Monday, January 9, 2017

No. 19: Joshua Tree 2016 - The Return

By: Bill Urbanski

The trip began like so many other adventure journeys of my life, at least the good ones. It began with a random question posed to a friend at a bar.

“Yo, Patrick,” I began. “You want to go climbing at J-Tree next week?”

Sure, I’d been thinking about a return climbing trip to Joshua Tree National Park for many months, my desire rekindled by the tragic and untimely death of my friend Laurel, a super strong and super smart climber from Seattle who was lost to the mountains of Canada in July. It would be a wonderful way to pay tribute to her life and legacy, returning to the place where we met – the place where her impeccable climbing skills and her infectious smile inspired me to climb harder and live larger.

I had been talking with Patrick for several months about a return to J-Tree, but Patrick just purchased a new home; he had new financial obligations; he couldn’t commit. On Thursday, October 27, 2016, I decided to give him one last chance.

“The window of cheap airfare is closing. Are you with me or not?” I asked.

“Can’t do it.”

His response was decisive, unapologetic, without hesitation, and without reservation. In a word, it was devastating.

That might have been the end of it, but on this particular Thursday night, at Bart and Urby’s Trivia Night in Wilkes-Barre, it just so happened that another climber was sitting with us at the high-top table across from the bar.

I had met Shamus a few months earlier while deep water soloing at the Francis Walter Dam. We exchanged cell numbers and had been climbing together with ever increasing frequency in the weeks preceding this unexpected seminal moment which was about to unfold.

Bill, deep water soloing at Northeast PA's Francis Walter Dam
Shamus is a few years younger than me, as seems to be the case with most of my climbing partners, Charlie Winger excepted. He’s also a much stronger climber than me. But we had been climbing a lot together of late, and like Laurel, Shamus’ climbing inspires me. He has pushed me to climb grades I never thought I was capable of achieving.

And so it happened, on this particular Thursday night, Shamus had joined Patrick and me for a post-climb drink at a bar across the street from our local gym.

“I’ll go,” Shamus interjected, his response cutting immediately through my disappointment.


“Absolutely! I’m down with that.”

His response was decisive, unapologetic, without hesitation, and without reservation. In a word, it was brilliant.

We continued our conversation, talking briefly about a tentative travel schedule but mostly about the wonder that is the rock climbing mecca of Joshua Tree, a place made all the more wondrous to Shamus because he had never been there before. He was enwrapped and engaged by tales of climbing glory spun by Patrick and me. After assuring Shamus I would book our flight the next day, he left us – to finish our beers and our trivia game – ebullient and eager with anticipation of that which was yet to come.

Travel arrangements were made for Thursday, November 10th. Our flight would depart Philadelphia at 8:00 PM.

We touched down at LAX at 1:20 AM on the 11th, secured our rental, and by 2:30 AM we were speeding eastward on the 10. Shamus quickly learned and readily accepted my modus operandi for vacation travel – don’t waste time on sleep. 

At 5:00 AM, after a brief supply stop at the Yucca Valley Walmart, Shamus pulled onto an unpaved stretch of road just north of Joshua Tree National Park and into the wilds of desert under the control of the Federal Bureau of Land Management – the BLM. Control is a loose term. Despite its name, the Federal BLM does not appear to be managed by or under any Federal control at all. It is open desert, where anything and everything goes, and it would end up being our campsite for the next two nights due to the overflowing crowds of tourists inside the Park.

Initially I was disappointed when I realized we would have to settle for a camp outside the Park. Beginning at 8:00 AM on our first day, we spent two hours searching for a legit Park campsite, only to come up empty. In retrospect however, the BLM experience was one of singular enchantment.

