In March 2003 Tim and I undertook a climbing road trip through the south-west
of the United States. Tim is my original climbing buddy mentioned elsewhere on
these pages. Even though we have not lived in the same town for decades we
still try and meet up every so often for climbing escapades. We each keep
diaries of our adventures, but never normally share them; presenting them
here, side by side, is the first time they have come together.
Tim's diary changes style half way through as his scraps of paper ran out.
March 2003 was notable for the start of the Iraq War, where America and its
allies (including the UK) sought to overthrow the government of Iraq.
Objections in the United Nations from the French, amongst others, resulted in
a backlash in the States against France; one consequence being that
French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries.
The climbing grades used are on the american YDS scale (5.x) and the equivalent
UK grades are (very) approximately 5.7 = HS, 5.8 = VS, 5.9 = HVS, 5.10a = E1.
Joshua Tree and Red Rocks Road Trip - March 2003
Up at an ungodly 02:45 to get a taxi to the coach station, and a coach
to the airport, arriving at Heathrow at 05:40 for an 09:40 flight
to San Francisco. Have a snooze then meet Tim at the check-in.
Tim has a pre-allocated seat while I have to battle for an aisle seat
elsewhere. Arrive San Francisco about lunchtime and sit around waiting
for our connecting flight. Fly to Las Vegas and pick up our car. Can't be
bothered trying to pitch our tents in the dark so we try and find a motel.
Get lost but eventually find the bottom end of the Strip and the Glass Pool
Inn motel. Go to a grill bar but I forget to ask for no mayonnaise on my
meal and have to scrape it off.
Wake up at 4am and a taxi at 4.40 to Hitchin to catch the 5am coach
to Heathrow. I meet Nick and we catch the 9.40 flight to San Francisco
and then on to Las Vegas. I'm using my airmiles and get my usual window seat.
We pick a car up (a Suzuki) and drive into town, arriving at about 7pm. Check
in at the Glass Pool Motel - a bit tacky, but ok for $45 for two. We wander
up the road to the nearest pub on the Strip for food and beer. Early night.
Wake up to rain. Pack up and head for Joshua Tree. Breakfast in Amboy on
Route 66. The sun comes out. At Twenty-nine Palms we do some shopping.
Drive into Joshua Tree National Park and spend some time working out where
we are. Wander around looking for Echo Rock and eventually find it.
Tim fails to pick the magic pebble so I lead Stichter Quits (5.7) which
is delicate in places. Tim then leads Double Dip (5.6). It starts to get
windy and cold with showers on the way so we head off for Black Rock Valley
campsite where we pitch our tents. In the evening we head off to Joshua Tree
to eat at the Thai restaurant.
It's raining hard so we decide to head off to Joshua Tree as the sandstone at
Red Rocks will take a while to dry in this weather. We leave at 7.15am and
take the scenic route via Cima (a wooden hut) and Kelso (a rail depot).
Stop at Amboy (nice crater) on Route 66. We have breakfast of ham, eggs and
coffee in an old-fashioned American truck stop. The waitress asks if
you boys want some pie, which turns out to be the pumpkin variety.
We get to Joshua Tree at about 1pm and go to the supermarket in 29 Palms and
then into the Park. We find it hard to work out where we are (this becomes a
theme) and head to Echo Rock initially for a couple of routes. Nick leads
Stichter Quits (5.7) which feels bold on spaced bolts, and I do Double Dip,
a 5.6 with a layback flake and another bold slab bit higher up. We camp at
Black Rock Canyon as it has water, nice bogs and seems quiet. No shower
though. Got a nice spot overlooking the valley although it rains as we set
up the tents. Dinner in the Thai restaurant. Windy and cold during the night,
Wake up to sunshine but it is still cold. While pottering around the
campsite I see a Mourning Dove and a Blue-backed Scrub Jay. We register at
the campsite and I buy a JT t-shirt. We head off for the park and pull in at
Hidden Valley. We walk over to Real Hidden Valley to check out Sail Away but
there is someone on it so we locate Locomotion Rock for some warm up routes.
