Joshua Tree National Park
December 20th-22, 2021
Joshua Tree National Park sits due east, about two and half hours, of Long Beach, CA, on the ancestral lands of many different indigenous tribes, including the Serrano, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, and Mojave peoples. Because it’s so close to home, Whitney and I decided to drop Dottie off at her grandparent’s house. For anyone who has experienced how Dottie travels in the car, you understand full well why we opted for a parent’s getaway.
We enjoyed home-cooked meals, did our laundry, and charged up Sage’s auxiliary battery at home for a few days. We made the mandatory trip to the dog beach to watch Dottie eat sand and swim, and after a day or two, it was time to head for Joshua Tree.
We got up before the sun, made some breakfast for the car, and settled in for a short sunrise drive east to the desert. As our luck would have it, a thick layer of fog blocked any chance of a pretty sunrise. So in a semi-caffeinated haze, I activated cruise control and waited patiently as the terrain transformed before my glazed-over eyes.
By the time we were in Yucca Valley, CA, the sun was out, and a mild 60 some-odd degree day was well underway. The excellent, dry temperatures would be perfect for climbing, and I quickly began to get that nervous excitement feeling in my stomach. Since I found climbing about eight years ago, I’ve realized that few things make me feel equally invigorated.
Once inside the National Park, Whitney and I quickly rendezvoused with many of my friends from the Peace Corps. Joe and Bree from Denver, Chris and Anna from New Hampshire, and Shannon and Steve from San Diego. As a group, we were a collection of educators, engineers, doctors, and software programmers. The brains of the group clearly outmatched the brawn, but the conversation was better that way anyway.
For the first day, we climbed nearby to our campsite in the Hidden Valley Campground. The Hidden Valley Campground is the cultural epicenter for rock climbing in Joshua Tree. The sites are always full of climbers congregating from all over the country (and world for that matter), just like we were.
The beauty of this campground is that many rock formations are within walking distance of it. We readied our gear, packed lunch, and stomped off into the desert on our way to a formation called Cyclops Rock. We spent the first half of the morning on the southwestern aspect of the formation, climbing in the sun. With a breeze, the weather was perfect, and we were all smiles.
For the second half of the day, we moved to a new crag on the western face of an area called Echo Cove. This area is characterized by large domes of monzogranitic rock. The climbs were long and thought-provoking. On slab climbs like these, where the rock gently ramps up and away from you at a less-than-vertical angle, handholds and places are for your feet are ‘nonexistent’. Instead, you paste your shoe rubber onto the rock and rely on the friction it creates with the stone to allow you to ascend vertically. Trusting your feet is imperative for this style of climbing, and any sort of upward movement is incredibly rewarding.
When you place the right amount of pressure into your toes and find your flow, the climbing becomes more of an elegant dance of balance instead of a sport requiring muscle and strength.
On the second day, we piled the entire crew into the belly of Sage and carpooled to a new climbing area. Whitney and I felt like proud parents with our smelly, dust-covered children laughing in the back seat. It was a short drive to the parking area, and once again, we were hiking into the desert, surrounded by giant Joshua trees, looking for the climbs we eyeballed from the guidebook earlier that morning.
In the distance we could see the wall we had chosen. The cracks and other features of the wall were obvious from the trail, which was a good sign, but the tricky part was that the crag was elevated from the trail, and separated from us by a field of boulders. Access to the crag would require more rock scrambling than hiking. The group followed in tow like rock-hopping ducklings and after a short while we were all at the base of our climbs, panting and laughing about how that was slightly more intense of a morning approach than we expected.
The area offered a series of excellent rocks climbs that everyone in the group very much enjoyed. In many ways, the climbs felt like indoor gym climbs. The hand and feet holds felt purposely sculpted to be ergonomic and comfortable, and they were located in areas to assist the climber perform a certain type of movement rather than trick them and make them fall.
As a route setter indoors, I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to recreate the moves I’ve climbed on outdoor rock for customers in the gym. I’ve gone all day crafting a route whose movement still comes out awkward and cumbersome. Through that, I’ve come to realize that mother nature, with her various geological processes and erosion from wind and rain, is by far the best route setter. But I try my darnedest anyway.