BLM Camping near Joshua Tree National Park
 Image courtesy Outbound Collective
When traveling through J-Tree, you’d think you’re traveling through a movie set for the Flintstones. In BLM land, you’d think you’ve just set camp Beyond Thunderdome. In the daytime, the flat, expansive, hardened-sand terrain, scattered with sage brush and small cacti, seemingly has no end. Racing dirt bikes, retrofitted RV’s, and roving bands of misfits abound. Attentions and conversations are periodically interrupted by the pop-pop-pop of random gunplay. In the evening, pop-up campers and tattered tents emerge, silhouetted against a setting sun as occasional fireworks and rockets glare red, high in the burnt-orange sky.

The whole setting is frightening and bucolic all at once, and it turned out to be the perfect fit for our little band of rogue rock climbers, each of whom preferred the freedom thus provided to, by contrast, the cultured and structured setting of a National Park campsite.

It was here I reunited with David and Maraya, long-time friends who in 2014 moved to San Francisco for new jobs. So they say. In my view, it was the grandeur and multitude of new climbing opportunities that drew them west. Employment was an ancillary, if necessary by-product.

Happy Climbers - Bill, David, Maraya, and Shamus

As it happens, David and Shamus had met before, back in Pennsylvania, many years ago at a crag. I’ve always said there is a special and instantaneous connection between climbers. As David and I cracked open cans of Tecate while we caught up with each other’s lives, I watched and listened as David and Shamus caught up with theirs, and I learned that day that a reconnection between climbers is just as special, just as instantaneous.

And so it was when I reconnected with Eileen and Nina later in the day, both west-coasters and also friends with Laurel. Eileen and I first met in 2010, in Joshua Tree. She was the principle organizer of the J-Tree Tweet-ups, a five year run of climbing meet-ups for Twitter users. The climbing Tweet-ups, which also took place in Yosemite and in Colorado, brought together climbers from all over the U.S. to meet, climb, camp, and then climb some more. I’ve stayed in virtual touch with Eileen and Nina over the years, so it was good to see them both again for reals.

Day One of climbing did not last as long as I had hoped, our time shortened by the aforementioned campsite search, but it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. For me, it was a rehash of some classics with a sprinkle of new climbs nearby. For Shamus, it was his first taste of monzo-granite, and he was instantly smitten. We centered our activity around the Old Woman, an easily accessible dome-like formation and home to Double Cross (5.8), one of the most frequently climbed routes in the park. Double Cross was my choice for first climb. Unfortunately, a line to get on greeted us when we arrived. Noting that there are more than 3000 named climbing routes in J-Tree, Shamus was quick to direct our attentions elsewhere.

Shamus nearing the top of Double Cross
On Day Two, we climbed as a group on the Thin Wall, notching several short single pitch sends in quick succession. Afterwards, Shamus awed with an on-sight lead of the 120-foot classic, Illusion Dweller (5.10c), a perfectly sustained right-slanting crack. I seconded, with difficulty, leaving some skin along the way. The bulging top-out crux nearly beat me, but on my third attempt, I muscled through, joining Shamus at the hanging belay. We finished the day under the light of the full moon with a headlamp ascent of Sail Away (5.8).

On Day Three, Sunday, our west coast climbing companions sadly had to depart. Shamus and I weren’t flying back until Monday, so we had an extra day to play. We decided we had had our fill of crack, and so we combed through our guide book in search of the best face climb in the Park. We found it in Figures on a Landscape, a 5.10b – R, said to be one of the best face climbs anywhere. The one-hour approach to Figures turned out to be half the fun, as we danced past fields of rare cacti and were dwarfed by the one-and-only Don Juan Bolder.

