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Returning to the winter climbing mecca of Joshua Tree, where their knot was first tied, couple finds solitude a bit harder to come by

Words and photos by Bruce Willey

Caroline Schaumann climbs Headstone Rock in the evening light.

Caroline Schaumann climbs Headstone Rock in the evening light.

Trust the friction. I’m three or four body lengths above the last bolt, but who’s counting? All I know is if I my foot blows on this tenuous smear I’m going to go for the long slide. Trust the friction, my brain tells my climbing shoe again. Then inch up slowly in balance. There just might be a handhold above.

But there isn’t. Just an odious penny-pinching crimp of a hold. Here’s to the joys of a Joshua Tree 5.10 slab. A place where the cheap-ass, bad-asses of yore found it necessary to add a little spice to each climb by drilling ground-up and adding as few bolts as necessary. Then again, what would climbing be without a little bit of fear, without all those succulent brain chemicals swirling between neurons and altering perception?

“Looks slabolischious,” I hear my wife say, urging me on. Yet this encouragement does nothing to bring the next bolt closer. One more tenuous smear on the quartz monzonite nothingness and I’ll have it. Then another 20 feet or where the angle eases some to a big flake where I can sink some gear. I look down at my foot, amazed its even sticking to the steep slab. Then the next foot. No fortitude to stop and ponder. Just keep going toward the belay ledge where my sweet reward awaits. Trust the friction.

We’re out in the Echo Cove area, climbing Quick Draw McGraw (5.10a) one climb over from the famed, über classic Heart & Sole (5.10a). The Joshua Trees contort below into Dr. Seuss shapes, rhyming “Sam I am” with their funky shadows splayed on the granite dust in the late afternoon sun. I get to the flake, grabbing this nourishing hand jam for all it’s worth and look around. Easy liebacking leads to a comfortable belay where I am surprised to learn that instead of being awash in the Hallmark moment, I am simply relieved. After all, this ledge where I park my trembling mind and pull up rope is the exact same ledge I asked my wife for her hand.

Seems like a long time ago … or just yesterday. Hard to tell sometimes. Then again, when you do a lot of climbing you find yourself in one happy time warp after another. The only thing that’s changed is the baby Joshua tree that clung to this heart-shaped slab four years ago looks to be growing into a fine young adolescent tree. Calls to mind Willie Nelson’s line: “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

“We woke at a leisurely pace, jettisoning city life and getting in tune with the rhythm of the desert with the help of coffee and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. With over 7,000 known routes and a guidebook that is almost as heavy as a big city phone book, we’d grab the rope and rack, drawn by the magnetic force of so much rock in this 850-square-mile national park.”

But that’s the magic of Joshua Tree. A place that scrubs the soul clean and slows the time, and for the rock climber, scrubs a whole lot else, too. The coarse granite that Josh is so famous for (read: tenaciously good friction) also scrubs the soles of your shoes and the tips of your fingers. And for the last three days we have bathed in the high desert light and slept under the blazing winter constellations.

Two weeks earlier we’d stopped at Josh to stretch our legs after our annual migration out West. Between rolling El Niño storms, we camped at the Indian Cove Campground (Helpful hint: At 1,000 feet lower than the campgrounds in the main park, it is usually much warmer), our usual Josh hangout. We woke at a leisurely pace, jettisoning city life and getting in tune with the rhythm of the desert with the help of coffee and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. With over 7,000 known routes and a guidebook that is almost as heavy as a big city phone book, we’d grab the rope and rack, drawn by the magnetic force of so much rock in this 850-square-mile national park. Now, we’ve been drawn back for more.

Climbers have been coming to Joshua Tree since the 1950s and it has slowly morphed into a world-class climbing destination. It’s not uncommon to step under a granite dome and hear a host of far-flung languages and accents, making for a Tower of Babel experience.

But all this love has come at a cost to the serenity and sanity of the place. (Hint number two: Go during the week.) Many of the classics, especially near the road, require a waiting list. And the wait can be long. For an area that prides itself on a hearty trad ethic and a ground-up approach, one can nearly shed a tear at all the top-ropes hanging from climbs. Sad, too, given that it was once considered a winter “training ground” for bigger climbing objectives. Joshua Tree probably did more for the free-climbing revolution, with climbers such as John Long, Lynn Hill, John Bachar — a list so long and heavy that to do any more name-dropping would ignite the nearby San Andreas Fault — than it’s given credit for.

Topping out on the Moose Dog Tower in Indian Cove on Third Time Is a Charm (5.10b) (Helpful hint number three: Excellent route and almost never crowded.) on a Saturday afternoon, one is likely to view what looks like an army of red ants swarming over the rocks far below. No need for alarm despite some Josh locals who insist that the place attracts the occasional UFO.

No, the ants are Boy Scouts all sporting red helmets. At first this is no cause for concern until you realize at least 25 out of a 100 of those pre-adolescent boys will inevitably become hooked on climbing. You can almost hear the faint shouts of things to come: “Dude, you dropped in on my climb. Go back to the beach.”

Still, it is easy to find some much-needed solitude from the masses with only a short jaunt into the backcountry. Walk back into the Wonderland of Rocks or out to Outer Mongolia, and you’ll feel like you have the whole place to yourself. Failing that, climb the roadside classics under the moonlight, an increasingly popular past time given the daylight crowds.

In any case, one remembers that nearly 10 million live a mere hour and a half drive away in Los Angeles County, not to mention the aptly-named Inland Empire a stone’s throw away from Josh with its four million or so masses. Such is the state of this good state of California.

We rap into the sunset, the rock still warm and blessed from another fine sunny day of climbing. Hard to believe it’s winter and we pity the poor East Coast souls from where we have come who are digging out from another snowstorm. We sit on the tailgate of the truck and pop a beer. A coyote pack wails in the distance. And we feel as though we might as well be the only ones left on this good earth.


Bruce Willey spent his childhood in San Bernardino when it was swaddled in citrus. He no longer recognizes the place when he returns. He currently lives in Bishop where he does manage to recognize the sublime beauty under the Sierra. See more of his photography at www.plumephotoproductions.com or writing at www.brucewilley.com.