December 27-30, 2012
The landscape of Joshua Tree National Park.
Freshly showered and with a clean set of clothes, we were joined by Josh, Jonah, and Chris in our drive across Los Angeles and up to Joshua Tree National park. Before we even reached the park, we were surrounded by spiky and curvy Joshua trees, which resembled the trees from Dr. Seuss's Lorax. We drove to the middle of the park and spent our first day at Freeway Wall, which proved problematic from the start. Not wanting to carry everything with me, I left my main backpack at the bottom of the climb and walked up with my camera, climbing equipment, and due to some lapse of judgment, enough food for a three-course meal for ten. Both of my hands were occupied with carrying this stuff, and unlike the previous few days, getting to the top was a challenging climb in its own right. Gokul set up a top rope, but it was very windy and rappelling required a tricky down-climb completely exposed, so I opted to walk back down.
On the way down, I stood on the top of a fifteen-foot boulder wondering how I was able to climb up it. I was about to try and slide down when I heard a reverberating sound like a helicopter whose blades were moving at one-tenth their normal speed. It was such a foreign noise that I thought this is the noise you hear right before you die. I looked at the boulders some more, discovered a better way down, and made it to the bottom, safe but exhausted even though I hadn't officially climbed yet. Then I looked up at the other side of the wall and understood what the helicopter noise really was: a group of professional highliners (here's their website) was testing the tension in their line. They later gave us a show, walking back and forth between two cliffs on an inch of webbing.
When I knocked on the rock and heard a hollow noise at the beginning of my climb, I knew it would be scary. The whole way up, little flakes broke off and trickled to the ground. Then when I was close to 100 feet up, my foothold broke and send a rock the size of a softball hurling toward the ground. I screamed “ROCK” multiple times and hoped Katie, who was belaying me, could avoid it. The rocked bounced around like a game of Plinko and crashed against the ground about three feet from her. It was a scary day and I was just glad to make it back to the cars without any injuries.
Climbing the Freeway Wall.
Our group campsite was in an amazing location with giant boulders all over the place. But we didn't get there until nighttime, and Josh found out the hard way what can happen when you borrow a tent. The zipper didn't work, the poles were either too short or nonexistent, and the fly was missing. Even if the tent remained standing, the boys were bound to freeze in the cold desert night, but Gokul came to the rescue. He covered the mesh windows with his four-season North Face tent and used a series of ropes and carabiners to secure the new Frankentent. The temperature dropped below freezing at night, but everyone appeared well in the morning with no blackened digits. Gokul was the glue that held the entire trip together.
The next day we climbed at Echo Rock, a massive friction slab. We don't have a lot of friction slab in Wisconsin so I had very little experience on it, but the basic description is that the wall is leaning forward and there aren't many big holds, so you just have to get as much of your shoes' surface area against the wall as possible and hope they don't slip. I led a route called Double Dip, which was rated 5.6 (easy), but was terrifying because I constantly felt like I was going to fall off. After clipping the fourth bolt, I looked up and saw that the next bolt was about twenty feet up, which meant that I could take a forty-foot fall. There was probably little chance of me actually falling there, but clipping the next bolt was among the most terrifying things I've done as a climber. I had less than the first knuckle of each finger of my left hand holding the wall while I made the clip. Later, a more experienced climber ran up the same route about three times faster than me, so maybe I was overreacting, but still.
Meanwhile, Gokul, Zoey, and Josh had fun with a multi-pitch trad climb on the other side of the wall, which amped Gokul up for a bigger multi-pitch route in the following days.
Gokul leading on Thin Wall.
The next day we went to Thin Wall, which was a shorter top-rope wall with lots of easy-to-moderate routes (5.8-5.10a) in the center of one of the park's main hiking trails. During our hike to the wall, we passed a guy free-soloing a route called Ball Bearing (5.10a) and bit our fingernails until he made it to the top. Setup was far easier this time, and the climbs were a lot of fun. Josh, Jonah, and Chris took off in the afternoon and the rest of us got some good work bouldering near the parking lot. We didn't even get the names of the problems we were on, but with hundreds of boulders scattered around the area, we decided to just have fun and spare the details.
For our final day in the park, Gokul, Zoey, Katie, and I decided on a new challenge: a 350-foot climb that can be done in 3-4 pitches. With Gokul as our only trad leader, we knew we were going to be inefficient, but we still wanted to give it a try. Gokul led the first pitch on double ropes, then brought Katie and Zoey up to the anchor. This took a long time, and by the time it was my turn to come up, we could see some bad weather coming in from the distance. We knew it would take several more hours to finish the climb, and with the storm approaching quickly, we decided to bail after I got to the anchor.
By the time we all got to the ground, it was starting to snow on us. I kept thinking I left Wisconsin and came to California for this? We made our way back to the car and saw the highliners again. They were toughing it out in the snow, but were having a hard time standing on the webbing in their bare feet. We drove out of the park in a full-on blizzard, with people stopping their cars every few hundred feet to take pictures. So my final memory of the park was seeing a field of snow-covered Joshua trees.
Photos from Joshua Tree National Park