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The best trip ever

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
11 min read

Even if it took me weeks to finally sit down and write the Joshua Tree trip report. And, even if the trip report is less detailed than usual because we don’t have a decent guidebook, so if you’re a climber, I apologize – I don’t have any of the route names, and have only sketchy beta.

Way, way back in 2006, on a sunny day in December (the 17th, a Sunday), we loaded into Chris’s Element at 7:30 am to meet our friends Jason, Alex, Victoria, and Ken at VW Bremerton, to depart for Joshua Tree. Our ETD was 8 am, because Ken had a lock-in at the gym the night before with the boy scouts and 8 am was when all their parents were supposed to pick up the scouts (although, it turns out, many parents are not so punctual when their kids’ supervisory adult has a climbing trip to leave for), so Ken started out with extra hard core points on the rest of us. And, we left late. But, that is entirely to be expected, and gave us a chance to hit McDs and get much needed egg sandwiches.

We left the gym and picked up Shawn and Rhi at their houses, so, our actual time of departure was 9:48 am. It took us two hours, eighteen minutes to go the first twenty miles.

And then we were eight. In two cars. Six in the van, and Chris and I aren’t cool, so we were in the Element by outselves. However, being uncool has its benefits. I got to listen to whatever I wanted from my iPod (which, it turns out, happens to be loaded with WAY too much mellow music for road tripping) and we could fold the passenger seat back and actually recline and sleep comfortably. The downside to being in our own car is that we were prime targets for mooning (thanks, Alex) but then again, I’m not sure the view in the van would have been any less traumatic.

The drive down is a bit of a blur…Chris did most of the driving, and we went straight through. I know I drove during the night (since I’m a bit of a night owl and not so good a sleeper) for a long stretch, and then Chris took over and next I knew I woke up to the sunrise just outside of Los Angeles, we got a bit lost, and then I woke up again and we were at a grocery store near Joshua Tree. I think our drive down was in the low 20s in terms of hours… 22? 24? I don’t know.

Our first day in Joshua Tree was cold. We got to Hidden Valley Campground late in the morning and scouted a good, relatively low-wind place to camp, and set up camp. And then, after twenty plus hours of driving and precious little sleep, the climbing started.

First stop on day one was at the campground itself. Personally, “conditions” were a problem for me that first day… I tied in to a stunningly beautiful 5.8 crack near our campsite on toprope and I couldn’t even get off the ground thanks to frozen hands and probably total fatigue. The climb was beautiful, though, and fun to watch — everybody who got on it had a blast despite the frigid temperatures. The rest of day one was also a bit of a blur… we did a lot of wandering around in the cold, some folks climbed, but I was just freezing, tired and happy to be somewhere so incredible beautiful, that climbing wasn’t a super high priority. V started earning stripes on hard cracks, and the guys lead like champs all day despite the conditions.

And then, day two, we woke up to snow. High desert, it is! The snow and the sunrise made an already too-pretty-to-be-real place even more beautiful. After breakfast we decided to head for lower, warmer ground and hit Indian Cove. The temperature was maybe twenty degrees higher at least — we went from layers of polarflece to t-shirts and jeans — and the rock was beautiful. We started at Feudal Wall… and come to mention it, I think we spent the whole day there, although some of the guys may have done some other crags. There was a lot of variety… thin cracks, off widths, hand cracks… and a couple of hard bolted routes for the ropeguns in the crowd.

My first climb of the day was toproping a 10a (the picture is Shawn on lead on that route) with a nice thin section — I don’t generally climb 10a outside, but the route was incredible, perfect size for nice secure climbing for me, and it was a super fun route. Victoria and the guys did some hard climbing — there was an intense sport route that, in the picture below looks not nearly as intense as it was thanks to Victoria’s incredibly relaxed hands.

