Climbers Encounter Themselves on Joshua Tree Outcrops
by Lisa Fugard
The New York Times
February 28, 1999
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif.- In the early morning light the monzogranite rock outcrops in Joshua Tree National Park look like enormous dollops of meringue browning in the desert sunshine. Im driving to Turtle Rock in late November for the first day of a weekend rock-climbing course for beginners and with great anticipation I realize that by days end I will be climbing these seemingly smooth, soft-edged outcrops.
In my imagination I have a natural affinity for rock climbing; Ill ascend agile as a monkey but still take time to notice the subtle coloration and the way wind and water have shaped the granite. A two-day meditation on the nature of rock is the way I see it.
Joshua Tree National Park, about three hours east of Los Angeles, encompasses parts of both the Mojave Desert, higher in altitude and the lower, hotter Colorado Desert. It is in the Mojave section of the park that, more that 100 million years ago, these jumbled piles of bedrock cooled and hardened many miles beneath the surface of the earth.
Millenniums of erosion by ground water weathered the granite, often in fantastic shapes, while flash floods washed away the protective ground surface to reveal them.
Steve Gerberding of the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School is our instructor. Hes an easygoing man whos been climbing for 21 years and has done 84 ascents of El Capitan in Yosemite, a fact that draws a stunned look of admiration from 19-year-old Jake, the youngest in our group of four beginners. The rest of us, myself and a couple from San Francisco, are in our mid-30s to early 40s.
After fitting us with smooth rubber-soled climbing shoes, Gerberding leads us to a boulder-strewn area where we will learn about balance and practice footwork, all vital to building confidence for bigger climbs. No ropes, no pitons, just us and our shoes (he tells us theyre designed to stick to rock) moving across the boulders like human flies. Initially I keep slipping, but after an hour of working to keep my weight over my hips and keep my heals down, I have moments when I feel as though I have suction cups on my feet.
For the rest of the morning we learn how to tie into our climbing harnesses and how to use the climbers safety system called belaying.
Before we climb, we will tie onto a long rope that loops up through the top anchor point and then back down. Tied onto the other end of the rope is our belayer, who is attached to a ground anchor, a rock or a tree and who will gather in the ropes slack as we ascend. If we lose our footing our belayer will be able to hold the rope taut with relative ease, thus braking the fall. The belayer will also lower us down the rock for the descent.
After lunch Gerberding leads us to a lumpy outcrop of rock where a brightly colored rope disappears over a ledge 30 feet above. I nervously tie in first and begin to climb. The shoes are sticking great and I move cautiously over the bumps and curves in the gray granite. Its like climbing a colossal sleeping elephant.
Forty feet up I hoist myself over another large ledge and feeling as though Ive conquered Everest, I touch the anchor point. Then comes the moment of faith. I call for tension, an once my belayer has taken in all the slack, I lean back, giving my weight to the rope as my belayer feeds the rope back out I walk backwards down the rock face.
Rock climbing is a breeze, I think, until the next climb up a gritty , gnarled section of rock . Were learning a technique called lay backing, a way of taking advantage of any long vertical cracks in the rock. In essence you grip one side of the crack and pull with your hands while pushing with your feet, creating a tension that enables you to seemingly defy gravity and ascend sideways up the crack.
When I attempt it I realize how little upper-body strength I have. The granite is rough and whenever I jam my hand into the crack , I feel as though Im being bitten by the rock. Cheered on by my fellow climbers, I finally claw my way to the top, where I manage to somehow wedge my legs into the fissure to prevent myself from falling.
Im bone weary when, at days end, I drive back to my motel in the nearby town of Twentynine Palms. Theres and eerie twilight beauty to the landscape; the pale sand glowing, the granite outcrops like pieces of the moon fallen to earth. After Day 1 of Basic Rock the only thing Ive learned about the nature of rock is that it is hard - rock hard.
Its quite possible I have no affinity for rock climbing, I think while driving back into the park early on Sunday morning. Then the beauty of those bizarre granite outcrops distracts me from my nerves.
Today they look fleshy, thickly contoured like the massive bodies in Lucien Freud paintings. Were climbing in beautiful Echo Cove and Gerberding sets up four routes; two hard ones for Jake and two easier ones that are confidence builders for the rest of us.
Thirty feet up the easiest route, I decide that the words
rock climbing do not adequately describe the activity Ive
been engaged in since late the previous afternoon. Rock scaling and clutching
and grasping, rock balancing and wrestling and groping seem more appropriate.
Now, panting more from stress than fatigue, Im on the verge of rock
Why do you like rock climbing so much? I ask
Gerberding when Im back on the ground.
Gently he coaxes me onto the next route, another friction climb.
It is steeper and more challenging than the first and yet I ascend with more
confidence. Im starting to see a pattern - each climb has had moments of
panic and doubt, followed by a huge sense of accomplishment when I reach the
Gerberding shouts that theres a good foothold about 4 feet to my left, and I reach for a carbuncle of rock no larger than a new potato. I climb on and in an odd way I begin to feel like Im doing a dance on this granite outcrop. Its an utterly graceless affair on my part, sometimes I stretch like a starfish, other times I dangle from narrow ledges. I wrap by body around rock and use every bump and crevice to help me reach the top.
During my descent I pay attention to the curves and contours and
coloration of the granite I've been so intimate with . A dark reddish smear
catches my eye and I look closer.
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Joshua Tree Rock