Our anual spring migration this year was full of surprises. We started by flying into Las Vegas with an overnight stay at the Egyptian themed Luxor Hotel. I was surprised to discover it was hollow with rooms lining the inward leaning walls. The space inside was huge and it made me a little dizzy walking around inside. Below pic from wiki.
I did like all the Egyptian decor, accents and such.After a few hours wandering around the Vegas chaos, we hit the hay. The next day we picked up our rental car and headed out for some hiking to Red Rocks Canyon.
Above: We hiked the Keystone Thrust trail, a winding high desert trail climbing up through the mountains. We were fortunate to see some Desert Bighorn Sheep. They look identical to our Rocky Mountain Sheep but perhaps a little less shaggy. It was weird to see such familiar creatures in such a foreign setting. A marvel of adaptation.
Above: We drove further down a did a short hike up Icebox Canyon. Beautiful coloured sandstone rocks. We saw a few climbers here as it is a famous spot for climbing. We also saw a few desert hares hoping around through the creosote bushes.
Suz has a thing for donkeys so when I learned that Nevada has many wild donkeys, we had to find some! Luckily, according to the parks service, a great place to find them was just up the highway. En route I found this signpost. We didn’t see any so I’ll have to wait another day to see a wild tortoise and hare on the same day. Suz took the wheel and drove as I scanned the desert for movement and just before sunset, we got lucky.
Above: Our quest was short as we found a small heard of a half dozen extremely cute wild donkeys grazing bits of grass on the high plateau. They seemed unconcerned of us as they had their heads down foraging eventually meandering right up to us allowing a wonderful, up close look. Suzanne showed some real restraint not bounding over and hugging the baby donkey in tow!
A great day for wildlife which I did not expect in our desert meanderings. As the sun fell we drove through the night into Needles, California. The next day we made our way through the Mojave Desert through some bleak but fiercely beautiful desert. We arrived in the town of Joshua Tree, California where we were going to be based out of for a couple days for some climbing. In the climbing world it’s known as “J-Tree” but I felt like an imposter calling it that.
Above: We did some hiking in the afternoon and sampled the weird landforms. Joshua Tree is a world renowned rock climbing location with thousands of routes. The granite rock has worn into very unusual formations both vertical and spherical making a foreign landscape dotted with Yucca trees, cacti and creosote bushes. Below is a ubiquitous example of the alien landscape with some smaller Joshua Trees dotting the foreground. Incidentally, the famous U2 “Joshua Tree” album cover was taken about 200 kilometers from Joshua Tree National Park. The trees can be found in the higher elevations but are more concentrated and spectacular in the National Park.
Below: Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park. There is no shortage of perfectly arranged compositions to point your camera at and shoot. This ancient Joshua Tree posed very still for me. A magical place.
The next day we woke bright and early and met local guide Seth, our rock climbing guide I had contacted from Canmore. In chatting over early coffee, we quickly discovered he had been to the Banff Mountain Film Festival this fall as his wife was in one of the films and had met Suzanne. It didn’t take long to find a few acquaintances in common. It’s a very small world.
Suz and I have been climbing indoors over the winter but the techniques for this kind of rock make use of the many cracks and slots in the rock. It was new to us so Seth spent some time on some easier pitches helping us with our techniques. The granite is very “sticky” compared to our limestone at home. This allows you to “smear” your feet on some pretty unbelievable angles that are hard on the brain. Trusting your weight on such crazy nothing footholds was very difficult.
Above: I’m using an undercling technique, pushing my feet into the rock with the counterforce achieved from pulling at the crack. Even though I’m on a precariously steep face, this counterforce is just enough to keep my feet on the rock even though my brain is having a hard time accepting it! After traversing horizontally across this crack, I get into a vertical crack and use a “lie back” with my arms that pushed my feet into the crack. I found these vertical cracks very unpleasant affairs as you have to point your toe into the crack, insert your foot and twist it to wedge it in. It pretty much is the exact same directions for trying to break your ankle as far as I can tell!
After a few climbs on “Ken Black Dome” we moved locations to a rock formation called descriptively, “The Blob.” Our last climb of the day was a longer “multi-pitch” climb. This means that the climb is more than one rope length. Seth would lead placing protective anchors along the way and Suz would belay him. When the rope was at the end, he would stop and belay her up and then belay me as I climb while I remove the anchors as I climb. Then the pattern would repeat with Seth continuing up.
The first pitch was easy enough climbing but one has to be very clear to keep the order of operations correct and the ropes and anchors and every action organized. The second pitch involved climbing a wall via a vertical crack about 2 inches wide. Suz is usually a better climber than me so it was hard to watch how much difficulty she was having. It was ruining my confidence to see her struggle. Seth could only offer so much help above her within earshot but not being able to really see her.
Above: But Suz is not one to be deterred. Seth got this picture of her just having beaten the crack and climbing up the last couple easy meters to the top. It’s really awesome to have a picture of her, right at one of those moments of perseverance and accomplishment. I got up to the crux crack and couldn’t fathom it. My mountain experience tells me to put one foot in front of the other but that didn’t seem to apply here! I thought I better just start before I wait too long and make it harder in my head.
Above: I put my hands in the cracked and pulled trying to get one foot wedged in with the other counterforcing against the smooth vertical face trying to find any slight indent or bump to gain some friction with my other foot. In this way I inched my way up carefully. The hard part was getting a free hand to remove the anchors as I passed them. I have to take the rope off the anchor then remove the anchor and attach it to my harness trying not to drop it a hundred feet below! I made it up but it was a pretty harrowing experience. My face at the top doesn’t have the same expression as Suz!
Above: After successfully climbing up the crack, I’m just topping out but don’t look quite as joyful as Suz. But after a minute to collect myself, the adrenaline wore off and the feeling of accomplishment took over. Some of the hundreds of other towers dot the background.
Above: What goes up must come down. We repelled off the backside with more surreal Joshua Tree scenery as a backdrop. Suz can be seen at the bottom having already repelled down. Our route below followed “C” up and repelled down “A”
Joshua Tree is primarily a “Trad” area short for traditional. This means there are no bolts drilled into the rock to put your rope through as you climb to act as protection. Instead you must place and retrieve removable anchors. It’s nice to be able to see and leave no trace of climbing as the rocks and formations are so beautiful. But this style is more difficult as there is so much to learn about how to safely place these anchors. It was great to have such a knowledgable guide and teacher to teach some of these skills to us.
Above: View from the top of “The Blob.” This portion of “J-Tree” called appropriately: Wonderland. Scale is difficult to imagine though the trees below give some hints.