However the 5.6 we start on (Leaping Leanna) is a pig to start and we give up.
Instead Tim leads up Jumping Jehosaphat (5.7) which has some nice moments.
We abb off and just as we get to the bottom it starts snowing! While the
weather makes up its mind we head over to Turtle Rocks for some bouldering.
It rains some but when it stops the rock dries quickly and we boulder away.
It is still windy when we head back to the car for a late lunch. It's too
early to give up quite yet so I scan the guidebook and find an area called
Rock Garden Valley at Lost Horse that has some short routes. As usual with
the Randy Vogel guide it takes a long time to find our bearings but
eventually I find where I am and see a route called Swiss Cheese (5.6) that
climbs a remarkable pocketed wall. The guidebook shows only one bolt but when
we get there it has been re-equipped with four more. I start up it enjoying
the lower half but when I get above half height the wind really picks up and
I am in danger of being blown off. Luckily the bolts are closely spaced and
this gives me the comfort to fight the wind. I make it over the top and the
wind increases even more. Setting up the belay is a struggle and I swear and
curse the wind. This is supposed to be a holiday. Once Tim struggles up we
can pack up and escape to the car and some shelter.
Weather a bit iffy. Cloudy and cold with a biting wind. We head to the Real
Hidden Valley thinking it may be more sheltered. There are already people on
Sail Away, which looks awesome. We go to Locomotion Rock where the routes are
weird. Either you're supposed to jump off the block (as the jumping theme in
the route names suggests) or put up with hard starts from the ravine. The
start to the 5.6, Leaping Leana, proves too hard for either of us! I lead
Jumping Jehosaphat (5.7) which turns out to be a nice jamming crack with a
tough bit at the top where the crack becomes a runnel. It starts snowing
briefly so we abbed off! A couple of guys had geared up below us but have
disappeared with the snow. We try some bouldering in Hidden Valley. Some
really nice problems, especially on the aretes, and it's warmer and more
sheltered amongst the boulders. We brave the weather again and do a route on
Lost Horse Wall, a 5.6 called Swiss Cheese up an amazing pock-marked wall,
mainly on bolts, which Nick leads. It is sooo cold and windy. My fingers have
frozen before I got to the top. In the evening we get food and beer in the
Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree (Sam Adams and an Ahi Burger).
Windy in the night but wake up to blue skies and calm. On the way through
the park we see some good looking rocks that turn out to be Hemingway.
Go over for a look. One guy is really struggling on a 5.7 crack, so we try
a 5.6 but are put off by a large perched block. Lots of other parties are
there and it appears the locals need to shout a lot; awesome move dude.
To escape the crowds we head over to the Barker Dam car park. After some
searching we find a 5.7 crack called Life's a Bitch... on Dissolution Rock
which turns out to be pleasant but short. We then head into the Wonderland
of Rocks. Trek all the way into Nomad Dome via Bankrupt Wall, but all the
routes look hard. An offwidth on Astro Dome puts us off too. We walk back
towards Barker Dam to the Gunsmoke area to look at the famous boulder problem
called A Streetcar Named Desire. I do a short 5.7 route called Die-hedral on
Killer Cracks. It is only after that I discover that the next two routes have
disappeared because a house-sized buttress has fallen out of the cliff.
After a bit of bouldering we call it a day. In the evening we go to a Mexican
restaurant in Joshua Tree which is unusual in having terrible customer service.
We then go to the Joshua Tree saloon where there is a Karaoke evening. We chat
to the locals and talk climbing with the barmaid.
Warmer today with less wind but another struggle deciding what to do. We
start by going to Hemingway. There was someone already on White Lightning so
we try Poodlesby, a 5.6, but don't like the look of a dodgy block, so give up.
