I’ve been climbing in J-Tree for almost a decade now. In fact, it’s the place that I started climbing outdoors. It’s a magical place for me, the home of my first multipitch, first 5.10a gear onsight, first 5.12a gear redpoint, and so much more. For seven years now, I’ve had the idea of leading the number of 5.10s equal to my age. However, back when I was 23 and dreamed up such a silly thing, I didn’t have the ability, or the partner. Well, fast forward a bit, I’m 30, the wrinkles are a little deeper, my knees a little more run down, and my toes a little more chronically pissed that I wear climbing shoes four days a week. However, I’m still young at heart (and hope I always will be) and my physical issues are small enough that I know I’m lucky. My current pool of partners is excellent, and their motivation for a scheme that I’d dreamed up was more than a match, so I asked Nate if he wanted in on my shenanigans. Of course, like a good friend and partner, he was instantly down and my planning began in earnest.
I turned 30 back in January, but not only was I pathetically out of shape, after a year of travel, but the days are just too short and cold so we decided that it would have to happen in April. The days would not only be longer, but warmer and we could climb at night, if necessary. Once we had a general time frame, I started doing research. I sat down with J-Tree guidebooks, searched www.rockclimbing.com and www.summitpost.com databases and forums, scanned my memory, and did a few investigational forays to J-Tree. Eventually, the plan started to take shape as I developed an excel spreadsheet which listed climbs, location, difficulty, guidebook page numbers, descents, and random notes. The fun would take place in Steve’s Canyon, Hidden Valley Campground, and Real Hidden Valley. The logistics were a pain sometimes. I had to shuffle the order of climbs around constantly as I learned more about how to get down off certain rocks, or realized that I had to make sure to be on the “Woolseys” mid-day since they’re in a campsite! By the time the day rolled around, I still hadn’t ever been on at least 7 of the planned routes, and Nate had probably never been on a good half of them, or more.
While devising the list of routes, I also worked on the “rules” governing the fun. They ended up as the following:
1. All routes must be 5.10a or harder, no reliable source could rate them lower.
2. At least one member must lead each route.
3. Soloing counted, but to count for both we both must solo it.
4. We must both climb our age, and since Nate is younger, I would solo the difference.
5. We would do our best to do them clean or redpoint them if we thought it was feasible.
Once I had established a list of 30 planned, and 40 total potential routes, I started brainstorming time saving techniques. Here were a few strategies that we established. We would climb on a 50m rope. Since there would be essentially no multi-pitch, all anchors would consist of two good pieces equalized with an equalette. If an anchor piece was deemed mediocre, we put a third in to maintain safety. Sitting in a hole at the top of a formation to belay the 2nd was utilized when a gear anchor was going to take more than a few minutes and a good stance was available. The moment the leader was “safe” (most climbs in J-Tree end on the flat top of a big formation) they yell down. At that point, it was the follower’s responsibility to prepare everything below, if there was anything to do, then climb until they got to a hard part and wait for a belay. For formations with multiple routes and a time consuming descent, we would leave a 50m rope for rappel after the first route, and proceed to do the remaining climbs on the formation with a 100’ rope to save time. Whenever possible, when we were done with a climb or formation with a walk-off/down-climb I would lower Nate or he would rappel and then I’d toss the rope. This meant that he could be packing the bags while I down-climbed. I would then meet him either at the next climb or the base of the one we just finished. This worked really well, by the way. We would wear our loosest climbing shoes, so that we could stay in shoes for hours and not waste time changing shoes. We had one rope bag, which kept us from almost ever coiling the rope, and a backpack that would be left at the base of climbs with clothes/shoes/food/water/headlamps/whatever. All gear would remain on us from almost beginning to end, no packing and unpacking. Essentially, what we did was turn single pitch into a continuous multi-pitch experience, but since we could walk to the base of the next climb we never had to climb with a pack on! It was quite efficient!
Finally, the day we were supposed to do it (April 11th), I checked the weather and it said cold and windy! Nooooo! Not only that, but with perfect weather predicted for Sunday I had already committed to doing trail repair with the Allied Climbers of San Diego (www.alliedclimbers.org)!!! Looks like we would have to postpone. However, this turned out to be a boon. Little did I know, but Nate’s birthday was that following week! The delay meant one more route of punishment for him, up from 27 to 28! Yes! I’m not sure he looked at it as favorably as I did… I viewed it as a good omen.
As our new day approached, April 25th, I kept tracking the weather on the National Weather Service website noting perfect temp ranges, 50-70 F. The omen was right! We took off from San Diego Friday after work, and headed out to crash just outside the park on my friend’s property, which consisted of an empty lot perfect for camping on. On the way, we figured out that we had enough food for our objective, but not much else. Nate made the executive decision that we forego buying food for the following night and just crash. We needed sleep, and if we had to leave the park to find some dinner when we were done, so be it. We got in around 10pm, set the alarm for 4am, and promptly crashed out with medium winds and a slight chill to the night. Somehow, my perverted mind had actually devised a plan that required an alpine start for Joshua Tree National Park, the home of convenience climbing and 10 o’clock wakeups… Awesome.
