By Michael Lanza
A dry, invisible waterfall of heat pours from the desert sky as we follow a footpath through the Wonderland of Rocks, a vast archipelago of granite monoliths and spires floating in an ocean of sand in the backcountry of southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. My friend David and I are in search of one particular crack in one specific stone skyscraper, which feels a little like picking through hundreds of haystacks scattered across a farm in pursuit of one needle.
We high-step through gardens of prickly-pear cacti and other vegetation that has evolved to put a hurt on you for the easy mistake of brushing against it. I pause frequently to consult photos of some of these granite monoliths in my guidebook to help pinpoint our location. I also contemplate—as seems to happen whenever I head out rock climbing for the first time in a while—the complicated human relationship with fear. There’s the natural anxiousness that can accompany trying to claw your way up a sheer cliff. But fear and its antipode, courage, take many forms. One can be so difficult to confront that it destroys lives. The other can save them.
My longtime friend David Ports and I have rendezvoused here at Joshua Tree because I had work-related travel to Palm Springs, so he scheduled necessary business travel to bring him here at the same time. We both carved out two free days to climb here in one of America’s rock climbing meccas. (We followed two of my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More:” “Plan trips weeks or months in advance” and “Build extra time into a business trip.”) Having never lived in the same state, we’ve always made that level of effort to get together, and always for some outdoor adventure.
Scrambling carefully up slabs and over truck-size boulders, we reach a wide ledge at the base of a cliff. Above us, a crack splits the wall, running straight up for 120 feet—a climbing route named Mental Physics. To a hiker passing by, it may look like any of a hundred cracks in a dozen or more cliffs within view from the trail below us. But I would recognize it even 50 years from now, from vivid memories of previous dates with this ancient seam, with other climbing partners in years past.
We pull rope and gear from our packs and commence a familiar ritual of preparation. Then I start up the crack first.
Mental Physics presents enough challenge to demand my full attention and grant me the purity of focus, the temporary evacuation of all other thoughts that is the real gift of an activity like rock climbing. But it’s not hard enough to overwhelm the forearm strength or test the foggy muscle memory of a couple of 50something people who’ve climbed for many years, but are climbing for the first time in months. I reach the top and turn around to soak up the warm sunshine and the view of the Wonderland of Rocks.
After we’ve finished our first climb of this short trip and rappelled back to the ledge, David says, “It used to be about getting out as early as we could, seeing how many routes we could climb or miles we could hike. Now it’s just about getting out with good friends and having fun.”
And we both smile because he’s exactly right.
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20 Years of Adventures… So Far
For David and me, navigating the obscure footpaths of the Wonderland of Rocks feels like many of our past adventures. We have wandered in tandem confusion through more cacti-studded deserts, seas of winter snows, labyrinthine canyons, and mountain wildernesses than either of us can probably remember. We’ve played dueling body odors in some of the most beautiful backcountry areas in America, from the North Cascades to the Tetons to the Grand Canyon and scores of lonely places in between.
We met two decades ago, through mutual friends, and immediately hit it off. We shared the same interests and outdoor passions, the same skill level and endurance, and an insatiable appetite for more. But mostly we shared a sense of humor that often seemed like we were two people simultaneously telling and hearing the same comic monologue. Our wives insist we’re nuts and not as funny as we believe. But we kill each other.
We’ve never been hesitant about attempting adventures brimming with uncertainty, which sometimes results in wrong turns and prudent retreats—but also in the higher emotional peak when you reach some place you weren’t sure was possible. And that may be a physical or a psychological place, or both.
We’ve had close calls. After one rock climb in a remote corner of the mountains outside Leavenworth, Washington, we were scrambling off the cliff when David, just ahead of me, tripped and fell, landing at the very lip of the narrow ledge we were traversing—within inches of taking a fall that would have certainly been fatal. “Don’t do that!” I yelled at him, half-jokingly, once it was obvious he was okay, as if that needed saying.
Some years ago, I was leading a sport-climbing route in the forest near Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass, with David belaying, when I fell while trying to clip a bolt. With a lot of slack rope out, I braced for the kind of long fall that, at a minimum, tests your bowel control, and can result in broken bones. But I dropped just a few feet before the rope stopped me. Hanging in the air, I looked down at David and saw him standing several feet lower than where he’d originally been belaying me. The instant I popped off, he had literally leapt down the steep hillside in order to take in much of that rope slack and save me from a potential disaster.
Without fail, though, we’ve always maintained our sense of humor. That’s an invaluable asset in a backcountry companion.
