January in Joshua Tree

Posted by on February 10th, 2022  •  0 Comments  •  Full Article

Dave and I headed south mid January towards St. George.  I’m putting the photos gallery first,  while the more narrative storytelling is below the gallery.

Along the way we met Fletch, Sam, Garret, Anni and Brian. I’m of the ‘more is merrier’ way of thinking. As long as everyone can lead and is vaccinated, it usually works out. It’ll be funny to read this in ten years when we’ve all forgotten about Covid.

Our first stop after the 26 hour drive was a 10 minute walk to a cliff in downtown St. George, right above a soccer field. We were so close we could hear the children kicking the balls. Dave led Wide Boy  and Deface Crack. The rock quality was surprisingly close to Indian Creek. We felt lucky to have nailed the warm weather after that long drive. I struggled from jet lag, but it would be fun to go back when I’m warmed up.

Fresh off the drive from Seattle in St. George, Utah

We crashed on BLM land near Prophesy Wall for the next few nights. It was deserted up there with only a herd of cows wandering around. I was woken at dawn by an odd rhythmic sound, realizing later it was cows grazing next to our truck. We only saw one other van and Dave left his tent up with no problem.

Snow Canyon is shady in the morning so we climbed a 5.8 crack on the sunny side then at noon followed the sun to the three pitch 5.8  Just Deserts and a couple other harder lines. Pictured below is me rapping off Dave’s sketchy 5.10a. The route went up the left arete above the huge cave. The moves felt like stepping on air. By the third morning the sun was gone and the weather was overcast. We woke up, looked around and bailed for Vegas.

Me rapping off Daves 5.10 at St. George, Snow Canyon, Photo by Dave

When we got to Vegas we had enough of an afternoon left to climb Physical Graffiti and the first pitch of the 5.9 sport route Big Bad Wolf. Someday I want to lead the top two pitches on that one, they look great.

We slept at Skid Row and rose at dawn to climb the 5.8 six pitch Purblind Pillar. Dave really stepped up to the plate to cover my weak leading skills. I only led two of the six pitches this time.  For some weird reason I was ‘off my feed’ for the first week of this almost 3 week trip. With a few exceptions, I was climbing so badly I didn’t even recognize myself. I knew there was a real climber inside my head somewhere…but I couldn’t  make him come out to play. It was only after we got to Jtree that I started to climb normally.

Dave saw Elvis!
Dave pitch 5 Purblind Pillar, Vegas

After finishing Purblind in the dark we decided I was too slow for long alpine routes in winter. Dave had wanted to do another long one the next day…but after thinking it over we decided to bail for Joshua Tree. It was a good excuse to do some night driving instead of sitting around the propane campfire. Simultaneously I had heard that our Indian Creek friend Sam was in Red Rocks. I regretted not calling her because she told me later that she had been climbing with boulderers and would have enjoyed some multipitch trad. If you don’t know bouldering…it’s rock climbing, but without ropes. And yes, it’s as dangerous as it sounds.

We crashed in the desert on the way to Josh. There is  a ton of BLM land coming into 29 Bombs from the North. In the early morning we parked at Intersection Rock and did “the walk” around the full campground, making friends and admiring all the fancy rigs. Not finding a campspot, we decided to cook breakfast.

Dave (hereafter called Chef) appointed me sous-chef and began teaching me how to prepare Egg McMuffins. He denies ever working at McDonalds.

  • Chef starts by toasting the English muffins
  • Once brown, set those aside in a warming pan
  • Crack 4 eggs and drop them separately in the skillet
  • Break open the yokes so the yellow spreads a bit for flavor
  • Peel off 4 double slices of salami and put them in the pan on the sides
  • Slice half an onion and put the onion rings next to the salami
  • Once the eggs are ready to flip, cut them apart into four separate eggs
  • Flip the eggs (this was my job…as sous-chef)
  • Put the pre-sliced cheese on the eggs, cover pan
  • While all this is going on, keep flipping the muffin halves
  • When cheese is almost soft, lift eggs onto muffin bottom – sous chef assists
  • Add fried salami and onions to egg, which melts the cheese to perfection
  • Add the top muffin and…Bob’s Your Uncle!

By the end of the trip…I was almost ready to cook these alone. Chef kept promising a promotion…but the budget was tight…I’m still hoping. With full bellys we climbed a few easy things like Toe Jam, Double Cross and Mikes Books. Dave top roped the crux on Watershute and got it third try.

After Dave led Sexy Grandma we noticed a guy having trouble on Double Cross. He froze on the upper half after running out of big gear. I quietly asked his belayer if he would be able to finish the route, and when he said no, we hung around, watching in case he needed help. Either Dave or I could have easily led it to get his gear off.

Finally we left, knowing there would likely be people around if they really needed a rescue. While we were hanging out he mentioned that they were leaving site 27 in the morning…and we said we’d stop by since we were staying in BLM and needed a campsite.

