Climbing the Tree

So we're back from an epic 1,500-mile spring break drive to Joshua Tree National Park, a drive made all the more epic by a slight detour for a climbing competition in Monterey. Most of the pebbles and sand and assorted grit have been removed from our bodies and our equipment. And that leaves us to wonder: Was it worth it?

The definitive answer: Yes and no. Yes, we saw some gorgeous stretches of the northern Sonora and Mojave deserts that we hadn't seen before. It's easy to see why a certain mystically inclined stratum of the population holds Joshua Tree in the same sacred league as Flagstaff, Chimayo and Mt. Shasta. Yes, Alex climbed superbly in a very challenging new environment. Yes, all the godawful expensive climbing gear worked perfectly. But ... no, Twentynine Palms is an absolute armpit of a destination, a dust-coated hellhole filled with trailer trash, hardcore alcoholics and some of the worst restaurant food in the West. No, we didn't find nearly enough to climb in a park that is considered the greatest rock-climbing area on the face of the Earth. And no, the weather -- dust blowing at 60 mph -- was not perfect.

Would we do it again next year? That's a tough call. Joshua Tree (that's "JT" to you) is a unique destination for the world's climbers, with more than 4,000 documented routes and probably an equal number of undocumented ones waiting to be discovered. And, much like Yosemite, if you want to climb there you take it on its own terms. There are precious few areas in the country where one can climb in shorts and a T-shirt in early April, with temps in the 80s. Perhaps if we can find just one more day's worth of quality climbs for Alex, it will make the two days of driving worthwhile. As it was, we spent an inordinate amount of time and gas scouting highly touted cliffs that were either inappropriate for Alex or unriggable by David. We spent an entire day zooming from climbing area to climbing area only to have David eyeball each formation only to pronounce grimly, "can't rig it." It will be a happy milestone indeed when Alex is old enough to start lead climbing (i.e., setting her own protection on a route rather than having the security of a rope rigged from above.) But that's some years off.

Alex had never laid paws on rock quite like this quartz monzonite. It's the type of non-glaciated coarse-grained granitic slab-and-crack that will bite you and leave you bleeding in a half-dozen places. (All three of us had a few minor run-ins. David shot through a pair of pants and a pair of shorts. Alex shot through two pair of FiveTen MiniMoc climbing shoes.) We taped Alex's fingers quite a bit over the four days of climbing, and we're happy to report that she still has all her digits. David was very happy to have packed three ropes, thus eliminating the need to destroy his most expensive rope on the razor-sharp overhangs.

If you're ever inclined to car camp in Joshua Tree, heed this well: Choose your site carefully. The original layout of Indian Cove Campground (which is its own island, isolated from the rest of the park's roads) was to government spec. The expansion 25 years ago saw the creation of a camper ghetto, with people shoehorned into tiny spaces, cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors. This led to some significant discomfort for us on two separate nights. (No details, but suffice it to say Sartre was right when he famously observed "Hell is other people.") On the other hand, our two nights in town at the Harmony Motel (yes, that's where U2 stayed when they recorded "The Joshua Tree") were wonderful. Six rooms. Funky art. An unheated pool and a library for Alex, plus many other friendly climbers. We'd planned on one night in town to shower off the dust and resupply, but the windstorms drove us in a night early.

Alex's greatest hits at JT: Short Wall, right side, where she shredded a pair of expensive shoes in about two hours flat. Atlantis, where she climbed severely sandbagged (read: undergraded) 5.9-5.11a crack routes with an audience of about 20 teens. And Lizard's Hangout, where her only audience was the local lizards plus the coyote from down the road. See photos of all the above in our slide show.

Over four climbing days, she generally climbed 5.8 through 5.11a, JT grade. There is no comparable gym grade.