Shamus, David, and Maraya pass to the left of the Don Juan Bolder.
The Astrodome, another half mile beyond, is at upper left
Figures is on the east side of The Astrodome, an aptly-named massive red-orange streaked granite mountain. Our warm up was Breakfast of Champions (5.8+), a two-pitch adventure which combined trad crack at the bottom with sport face at the top. After Breakfast, we assessed the beta for Figures and concluded that Figures would have to wait for another day. There was not enough daylight for a safe climb. Instead we settled on the adjacent Piggle Pugg (5.10c), a fantastic flake full of fun.
Shamus about to rappel from atop Breakfast of Champions
Day Three ended with more moonlight sends. Veterans holiday weekend over, we were finally able to secure a Park campsite, Ryan, the same site where I first met Laurel during the J-Tree Tweet-up in 2010. Laurel and I, along with David, did an unforgettable crack-of-dawn send of Headstone Rock back in 2010. I recreated that climb with Shamus, only this time, under the moonlight. Our final night in the Park ended the same way as did every night during the Tweet-ups, with a free solo scramble up the Manure Pile beneath an endless tableau of stars, all the while sipping savory whiskey from my trusty Devils Tower flask.

Headstone Rock

  No doubt it is the climbing that draws me to Joshua Tree National Park. Climbing drew me there in 2010 and 2012, and will undoubtedly draw me again. But it is also the allure of those unplanned and unexpected non-climbing experiences that provides equal attraction.

Allow me to list, for posterity, some of the non-climbing highlights of this most recent adventure journey: our group toast to Laurel on her birthday, camping “Beyond Thunderdome,” missing our flight home and being forced to sit on the “Group W” bench at LAX, hiking three miles through the LA ghetto, back alleys and all, just to get burritos from Del Taco, being chauffeured in a yellow Camaro, oysters and beers with a group of physicists at The Rockefeller in Manhattan Beach, a nighttime pre-flight dip in the Pacific Ocean.

Our chauffeur, my brother Ben, and his sweet ride
Bill and Shamus adding a pinch of Pacific salt
to our climbing clothes for the plane ride home
When the idea for a climbing trip is hatched, I always think I’m planning just a climbing trip. That’s exactly what I thought sitting at that high-top table last October with Shamus and Patrick. But upon my return, upon reflection, I realize that these trips are so much more. These trips provide for shared experiences in exotic places with close friends. They provide opportunities for the unexpected.  But most importantly, as perhaps Laurel knew better than any of us, they provide us with the opportunity to celebrate life, to cherish life, and to smile.

Laurel atop Sail Away in 2010

Friday, June 7, 2013

No. 18 - Denali: 100th Anniversary

Photo credit:

By - Bill Urbanski

100 years ago today, on June 7, 1913, a four-man team reached the summit of Denali, North America's highest peak at 20,320 feet, for the very first time.  In honor of this momentous occasion, I am running a multi-part series which features excerpts from my Denali climbing log from 2010.

Part 1 was first published on click here to see more.

The National Park Service also has coverage here.


Friday, February 8, 2013

No. 17 - Training Tips for Beginning Runners

By - Bill Urbanski

As a lifelong runner, a veteran of ten marathons and countless races of lesser stature, friends who are new to the running and racing scene often ask me for advice.  So I decided this subject would make a good blog post.  And by blogging, I could pass along some things I've learned over the years to a larger audience.

Competing in the '06 Boston Marathon - my first sub-3
Whether you're a beginner or intermediate, I hope the following will be of use: 

1.         Endurance First – don’t worry about speed workouts for first few weeks. Just concentrate on building endurance. Speed will come later.

2.         Standard Daily Workout Routine – light stretch, warm up (~five min. of jogging – I do half mile at 6.5 mph, or 9:12 per mile pace), full stretch, workout, full stretch, cool down (half of your warm up), light stretch.  I am a stretch fanatic.  By increasing your flexibility, I am a firm believer that stretching decreases your risk of injury.
3.         Standard Weekly Routine – one day for long run, one day for speed, at least two others days of running. Once you establish a base of fitness, you can bump up to a five-day week, with off days following your long and speed days.  I often go to a six-day week for a few weeks to pack in miles before I taper for a big race.

4.         Long Run – pick a day and keep it consistent.  Monday is always my long run day.  A lot of runners like Saturday or Sunday.  Find what works best with your schedule.  Pace should be about 2 to 2.5 minutes slower per mile than your 5K race pace.