Off then to look at a 5.7 on Dissolution Slab near Hunk Rock. I think it was
called `Life's a Bitch', a nice jamming crack for a change, too short though,
which I lead. We then spend ages wandering around in Wonderland of Rocks area
- you could really get lost in there. We found some routes on Nomad Dome but
they looked outrageous for the grade. It took ages to get there as well,
through scrub and jumbled boulders. We then go to look at a 5.7 on Astrodome,
but that looks desperate as well! In the end we fought our way back and had a
look at Street Car Named Desire. I remember a photo of Ron Fawcett doing it
but I couldn't get off the ground. Nick led a 5.7 called Diehedral - again
too short. The whole of the adjacent buttress has collapsed, obliterating
several routes. There's a nice traverse problem here too (5.11). In the
evening we decide to try a weird Mexican restaurant in J-Tree (Arturo's -
not recommended) then adjourn to the Saloon. It's karaoke night and two girls
were doing most of the songs. The girl behind the bar is a climber and it
turns out that she's done the route on Astrodome and thought it scary.
I started talking to a guy called Frankie who, apparently, used to
run a topless shoeshine parlour in Honolulu.
Wake up to sun and blue skies but a great deal of wind. Where does all this
wind come from. Driving through JT we see there is no one on the routes at
Hemingway so we take a look at White Lightning (5.7) which that guy was
having a real epic on yesterday. I draw the magic pebble and think it might
be a bad one to win, because the crack looks wicked and steep near the bottom.
After an up and down, to place gear, I steam through the lower crux and keep
on going for almost a full ropes length. My hands are slightly scarred from
40m of jamming but not too bad. Tim then wants to lead Sail Away a 5.8-
in the Real Hidden Valley. But when we get there there is a queue. We decide
to stick it out while a bunch of dudes from New York State faff about on it.
When we eventually get on it it turns out to be a real peach with crack and
face climbing. It is cold though in the wind and shade and I want to find
something in the sun. When we get to Intersection Rock there is no-one on
Overhang Bypass (5.7) so I start up the first pitch. There is a nice pull
round onto the cracked face up to the belay. The second pitch goes out across
an overhanging / undercut crack line. Tim leads it strenuously. As we reach
the bottom we find the dudes from N.Y. heading up the route. We drive into JT
for dinner but the Crossroads Café is shut. We end up in a strange fish and
chip café in Yucca Valley then back to the campsite earlyish. Decide to
de-camp to Las Vegas tomorrow.
We decide to get our act together today. We go back to Hemingway and it's
deserted, so we do White Lightning (5.7) on the Hemingway 'boulder'. Nick led.
Quite sustained in the first section, really nice jamming though, but for 120
ft, and then an airy finish. Still no one around. We go to Hidden Valley to
look at Sail Away and there's a queue! We had to wait for about an hour and
by the time we get on it there is an audience of Americans watching, so
failure is not an option! The bottom bit was fairly easy, then jamming and
finger locking up the crack before traversing left the top. Superb and our
first 5.8 of the trip. We then do Overhang Bypass near the Hidden Valley
campsite, a 2-pitch 5.7. Nick led the first pitch which had a tricky pull
around out of a groove onto a slab and then up to a recess. The second pitch
takes the wild overhanging flake, traversing out right under the roof and
around the corner with little for the feet. I ran out of oomph and had to
rest. The Crossroads Caff is closed tonight so we go into Yucca Valley which
was fast-food-city. Had fish and chips in a diner, crap beer though. The Iraq
thing seems to have kicked off. Still no shower.
Wake up to blue skies. Pack up our tents. Discover that the weird noise in
the night comes from birds that have a funny forward-pointing tuft on their
head; they are called Gambel's Quail. Decide to go and do a route called
Hawk's Nest in the Valley of Voices (a 5.7 that is described as a hand crack
with buckets). However we go wrong on the walk in and end up in Munchkinland.
Now I hate the Munchkins and I hate them even more after we get hopelessly
lost amongst boulders and crags few of which looked like they are supposed to.
We escape from Oz and drive down into 29 Palms where I do some shopping and
manage to exchange my traveller's cheques after much effort. We then drive to
Las Vegas heading for Red Rocks. As we near Vegas the blue skies turn dark
and rain can be seen. Seems like the only place to get rain in all of the
Western US. Fortunately it is only a few showers. On the radio we hear Blair
announce that Britain has gone to war with Iraq. We find the 13 mile campsite
but the sign says it is full. We ask the host and he says there is only one
plot left, number 48. While most of the other plots have a nice drive and flat
gravel pitches, number 48 is a dusty boulder field on the side of a hill.