The alarm went off, Nate and I jumped up, gathered gear, tossed it in the car in the dark, and drove into the park. The remaining drive went quickly, actually being able to go the speed limit for once, not stuck behind tourons (maybe this alpine start was the way to go!?!). We rolled into Intersection Rock parking lot around 4:30-4:45 and started eating a hearty breakfast of yogurt and granola while pondering the fact that it was REALLY cold outside relative to what we expected. The wind was blowing so hard the car was rocking! Well, with the temps lower than expected, we dragged our feet a little layering and packing the bags and making some peanut butter and honey sandwiches but eventually after borrowing a layer from Nate we left the car and headed out by headlamps into the desert toward Steve’s Canyon around 5:20.
Sometime at or after 5:30 we were climbing. I had racked up at the car and with the headlamp on I blasted Watanobe Wall. I threw in 3-4 pieces of gear on the lead and finished in what seemed no time. Nate joined me soon after and we gave each other a high five, “One down!” This became a ritual for the day. Next up was Come N Do Me. By this time there was enough light in the sky that the headlamps were off, as were our beanies since we were already moving fast enough to warm up significantly. I quickly onsighted the route, moving fast and efficiently, and soon Nate was up there with me. High five, “Two down!” I lowered Nate and invented a downclimb that I’m sure few people have ever done, but I had no idea how to get off the rock and it was fast and direct. By the time I joined Nate he had the rope in the rope bag and everything ready. We were off to clip some bolts. I onsighted Elixer and Nate onsighted Amanda and We Never Get the Girls. At this point, less than an hour had passed, and I realized that we were blasting the routes much quicker than even I had anticipated and we started to take the luxury of pulling out the camera. The desert was in full bloom and we took a picture of this beauty!
We moved into the center of Steve’s Canyon where Nate onsighted The Orc and then crossed the canyon to both solo Phineas P. Phart. Nate flashed it solo for our 7th route and declared it “Phineas P. Five Seven!” I took over the leading again. I quickly floated Decompensator of Lhasa, which was a surprise since we both remember it being harder, and then I dispatched Grain Surgery. At this point, we were really cooking and Nate suggested that we alter the plan a little and for our 10th route we add Jumping Jack Crack (5.11a/b) into the mix. I agreed with a grin, and quickly squirmed the offwidth/squeeze flair that lead to the roof without any big gear since we hadn’t planned on it, and managed to pull the roof. Nate pulled the crux fingers moves, but somehow managed to grease out of the hand crack. He wanted to just keep going instead of lowering, so he came up and joined me and we headed over to Sidewinder. Nate took over the leading for a bit and styled Sidewinder tip toeing the runout ledge quickly and confidently.
At this point, we were wondering if we could finish the entire Steve’s Canyon area and make it for the “climber coffee” that Vic the climbing ranger hosted which I believe lasts from 8-10am. We couldn’t believe how fast we were moving! After Sidewinder, we headed over for the back of the formation and Nate onsighted Jack Grit. Since he was renaming things, he called this one, “The worst climb I’ve Ever Done in J-Tree!” I have to admit, it’s a bit of a freaking choss pile and I knew it. I had scoped this one out on one of my preparatory days and was smirking while he thrashed up the sandbagged and sand covered climb. I was glad I had sunglasses on with the sheer volume of grit that was raining down all over me. Nate was grumpy for about 10 seconds then got over it in time for another high five and, “Twelve down!” before he rapped and I tossed the rope and started scrambling.
Next stop, Hobbit Roof. Since I had Nate by 2 years, I soloed this one. After I finished, we headed into Hidden Valley Campground in the hopes of finding the climber coffee in progress having polished off 13 routes by mid-morning.
We arrived around 9:55, but there was no Vic or coffee in sight, so we just headed to the car dumped all of our warm clothing and ate some peanut butter and honey sandwiches. We were averaging a climb about every 20 minutes at this point, and were pretty stoked!
We were holding a pattern of 3 leads each, and Nate had lead the last two, so it was still his turn. Perfect, because I had planned to have him onsight Bearded Cabbage! He roped up and headed out, a little hesitant at first since it’s an intimidating line. However, as soon as he started the traverse I knew it was over when he just cut his feet and started campusing. At the crux he was just casually hanging there and reaching for the crack. He almost botched the sequence by going into a right hand thumbs down jam, but recovered and became the only person I’ve seen onsight the route! And he had just done 13 routes 5.10 or harder in the previous 5 hours! Go Nate! We left our rope hanging in the rappel rings and I took over blasting Judas and Dandelion before pulling our rope and heading over to the Woolseys!