5.         Speed Work – I have 5-6 different speed workouts involving intervals and hills that I rotate for variety.  Racing (5k’s and 10k’s, etc.) can substitute as speed work.

6.         10 % Rule -  applies to long run and weekly total.  Do not increase a long run from one week to the next by more than ~10%.  Do not increase overall weekly mileage from one week to the next by more than ~10%.  Violating this rule could lead to injury and/or burn out.

7.         Step Back Rule – applies to long run and weekly total.  Increase your mileage over three consecutive weeks, then “step back.”  That is to say, give yourself a one week reduction of 20-25% before increasing mileage again.

8.         Keep Log – Post Log – keep track of your daily workouts – mileage, pace, resting heart rate and working heart rate.  I’ve created a couple spread sheets to chart my progress, and I like to post them in a conspicuous place so they’re always there to remind me to run.  I post mine on the closet door in my bedroom.

9.         Resting Heart Rate (RHR) – best time to check is when you first wake up, and I typically check for a full minute.  Do it once or twice a week and log it.  It’s nice to watch the numbers drop as cardio-vascular fitness increases and your heart becomes more efficient.  My RHR when in peak shape is in the mid 40’s.

10.       Working Heart Rate (WHR) – unless you have a heart rate monitor to check as you run, the best way to check is immediately after a workout.  Check pulse for fifteen seconds and multiply by four.  Do not count for a full minute.  The intensity decreases the moment you stop running and your heart will begin to recover if you wait too long and you won’t get a true WHR.  Your heart will also recover more quickly the better shape you’re in.  Log it.

11.       Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) – Easy formula is 220 minus your age.  Not good to push your WHR beyond this number.

12.       Intensity –        90-95% MHR – high intensity speed work
80-90% MHR – tempo runs
70-80% MHR – recovery runs
60-80% MHR – long runs
50-60% MHR – warm up
 < 60% MHR (other than warm-up) – might as well be walking.
13.       Nutrition – Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy.  But protein and fats are important too, as is water.  Percentage of daily caloric intake should be as follows:  Carbs 60-70%; Proteins – 15-25%; Fats – 10-20%.  If you don’t do so already, get in the habit of reading nutrition labels on food.  Learn what’s in the foods you’re eating.  Until you develop a good nutrition routine, it can be helpful to keep a log for a few days, or even a few weeks, writing down everything you eat. 

Now go out there and RUN!

Friday, February 1, 2013

No. 16 - 2012 Year in Pictures

By - Bill Urbanski

2012 provided yet another year of adventure and travel and amazing experiences with great friends, old and new... and I have the pictures to prove it:

24. July - Kayaking returned to my life in a big way with excursions on the Francis E. Walter Dam, the Susquehanna River, and more.

23. October - Friends John, Jill, and Dave proudly join the ranks of fellow marathon completers, at Scranton's Steamtown Marathon.

22. November - Return to Joshua Tree N.P. for JTreeTweetUp 4. With Patrick on belay on a 5.9 sport climb called Sexy Grandma.

21. June - Car roof surfing with brother Steve on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

20. May - Busking on the streets of Scranton during a First Friday event.

19. February - With veteran marathoners Rob and Traci at South Carolina's Myrtle Beach Marathon. Rob's finish earned him his first trip to Boston.

18. June - Departing Mt. Hood Oregon. A week-long blizzard scuttled our summit bid. Nothing but blue skies on the day we had to leave.

17. June - Posing with fellow 48-Completers at the Highpointer Convention, Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon.

16. August - Deep water free soloing - a new summer time passion.

15. April - With the family, toasting the 75th Anniversary of Urbanski Farms.

14. July - Climbing "The Nose" - following 4th of July fireworks on the Mall in D.C.

13. June - Sunrise summit of Hawkeye Point, highest point in Iowa, with Patrick. Most challenging part of our climb was trying to stay awake on the all-night drive to get there.

