Gold Bar Again, With Pictures!

Another beautiful weekend in December and another day on the fine granite boulders of Gold Bar. What could be better? Dobrisa, Chris and I headed out on Sunday for some pebble wrestling. Conditions were windy but mild, with temperatures in the low 40's. Here are a few pictures taken by Dobrisa, Chris and myself:

A series of myself on Equinox

Dobrisa on Equinox

Dobrisa on a linkup of two problems in the forest


Early Winter Granite at Gold Bar: Cold, Hard and Brilliant

"Wyndham Earl's Mind is Like a Diamond: Cold, Hard and Brilliant." (Agent Dale Cooper in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," played by Kyle Mclaughlin.) Although having nothing else to do with the aforementioned villain of the 90's television series, Gold Bar granite indeed offered the above qualities and then some this past Saturday, the 12th. Sam, Luke, two well-behaved dogs and myself arrived early at the pullout for the Five Star Boulder. Although the temperatures were obviously in the mid to high twenties, the sunshine behind a thin cloud layer looked promising for good bouldering. Despite an early mishap involving an icy log and a frigid stream that left me with wet feet and, as I was to find out later, no chalk bag, I was psyched: I hadn't bouldered outside since I was in Moab and Yosemite in spring of 2008.

The logging road used to access the upper reaches of Gold Bar bouldering, although recently regraded, is currently closed to vehicle traffic; this turned out to be quite the boon for us as the quiet hike up provided a nice way to get the blood flowing a little and relax. Ice covered sections of the road and the small cataracts that drain the heights of Zeke's Wall and above were sculpted into wild and intricate ice flows. Despite the 30 foot icicles dangling from Zeke's Wall proper, the boulders in the clear-cut were all dry and basking in the light as the sun attempted to break through the clouds.

My last experience at the Gold Bar boulders was over a year ago: a frigid but fun excursion to the Five Star boulder in November or so of 2007. As for the clear-cut and beyond, I hadn't climbed there since well before the recent spate of development; I was really looking forward to some modern problems that I hadn't seen before. I wasn't disappointed: every problem that I tried, other than my perennial nemesis (Twisted, on the warm-up boulder), was brand new and really enjoyable.

We started out with some leg-quivering highball action, tempting possible impalement and probable snapped ankles, but came away unscathed. A 25 foot delicate face topped with a finger crack provided ample entertainment in this arena. Next up was a series of various and enjoyable harder problems: Que Luna provided a surprising punch in the gut; Danny Devito, simple and elegant, was up next; its companion, Positive Vibrations, felt doable...but not this time; across the way, the aesthetic Water demanded closer examination. The overarching theme: high quality! The rumbling of ice warming and cascading off the wall above provided a compelling soundtrack to the whole affair.

I had seen a picture of local climber John Stordahl on a problem called the Rubix Cube that I just had to try, along with its neighbor, Sinistricity. Both climb out of an overhang on a multifaceted and extremely interesting boulder; the angle changes are radical and the climbing highly intriguing. Certainly the highlight of the day for me: two perfect problems side by side on perfect stone. The day concluded with some attempts on the aforementioned Twisted and on Equinox, both to no avail. Maybe it's better to try the harder problems earlier in the day when the muscles are more fresh and the temperatures over 25 degrees? Perhaps; but in any case, call it inspiration for the next trip there.

Hiking down was peaceful and I felt blessed by an errant dry, sunny Washington December day. Better yet, Drew Schick had found my beloved pink pastel chalk bag and delivered it into my covetous hands. Priceless!


Putting Faces to Names: 2

The other part of what essentially inspires me to both think and write about Joshua Tree, of almost equal importance to the uniqueness and ambiance of the place itself, is the climbing. It wouldn't be a complete lie to say that I learned to climb in Joshua Tree, despite having a year or two of (mostly artificial) experience before going there for the first time in late 2000. If I recall correctly, most of that trip was spent wandering the desert; it was perhaps the only time my climbing partners of the time were more motivated than I was to actually grip rock. But I went back...again and again, until the drive down there became more of an issue than my rather nebulous employment in Seattle.

