Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Joshua Tree National Park, climbing in Dr Seuss Land

Davi Rivas and myself atop Intersection Rock.

 My wife went to Mammoth over the weekend, a girls ski trip, which left me with a glaring hole in my schedule. I persuaded Davi Rivas to grab the rock gear and head out to JT with me. It had been over 12 years since the last time I roped up for a route in Josh, which seems kind of silly, considering that I used to live out there, had a PO Box at the JTree office, and that I've climbed over 600 routes in the park (many of them multiple times). Maybe I just burned out on rock climbing and the desert all at once, having lived it so completely for so many years. After all that time and distance from one of my past lives, I was eager to just go back to JT and see what I had left behind. Also, though Joshua Tree can be an intimidating place to climb, I was looking forward to donating some blood in the park's notorious, man-eating cracks.

Re-racking for the second pitch of Overhang Bypass.
 This little weekend trip reignited a bit of my old passion for rock climbing. Really, it's about the places that climbing takes you, beautiful places like Yosemite or Josh. I'll have a tough time putting it into words, but stuffing my fist into a gritty, painful JT hand crack really unlocked a part of me that I had ignored for years. It hurt and felt good all at the same time, if that makes any sense. I so enjoyed relearning the moves and the jams that I had known so many years ago. I remembered certain holds and toe smears and hand jams on each of the classic Hidden Valley moderates that I had led so often. We ended up climbing seven routes in 2 days: Sail Away, Toe Jam, Mike's Books, Cyclops, Overhang Bypass, Hands Off, and Double Cross.
Cjillin' in the sun between climbs
 In addition to roping up and climbing routes, we had plenty of time to add some bouldering to the mix. One afternoon we played around at the Turtle Rock boulders, the other evening we spent the sunset thrashing our tips on Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke is an incredible horizontal traverse that runs about 110ft and most of the moves on it go at 5.11, which isn't hard by bouldering standards today but it's the length of the problem that gets people. It is sooo pumpy. Noodly arms quickly ensue. I used to have the thing wired. No more, but the moves came right back and I was able to put it all together in pieces.

The whole weekend I was being smacked by a flood of nostalgia, for Josh changes very little and every corner I rounded held a secret past meaning for me. At Gunsmoke I ran into an old friend from my time living here, John, also known as "Bird Man". This is a name he neither wants nor appreciates. Most people think it stems from the fluid grace with which he glides across the rock, and the extraordinary wing-span that he utilizes to disturbing advantage. No, John is a loner, has been medically treated for psychiatric issues for decades, and seldom speaks to people (it took around three years before he said "hello" to me). The "Bird Man" thing has nothing to do with climbing. It originated back in the '80's when John kept raptors, and occasionally brought them up to what was then called "The Monument" to hunt for small game. People just don't know the guy and assume that he either can't or won't talk when in fact those same people have just stepped into his personal space, often with boom boxes and beer and other irritants. The guy just wants to be left alone by 98% of the people he meets. I rounded the corner to Gunsmoke, saw John, he saw me, stared at me with those unnerving eyes of his and just said, "When did you cut off all your hair?". Well, we had a good chat, he asked about my dad whom he had met once. I filled in the gaps since the last time I saw him and it was like nothing had changed. Personally, I was just really stoked to see that John still survived and thrived in the only place to bring him peace. It was a neat reunion. FYI: John doesn't like people taking pictures of him which is why you won't see one here.

Sunset in Hidden Valley campground.
A blood donation to the JTree rock gods.
This obvious rail on one of the Turtle Rock boulders is too much fun.
Davi leading Cyclops.
Davi Following Hands Off.
Ahhh, Joshua Tree in the winter. It is a mecca for out of staters, ex-pats, drop-outs, dirt-bags and foreign climbers. This time of year fewer than a third of the license plates in the campgrounds will be local. The temps during the day stay in the 50's and climbing in the shade means cold, swollen digits that don't always work right. The rubber on one's rock shoes stick to nearly anything, also known as "optimum smearing temperatures". The arid cold numbs all wounds, of which any JTree climber has plenty. Every season, even summer, has it's JT charms, but winter is best for climbing.

Davi following the appropriately named Toe Jam.
Home Sweet Home. Hidden Valley #19. What used to be known as the Life is Good Camp.
Above & Below: This is a small hidey-hole called the Iron Door Cave. It's not a true cave, more like a dark spot underneath a cap rock which is supported by other boulders. The floor space is about 15-20 feet, always clean and dry. There are two different versions of what Bill Keys (JTree pioneer, rancher, prospector, and all around hard-case who killed a guy in a fair gun-fight) used this cave for once he put a plate steel door on the cave to seal it up. One very sensible story is that Keys used the cave to store his TNT and dry goods in a cool and hidden place. The other version says that Keys used the cave to lock his mad, schizophrenic son away from himself and the rest of the world. There's probably a little truth to both stories, as Keys did indeed have a mad son and he (Keys) was generally recognized to be a very difficult man to be around. Either story has merit but in the end we will never know which is true. It is an interesting place, and with a few candles and some beer, I've ridden out a few El Nino storms in there in complete comfort.

Moon Rise over Old Woman Rock.
When the only way down is up...

Gunsmoke, or part of it.
Hang it Loose, baby!
To say I had a good time on this quick road trip would, of course, be an understatement, but, given my history with this place, I felt like I had been transported back in time. Sadly, I was transported with this beat up, 40 year old carcass. Understand that I'm not complaining about my age, nor am I griping about the fact that I can no longer lead 5.11 after one cup of coffee. Things change, we grow and interests shift, we adjust to the vagaries and responsibilities of life, but JTree doesn't change much. like a broken record, I'll be back again and again.

Check out some pics of my past life in JT: Old post: Out of the Shoebox, Joshua Tree

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