Nashville was nice today, but my head is admittedly still wandering the desert of Joshua Tree, CA. Here’s the recap:
Rick and I flew out of Nashville on Friday to the bright (and overwhelmingly unhinged) streets of Las Vegas. Flight was commemorative if only because Rick asked the guy between us, “Are you Rod Stewart?” (He wasn’t, but he was Dolly Parton’s drummer, and old-school prog rocker, and a part-time stem cell enthusiast.)
Vegas felt like a brief stop on the way to something bigger. We wandered the streets for a while before settling into O’Shea’s — easily the most white-trash casino on the strip, but cheap and ace for people watching. I mostly laughed at sorority girls dancing enthusiastically to the worst cover band I’ve ever heard and dealt with the bad choice of a falafel burger from earlier.
Saturday began early — rental car pick up, Whole Foods for luxuries, Panera for breakfast, REI for fuel (and a hat — thanks to the money I managed to not flush away gambling), the grocery store for $100 in snacks, and then the long drive through the Mojave. By the time we reached Joshua Tree (NOT at the foot of Mount Shasta, although we’ve seen the signs), the sun was getting low. We found our campsite, discovered that we had perfect cell reception, and made contact with Brad and Jamie — who were climbing a mountain nearby. In an awesome experiment, we discovered how well sound travels through the desert AND I had bromance proclaimed for me from a mountaintop. Beat that. Whole Foods Box Wine and steak and veggies closed out the day, and the weather was perfect. I waxed about the beauty of life on my phone, and slept like a rock in my tent.
Sunday turned out to be a day of figuring stuff out. We jumped in expecting to be climbing first thing, but we quickly discovered that logistics were tougher than expected — ropes that were far too short (“Didn’t look 300 feet tall from the bottom!”), impromptu bouldering on rocks made of what felt like tiny shards of glass, climbs that demanded we either be GOOD climbers or have trad equipment. We ended up wandering about, looking at boulders, hunting for climbs. The hike was nice, although I ended up completely destroying a pair of pants (as in there was no seat in my pants beyond my underwear) and the walk was longer and harder than necessary since we insisted on bringing a load of climbing gear we never used. We ended up abandoning beans and franks for two large pizzas and resolved to get a better gameplan for Monday.
And Monday was incredible. First, I attribute this completely to the fact that we listened to all of the Roth cuts from the Best of Van Halen during our drive into the park (plus “Poundcake,” which is a great Van Hagar song). We got back to Echo Cove early and set up at the bottom of a rolling 5.9. After some debate, Rick agreed to lead it. We checked the gear three dozend times and coached from the ground while he Spiderman’d his way to the top with very little cursing. With the top rope set, Nick and Michael both climbed it, and then I jumped on.
This was nothing like anything I had climbed in the gym before — there were essentially no holds, just friction. Shoes smeared on the wall and held like glue, which was a godsend considering my fingers and palms were pulling on nothing. It felt tenuous and was all about balance and hunting out the smallest of pockets and dips for toes and fingers. Nerve-wracking, but by the time I was halfway up it started to feel natural. And right when it got totally vertical, there was a hairline crack to use as a pullback. Getting to the top was incredible, quite a rush.
Jay topped out and we bouldered a while afterward — with some newfound confidence we wandered through snake country and tried things way over our heads. While we traipsed around, Jay found another easy climb just down the road — a 5.6 and 5.8 with adequate bolts and anchors for a top rope. Headstone Rock. All to the van. Cue the Van Halen!
Once at Headstone Rock, we were quickly clueles. This was essentially a 200 foot high pile of rocks, with a flat-faced tombstone sitting on top. Four of us circled it for a few minutes trying to find the way to the top, but met back up perplexed. Meanwhile Nick had found a mountain-goat-style scramble up to the base of the headstone, and expressed through shouts his particular reluctance that this climb was at all possible. Wanting to see for ourselves, we followed his route — a 5.5 free climb by my standards, with lots of jumping over chasms and ducking under giant boulders and backstepping up tiny chimneys. By the time we got to the top, we were too scared to hardly move, much less try to climb the rock face in front of us. The 5.6 — the EASY ROUTE — required that the leader traverse out over the side of the boulder pile and above a 50 foot fall before even reaching the first clip. The 5.8 looked terrifying. In fact, it looked stupid. We sat in the nest of rock and agreed that it was over our heads. All of us, I guess, except for Michael.
