How to: Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is one of 60 national parks in the United States. Located in the southwest of California, it takes about two to three hours to drive there from Los Angeles (by American standards, it’s practically next door).

Sunset in Joshua Tree

When I moved to San Francisco in September I decided to visit as many climbing areas in California as possible. Apart from Yosemite and Bishop, Joshua Tree was at the top of my list. Initially I planned on spending a weekend in Los Angeles. When Rustam heard that I would be in LA, it didn’t take him very long to convince me to cancel my return flight and drive to Joshua Tree instead.

Alas, a few days later we arrived in “JTree”. The national park is in a desert (for the geography nerds among you, yes, I am aware that they are in fact two deserts). In case you’ve never been to a desert, this means that there is no phone reception, no restaurants, no water, no supermarkets, no hotels… Just the desert! Of course that’s not entirely accurate: there are a few campsites, with toilets (but no water), trash containers and fire pits (but no wood).

Thus, if you want to stay in the park for a week, you need to be prepared. Step one is to go grocery shopping; about 30min from JTree is a huge Walmart. Huge, for my non-American standards anyway. If you haven’t been to Walmart, you can buy anything there. Weapons, cars, trees, or food (I told you - they have everything). In addition to food, you should equip yourself with wood and a lot of water. Apart from Walmart there are a few Restaurants and Cafes in the small town of Joshua Tree, which is just by the entrance to the eponymous national park.

Step two is to reserve a campsite. As sites are limited, you might have to plan this weeks in advance and book a space. But of course we didn’t do that. Time for plan B: drive around the four main campsites until someone agrees to share their site with us. Ideally this should be done in the early morning. Many groups depart in the morning and those who remain are more likely to be having breakfast at the campsite instead of being climbing at the crag.

Unfortunately you cannot simply join any group. Each site must not have more than two cars parked next to it - and most of them do. Despite showing up a few days before Thanksgiving, Rustam and I managed to find a spot after half an hour of searching. Simply follow Rustam’s tactic of being friendly (you’d be surprised how many people we saw failing at this) and offering to pay for the campsite fee, and you will eventually find someone willing to let you stay. Alternatively, if you really cannot find anything, there are many Airbnbs just outside of the park.

Hidden Valley Campground, the campsite at which we ended up staying, is one of the most popular spots for climber (and with 44 sites one of the largest campsites). And it’s easy to see why it is so popular: a few of the most famous boulders and routes are literally on the campsite. The Caveman traverse for example was literally a stone’s throw away from my tent. Caveman was first climbed by John Bachar in the 70s. Back then he graded it V7, which somewhat remarkably, still hasn’t changed until today. A true benchmark problem, which boasts a unique toehook-sequence towards the end, which I’ve never seen anywhere else on real rock.

Caveman V7 at Hidden Valley Campground

Our neighbour Kai, who was kind enough to share his site with us, turned out to be an experienced crack climber. Over the years he managed to tick off most of the classics and recommended a variety of routes to us. The next day, after having seen me in Caveman, he remarked: “So you’re a boulderer… Interesting. There’s a problem you should try. A V6 called The Inquisition.” Somewhat overconfident I replied: “V6? Easy. I can do that!”. Kai, who - due to his Japanese roots, goatee and a somewhat mysterious aura - reminded me of Mr. Miyagi solemnly said: “Remember that…”

Our primary goal however was to climb trad. In Joshua Tree, trad climbing means that you will mostly climb cracks, “normal” routes are sparse. After a quick introduction on how to do crack climbing I took off. I quickly realised: it is really hard. When I began to desperately pull on tiny pebbles next to the crack, it became clear to me that climbing cracks has nothing to do with normal climbing. Using the pebbles was a much easier way of climbing up than pushing my fingers into a tiny crack, locking them between the sharp rock, and hoping at the same time that my toes, which were in a similar position, wouldn’t break. I also realised that Rustam’s main quality as a climber was a high tolerance for pain. The rock in Joshua Tree is extremely rough and, apart from using a lot of Manox cream, I highly recommend wearing Ocun crack gloves. That is of course assuming that you don’t like your hands to be drenched in blood.

Without Ocun gloves, my hands would look significantly worse

Similar to Caveman and many of the slabs on the campsite, Joshua Tree is known for stiff, or even sandbagged grades. That’s fine - until the descent that the guidebook described as an “easy walk off the back”, turns into a free solo adventure. After topping out on one of the routes in the Hemingway sector - which was actually pretty good - I got to climb a 15 meter friction slab, backwards, without protection. I’d call it a lot of things, but certainly not an “easy walk”.

