I’d worked my four 12-hour shifts at SLAC over the weekend, Friday through Monday, and I’d had fun! No major problems, I managed to not embarrass myself and the place didn’t burn down, I’d consider that a success! Now I had four days of holiday! Nice how SLAC gives and takes.
It was 6pm on Monday and I was going in the wrong direction, heading north with the San Francisco traffic when I really needed to be going south. Even though I’d diligently packed everything I needed the night before so I could leave straight from work, I’d forgotten something and so had to return home. I surprised Dan at the door, got what I needed, said goodbye and drove in the correct direction.
During my pre-shift holiday, I’d spent my time in the workshop and waiting by the mailbox for a stream of Amazon deliveries. In the four days I had, I’d replaced the broken passenger window, eliminated the “check engine” light, installed a solar panel on the roof, a battery under the bed, wired up a solar regulator and made a kitchen bench from beautiful birch plywood. Ramsie was ready to be my temporary home, though there was much more to be done.
I had an eight hour drive ahead of me to get to Joshua Tree. A national park a little ways east of LA, I would be covering a lot of California ground. Very aware of my post-shift tiredness, I was not too ambitious in my initial drive. I made it two hours before I had to call someone and spoke to Dad to keep me lively for the next hour before I stopped for food. Not long after that I was at Coalinga rest area and met with a sign that read “No Overnight Parking”. Funny, a couple years ago in the Astro van I would have worried myself about that sign, but now, I did not care one bit. If someone actually had the balls to knock on my window and tell me to drive away, I was armed with the logic of the situation. The carpark was half-full and I found myself a spot away from the closest street lights. Curtains closed, I snuggled into my bed and fell straight to sleep.
I had an alarm set for 6am so I could get to J-Tree at a reasonable time and I was pretty much ready to go by then. The sun rising over the already bustling highway was enough to bring a huge smile to my face, especially when I could see it without even raising my head off my pillow. Ahh, van life. After a quick visit to the much-in-need-of-attention bathrooms, I hit the road, resolving to have breakfast somewhere along the way.
I avoided LA and instead joined the Tuesday morning commuters in Bakersfield. I stopped in at a Trader Joe’s and fixed Dan’s two burner stove before making myself a breakfast burrito. I hadn’t had time to fully kit out the van and so I was running with Dan’s fridge and kitchen for this trip, which was much appreciated! I got a few things at Trader Joe’s, got some cheap fuel at a dodgy looking gas station and filled Ramsie up with oil. She’s currently leaking from the rear main seal and so I was keeping a close eye.
After I hit Barstow and turned south I was suddenly in isolation. Highway 247 was an incredibly lonely place and I found myself persistently glancing over my gauges. Ramsie and I still have trust issues.
All remained steady as I dropped into Yucca Valley, the Joshua trees growing in numbers in the desert. A brief stop in Yucca for a top-up of fuel and a Walmart stop for a couple bottles of oil (I was being cautious). From there, it was a short drive into the familiar park. I’d been here twice before, once at the very start of my Astro trip and the second somewhere in the middle with my friend Jon. Both times the place took my breath away and this time was no different.
Hidden Valley campground almost felt like home so little had changed and I immediately saw my friends as I pulled into campsite #30. Kathi and Shannon had taken pity on me during my first trip here when I was looking for a campsite to share in the packed tent/van city of climbing bums. Such is the norm in Joshua Tree’s campgrounds, none of them bookable and most of them occupied by climbing enthusiasts keen to remain for the 14-day limit and beyond. The result is always a lot of sharing and new friendships, just like the one I’d made with Kathi and Shannon. Travelers like me, they live in a Sprinter van for more than half of each year, doing annual tours of the country hitting all the hot climbing places on their way.
Kathi and I caught up as we watched Shannon atop the Ski Track Right Side (5.3) route on Intersection Rock behind camp. One of J-Tree’s best features is the quality climbing that exists not just near the campground, but in it. Shannon had noticed my arrival and waved from the top of the giant boulder, a tiny spec atop a two-pitch mountain.
Shannon and his mate Ron, camping next door to us, joined us soon after they’d descended from the rock and we were soon walking to Outhouse Rock at the back side of the campground for a climb. Shannon never wastes a moment to climb, he is a methodical and skilled climber who I really enjoy being around. He’s calm in his movements and could be a mentor the way that he explains to technique to people like me who are out of practice.