The climbing there is a strange admixture of styles that, on the more difficult routes, almost always requires a fusion of impeccable finesse and raw power. The routes are mostly under 100 feet (with some notable exceptions) but can really pack a punch: the difficulty, by necessity, has to be fairly concentrated. On some climbs, like Father Figure (.12d/.13a), it comes in the form of anaerobic (or 'power') endurance while others such as Games Without Frontiers (.13-) feature intense technical trickery on less than vertical ground. Due to the sometimes extreme frictional properties of the quartz monzonite rock, it is possible to climb almost featureless sections of fairly steep rock, requiring a certain 'vertical slab' technique. Traditional routes often feature face climbing and (possibly) mixed protection, although pure cracks abound as well. A good comparison would be Equinox (.12c), an immaculate 90 foot splitter finger crack and Hot Rocks (.11c), a classic that mixes crack and face climbing with a bolt protected thin face start.

Some people really don't like Joshua Tree climbing. I think it's because they can't get over the fact that it's not Yosemite or Tahquitz or Bishop, although the rock bears some semblance to the latter. Maybe it's because it's hard to spray about doing short, difficult, sometimes painful climbs that often no one else knows about. Maybe they got shut down on a .12a sport climb there while being accustomed to trouncing more respectable grades elsewhere. Mere speculation? Perhaps, but it should be obvious that even the 400 foot Astro Domes with their sometimes impeccable stone, are not El Capitan. Nor should they be: both the rock and the climbing at J Tree entail different nuances and provide different challenges than Yosemite and there need not be a value judgment made. The late John Bachar, John Long, Lynn Hill, Tobin Sorensen, Scott Cosgrove, Randy Leavitt, Tony Yaniro and more; some of the most prominent names in the last 30 years of rock climbing in the U.S. either spent entire winters in J Tree or called the desert, more or less, home. It is my fortune to enjoy the fruits of their past labors.

I recently happened across an old (1991) Climbing magazine that featured an article by Randy Leavitt on sport climbing in Joshua Tree. In my 8 years of climbing there, I've been able to climb or at least attempt many of what are considered to be all-time classic routes and many that aren't (but are still great fun). However, there have always been a few areas that I've wanted to explore but never have for one reason or another. For those who are familiar with Joshua Tree, some of the best (and hardest) bolted climbing is in the North Wonderland area. The Ivory Tower, the Super Block, the Super Dome; these formations contain Leavitt and Yaniro routes that few have seen and even fewer have done. The Hydra (.13c) on the Super Block; Warpath (.12c) on Super Dome; the sport routes on the Ivory Tower (.13a-.13d): these burly objectives have always flitted through my thoughts, but I'd never seen or heard anything about them. Until now. The magazine featured photos of these formations that only served to reinforce the mystique-and the desire to climb the routes that have been mere phanom names on my to-do list for years.

With the connection finally made, perhaps I'll make it a point to have a closer look at these the next time I get a chance.


Putting Faces to Names: 1

One of my favorite climbing destinations of all time is Joshua Tree National Park. Situated in the high Mojave Desert east of the sprawling supermetropolis northeast of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree was and continues to be a keystone in my 'real' education. Driving the claustrophobic highway at dawn from L.A., navigating the big box stores and strange sprawl of desert towns like Yucca Valley, one is shocked to drive literally 20 minutes into the National Park from town and see not a slow transition into forest or alpine, but an absolutely sudden visual shift.

And how appropriate this is to the incredible earthly moonscape of Joshua Tree: to enter this place is to truly embark on a journey into a mystical land of soft, organic looking rock formations, beautifully idiosyncratic flora and fauna and, undeniably, a place that supports only the most well adapted organisms. Water is scarce, although it is hard to remember this simple fact for all the large plastic containers we readily schlep to the campsite from town. Life is surprisingly abundant in the high desert: oft-huge Joshua Trees, so named by Mormons for their apparent likeness to Joshua in prayer, dance under the sun; numerous cacti and Acacia bushes dot the soil and the rocks; ravens and hawks soar through the warm air by day, while owls and bats hunt through the night; lizards, snakes, scorpions and tarantulas abound; beautiful and rare desert tortoises are a treat to observe, if one should be so lucky; cryptobiotic soil, whose growth is measured in hundreds of years, forms the biomass that is the basis for much of the other plant life; the nimble bobcat, the elusive bighorn sheep and the crafty coyote roam; the squirrel and the kangaroo mouse display their very disparate personalities. All are part of a rather delicate yet prolific cycle of life that revolves around the barely sufficient food and water, more present, perhaps, than in other desert environments, but still precious indeed.