But even without trusting you guidebook it is remarkably easy to put yourself into unnecessarily stupid situations. One afternoon, not having reached a point of “sufficient exhaustion”, we decided to drive to the Real Hidden Valley sector (a 10min walk from the eponymous campsite) and climb a few quick routes. The route we chose llusion Dweller (aka Candy Colored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby), tops out on Sentinel Rock, which one can easily descend (this time it was actually easy) by walking down along a broad ridge. In order to avoid rappelling off the top and to save weight, we figured it would be smart to leave our backpack in the car. Big mistake. When we arrived at the route, another party was already climbing on it and we had to wait for them to finish. Once we finally started climbing, it started to get dark. No problem - or so we thought - after all we always make sure to have a few headtorches in the backpack. Shit...

Rustam walking into the Real Hidden Valley without his backpack

Once he got the top, Rustam had to establish his belay position using his iPhone flashlight. When he finally finished, the sun was completely gone and it was pitch black. As the route was in the moonshadow, I had the pleasure of climbing and cleaning Rustam’s gear practically blind. Although it wasn’t necessarily the best climbing experience, the view on top of the plateau was worth it. Overlooking the endless desert, underneath a sky full of stars, was definitely a special feeling.

Enough adventure, I thought to myself, and made it clear to Rustam that I want to go bouldering. One of the best JTree areas for bouldering, or “climbing pebbles”, as Rustam calls this most noble form of climbing, is the Gunsmoke sector. Apart from the eponymous Gunsmoke traverse, there are a number of classic climbs here. To warm up, we headed to The Chube, which was first climbed by Russ Walling and Jerry Moffat in the 80s. The name is a reference to the British accents of Jerry and his climbing partner Ben Moon, which the Americans apparently found rather entertaining: “Named after the Tube also known as the London Underground Railway. Moffat and that funny accent always pronounced it chube instead of the American version, toob” (source: Mountain Project). Despite the low V2 grade, the boulder is not completely trivial, due to a relatively high mantle. The “pebble” defeated Rustam, who decided to climb down instead of topping out. Probably not a bad idea, given that shortly after my own ascent, we saw someone who apparently broke their foot after falling off at the top.

Streetcar Named Desire: few holds, but lots of fun

Just behind The Chube, is another classic called Streetcar Named Desire. In typical Joshua Tree fashion it has no handholds. While finger strength is not going to help - solid footwork is essential. It took me about half an hour to get both feet off the ground. In case you get bored from pushing around on this dihedral slab, you can just walk over to Iron Resolution. The V13 climb saw its first ascent in 2006, when Chris Sharma climbed it. Not only is it incredibly hard, it’s also one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever seen.

After I at least go to try all the boulders on my list, we went back to climbing cracks. It was our last day, our skin was gone and so was our strength. We didn’t have much to lose. Thus we went to the Rusty Wall, which essentially has two routes, both of which are quite popular. The first one, Wangerbanger (5.11c), was probably one of my favourite crack routes on the trip. It starts with a fairly wide crack, which progressively gets smaller and smaller as you get to the top. O'Kelley's Crack (5.11a) in contrast starts with a (for crack climbers) relatively hard boulder problem. In order to circumvent the first move, another group placed a few cheat-stones at the star of the route. Shortly after that group moved on and left, a bizarre, panting man arrived. The man, who was wearing way too much sunscreen, was probably in his mid 40s, but looked as if he was in his late 50s and was breathing heavily as he must have decided at some point that it would be a good idea to run through the desert in full exposure to the sun. To make things worse, he was listening to loud music through his airpods; thanks to his constant singing it was also quite clear that he was a dedicated Maria Carey fan. Consequently, he could not speak at a normal volume, and yelled a friendly “HELLO”, upon seeing us. However once he spotted the cheat-stone, he glanced over to the horizon, where you could just about still see the other climbers wandering off, screamed “FUCKING PUSSIES” and hurled the stone into the valley. Even more bizarrely, after briefly waiting for us to finish our route, he proceeded to climb both routes rope-solo without rest, loudly singing along to his music, and left again. Naturally he left in the same fashion as he arrived: running full speed down the steep hill into the valley.

The cheat-stone at the bottom of O'Kelley's Crack

In conclusion, Joshua Tree is an amazing climbing area. The “Joshua Tree” plant, which is technically not a tree, cannot be found anywhere else in the world, creating a truly unique landscape. At night it looks like a completely different planet. And whether you like sport climbing, trad or bouldering - JTree boasts world-class routes for all three disciplines. As long as you don’t mind not having access to running water you are bound to have a great time. And in case you were wondering whether we ended up trying The Inquisition, or always wanted to know what offwidth-bouldering looks like... Well, see for yourself:

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