We pay up for three nights and pitch our tents.
We indended to do a route before heading off to Vegas, so took the tents down
and went to look for a rock called Hawk Hatchery in the Oz area. This
supposedly has a route with a huge jamming crack. We wander around for ages
(again) near Voodoo Dome, not seeing anything vaguely resembling the fabled
jamming crack, before giving up. It's quite warm today but clouding over.
We visit the post office and shop in 29 Palms before heading off. There seems
to be a slow puncture in one of the rear tyres. The weather looks a bit grim
as we pulled into the Red Rocks campsite. We literally get the last spot on
the site (number 48) and spend a while clearing it of boulders and rubble to
make room for our tents. We go to Applebees for food - the joints on the
otherside of Charleston Boulevarde look well posh - even the steakhouses
have valet parking! Still no shower.
Get up early to go and do Cat in the Hat (5.6+) but when we get there we
are the fifth party on the route. The american and his czech friend in front
of us take their time setting up and we wait patiently. Eventually we get
going to find the climbing on lovely sandstone huecos and edges. After two
pitches the american has lost his way and we jump in front. Most of the
pitches are long and the sun blazes down. Two of the pitches near the top are
especially fine. The top of the route doesn't quite reach the red cap of the
Mescalito. We then rap the route with problems of the ropes catching on all
the flakes. We get down, with some help to free the ropes, and make our way
back to the car for a full on day. In the evening we go to the climbing wall
for a shower followed by food in Mimi's Café.
Earlyish start, well half past seven anyway. We plan to do Cat in the Hat as
our first route, so park at Pine Creek and walk in from there to Mescalito,
the pyramid-shaped rock. There is a queue! A pair are going up the first
pitch and two more waiting with the latter two discussing how to place gear,
which doesn't bode well. We wait for over an hour before getting on the route.
The first pitch is superb, up a crack on amazing pockets (led). Second pitch
up another slanting crack and then a traverse right (2nd). Then up a
corner/crack to belay below a black wall (led). Then up a crack in the black
wall, moving left under a white ceiling and up another steep crack and then
over bulges to the right. Superb (2nd). A short traverse down and right to
below another black wall then then up the huge crack past a peadpod-esque
widening and up a white slab (led). It took a while to abseil down with people
still coming up. We head into town and finally get a shower at the Powerhouse
Climbing Gym! A cool place, they even let me boulder around while I'm waiting
for the shower. The usual hassle finding somewhere to eat. We had to wait
half an hour to get a table at Mimi's Cafe - the food was along the same
lines as everywhere else though with big plastic menus. They did have Sierra
Nevada Pale Ale though.
Wake up to more sun. This bastard sand gets everywhere. Go cragging at the
second pull off. Start at the Magic Bus, and do Neon Sunset (5.8), Electric
Koolaid (5.9+), Blonde Dwarf (5.10-), Technicolor Sunrise (5.8). These are
very soft touch grades compared to Joshua Tree. Then go to the Black Corridor
and do Bonaire (5.9), which feels harder than the previous routes. At least
that one is in the shade but against that there is lots of sand in the gully.
Strangely I'm beginning to miss the challenge of the routes at Joshua
Tree; battling with a 5.7 jamming crack against neat face climbing up to 5.10-.
What does this mean? In the evening we eat on Sahara rather than Charleston.
It's the weekend and after the queue yesterday we decide to stay off the long
routes and go cragging instead. The weather was hot and sunny and we end up
at Magic Bus crag near the second pullout on the Loop Trail and it's busy.
We do most of the routes here. Neon Sunset (5.8) is well bolted (for a US
route). To the left Electric Koolade (5.9) feels tough at the top and the
bolts are more spaced. Blonde Dwarf (5.10) is inbetween the last two and
doesn't feel any harder, probably a J-Tree 5.8! We then do Technicolor
Sunrise (5.8) up the left side of the red triangle. Some dude asks us
which route are you on? to which the reply was this one.