And then there are humans. Climbing in Joshua Tree began earlier, perhaps, than 1950; however, it continued in earnest as the National Monument, as it was previously, became a place for Yosemite climbers and others to winter over. Good temperatures, relative lack of precipitation, free, relatively unregulated camping and freedom in general made the place heavenly. Fast forward to today and the picture changes: regulated camping; National Park status; law enforcement rangers on patrol, their sidearms at the ready. As usual, too many people make for a difficult situation: now that everyone from latter-day dirtbag climbers to 'outdoor enthusiasts' putting around in $40k flex-fuel 'adventure vehicles' to RV-piloting American-cliche couples want a piece of the view, the latter of whom only from the safety of their houses-on-wheels, we all have to play together. But this wasn't meant to be a vituperative outburst about humans and their lack of class, especially since I must include myself, at least in that general category.

I got to Joshua Tree on December 31st, 2000. Knackered from the uninterrupted 22 hours of driving, I collapsed in the sand only to awake hours later to a huge fiasco of a huge bonfire, nudity and general debauchery as about 100 people flirted noisily with the New Year. A few hours and some mind-altering later ("was there something else in that?") I found myself 100 feet up on a rock formation under a crystal clear sky blooming with stars, listening to several rounds of erroneous New Years countdowns. Looking at the ice halo framing the Moon (the 'eye of the universe'!) I couldn't believe the city could still exist a mere half hour away, its machinations hidden by the intervening hills.

Of course now, my naivete tempered by time and 'real' life hammering tirelessly against my consciousness, trips to Joshua Tree are different. But the sheer joy of being in that place hasn't changed a bit. The climbing is superb and the camping, although difficult to feel at peace sometimes while being stalked by the tax collector, still allows the privilege of getting up at first light, finding a high place to sit with a warm beverage and just watching what happens next.

They can't charge you for that.


West Coast Shuffle

Ah, the flu. Between a sore throat, a distinct loss of body heat regulation and a general feeling of weakness and the accompanying torpor, I find myself none too much the worse for wear. The 20 degree cold snap ensures that any thought of catching a breath of fresh air is summarily dashed to pieces by my better judgment. What better time, then, for reminiscing about, well, better times?

Last April, Jeanna and I took a three month excursion south to warmer climes. Our goal was mainly climbing-related, but rather than simply dash from one place to the next intent only on destination, we tried to make sure that the 'getting there' was substantive in some way. Some of the most enjoyable time I've spent in a car was on the 101 and the 1 on our way down to California. We hit the coast just west of Portland. Destination: Joshua Tree. Not the fastest way there, by any means, but probably the most scenic this side of the 395.

Somewhere Along the Oregon Coast

Of course, being somewhat unaware of what constitutes adequate documentation of a trip, I took precious few photos. Luckily, Jeanna was a little better. Next time, I'll remember that it's nice to have at least a couple of visual references from each place.

Redwoods in Big Sur
Big Sur
If you've been good, you'll come back as one of these cows in the next life
Northern California
It may not be everyone's favorite, but it sure is pretty

The Pacific coast really is amazing. It's also far from monolithic: from the rocky coasts of central Oregon to the towering redwoods and amazing vistas of northern California, from the wild precipices and idyllic coastal meadows near Big Sur and San Francisco to the flat sands and condominiums of Malibu and Santa Monica; the coast certainly offers an incredible variety of scenery and wildly differing levels of human development.