We got started on Strawberry Jam (5.9), an awkward crack/chimney sequence that I struggled on, it was my first indication that I had not been training hard enough and my crack climbing skills needed some serious work. It didn’t help that Shannon completed all the moves smoothly, not giving away the moves that I found difficult. I fell a couple of times, much to my dismay, but eventually met him atop the big boulder. I took my first look out over camp. It was beautifully warm in the early afternoon and everywhere you looked you could see tiny people on rock faces.
After repelling off the backside of the rock and meeting Kathi who had brought our shoes over, we went back to the East Face to get onto Straight Flush (5.8), a slightly easier side crack that I struggled with again, but not as much as my initial J-Tree ascent. I got through the hard-ish start, then fell in the middle, my arms already pumped from my poor form on Strawberry. Why I have never done this earlier, I had the bright idea to do a time lapse of the climb and it worked out great!
A slightly longer look out over camp this time before our descent and we met Kathi at the base again. She was entertaining herself watching a previously downloaded telecast of gymnastics world championships when she wasn’t watching us on the rock. Unfortunately, she’d injured her shoulder and was still in the resting phase, staying firmly on the ground and not climbing. Ron was also in the non-climbing camp since he’d done enough for the day.
The sun was starting to set and so we trekked the very short walk back to camp to get to some drinking. I’d last seen these guys climbing in Yosemite a few weeks before but we still had plenty to catch up on. We did a communal dinner of tacos cooked between three vans and a campfire which we all sat around, me mostly looking up at the sky and being lucky enough to see the ISS fly over, its solar panels glowing from the sun which at this time of year was disappearing around 5pm. It was an early night for all of us and I was excited for a long night’s rest with no alarm to wake up to the next morning.
Anyone in a van without windows is doing it wrong. When I woke up, the sun was gently glowing on the horizon beyond the pale rocks of J-Tree and I had nowhere to be in a hurry. I lay in bed, perfectly warm and comfortable, happy to be exactly where I was watching the sun come up.
Eventually I mustered up the will to get out into the cold of the morning but I soon found it wasn’t going to last. The campground heated up quickly to a pleasant temperature as I ate a breakfast of heated oats and discussed the day’s possibilities with Kathi & Shannon as they performed some pre-climb stretches. Shannon as always was prepared and pretty much ready to get on the wall so I soon as breakfast was done, we were racking up. Since Ron wasn’t up yet, we didn’t venture too far – only to the backside of the boulder right in our campsite – the west face of The Old Woman.
I really don’t think there’s a climb in existence that Shannon hasn’t done or is aware of, not only did he identify the route easily, he was already racked up with the right gear to climb up it. The sun was just starting to spread across the wall as he started climbing. He made easy work of it which was encouraging for my sore muscles but Dog Leg (5.8+) would end up maintaining my 100% fall record. Didn’t matter, I still enjoyed it, just needed to stop climbing with the muscles I didn’t have and focus on my technique more. The view from the top was nice, we could see the morning routine of the campground right below us.
After rapping down we went back to camp to see what was happening. Ron was up and about and Kathi was keen to do some climbing after twelve days off the rock. Shannon and Ron did the planning while Kathi gave me a lesson on taping my hands to protect them from cuts and bruises caused by hand-jamming. She laughed at my pitiful attempt but I eventually got myself sorted, feeling a little silly but everyone else was doing it!
Soon, we were driving out to the Hidden Valley climbing area (a whole five minute drive). This was a popular spot for tourists with a nice walk around the rock formations and it hit me that I was here on a weekday with school groups out in their droves.
We walked to the east face of The Sentinel which was shrouded in shade, ideal for climbing if a little cool for the belayer. I paired up with Ron and we set up on Fote Hog (5.6), a two-pitch that Ron would lead. Before seeing the climb, I’d offered to lead the first pitch but now that we were here and my confidence was low, I chickened out and Ron was ok to lead both. Shannon pointed out the intricacies of the climb since it was not a straight-up deal but wandered right along the wall following some interesting cracks and dinosaur-scale features.
As we got ourselves sorted, Shannon lead Western Saga (5.9) as Kathi tried to stay warm belaying in the shade. Ron took his time getting started on the climb, it was a messy start with me tied off to a tree and a difficult lead-move to start the initial 5.5 pitch. After much deliberation, Ron made the move and repeated the extended thinking at multiple points on the climb where the moves were harder than he expected and the gear not so inspiring. From my vantage point I could see tourists all through the valley and could hear many of them exclaim at what we were doing.
