Joshua Tree National Park is the kind of place where you can both make your fingertips bleed rock climbing on the notoriously sharp gneiss, and, if you’re lucky, join in on a silent disco on the side of the road.
A group of four friends and I took a road trip there last May during what we seasonal workers call Mud Season. It is when Coloradians glumly realize there’s not enough snow to ski anymore but still too much snow and mud for their chosen summer activities. And we find ourselves unemployed. We head west to the desert for much-needed sunshine and warmth, and most importantly, something to do.
We followed the migration of green license plates to Moab, Utah, where we started off every day unzipping our tents that were pitched on slick red rock and leisurely discussing what kind of badass business we were going to do that day. After about a week of such casual activities as getting lost in remote canyons, rappelling off a natural arch to dangle around on a massive rope swing, and jumping off small cliffs into crystalline pools, we decided to head yet farther west to southern California and focus on climbing.
The five of us ranged from die-hard to casual climbers, all friends brought together in Breckenridge. Our road trip included a stop in Sedona, where we attempted to tap into the energy of one of their spiritually significant vortices, and where I locked eyes with a coyote to finally realize my spirit animal. We took a hike along the West Rim of the Grand Canyon, stopping for snacks with our legs dangling over the side of a cliff. Two days on the road later, the crew finally pulled into Joshua Tree National Park in the late afternoon to a soft orange-cream sky.
It was, and remains, the weirdest place I have ever been. It looked like a giant was charged to clean up the earth and swept the massive rocks into piles, but the poor fellow forgot to bring his dustpan, and so the piles remained. The incredible jumbles of beige rock stood in stark contrast to the flat desert, interspersed with otherworldly cacti. There were hazy brownish mountains in the distance. The Joshua Trees themselves looked deceivingly furry like they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book. Their branches stretched upward like arms, beckoning us further into the park. We might as well have been on the moon.
We’d meant to get a guidebook the night before, but all the ranger stations had closed so for the day we were relying on route and area descriptions downloaded from the often-unreliable app. We decided to head to an area called Echo Rock where we’d find plenty of moderate sport climbs for our tastes. On the drive there, where we piled into the van, we again sat open-mouthed at the bizarre cacti, and even people, that we saw. In regards to people, we spotted a woman outside of her camper, bent over a stove, wearing a cowboy hat, a black leotard, high heels, and a foxtail. To each their own, but it wasn’t someone we were used to seeing in Colorado. There was a small circle of people up ahead, and slowing down, we saw them moving their hips and twisting their arms above their heads, all tuned into their own jams. The silent disco.
We got to the parking lot, donned our packs full of quickdraws, ropes, harnesses, and snacks, and began meandering our way into the area. I was forced to act the guide, given I had the app, but it turned out our chosen routes were difficult to find since some of the directions were as follows: “From the cove parking lot, zoom straight ahead for about 100 feet. Slightly overhanging with oddly positioned holds mark the spot.”
I looked around, puzzled. We were in one of several parking lots, so straight ahead from where? And even then, “straight ahead” was a bit subjective since we could go straight into the north, south, or east. And what did they mean by “oddly positioned?” We traipsed around for a while, then decided to rethink the routes we wanted to do that day. We found a nice slabby face holding one sport route after another, staked out there for the day in a spot we thought was called Echo Cove. Despite the minor setbacks, we were very much enjoying ourselves. We clambered up a 5.8 pitch one at a time, whooping at the incredible friction of the route and view across the valley from the top. Next to it was an easy 5.7, according to the app. There was a group of British people on the route next to us, the only other people we’d seen, and while we tried to chat, their accents were so thick it was hard to tell they were speaking English.
I counted quickdraws, clipped them to my harness, tied a figure 8 follow-through knot to attach myself to the rope, and went on-belay.
I giggled at how easy this rock felt compared to the relatively slicker granite we were used to. I didn’t even have to find footholds, just rely on the friction of my tiny climbing shoe and the bumpy sandpaper-like rock. I got to the second bolt, clipped in my quickdraw and rope, and proceeded another couple moves. Looking up, left and right, my chest tightened. I didn’t see another bolt.
I couldn’t see what was above me for 20 feet since there was a small overhanging bit I would have to climb first. One of the British men on the ground kept saying, in this thick brogue, “Just two mo’ moves and you’ve dun et!” I braced myself, my arms shaking, trying to focus. Just get to the next bolt.
Two moves later. I most certainly had not “dun et.” I saw the chains at the top of the route, 100 feet above me and not a single bolt in between. What the British man probably meant was after those two moves it would get considerably easier, not that I would finally find safety.
“Evin,” I said to my belayer with my voice cracking, “there are no more bolts.”