David and I, with another friend, skied for a week through Yellowstone, camping in below-zero temperatures and pushing through a storm that dumped several feet of fresh snow over three days. Besides the beauty and solitude of the Yellowstone wilderness, what we remember most about that trip was the exhausting strenuousness of breaking trail through bottomless powder while dragging gear sleds, and somehow laughing hysterically, often over the absurdity of our situation, nearly the entire way.
Almost invariably, our adventures concluded with a small feast, a few beers, and more chuckles over an ever-growing mountain of tales.
Such a deep and rich shared history has the effect of making each new trek into uncertainty irresistibly hilarious to us. As we hike around Joshua Tree, other climbers we occasionally pass might conclude that we’re not very serious about this sport. Perhaps they are right.
Real Hidden Valley
Tucked away in Joshua Tree’s Real Hidden Valley, an amphitheater of granite towers ringing a garden of desert plants, stands a clean pillar of coarse granite that’s not nearly as tall or massive as JT’s biggest formations. You could hike the trail through Real Hidden Valley and never notice it. But if you walk around to the back side of the aptly named Hidden Tower and look up with the eyes of a climber, you’ll see a beautiful crack, an elegant bit of natural sculpture splitting that pillar vertically for some 60 feet, sections of it barely wide enough to jam fingers and the toes of climbing shoes into. Countless thousands of rock climbers from all over know that crack by the name Sail Away.
While gearing up for it on our first afternoon in Joshua Tree, David and I watch a small party of climbers crawl, one by one, up Sail Away. As with Mental Physics, the recollection of past ascents of this crack rush back to me—of how I had to slot my hands and fingers into the crack just right for them to hold my body weight as I shifted each foot a little higher.
When I start up the crack—with the comforting knowledge that my belayer is someone who would jump off a ledge to save me from injury (or at least I like to believe he still would)—it remains true to my memory. For a timeless period of complete focus, I lose myself in the simple fluidity of motion involved in employing just your hands and feet to remain attached to a cliff. The pieces of protective gear that I frequently slip into the crack lock in reassuringly. Then, feeling a little disappointed to finish, I pull myself up onto Hidden Tower’s tiny summit, not much bigger than my dining room table and not as flat, and belay David up.
We sit there for a little while as the sun dips toward the horizon and the golden monoliths fanning out for miles all around us begin to glow softly with the coming evening.
Alcohol, Fears, and Courage
Eventually, I noticed—or perhaps opened my eyes to the truth—that David typically drank more than me, usually a lot more. But I didn’t ask him about it, at least not in any confrontational or meaningful way. Maybe I should have. Maybe I didn’t because, culturally, we tend to not take a drinking problem as seriously as, say, a drug addiction or other similarly self-destructive behavior. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered because he needed to realize that on his own.
One morning, out of the blue, he called me to say he had finally, after many years of struggling with it, admitted to himself that he’s an alcoholic and he was going to quit drinking. He joined a recovery program.
David recently celebrated his third year of sobriety. Although he possesses the self-knowledge to remind me that this disease called alcoholism isn’t curable, so far, I believe his courage has saved more lives than his own. His children are growing up with a father who’s sober rather than drunk—a father who demonstrates the courage to confront his greatest fears. That’s a powerful example that his kids will only fully comprehend after they become adults and inevitably have to face their own fears, whatever form they take.
As a young man, I went through too many years of not recognizing my limits with alcohol, until I finally decided that I much preferred feeling good physically over feeling like hell. Fortunately, I learned to enjoy a beer or two and stop. Alcoholics can’t do that—they either drink too much or quit drinking entirely. I’ve known people who quit and people who let alcohol (or drugs) destroy their careers, marriages, lives. Hard as it is, quitting always looks better.
Alcohol isn’t inherently evil. But like a lot of the stuff we surround ourselves with—the possessions we obtain to create the impression of happiness or success or fulfillment—alcohol in excess is, in a way, just garnish to enhance the presentation, to help obscure our perception of what’s really missing in ourselves or our relationships with other people. It’s part of the stuff we don’t really need, and when we strip away all that’s superfluous, we discover how little we really need.
The outdoors can do that for us. We go out there partly to strip away all the unneeded material possessions and emotional baggage of civilization. Strong relationships do that for us, too. Although David always insists I shouldn’t refrain from having a beer when we’re together, we’ve both discovered that we don’t need alcohol to lubricate our friendship. We laugh just as heartily without it (further evidence that we are truly funny, although our wives still aren’t buying it).
