Joshua Tree National Park – a climber’s perspective

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Joshua Tree

Typical view in Joshua Tree National Park

I have a great group of hiking buddies here in Las Vegas.  There is always someone that is ready and able to tackle a trail with me regardless of the timing.  My friend Brian is solely responsible for getting me back into nature and teaching me how to hike here in the desert.  He’s a climber and day hiker who enjoys nature as much as I do.  Last year Brian and a group of his climbing friends set out for Joshua Tree for the weekend.  I remember thinking at the time that I wish I was a climber so I could tag along.  This year they invited me to go and of course I jumped at the offer.  I’m not a climber, at least not yet.  I’m not afraid of heights.  I have no excuse for not climbing other than an anxiety stemming from the notion that climbing REQUIRES a trust in equipment.  At 6’6″ and 265 lbs I am suspicious of that notion.  Will the equipment hold?  Are the placements of the gear sufficient?

I know that I will start climbing at some point.  I simply know too many climbers not to participate.  That said, this wasn’t the trip for that.  Maybe the next one.

I left Las Vegas early Thursday morning and began my drive across the Mojave Desert intent on reaching Twenty Nine Palms by 10am.  The drive is amazing, rough roads lined by joshua trees most of the way.  Until I hit I-40 I passed only a handful of other vehicles.  I didn’t mind.  As you work your way up the hill from Twenty Nine Palms to the park entrance it feels like you’re in the wrong place.  There was nothing spectacular about the views.  Just desert.

I paid my entrance fee and began the drive into the park.  Things change quickly as the formations and outcroppings begin to pepper the desert landscape.  I made my way to the Ryan Campground where Brian, Eric, Josh, Jason and Anne had secured a site the night before and had been fortunate enough to grab the two next to theirs in the morning when the current campers vacated.  Things fell into place nicely!

Ryan Campground

Base camp at Ryan Campground

As I said, this was a climbing trip.  I was amped to hit a few trails, explore the park a bit while the climbers did their thing.  Plans change.  I decided to tag along on the first climb and really enjoyed snapping shots, talking technique and equipment with anyone not on the wall, and even just doing nothing.  My plan was officially altered!  The first day was great.  We were expecting a half dozen other friends to arrive and so the approach to the first climb was about 75 feet from our camp.  This may be one of the best things about Joshua Tree National Park.  Everything is a route.  With more than 5000 documented routes, you can climb almost anything.  The Ryan Campground, like almost all of the other sites, is a loop around a large outcropping of rocks that seem to climb out of the ground for no particular reason.  We walked down three camp sites, asked for the blessing from the residents on that site, and our group was on the wall in minutes.

The following days were very similar.  Short walks or a 10 minute drive to the various areas of the park where the group wanted to climb.  Approach hikes were never very long but there was always something fun to do on the ground.  Scrambling routes, boulder problems, a little R+R.  It was the perfect weekend for even a vertically challenged hiker!

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Chasm of Doom

Due to the extreme exposure of the Chasm of Doom the entry and exit points remain a secret

Saturday was a big day.  We headed to Atlantis, a wall that everyone had tackled in past trips but apparently a fun one.  There were multiple routes being worked at a time but all side by side.  I spent time scrambling around the canyon floor looking for the best perspective to snap shots of the guys on the wall.  I got lots of good ones too!  Later that day I was told about the Chasm of Doom – a tunnel and cave-like system through on the climbing areas created by the erosion of the rock over time.  The entrance seems innocent enough but quickly narrows to what I would describe as a crack in the rock.  Halfway up you have to raise your body up to go over a large boulder that is wedged between the two walls that are only 3 feet apart at most.  It’s certainly close quarters.  Once you reach the top of this section it opens up a bit but continues to push up towards the top of the rock formation.  There were a few tight spots but nothing really that challenging.  We caught up to a troop of Boy Scouts who seemed to be less intimidated by the surroundings than I was.  In the back of my mind was a mental picture of me wedged in a tight spot with my friends pushing a pulling from opposite sides trying to free my 265 lb frame from what would be looked back on as one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made!

We reach the pinnacle of the scramble and the rock opens up with window views out in multiple directions.  It’s only a couple hundred feet up from the parking lot if that but it seems to be greater given the effort to get there.  The Boy Scouts were dropping down into a hole where the apparently drop down a few feet to another level behind the huge boulder that is the left wall of the chamber.  One of the Scout Masters had gone down first, followed by the Scouts, then finally the remaining two Scout Masters.  We walked out on to an open area each picking an area to spot up while they cleared the shaft.  It was the perfect perch until I heard the last Scout Master say “I had to fully exhale to squeeze through.  There’s no way that anyone bigger than me can get through that!”.  He was maybe 6’1″ and 200 lbs.  Great!