I headed up Mama Woolsey, which had much worse protection than I remembered at the start, and set an anchor for us to rap on. I had just finished my three and it was Nate’s turn. He was out of chalk so he stole my chalk ball and headed out on, “One of the world’s first ‘sport’ bolted routes,” in the blazing sun. At this point, we were already on climb 18 and it was taking it’s toll on Nate. He hit the 2nd crux at the 3rd bolt, fell a few times, and lost confidence in his hideously loose Moccasyms that he was trying to do thin edging and smearing in and lowered. We pulled the rope and I took off. The crux gave me pause as well, my feet slowly greasing anywhere I tried to smear, but I figured out a high step to an edge and finally got it done and sprinted for the top. It was pretty hot at this point, and we retreated back to the car with another 5 routes done for another high five and “18 down!”
We hit the car, grabbed the food bag and some water and headed for the shade under Left Ski Track, our next objective. If you didn’t count the downtime dropping stuff off at the car earlier and eating sandwiches and talking to a couple of friends, we were still punching out a route every 20 minutes and were more than half way done by noon! I was feeling great about the fact that we would obviously be done by nightfall, but Nate was starting to get tired. We ate, joked around keeping our psyche up, and eventually ended up laying in the sun in the parking lot relaxing and talking. Eventually Nate saw some friends and we talked to them for a while. I think they were shocked to find out what we had already done that day, and they came to watch when we finally got moving again around 12:40 to climb the Left Ski Track (5.11a).
I’ve done the route numerous times before, but when I did it this time, I was just in a groove. I hit the holds perfectly and had great body tension and confidence coming off our morning’s success and cruised the cruxes completely statically and blasted for the summit. Nate followed me up, and since there was a guide and a client on the rappel we had to downclimb the Upper Right Ski Track to save time. We hit the ledge, scrambled off, and then headed right back up for the summit via the Half Track. I onsighted it with a little confusion at the very thin crux, and then brought Nate up. As soon as he got to me, I handed him my remaining gear and he punched for the summit since we couldn’t find a way to rappel from the top of the pitch. This time the rappel was open and in no time we were on Lower Right Ski Track. Again, I floated the route statically, which I’ve never done. It was always a dyno or two in the past, but this time I just locked everything off and floated up route 21 for the day. High five when Nate joined me, and off to the car to relocate to Real Hidden Valley!
Nate was starting to get tired at this point, and luckily he had a little time to rest. The age disparity dictated it was time for me to solo again. We headed over to Sport Challenge Rock and tossed the packs down at the base and looked up to see none other than Randy Vogel finishing up following someone up Clean and Jerk! For those not in the know, he’s the guidebook author and I believe also a J-Tree Birthday Challenge type guy. He’s also the one who got the bug under my skin about soloing Clean and Jerk years ago when I saw him walk it in about 2 minutes without a rope. I dropped the harness and changed into the climbing shoes and headed up just after he finished. The route went as smoothly as ever on solid holds and jams on the beautiful overhung wall. I scrambled off and at the packs said hi to Randy and we geared up for Championship Wrestling. I grabbed the two big pieces from the pack and headed out. The route was as easy, and cool, as I remembered and was over soon. Nate came up, rappelled on our gear anchor and I coiled the rope and searched in vain for a good rappel anchor. There was a nest of webbing around a 4’ x 2’ rock, but I didn’t really want to trust my life to that. Not wanting to waste time, I committed to down climbing some random feature and I was on the ground and off to meet Nate on the way to the next climb. We ticked off the first pitch of Ball Bearing and I TR’d Nate up it. He was really starting to tire, so at this point he put the camera away and stopped taking pictures, struggling for motivation. We were finished with our 24th route with “only” six to go!
Originally, No Calculators Allowed was on the tick list, but as we pulled the rope we heard some people say there was a group with 5 ropes set up top roping over there.. Nate suggested that I go solo it and he didn’t care if he didn’t make it to 28, but being a good friend I told him that I didn’t want to deal with the crowd. My real motivation was forcing him to finish what we had started. It was hard, and I was starting to shut down too, but I was in this with Nate and wanted him to walk away having completed his 28 as well. Instead, we went in the other direction and I managed to eek an onsight out of Martin Quits. I threw Nate on belay and then looked down to find him putting his shoes on. I realized he was so fried he wasn’t focusing on the objective anymore, just reacting to stimulus. He hadn’t even started getting ready while I was building the anchor. He did, however flash the route behind me but promptly flopped out on his back as soon as he got to the top. With the day dragging on, exhaustion setting in and us getting more and more tired, I realized this just wasn’t going to do. I told Nate I couldn’t do it without him and I needed him to keep plugging away before we crashed even harder. He immediately jumped back into action and kept it going as strong as he could through the rest of the day.
