Joshua Tree: One More Climb


Finally, a trip outdoors.  It’s been much too long since we’ve been on real rock.  The season began, and it quickly came to an end when Joey sublexed his shoulder on a climb at Holcomb.  And then, just as he was wrapping up PT on his shoulder, he broke his ankle while bouldering at Mesa Rim.  Depressing stuff.  We spent the winter in the gym, directing our energy toward building strength and power; lots of hangboard and campus training.  You don’t need a functioning ankle to hang from your fingertips with weights hanging from your waist.  We trained hard, lost some weight, and we definitely gained some strength.  I went from being “barely able to hang” from a campus rung to doing full sets of matching ladders.  That’s a huge (and unexpected) improvement.  So, despite the disappointing lack of trips outside, we’ve made some real progress and we’re learning the fundamentals of a successful training program, which is actually a lot more fun than I expected.

I’m a goal-oriented person and although I enjoy exercising and staying fit, I quickly lose interest in activities that aren’t stimulating and fun.  I’ve tried running and it’s about the worst thing ever.  Swimming is nearly as boring (try staring at a black line for an hour while wearing spandex underwear).  Surfing is great, but very dependent on the conditions.  Training for climbing seems to be the right fit for my personality and it’s something I intend to continue for a long time.  Along with pizza making.  Hmm, would it be possible to combine the two?


Injuries are no bueno, but a real part of the game we play

We’ve had a lot on our minds.  Joey will be moving soon, and the uncertainty of a new city and job seem to weigh on his already injured shoulder(s).  My second kid (boy or girl?) is due next month, and even though I’m happy and excited, I know that it means change is coming.  Namely, less time for training and less time for the outdoors; two things I have come to need and love.

Zane practicing his backstep

In preparation of these changes, I decided to rip out my half of our bedroom closet, which was mostly unneeded space.  Perfect area for a training wall.  This was done while Jasmine was at work, of course.  I often follow the strategy that I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.  I did consult with San Diego’s finest structural engineer (and climbing partner) Mr. Ryan Slaybaugh, who assured me that it would be safe to bolt 500 lbs. of wood above the area where we plan to put our new baby’s crib.  I intended to build a warm-up/ARC wall and a campus board so that I’d be able to train while taking care of an infant, but Zane dashed those plans and immediately took over my new woody.  He spends a lot of time in there and I am kicking myself for not doing it sooner.


View from our campsite

I’ve been following the Rock Prodigy training program fairly closely for the last 6 months.  It’s been fun and rewarding, and I’ve definitely gained a lot of strength and confidence on plastic.  This trip to Joshua Tree would be the test to see if this new found strength would translate to real climbing.  I had two goal routes in mind; Bird of Fire (10a) and Touch and Go (5.9), both of which are Joshua Tree classics.  I had climbed Bird on top-rope a couple of years ago, and despite the stiffer grade, I felt less intimidated by it.  I knew I could pull the moves, and that it would protect well.  Touch and Go, on the other hand, was a real unknown.  This climb has a reputation as a sandbag (harder than rated) and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  But I’ve done a bunch of 5.8 crack climbs and I figured it’s time to test my mettle on something harder.

Joey, coming off his injuries, hasn’t been able to do much real climbing in the gym, so he came into this trip with little in the way of expectations.  No matter what, we’d both get some more trad leads under our belts, which would be a good thing.


Headstone Rock

We arrived in the Park on Thursday afternoon and snagged what could be one of the finest campsites in all of Joshua Tree.  Site No. 14 in Hidden Valley Campground.  Central location yet relatively secluded, Joey’s campsite juju continues to impress.  Taking advantage of daylight savings time, I suggested that we run over and tick Toe Jam, a climb that is almost always occupied and a nice warmup.  Even though it’s been months since I’ve led anything on gear, I felt surprisingly comfortable and confident on the sharp end.  We rapped off the formation and made it back to camp with enough light to crack some beers and get the pizza oven warmed up.  Wait, what?


Tossing Neapolitan dough by headlamp. Don’t try this at home.