Rugged, beautiful coast by Big Sur
Enchanted? Yes...
Looking down at the coastline at Big Sur

Driving along the 1 in California probably takes 15 hours longer the the neighboring 101. Its 15-20 mph curves and numerous intersections with small coastal towns ensures a slower but far more palatable alternative to the grit and grind of the latter option. Also, many breweries dot the coast surrounding areas of California. These certainly provide worthy places to enjoy refreshment; just mind the fact that the California Highway Patrol don't take no shit!

It's a shame the camera wasn't in service more often than it was. Even the glam of the greater Los Angeles area has a certain appeal, as long as you're just passing through. We did, in fact, stop in Malibu overnight, which was actually rather shocking even after a day spent milling about and drinking in San Francisco. Incidentally, anyone passing through the old Golden Gate city shouldn't miss the Toronado, at least if you enjoy good beer.

Spending five days hiking and driving rather slowly south was a breath of fresh air after all the cruel 22 hour drives down I-5 I've done in the past. We actually got to Joshua Tree feeling energized and almost free of the languor of city life already.

The best part, of course, was hanging out with a really cool lady.


Fishing For Garbage and Reeling In...Junk

"I can't believe you onsighted that climb!" The words are a warm echo through my head as I drain my pint and signal affirmatively for the next as the waitress comes by.

Though adequately esoteric, like most climbing terminology, the onsight is the most coveted of free climbing ascents: to complete a climb on the first attempt with no prior inspection, visual or otherwise, and no falls from the ground to the top of the climb.

"Well," I gush, as my ego, sufficiently fluffed by beer and the authentic complement just paid it, overwhelms any other social sensibility, "[insert statement of deftly played, somewhat falsified modesty here]."

My more discerning part wants to vomit: this conversation doesn't exist, at least in singular form; rather it has occurred ad nauseum in a variety of permutations over the period of my life taken up mainly in the pursuit of climbing. Most talk of past exploits for me ends with the proverbial fishing rod and tackle out of the box, angling for external validation for experiences that should require nothing more than their mere existence in my memory. Inevitably, I end up taking both the bait and the hook at the bottom of one too many glasses of beer amid precious few moments of clarity. Yet I persist.

This episode really begins with a rather unspectacular and seemingly benign injury: fed up with climbing and my wavering loyalty to the pursuit, I fumbled my way up an uninspired toprope wank session on City Park at the Lower Town Wall of Index, WA. The weather was beautiful and in the preceding week, during some unseasonably foggy and cool weather, I had finally completed a longstanding project of mine at the same cliff, the immaculate Amandla. Rather than taking new inspiration from the experience, I rather found more of the same: fleeting fulfillment and subsequent derision. I didn't fail to consider the irony when, while twisting a sore finger in a perfect 5.11 finger lock high on City Park, I felt the obvious failure of connective tissue.

I've had collateral ligament injuries before; rarely were they more than just minor setbacks for my ever-increasing desire to climb. Today, more than a year after the fact, my finger remains swollen and temperamental. The vapid boredom of that day in Index has been replaced by a fervent desire to be able to do just what I was failing to do then: enjoy the activity to which I've dedicated a significant portion of my life. As it slowly dawns on me that I may never regain my previous level of confidence in minute pieces of connective tissue, the 'weakest links', as it were, I also realize that the old symbols I've scrawled repeatedly on the wall just aren't parsing well anymore. The frustration, the obsessive self-comparison to old ideals held high above and beyond the reach of reality; at the end of the night, as the ego withers from yet another bout of self-flattery and another $30 bar tab, they seem like so much dirty bath water in which I continue to wallow.

Then I remember the desert, the woods, the mountains and all the other places where there was nothing in climbing for me but pure joy. The scar tissue in my ligament all but dissolves when I think of some of the freedom I've glimpsed in those rare moments when I actually found myself content with what I was doing instead of reverting to histrionics in order to legitimize it.

So the trolling of past memories has run dry. I struggle to finish my thoughts because the subject seems so piece meal, so ridiculous; the act of seeking self-gratification from climbing exploits--from others, no less--ludicrous. The only important thing, it turns out, was being out there at those moments of opportunity. The opportunity, as it turned out, was simply to enjoy the experience. Winter in Seattle is often brutal; the next time I touch dry rock can't possibly be too soon: I can't wait to try out a refurbished attitude on an old favorite game. Maybe I'll be able to take a compliment or two without the melodramatic introspection; who knows?


