Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School


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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. I’m 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 day’s end I will be climbing these seemingly smooth, soft-edged outcrops.

In my imagination I have a natural affinity for rock climbing; I’ll 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. He’s an easygoing man who’s 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-30’s to early 40’s.

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 they’re 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 climber’s 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. It’s like climbing a colossal sleeping elephant.

Forty feet up I hoist myself over another large ledge and feeling as though I’ve 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 . We’re 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 I’m 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.

I’m bone weary when, at day’s end, I drive back to my motel in the nearby town of Twentynine Palms. There’s 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 I’ve learned about the nature of rock is that it is hard - rock hard.

It’s 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. We’re 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 I’ve 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, I’m on the verge of rock surrender.
“Rest up!” Gerberding shouts. “Enjoy the view.”
With wobbly legs I perch on a small ledge. The sandy floor of Echo Cove is dotted with Joshua trees. Legend has it that these trees, which are members of the yucca family and grow only above 3,000 feet, were named by the Mormons when they crossed the Mojave Desert in the 1850’s, the outstretched branches reminding them of the prophet Joshua who would guide them westward.
Sufficiently calmed, I get back to the business at hand. This is a friction climb, meaning there are no obvious hand -or footholds - rather, I’m searching the rock face for “smearable surfaces, “ shallow depressions in which to place my feet. With small, concentrated moves I cover 20 more feet. But now the angle of the rock face is growing steeper, it feels like it’s almost 90 degrees.
Rock paralysis kicks in. Surely if I move another inch I will fall, in fact I start to wonder how I’m even managing to stay put. Fear mounts and I break the cardinal rule of friction climbing . I lean in and try to cling to the smooth expanse of rock , shifting all my weight off my heels. Sure enough I fall - all of 12 inches. My belayer has me on a short rope and I dangle for a moment, searching for the next smearable surface. I eventually find it and trusting my feet, I make it to the top. Another Everest conquered.

“Why do you like rock climbing so much?” I ask Gerberding when I’m back on the ground.
“It’s fun!” he replies, a slightly incredulous look on his face, as if he can’t fathom why I would ask.
“What do you mean by fun?” I demand.
“Puzzle solving,” he says, explaining how creative and satisfying it is to find the sometimes elusive path up a rock face.

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. I’m 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 top.
But fun? I’m still not convinced until the climb before lunch. Mark from San Francisco goes up first and returns with a big smile on his face.
“It’s terrific!” he says. “Great hand - and footholds.” But I don’t know whether to believe a man who has almost scraped his fingertips raw. I make it 15 feet up the craggy 50 - foot route before my puzzle-solving skills vanish. I have no idea where to move.

Gerberding shouts that there’s 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 I’m doing a dance on this granite outcrop. It’s 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.
“There’s a bloodstain up here!” I yell.
It must me mine, I think, taking a quick look at my bloodied knuckles. I, too, have left my mark on this rock. It’s a mad, giddy moment of triumph and I’m laughing wildly. Don’t ask my why but suddenly rock climbing feels like fun.

© Article copyright The New York Times. All rights reserved.

___________ Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School
HCR Box 3034, Joshua Tree
CA 92252
phone number: (760) 366-4745 or (800) 890-4745
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