Camping will never be the same.  What started out as a joke on one of our previous trips, has come to fruition.  Other than the hassle of packing out my Blackstone oven and propane tank, the setup and work was no different than what I do at home, and it went off without a hitch.  I was worried about the dough rise and temperature; a Neapolitan dough is a delicate, living thing.  Careful management using a set of coolers, ice, and paper bags worked beautifully, and we enjoyed many fine pizzas on this trip.  Even better, we discovered that calzones make the perfect climbing food (no mess).  We ate a lot.


Spicy anchovy sauce, pepperoni, basil, and ricotta


The new and improved Sending Biscuit 2.0

Friday morning arrived and we rolled out of bed having consumed too much pizza and beer.  This is becoming a pattern.

We decided to warmup on the bolted classics on Headstone Rock, only a few minutes away.  Without a doubt, the amazing SW Corner is the best “easy” climb that I’ve ever done.  The climb starts up a featured slab and quickly turns exhilarating, as you traverse a few feet left and out onto the exposed arete.  You’re only 10 feet into the climb, and there’s suddenly 80 feet of air below you.  After SW Corner, Joey led Cryptic to the right, on which he busted out some unnecessary but fun heel hooks for style points.  I opted to follow, saving myself for the day’s main objective: Bird of Fire.

Joey on lead

Joey leading SW Corner

SW Corner (5.6)

Jason on Cryptic

In case you’re wondering about the poor sap we to assigned camera duty – that would be my trusty intervolameter.  I set my camera on a tripod a few hundred feet away, focused on the rock, and then set the timer to take a picture every 20 seconds until I returned.  It worked pretty well, and I will probably do more of this on future trips.  I love getting photos of our climbs, but there’s no easy (or safe) way to do it when you’re climbing as a party of two.  Note to San Diego’s finest engineer – less worky and more climby, please.  A third set of hands would sure come in handy.


Intersection Rock

As you can see, I decided to play around with some of these photos a bit differently in post.  Usually, I shoot (and process) in a fairly “realistic” style that aims to reflect the landscape as I saw it with my eyes.  Lately, though, I’ve been having fun using the various filters available on my iPhone, and I figured it would be interesting to mess around with similar effects in Photoshop.  There are no rules in photography, and the Joshua Tree landscape lends itself well to this sort of art.


Raven and Joshua Tree

After finishing up on Headstone Rock, we hiked out to the Isles in the Sky, a wonderful formation that is home to some very sharp, grainy rock and the ultra-classic Bird of Fire.  The first time I visited this area was with Justin in 2012.  I followed him up the ankle-shredding offwidth known as Dolphin.  One of my favorite climbing quotes of all time is, “Friends don’t let friends climb Dolphin.”  I still have scars on my ankles, to this day.

BoF follows a clean finger crack up a vertical face of near-perfect rock.  The technical crux comes at the end of the climb, which is overhanging by a few degrees and thankfully short.  I don’t know how else to put it, but I was in the zone and I felt like I practically floated up the climb.  I rarely climb with so much confidence while on lead, let alone on gear, but for one reason or another, everything just clicked.  Halfway up, I was grinning from ear to ear and just loving the experience.  I had been dreaming about leading this thing for years and it was hard to believe that it was actually happening.  As I entered the crux, I was totally committed to taking a big fall, yet at the same time, I knew that it wasn’t going to happen. No way.  Just like Double Cross a couple of years ago, Bird of Fire instantly became my proudest send to date.

The bird

Inspecting the crux of Bird of Fire

Joey followed and we rapped off the top of the formation, making decent time back to the car.  I felt a real sense of relief, having ticked the climb and knowing that I could relax the rest of the day.


Moving on



We did another climb or two and then spent some time on the Gunsmoke Traverse, another Joshua Tree classic that is usually mobbed with people.  At V3, this long climb traverses 70+ feet of rails and edges, just a few feet off the ground, and feels more like a hard route than it does a boulder problem.  I made it past the technical crux on my first go, but pumped out on a thin rail about halfway through.  With a few more goes and fresh arms, I am pretty sure it will go.  Always nice to save something for future trips.  We returned on the third night to give it a go in the dark.  That didn’t go very well at all.