Jason heard him too and shot me the “Oh shit!” look.  Adrenaline.  I walked over to an opening where I had seen the Scouts pass as they cleared the boulder squeeze.  It didn’t look that bad.  I could always jump if I need to.  Then when I leaned over a bit more to evaluate it further, I saw that this was just a landing with another 10 foot drop to the side.  Jumping down could be disasterous if it was annything but a clean landing.  Jason and the other climbers were planning on a downclimb on the other side of the chamber.  I had already assessed that option and drew a quick conclusion that it was likely beyond my skills.  So I retreated to the first spot where a jump was the last resort.

This spot was a tease really.  A 10 foot drop to a shelf.  Hell, I had dropped that far thousands of times in my basketball days.  a dunk, a short hang, and a drop back to the court.  Big deal.  Well it was, I’m 37 now with bad knees and not nearly as strong as I was then.  Plus I’m carrying 60 lbs more than I was during my college days.  There was really only one option.  Downclimb one of these two chimneys.  I leaned to the opposite side of the chimney and could place my hands on the other side, rotate my body so that my back was against the wall and work a chimney downclimb.  Easy enough.  I saw the guys use this move on the wall multiple times the last 3 days.  So I decided to give it a test.  A few moves and it felt possible.  But I am a very cautious hiker and never venture too far from my comfort zone.

A few of the others were already working their way down the other side and would circle back to where I would downclimb to provide a helping hand in the event something went wrong and prevent me from missing the ledge and dropping a further 10 feet.  They made it over to me and I shared my plan.  They seemed impressed that I actually had a plan at all, that I had thought about the problem and the moves that I would need to make.

I leaned against the opposing wall, rotating to be able to use my feet on the wall I just left and began my downclimb.  I assumed it would take 5-6 movements but I did it in three.  Stepped on to the ledge below rather than jumping and needed absolutely no assistance.  Winning!

Jason immediately congratulated me and said that we was impressed with my technique.  He said it was perfect and that it’s exactly what he would have done.  He seemed surprised a bit as he said it, maybe not sure how I managed to tackle it the way I did.  I told him what was running through my mind.  I had seen him and many of the other climbers in our group use the techniques on the walls they had been climbing during the trip.

It may not seem like a big feat given that those that I was with would have thought very little if anything about the problem I just tackled.  But for me it represented a huge challenge, something well beyond what I have done before.  I am comfortable with exposed Class III situations like we face in Red Rock on nearly every hike.  But this was different, exposed with little room for error.  Truth is that the exposure was a broken leg not death which makes it pass the Tim test.

We continued down the other side of the formation darting in and out of little caves and cracks but nothing seemed even remotely close to the section we had just completed.  The adrenaline surge dissipated and my breathing returned to normal.  What a rush!

The crazy part of my indoctrination into the group was when we all made it to the picnic table in the parking lot.  They began to tell stories of their first time through the Chasm of Doom.  Apparently, they took mercy on me as this adventure is usually done at night to a full moon with no headlamps!

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[tab:Notes]

The crew at Joshua Tree National Park

The crew at Joshua Tree National Park

I can’t wait for the trip next year.  I’ll likely get on a wall for the first time, at least in JTree.  I learned a ton just by watching this group of climbers as they moved fluidly up the various routes.  I have no misconception about how hard it is to do what they do with the level of grace and ease that they show.  They’ve been doing it for years, some even for a living.  But I know that just being part of the experience has made me better with scrambling and even some very easy climbing.  The techniques and movements need to be practiced but at least I now have a mental image of what they should look like.  I think it will make me more efficient on the Red Rock hikes as we tackle the scrambling sections.

Thank you to everyone that I met on the trip including Brett, Anthony, and Josh as well as my friends Jason, Anne, and Eric for the great times.  A very special thanks to my friend Brian for inviting me this year.  I hope this is something we will get to do every year because I can’t imagine many things that would be more fun than JTree with all of you!
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I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.

  • I was not lucky enough to visit this park when I visited Palm springs 3 years ago, on my list for next go round.

    • It’s certainly worth it.  JTree is unlike any place I’ve been and the landscapes are very impressive!  Great light for epic photos in the early evening.

  • Matthew Maxwell

    I think you would really enjoy Rattlesnake Canyon, you enter it through the Indian Cove entrance.

    • You’re the second person to mention that one!  Looks like I have something on the agenda for next Spring’s trip.  Thanks Matthew.

  • Pingback: Safely finding and pushing your limits as a hiker | Trail Sherpa()