12.11.2009

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.

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