Fletch showed up that night around 8 from Santa Barbara with a guitar and some Mikes and we played our usual set under the desert stars. We’ve been jamming together for 14 years, he is one of my oldest friends. In the morning we drove up and checked in on our friends in 27. Sure enough they were packing up and seemed thankful that we had offered to help the previous night when things were going south. Dave asked if he could put his tent up while they were getting ready to leave. They concurred and we became the lucky owner of a rare campsite.

In case you don’t know, getting a site at this first come first served campground can seem impossible. Each site gets two parking spots and there are often two or more cars in. every. single. site. The rangers never take down the FULL sign. Oddly though, if you know how to play the game, getting a site only takes a couple days.

I love Joshua Tree for many reasons, but the most important thing is the quantity of easy climbs on good rock. Doesn’t matter how rusty you are, you can find climbs to lead comfortably. Many people prefer to top rope until they warm up. This is actually the norm. But I’ve observed over the decades that this TR practice leads to overcrowding on popular routes.

I’m in the minority on this opinion, but I feel that if a climb is too hard to lead, I’ll hike farther until I find something easier that I *can* lead. This frustrates some of my stronger partners, but, we’ve all got our little quirks. I like to say: “I’ve never met an easy climb I didn’t like.”

My first good lead of the trip was the 5.8 Hands Off. It’s a lovely stem box problem that eats gear the whole way up. Any time there is a crux you can place a cam above you. It’s basically top roping…but without the top rope. Because of the stem you get lots of rests to reflect on your poor life choices. There is also a great belay stance at the top that allows you to photograph your followers. Dave scrambled up to the top to get this photo:

Me leading Hands Off
Me leading Hands Off – Photo by Dave

We roamed far and wide over the next two weeks, climbing all the classics plus a few new ones. We were in true hidden valley for Fisticuffs, Tumbling Rainbow and Illusion Dweller; at Echo for Tim’s Valentine, F8, Popes Crack, Penny Lane and Touch & Go; up Steve Canyon for Deflowered, Grand Theft Avacado; up in the Wonderland for High Strung and Hex Marks the Poot; plus all the standard campground climbs like Toe Jam, Overhang Bypass, Damper and Dandelion.

Our hardest climbs were Illusion Dweller, Loose Lady, Bird on a Wire, Dandelion and Fistifuffs. I was surprised how hard Loose Lady seemed. It’s a mix of face and slab on thin edges. Sue and I used to love it, but pulling hard on those crimpers seems to aggravate my 68 year old hands. Even my feet were complaining. Maybe it was just near the end of the trip and I was getting tired? I hope it isn’t one of those climbs that I have to cross off the list ’cause I got too old. While we were packing up a young couple came up and sent it effortlessly…just like we used to do in our twenties. We all get our chance to be young, strong and pretty.

Chilean girl on Loose Lady
Chilean girl cruising up Loose Lady 10a

Nights at Joshua Tree in the winter are long and cold. Once the sun goes down you have three choices: (1.) Go to bed early, (2.) shiver around a campfire, or (3.) go night hiking. For those in the know, there is a classic series of night hikes around Hidden Valley. I met the legendary aid climber Ammon McNeely thru a mutual friend in 2011. He taught me how to navigate through the park using landmarks that are visible even without moonlight. One of his guiding principles is that you can’t do it sober…simply not allowed. This led to some interesting shenanigans the first night he took us out, but that is another story.

Ammon McNeely at Iron Door cave in 2011

No one at our site had done the night tour so I volunteered to lead. We visited the Iron Door cave and the Hobbit Hole, a grand time was had by all. It’s fun to bring a good camera out there for night exposures. I had my full frame Canon 6D.

Iron Door cave
Friends in the Iron Door cave, lit by headlamps

Eventually all our friends left and it was just me and Dave breaking into the third week of steady climbing. I had done a good painting and led Fistifcuffs, while he had led Illusion Dweller. Those are both proud sends so we’d kind of accomplished everything we’d come down for. I followed him up Overhang Bypass, which has a scary traverse for both the leader and follower. It’s only 5.7 but it’s one of those climbs that seems to never feel easy or safe. On the summit, I broached the subject of heading for home. Sue was getting lonely…and I sort of needed another rest day…maybe we should head North? Dave concurred and we packed up.

He taught me a cool trick on the road trip home. I was ready to crash in my usual noisy rest area or truck stop. He suggested taking an exit where there was a long stretch of blackness…as in, no houses or towns. His working theory is to take the exit, then look at a map. Look for roads that fork out like the roots of a tree…getting smaller and smaller…with no houses at the ends. Typically this may mean an open farm field, or old logging road. It worked great, and was far quieter than a parking lot full of rumbling diesel trucks.

BLM sunrise
Stealth camping sunrise on the drive home

I love going on these climbing trips, but it’s equally fun to come home and see my family. Absence doth makes the heart grow fonder.

Sue and Rose, our grandchild.