First pitch finally finished, Shannon had already finished his lead and was getting ready for a second run up it. He had a huge cheesy grin on his face seeing our lack of progress. I made quick work of the first pitch – easy to do when on top-rope and celebrated my first climb without a fall! Good thing too, if I’d fallen on a 5.5, I might as well have given up climbing altogether.
Again, Ron took his time starting on the second pitch thanks to an awkward first move but he eventually got going and was soon out of my sight making progress up the wall. A second party joined me at my anchor so I had someone to banter with for a while but I mostly just enjoyed being perched up on a ledge and enjoying the view. I had trouble hearing Ron, but eventually I figured out he’d anchored himself in at the top and so I followed him up. He kept me on rope as I wandered around to find the walk-off route which wasn’t too difficult and so we coiled and rope and made our way down. It was a nice gentle walk along the grippy stone and back to base.
Shannon had taken the rope off Western Saga and was just finishing up a lead on Ball Bearing (5.10a), a little ways to the left of Fote Hog. Ron and I munched down on some food before I belayed Kathi up the route. She was conscious of her injured shoulder but had spent much too long hanging around climbers and not climbing. She made it look easy. It was a route she’d done before but watching her find the perfect position as she moved up the crack was a thrill. I was determined to follow in her footsteps and hand placements!
Ron gave me a catch as I started up the route. I pumped myself out a little towards the top trying to convince myself that my feet would stick and eventually managed over the first crux, then the second, taking Shannon’s gear out as I went. Wicked! I’d kept my body on the wall the whole time without a fall and it was the hardest climb yet! I didn’t quite feel the elation to match my efforts because I still wasn’t happy with the way I was climbing – it wasn’t smooth. I cleaned the gear from the top and Ron lowered me down.
The shade was getting too cold now and so we racked down and packed out, blending in with the tourists that lingered. It was only 3:30pm or so with plenty of daylight left for one more climb, but we were all happy to call it a day and start drinking. Kathi offered some cab sav out of a box and so we were all one drink in by the time we were back at camp.
We sat around drinking at camp, me making some sausages and pasta for everyone to share while I listened to music in my kitchen. This van was certainly working out well! We all convened at the picnic table as the sun went down and ate around the fire that Shannon had started. The drinking continued and we met some fellow campers who came to join us at our fire. Nate and Jasper were a travelling man and dog from Washington state, Nate with a husky voice and climbing bum auro. Ernie and Sabina were from Germany and touring around the LA area for a couple of months in a Dan-era E150 van that they were renting from a chick for $50 a day. Not a bad deal!
I managed another ISS sighting, this time slightly earlier in the night and not quite so bright but no satellites because I was too busy talking to our new friends. When I started falling asleep standing up around 8:30pm, I called it a night.
I was up earlier the next day thanks to a throbbing headache – that bloody wine. Kathi had invited me to have as much as I liked and so I’d had a few more glasses than I should have, followed by a couple of beers. I downed some water and tried to think how I could make myself feel less miserable. I settled on a pre-dawn walk. The campground was quiet as I padded around on the rough sand and through the desert brush going in no particular direction. It was a nice time to be out and about, the desert was quiet and the trees beautiful.
By the time I was back at camp S&K had risen and we did the whole breakfast, stretching routine. Keeping with our tradition of climbing near camp while Ron was waking up, Shannon walked us over to campsite #1 where Ernie and Sabina were huddled inside their van doing breakfast. We said hi and dropped the rope at a route no more than ten meters from their picnic table. Pinched Rib (5.10a) brought back my falling technique as I followed Shannon up the short route. This demanded crack technique on the top half and body positioning that I kept getting wrong despite Shannon’s instructions. No matter, I made it up eventually. I stayed atop the rock with Shannon to enjoy the atmosphere while Kathi got on rope. She didn’t go past halfway, knowing that the last few moves would stress her shoulder.
I rapped down then and Shannon belayed me on the route immediately to the left called Damper (5.9). Kathi wasn’t going near this one due to its awkwardness and so chatted to Sabina in the sun while I set about trying to climb it. It was definitely awkward and resulted in me figuring out a known crack-climbing technique called butterflying – putting the knuckles of your hands back-to-back with your fingers in the crack and palms pressed against the walls. It sounds crap because it is, especially when it was me doing it. After my first slip, I ditched my helmet because it was preventing me from looking down and I struggled through the rest of the crack, mucking around with a whole bunch of different jams, taking multiple sits in the harness and even a few power belays from Shannon. I returned the belay for him then came down and acted as a counterweight for him to rap off the opposite side of the rock, not even realizing he was weighting the rope until he came around the corner saying “Sarah! I’m safe!” Ha, ha it was like a magic trick!
