Joshua Tree 2006

November 11-12, 2006

This was my third trip to Joshua Tree.  The first was in December 23-24, 2002, just after I moved to LA.  The second was a year ago, November 18-19, 2005, with Will Conley, Aaron Reite, Stephen Kwok, Danielle O'Donnol (all fellow UCLA math grad students my year), and some other people whom I didn't know before and whose names I don't recall now.  I never wrote up a trip report, sadly, and have forgotten most of the details, but Will describes some of the climbs we did here.   Below is a picture of me during the 2005 trip near the top of Scrumdillyishus (5.7) on the Dairy Queen Wall.

This time Cindy Chiu, organizer of the first trip, sent email to organize another trip to JT this year.  She was originally thinking of Thanksgiving, but I warned her it would be really crowded.  So she changed to Veteran's Day weekend instead.  I thought she did that to get a three day weekend, and I thought I also warned her it would be crowded, but it seems she never realized it was Veteran's Day weekend until she arrived.  She would drive down Friday with a friend from the Bay Area, Marie Cardenas, and I got Danielle to go with us.  So it was nice to have one person from each of my previous trips go, as well as to meet someone new.  I also got Kyoko and Kyle to go along, and this would be our first big trip in our new RAV4.

Just like my previous climbing trip with Cindy to Yosemite, this trip conflicted with an event organized by Prof. James Ralston, in this case the quarterly Math Department Hike.  However this time I got to have my cake and eat it too.  When I expressed my disappointment at missing the department hike to Prof. Ralston, he asked me if I could join him on the scouting trip on Wednesday (November 8).  He wanted to make sure the hike would be doable, since some of the planned trails seemed to go into private land.  He picked me up at home at around 1pm and we got to the start of the hike near Leo Carillo State Beach south of Malibu an hour later.  He wanted to do the hike in reverse since we'd do the dubious part first in that case.  Indeed the main trail seemed to be part of some kind of Malibu Racquet Club, but we found an alternative dirt road that we could hike up.  It was very steep and a nice trail, and got us to Nicholas Flats.  We got a good  view of nearby Sandstone Peak (3111 feet), the highest point of the Santa Monica Mountains, and I took a picture since I'd forgotten to bring my camera when I hiked up it earlier with my wife and son (the first mountain he'd ever climbed).

We then descended down to the beach, the most interesting part being when we went to a lookout point on a hill and then tried taking a different trail down that led nowhere.  We ended up following deer trails down the very steep side of that hill, finally joining up with a real trail.  We then walked along the beach as the sun was setting and finally on the Pacific Coast Highway for a mile or so back to the car, getting there just before it got dark.  A nice hike, probably 10 miles or so in under 3 hours.

Back to the Joshua Tree trip.  We intended to camp there, and were really looking forward to that.  Kyoko brought a lot more food this time, and we also brought 2 gallons of water since there's no water at the campsites.  But Saturday morning at 7am Cindy called and said they'd gotten in very late, 3am, and stayed at a motel after finding every campsite was full.  Last year we'd had to stay at Jumbo since both Hidden Valley and Ryan were full, but this year probably since it was a long weekend everything was full.  She said she'd try again later in the morning after getting some more sleep, but as expected everything was still full and she instead reserved another room at the Best Western in Twentynine Palms.  It was disappointing not to be able to camp, but it turned out to be colder than expected in JT and also quite windy, so camping might not have been that much fun anyway.

We got to Real Hidden Valley a little after 11:30am after losing a lot of time detouring around a highway closure in Yucca Valley; otherwise the trip there was pretty quick.  We stopped to get some food in the town of Joshua Tree and also stopped at Nomad Ventures, the local climbing store, so the drive was probably under 3 hours even with the detour and would have been 2.5 hours in better conditions.  Cindy and Marie had already started climbing on the northeast face of Turtle Rock, with Cindy leading what turned out to be the first pitch of Blistering (5.5), or close to that climb.  She set up a toprope anchor at the bolts, and we toproped it, but ended up going a different way that was more a variation on Wandering Tortoise (5.3):  We followed a ledge at the bottom of a large "circle" to the left, instead of going right as Cindy had done, but instead of heading left after the ledge we climbed straight up to the anchor.  I thought this was around 5.7 when I did it and was very surprised to find the rating was much lower. There was a climbing class next to us using ropes on the two bolts to the right; it seems they were doing Easy Day (5.4) and Turtle Soup (5.3).