Props to Michael, Master of Disaster — he studied the rock for 15 minutes and then stated that he wanted to do the 5.8. We worked out logistics — first clip was easy, second was scary and dangerous if he missed. We agreed that if he fell we’d push him against the wall in a football tackle, and he agreed that he would do everything in his power to avoid falling (easy to say). And with my stomach in my throat I watched the dude jump up on the rock, make the first clip with a big reach, and hit the second clip with supreme confidence. He climbed the whole thing — maybe 50, 60 feet of straight vertical face – in 15 nearly-silent minutes (minus one loud proclamation of “SLACK! SLACK!”). Everyone in 20 miles probably heard us celebrating when he got to the top. I think I screamed like a little girl.
Nick climbed next with the same confidence. On his way down, however, the rope got hung, and Rick and I got spooked. Nick dealt like a pro — climbing back up and pulling the rope free. Twice. The second was the deal breaker, and Rick and I looked to each other and silently shook our heads. We made our way back down to terra firma and decided instead to climb something with a more gradual pace — strolling up to the summit of nearby Ryan Mountain by trail for an awesome view of the whole park. From the top, though, Headstone Rock looked small and the world looked big and I had no intention of leaving this place with regrets. Rick and I agreed we’d be crazy not to climb Headstone Rock before heading back to real life where the views are much more level and much less dramatic. So we went to Pizza Hut, split a mountain of pizza, a few pitchers, washed our faces in the hot water sink, and plotted Tuesday — up by 4:45 to break camp, drive into the park to watch the sun rise, climb Headstone Rock like a real man, beat our chests, and soak up the park for a last few hours before driving animal style to In N Out Burger in Vegas.
I didn’t sleep very well Monday night — mostly dreams about tense situations and getting stuck in tiny spaces. And it was cold that night. But 4:30 AM rolled around and I was ready to get going or at least chicken out with gusto. We broke camp quickly in the dark. I washed my hair in the bathroom sink. And we drove into the park with the sun slowly rising over us. We let Headstone Rock get a coating of sun to heat it up, and then shimmied our way to the base. Rick set up lead, and climbed flawlessly while the nearby campsite watched on.
And once he was back down, I jumped on the rope and just swallowed my fear and got up on the wall. The climb was so different than anything I had ever done — not so much of a strength climb as just a confidence, fear-management, and unbelievable balance climb. The holds were flakes just big enough to get fingertips behind, and the footholds were tiny but the friction between rock and shoe was surprising. I took lots of big steps to try and give my arms a rest and rely more on my shoes than the panic I get from tenuous hand holds. The crux was near the top — just 20 feet from the peak the rock smoothed out to the consistency of a countertop and I hung back looking for handholds. After a few minutes of trying to figure out how to make this happen, I determined the only option was to use the pinky-width ridge running just above waist level. I swallowed hard and just went for it — I managed to just barely get a toe onto the ridge while turning my right hand into a mantle, held my breath, and shifted everything onto that toe. And as I stood up into it with a shaky knee I took both hands out of their holds and leaned my face into the wall and essentially balanced up into one foot, then rolled my weight over onto a right hand hold on the far edge of the wall. Realizing I’d made it work was completely exhilarating, and then with two big steps I was on the top — a 6 x 6 slab of rock standing in miles of empty space, easily one of the most incredible, life-affirming experiences of my life.
Afterward, with our rope set, Nick climbed the 5.6 that had looked so terrifying the day before, and Michael and Rick climbed a 5.10b while Jay watched from the nest. I sat by, took photos (1045 at trip end on my camera alone) and just soaked the morning up — I wanted to keep climbing, but just felt satisfied. Once back on the ground we gorged on our leftover food, make a short hike to see Skull Rock (letdown), Jay made me choke on water with a good 30 Rock reference, I ripped a hole in the seat of my backup pants (seriously!?!), and then drove back to Vegas via a road through the middle of nowhere for that Double Double with fries, all animal style, and a shake. (Unless you’re Rick, in which case a “Veggie Burger” means lettuce and tomato on a bun.)
So….. Jay, Michael, Rick, Nick — when are we going back? I’ll bring the peanut butter and an extra block of cheese.
See more photos at this Flickr Slideshow.