By the end of the day, the group was that sort of deliriously tired and giggly type of happy. They were ready to head out and spend the rest of the day, not rock climbing. On the other hand, I still felt like I needed more climbing to feel satisfied with the day. Lucky for me, there were a pair of climbers climbing nearby who had became friends that day. Knowing that I needed to climb more, Whitney pawned me off to the other two climbers, and we made a plan to visit one more classic climb before turning in for the day.
My new friends, Don and Emma, descended with me from the crag in search of a new climb while the others returned to the parking lot and loaded up in the van. We found the climb, and spent the rest of the evening taking turns until the sun set. Finally feeling content with the volume and difficulty of climbing we accomplished that day, we loaded up our packs and began picking our way through the boulders on the way to the car.
Without sunlight, the definition of the rock was muted. Shadows were casted in strange ways, and silhouettes took guard for the night. Everything looked and felt a bit different, as if we hadn’t been there before, and we began to second guess our route. We tried to ignore the sensations of doubt, and focused in on familiar landmarks like strange, triangular shaped rocks and fallen yucca, to remind us of where to go. We followed our trail of bread crumbs through the darkness and back to the car. Content with the extra climbing and the bit of nocturnal navigation, we loaded up and headed for the campsite.
We spent the rest of the evening huddled around the fire, trading stories and reminiscing about the Peace Corps. Between deep stares into the coals, we sipped on beers, batted smoke from our eyes, and enjoyed the milky way above our heads. At what we thought was midnight, we promptly headed off to bed. We were not so surprised (or disappointed) that it was only 8pm.
On the third day, we woke up to absolutely angelic weather. Whitney and I cleaned up the van and moved out of the site like overly excited children. We said goodbye to our friends and exchanged hugs for more hugs. One thing I’ve always thought was unique about climbing is how quickly it can help you form friendships with new people and entrench deeper affection for friends you already have. The adventure aspect of it, the ‘my-life-is-in-your-hands’ partnership with your belayer, fast tracks your relationships with people. There’s no room for bullshit. Before you know it, you’ve created a bond that, in our case, spans thousands of miles across the country and will do so for years to come.
Whitney and I picked out a classic climb located on the way out of the National Park. From the parking lot, the cliff we needed and the climb we chose were overtly obvious. It was a striking line, and I could not wait to be there. We slathered on sunscreen, per Whitney’s rules, and despite my rebuttal that we would be climbing in the shady, east-facing aspect of the cliff, and readied our packs. We held hands and strolled in the direction of the climb, taking our time and enjoying the quiet.
Climbing in Joshua Tree during the workweek is really the only way to do it. The cliff, which is customarily littered with climbers, was deserted. There was no rush to unpack and no negotiating for who was in line for the climb and when they got there.
It was just Whitney and me. One of our favorite ways to climb. We each went through the motions to get ready like a well-oiled, couple-climbing machine. Helmets first, then harness. While I was filling out my harness with more gear as the leader, Whitney took the rope to the base of the climb and began preparing it. We tied in, did our double checks, and shared a quick kiss (corny I know, but you never know when it’s your last rock climb).
I took off up the climb and was delighted by what I found. The climb was fun and flowy but contained sort sections that felt slightly harder and which required some additional problem-solving. I topped out the formation, built an anchor, and put Whitney on belay. Whitney made her way up as I patiently waited on the top, taking up slack in the rope as she navigated the cliff. A few hikers or ground walkers as I call them (somewhat egotistically, I admit), stopped to spectate, and I was reminded of just how rad rock climbing is.
Eventually, Whitney joined me on top with a big smile. I couldn’t help but be proud of Whitney and how she was climbing after recovering from surgery. Some months before the surgery and after her symptoms had severely escalated, Whitney couldn’t make it through a climbing day without being riddled with pain. But now, I had my climbing partner back, and she was sending it, pain-free.
We were happy to sit and enjoy the view. We took a few blurry selfie photos and laughed. We readied our rope for rappel and were soon on our way back down.
We hiked back to the van, and enjoyed looking back at what we had just climbed. We decided that the morning was really well spent. Now all that was on our minds was stopping for lunch on the way back home. Luckily, the night prior, we were told about a plant-based burger joint in Riverside and decided to go there.
We took our time driving out of the park, soaking in the remaining Joshua Trees and looking for climbers scattered about the arid piles of rocks. We were on our way to reconnect with our families for the Holidays and happy to be headed home.