Kyoko did our climb, her first outdoor climb since perhaps her first time in Yosemite in 1999, and she did a good job, making it up.  She also belayed me.  I belayed her and so didn't get any pictures of her climbing, but she did take quite a few pictures of Kyle attempting the climb while I belayed him.  This was I believe his first roped climb outdoors, although he had done unroped class 3 climbing in Malibu Creek and toproped climbing indoors at the UCLA Rock Wall and Planet Granite in Sunnyvale.  He was very enthusiastic about climbing, even though this route was hard for him.  The start was particularly hard (and I found the start of all the climbs seemed to be the hardest part), so here is Danielle helping him out.

Here is Kyle higher up.

At some point one of the climbing instructors told us we had his harness on wrong--that the black strap in back of his neck belonged on the front.  This was in fact not true--there's a picture of how the harness should be worn printed on it, and the strap does go in the back (in fact it would strangle the child if you put it in front).  However as the picture above shows the harness did seem a little loose, so I tightened it up when he got down.  I've never been able to make this harness fit him well--before I thought he was too small, but now it seems he's too big--perhaps the harness design (and looking at the newer model they seem to have changed it slightly) is not the best.  Tightening it caused other problems as I'll mention shortly, and it seems time to move to a child version of the adult-style harness if his waist is big enough now.

Kyle managed to get a little higher, but then got stuck and wanted to come down.  Here he is at the high point he reached.

Impressively after resting a bit he wanted to try again!  And this time he did make it higher, although I assisted him a bit by pulling him slightly up some harder parts.  Here he is using his left knee to help get up to the circle ledge.

The picture below gives an idea how high up he is.  I'm belaying and Cindy is to my left.  Marie and Danielle are to my right.  This picture also captures the essence of climbing outdoors, which involves a tiny bit of climbing and a great deal of waiting around.  We were in the shade and there was a strong cold wind so it was a bit chilly.

Kyle climbs into the circle ledge. 

You can't see it from this angle, but there's a sort of inner ledge above the main ledge, and this inner ledge is very narrow and scary to walk across.  I somehow didn't even notice that one could walk down to the wider lower ledge and then get back up again, and worked my way across the narrow ledge slowly.  Kyle did the same as shown here, but everyone else took the easier way.

Past the ledge Kyle got stuck here. 

He couldn't get up, and I tried to pull him up but that didn't work.  The rope also got stuck a bit on the rock, and I tried to get him to shake the rope to free it but he couldn't.  So he found it hard to go down as well, and the rope pulling on his tightened harness gave him a sort of wedgie which was painful.  He probably also started to get cold now that he wasn't moving much, and he started to cry and wouldn't or couldn't go up or come down.  Kyoko and I tried to coax him, and then Cindy decided to free solo up to him.  She met him on the ledge, attached herself to the rope, and brought him down.  Here they are at the bottom.  Really terrific of her to rescue him!

After that he didn't want to climb anymore, particularly because of the pain from the harness, but he otherwise enjoyed the climb and was proud he'd made it so high.  I'm sure he'll continue to climb a lot more.  Even though he didn't do any more roped climbing, Kyoko, Kyle and I spent quite a bit of time both days (while the others climbed) just exploring various boulders and passageways and climbing small things unroped.  Kyle loved that as well.

The anchor was in a good enough position that we could do Rehab (5.9) to the left of where we were, so Cindy, Marie, Danielle and I all successfully did that.  It's a face and friction climb, my favorite kind, and I really enjoyed it.  Unlike the other climb I thought the 5.9 rating was quite accurate.

By then it was getting dark and even started to drizzle slightly as Cindy rappelled after taking down the anchor, but it never really rained.  We had dinner and then went over some knots and related things before going to sleep.

The next day we got up early and had breakfast at 7am; the other three arrived around 7:30.  I expressed interest in taking Kyoko and Kyle on a hike up Ryan Mountain which Cindy and I had done four years ago.  It's a pleasant short 3 mile (roundtrip) hike starting at around 4400 feet and going to the top of the mountain at 5461 feet.  This would be Kyle's new high point (in contrast, the first time in my life I was at that elevation or higher was probably when I bicycled to Yosemite in June, 1999!).  Danielle wanted to come along as well so we drove there with the plan to meet Cindy and Marie at Hidden Valley Campground when we were done.

The hike was terrific, the only downside being that it was still a bit chilly with again the strong cold wind.  In the sun it wasn't too bad, and we had the usual terrific views of the park and San Jacinto Peak.  Kyle picked up a rock at some point and ended up carrying it to the summit where he placed it near the top of the pile.  Here he is on the summit holding the rock; San Jacinto Peak is in the background on the left.