Next up, Semi Tough. It’s a thin vertical crack rated 10d that Nate and I both agreed was 11a when we previewed it for our big day. It was one of my biggest worries with regards to climbing everything clean. Here I was on the 26th route of the day, exhausted, and it was hard, thin, and in the sun. I just simply decided that I wouldn’t fall after making it this far, and headed up it. Somehow I found perfect body positions, made huge reaches between the few good jams and holds, and floated it easily. It only felt 10d! Sweet! I yelled at Nate to try to remember what I was doing because it was working so well and whatever we both tried the first time was so damn terrible. At the top I threw in an anchor and belayed Nate up in the afternoon sun. Judging from the lack of tension in the rope, Nate floated the crux! However, halfway up the route one of my gear placements got in the way of his huge reach for a jug and spit him off when he was deflected by the sling. After completing 25 routes, he still climbed the route significantly better than when we first got on it. I definitely chose a good partner. Nate got to the top and we left our rope as a rappel for the next 3 routes. I ticked off Pit Bull Attack, which has a damn devious crux, and then headed down into the “Chasm of Doom” as the locals know it, to climb In the Pit. In the Pit is a sandbagged 10a that’s dead vertical and goes from traversing into an off fingers crack to a leaning flared hand crack. Not something I’d fall off on a normal day, but I placed more gear on this short little route than many of the 80’ routes earlier that day and barely scraped my way to the top. High five and, “Twenty Eight!!!!!!”
Route twenty nine, Broken Glass, was supposed to be a “good beginner lead for the grade” so I had written it’s difficulty off despite the fact I had never even seen it. Nate and I rounded the corner and it looked as innocuous as it sounded when other people described it. Good crack, feet, and gear. What else could you want for a 5.10a? Well, it turned out to be significantly harder than expected. As the muscles started wearing down, the core went with everything else. It was surprisingly hard in our exhausted state. At the top of the route I found myself laid out in a flared leaning crack body smeared with a hand jam not knowing how, or wanting, to move. It was pathetic to know with a great hand jam there was no way I’d fall, but yet I couldn’t move up until I’d milked this body scum rest for a while. I thrashed for the final jam and somehow cranked my feet up into the crack. I was really frazzled. I remember seeing the top of the formation from the other climbs and thinking I should just sit in a hole and belay, but when I got to the top I wasted about 3 minutes trying to build an awkward anchor in the crack with the gear I had. Finally, I realized my stupidity and cleaned it all and went and sat down in a good spot, took up the slack, and yelled “Belay is on!” After Nate came up we rapped off the fixed rope, I tossed it, and did the descent.
Throughout the day, my right knee was getting worse and worse. It was primarily my challenge, and I knew the park better than Nate, so I was doing all the descents and letting Nate rappel. Well, I guess my age was showing itself, and on the descent I had a slight limp at this point. I knew it was nothing serious, but I was still glad to be almost done.
We hiked back to the car, jumped in, and took off for the last climb of the day, Deviate. Why? Because at the summit is Geronimo! Nate had never done Geronimo, an 8’ roof crack rated 5.7, and thought that it was a superfluous pitch and didn’t want to do it in his exhausted state. I however disagreed. Rope drag be damned, just so he couldn’t veto me, I ran Deviate and Geronimo together in one pitch! (It was awesome, but FYI I really don’t recommend this) Nate was committed, and I sat there laughing my ass off while Nate dangled out the bottom of the massive roof, hands on huge jugs, and said, “What the fuck?” when he figured out how to complete the pitch. It was a unique and perfect finish to an outstanding day with an amazing partner. Thanks Nate… We down climbed to the anchor of Deviate and rappelled to the ground. I went first and on the 30′ of scramble up to the rope bag and our flip flops, my knee went into complete failure mode and I was severly limping using my hands on rocks until I was back on flatter ground and it decided to somewhat cooperate again. I was stoked. We had completed the objective, Nate had climbed 28 and I had done 30. Somehow, I had made it the entire day no falls, leading 21 routes and soloing 3. Woohoo!!!
After we finished climbing, we retreated back to the parking lot where our friends Albert and Kara were waiting for us with beers. We hung out for a while, exhausted but riding a high. Nate and I fully planned on leaving the park for food, but were promised BBQ instead! Albert and Kara lead the way to Ryan Campground where some friends of friends were camping. It was a group of mainly international students out on a climbing trip that Albert and Nate knew. I just sat down exhausted, short on calories, and felt the soreness already creeping into my back. Immediately, the European hospitality kicked in and one of the French women was offering us beer and food. We just relaxed and let our brains shut down, hung out with awesome company and were fed chicken, hot dogs, chips, baked potatoes, marshmellows, wine, and even cooked bananas with chocolate! Best day ever!