Getting out of the car at the Joshua Tree visitor centre we are wrapped in warmth and bright sunshine, capped by a deep blue sky. This is the life. Unfortunately it is Memorial Day weekend and there is not a camp site space available anywhere. But the very helpful Ranger directs us to Joshua Tree lake, a dried up lake bed, a dirt bowl in the middle of nowhere where we can camp for free. That’ll do nicely, thanks.
The soul of Joshua Tree lies in its purity and its boldness; an ethic of minimal intervention and spontaneous execution.
There is no water at all in the park, so you must take all of your H2O requirements with you. This is easier and cheaper than you might think, because the local climbing shop, Nomad Ventures on the corner of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard, has a tap outside that visitors are invited to use; we even managed to salvage a couple of 2 gallon containers from a nearby recycling bin. When Ed went to sort out the water he was approached by a guy who turned out to be local activist, guidebook writer and all round J-Tree climbing legend Todd Gordon, who invited us to climb with him that afternoon. In the space of less than an hour we had been offered free camping, free water and a guided introduction to the area from one of its most prolific climbers, until recently Todd held the record for most new routes at J-Tree. We’re going to like it here.
At 825,000 acres Joshua Tree National Park is more than twice the size of the Peak District (355,200 acres). Most of the climbing is on the western side of the park and is easily accessed via the west entrance at the town of Joshua Tree. Todd took us to the Barker Dam area, to a small buttress (c. 30 metres high) near Escape Rock. We did a handful of sport routes (5.8 to 5.10) that Todd had put up recently, a mix of padding up slabs and delicate bridging up water channels; these will appear in his forthcoming sport climbing guide. After Ed helped Todd put in a belay bolt, the local ethic is that all bolts are hand drilled, we top roped a new route which Todd bolted the next day. Thanks to Todd’s generous and friendly nature we had an amazingly fortunate introduction to this astonishing place. Luckily for us the weather here was also unseasonably cold, it was only in the 80s instead of the 100s but still hot enough to have to climb in the shade.
The climbing is focused in an area of some thirty square miles with millions of boulders and thousands of granite domes (tors), the biggest of which, Saddle Rock, has routes of up to almost 400ft. The domes and strange piles of rocks have weathered into weird and beautiful shapes and are surrounded by seemingly endless varieties of cacti and the eponymous trees. By turns the wide landscape seems to be a setting for a cowboy film, the moon or mars and almost every night offers a fabulous sunset.
To many Joshua Tree will be synonymous with bouldering rather than routes, my only regret is that we focused so much on routes that we didn’t get to do any bouldering so I guess I’ll have to go back. The fabulous friction of this fine grained orange granite lends itself to slabby its-all-in-your-your-feet routes but it would be a huge mistake to think that this is what J-Tree is all about. Sure there are plenty of padding up and perplexing friction moves but there are also off-width cracks, splitter cracks, flared giant things that you put your whole body into, thin edges, crimpy walls and pump your brain out overhangs. In other words it has pretty well everything in spades, including a grade range that will suit everyone from beginners to high-end crankers. However, it also has a reputation for being harshly graded, as it says in the guidebook.
‘Why go to J-Tree and flail on 5.10s when you can go to Red Rock and cruise 5.12s?’ The answer is a complicated one, but it lies somewhere within recesses of self-doubt, whirlwinds of personal triumph, and a sensation of freedom as vast as the landscape itself. The soul of this place lies in its purity and in its boldness: an uncompromising ethic of minimal intervention woven into spontaneous execution. To succeed on the chopping blocks of Joshua Tree takes more than just strong fingers: it takes a strong spirit.
There is no doubt that climbing in this vast, wide, open, otherworldly wilderness gives one a great sense of freedom and of being a part of the landscape.
An example of the ‘strong spirit’ needed for climbing at Joshua Tree can be seen on Walk on the Wild Side (5.8), at Saddle Rock, which is described as a ‘must do three pitch dome route’. It is a four star slabby trad’ route but here’s the thing, pitch 1 is 100ft with six bolts, pitch 2 is 100ft with three bolts and pitch 3 is 75ft with two bolts. As it is listed as a trad’ route we carried a rack but didn’t use it as there is no other gear on the route. So, not one to undertake if 5.8 is your limit, and this kind of runout is typical of the older routes at J-Tree. The photograph shows Ed Shaw climbing Walk on the Wild Side (5.8).
Solid Gold (5.10a) on the Astrodome in Wonderland South seemed, by J-Tree standards, a reasonable proposition offering six bolts for 100ft. Crimpy, thin edging up a beautiful if very unlikely looking gold streak in the wall leads past the six bolts but alas leaves one more than thirty foot short of the belay. Try as I might I couldn’t quite bring myself to commit to the remaining third of the pitch, which is a pity as I was told later that I had passed the crux, c’est la vie. By contrast Green Chile (5.11a) and Cheese (5.11a) at The Red Burrito are bolted like European sports routes. So sport routes can be really run-out or well bolted and trad' routes can have bolts as well as gear or no gear other than fixed gear. We were told by a number of locals that another facet of the Joshua Tree ethic is that routes are never re-graded nor retro-bolted, this can and does lead to some spectacular sandbags. Thankfully there are plenty of routes that are exactly as described. Oh, and by the way, a ‘standard rack’ at J-Tree includes cams up to the size of a Black Diamond Camalot 4.