Why Not?

...and thus materializes another Blogspot blog. Because between all the strange pillars of activity that compose life, some web of connectivity must be drawn. Perhaps the digitally published pedestrian ramblings of an oft-underused intellect will serve as adequate glue, at least for a time.

The name, of course, refers to a major feature of severe thunderstorms in middle America: the phenomenon through which the most violent of these storms attain their peculiar level of power and ferocity. Said phenomenon is the mesocyclone, or the column of rotating air that forms the main updraft of severe thunderstorms. This updraft is what both drives the rapid rise and expansion of a nascent storm and stabilizes the mature storm when coupled with stable downdrafts, usually ahead of and behind ('forward flank' and 'rear flank', respectively) the updraft.

The updraft is the 'air intake' of the storm, whereby warm, moist air from the surrounding environment is drawn to heights of up to 60,000 feet, fueling convection, charge separation (for lightning production) and the development of hailstones up to softball size and beyond. This warm jet of air can reach incredible upward velocities in the stronger storms (100+ mph). When the air hits the tropopause, at which level jet stream winds blow continuously, it overshoots the wind at is sculpted into the familiar 'top of the anvil' shape. When it spreads out, the momentum and rapid cooling of the air cause it to curl back downwards forming the two downdrafts, both of which may carry huge hail and copious precipitation downwards to the the Earth below.

When the updraft rotates, it is known as a 'mesocyclone'. The recipe for their formation lies in variations in wind speed and direction with height in the atmosphere. Typically in America, winds at the surface are southwesterly as an approaching low pressure systems spins warm, moist air up from the Gulf of Mexico in the form of a Lower Level Jet. Winds aloft are usually westerly, which are 'backed' in relation to the lower level winds. The upper winds literally 'spin' the lower air mass, creating columns of rotating air 2 to 10km in diameter.

Atop this lower air mass is a 'capping inversion' of warm, dry air from west of the Rocky Mountains and atop this layer, the atmosphere cools rapidly. When the lower atmosphere heats sufficiently, the difference in moisture and temperature on either side of this inversion creates sufficient instability and the lower air breaks through the cap quite violently, releasing energy via condensation and quickly forming the huge convective cloud structures of thunderstorms.

To complete their development and remain relatively stable, these cumulonimbi require the constant infusion of warm, moist air in the form of the updraft. When the ambient air is rotating due to ambient wind shear, the storm will conserve the rotation as it draws the air into its updraft. If the downdrafts interfere with the main updraft, the storm will not reach full intensity. To further potentiate their development, the updrafts and downdrafts need to remain separate. This is achieved as the upper level winds blow the top of the storm forward of the main updraft. The cold air of the forward flank downdraft, which contains the storm's hail content, is thus offset from the warm air of the updraft, which allows the storm to maintain its diet of Gulf moisture.

Tornadoes form from mesocylones, although no one is completely sure of the exact mechanisms involved. Most theories and observations seem to indicate that they are a result in the conservation of momentum, transferring the rotational energy of the updraft to the ground some 600-1000 feet below. While the mesocyclone itself may be as large as 6-10km within the storm, the actual tornadoes are usually no more than 1/4 mile wide. This is akin to a spinning ice skater who uses her arms to shrink her profile, thus increasing her spinning speed. The strongest tornadoes, however, are often much larger; some have been observed to be more than 2km wide, with giant wedge-like profiles.

An 'inchoate' mesocyclone would be one in its initial stage of development, although this is probably a period of time so nebulous as to be non-existent. I'm not sure what particular appeal this pair of words has for me, but it probably stems from the metaphorical power even of a term so dryly scientific in nature, the suggestion of the formation of something beyond itself: more powerful, more demanding of attention.

But beyond the sinister implications of such self-gratifying titles, I like the wordage. Thus follows another haphazard publication, of interest probably to only those who know me and likely only a few of them at that...