. He is a master story teller. We spent many nights around the campfire listening to his adventures on El Cap, and his close calls base jumping. His best story was about the time he and two others jumped off a 500 foot electric power transmission tower.
Here is Ammon’s story, as remembered by me:
They had a less experienced jumper with them who had not bothered to pack his chute. He was supposed to hold it in his hand until they flew through the wires, and then release it for inflation. Instead, he released the chute early, before they had fallen through the wires.
His chute partially inflated and the lines caught in Ammons shoe. Ammon says he thinks he saved the guys life because Ammon pulled him away from the powerline. But then they were both falling toward the ground, and neither could open their chutes due to the tangle.
Ammon was frantically trying to pull his foot out of the other guys chute lines as he watched the ground rush towards him at terminal velocity. Finally he pointed his toes and his foot popped clear. The other guys chute was able to open and Ammon pulled his rip cord…at 55 feet. He said his chute popped, he flared, and he landed, all in about 2 seconds.
His first thought on the ground was: “Oh my God, I almost died. But…that was so cool!”
Ammon had many other stories, too many to recount here, but I will say that the story about his 80 foot rope solo whipper, and the denied rescue attempt on El Cap was fantastic. They told him to hold up two hands for no, and one for yes.
Merica and I had to wear puffys and carry my handwarmers to stay warm, but we had a great time warming up on the many easy Joshua Tree rock climbs. By the time Randy and Sue arrived Christmas weekend I was starting on the 5.9’s. Joshua Tree has old school ratings, which means that you may find, as I did, that you can get gripped out of your gourd on a 5.5. Double Dip is a case in point. I led Merica up that one thinking it would be a cruise. I got totally bugged out at the 30 foot runnout. The fall would have meant a hospital stay. My friction skills were rusty and climbing up those friction holds with the bolt gettting further and further away was unnerving. I don’t know if it was the weirdness of the climbing, or my whining, but Merica didn’t want to climb anything else there after Double Dip.
We left and headed over to Toe Jam, which she liked a lot better. I also took Merica up Bat Crack. Bat is a long 5.4 that goes all the way up Intersection Rock in one long pitch.
It starts out in a cool body slot chimney, passes a 10,000 year old car sized pile of bat dung, traverses some thin face climbing and finishes with 30 meters of wide crack. It’s a very lovely pitch. Merica climbed it in her puffy coat.
Because it gets dark and cold at 5 there is a lot of time to kill each evening. Dinner and a campfire is nice, but wood is expensive so we went out exploring in the desert on night hikes. A prime hiking destination from Hidden Valley campground is the famous Iron Door cave. Legend has it that a frustrated parent locked his developmentally disabled teenage son in the cave back in the last century. He would shove food in through holes in the sides of the locked cave and then leave. Craig and I tried to find it one night and gave up after wandering around in the desert for two hours. We stayed warm, but never found the Iron Door cave despite my having been there before in the day light.
Ammon took 4 of us there a couple nights later and he gave me landmarks as we walked, which burned it into my memory. Here are photos of us in the cave:
I captured this photo by having Craig sit in the cave with his red headlamp shining on the door. It set my Cannon 50D on a rock with a 10 second delay to about a 5 second exposure. During the exposure, I painted the rocks with my led headlamp, hence the blue coloring. I did not do any post processing in Photoshop. It came out of the camera like this.
After hanging out at the Iron Door cave, Ammon offered to take us to the Hobbit Hole. These pictures are from our first visit to the Hobbit Hole:
Red headlamps make cool lighting! I believe Ammon might have been smoking some of that wacky tabacky. I was glad to get out of there…the smoke was getting thick in that tiny little cave.
The girls had wisely decided not to accompany on our first night time hike. After leaving the Hobbit Hole, we headed back through the dark starry night towards the campground. Ammon, our guide, had imbibed rather heavily and was unsure of the way. All the desert mounds look similar at night and we soon realized we were lost. I located the north star and thought we could simply walk south. We would be bound to eventually hit one of the roads leading out from Intersection Rock. But after wandering south for a while, Ammon came to life and decided we were too far East. He took the lead again and we walked South West for half an hour until we saw a white spot reflecting light on the horizon.
