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