Back to camp to check in on Ron, he reported that he wouldn’t be climbing and so after I’d packed some lunch we drove over to the Hall of Horrors area. The wind had picked up so we were chasing climbs in the sun since it was no longer pleasant to be in the shade. Shannon had a climb pegged in the area that was supposedly in the sun and so the three of us walked over.
Shannon is a big fat liar! Not only was The Exorcist (5.10a) in full shade, but it was in full face of the wind. There was no deterring him, we would warm up climbing, but I feared for his belayer (me!). We racked up in the sun but it didn’t help much. Down jacket on and leaning against the wall as Shannon ascended the thin crack, I was shivering. Losing focus, Shannon had to try four different pieces of gear for protection at one point, he was not impressed. Following that, it was smooth climbing after the crack disappeared and Shannon climbed above my view. A short while later, I brought Shannon down to ground level, a little ways below the platform I was standing on. That meant he could stand in the sun while belaying me.
I kept my downie on and moaned and groaned as I stuck my cold hands into the crack with bugger all feeling in my fingers. Despite that, I climbed well but I was frustrated by a nut I couldn’t get out of the wall. I stood for ages trying to manipulate it free and eventually had to sit in the harness to work on it. After getting over that hurdle, I really enjoyed the last section of the climb, including the big move over a slight overhang that would have been intimidating on lead.
Very aware of my hungover state, I took my time once I got to the anchor, double-checking everything and thinking things through very slowly. With only just enough rope to get to the ground, I did my best to find the middle of the rope but discovered when I got halfway down I hadn’t done very well. It took three or four adjustments until I had both tails on the ground. Did I mention I was freezing?
On the ground, I was quick to get into the sun again and warm up. I was adamant I wouldn’t be climbing in the shade again! Shannon was coming down with the early signs of a cold and so we were looking for an easy afternoon. Round the front of Hall of Horrors, we had lunch at the base of Lazy Day (5.7) then climbed it. I turned down Shannon’s offer to lead it as did Kathi, so again, we let him do the work. You’d think a 5.7 would be easy but it still had a couple of weird moves!
Still not done for the day, we drove back to camp for a short intermission and then back to The Old Woman for a spin on Double Cross (5.7+). More afternoon sun, there were a few parties here taking advantage of the day’s remaining warmth and so we chatted a little as we got ready. This one was Kathi’s lead, she was determined.
She knew this climb and liked it and so she racked up. We were following another party up but they had plenty of distance over us. Kathi climbed up a few body lengths placing gear along the way but didn’t feel great pulling on her injured shoulder as she went higher. Knowing Shannon was close by she made the wise decision to come down after placing a few pieces to lower off of. Shannon, despite his slowly worsening cold, annoyingly made it look easy, placing gear calmly as he gained height. He lowered straight off once at the top then Kathi jumped on a second time with me belaying. She went much better this time, managing to pull on her good shoulder to get herself up.
With the sun setting, it was my turn. My arms and legs were really starting to fatigue now and my feet were complaining in my shoes. I know… I’m so hard core. I had one slip but otherwise a straightforward ascent as the sun set behind my back. At the anchor I had a grand view all to myself and I soaked it up a while before cleaning and lowering back down. A solid day of climbing was done.
Ron was nowhere to be seen when we arrived back at camp and so we all made a few things to contribute to a mismatch dinner eaten inside S&K’s Sprinter because it was much too windy and cold to be outside, even with a fire. We were entertained as we watched some people park up in Ron’s spot. The grumpy bastard that he was we were excited to see his reaction when he returned. He didn’t disappoint. When he rolled in, he came straight over to our van, opened the side door and shouted “Who the fuck is in my spot?” We played dumb and laughed as he went over to resolve the issue. No “hi”, “how are you?” just pissy. I avoided the wine tonight and we all had ourselves another early night, Shannon hoping his cold would be better and Kathi that her shoulder wouldn’t scream at her for the climbing she’d done today.
Friday morning I was up before sunrise again and went to my spot at the back of our campsite that was out of the wind and the first spot to get sun. I ate my cereal here and enjoyed the warmth on my face after a very cold night.
Ron didn’t show his face again and so after stretching we drove over to the Dairy Queen area. It was Kathi’s lead and this was her pick. Unfortunately by the time we got started the face was no longer in the sun and both leader and belayer froze. Shannon was ok since he was sitting in the sun resting his aching bones.