12. March - St. Patrick's Day gig at Fiddler's Green. Performing as the Whiskey Rebels with Rich.

11. August - Slack Lining above the Library in Mocanoqua.  My newest passion (aka, newest way to hurt myself).

10. September - training for The Dangler, a 5.10a classic at the Gunks, using my homemade climbing gym / fireplace.

9. June - Smith Rock State Park, Oregon - 3 days of sport climbing in nature's Disneyland.

8.  June - On the approach to Mt. Shasta, California, gazing in awe at all its 10,000 feet of prominence. 

7. June - the iconic Monkey Face, 5.7 A0, at Smith Rock in Oregon. We ran out of time on our bid to send this classic, but look closely for other climbers about to enter the mouth.

 6. August - Cliff jumping - the perfect way to cool off on a sweltering summer day.

5. October - Urban climbing.  Thanks David for the opportunity, and Patrick for the photo.

4. June - Smith Rock climbing crew - a great day with friends old and new.

3. November - First fire. 3-year project complete. It has been a back-breaking labor of love.

2. October - sending The Dangler, 5.10a, at the Gunks in New York. I think the black and white really captures the moment. Thanks Jason for the photo.

1. June - Atop the 14,179 foot summit of Mt. Shasta, California with Patrick.

Many thanks to Patrick Gensel, David Weaver, Jason Gebauer and others for the photos, and for sharing many of these amazing adventures with me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

No. 15 - 2011 Year in Pictures

- by Bill Urbanski

January seems to have passed in the blink of an eye and we are well into 2012.  But I did not want to leave 2011 behind without one last look at the year that was - in pictures:

24. August - with Patrick, David and Maraya in Yellowstone N.P. after our bid to climb the Grand Teton. Patrick's Suzuki Grand Vitara served us well on a cross country grand adventure.

23. April - covering President Jimmy Carter during the "Plains (GA) helping Plains (PA)" event.

22. April - Yosemite Tweetup. The nightly campfire with a great group of climbing friends.

 21. August - with Jim Whittaker, 1st American to summit Everest, at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, Utah.

20. September - Rock Monster in Grand Junction, Colorado.

 19. September - From the summit of Independence Monument, Grand Junction, Colorado. My first desert tower.

18. November - Foo Fighters show in Philly. Best rock band on the planet.

17. May - Stonebridge Vineyard expansion. Planting Reisling at Urbanski Farms with my uncle.

16. August - On the set of Martin Bowsfield. My first movie role - with Cinematographer Jake Danna Stevens and Director Jon YonKondy.

15. July - Passing of the flag to John Mitchler after hosting the Highpointer's Konvention in Ohio.

14. May - Rock climbing at New River Gorge, West Virginia during the Rendezvous.

13. November - "Mullen" show (U2 tribute). Pat Flynn and John Smith at their best.

12. October - Chimney/Climbing Wall project at the farm continues. A labor of love.

11. April - Entering Yosemite with Liz and Patrick for the climbing tweetup.

10. August/September - Farm flooding. Hurricane Irene and T.S. Lee devastate farm and cause evacuation of Wyoming Valley.

 9. August - Return to the Summit of Devils Tower, Wyoming. Clear skies this time.

8. February - Sap buckets heading to the sugar bush at the beginning of a record year of maple syrup production at Urbanski Farms.

7. August - Sturgis, South Dakota Motorcycle Rally. A "must do" on life's checklist.

6. August - Climbing party (with Patrick, Maraya and David) after summit bid of the Grand Teton.

5. January - Atop the summit block. Winter ascent of Mt. Marcy, New York's highest peak.

4. August - Rock climbing in Fremont Canyon, Wyoming, above the North Platte River.

3. July - Bouldering at Rock City, Kansas in 110 degree heat.

2. August - 13,000 feet on the Grand Teton in Wyoming.

1. September - Leading the final pitch on Independence Monument, Grand Junction, Colorado.

 Bring on 2012...