Joshua Tree climbing offers some of the most picturesque rock climbing routes around, and Tahoe City native Julie Brown takes us there in this Adventure of the Week.
WHO: Julie, Ruthi, Robin, and a ton of other awesome friends from Tahoe
WHAT: Rock climbing in the desert
WHERE: Joshua Tree
WHEN: November 12 to 18, 2011
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!
~ Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
When you go to Joshua Tree, know this: The climbers are friendly.
We didn’t realize that we had planned our trip to J-Tree over Veteren’s Day weekend until we drove up to the park gate and the friendly ranger waved our entrance fee for the holiday. Sweet, we thought, until we soon realized that the holiday would also mean full campgrounds.
The campgrounds in J-Tree operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. So if you arrive to a full campground, do what we did: Roll your window down and make some new friends.
I arrived in Joshua Tree with my friend Ruthi, a friend from college who I traveled with across India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia. We came to Joshua Tree with a desire to climb on our own — without a boyfriend or a husband to lead us up routes. On this trip, we would lead our own routes, set our own anchors, and take charge of our own climbing.
It was raining in the desert our first night. The sky was dramatic and dark, accentuating the foreign desert landscape that spread out before us. The rocks in Joshua Tree rise up out of nowhere in an infinitely flat landscape and reminded me of the drip sand castles I made as a kid, when I let wet sand fall from my fingers, layering clumps and lines and wrinkles to form their own creations. The Joshua trees themselves, I thought, are like dancers captured in a single pose for eternity—their branches arcing backwards toward the sun, or gracefully dipping to touch the sand. I heard that Dr. Suess spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree. But I could have told you that without knowing it; the influence this place had on Dr. Suess is obvious.
Hidden Valley Campground is the Camp Four of Joshua Tree. It’s the spot to camp for climbers. Not only can you walk to more climbs than you can imagine, but many of the campsites themselves are at the base of routes. In many Hidden Valley sites, you can belay your climbing partner from your tent. I should also mention that the sites are huge and have plenty of room for an extra tent.
When driving around the campground, Ruthi and I kept our eyes peeled for our future camp-mate. The first guy we met was a huge stoner who spoke in over-exaggerated syllables—DUDE!—and he was camping with his dad. At the second site, I rounded the corner to find two sketchy guys sharpening knives. The third site was just right. A 19-year-old talker named Samuel ran up to our car and invited us to set up camp with him and his two friends, a couple. They were from Malibu, come up to Joshua Tree as much as possible to climb, were leaving the next day, and were more than friendly. So we parked our car and pitched a tent.
The next morning was clear and crisp. The rain had washed away any trace of haze and left in its trace a glorious sunny day. Ruthi and I were determined to lead a couple routes on our own, to challenge ourselves and not just set up top ropes. With something like 7,000 routes, there is no shortage of climbing in Joshua Tree. The challenge is only in narrowing down your options. Following the advice from local shop Nomad Ventures (which has the most inspirational bathroom ever), we scoured the books and found our first route of the trip: The Bong.
Ratings in Joshua Tree are stout. At a bonfire later in the trip, I met a man who was a Joshua Tree lifer, was drinking a bottle of Jim Beam, and kept saying over and over that if you can climb 5’7 in Joshua Tree, you can climb 5’7 anywhere. We were looking at 5’5 for our lead climbs. But for a 5’5, the Bong was still pretty intimidating. It’s a solid crack that juts straight up on the shoulder of a large rock located directly in Hidden Valley Campground. The holds were bomber, and the crux was slightly overhung, but featured two flakes that boosted confidence.
Ruthi led the climb first. She was strong and took her time, making sure her gear was placed well. She climbed through the crux and was above it when she fumbled looking for gear. It’s funny how climbing something so easily on a top rope becomes a different game when you are actually at the top of the rope. I’m not sure what happened, but she lost her footing and let go. Ruthi fell about 15 feet, and a stony ledge caught her before her gear did. She landed on her foot and actually ended up fracturing one of the tiny bones in between her ankle and her toes. But pumped with adrenaline, Ruthi took a few deep breaths, turned around, and sent the climb to the top.
Then it was my turn. I was nervous. But inspired by Ruthi’s performance, I sent my lead, too.
I came to Joshua Tree with one friend. But many, many other friends showed up. I’m not sure how they found us; my cell phone was off the whole week. But one by one, they arrived at our campsite. First it was Robin (who I had planned ahead of time to meet). Then Jake found us. Then we ran into Robin’s friends who she kayaked around Alaska with — and we really hit it off with this group of four, who ended up camping and climbing with us for the rest of the week. Then Ben and Ben from Squaw showed up, pulling the 10-hour drive in an all-nighter. I found Nick and Finley in another campsite around the bend. Then came Dustin, Pete, and company. And then Ashley. I love it when the world feels small.
My trip was only supposed to last about three days. But when the sun set on my last day before my scheduled flight the next morning, I was far from ready to go home. I was just then starting to get comfortable in this new place with endless climbing. So I canceled my flight and stayed for the rest of the week. That was the best decision of the trip.
The next day we climbed Reggie Dome. Our crew set up three ropes, each accessing several routes, and climbed until after dark. This day was far and away the best one. I led another route, the Chief, a 5’5 double crack that was steep, but had bomber gear and reassuring holds. But I also top-roped a couple 5’10s that day and everything in between.
The gamut of climbers run from beginners like me to fearless free soloists who jump on a rock without a rope or a second thought. But the talent is nothing to be intimidated by; it’s something to inspire growth. With every move in Joshua Tree, my energy kept replenishing and I rediscovered why I love climbing. I stepped up to routes that intimidated me, and instead of giving into that anxiety, I focused it on the problem. When I got to the top, my heart was elated and my confidence soaring. This is why I climb. Because I have to breathe through challenges, because everything else in life melts away when you’re focused on making the next move, because when you get to the top you understand why the best things in life are worth working for.
I woke up the earliest on my last day and walked across the desert as the sun rose. It was quiet; I was alone. It felt like this sunrise was meant for me, and me alone. And as I watched electric red streak the sky, then pink, then a pop of yellow, I was at peace. I will definitely be making a fall trip to Joshua Tree an annual event.
The Tahoe Mountain Sports Adventure of the Week blog series takes a walk (or hike, bike, surf, Joshua Tree climb) in someone else’s shoes, from pro athletes to local Tahoe adventurers. Let us know if you’ve got an adventure to share.
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Joshua Tree Guidebook