It was getting hot in the sun so we went to seek out some shade in the
Black Corridor, a bizarre alley, maybe 5 ft wide, with climbers on both sides.
Like a mini Huntsman's Leap. We do Bonaire (5.9) which is lovely on small
edges. We head to a pizza place on Sahara for tea.
Drive to the Grand Canyon via the Hoover Dam. Am impressed by the art-deco
finish to the dam. At the Grand Canyon we hike the South Kaibab trail to
Skeleton Point about halfway down where you can see the river. Then hike back
up again. Spend about 4 hours there in total. Stop in Kingman, in a diner,
for some food.
Return to the Mescalito to do Dark Shadows a four pitch 5.8-. It takes
us a while to find it but we still beat two other parties who are also
looking for it. A lovely route. It rains a bit mid-day but then we go back to
Brass Wall to do Topless Twins (5.9) which Tim leads.
Dark Shadows a 4-pitch 5.8 on the other side of Mescalito from Cat in the Hat.
It took ages to find this, which was rather astounding as once you do see it,
it's obvious. The huge corner, capped by an ovehang, with amazing varnished
black walls. Nick led the first pitch up the slab with a couple of bolts to
belay below the dihedral. I led the dihedral (nice) then traversed left to
belay. Nick led the long corner and right wall on varnish plates (great) to
a ledge. I then led up the right wall to a niche which I had to leave by
laybacking with just a 00-quadcam. Great pitch. We abbed off down the pitches
which was a bit of a faff as there were lots of people coming up. We went up
to Brass Walls and saw Topless Twins, a 5.9. It looked well hard but we
decided to do it. Twin cracks up black varnish walls again but mainly on the
right. Superb climbing.
Go to do Tunnel Vision (5.7) but we are beaten to it by Eliza, Charlie and
Brian. They are just setting off as we get there - typical. Even worse they
are unbelievably slow. We wait ages for Brian to do the first pitch. Then
Charlie struggles to follow. After Eliza has gone I start climbing. At the
belay Charlie and Brian are waiting for Eliza to finish the second pitch.
Then we wait some more. Finally Charlie starts up in his slow way. We talk
him through the moves as he struggles again. Finally we can hear him say hi
to Eliza, but then it takes ages for him to tie in or something, we can't
see. It is now about 4 hours after we arrived and we have only climbed one
pitch, so we decide to bail out. In their defence they are very sweet people
but we don't know the local ethics about asking to climb through. We then go
to look at Ragged Edges (5.8). Tim leads the first pitch but the second,
up an awesome wide crack, looks impossible to protect with our spindly
English gear. So we rap off and I have a go at the first pitch of Plan F
(5.10-). I make it to the overlap but run out of oomph. Tim makes it up
and over and I second it and that is it for the day. We wonder if Eliza,
Charlie and Brian have made it up Tunnel Vision. I finally agree to go and
do Crimson Chrysalis which I have been putting off because of its length
(1000 feet of climbing). Eat out at Old Nevada, a theme gun-slinging resort.
Have BBQ chicken with authentic baked beans and scones!
We go to do Tunnel Vision (5.7) but get stuck behind a party of three who are
taking ages. I couldn't believe that they didn't offer to let us pass. We
abbed off after the first pitch. We go to do Ragged Edges (5.7). I lead the
first pitch but then it becomes obvious that we don't have anything like
big-enough gear for the top crack. We lower off again! We head for Plan F
(5.10) a stonking-looking crack to the left of Ragged Edges. Nick got almost
to the top. I managed to pull over onto sloping ledges to find no gear and a
tricky traverse right to the anchors. Wow!
Up at 05:15 for out attempt on Crimson Chrysalis (5.8+). We get to the
gate smack on 6am and start walking about 06:20. We get to the route in about
an hour, and after figuring out which crack to climb start up just before 8am.