Kathi’s lead on Scrumdillyishus (5.7) was not a fun one, she was so cold that she couldn’t feel her hands, which didn’t help when she freaked out at the crux move, not finding the right gear and scrambling to stay on the wall. Good on her though, she managed and carried on up the wall, sewing the route with gear as she went. Thankfully her belay spot was in the sun but I was in pain as I climbed up. I had no hands or feet that I could feel so I was thankful for the easy climbing. By the time I reached the top the both of us were well and truly ready to climb somewhere else. We gratefully rapped down on another party’s rope when it was offered to us and didn’t waste any time getting out of the shade and on to another part of the wall.
On the left side of Dairy Queen, we set up on Norm (5.10a), another lead for Shannon. I crouched in the small spot of sun I could find and watched my mates and a couple other parties on the rock. This was a really interesting climb despite its length. A mixture of sport and trad, it started with a traversing crack feature then morphed into friction slab climbing. Shannon’s despise of the pathetic protection at the hardest move was apparent as I pulled out three tiny nuts he’d placed behind a flake of rock. By the time we were done, we’d lost the sun again and so we were off.
Back to camp for a quick lunch, then a short walk to the north side of the campground. On the left side of “The Wall”, we found a couple already climbing where we wanted to be but they were nearly done and so we set up. Another one of Shannon’s favourites, Hands Off (5.8) was another awkward crack deal with some super fun moves. Kathi wasn’t having any of it thanks to its weirdness and so it was Shannon and me. Shannon actually had a minor slip on this one, but not enough to put him onto the rope, he was setting up an anchor and telling me I could climb in no time.
Shannon was entertained by my climbing moves, I was using the crack when I shouldn’t have been, stemming when I should have had my toes wedged in the crack and getting “tripoding” technique completely wrong. It was bloody great fun and best of all, I didn’t come off! It would be difficult to place gear on the climb thanks to the tight body positions demanded by the cornered walls, so again I appreciated Shannon’s efforts. At the top I was ecstatic, I felt I finally managed to climb a crack with some form of technique and so we took a selfie to celebrate.
Turns out Hands Off was my last climb of the trip. By the time we’d racked down, it was past 2pm, the next climb we had pegged was already in the shade and my desired departure time of 3pm was fast approaching. I was super happy to end on that high note, I’d had such a good time climbing with these amazing people.
Back at camp, we sat in the Sprinter and chatted a while as Shannon enjoyed a well-earned drink. We even contemplated a plan to meet up in Joshua Tree again over Thanksgiving, this time with Dan and Cleo. Oohhhh the possibilities!
After a quick pack up of the van (i.e. throwing stuff inside), we hugged and I was on my way, sad to leave, but my body was happy to have an eight hour drive to rest.
Thanks to a lack of service, I had to navigate myself through rural SoCal which went reasonably well until I managed to hit traffic in each of the towns I hit. Eventually I figured out my phone was playing up and a restart got me some service and I was able to turn my brain off and just follow directions. I was surprised to find I drove four hours non-stop all the way to Bakersfield. It was only about 8pm but I was bloody tired, based on the last few days, it was my bed time! A chat with Mummy perked me up and then a hunt for petrol cheaper than $4/gallon kept my brain active. When I stopped for dinner in Bakersfield, I found myself in a field of smoke and it was Mum in Australia that informed me of the most destructive fire’s in the state’s history blazing away near LA and north of San Francisco.
I was a little disheartened to find that Ramsie was losing about half a gallon of oil every 250 miles, a problem I was aware of but now knew I’d have to do something about. It never ends! After dinner and a big chug of coke, I perked up a lot and started to think that maybe I could make it back to my own bed tonight. I told Dan as much and he was excited at the prospect. I didn’t promise anything but played some sing-along tunes and kept alert for when the tiredness would hit me. But it never did, around midnight I drove into the Bay Area and more smoke.
When I pulled into the workshop, I left everything in the van as it was, just grabbing my keys and my phone before creeping up the stairs. Cleo’s head popped out from under the bed covers – apparently she’d been keeping Dan company during my absence, she was happy to me and happily relinquished her spot to me. Sleep took me very quickly as I slid into the warm bed.
I dreamed of rough quartz monzonite all night, hoping to return to the Josh soon, hopefully with the two beings sleeping next to me!
6th November 2018. 34°00’60.0″N 116°09’44.6″W.