The hike took about 1.5 hours, just what I guessed.  When we got to Hidden Valley Campground (around 11am I think) we soon found Cindy and Marie just where we expected on Old Woman.  They had wanted to do the classic Double Cross (5.7+) but it was occupied as usual, so Cindy was trying to lead Dogleg (5.9) to the left of it.  She had climbed it before on toprope and had no trouble, but she found leading it much harder and didn't make it halfway before she gave up and lowered off a couple cams.  Marie and Danielle then tried climbing it.  We were trying to figure out how we could get those cams down, and Cindy said she'd just ask someone to climb the route and clean her gear for her.  It seemed unlikely to me we'd find someone so easily, but just as Danielle was climbing some guys came up and offered to do this for us!  So very good luck.  I gave up my chance to climb it (I wasn't that enthusiastic anyway) and they quickly climbed and cleaned her gear.

We had everything back together by around 1pm, and decided to try having someone else lead an easy climb, either Beginner's One (5.3) or Beginner's Two (5.2) on the Blob.  Kyoko and Kyle didn't want to come, so they just stayed in the car.  The RAV4 turned out to not only be a lot more fun to drive than the Civic, but also (since it's much bigger) a lot more comfortable to just rest in, so Kyoko and Kyle enjoyed reading, playing the Nintendo DS, and sleeping while we were away.  I told them we'd be back within 4 hours, and I was hoping it would be less.  But climbing always takes longer than you expect....

We thought of maybe trying to do both climbs simultaneously since Cindy has a lot of gear, but the climbs seemed long and it wasn't clear how much gear they'd require, so we decided to just do Beginner's Two, which seemed the better of the two.  Marie leads 5.10c in the gym (I've never led in a gym) and is clearly a very good climber, but this was only her second time climbing outdoors (the first being Castle Rock, also the first place outdoors I went with Cindy).  So she decided she wasn't quite ready to lead yet and let me try leading.  This would be my second lead ever, the first being the 5.1 Swan Slab Gully in Yosemite just a couple months before.  I figured 5.2 was a good next step.  Unfortunately this climb, like the previous one, was a very unsatisfying lead.  The climb was easy enough that I didn't need to worry too much about protecting myself, but again it was hard to really protect at all.  Cindy only gave me cams and slings and that turned out to be absolutely correct, as nothing else would have been useful for this climb, but even the cams were hard to place with any effectiveness.  I felt like I might have just free-soloed the route.

Above is a picture of the Blob from ground level.  Beginner's Two is the primary crack system in the middle.  We scrambled up 3rd class slabs to the start of the climb (where the sort of ovalish large brown spot is at the bottom of the main crack), and the start turned out to be problematic. The main crack flares out, is vertical at the start, and quickly narrows.  I could stem at the beginning but couldn't see how I could squeeze myself through the narrow opening near the top, or to get over that.  I could put in a cam to "protect" myself but couldn't reach high enough that it would help at all if I fell at the "crux" of the start.  There was a secondary crack to the right but it was so shallow I couldn't see getting any gear into it.  Finally there was a nice rough face in between that looked easy to climb but was completely unprotectable.  I put in a cam on the main crack and tried a couple times to climb it, but couldn't bring myself to get very high.  So I left the cam in, more of a symbolic gesture than anything that would help me, and climbed the face.  Fortunately it was easy and I didn't fall.  After that the climb got a lot easier, although there were certainly hard parts, a lot harder than I expected for a climb rated 5.2.  As I told them it's the hardest 5.2 climb I've ever done!  Much of it seemed more like a shallow offwidth than a crack, and I'd find myself wanting to lieback off it with my feet on the face outside, but found that was too scary given that I had almost no protection, so I tried to stay in the crack.  This also had it's problems especially with all the gear hanging at my waist.  For the most part the angle was low so that even if I fell I wouldn't fall far, but there were some more vertical sections.  There happened to be some places to place pro in these, but it was so low that it wouldn't have helped except to make sure I didn't roll all the way down the formation.  I would still hurt myself badly if I fell, so I made sure not to fall.  In the end it turns out I only placed something like 4 pieces of pro for the entire climb (which was nearly the length of the entire length of rope--50 or 60 meters--I forget which), and that includes the first symbolic piece I placed at the start (of course they all were little more than symbolic).  I recall looking down and seeing my last piece of pro 30 feet or more below me and thinking I'd better not fall.  But I felt secure enough the whole climb.

Finally I reached the top and started looking for an anchor.  Cindy thought there might be some bolts and chains at the top but the guide didn't mention anything and indeed I didn't see anything.  In fact there really wasn't anyplace to put natural pro at all!  All there was was that lousy shallow flaring crack.  I was glad Cindy had given me some larger cams and managed to get three in that seemed reasonably solid.  There was actually a sort of bowl at the top with vertical enough sides that I could have sat in it and belayed with my legs against the edge as the anchor.  That probably would have been just as safe as what I ended up doing, and a lot more comfortable, but I didn't think Cindy would approve.  I attached myself directly with runners to the three cams so that I was in the middle of them--the one below me and the farther one were the main anchor and not quite equalized but somewhat close.  The third one was a backup and probably wouldn't have helped much or at all.  I stuck myself into the crack and mostly used myself as the anchor.  It was a pretty lousy setup but I didn't see a much better alternative and it seemed plenty safe for bringing up a second.