Sometimes the greatest challenges we face are inside us. Confronting the fear of falling off a cliff pales in comparison to confronting the fear of falling off the shaky scaffolding you’ve erected to support a perception about yourself that isn’t true to yourself. That’s when fear can seem bigger than you.
Courage takes many forms. But perhaps no personal challenge demands more courage than to face down your own demons.
As we’re talking about options for a trail run on our last morning, David tells me how the park’s trailhead signboards show backcountry trails not shown on standard park maps. Those maintained trails create a spider web of paths throughout Joshua Tree. David has explored some and describes more he wants to run or hike. I like having friends who are always plotting future adventures.
“That’s the great thing about this park, there are lots of these backcountry trails that aren’t highly publicized but offer opportunities to explore,” he says.
We want to knock off a quick trail run and still fit in one more climb before we both have to depart by early afternoon to travel home. So we opt for a dash up Ryan Mountain, three miles round-trip and more than 1,000 vertical feet. As usual when we run together, I push my anaerobic threshold to keep David within sight ahead of me.
We reach the 5,457-foot summit before 9 a.m., while the long rays of early-morning sunlight brush the landscape with gold plating. The park sprawls out around us, its giant rock formations looking very small from up here; the Joshua trees are mere specks sprinkled over the desert floor. In the distance loom 11,502-foot Mount San Gorgonio and 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto. It’s one of the best panoramic views in the park, a great spot to watch the day begin or end.
Although we’re eager to run back down the trail and get to another area of the park for one more rock climb before we part ways, we linger for a bit, enjoying the view, striking goofy poses for photos. We laugh over things we won’t recall later, jokes that are nothing and memories that are everything.
And I’m glad my friend has achieved peace because friendships like this are too hard to find. Now I don’t shrink from asking him how he’s doing with sobriety. He’s jumped off a ledge to catch me. I owe him the same.
See my story about hiking and climbing in Joshua Tree National Park with my family, all of my stories about adventures in California and California’s national parks, and my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More” and “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR rock climbers from experts to beginners, as long as someone in the group knows how to build anchors, and dayhikers of all ability levels who can read a map. Climbing routes at Joshua Tree are very traditionally rated; climbers new to JT may feel that routes here are rated one or two full number grades lower than a comparable route would be elsewhere—for example, that a 5.7 at JT feels like a 5.8 or 5.9 in other areas. Choose routes below your ability level until you get used to the character of climbing here. Some routes are runout, and some descents are complicated and involve exposed scrambling. Hiking here presents the usual challenges of the desert—generally no water available, extended exposure to sun and hot temperatures, and open terrain in which distances can be deceiving. (See Concerns below.)
Make It Happen
Season Spring and fall are the peak seasons, with daytime highs usually in the 70s and 80s and nighttime lows around 50. Winter days often get into the 60s, and nights drop to around freezing. Summer highs frequently exceed 90° and 100° F. The park receives very little rain or snow.
The Itinerary Some of my favorite easy and moderate routes at Joshua Tree are Mike’s Books, Overhang Bypass, and The Flake in Hidden Valley Campground; Fote Hog and Sail Away in Real Hidden Valley; Southwest Corner on Headstone Rock (Ryan Campground); White Lightning on Hemingway Buttress (Lost Horse area); The Swift on Lost Horse Wall; and Hex Marks the Poot, Mental Physics, and Enchanted Stairway in the Wonderland of Rocks.
Getting There Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. Its three entrances are:
• The west entrance, on Park Boulevard, five miles south of CA 62 at Joshua Tree Village.
• The north entrance, on Utah Trail, three miles south of CA 62 in Twentynine Palms.
• The south entrance, at Cottonwood Spring on Cottonwood Spring Road, north of exit 168 off I-10.
Camping The park has several campgrounds, all first-come, which frequently fill up on weekends in spring and fall.
Guidebook Rock Climbing Joshua Tree, by Randy Vogel, $35, Falcon Guides, falcon.com. The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree—60 Favorite Climbs From 5.5 to 5.9, by Charlie & Diane Winger, $22, wingerbookstore.com.
• Carry all the water you need when climbing, hiking, or in any other activity.
• There’s little shade. Minimize exposure to sun and heat by wearing a sun hat, sunblock, and covering as much skin as is comfortable with light, breathable clothing, including pants to help protect you from the myriad plants that want to bury thorns in your skin.
• Many trails are not well marked, and numerous user trails branch off main trails. Distances and navigating by sight in the desert can be deceiving. Check your map and eyeball your surroundings frequently to keep track of your location, especially when hiking off-trail.