Joshua Tree

 

A while back , Justin recommended a Joshua Tree climb called Stichter Quits (5.7).  I think he brought it up when I told him that I had my eye on the Snake Dike route up Yosemite’s Half Dome.  Anyway, I filed it away in my head and when Joey and I decided to make a one-night camping trip out to The Park last week, we found ourselves standing at the base of this imposing climb just after the sun had risen.  We had eyed Buissonier (5.7) on the afternoon that we arrived, but decided to hold off since it looked intimidating and the guide book called the climb “spicy”.  It was already getting close to dusk and the last thing I wanted was to find myself stuck halfway up a tricky trad route.

Stichter Quits (5.7). Notice two climbers on upper left

Honestly, I didn’t want to lead the route.  Don’t let the soft rating fool you; 5.7 slab climbing means an absence of holds and this climb had a whopping 4 bolts over 120 feet.  A fall in the wrong spot would be pretty disastrous, and you can bet that I was thinking about it.  I could tell that Joey was thinking the same, and I suggested rock-paper-scissors to see who would lead.  In my head, I was thinking that I had a 50% chance of getting out of this one.  As luck would have it, I found myself roping up a few seconds later, and at that point I just focused on the task at hand.  I had to climb this bastard, and falling wasn’t an option.

Getting to the first bolt went smoothly enough.  It’s funny how 20 feet of unprotected climbing feels so safe when you’re looking up at another 100′ horror show.  I don’t care what this climb is rated, it wasn’t any cakewalk.  The paucity of holds did not inspire confidence.  By the time I made it to the second bolt, I was close to 50 feet off the deck, and I let out a sigh of relief.  I remember looking down at Joey and giving him a grin.  “Damn… I’m really high already…”

The crux of the climb is normally after the first bolt, but I discovered my own personal crux somewhere past the third.  I wasn’t able to see the fourth bolt, and I’m pretty sure I was at least 15 feet off the third.  I was in no-man’s land, and the little divots and impressions that counted as holds vanished ahead of me.  I may have been off-route, or maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, but I was starting to get tired and my legs got a little shaky.  I settled into a precarious stance, relying on the friction between my toes and the rock to hold me in place, and I contemplated my next move.  Falling is not an option, I remember telling myself.  “Just relax and trust your feet” I remember Justin had said.  Oh crap, I’m going to slip off this thing and cartwheel into oblivion.

I started to get a bit of Elvis leg and I could tell that I had ten, maybe twenty seconds left before I seriously risked popping off the stance.  Maybe I should just jump off backwards, so that I would retake control of my destiny?  The thought of suddenly slipping off the rock scared the shit out of me.  No holds in sight, I remember telling myself “This is a 5.7 – just trust your feet” and up I went.  The next few moves were a mix of genuine fear and remarkable clarity.  I was very focused.  Without really knowing where to put my hands or feet, I just moved up the slab, putting complete trust in the movement.  I don’t know if I would call it a moment of zen, but it was close.  A minute later, I reached out and grabbed a bomber right hand, and I could see the anchor another 15 feet above me.  I was going to make it.

Jason at the anchor of Stichter Quits

It sure felt good sitting up there, anchored in and safe.  I was so stoked.  As I belayed Joey up, I began to contemplate the myriad scenarios that could have played out.  I felt proud and excited, but I also felt mad and stupid.  I really enjoy climbing, and I know this is an inherently risky activity, but I like to think that I practice a relatively safe version of the sport.  Looking down at the runout face I had just climbed, I realized that I’m getting myself into some serious situations, and that I had better be damn clear about the risks I’m willing to accept.  Dying is not an option.

Ok, so a little dramatic, I admit.  But this is the kind of stuff that runs through my head sometimes.  I wonder how many other climbers have these thoughts?  Lots, I bet, even if they don’t like to talk about it.

Joey at the top, I think he was glad it was over, too

A Joshua Tree “walk-off” can mean anything from a short 3rd class scramble to a 5.4 horror show.  In this case, we found ourselves perched near the top of a big dome of rock, where a little slip would mean certain death.  I belayed Joey until he reached a higher safe point, and then he found a solid stance and belayed me the rest of the way.

I didn’t take many pictures after that.  We moved over to the NW side of Echo Cove and Joey eyed a 5.11b sport climb called Ground Up or Shut Up.  The finish looked pretty tough (blank face) but we saw a variation that angled up a big crack system.  It looked as if it would take gear, and Joey decided to go for a mix lead.  I was impressed, because we didn’t really know how it would protect.  It took a while , but after some shaky placements in a dubious crack, he made it to the top.  I decided to scramble to the top via the backside of the formation, and I reset the top rope to clean the route.  I was worried that if the upper placements should blow, it would allow a bunch of slack into the system and potentially lead to a ground fall.  While I was sitting at the top of the climb, a local popped up after having soloed a 5.10b and I politely asked him if he would hand me our anchor, which was hanging out of reach.  I was still nervous after my lead,  and my head wasn’t right for the rest of the day.  I had a difficult time top-roping the route that Joey had just led.

The Bong (5.4)

We were running out of time, and we decided to hit one more easy trad route before heading back to San Diego.  I had followed an easy climb called The Bong a while back, and I figured it would be a nice and mellow way to end an exciting day.  I don’t remember this route giving me any trouble in the past, but as I mentioned above, my head had become all screwy.  I got up to the crux, a little well-protected roof, and I just lost all my confidence.  I actually called down to Joey and asked him if he wanted to take it over.  I spent so much time futzing around with my placements, I was tiring myself out and I actually slipped off and took a tiny fall onto a purple C4.  It was probably good that I slipped, because I just sat there and hung off the piece for a while, which helped me build some confidence back.  I finished out the climb, which felt a hell of a lot harder than 5.4, and brought Joey up.  We were tired and ready to call it a day.  That’s when we were faced with our final challenge; a sketchy downclimb to get back to the ground.  This was no walk-off, it was a legit climb with 50+ feet of vertical drop.  I had done it before, and I don’t think it’s quite as bad as it initially looks, but Joey wanted no part of it.  He opted to leave one of his runners, which we slung around a giant boulder and rapped from.  I couldn’t have agreed more with the decision.  What a day.

Rapping off from the top of The Bong

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