There was a 5.7 to the right of the 10a that was also fun, and then after lunch and lots of playing with gear on the ground and watching other climbers, I tied in as second of four (Jason led, I seconded, then was Rhi and then Chris) on my very first multipitch route — it was either Deidra or Deidra Left for the first pitch — I don’t remember, and don’t have a guidebook. I actually thought it was the 5.4 to the left of the Deidra routes, but everybody tells me I’m wrong, so who knows. It really doesn’t matter, since the climb was just super fun from bottom to top. It was getting late in the day, and I knew I had to climb fast because of how many of us were going up, and climbing fast is not my typical fashion. I climb slowly. Very slowly. So, it was really fun to be on something realatively easy, that I could climb quickly and inelegantly on, because I had to. And, because I was number two of four, I *had* to. I remember bits of the route — there was a wide section that I should have walked up on the ground and then face climbed out of but no! I had to chimney it! I love chimney technique (at least, seconding – wouldn’t probably like leading it) and do it every chance I get. There was a honey-bear hole on the route, that you had to wiggle through, and seriously I was surprised my butt made it (especially ringed with a half rack of gear, since I was cleaning). But each anchor was good, I learned a ton from Jason, and felt like we were in incredibly good hands. We walked off just as the sun was setting, completely high on the day and the experience, and just thankful for everybody’s time and patience with us, and for such a beautiful day of climbing.

And, that was day two.

Day three Jason took Chris and I on a nice warm up just above our campsite first thing in the morning, and then we all headed to Moosedog Tower (Chris says it’s Moondog Tower) at Indian Cove. I was lucky enough to get to climb with Jason again, so we got on a 3-pitch 5.7 that let me quiz him more about his anchors and about multi-pitch climbing, and it was a nice cruise of a climb on some questionable quality rock that appeared to go up some sort of small-mammal-eating bird’s poop hole, since there were sunbleached bones all over the route for most of the first half. The climbing was fun, the scenery beautiful, and Chris seconded Rhi on the same route right behind us on her first trad lead of the trip. Rhi did a great job as leader, and Chris did a great job as follower, so a fun and safe time was had by all. The descent was a free-hanging rappel, and I haven’t done a ton of rappelling, so the first step over the edge was scary, but once I got used to it all had oodles of fun.

Next up was seconding Shawn on a stunning 5.9 3-pitch with a roof; I was cleaning as second and did good on the start but then got seriously pumped trying to clean the yellow alien under t
he roof. Poor Shawn had to hold a few falls, but I did make it up after serious effort involving stemming, jamming and face moves. Chris was a champ on it as the third. All three pitches were excellent… not too hard, but each had some moves that you had to think about which made it fun and challenging. Shawn was, as he and the guys were the whole trip, incredibly patient with us, and very generous with answers to our relative newbie questions. I had my first little emergency during the descent… same free-hanging rappel as I mentioned before, but I had an equipment quirk. I rap with a Black Diamond ATC-XP, and I usually thread it tooth side down (so, teeth toward my brake hand) when rappelling for extra friction on the rope, to slow my descent. This time, because of the rope we were using (it was thick, and relatively used, so it didn’t feed through the device as smoothly in high friction mode), I threaded it teeth-up, for less friction. I started my rap, and the cable on my device got jammed between the two ropes in my rappel, and the device jammed. I couldn’t unweight it to unjam the device, and started to go through my options. I had a prussik-cord on me and I instantly reached for that, because I knew I could use a friction knot to ascend my rope and unweight the device; but, tying the knot takes time. Alex was up above, and gave me the faster solution — wrap the rappel rope around my thigh four or five times to act as a break, and then try to hand-over-hand to unweight the device. Alex’s advice worked and was much quicker than the friction know would have been — so, note to self — don’t always go for the friction knot just because it seems safe and comfortable to me — there may be something quicker involving less gear to try first. By the way — my prussik was free because we used firemans’ rappels for backups — we weren’t rap-ing without backup. I’m not likely to use the device in that direction again — it could have been just a total fluke, but in retrospect, the angle of the device is prone to jamming because the teeth-up position lets the device crank further toward the brake hand than a typical ATC would.

