By Outdoor Prolink Editorial Intern Sara Aranda. Sara likes to climb, trail run, travel and adventure. She is currently on an epic climbing road trip around the American West. Look for more blog posts and photos from Sara coming soon!
“The whole world is, to me, very much ‘alive’ – all the little growing things, even the rocks.” – Ansel Adams
“If the night sky had a flavor, what do you think it would be?” My friends and I had just driven into Joshua Tree for the first time, the car’s headlights barely glancing the granite domes. I had no idea what landscape I was truly in that first night, and while we sat there star-gazing, I smiled and jokingly answered, “Mystery flavor!”
When the sun rose the next morning I was completely dumbfounded. The orange sky lit up the rocks with such fire, and the Joshua Trees stood poised with an ancient repose. Mystery seemed to dwell everywhere, on the faces of stone, in the cracks, beneath the piles of boulders, in the clouds, wind, and the desert flora itself. I found myself coming back again and again during my college years, photographing and experiencing the living desert in new ways, wandering aimlessly with my dog or trying to climb the rough granite.
I wrote poems and took my first analogue photos within that very wilderness, not to mention my first ever backpacking trip. Climbing was new to me back then, so everything seemed bold and absolutely skin-scarring. But as I’ve come to learn, bold is, and forever will be, the style of climbing here, and there’s not much you can do about it.
“The freedom of striking out across the desert with nothing but climbing shoes and an open mind is the Joshua experience personified!” – Robert Miramontes, from his guidebook
The Wolverine Joshua Tree guidebook by Robert Miramontes gives a brief history on the climbing in the Park, noting that originally Joshua Tree wasn’t taken very seriously. With the rise of the Stonemaster Era and the popularity of climbing in general, Joshua Tree began to see a tremendous amount of development and traffic. The attraction to Joshua Tree never stopped, and spending a weekend in one of the campgrounds means arriving early Thursday morning to snag what’s left during peak season.
This winter climbing destination also shares its vast rock fields with tourists, road-bikers, and backpackers. It’s a true melting-pot on a Saturday afternoon, where cars circle the parking lots like hungry birds of prey, ranging from fancy sports cars to beater vans. There’s babies and dogs, new eyes, old eyes, vintage climbers and new-age climbers, female rope-guns and male gumbies. You see it all, jingling trad racks to stacked boulder pads, free-soloists and aid-ladders, crusty dirtbags to perfumed and manicured city folk. Parties line-up on the easier routes and trains of people summit and wait to rappel, while others scramble up 4th-class domes and sit perched like a flock of pigeons. And while this scene sums up the Hidden Valley Campground area, Joshua Tree is actually vast enough to easily avoid these crowds.
I asked Brian Luenemann, who used to guide climbing trips to the Park back in the early 2000’s, about his experiences and why he chose Joshua Tree. Besides proximity to San Diego, he chose to guide trips there because of the sheer magnitude and variety of climbs, and the greater sense of “wilderness” it provided not only for himself, but for his students.
“Aside from climbing, it’s also just one of the most unique landscapes one could ever see,” Brian said, “and the stars at night were another draw, something the students couldn’t see being around all the lights of coastal Southern California.”
Yet, we both talked about dodging the growing crowds and observing a rise in the impact on J Tree’s non-regenerative environment. His go-to climbing partner at the time had been climbing in the area since the 90’s and witnessed an increase in budding climbers with questionable ethics and a greater susceptibility to injury. “They just bought the gear and went,” Brian said, “and left trash at the base of the climbs, which drove us both nuts.” Since then, things seemed to have mellowed out quite a bit, especially with the rising popularity of Leave-No-Trace programs, but if you crawl around the chasms and obscure rock piles sadly you will still find bottles and beer cans. I sure hope it’s not the climbers that are to blame!
As far as the climbing goes, some still echo bold, runout, and often sketchy traditions. Route development here should always be ground-up and bolting should never happen if natural protection is available. More often than not, the “easier” grades are known to require runouts and marginal gear placements, furthering the notion that leaders should be confident at the grades. I learned this firsthand when I started up a 5.5 in order to set something “easy” up for a friend. It ended up being a very tricky climb to protect and as the first climb of the day I was definitely humbled.
Regardless of crowds, everyone I’ve run into has been kind and patient. I think the majority of climbers have a natural tendency to seek camaraderie with one another. It can be a dangerous sport and we all need to be aware of others if shit hits the fan. Joshua Tree is definitely not short of friendly faces, even the Rangers are in direct conversation with climbers. Every Saturday and Sunday morning during peak season, NPS hosts a Climber’s Coffee at the Hidden Valley Campground, where free tea and coffee are provided in addition to critical information regarding closures and dangerous or outdated climbing hardware. It’s a very inclusive program and the Ranger hangs out and chats with anyone who is willing to hold a conversation. I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about old anchors and bolts that may still exist in the Park.
It had been a while since I was last in Joshua Tree. Having spent so much time there in college, it was interesting to return to it a few weeks ago. It has been many different things to me, even served as a quiet haven a few times when dealing with illness in the family or a broken relationship. I’d wander for hours, the mystery of caves and rock hallways luring me across the rich desert. It’s a paradise, really, and the spirit seems alive and well, for old souls and those who want to stretch into the unknown. And whether it be pushing comfort zones on the walls or finding solace beneath the arms of the trees themselves, Joshua Tree has a mystery for everyone.