I looked down. I could see her trying to keep her face calm, but her shoulders stiffened.
“Mon, if you don’t want to do this, you can come down”, she replied.
“But I can’t,” I whimpered.
The last thing I was connected to was 15 feet below me. The moves I had done were too sketchy to try to downclimb. I would almost certainly slip and I was runout enough to fall all the way to the ground, a total fall of over 30 feet.
I clung to the wall, having a full body experience of what climbers colloquially call “the Elvis shaky leg.” I tried to take deep breaths, but it was like I was sucking through a straw. I always say I’m not scared of heights, but that’s when I’m securely fastened into a metal piece capable of holding thousands of pounds. I must admit, I left some salty tears on the rock. I had two options, neither of them good ones: try to downclimb to my last bolt, where I would almost certainly fall trying to get past the overhang or keep climbing without any protection all the way to the top.
A 5.7 route is normally an easy warmup for me. Normally, I would be able to almost run up such a route. And while I hadn’t come here to free-solo – climbing with just your shoes and chalk bag – most people would admit a 5.7 isn’t really that bad if you’re into that scene. I knew I would be able to do it, but there was no room for error.
With one last deep breath, and without saying a word, I kept climbing. I made sure each foothold was sound before putting weight on it. I moved one limb at a time. Whenever my mind would wander to what would happen if I fell, I steeled my mind, listened to my breathing, and tried to find a rhythm in my movements.
I could feel Evin slowly give out the rope as if it mattered. She could have taken me off belay entirely and it would have been the same. But it felt reassuring. I saw the blessed silver chains marking the anchor, 100 feet of rope trailing behind me. I reached for the rope, my hands trembling, and clipped first one chain, then the other. I wanted to do it quickly, to finally be attached to something, but now would be the worst time for a simple error. I have never been terrified, or more relieved.
“Evin! I’m at the top!” I shouted down, my voice still shaky.
“Ok! I got you! Ready to lower?”
I felt the rope tighten, pulling my harness upwards and taking some weight off my legs. I was hesitant to let go, my hands like stiff claws. I took another deep breath, finally able to fill my lungs fully.
“Yeah! You can lower!”
I was so relieved to be on the ground that my legs buckled beneath me. Evin’s eyes were wide, but she let out a sigh of relief.
“Holy shit, girl.”
I shook my head, eyes wide and unblinking.
The three boys had been off exploring and had no idea what Evin and I had been up to. They looked alarmed, and I said I wouldn’t be leading any more routes that day. It was then that we all agreed without saying a word that it was time to just embrace the weirdness of the desert.
We set up top ropes, the easiest and relatively safest way to climb, the anchors of some of the routes accessible by a short scramble. I sat at the top of the route and handed Evin a snack as she reached the top, both of us taking ample time to laugh and admire the view. We soon gave up on climbing all together and just scrambled amongst the massive boulders, laying down in a depression in one of the rocks that looked like a hot tub, waving at our friends, who stood on another pile of rocks across a wide expanse, looking like a pinky-sized version of himself in comparison to the boulders they explored. I tussled my way up boulders that sat atop one another, castle-like, complete with turrets and battlements.
I sat on my castle, everyone else in perches of choice ranging from tiny caves to more hot tubs to high overlooks. The sunset with its brilliant crimsons and golds, all of us sitting with legs crossed and faces aglow with the soft light.
On the way back to the campsite, we sat silently in the van as we wound down the narrow two-lane road, an enormous full moon straight ahead. Upon arriving at the campsite, we scrambled up the boulders behind our tents again to gaze at the moon, although I was distracted by Evin’s hand-puppet show that was so ridiculous I almost threw up from laughing.
The next day, we bought the guidebook and found the routes we’d meant to be on the day before. But even though we’d gone there to climb, that wasn’t even close to my favorite part. Darting amongst rocks that made us feel like ants, waving at each other from our respective perches around the small desert cove. Driving around the winding roads, the outlines of the saguaros framed by the full moon. Clutching my stomach and wiping tears from my face while Evin brought to life a small dog she dubbed “Skippers.”
If you want to climb so hard your fingertips bleed, get the guidebook. If you want to laugh with your friends and fill yourself with wonder, just wing it.
Monica Nigon moved from Minnesota after graduating with a Journalism degree to Breckenridge, Colorado to pursue her skiing career. With this great move, Monica fell in love with backcountry touring. She spends her off days exploring the Colorado mountains in the solitude of the wilderness as well as taking educational courses to keep her going farther for longer and most importantly, safer.
When the snow has melted away, Monica doesn’t leave the mountains but starts climbing with a new perspective. You can find her with chalky hands and shoes too tight as she scales the ridged Rockies on steep slabs, rock climbing to the top.