It turned out to be a 25 MPH speed limit sign on a road…but what road? And which direction should we walk on said road? We turned right and walked for 10 minutes but decided it was the wrong direction. We turned around and walked the other way, eventually spotting the campfires of Hidden Valley campground. I was completely turned around by that time and had no idea where we were until we walked into the actual campground.
The next day was windy so we drove down to Indian Cove for warmer climbing, food and showers.
Craig and I had an awesome day during the first week where we ended the day with half an hour of light left. We realized we just had time to sail up Damper over on Chimney rock. We hot footed it over there and he led it with just two pieces of gear. I raced up it quickly thanks to my fat feet and hands. At the top we had time for a exactly 4 photos before the sun dropped below the horizon and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. There is no anchor up there, and if you don’t know your Joshua Tree descents it can get desperate. Someone had rapped off a brand new yellow Metolius cam and Craig snagged it. If only I hadn’t blown the rock paper scissors that cam would have been mine.
Friday night was Merica’s last night before her flight home. A couple Swiss guys joined the 7 of us for a grand tour of the night time hotspots. We headed towards the Iron Door cave again, this time with me in the lead. Ammon walked behind me double checking my navigation in the moon light. I nailed it first try, he was a good teacher.
The Iron Door cave is only an 8 minute walk from the campground if you know the way.
Starting from the left is Michael, who works as a sky diving instructor in Lodi. Second from left is Ammon McNeely. Ammon and Michael know each other through Base Jumping. Ashlie is also trying to break into skydiving as a career and knows them from Lodi. Merica, my climbing partner is in the blue coat is surounded by the two Swiss guys, whose names I don’t remember. They were super nice guys, and very talented climbers on a 3 month climbing trip between college and career.
The seven of us were packed like sardines in the tiny Hobbit Hole cave. There were so many of us in the tiny cave that it actually started to warm up the air. Ammon and Michael kept passing around some kind of wacky tabacky and the smoke got so thick I had to leave them to it for the fresh air outside.
We found our way back to the campground successfully that night. I was ready to call it quits as I had to pick up Sue at the airport the next day but everyone insisted I couldn’t break up the team…so we headed off for the Chasm of Doom. This is normally done without headlamps as a sort of exercise in trust. You are supposed to climb through it with a guide in pitch darkness, holding onto the person infront and behind, with each person telling the next where to place their feet and hands. The Chasm starts at the bottom of a rock tower and climbs up though the center of the tower in a hidden tunnel. It’s a bizarre formation that has occasional glimpses of the stars over head, but is mostly completely enclosed by overhanding boulders and huge slabs of rock.
With headlamps it’s a lot safer and we made our way quickly up through the chasm until the birthing canal. This is a body sized chimney that ascends to the balcony overlooking true hidden valley. A fall here would not be pleasant and I was wishing I had not worn my chaco sandals. The drop down the chimney is about 35 feet, and it would take some caving specialists to extract you from a fall at the wrong moment.
This is Merica in the easy part of the Chasm.
Towards the end of the trip Craig and I were getting warmed up. He towed me up Bearded Cabbage, and I led Vladimir up Orphan. Craig also followed me up Dandelion which I had never climbed before. It is a lovely 10 left of Toe Jam. I also led Craig and Randy up Papa Woolsey. I didn’t serve my usual apprenticeship over at Echo slab, choosing to focus on crack climbing, instead of run out slab.
On the last day we tried to lead O’Kelley’s crack, but couldn’t get past the bouldery start. We should have just done a hand stand, or climbed Wangerbanger…but decided to go do something we could easily get up before starting the epic drive home. We found this little outcropping at the Lost Horse road intersection and we all led some moderate climbs followed by this finger eater.
On the drive home, we missed some turns and took a tour of Riverside on highway 60, and Stockton on highway 99. It’s strange how you can be driving those LA freeways and completely miss a critical exit. You suddenly find yourself miles from the correct road, with no way to turn around. We had three gps’s in the car, but thought we were smart enough not to need them…wrong.