I had another problem, though.  I was far away from them and it was very windy up there.  Also I couldn't see them since I wanted to stay far from the edge.  So I would yell that I was off belay and they were on belay and so forth but I couldn't hear any response, and didn't think they could hear me either (it turns out they could).  We hadn't worked out any signals (three tugs or whatever) which I now regretted, but it seems they understood well enough when I pulled up the rope before putting them on belay, and I would tug every now and then and be able to tell when Marie was climbing.

Cindy had decided to try to free solo the route (perhaps attaching herself to my rope for protection) so that she could check out my anchor, which she correctly suspected might not be very good.  However somehow it took her and Marie a very long time to make it up to me.  Furthermore no one else was on the summit at the time, so it was strange being up there alone with nothing but the wind.  The scenery was stunning but I couldn't really enjoy it.  I was also quite thirsty, having neglected to bring any water up with me.  I'd left all my supplies in my backpack at the bottom--I guess I figured at just one pitch it wouldn't matter, but in retrospect I should have brought the pack up as well.  I felt like such a duffer, still having no idea really how to lead.  But then I figure the only way to really learn is to do it, and hope you don't make any big mistakes in the process.

Finally Cindy made it up, and a little while later Marie.  Here's a picture Marie took of me at the top.

We now had to figure out how to get Danielle up, and how to get us all down.  Cindy thought one of us should rappel, then Danielle could climb and the remaining three could downclimb (there were a couple options, apparently 3rd class but they seemed scary to me).  While looking around for rappel rings (we found some bolts but didn't know where they'd lead) we ran into some guy who didn't speak much English (he seemed to be German) who had apparently come up the southwest side unroped and said it was easy.  I'd seen someone trying to downclimb it before though and it didn't look easy to go down.  I hate rappelling as well but that seemed less scary so since I'd been on the top the longest and was looking forward to some water I volunteered to rappel.  We needed to join two ropes together (Marie had brought up a second), and Cindy worked on redoing the anchor so it would be safe to rappel off it while Marie and I huddled together to stay warm.

Right about this time a young guy appeared who wanted to downclimb our route with no rope.  He was freesoloing various routes on the Blob and I guess using our route (and maybe other easy ones) to get down.  He seemed like an excellent climber and also I think said something about having worked at the park before.  This was perfect timing because it meant we could forget about rappelling.  He would bring one end of our rope down to Danielle and she could just tie in and climb up.  This she did (and she even did the main crack start, which she said wasn't bad) with Cindy belaying off the anchor she'd set.

So we all made it to the top.  The same guy told us the northeast descent was easier than the southwest descent, which involved a chimney on polished granite at the end, so we decided to try the northeast way.  Here are a couple pictures we took before going down.

We headed down the northeast way and soon ran across a young couple who had just climbed up to a ledge below us.  They were also JT veterans and helped guide us down to them.  The downclimbing was a bit scary in parts but we made it.  They then led us further along before going down one way and telling us another way was easier.  We took the easier way and it was indeed easy from that point.  We had a great deal of luck and help this day!  And it was so terrific to finally reach the ground again safe and sound.  We still had to recover our packs and give the gear back to Cindy, but we made it back around 5pm just as it was getting dark.  Kyle had gotten worried from about a half hour back and he and Kyoko had looked around for us, but they'd gone to Old Woman rather than the Blob and didn't see us, so Kyle actually started crying apparently.  But we did make it back just in time.

I suggested we might have dinner before driving back but Cindy and Marie wanted to head back right away since they had a 7+ hour drive ahead of them.  We were going to stop for a quick dinner but Kyle fell asleep by the time we were out of the park and I didn't want to wake him, so I drove straight back and he slept the whole way.  We didn't have trouble in Yucca Valley but as I feared the 10 freeway was jammed with people returning to LA after the long weekend, and it was quite miserable and slow to drive back.  It ended up taking over 4 hours.  I'll make sure to not drive back into LA at the end of long weekends in the future.

Another terrific climbing outing.  I'm looking forward to lead climbing again, something a little harder with I hope better opportunities to place pro and create decent anchors.  I still have a lot to learn.  I want to get Kyle to climb more and more as well.  The next step is to start building my own rack and having us go to some local climbing areas, as well as trying out some of the indoor gyms around here.  I hope to climb with Cindy, Marie and their friends, as well as my UCLA climbing friends, more in the future.