Joey on Gunsmoke

Joey wasn’t keen on pushing his limits this trip, but by our third day he was having more fun plugging gear.  He led Fun Stuff (5.8) and Funny Bone (5.8), and managed to score a nice bail biner and nut that someone had left when they apparently bailed near the top of the former.


Joey leading Fun Stuff




I had one final climb that I wanted to tick, and we proceeded over to the base of Touch and Go.  I was feeling pretty confident and prepared to throw myself into the route, but this one held some unknowns that left me with butterflies in my stomach.  We had to wait for another party to finish up on the route, and watching the follower grunt and hang her way up the crack did not leave me feeling inspired.  It was hotter now, and that would mean sweaty, slick jams and greasy feet.  You need to be able to trust your feet – the friction between your shoes and the rock – and I tried my best not to think about it.  We scrambled up some boulders and roped up, and I eyed the first 20 feet which I had read would be the crux of the climb.  I like low cruxes, because it generally means that I will be fresh and that a fall, should it come, might not be entirely disastrous.  In reality, this isn’t the sanest line of thinking, since a fall near the ground carries increased risk of contact with the ground, but it is what it is.  I figured that I would do my damnedest to sew up the start of the route, even if that meant pumping out and blowing the onsight higher up.  In fact, that is nearly what happened!

Touch and Go

Touch and Go

I delicately stemmed and relied on so-so finger locks to work my way up the thin crack at the start, placing just enough pieces to keep me off the ground, should my feet blow out.  I was definitely working, though not quite at my limit, and I think I shouted down to Joey that the climb felt harder than anything on Bird of Fire, which is supposed to be a full number grade harder.  Whether he answered or even heard me, I have no idea.  I had already entered that state of laser-like focus, perhaps fueled by fear, where nothing matters except the moves in front of you.

I made it to the first good hand jam and I wanted to shriek for joy.  I might have.  I was at least halfway up the climb, with lots of solid protection below me, and I knew that I was relatively safe and past the crux.  That’s always a great feeling.  Unfortunately, I soon realized that the upper half of the climb would not be much easier than the bottom, and I could feel the pump building in my arms and legs.  Stemming out and getting so-so foot jams was becoming increasingly difficult, and I started fumbling with my gear to get good placements.  The climbing itself would have been easy and straightforward on top-rope, but I had spent too much time fiddling around and I could feel my power meter waning.  I wasn’t terribly scared of taking a fall, but I wanted to get the onsight and I certainly didn’t want to fall.  I lost a nut deep in the crack and then I fumbled and dropped a second nut into the air. Ugh, this was getting messy.  In the picture above, if you look close, I am holding a set of nuts in my teeth while hurriedly trying to get a gold C4 off my harness.  I don’t often hold nuts in my mouth, you see.

I can report that all went well, and I made it through the second crux section without taking or falling.  I’m actually proud of myself that I stuck with it, because on past climbs there is no way I would have gotten myself into that situation without plugging a piece and yelling, “Take!”  After a convoluted and uncomfortable downclimb from atop the formation, we took a much needed rest and moved on with our day.  I suppose I would list Bird of Fire as my strongest lead to date, but if I’m being honest, I had to work harder for Touch and Go, and getting the onsight means a lot to me.


Joey following Touch and Go, using a different technique that worked well

My “baby shower weekend” was coming to an end, and I have to thank my climbing partner Joey for joining in the fun.  He bought me a pack of size-5 baby diapers, and actually thought he might wear them as a joke.  Clearly, Joey has never actually handled a disposable diaper, because the thought of this left me shaking my head.

We spent the last night eating what remained of our calzones and taco fixings, and after a few drinks the obvious course of action turned to songwriting.  Joey has been learning to play guitar and I brought my acoustic (which I most certainly never learned to play), and I leave you, dear readers, with the entirely impromptu and alcohol-laced melody, “One More Climb.”  Written, produced, and unfortunately performed by Joey Churchman and Jason Kim.







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