Crisis averted, and many lessons learned, another beautiful climbing day was over.

Day four took us to Real Hidden Valley, where many of us started out at Locomotion Rock (I think). I think there was a 5.7 I did second to Jason (but Chris says I’m remembering that wrong) and then we hopped on a 5.5 layback that was a lot of fun. There was a hard (for me) 5.6 crack (picture is Alex on lead on that route) that provided ample photography opportunities… the crack was super classic, but the first few moves the hand jams were utterly smooth from so much traffic, so I took a nice good fall (it actually took me by surprise, which doesn’t happen very often). The offwidth to the right of the 5.6 was AWESOME and almost wore out my jeans.

While we were on the easier stuff, Alex and Rhi and V (I think) got on a 10b sport route that Jason lead later in the day with Chris as second (which provided, I think, the best photo opportunities of the whole trip). Everybody was totally bad ass on that route… it was incredible to watch.

Day five took us back to Real Hidden Valley… I don’t remember the name of the crag, but I think it was something with Buttress in it. Shawn, I think, lead an incredible 5.9 sport route… hard, frictiony, with the bomber holds being things like teeny edges and friction slopers… my notes say I was crabby and not into it, but thinking back, in retrospect, it’s one of the climbs I think of most fondly… it was hard, and different from what I usually climb, and I remember it being just incredible and feeling like a big achievement.

I tied in to belay Alex on a huge 5.9 crack next, in prep for someone else to second him and clean… and then, nobody wanted to second him and clean, and I was tied in, so I got the job. Alex was incredibly patient… he had to hold my falls in one section, and had to provide abundant encouragement in others… I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to do the climb, but I couldn’t exactly back off and leave hundreds of dollars of Alex’s gear in the crack and make somebody else do it. Well, I could have, but after the week, and everything the guys put up with from us, I didn’t want to. So, after falls, and inelegant climbing, and almost hyperventilating, and then (I kid you not) a short hailstorm, I finished the route and did the hop-across-high-up while Alex belayed my walk over, and then he lowered me off the route. It was “only” a 5.9, but still — it was fun despite being hard and beyond my normal comfort level… Alex was great, and the climb was a cap off to a perfect week.

So, sorry all who were on the trip if this is super me centered… but, I’ll try to do better on reporting other people’s achievements in the future. As for your feelings, you can do your own blog. 🙂 There are enough feelings on mine, just with me. So, I’ll wrap it up with my list of things I learned at J-tree…

1. Lots about rappelling as listed above, and lots about safe multipitch and trad gear placement technique, thanks to Jason, Shawn and Alex.

2. Don’t look, when the other van passes your car, and Alex is in the other van.

3. Wear your climbing clothes and pack your extra warm layers and going-home clothes. Everything else is completely unnecessary, since it’s too cold to change anyway, so what you’ve got on when you get there is what you’ll have on when you leave.

4. Learn your partners’ racking and packing preferences. That way, when you’re on the ground, and she or he is taking down the anchor and descending, you can be packing up his or her pack to get you on to the next crag as quickly as possible.

. Cold, day-old pasta with olive oil, salt and pepper is the best climbing lunch ever.

6. Percolators and Coleman stoves really do make the best camp coffee.

7. Comedy CDs are the best way to go for road trips because you listen, laugh, get some extra oxygen, and stay awake better.

8. Dennys is way better at 3 am than 6 pm.

9. Sometimes you just have to finish the route, even if you climb badly, you lose skin, you hyperventilate, and it hails. Somebody’s got to get the gear out.

10. Sometimes, when you climb, you actually do fall.

11. Out of all the colors, green nalgene bottles seem to be the ones mose likely to go AWOL.

So, I think that’s it. Thanks to the J-Tree 06 posse… let’s do it again next year.

Two final comments about Joshua Tree. First, yes, it truly is as beautiful (more beautiful) than in these pictures. Second, yes, the climbing is as hard as you’ve heard. And, as good.

Trip Reports

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.