We are first there and as we set off other parties start arriving. Tim leads
off. The first section looks very steep and daunting and there are sections
reasonably run out. At the end of pitch 4 the route breaks out of the chimney
onto the face and there is the only belay on a ledge - all the others are
hanging belays. We continue up and up. All the pitches are long, over 100
feet. At the end of pitch 7 we have entered the red band, but the wind is
picking up and it makes me very nervous for the descent. With all the flakes
and knobbles on the face a gust of wind could take the ropes out of reach on
the abseil and wrap themselves round some rock. As we are two shortish
pitches from the top I reluctantly agree to continue. The other groups have
decided to bail out. We reach the top sometime after 2pm. The wind is strong.
We have a quick break and then start on the 9 abseils about 2:30. Fortunately
the wind decides to ease and pulling the ropes through only jams up a couple
of times which we are able to free with judicious flicks of the ropes.
At 5:10pm we are back on the ground. We start walking out at 5:30 and get
back to the car at 6:30 as the sun goes down to complete a big day.
The big one - Crimson Chrysalis on Cloud Tower. We are up at 5.15am and leave
the campsite at 5.45 to be at the entry gate just before 6am. We get to the
route first and set off at 8am. Nine pitches, I draw the pebble so lead the
odd numbers. Other people start to arrive and soon there are about three
parties below us. However, most start backing off as we reach half height.
It was getting windy and at 2/3 height the last party below us rap off.
We topped out at 2.15 by which point it was very windy. We had to ab all 9
pitches on hanging belays which took two and a half hours. It was hard to
maintain focus for so long but we get down without any major rope jams.
Arrive back at the car at 6.20pm. Wow!
Pack up camp at the 13 Mile dust bowl and head off for Zion National Park in
Utah. That will be the 4'th state in 2 weeks. On the way we stop for brunch
at Sweet Williams homefare restaurant in Hurricane, Utah. The waitress
notes our strange accents and asks are you french?, threatening to
spill something over us, until I point to the TV and our friend
Tony Blair at the Whack Iraq war summit with George W Bush.
We eat our food and go, refraining from some apple pie which does not go down
too well with the waitress. Maybe she thinks we're french after all.
We head into the park and take the Hidden Canyon trail. It is deep and chilly
in the canyon. Back at the car we continue to the end of the road, spying
some rock climbers on the way. After walking up the narrows we head back.
In Vegas we drive down the strip amazed by all the bright lights and check
into the Comfort Inn on Paradise. Just up the road is the best Indian in
Vegas called Ghandi's. So we had to go there. I have a chicken vindaloo which
was average and not very hot. After I walk up to the strip and watch the
Have to check out of the Comfort Inn. Drive up to Black Velvet canyon in nice
sunny weather. Walk up to Whiskey Peak to look at Shaeffer's Delight - a one
pitch 5.7. Once we get there and stop moving and out of the sun, the
cold wind really kicks in. We do the route but it is chilly on the hilly even
with a thermal, fleece and windstop on. We beat a hurried retreat looking for
a sunny crag. We go into the loop road and stop at the first pullout to look
at Dog Wall. When we get there there is a group already on the 5.10a and
5.10b, however my guts are still playing up so I trek up to the second
pullout to find a restroom. When I return the two easier routes are free.
I dog my way up Cat Walk, the 5.10a then we top-rope It's a Bitch, the 5.10b.
Returning to Vegas we find room in the Econo Lodge round the corner from the
Our first and only foray into Velvet Canyon. It was freezing! I led Shaefers
Delight (5.7) and then we decided it was way too cold and left. At Dog Wall,
Nick led a tough 5.10a called Cat Walk. I top roped it. We then did It's a
Bitch (5.10b) which was even harder - both of us top roped it!
Go for breakfast in the Hotel Tuscany and blow 1 dollar in the slot machines.
Then check our flights. Mine has too short a connection at LA so I get
switched to a flight via Washington. Go to the airport. Buy some gifts and
have a beer.
Arrive back at Heathrow at 10:30. The weather is stunning all the way across
Ireland and Wales. Typical. We leave on the back of a glorious weekend and
arrive back to the same. What's the betting those are the last good weekends
of the summer.