When the Bank Holiday was over we left our dirt bowl and moved up into the Hidden Valley campground. As a special treat to celebrate camping in the park we made use of the showers at the Coyote Corner store, $4.50 for seven and a half minutes of ablutionary bliss. As well as a picnic table our campsite offered chemical toilets and crags within the campground: Intersection Rock, The Old Woman, The Blob, Outhouse Rock, Chimney Rock and The Wall. No prizes for guessing why this is the most popular campsite for climbers. It’s great camping amidst these crags where the most casual of ambles will enable you to be on a route by 8am but there is something else about staying in the high desert that starts to seep into your soul. Maybe it’s that as the sun goes down the rocks constantly change colour and character before the sunset paints the sky orange, pink, and purple? Or maybe it’s the coyote that saunters through the campsite every night at 9:15pm? Or the group of coyotes serenading the moon at 4:30am? Or the shadows of the Joshua trees standing with their arms raised? Or maybe it’s the open expanse with its seemingly endless variations of domes and boulders? I’m hooked.
Of the ten areas we visited only the Astrodome was more than a mile from the car, but that didn’t stop us wandering around, not always sure about where we were going. The wash (dried up water course) that leads to the Astrodome is lined with a great variety of cacti and we were lucky enough to see many of them in flower. At first glance the high desert appears to be quite homogenous but each area seems to have its own character and micro-ecology: the vague valley in front of Split Rocks has taller cacti and less wind than other spots, whereas our search for Conan’s Corridor at Jumbo Rocks took us through small sections of canyon that were choked with low-lying vegetation. We did eventually find the slot canyon that you have to squeeze through to get to Conan’s Corridor. We also learnt a very valuable lesson here about seeking out climbs in the shade, this wasn’t and we fried. We had a similar ramble when searching for the Heart of Darkness Corridor, in which its two short splitter cracks (Apocalypse Now 5.9, Heart of Darkness 5.11a) are in permanent shade inside a giant split in the rock. These two routes may be short but are well worth seeking out as textbook splitters with an unusual feature: you can see light through them! By contrast, Saddle Rock can be seen for miles around and the Hidden Vally crags are a casual stroll from the tent.
The photograph shows the author, Ian Wyatt, enjoying the splitter crack of Heart of Darkness (5.11a).
For our second day’s climbing with Todd we left the heat of J-Tree to visit Tahquitz Rocks. About two hours away this mountain crag is at an elevation of almost 7000ft and boasts routes of up to 800ft. We did the über classic Royal Robbins route Whodunit (5.9) which travels the whole height of the crag ending right on the summit. It was a good job we had Todd with us because we would never have found the descent route without him. Opposite Tahquitz sits Suicide Rocks, both of these crags offer some cool multi-pitch climbing if J-Tree is getting too hot.
We spent our last afternoon in J-Tree at the Isles in the Sky at Split Rocks. The routes here start from a platform at about 60ft and have a simply beautiful outlook. We had been told that if we did only one route at Joshua Tree it should be Bird of Fire (5.10a) at Isles in the Sky, a stunning route in a fantastic location. A spicy start (another J-Tree speciality) leads to a thin crack and face climbing which brings you to an overhanging jam crack finale. Our ‘Valley blues’ had long since dissipated into the bright orange sunshine of this wonderful area that I was sad to leave but look forward to returning to. Soon I hope.
Although this is a great spot for Yosemite escapees, Joshua Tree is 140 miles east of Los Angeles so a flight to LA is the usual route. The western entrance is near the town of Joshua Tree which is on Highway 62.
We did most routes on a single 60m but did have to use a second rope for some of the abseils. So take either a single 70m (which is becoming more popular in the US) or a 60m single and a 60m half. A UK trad’ rack, with enough extenders for sport climbs, and at least one cam the size of a BD 4. However, it is worth taking doubles on the medium to large cams as quite a few of the cracks are pretty parallel sided. Bouldering mats can be hired from Joshua Tree Outfitters (http://www.joshuatreeoutfitters.com). Nomad Ventures (http://www.nomadventures.com) is a well stocked climbing shop with very friendly and helpful staff as well as free water.
The best time to climb at Joshua Tree is from the autumn, through the winter and into spring. We arrived in late May and were lucky that it was unseasonably cold, late April/early May is the usual end of the climbing season.
There are quite a few guidebooks covering Joshua Tree from definitive area by area guides to highly selective ‘best of’ guides. We took a middle route with Robert Miramontes' (2014) Joshua Tree Rock Climbs, by Wolverine Publishing. It is well laid out with clear photo-topos. Although there were times when we wanted more information on how to find the crags we never got lost.
Living in the Park
Entrance to the park is $20 for a seven day vehicle permit, irrespective of how many passengers. Few campsites take reservations so it’s first come first served, details can be checked on the National Parks Service website (http://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm). Each camping spot is $15 per night and will take a maximum of six people, three tents and two cars; so it can be very cheap. There is no water in the park, you must take all you need. There are some stores and cafés in Joshua Tree, a Walmart in Yucca Valley and a collection of eateries in 29 Palms.
About the Author
Ian Wyatt has been an active climber for over forty years. Writer and part time contract worker he enjoys all aspects of the climbing game: bouldering, sport, trad’, winter mountaineering, ice and Alpine climbing. He has also assisted in the production of two rock-climbing guides. Find out more about Ian on his website.
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